The Church of the Seven Councils
"All profess that there are seven holy and Ecumenical Councils, and these are the seven pillars of the faith of the Divine Word on which He erected His holy mansion, the Catholic and Ecumenical Church" (John II, Metropolitan of Russia, 1800-1889).
The establishment of an imperial Church
Constantine stands at a watershed in the history of the Church. With his conversion, the age of the martyrs and the persecutions drew to an end, and the Church of the Catacombs became the Church of the Empire. The first great effect of Constantine’s vision was the so-called "Edict" of Milan, which he and his fellow Emperor Licinius issued in 313, proclaiming the official toleration of the Christian faith. And though at first Constantine granted no more than toleration, he soon made it clear that he intended to favor Christianity above all the other tolerated religions in the Roman Empire. Theodosius, within fifty years of Constantine’s death, had carried this policy through to its conclusion: by his legislation he made Christianity not merely the most highly favored but the only recognized religion of the Empire. The Church was now established. "You are not allowed to exist," the Roman authorities had once said to the Christians. Now it was the turn of paganism to be suppressed.
Constantine’s vision of the Cross led also, in his lifetime, to two further consequences, equally momentous for the later development of Christendom. First, in 324 he decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire eastward from Italy to the shores of the Bosphorus. Here, on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium, he built a new capital, which he named after himself, "Constantinoupolis." The motives for this move were in part economic and political, but they were also religious: the Old Rome was too deeply stained with pagan associations to form the center of the Christian Empire which he had in mind. In the New Rome things were to be different: after the solemn inauguration of the city in 330, he laid down that at Constantinople no pagan rites should ever be performed. Constantine’s new capital has exercised a decisive influence upon the development of Orthodox history.
Secondly, Constantine summoned the first General or Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 325. If the Roman Empire was to be a Christian Empire, then Constantine wished to see it firmly based upon the one orthodox faith. It was the duty of the Nicene Council to elaborate the content of that faith. Nothing could have symbolized more dearly the new relation between Church and State than the outward circumstances of the gathering at Nicaea. The Emperor himself presided, "like some heavenly messenger of God" as one of those present, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, expressed it. At the conclusion of the Council the bishops dined with the Emperor. "The circumstances of the banquet," wrote Eusebius (who was inclined to be impressed by such things), "were splendid beyond description. Detachments of the bodyguard and other troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of these the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the imperial apartments. Some were the Emperor’s own companions at table, others reclined on couches ranged on either side. One might have thought it was a picture of Christ’s kingdom, and a dream rather than reality" (The Life of Constantine, 3, 10 and 15). Matters had certainly changed since the time when Nero employed Christians as living torches to illuminate his gardens at night. Nicaea was the first of seven General Councils; and these, like the city of Constantine, occupy a central position in the history of Orthodoxy.
The three events — the Edict of Milan, the foundation of Constantinople, and the Council of Nicaea — mark the Church’s coming of age.
The first Six Councils (325-681).
The life of the Church in the earlier Byzantine period is dominated by the seven General Councils. These Councils fulfilled a double task. First, they clarified and articulated the visible organization of the Church, crystallizing the position of the five great sees or Patriarchates, as they came to be known. Secondly, and more important, the Councils defined once and for all the Church’s teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith — the Trinity and the Incarnation. All Christians agree in regarding these things as "mysteries" which lie beyond human understanding and language. The bishops, when they drew up definitions at the Councils, did not imagine that they had explained the mystery; they merely sought to exclude certain false ways of speaking and thinking about it. To prevent men from deviating into error and heresy, they drew a fence around the mystery; that was all.
The discussions at the Councils at times sound abstract and remote, yet they were inspired by a very practical purpose: the salvation of man. Man, so the New Testament teaches, is separated from God by sin, and cannot through his own efforts break down the wall of separation which his sinfulness has created. God has therefore taken the initiative: He became man, was crucified, and rose from the dead, thereby delivering humanity from the bondage of sin and death. This is the central message of the Christian faith, and it is this message of redemption that the Councils were concerned to safeguard. Heresies were dangerous and required condemnation, because they impaired the teaching of the New Testament, setting up a barrier between man and God, and so making it impossible for man to attain full salvation.
Saint Paul expressed this message of redemption in terms of sharing. Christ shared our poverty that we might share the riches of His divinity: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). In Saint John’s Gospel the same idea is found in a slightly different form. Christ states that He has given His disciples a share in the divine glory, and He prays that they may achieve union with God: "And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one…" (John 17:22-23). The Greek Fathers took these and similar texts in their literal sense, and dared to speak of man’s "deification" (in Greek, theosis). If man is to share in God’s glory, they argued, he is to be "perfectly one" with God, this means in effect that man must be "deified": he is called to become by grace what God is by nature. Accordingly Saint Athanasius summed up the purpose of the Incarnation by saying: "God became man that we might be made god" (On the Incarnation, 54).
