The Road from Damascus, pt. III: Islamic Attacks, Christological Crisis, and the Breakdown of Symphonia
When the armies of the Prophet stormed forth from historic obscurity in Arabia and burst upon the enfeebled imperial boundaries, they knew nothing of the ecclesiastical rivalry between the thrones of Elder and New Rome. But less than a century after Mohammed’s death in 632, an Islamic caliphate stretched from Persia to the marches of Roman Anatolia, down through the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa, and encompassing most of Spain. In only a few decades, then, basically illiterate tribesmen had succeeded in wresting from Rome’s grasp its most populous, prosperous, and cultured provinces—including the patriarchates of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch. Rome and Constantinople remained free—but it was not for lack of effort on the part of the Arabs. They would repeatedly assault, and be repulsed, from the walls and sea-lanes of New Rome in the seventh and eighth centuries. Italy would suffer tremendously from piratical Arab incursions. In 846 the Islamic raiders even desecrated St. Peter’s in Rome. But whether the followers of the Prophet intended to convert the Christians of Rûm or reduce them to the lucrative humiliation of dhimmitude (and it was mostly the latter), they could not have guessed that their efforts—albeit indirectly—would contribute to the division of what remained of Christendom.
But the role of Islam in the schism requires sensitive scrutiny. This is not a case of simple cause-and-effect and I won’t pretend that I can settle it here. Certainly, if the unity of the Church somehow depended upon the unity of the Roman Empire, then the Muslim conquests must have had a detrimental effect. Henri Pirenne had argued that the cohesion of the Roman world was based upon Roman control of the Mediterranean, which integrated East and West in a continuum of trade and culture stretching from Tyre to the Pillars of Hercules. But by the eighth century the inland sea was no longer the Romans’ mare nostrum, but “the frontier between Islam and Christianity” and—Pirenne argued—with the loss of the Romans’ lake went their empire and, ultimately, the unity of the Church along with it.
Pirenne’s views have attracted much spirited debate. As regards the schism, we should not allow the portent of Islam to occlude from sight those tensions that preexisted it: the rivalry between Rome and Constantinople, the conflict between unity and orthodoxy, the ambiguous bequest of the empire to the Church. But if Islam did not create the schism, then we can at least say, with Pirenne, that Islam helped to galvanize the former Roman East and West with centrifugal forces: Rome, neglected by an Eastern Roman Empire absorbed in a struggle for its own survival, would increasingly look for protection not from the distracted emperor of Constantinople, but beyond the Alps to the northwest, to the Germanic Franks. (More on this later). This realignment was momentous. It was the ideal environment for those preexisting tensions and rivalries—aggravated by a heaping dose of sin and human folly—to deepen into the lasting fault-lines of schism.
But the Roman East had its twilight of glory in the reign of Heraclius (610-641), that tragic and pathetic man, the son of the exarch of Carthage who was elevated to the purple after the revolt that toppled the bloody and incompetent Emperor Phokas (602-610). But the throne that Heraclius seized was that of an empire besieged on two fronts: to the north by Avars and Slavs, and to the east by Zoroastrian Persia, which had lately seized Roman Mesopotamia, Armenia, the Levant, and even most of Anatolia. They had even plundered the True Cross from Jerusalem and Constantinople itself had been threatened. Commending his city to the patriarch and forsaking the safety of its walls, Heraclius personally led the Roman legions on a grand eastern campaign in which he smashed the might of the shah, reestablished the Roman frontier, and recuperated the Holy Cross.
Meanwhile, the patriarch rallied the people of Constantinople to a spirited and successful defense against the Avars and Slavs. The salvation of Constantinople was attributed by the populace to the direct intervention of the holy Theotokos whose image had been processed about the walls by the clergy. Christian Constantinople had endured beneath the mantle of “the Bride Unwedded” whom the faithful saluted as their “Defender-General.” But as for the emperor before whom Persia lay prostrate, he soon developed a crippling hydrophobia and ended his days a neurotic recluse shivering by the Bosporus, the very sight of which rendered him paralytic, while desert tribesmen began to overrun the Eastern limes that he had so recently reestablished.
