Sunday, November 29, 2015

Enter the Barbarians

The collapse of the western empire based in Rome had two immediate consequences for Christianity. New peoples and lands opened up for missionary activity and the Church’s bishops and priests were forced to assume new, diverse and influential roles in society at large.

Through the fourth century Christianity was primarily an urban phenomenon concentrated along coastal areas of the Mediterranean basin and the Black Sea. From apostolic times, Christianity had spread from Palestine north and west throughout Asia Minor (today Turkey) and Armenia, then to Greece and Greek-influenced North Africa, then to central Italy (notably Rome), a few southern cities of France, and Spain, primarily in the South.

There were, of course, a few communities along the Rhine and Danube rivers and small groups of Christians wherever converted Romans went, along with the distant outpost in Kerala, India, established by the apostle Thomas. These were all outliers with tenuous connections to the Church federation now increasingly headed by Rome.

In the fifth and sixth centuries, there was a more concerted effort to reach out to the invading barbarians (who were called such by the Greeks because their speech sounded like “bar-bar”), and the faith reached through France and England as far north as Scotland and to the west to Ireland. On the continent, Christianity spread to cover rural areas along the banks of the Rhine and Danube all the way to the Black Sea.

The next few entries will review the expansion of Christianity in greater detail; for now, though, we need only note that most of what people in the West are accustomed to think of as foundational Christianity was actually the result of a second crop in the vineyards of the Lord.

Aside from expanding its geographic and cultural reach, the central institutions of the Christian faith experienced a larger role within society. In the absence of a central state authority in Rome, the pope, bishops, priests and deacons were forced to take on entirely new leadership roles in society.

For centuries Rome, with its armies and officials, had regulated and protected commerce, built and organized cities and public works that are still marvels today, enabled the development of education and learning, and legislated the social, political and economic order from Britain to Palestine and beyond.

Suddenly, marauding bands of illiterate hordes came pillaging, raping and marauding through much of Europe and North Africa, setting up their own kingdoms and fiefdoms ruled by nothing but the most brutish force. They had no idea how to manage aqueducts, build houses or run academies of learning, let alone make use of intellectual persuasion.

As a sample of the shock this caused, consider the words “vandal” and “vandalism,” which come from the name given to one of the barbarian tribes that overran the Roman Empire, the Vandals. Their name is associated with Vendel, a province in Uppland, Sweden, which may have been their original homeland, but it also is related to the Germanic verb wand, from which comes the English “wander.”

This nomadic East Germanic tribe, first observed in southern Poland, ravaged Europe, establishing kingdoms in Spain and later North Africa. Imagine the searing memory they must have left in civilized culture: even today their name is synonymous with the wanton destruction of property.

In the wake of tribes like the Vandals, order in the cities collapsed. Power shifted to rural areas, which at least had their own food.

Although the bulk of Christians remained in the eastern, Greek-speaking areas still under the control of Constantinople, the Roman popes were forced to remain nominally loyal to the emperor in the eastern capital. All the while they were making deals from the Adriatic to the West with the barbarian chieftains—most of whom had risen to power by being the most bloodthirsty of their tribe.

Suddenly, the keepers of doctrine, rituals and holy books were catapulted into the unenviable position of trying to save what shred of civility could be rescued by sheer brainpower.

This was, of course, the key comparative advantage of the people who led the Church. They were highly literate and educated. In many instances, they won over barbarian chieftains by becoming their scribes, or clerks—from which we get the terms “cleric” and “clergy.”

In the West, the Church filled a vacuum by becoming the institution that could preserve knowledge and dictate the rudiments of behavior to keep the peace in society. The pope became not merely a bishop who was primus inter pares (first among equals) within the ecclesiastical structure, but an overall arbiter of law and right between the various small kingdoms and fiefdoms that arose. Over time, this would have a potent corrupting effect on the clergy.

The long-term effect on the faith was the development of a rigorist and simplistic religion that played to both the puerile and superstitious nature of the new conquerors, while attempting to set things straight in the face of their patently uncivilized behavior.

“It is only when one has studied the depressing literature of the Penitentials or manuals for confessors; or the horrible domestic annals of the Merovingian princes with their monotonous record of parricides, adulteries, casual murders and unending civil wars … all of which present us with a practical view of the human material with which the Church then had to work—it is only then that one understands the reason for the rigorist spirit [of] the Church of the middle ages,” wrote Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican Benedictine monk and scholar, in his classic work The Shape of the Liturgy. “One may say that the clergy were leaving the people in their ignorance and superstitions; or one may say that in putting this emphasis on right conduct with a population still unlettered and very barbarous the clergy were putting first things first.”