Now if this "being made god," this theosis, is to be possible, Christ the Saviour must be both fully man and fully God. No one less than God can save man; therefore if Christ is to save, He must be God. But only if He is also truly a man, as we are, can we men participate in what He has done for us. A bridge is formed between God and man by the Incarnate Christ who is both. "Hereafter you shall see heaven open," Our Lord promised, "and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (John 1:51). Not only angels use that ladder, but the human race.
Christ must be fully God and fully man. Each heresy in turn undermined some part of this vital affirmation. Either Christ was made less than God (Arianism); or His manhood was so divided from His Godhead that He became two persons instead of one (Nestorianism); or He was not presented as truly man (Monophysitism, Monothelitism). Each Council defended this affirmation. The first two, held in the fourth century, concentrated upon the earlier part (that Christ must be fully God) and formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. The next four, during the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, turned to the second part (the fullness of Christ’s manhood) and also sought to explain how manhood and Godhead could be united in a single person. The seventh Council, in defense of the Holy Icons, seems at first to stand somewhat apart, but like the first six it was ultimately concerned with the Incarnation and with man’s salvation.
The main work of the Council of Nicaea in 325 was the condemnation of Arianism. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, maintained that the Son was inferior to the Father, and, in drawing a dividing line between God and creation, he placed the Son among created things: a superior creature, it is true, but a creature none the less. His motive, no doubt, was to protect the uniqueness and the transcendence of God, but the effect of his teaching, in making Christ less than God, was to render man’s deification impossible. Only if Christ is truly God, the Council answered, can He unite us to God, for none but God Himself can open to man the way of union. Christ is "one in essence" (homoousios) with the Father. He is no demigod or superior creature, but God in the same sense that the Father is God: "true God from true God," the Council proclaimed in the Creed which it drew up, "begotten not made, one in essence with the Father."
The Council of Nicaea dealt also with the visible organization of the Church. It singled out for mention three great centers: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch (Canon 6). It also laid down that the see of Jerusalem, while remaining subject to the Metropolitan of Caesarea, should be given the next place in honor after these three (Canon 7). Constantinople naturally was not mentioned, since it was not officially inaugurated as the new capital until five years later; it continued to be subject, as before, to the Metropolitan of Heraclea.
The work of Nicaea was taken up by the second Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople in 381. This Council expanded and adapted the Nicene Creed, developing in particular the teaching upon the Holy Spirit, whom it affirmed to be God even as the Father and Son are God: "who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and together glorified." The Council also altered the provisions of the Sixth Canon of Nicaea. The position of Constantinople, now the capital of the Empire, could no longer be ignored, and it was assigned the second place, after Rome and above Alexandria. "The Bishop of Constantinople shall have the prerogatives of honor after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome" (Canon 3).
Behind the definitions of the Councils lay the work of theologians, who gave precision to the words which the Councils employed. It was the supreme achievement of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria to draw out the full implications of the key word in the Nicene Creed: homoousios, one in essence or substance, consubstantial. Complementary to his work was that of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Saints Gregory of Nazianzus, known in the Orthodox Church as Gregory the Theologian (329?-390?), Basil the Great (330?-379), and his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (died 394). While Athanasius emphasized the unity of God — Father and Son are one in essence (ousia) — the Cappadocians stressed God’s threeness — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons (hypostaseis). Preserving a delicate balance between the threeness and the oneness in God, they gave full meaning to the classic summary of Trinitarian doctrine, three persons in one essence. Never before or since has the Church possessed four theologians of such stature within a single generation.
After 381 Arianism quickly ceased to be a living issue, except in certain parts of western Europe. The controversial aspect of the Council’s work lay in its third Canon, which was resented alike by Rome and by Alexandria. Old Rome wondered where the claims of New Rome would end: might not Constantinople before long claim first place? Rome chose therefore to ignore the offending Canon, and not until the Lateran Council (1215) did the Pope formally recognize Constantinople’s claim to second place. (Constantinople was at that time in the hands of the Crusaders and under the rule of a Latin Patriarch). But the Canon was equally a challenge to Alexandria, which hitherto had occupied the first place in the east. The next seventy years witnessed a sharp conflict between Constantinople and Alexandria, in which for a time the victory went to the latter. The first major Alexandrian success was at the Synod of the Oak, when Theophilus of Alexandria secured the deposition and exile of the Bishop of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom, "John of the Golden Mouth" (344?-407). A fluent and eloquent preacher — his sermons must often have lasted for an hour or more — John expressed in popular form the theological ideas put forward by Athanasius and the Cappadocians. A man of strict and austere life, he was inspired by a deep compassion for the poor and by a burning zeal for social righteousness. Of all the Fathers he is perhaps the best loved in the Orthodox Church, and the one whose works are most widely read.
