The Road to Damascus II: Before the Schism, Part A
The Road to Damascus
The Intelligent Christian’s Guide to the Schism
Pt. 2: Roman Christianity before the East-West Schism
Let us not deceive ourselves. There was never an era of Christian history completely innocent of schism. Indeed, the believer should not be scandalized to see dissension and quarreling in the very pages of his New Testament—among the disciples of Jesus contending with each other for the seat at His right hand in the Coming Age (cf. Matt. 20:20-28 and Lk. 22:24-27); between Paul, felled by the voice of Christ on the road to Damascus, and Peter, to whom Christ entrusted the keys of His Kingdom (cf. Gal. 2:11-16).
If it was so with the holy apostles, is it fair to expect anything better from their successors? The centuries before 1054 and its so-called schism are so crammed with acrimonious controversy and bitter division amidst the very members of Christ’s Body that we have reason enough to disabuse ourselves of what one scholar referred to as “the myth of the first thousand years” of Christian harmony.
And yet, it is legitimate—even necessary—to inquire into that age before the great quarrel between Rome and Constantinople began that led, ultimately, to the enduring schism between the Greek East and Latin West.
We begin our inquiry in the fourth century, after the would-be autocrat Constantine—marching on Rome under the mysterious monogram of the Name of the God he barely knew—killed his imperial rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (312) and, having secured his sole rule over an empire once more united (324), established his capital in the East: Constantinople, New Rome, the Christian city (330).
The key to understanding this period of East-West unity, and how it differed from what followed, is the Roman Empire. Through its conquests in the first and second centuries A.D., Rome forged the Mediterranean world—already united culturally in the East by the Hellenism spread by Alexander the Great and his successors—into a political and administrative whole. It was this political and cultural uniformity that facilitated the spread of the faith, first preached by a provincial Subject of Caesar in a benighted corner of his empire and spread throughout the great Mediterranean cities by men such as Saint Paul. Paul, a Hellenized Jew, was also a Roman citizen fully prepared to put the privileges to which his cultural literacy and civil status entitled him at the service of Christ. Through their apostolic labors, churches took root in those great Mediterranean cities—in Antioch, in Alexandria, and, above all, in Rome—and after their deaths, often bloody, power passed to successors who ruled in their memory and, as they claimed, by their authority.
By the time Constantine came on the scene, then, vigorous churches, if marginal and sporadically persecuted, existed throughout the cities of the Mediterranean world. These churches were ruled by bishops whose mandate ultimately came from the Apostles. Though ideally in Eucharistic communion with one another, these local churches were not immune to internal and mutual strife. Hence the inevitable problem of how to find lasting resolutions to controversies—whether moral or doctrine—in an underground Church. In this context, Constantine’s intervention was momentous. What he contributed to the Church was institutional standing, the lever of coercion, and a new source of sacred authority: the empire itself.
Constantine did not abolish paganism. But under imperial patronage the Church became prestigious and attracted to its ranks office-seeking opportunists as well as traditional elites who had hitherto despised it as the religion of misfits and degenerates. Now it was the religion of the emperor and the bishops were his “men.” Appalled by the divisions that were rending his new faith—the dispute about the nature of the Son of God and the disagreements about the extent of toleration admissible to returning apostates—Constantine applied the weight of empire to force resolutions.
Famously, the Christian emperor gathered bishops at Nicaea in 325 where, under imperial supervision, they drafted the first ecumenical and binding statement of faith. It was ecumenical, because it was presented as the confession of the catholic (or universal) Church and was therefore imposed upon all the bishops; it was binding, because bishops who did not comply faced threats of deposition or worse—threats that, backed by the emperor’s legions, were not idle. This point needs to be emphasizes. With Christianity’s legal establishment heresy became not merely a spiritual aberration punishable by fire in Hell, but a crime punishable on earth by a regime with power over life and limb.
Constantine and his successors understood their roles as guardians of ecclesiastical unity with deadly seriousness, especially because, with the growth of Christianity, the unity of the faith undergirded the unity of empire. Councils and creedal statements were instruments of imperial policy, and though the Nicene creed became the doctrinal touchstone of bishops who understood themselves as orthodox, the fact that coercive power remained in the hands of the emperors, themselves liable to modify the definition of orthodoxy in accordance with the requirements of imperial unity, left even orthodox bishops in a state of vulnerability to their sovereigns.
But it would be wrong to characterize the bishops of this era as merely the emperor’s cringing lackeys. The awe of imperial majesty had worked in favor of the stalwart champions of orthodoxy against Arianism at Nicaea, but the Arians—who asserted the natural inferiority of the Son of God to his Father—were far from defeated, and even rallied toward the end of Constantine’s reign, and during that of his son, Constantius II (r. 337-361), himself an Arian. Providentially, the great sees of Christendom had sources of authority to draw upon in their defense of the creed of Nicaea distinct from the imperial wellsprings of prestige and largesse. For the bishops of churches such as Antioch, Alexandria, and especially Rome—indisputably the most ancient sees of the Church—understood their authority not as imperially delegated, but as derived by direct succession from the Apostles of Jesus Christ who had first established their churches.
The apostolic dignity of these three great churches was offended, then, by the elevation of the upstart Constantinopolitan Church to the rank of second see of Christendom, just behind Rome, at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Previously, the Council of Nicaea, in its sixth canon, had recognized the wider jurisdiction belonging to Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch without giving any rationale for their privileges. But now, in this council of 381, a rationale for Constantinople’s promotion was given: The Church of Constantinople should be second to Rome because Constantinople is the “new Rome.” What this means is that Constantinople is the seat of imperial government—an apparently secular justification.
It would be misleading to insist too much on the separation between the secular and the sacred in a fourth-century church council. Profane as the establishment of ecclesiastical hierarchy on the basis of the Roman order may seem to us, by the end of the fourth century the Roman empire had become, indisputably, a Christian empire. However loudly Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome might protested, the exalted standing of those sees in great part rested on their importance as imperial cities. At the very least, the circumstances of this exaltation of the Constantinopolitan Church, but fifty years young and without obvious apostolic pedigree, to the patriarchate just behind “Elder Rome” is a clear demonstration of how Constantine’s empire had become a source of Christian authority.
But the bishop of Rome would not have it. He was satisfied that his dignity came from no emperor (who had, in any event, abandoned Rome as a place of residence) but from Peter and Paul, who had hallowed the Roman see by their blood. Secure in his authority as Peter’s successor, it is true that the pope intervened in the affairs of churches as far-flung as North Africa and Corinth.
On the other hand, it should be remembered that in these early centuries the Roman patriarchate’s jurisdiction theoretically extended geographically—and until rather late—to encompass the Balkans and much of what is today Greece, including the island of Crete. Without doubt, Rome was the most prestigious see in North Africa’s orbit. In the late second century, Pope Victor attempted to impose the standard method of calculating Easter upon churches located as far away as Anatolia by threat of excommunication, but ultimately relented from this severe course. Although, as has been pointed out, these churches never denied that Victor had the right to so intervene, we see that none of these examples are clear and unproblematic demonstrations of Rome’s universal jurisdiction supremacy.
In any event, in 344 the local council of Serdica did recognize the Roman throne as the final court of appeals for the settlement of cases brought against a bishop (although, as Henry Chadwick has pointed out, there was disagreement, East and West, about the extent of the application of this principle).