It is in the next thousand years of dark ages that believers in the Christian faith attempted to survive, as true to the gospel as possible, at times experiencing saddening failures, yet often enough resulting in prodigious accomplishments in the face of adversity. This is where our story now takes us.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Chalcedon tried to undo the Robber Council

The feisty post-Nicene era ended with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the first to attempt to set things straight in an atmosphere of top local Christian church leaders calling one another “thieves.” If you wonder where Christianity started to go wrong, this is a widely acknowledged reasonable historical point.

It’s not that the gathering at Chalcedon, an ancient seaside town in today’s district of Istanbul, Turkey, was a mess. The problem was that the council was called with the reluctant assent of the Roman pope, Leo I (also known as St. Leo the Great), by Emperor Marcian to clean up a mess left by a similar meeting, the Second Council of Ephesus in 449. That one ended up getting called a latrocinium (Latin, robbery) by Leo, giving rise to its historical nickname, the Robber Council.

At more than a millennium’s remove, it is difficult to understand the problems at Ephesus and the need to repair them.

Let it suffice to say that slogans simplifying complex philosophical debates—all Christological, meaning concerning the natures of Christ—were in the mouths of the populace. The untutored people marched in opposing bands through the streets chanting slogans for one position against another. Worse, this was all caused by unruly behavior by those charged to be teachers and models, the bishops. If nothing else, it makes ecclesiastical disputes of the 20th and 21st centuries seem exceedingly tame in comparison.

Briefly, Ephesus was called by Emperor Theodosius II and led—in the absence of the Roman pope—by Alexandrian Pope Dioscorus I, who essentially seized the meeting and expelled anyone who disagreed with him. There were accusations, shouts to “burn” members of various parties, and proceedings that exceeded even the heated antics of the British House of Commons.

The minutes of the first session—during which most of the fireworks were set off—are lost, but those of the second survive. The upshot of the disputations was that whatever Dioscorus agreed with was approved, patriarchs and bishops who disagreed were ordered deposed, and the voice of papal legates went unheard, since they were effectively expelled at the outset. When news reached Rome, it is not difficult to imagine how Leo thought the council had been hijacked (or “robbed”).

The central idea at issue at both Ephesus and Chalcedon was whether Christ has one nature or two.

Monophysitism, or doctrine of one nature, argued that when Jesus Christ was conceived there was an indivisible union of the divine and human, involving the divine and eternal Son or Word of God and the human son of Mary. The Chalcedonian declaration, which stands today as almost universally accepted Christian doctrine, insisted that, to the contrary, in Christ there come together two natures in one person and one hypostasis (most commonly translated as one “subsistence,” a technical term to avoid both the terms “substance” and “essence”).

Who cares, right? Did anyone really intimately know the natures of Christ?

Of course, intermingled with these lofty debates were disputes over the territory and prerogatives of certain bishops. Particularly contested was the place of the bishop of Constantinople as head of the church in the “New Rome,” from which the eastern half of the Roman Empire was now ruled. Ephesus was an East-leaning council favorable to the see of Constantinople as second to Rome; Chalcedon was West-leaning, favorable to Rome, with no seconds in mind.

The seeds of a schism that would take 500 years to occur were planted in these councils.

Both councils debated the role of Mary, which was a matter of immense local pride to the inhabitants of Ephesus, where tradition held that Mary and John the Evangelist made their home before John was exiled to Patmos.

The dispute about Mary was mostly about whether she should be called “God bearer” (Gk., Theotokos) or Mother of God (Meter tou Theou). Added to the confusion was the unfortunate poor translation of Theotokos into Latin as Mater Dei: the distinction being that Mary, who was not divine and eternal, could not have been the true mother of the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Ephesians of the fifth century leaned, naturally, to the loftier Mother of God for their local heroine.

Incidentally, the modern Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran use of “Mother of God” is meant to convey Theotokos. It’s a linguistic error, I know, but just you try to reword the Hail Mary and see what happens to you.

In the end Chalcedon settled on a declaration that in part states:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.
I hope that makes things crystal clear.

Soon such lofty hair splitting gave way to other concerns as Rome collapsed and the West found itself awash in brutal tribes that had marched from the Russian steppes and beyond to pillage and rape in the Greco-Roman city culture, or civilization, of the Mediterranean.