Alexandria’s second major success was won by the nephew and successor of Theophilus, Saint Cyril of Alexandria (died 444), who brought about the fall of another Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, at the third General Council, held in Ephesus (431). But at Ephesus there was more at stake than the rivalry of two great sees. Doctrinal issues, quiescent since 381, once more emerged, centering now not on the Trinity but on the Person of Christ. Cyril and Nestorius agreed that Christ was fully God, one of the Trinity, but they diverged in their descriptions of His manhood and in their method of explaining the union of God and man in a single person. They represented different traditions or schools of theology. Nestorius, brought up in the school of Antioch, upheld the integrity of Christ’s manhood, but distinguished so emphatically between the manhood and the Godhead that he seemed in danger of ending, not with one person, but with two persons coexisting in the same body. Cyril, the protagonist of the opposite tradition of Alexandria, started from the unity of Christ’s person rather than the diversity of His manhood and Godhead, but spoke about Christ’s humanity less vividly than the Antiochenes. Either approach, if pressed too far, could lead to heresy, but the Church had need of both in order to form a balanced picture of the whole Christ. It was a tragedy for Christendom that the two schools, instead of balancing one another, entered into conflict.
Nestorius precipitated the controversy by declining to call the Virgin Mary "Mother of God" (Theotokos). This title was already accepted in popular devotion, but it seemed to Nestorius to imply a confusion of Christ’s manhood and His Godhead. Mary, he argued — and here his Antiochene "separatism" is evident — is only to be called "Mother of Man" or at the most "Mother of Christ," since she is mother only of Christ’s humanity, not of His divinity. Cyril, supported by the Council, answered with the text "The Word was made flesh" (John 1:14): Mary is God’s mother, for "she bore the Word of God made flesh" (See the first of Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas). What Mary bore was not a man loosely united to God, but a single and undivided person, who is God and man at once. The name Theotokos safeguards the unity of Christ’s person: to deny her this title is to separate the Incarnate Christ into two, breaking down the bridge between God and man and erecting within Christ’s person a middle wall of partition. Thus we can see that not only titles of devotion were involved at Ephesus, but the very message of salvation. The same primacy that the word homoousios occupies in the doctrine of the Trinity, the word Theotokos holds in the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Alexandria won another victory at a second Council held in Ephesus in 449, but this gathering, unlike its predecessor of 431, was not accepted by the Church at large. It was felt that the Alexandrian party had this time gone too far. Dioscorus and Eutyches, pressing Cyril’s teaching to extremes, maintained that in Christ there was not only a unity of personality but a single nature — Monophysitism. It seemed to their opponents — although the Monophysites themselves denied that this was a just interpretation of their views — that such a way of speaking endangered the fullness of Christ’s manhood, which in Monophysitism became so fused with His divinity as to be swallowed up in it like a drop of water in the ocean.
Only two years later, in 451, the Emperor summoned to Chalcedon a fresh gathering of bishops, which the Church of Byzantium and the west regarded as the fourth General Council. The pendulum now swung back in an Antiochene direction. The Council reacted strongly against Monophysite terminology, and stated that while Christ is one person, there is in Him not one nature but two. The bishops acclaimed the Tome of Saint Leo the Great, Pope of Rome (died 461), in which the two natures are clearly distinguished. In their proclamation of faith they stated their belief in "one and the same Son, perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man… acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference between the natures is in no way removed because of the union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature is preserved, and both combine in one person and in one hypostasis." The Definition of Chalcedon, we may note, is aimed not only at the Monophysites ("in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably"), but also at the followers of Nestorius ("one and the same Son… indivisibly, inseperably").
But Chalcedon was more than a defeat for Alexandrian theology: it was a defeat for Alexandrian claims to rule supreme in the east. Canon 28 of Chalcedon confirmed Canon 3 of Constantinople, assigning to New Rome the place next in honor after Old Rome. Leo repudiated this Canon, but the east has ever since recognized its validity. The Council also freed Jerusalem from the jurisdiction of Caesarea and gave it the fifth place among the great sees. The system later known among Orthodox as the Pentarchy was now complete, whereby five great sees in the Church were held in particular honor, and a settled order of precedence was established among them: in order of rank, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem. All five claimed Apostolic foundation. The first four were the most important cities in the Roman Empire; the fifth was added because it was the place where Christ had suffered on the Cross and risen from the dead. The bishop in each of these cities received the title Patriarch. The five Patriarchates between them divided into spheres of jurisdiction the whole of the known world, apart from Cyprus, which was granted independence by the Council of Ephesus and has remained self-governing ever since.