Before he developed his fright of water, Heraclius had been preoccupied with shoring up the unity of his Eastern frontier. This meant, as it had in the past, that the emperor played theologian. The problem with Egypt, Syria, and Armenia was that they were full of Christians alienated from the imperial Church by the Council of Chalcedon (451), which had defined Christ as one divine Person in Whom two natures—one human and one divine—were united without confusion or alteration. The Monophysites, as these dissenters were pejoratively called, felt that this definition threatened the unity of Jesus Christ’s personhood. Covetous of the loyalty of the Monophysite Copts, the Syrians, and the Armenian border-lords, the emperor set his theologians to work, and the solutions that they came up with—Monoenergism, the notion that Jesus Christ operated according to one activity, and Monothelitism, or the theory that Jesus Christ had only one will—were destined to culminate in one of the most serious confrontations between papacy and empire in the history of the Church and one of the most significant episodes in the history of the division between Christian East and Christian West.
When a Palestinian monk named Sophronios, eventually patriarch of Jerusalem, vocally opposed Patriarch Sergios of Constantinople’s Monoenergism, the latter tried to stifle controversy by banning further discussion of the number of Christ’s activities. In correspondence with Sergios, Pope Honorius (625-628) concurred with his colleague’s ban and even professed his own belief in the oneness of Christ’s will—understood as the perfect harmony of His two wills, human and divine. Honorius would be posthumously anathematized—it has been claimed, unfairly—for his failure to uphold forthrightly what would come to be articulated as the orthodox position at the sixth ecumenical council (680-681).
Sophronios had as his disciple a brilliant and troublesome monk named Maximos, whose own struggle against Monothelitism resulted in his own censure by Constantinople. Maximos went into exile in North Africa. Untroubled as it was by the presence of Monophysites, the Western Church was largely unsympathetic toward imperial interventions in doctrine designed to placate them. Honorius’ successors were less pliant toward imperial policy. As papal historian Eamon Duffy writes: “the Greek Pope Theodore (642-9)…excommunicated and (in theory at any rate) deposed two patriarchs of Constantinople for supporting the Ekthesis [i.e., the imperial edict favoring Monothelitism and forbidding further discussion]. In retaliation, imperial troops looted the papal treasury in the Lateran, the papal Apocrisiary [that is, ambassador] at the imperial court was arrested and exiled, and the altar of the papal residence in Constantinople was desecrated.”
The monk Maximos rallied support in North Africa and in Rome where the rigid and independently-minded Martin had ascended the papal throne in 649. Maximos—along with many other eastern monks who flooded Rome as religious refugees from the regime of Emperor Constans II (641-668)—found in Pope Martin the patron and support that he needed against the innovations of the emperor and his patriarch. In 649, at a formal Roman synod, largely stage-managed by Maximos and the other monastic exiles, Pope Martin solemnly condemned the patriarchal adherents of the novel Christological theories (including Sergios and the two men who had succeeded him as patriarch) and the imperial attempts to squelch further discussion. Sheltering beneath the legitimacy of an ancient Christian See, whose authority was seen as deriving from an origin superior to the imperial mandate, Maximos would boldly celebrate the primacy and the orthodoxy of the Roman Church in conscious contradistinction to supine Constantinople.
But there was a problem here. In the first place, Pope Martin’s orthodoxy was suspect. According to the ancient custom, every new patriarch who ascended his throne was obliged to send to his colleagues in the pentarchy an encyclical bearing notification of his succession and a statement of faith demonstrating his orthodoxy. Once his statement of faith had been approved, the other patriarchs would inscribe their new colleague’s name in their liturgical books, so that they might proclaim his name during the Eucharistic liturgy and thereby indicate their communion with him. In his statement of faith, however, Pope Martin had professed belief in the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son.
This is the earliest known instance of a papal profession of the theology expressed by the infamous Filioque (“and the Son”), the clausula that was to have such an important role in the history of schism. It should be emphasized, however, there was no question, as of yet, of interpolating the Filioque into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed as recited publicly during the liturgy. That creed had merely described the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the words of Jesus Christ Himself, as “proceeding from the Father” (τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον). The procession of the Holy Spirit, as the fathers came to understand it, referred to His ontological dependence: the fact that the Holy Spirit derives His existence from the Father, the First Person of the Holy Trinity. Although the ancient creed had not denied that the Holy Spirit might also derive His being from the Son, Martin’s profession—probably rooted in Augustine’s vision of the Holy Trinity, where the Holy Spirit is the hypostatization of the reciprocal and perfect love of the Father and the Son—certainly went beyond it. Critics in Constantinople saw an opportunity to discredit Martin by seizing upon his profession.