The Middle, or Dark, Ages had begun.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Tolle, Lege

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the first major Christian thinker whose work transcended faith. He is considered a major contender in nonreligious thought, in issues ranging from war and peace to slavery to morality and civic order, as well as in key theological questions such as grace, sin, sacraments and the sanctity of the Church.


Augustine was born in Tagaste, Numidia (modern-day Souk Ahras, Algeria) in a comfortable but not rich family of freed African slaves, possibly among those granted full Roman citizenship in 212. His mother, St. Monica, was a Christian; his father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted on his deathbed.

At the age of 17 he went to study rhetoric in Carthage, where he came across a speech of Cicero’s that is now lost to us, which sparked his interest in the rhetorical arts and philosophy. Raised a Christian, Augustine converted to an offshoot of Gnosticism known as Manicheism, which taught a cosmology in which a good, spiritual world of light was at war with an evil, material world of darkness. He lived a young man’s licentious life, which inspired his prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” He eventually became a teacher of rhetoric, moving to Rome to teach.

At 19, Augustine began a 12-year monogamous unmarried relationship with a woman whose name is lost to us, but who gave him a son, Adeodatus. Monica opposed that union—even though in Rome concubinage was a respectable way to cohabit when marriage was not legally possible, which may have been the case—and tried to break up the relationship by arranging a marriage to an heiress who was 10, not yet the legal marriage age of 12. Augustine regretfully broke up with the mother of his only child but spent the two years awaiting marriage in the company of two concubines.

Also while living in Rome, Augustine heard of Ambrose of Milan, who was noted for his rhetorical skills. Augustine saw in Ambrose a spectacular orator, a mentor to whom he became attached and whose orations unwittingly led him to the Christian faith.

At 31, reading of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, Augustine converted to Christianity. In his autobiography, he says he was prompted by a childlike voice saying, “tolle, lege” (Latin for “take up and read”); he took it as a command to open the Bible and read the first thing he saw, which happened to be Romans 13:13-14, on how conversion transforms believers, to wit: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, baptized Augustine and Adeodatus, at the Easter Vigil in 387. Shortly thereafter Augustine decided to lead a celibate life. His son and mother died, and he returned to Africa to sell his possessions and give them to the poor. He was ordained a priest in 391 and later bishop of Hippo in 395. He had kept a family home in Hippo, which he used as a monastic residence for himself and his priests.

The story of his early life and conversion is found in his Confessions, a major piece of autobiographical literature. That was, of course, only one of his many works, to which we now turn.


From his seat as a bishop, Augustine the thinker was given rein to produce some of the most influential works of Western philosophy and Christian theology. His work encompasses roughly 80 books and essays, not counting tens of preserved sermons, which stand as the foundation of modern Christianity and of many ideas in secular philosophy.

He was an enormous influence on Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Augustine developed Irenaeus’ notion of original sin and concupiscence, adding his thoughts on the efficacious grace of Christ. He delved into matters as diverse as free will, the emotions that inform sexual morality, the validity of sacraments, the chosenness of the Jews (and rejection of their persecution), metaphorical interpretation of the Bible, eschatology and epistemology (including a teaching on inner illumination).

He saw in human beings a marriage of body and soul, which he considered separate (the Manichean influence) yet united (the Hebraic biblical influence). With respect to the Church, he distinguished between the visible human institution of sinners and saints and the invisible communion of saints, dead and alive, known only to God.

Augustine also authored one of the earliest rules of monastic life, which was the basis for the much later Augustinian Order of monks, to which Luther belonged. He wrote the rule for a troubled convent in which his sister and several cousins lived.

He was the first major Christian thinker to address a world in which Christianity was an influential voice amid the crumbling power of Rome, which leads some to call him the first medieval philosopher. He ventured into areas of social and political theory in, among other things, opposing slavery and war as contrary to the divine will.

However, in his major work, the City of God, he coined the term “just war” to address cases in which a grave wrong can be stopped only by violence; he thought that it would be a sin to insist on peacefulness in such a circumstance. Many centuries later, Aquinas would draw on Augustine to develop his own full-fledged theory of just war.

Augustine’s turnabout from pacifism to just war may stem from the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. City of God states that the virgins who were raped during the sacking were not to be deemed at fault. It also asserts to the still-pagan world that Christianity did not weaken the Roman Empire, as some Romans were beginning to argue.

Augustine’s thought anticipated a world in which Christianity would have to take stand not merely on personal matters, church order and biblical interpretation but also on broader social, political and economic issues.

Nothing places Augustine more perfectly in the context of his time than his death. Shortly before he died, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, invaded Roman Africa. They besieged Hippo early in 430, as Augustine collapsed from his final and fatal illness. One of the few miracles attributed to Augustine, the healing of a sick man who invoked the dead bishop, took place during the siege.