When speaking of the Orthodox conception of the Pentarchy there are two possible misunderstandings which must be avoided. First, the system of Patriarchs and Metropolitans is a matter of ecclesiastical organization. But if we look at the Church from the viewpoint not of ecclesiastical order but of divine right, then we must say that all bishops are essentially equal, however humble or exalted the city over which each presides. All bishops share equally in the apostolic succession, all have the same sacramental powers, all are divinely appointed teachers of the faith. If a dispute about doctrine arises, it is not enough for the Patriarchs to express their opinion: every diocesan bishop has the right to attend a General Council, to speak, and to cast his vote. The system of the Pentarchy does not impair the essential equality of all bishops, nor does it deprive each local community of the importance which Ignatius assigned to it.
The Orthodox Church does not accept the doctrine of Papal authority set forth in the decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870, and taught today in the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same time Orthodoxy does not deny to the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome a primacy of honor, together with the right (under certain conditions) to hear appeals from all parts of Christendom.
Note that we have used the word "primacy," not "supremacy." Orthodox regard the Pope as the bishop "who presides in love," to adapt a phrase of Saint Ignatius: Rome’s mistake — so Orthodox believe — has been to turn this primacy or "presidency of love" into a supremacy of external power and jurisdiction.
This primacy which Rome enjoys takes its origin from three factors. First, Rome was the city where Saint Peter and Saint Paul were martyred, and where Peter was bishop. ***The Orthodox Church acknowledges Peter as the first among the Apostles: it does not forget the celebrated "Petrine texts" in the Gospels (Matthew 26:18-19; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17) although Orthodox theologians do not understand these texts in quite the same way as modern Roman Catholic commentators.
And while many Orthodox theologians would say that not only the Bishop of Rome but all bishops are successors of Peter, yet most of them at the same time admit that the Bishop of Rome is Peter’s successor in a special sense. Secondly, the see of Rome also owed its primacy to the position occupied by the city of Rome in the Empire: she was the capital, the chief city of the ancient world, and such in some measure she continued to be even after the foundation of Constantinople. Thirdly, although there were occasions when Popes fell into heresy, on the whole during the first eight centuries of the Church’s history the Roman see was noted for the purity of its faith: other Patriarchates wavered during the great doctrinal disputes, but Rome for the most part stood firm. When hard pressed in the struggle against heretics, men felt that they could turn with confidence to the Pope. Not only the Bishop of Rome, but every bishop, is appointed by God to be a teacher of the faith; yet because the see of Rome had in practice taught the faith with an outstanding loyalty to the truth, it was above all to Rome that men appealed for guidance in the early centuries of the Church.
But as with Patriarchs, so with the Pope: the primacy assigned to Rome does not overthrow the essential equality of all bishops. The Pope is the first bishop in the Church — but he is the first among equals.
Ephesus and Chalcedon were a rock of Orthodoxy, but they were also a terrible rock of offence. The Arians had been gradually reconciled and formed no lasting schism. But to this day there exist Nestorian Christians who cannot accept the decisions of Ephesus, and Monophysites who cannot accept those of Chalcedon. The Nestorians lay for the most part outside the Empire, and little more is heard of them in Byzantine history. But large numbers of Monophysites, particularly in Egypt and Syria, were subjects of the Emperor, and repeated though unsuccessful efforts were made to bring them back into communion with the Byzantine Church. As so often, theological differences were made more bitter by cultural and national tension. Egypt and Syria, both predominantly non-Greek in language and background, resented the power of Greek Constantinople, alike in religious and in political matters. Thus ecclesiastical schism was reinforced by political separatism. Had it not been for these non-theological factors, the two sides might perhaps have reached a theological understanding after Chalcedon. Many modern scholars are inclined to think that the difference between Monophysites and "Chalcedonians" was basically one of terminology, not of theology: the two parties used different language, but ultimately both were concerned to uphold the same truths.
The Definition of Chalcedon was supplemented by two later Councils, both held at Constantinople. The fifth Ecumenical Council (553) reinterpreted the decrees of Chalcedon from an Alexandrian point of view, and sought to explain, in more constructive terms than Chalcedon had used, how the two natures of Christ unite to form a single person. The sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681) condemned the Monothelite heresy, a new form of Monophysitism. The Monothelites argued that although Christ has two natures, yet since He is a single person, He has only one will. The Council replied that if He has two natures, then He must also have two wills. The Monothelites, like the Monophysites, impaired the fullness of Christ’s humanity, since manhood without a human will would be incomplete, a mere abstraction. Since Christ is true man as well as true God, He must have a human will as well as a divine.
During the fifty years before the meeting of the sixth Council, Byzantium was faced with a sudden and alarming development: the rise of Islam. The most striking fact about Mohammedan expansion is its speed. When the Prophet died in 632, his authority scarcely extended beyond the Hejaz. But within fifteen years his Arab followers had taken Syria, Palestine, and Egypt; within fifty years they were at the walls of Constantinople and almost captured the city; within a hundred they had swept across North Africa, advanced through Spain, and forced western Europe to fight for its life at the Battle of Poitiers. The Arab invasions have been called "a centrifugal explosion, driving in every direction small bodies of mounted raiders in quest of food, plunder, and conquest. The old empires were in no state to resist them" (H. St. L. B. Moss, in Baynes and Moss, Byzantium: An Introduction, Oxford, 1948, pp. 11-12). Christendom survived, but only with difficulty. The Byzantines lost their eastern possessions, and the three Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem passed under infidel control; within the Christian Empire of the East, the Patriarchate of Constantinople was now without rival. Henceforward Byzantium was never free for very long from Mohammedan attacks, and although it held out for eight centuries more, yet in the end it succumbed.