But the pope found a Greek defender in none other than Maximos the Confessor. Though acknowledging that Martin was using unaccustomed and seemingly novel words, Maximos insisted that their intended meaning was perfectly orthodox. Maximos’ defense of Pope Martin’s faith would later become a touchstone for latter-day Filioque apologists.
But there was another problem, and this was probably more concerning to the government in Constantinople. Martin had taken his throne without gaining imperial approval in accordance with the procedure that had been in place since Justinian’s reassertion of imperial authority in Italy. This development was part of the general process of estrangement between Constantinople and Italy that would play out in these centuries. Except for Ravenna, Calabria, and Sicily, the restoration of Roman rule over Italy following Justinian’s invasion and defeat of the Goths was short-lived, for in 586 the Lombards, a Germanic tribe, invaded and carved out principalities for itself in the central and south-central swathes of the peninsula. Rome itself was at the mercy of these newcomers. But Constantinople was basically deaf to papal pleas for protection against the detested barbarian upstarts. (After all, Constantinople had enough troubles of its own). Accordingly, Gregory II (r. 715-31) would decide that no more revenues from the ecclesiastical real estate he administered would be forwarded as taxes to the imperial government. This was part of the process of the secession of papal Rome from the Roman Empire and, at the same time, the remote origins of the Ecclesiastical State.
But in the mid-7th century the empire showed itself still capable of intervention in Italy. In 653—for the last time it would ever happen—imperial agents entered Rome and arrested Pope Martin I on charges of treason—not only had he failed to seek imperial permission for his pontificate, it seems he had given his support to Olympius—an imperial exarch turned rebel against Constantinople. But inextricable from these charges of a supposedly purely political character was Martin’s annoying resistance to the imperial religious policy. The faithful of Constantinople were treated to the spectacle of a Roman pontiff haled from the emperor’s tribunal in chains and beaten like a common criminal. The sentence that had been handed down was death. But in a show of “mercy” Constans commuted the punishment to exile in the Crimea, where the pontiff died. Maximos was apprehended soon after and, after the removal of his tongue and hand (so as to silence him for good), sent off to endure a similar fate.
Not long after, the Emperor Constans II, abandoning his capital in the face of the inexorable advance of Islam, fled to Sicily where he decided to establish his seat of government farther back from his eastern front. The action was wildly unpopular and Constans met an ignominious death in his tub, where he was assassinated by a bath attendant wielding a soap dish.
Thereafter the imperial dignity, devolving to Constantine IV (668-685), pursued a policy of rapprochement with the West. This involved the abandonment of Monophysitizing Christologies. Constantine invited the pope to send representatives—including Greek monks residing in Rome—to a council in Constantinople. Here the Monothelite/Monoenergist Christologies were damned, their adherents were anathematized (including Constantinopolitan patriarchs Paul and Pyrrhus, but also Pope Honorius), and Pope Martin I and Maximos the Confessor were vindicated. The council avoided condemning the imperial majesty. This would be remembered as the Third Council of Constantinople, the Sixth Ecumenical Council.
We end, here, then, with the seeming restoration of harmony between East and West. The strength of ecclesiastical unity was apparently made of stronger stuff than the political fabric of the Roman Empire. But appearances can deceive. In this last great Christological crisis, we observed how a Greek theological refugee, Maximos the Confessor, sought asylum in the Roman Church, whose authority and orthodoxy he proclaimed. This would not be the last time that the Roman throne would be invoked as a counterweight to imperially-sponsored heresy in the discourse of disgruntled Greek confessors of orthodoxy. Such Greek exaltation of the Petrine throne not only enhanced Rome’s reputation, but it established a precedent in Byzantine memory for turning Westward in the face of homegrown heterodoxy—a memory that would endure throughout the Middle Ages. Even more significantly, we witnessed the first emergence of the Filioque—the belief that the Holy Spirit derives His existence from the Father and the Son—as an article believed, though not yet inserted into the creed, by the bishop of Rome. Also, the independent attitude exhibited by Pope Martin, and his successors vis-à-vis Constantinople, would develop (as we shall see) into the eventual secession of the Roman Church from the Empire—a process entailing Rome’s exaltation of the Frankish Carolingian dynasty and the laying of the foundations of an independent Papal State.
If the rapprochement between Roman altar and Constantinopolitan throne in the sixth ecumenical council marked a period of détente between East and West, it was all too temporary. But ten years later a new council would be gathered in Constantinople that would take a long, hard look at the Western Church and single out some of her customs that the Greeks had come to see as contrary to the Christian faith.