Augustine was canonized in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII. He is considered “blessed” by the Orthodox Church, but not a saint due to his view of the trinity, which is at the heart of the controversy with the West. His feast day is August 28, the day he died. He is revered as the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians and sore eyes, as well as of several cities and dioceses.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

First Bible, first monastery, first major philosopher

Apart from holding two councils, setting worship styles, a calendar of feasts and a hierarchy of scholarly clergy, post-Nicene Christianity developed the Christian Bible, gave rise to monasticism and featured major “fathers” of the Church.

The average Christian in the pews is apt to think that Bibles dropped out of the sky, some in zippered leatherette covers, in 17th century English full of “thou” and “thee.”

In fact, as we have seen, the Hebrew Bible took centuries to get written and edited, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of our era, the Talmud overtook it as the go-to reference in Judaism.

The translation that came to form the Christian Old Testament is called the Septuagint (from the Greek for 70) from a legendary origin having to do with the number of scholars involved, cited in the Babylonian Talmud as follows:
King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: “Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.” God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did. (Tractate Megillah, pages 9a-9b)
Ptolemy, Greek king of Egypt, lived from 287 to 246 BCE. The translation was completed by 132 BCE and a copy deposited in the famous Library of Alexandria. This is attested by numerous references and quotes of the era and by its Greek literary style.

The 27 Christian biblical books were written between about 50 and 110 CE, probably not by the reputed authors but by scribes. The earliest works are the Pauline letters, which are unquestionably by Paul of Tarsus (50-63), then the gospels Mark, Matthew and Luke with Acts (55-75), deutero-Pauline letters written by his followers (65-85), the gospel of John (85-95) and then the remaining works.

The New or Christian Testament also took some time to get established, mostly by custom. St. Irenaeus of Lyons referred to the four gospels around 160. Origen of Alexandria listed most of the 27 books in the modern NT, but there were still disputes over Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John and Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse).

At the time, there were about 200 Christian writings similar to those in the current NT. Those that some did not accept as fitting “the measure” (Gr., kanon, a measuring stick) were known as antilegomena; the major writings in what is now the NT were homologoumena, or universally regarded  since the immediate postapostolic era.

In 331, Emperor Constantine commissioned 50 copies of the Bible in Greek. They were completed during 337-339 by Eusebius of Caesarea, probably under his supervision since they had to be copied by hand. These manuscripts were lost until 1844, when a copy, known as the Codex Sinaiticus, was rediscovered in a monastery.

Although lost to antiquity, Constantine’s Bibles set in motion the matter of deciding which books should be in the Bible.

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who apparently was asked for another set of Bibles, gave in his Easter letter of 367 the earliest preserved list of the exact books in the NT canon. The African Synod of Hippo, in 393, approved Athanasius’ list and the Greek Septuagint Bible, a decision endorsed by the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils were held under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the biblical canon as already closed.

Similarly, in 382 Pope Damasus commissioned the Latin Vulgate (from vulgus, “people”) edition of the Bible, most of which was completed by St. Jerome by 405. The Vulgate was used in the West along with the Vetus Vulgata, an older Latin translation, until about the 13th century, when the Vulgate became the dominant version and was declared official in the 16th century.

Just as the postapostolic era saw the rise of hermit monks who lived in solitude following the example of St. Anthony of Egypt, in this new era St. Pachomius (292-348), also an Egyptian, established the first monastic community in 318 on the Nile island of Tabennisi. The monks called Pachomius “Abba” (father), from which the word “Abbot” derives, and within a generation, similar monasteries sprang up in Egypt, Palestine and the Judean Desert, Syria, North Africa and eventually western Europe. The number of monasteries and their locations are not very well established, but estimates hold that at the time there may have been as many as 7,000 monks.

The post-Nicene Church was also graced by the presence of teaching “fathers,” also deemed saints in the major Christian traditions, in particular
  • Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386), bishop and theologian, famous for his Catechetical Lectures, which expound on the principal beliefs and the nature of salvation and the eucharist;
  • Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), Cappadocian (Turkey) bishop and theologian who specialized in the relations between the three persons of the trinity;
  • Ambrose of Milan (340-397), bishop, famous for his opposition to Arianism and his influence on Augustine of Hippo; and
  • Augustine of Hippo (354-430), convert, bishop and philosopher, whose influence in the West was paramount and whose intellectual influence spreads far and wide—to his life and work we turn next.