The holy icons
Disputes concerning the Person of Christ did not cease with the Council of 681, but were extended in a different form into the eighth and ninth centuries. The struggle centered on the Holy Icons, the pictures of Christ, the Mother of God, and the Saints, which were kept and venerated both in churches and in private homes. The Iconoclasts or icon-smashers, suspicious of any religious art which represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons; the opposite party, the Iconodules or venerators of icons, vigorously defended the place of icons in the life of the Church. The struggle was not merely a conflict between two conceptions of Christian art. Deeper issues were involved: the character of Christ’s human nature, the Christian attitude towards matter, the true meaning of Christian redemption.
The Iconoclasts may have been influenced from the outside by Jewish and Moslem ideas, and it is significant that three years before the first outbreak of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire, the Mohammedan Caliph Yezid ordered the removal of all icons within his dominions. But Iconoclasm was not simply imported from outside; within Christianity itself there had always existed a "puritan" outlook, which condemned icons because it saw in all images a latent idolatry. When the Isaurian Emperors attacked icons, they found plenty of support inside the Church. Typical of this puritan outlook is the action of Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (315?-403), who, on finding in a Palestinian village church a curtain woven with the figure of Christ, tore it down with indignation. This attitude was always strong in Asia Minor, and some hold that the Iconoclast movement was an Asiatic protest against Greek tradition. But there are difficulties in such a view; the controversy was really a split within the Greek tradition.
The Iconoclast controversy, which lasted some 120 years, falls into two phases. The first period opened in 726 when Leo 3 began his attack on icons, and ended in 780 when the Empress Irene suspended the persecution. The Iconodule position was upheld by the seventh and last Ecumenical Council (787), which met (as the first had done) at Nicaea. Icons, the Council proclaimed, are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as "the precious and life-giving Cross" and the Book of the Gospels. A new attack on icons, started by Leo V the Armenian in 815, continued until 843 when the icons were again reinstated, this time permanently, by another Empress, Theodora. The final victory of the Holy Images in 843 is known as "the Triumph of Orthodoxy," and is commemorated in a special service celebrated on "Orthodoxy Sunday," the first Sunday in Lent. During this service the true faith — Orthodoxy — is proclaimed, its defenders are honored, and anathemas pronounced on all who attack the Holy Icons or the Seven General Councils:
To those who reject the Councils of the Holy Fathers, and their traditions which are agreeable to divine revelation, and which the Orthodox Catholic Church piously maintains, anathema! anathema! anathema!
The chief champion of the icons in the first period was Saint John of Damascus (675-749), in the second Saint Theodore of Studium (759-826). John was able to work the more freely because he dwelt in Moslem territory, out of reach of the Byzantine government. It was not the last time that Islam acted unintentionally as the protector of Orthodoxy.
One of the distinctive features of Orthodoxy is the place which it assigns to icons. An Orthodox church today is filled with them: dividing the sanctuary from the body of the building there is a solid screen, the iconostasis, entirely covered with icons, while other icons are placed in special shrines around the church; and perhaps the walls are covered with icons in fresco or mosaic. An Orthodox prostrates himself before these icons, he kisses them and burns candles in front of them; they are censed by the priest and carried in procession. What do these gestures and actions mean? What do icons signify, and why did John of Damascus and others regard them as important?
We shall consider first the charge of idolatry, which the Iconoclasts brought against the Iconodules; then the positive value of icons as a means of instruction; and finally their doctrinal importance.
The question of idolatry. When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it, he is not guilty of idolatry. The icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted. This had been pointed out some time before the Iconoclast controversy by Leontius of Neapolis (died about 650):
We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross…. When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who on the Cross was crucified, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them (Migne, Patrologia Graeca [P.G.], xciv, 1384d).
Because icons are only symbols, Orthodox do not worship them, but reverence or venerate them. John of Damascus carefully distinguished between the relative honor or veneration shown to material symbols, and the worship due to God alone.
Icons as part of the Church’s teaching. Icons, said Leontius, are "opened books to remind us of God" (P.G. xciv, 1276a); they are one of the means which the Church employs in order to teach the faith. He who lacks learning or leisure to study works of theology has only to enter a church to see unfolded before him on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion. If a pagan asks you to show him your faith, said the Iconodules, take him into church and place him before the icons (Ad Constantinum Cabalinum, P.G. xcv, 325c. Icons are a part of Holy Tradition [see p. 214]).
