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). 

Charles C. Yost

Charles C. Yost

8 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    An excellent introduction. The initial paragraph is also timely as well as insightful; why should we expect pride to be absent today in the affairs of ecclesiology.

  2. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Is the concept of the Bishop of Rome being the first among equals related to the archy of the Trinity?

  3. Charles C. Yost says:

    Andrew poses an intriguing question.

    I have never encountered that connection between Trinitarian theology and the primacy of the Roman see in any patristic or medieval texts.

    That said, it is, again, an intriguing suggestion.

    For those who are interested: according to orthodox Trinitarian theology, the Father, the first Person of the Holy Trinity, is understood as the arche (ἄρχη)/principium of the life of the Trinity: the Father is the wellspring and font of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, consubstantial with the Father; the latter two Persons derive their existence from the Father, although they are all of one essence. The theological problem mounted by figures such as Arius, Eunomius, Makedonios (and their followers) in the fourth century was the contention that the Son (and/or the Holy Spirit) are of an inferior nature to the Father (i.e., not consubstantial). Against this thesis, orthodox theologians such as Gregory Nazianzes or Basil of Caesarea were willing to concede that even if the Father could be considered as superior to the Son or Holy Spirit according to causality (i.e., insofar as the Father is the cause or principle of the other two Persons), from this it could not necessarily be concluded that the Son and/or Holy Spirit came into existence in time or that they are of inferior nature. (This concession would later be used by apologists for the Filioque).

    Taking off my church historian hat and putting on an ecclesiologist hat, the analogy that Andrew supposes would apparently suggest a priority of the Bishop of Rome, insofar as he is the Bishop of Rome, to the other bishops with whom he shares the common status (and hence, in a sense, equality) of bishop with the other hierarchs of the Church. On the face of it, this would seem to agree with Roman Catholic ecclesiology, in that the Bishop of Rome is recognized, on the one hand, as a bishop enjoying the fullness of priesthood along with other bishops; on the other hand, the dignity of the Roman see specially marks it out and elevates it above the other sees as having a higher dignity than the latter.

    Hence I don’t think Eastern Orthodox would want to push that analogy too far. That being said, the Romanist implications of such an ecclesiology may have been even too extreme for the Catholics. It is worth noting that one of the side-debates going on during the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was whether all the bishops of the world enjoy their apostolic succession directly from the Apostles, or only by way of the Roman See (i.e., mediated through Rome). Ultimately, the former theory–i.e., succession not mediated through Rome–won the day, even at Trent.

  4. Sam Dickson says:

    A timely reminder that the Church has almost always (always?) been riven by divisions.

    For those who believe that the metaphysical Church exists independently of the formal, organized Church and that the metaphysical Church remains without error even when the formal, organized Church is in error, schism is not as upsetting as perhaps for those who believe that the formal Church is inerrant.

    As Dr. Yost points out, the Book of Acts itself as well as the Apostle Paul’s epistles demonstrate that disagreement was present from the get-go.

    What might be and maybe is called “The First Ecumenical Council” is set forth in the Book of Acts. It took place in Jerusalem and dealt with the initially critical issues of whether Christians could come from Gentiles or only Jews and whether Christians had to comply with the Mosaic laws and the traditions of the Jews.

    St. James presided at that council and was apparently afforded primacy of place by the early apostles perhaps either because it took place where he was the host or because of his closer relationship to Jesus.

    St. Peter presented what at first was a minority view – opening the Church to non-Jews and dropping traditional Jewish practices as binding on Christians – and had to persuade the other Apostles to approve what he said.

    We are told that all who call upon the name of Jesus will be saved. This can be a comforting thought when dealing with errors.

    This is a comfort. It is not pleasant to think that heretics whom we love will be cast out because they had inaccurate views on things like predestination, the number of sacraments, whether the Bishop of Rome is entitled to the place in the Church claimed by Hildebrand and his successors or whether his place was as depicted in the Council of Jerusalem in the Book of Acts. I was very upset when my Grandmother told me that my cousin who was an Episcopalian and my best friend in 4th grade who I had discovered was a Roman Catholic would both go to Hell because they worshiped idols.

    She was the product of Puritan marrying French Huguenot. The ever increasing hatreds and antagonisms that arose as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation unfolded caused people like her to go far beyond the teachings of the Prophet of Geneva who never taught that the followers of the Bishop of Rome were damned and instead said that the Church of Rome was sufficiently orthodox for its adherents to be among the Elect.

    Here endeth the Lesson…for today.

  5. Charles C. Yost says:

    The “council” that Sam is referring to is recounted in Acts 15:1-30. Note the following verses: “And the apostles and ancients assembled to consider of this matter [i.e., the question of forcing non-Jewish converts to abide by the Mosaic Law]. And when there had been much disputing, Peter, rising up, said to them… etc.” and then, after Peter finishes speaking, “all the multitude held their peace….And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying: Men, brethren, hear me. Simon [Peter] hath related how God first visited to take of the Gentiles a people to his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets, as it is written… etc.” (Douay-Rheims trans, see esp. verses 6-15).

    And so, as apologists of Roman primacy have noted, Peter played a key role in this episode; he speaks and the others fall silent. James confirms Peter’s sentence.

    As to what Sam has said about fallibility and infallibility–this is a key issue. For now I’ll just say that consigning doctrinal inerrancy to an invisible, trans-institutional Church stirs up a very practical problem: historically, Christians believed that only the true faith saves. The question is, then, how, when theological questions and doctrinal controversies arise, they can be sure that they actually hold this true faith. Christ has ascended into Heaven, so where can the Christian faithful, here on earth, find the faithful Teacher of His Gospel while avoiding the “false teachers” and “false prophets”?

    Obviously, this imperative animated the ecumenical councils we are currently discussing.

    Looking ahead, this imperative to find that institutional Church which infallibly proclaimed orthodoxy motivated one particular Greek of the 14th C. to embrace the Roman Church with all his might…but I’ll get to him in a subsequent entry.

  6. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr Yost, thanks for your additional comments. I am looking forward to your next post.

  7. Dot says:

    It seems like we have two Christianities a very sad situation. Yet Constantine did more to universalize the Roman Church yet he was Greek. Isn’t it any wonder that he wanted to set up the church in Constantinople as the New Rome? But Rome would not have it. Sounds like a case of one-upmanship.

  8. Robert Reavis says:

    I was very upset when my Grandmother told me that my cousin who was an Episcopalian and my best friend in 4th grade who I had discovered was a Roman Catholic would both go to Hell because they worshiped idols.”

    To be honest this stuff just never bothered me at all. Don’t know exactly why perhaps growing up in a state 2% catholic, perhaps being a former marine in which life was always described to “be a bitch, then you marry, then you die.” But the fraction of men, serious men,those worthy of much attention in spiritual matters whatsoever seems to me to have always consisted of a very small numerator and large denominator. In America the super natural and Holy Religion has been so corrupted by moralists, pedants and modernists that I simply assumed 40 years ago if one had read Hawthorn, he pretty much knew all he needed to know about American culture’s view of religion. Hang the different letters of the alphabet around your adversary , P for papist, A for atheists or adulterers, F for freethinkers and free men, C for communists and Christians and in the meantime just keep moving and grasping for more and more power and levers of power while assasinating any character or corpus who gets in the way. It still works consistently and effectively on Supreme Court nominees but did not work in the last presidential election,mainly because Trump was as ruthless and effective in its use in the new electronic social media as his adversaries had been for years in the television media.
    If all politics was at one time local, it is certainly safe to say today that all religion in America today is simply morals.