The doctrinal significance of icons. Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast dispute. Granted that icons are not idolatrous; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules held that it is, because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules agreed that God cannot be represented in His eternal nature: "No man hath seen God at any time" (John 1:18). But, the Iconodules continued, the Incarnation has made a representational religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became man and took flesh. Material images, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:
Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshipping the matter through which my salvation has been effected (On Icons, i, 16, P. G. xciv 1245a).
The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity, to His body; it is to forget that man’s body as well as his soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the earlier disputes about Christ’s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation and the salvation of man.
God took a material body, thereby proving that matter can be redeemed: "The Word made flesh has deified the flesh," said John of Damascus (On Icons, i, 21 [P.G. xciv, 1253b]). God has "deified" matter, making it "spirit-bearing"; and if flesh became a vehicle of the Spirit, then so — though in a different way — can wood and paint. The Orthodox doctrine of icons is bound up with the Orthodox belief that the whole of God’s creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be redeemed and glorified. In the words of Nicholas Zernov (1898-1980) — what he says of Russians is true of all Orthodox:
Icons were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colors and lines of the [icons] were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating that men, animals, and plants, and the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper "Image." The [icons] were pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one…. The artistic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the celestial glory — it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit. The icons were part of the transfigured cosmos (The Russians and Their Church, pp. 107-108).
As John of Damascus put it:
The icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons (On Icons, 2, 2 [P.G. xciv, 1296b]).
The conclusion of the Iconoclast dispute, the meeting of the seventh Ecumenical Council, the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843 — these mark the end of the second period in Orthodox history, the period of the Seven Councils. These Seven Councils are of immense importance to Orthodoxy. For members of the Orthodox Church, their interest is not merely historical but contemporary; they are the concern not only of scholars and clergy, but of all the faithful. "Even illiterate peasants," said Dean Stanley, "to whom, in the corresponding class of life in Spain or Italy, the names of Constance and Trent would probably be quite unknown, are well aware that their Church reposes on the basis of the Seven Councils, and retain a hope that they may yet live to see an eighth General Council, in which the evils of the time will be set straight" (Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church [Everyman Edition], p. 99). Orthodox often call themselves "the Church of the Seven Councils." By this they do not mean that the Orthodox Church has ceased to think creatively since 787. But they see in the period of the Councils the great age of theology; and, next to the Bible, it is the Seven Councils which the Orthodox Church takes as its standard and guide in seeking solutions to the new problems which arise in every generation.
Saints, monks, and emperors
Not without reason has Byzantium been called "the icon of the heavenly Jerusalem." Religion entered into every aspect of Byzantine life. The Byzantine’s holidays were religious festivals; the races which he attended in the Circus began with the singing of hymns; his trade contracts invoked the Trinity and were marked with the sign of the Cross. Today, in an untheological age, it is all but impossible to realize how burning an interest was felt in religious questions by every part of society, by laity as well as clergy, by the poor and uneducated as well as the Court and the scholars. Gregory of Nyssa describes the unending theological arguments in Constantinople at the time of the second General Council:
The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask "Is my bath ready?" the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing (On the Deity of the Son [P.G. xlvi, 557b]).
This curious complaint indicates the atmosphere in which the Councils met. So violent were the passions aroused that sessions were not always restrained or dignified. "Synods and councils I salute from a distance," Gregory of Nazianzus dryly remarked, "for I know how troublesome they are. Never again will I sit in those gatherings of cranes and geese" (Letter 124; Poems about Himself, 27, 91). The Fathers at times supported their cause by questionable means: Cyril of Alexandria, for example, in his struggle against Nestorius, bribed the Court heavily and terrorized the city of Ephesus with a private army of monks. Yet if Cyril was intemperate in his methods, it was because of his consuming desire that the right cause should triumph; and if Christians were at times acrimonious, it was because they cared about the Christian faith. Perhaps disorder is better than apathy. Orthodoxy recognizes that the Councils were attended by imperfect men, but it believes that these imperfect men were guided by the Holy Spirit.
The Byzantine bishop was not only a distant figure who attended Councils; he was also in many cases a true father to his people, a friend and protector to whom men confidently turned when in trouble. The concern for the poor and oppressed which John Chrysostom displayed is found in many others. Saint John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria (died 619), for example, devoted all the wealth of his see to helping those whom he called "my brethren, the poor." When his own resources failed, he appealed to others: "He used to say," a contemporary recorded, "that if, without ill-will, a man were to strip the rich right down to their shirts in order to give to the poor, he would do no wrong" (Leontius of Neapolis, A Supplement to the Life of John the Almsgiver, 21). "Those whom you call poor and beggars," John said, "these I proclaim my masters and helpers. For they, and they alone, can really help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven" (Leontius, Supplement, 2). The Church in the Byzantine Empire did not overlook its social obligations, and one of its principal functions was charitable work.
Monasticism played a decisive part in the religious life of Byzantium, as it has done in that of all Orthodox countries. It has been rightly said that "the best way to penetrate Orthodox spirituality is to enter it through monasticism" (P. Evdokimov, L’Orthodoxie, p. 20). There is a great richness of forms of the spiritual life to be found within the bounds of Orthodoxy, but monasticism remains the most classical of all (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 17). The monastic life first emerged as a definite institution in Egypt at the start of the fourth century, and from there it spread rapidly across Christendom. It is no coincidence that monasticism should have developed immediately after Constantine’s conversion, at the very time when the persecutions ceased and Christianity became fashionable. The monks with their austerities were martyrs in an age when martyrdom of blood no longer existed; they formed the counterbalance to an established Christendom. Men in Byzantine society were in danger of forgetting that Byzantium was an icon and symbol, not the reality; they ran the risk of identifying the kingdom of God with an earthly kingdom. The monks by their withdrawal from society into the desert fulfilled a prophetic and eschatological ministry in the life of the Church. They reminded Christians that the kingdom of God is not of this world.
Monasticism has taken three chief forms, all of which had appeared in Egypt by the year 350, and all of which are still to be found in the Orthodox Church today. There are first the hermits, men leading the solitary life in huts or caves, and even in tombs, among the branches of trees, or on the tops of pillars. The great model of the eremitic life is the father of monasticism himself, Saint Antony of Egypt (251-356). Secondly there is the community life, where monks dwell together under a common rule and in a regularly constituted monastery. Here the great pioneer was Saint Pachomius of Egypt (286-346), author of a rule later used by Saint Benedict in the west. Basil the Great, whose ascetic writings have exercised a formative influence on eastern monasticism, was a strong advocate of the community life. Giving a social emphasis to monasticism, he urged that religious houses should care for the sick and poor, maintaining hospitals and orphanages, and working directly for the benefit of society at large. But in general eastern monasticism has been far less concerned than western with active work; in Orthodoxy a monk’s primary task is the life of prayer, and it is through this that he serves others. It is not so much what a monk does that matters, as what he is. Finally there is a form of the monastic life intermediate between the first two, the semi-eremitic life, a "middle way" where instead of a single highly organized community there is a loosely knit group of small settlements, each settlement containing perhaps between two and six brethren living together under the guidance of an elder. The great centers of the semi-eremitic life in Egypt were Nitria and Scetis, which by the end of the fourth century had produced many outstanding monks — Ammon the founder of Nitria, Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria, Evagrius of Pontus, and Arsenius the Great. (This semi-eremitic system is found not only in the east but in the far west, in Celtic monasticism).
Because of its monasteries, fourth-century Egypt was regarded as a second Holy Land, and travelers to Jerusalem felt their pilgrimage to be incomplete unless it included the ascetic houses of the Nile. In the fifth and sixth centuries leadership in the monastic movement shifted to Palestine, with Saint Euthymius the Great (died 473) and his disciple Saint Sabbas (died 532). The monastery founded by Saint Sabbas in the Jordan valley can claim an unbroken history to the present day; it was to this community that John of Damascus belonged. Almost as old is another important house with an unbroken history to the present, the monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, founded by the Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565). With Palestine and Sinai in Arab hands, monastic pre-eminence in the Byzantine Empire passed to the huge monastery of the Studium at Constantinople, originally founded in 463; Saint Theodore was Abbot here and revised the rule of the community.
Since the tenth century the chief center of Orthodox monasticism has been Athos, a rocky peninsula in North Greece jutting out into the Aegean and culminating at its tip in a peak 6,670 feet high. Known as "the Holy Mountain," Athos contains twenty "ruling" monasteries and a large number of smaller houses, as well as hermits’ cells; the whole peninsula is given up entirely to monastic settlements, and in the days of its greatest expansion it is said to have contained nearly forty thousand monks. One out of the twenty ruling monasteries has by itself produced 26 Patriarchs and 144 bishops: this gives some idea of the importance of Athos in Orthodox history.
There are no "Orders" in Orthodox monasticism. In the west a monk belongs to the Carthusian, the Cistercian, or some other Order; in the east he is simply a member of the one great brotherhood which includes all monks and nuns, although of course he is attached to a particular monastic house. Western writers sometimes refer to Orthodox monks as "Basilian monks" or "monks of the Basilian Order," but this is not correct. Saint Basil is an important figure in Orthodox monasticism, but he founded no Order, and although two of his works are known as the Longer Rules and the Shorter Rules, these are in no sense comparable to the Rule of Saint Benedict.
A characteristic figure in Orthodox monasticism is the "elder" or "old man" (Greek gerōn; Russian starets, plural startsi). The elder is a monk of spiritual discernment and wisdom, whom others — either monks or people in the world — adopt as their guide and spiritual director. He is sometimes a priest, but often a lay monk; he receives no special ordination or appointment to the work of eldership, but is guided to it by the direct inspiration of the Spirit. The elder sees in a concrete and practical way what the will of God is in relation to each person who comes to consult him: this is the elder’s special gift or charisma. The earliest and most celebrated of the monastic startsi was Saint Antony himself. The first part of his life, from eighteen to fifty-five, he spent in withdrawal and solitude; then, though still living in the desert, he abandoned this life of strict enclosure, and began to receive visitors. A group of disciples gathered round him, and besides these disciples there was a far larger circle of people who came, often from a long distance, to ask his advice; so great was the stream of visitors that, as Antony’s biographer Athanasius put it, he became a physician to all Egypt. Antony has had many successors, and in most of them the same outward pattern of events is found — a withdrawal in order to return. A monk must first withdraw, and in silence must learn the truth about himself and God: Then, after this long and rigorous preparation in solitude, having gained the gifts of discernment which are required of an elder, he can open the door of his cell and admit the world from which formerly he fled.
At the heart of the Christian polity of Byzantium was the Emperor, who was no ordinary ruler, but God’s representative on earth. If Byzantium was an icon of the heavenly Jerusalem, then the earthly monarchy of the Emperor was an image or icon of the monarchy of God in heaven; in church men prostrated themselves before the icon of Christ, and in the palace before God’s living icon — the Emperor. The labyrinthine palace, the Court with its elaborate ceremonial, the throne room where mechanical lions roared and musical birds sang: these things were designed to make clear the Emperor’s status as vicegerent of God. "By such means," wrote the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, "we figure forth the harmonious movement of God the Creator around this universe, while the imperial power is preserved in proportion and order" (Book of Ceremonies, Prologue). The Emperor had a special place in the Church’s worship: he could not of course celebrate the Eucharist, but he received communion "as priests do," he preached sermons, on certain feasts he censed the altar. The vestments which Orthodox bishops now wear are the vestments once worn by the Emperor in church.
The life of Byzantium formed a unified whole, and there was no rigid line of separation between the religious and the secular, between Church and State: the two were seen as parts of a single organism. Hence it was inevitable that the Emperor played an active part in the affairs of the Church. Yet at the same time it is not just to accuse Byzantium of Caesaro-Papism, of subordinating the Church to the State. Although Church and State formed a single organism, yet within this one organism there were two distinct elements, the priesthood (sacerdotium) and the imperial power (imperium); and while working in close cooperation, each of these elements had its own proper sphere in which it was autonomous. Between the two there was a "symphony" or "harmony," but neither element exercised absolute control over the other.
This is the doctrine expounded in the great code of Byzantine law drawn up under Justinian (see the sixth Novel) and repeated in many other Byzantine texts. Take for example the words of Emperor John Tzimisces: "I recognize two authorities, priesthood and empire; the Creator of the world entrusted to the first the care of souls and to the second the control of men’s bodies. Let neither authority be attacked, that the world may enjoy prosperity" (Quoted in N. H. Baynes, Byzantine Studies, London, 1955, p. 52). Thus it was the Emperor’s task to summon councils and to carry their decrees into effect, but it lay beyond his powers to dictate the content of those decrees: it was for the bishops gathered in council to decide what the true faith was. Bishops were appointed by God to teach the faith, whereas the Emperor was the protector of Orthodoxy, but not its exponent. Such was the theory, and such in great part was the practice also. Admittedly there were many occasions on which the Emperor interfered unwarrantably in ecclesiastical matters; but when a serious question of principle arose, the authorities of the Church quickly showed that they had a will of their own. Iconoclasm, for example, was vigorously championed by a whole series of Emperors, yet for all that it was successfully rejected by the Church. In Byzantine history Church and State were closely interdependent, but neither was subordinate to the other.
There are many today, not only outside but within the Orthodox Church, who sharply criticize the Byzantine Empire and the idea of a Christian society for which it stands. Yet were the Byzantines entirely wrong? They believed that Christ, who lived on earth as a man, has redeemed every aspect of human existence, and they held that it was therefore possible to baptize not human individuals only but the whole spirit and organization of society. So they strove to create a polity entirely Christian in its principles of government and in its daily life. Byzantium in fact was nothing less than an attempt to accept and to apply the full implications of the Incarnation. Certainly the attempt had its dangers: in particular the Byzantines often fell into the error of identifying the earthly kingdom of Byzantium with the Kingdom of God, the Greek people with God’s people. Certainly Byzantium fell far short of the high ideal which it set itself, and its failure was often lamentable and disastrous. The tales of Byzantine duplicity, violence, and cruelty are too well known to call for repetition here. They are true — but they are only a part of the truth. For behind all the shortcomings of Byzantium can always be discerned the great vision by which the Byzantines were inspired: to establish here on earth a living icon of God’s government in heaven.