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Television Review: A Fall to the "Rise of Christianity"

by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna

A number of individuals have posed to me, of late, questions about the Christian Faith prompted by a two-hour presentation on the American "Arts and Entertainment" television network, "The Rise of Christianity: The First Thousand Years," which first aired in the late autumn of 1998. Some of the historical and theological ideas put forth in this ambitious presentation are essentially antithetical to notions basic to a traditional Orthodox understanding of the Church, her history, and her beliefs. I have been particularly dismayed at the intellectual "fall" of various individuals, among them several of my own spiritual children, to some of the historiographical and theological presuppositions found in this popular portrayal. The acquired misapprehensions of these otherwise firm believers have prompted me to make a few comments about various themes in the program that may help to bring the Orthodox view in these areas into clearer perspective.

Let me begin by making some general comments about the lack of thematic cohesion in "The Rise of Christianity" and about certain of its historiographical assumptions. The entire two-hour segment is marked by an obviously conscious attempt to include within the first thousand years of the Christian experience both the Church of the East and that of the West. This is an unusual feature in popular presentations of Church history, which tend to ignore the Christian East. No doubt one of my former mentors, Jeffrey Burton Russell, the eminent historian and an authority often featured in the program, played a role in efforts to realize such a balance. Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Oxford university, another scholar frequently interviewed during "The Rise of Christianity," most certainly also played a similar role. However, this very positive aspect of "The Rise of Christianity" occasions one if its weaknesses. Rather than present an Eastern-Western parallel in a cohesive context, we find egregiously disjointed references to events in the Eastern Church as they impact on, or parallel, the course of Western ecclesiastical history.

For example, though we are told that the Eastern half of the Roman Empire did not suffer from the intellectual decline and so-called "Dark Ages" that followed the invasion of the Western half of the Roman Empire by barbarian tribes, it is to the scriptoria of the Irish monastics, the program asserts, that contemporary Christianity owes an incalculable debt for the transcription of ninety percent of our extant Patristic texts and the manuscripts of ancient classical works. Are we to believe that the Christian East, formed in the crucible of the classical Greek world and steeped in a theological tradition focused on and formed by the writings and thought of the Early Church Fathers, Greek and Latin alike, was bereft of a literary tradition that survived only through the efforts of Irish monasticism? Or that the Christian East contributed nothing to the corpus of extant Patristic and classical texts?

Throughout "The Rise of Christianity" there is a tendency to move from the Western Church to the Eastern Church as though the latter were an afterthought. As a result, one is left with the impression that the East and West complement one another in an almost adventitious manner.

Historical data are presented in such a way as to reinforce this implicit perception; a coherent theme of a comparative kind, or which makes a compelling case for historical parallelism, is not to be found in the program. Despite this, many Church historians would argue that Eastern and Western Christianity must be understood as two distinct traditions, drawing apart in ethos and experience very shortly after the first few formative centuries of Christianity, already having become essentially estranged from one another by the time of the Carolingian Renaissance and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century. The "Rise of Christianity" downplays this argument, if only because it is so inconsistent and incoherent in the way that it contrasts the Eastern and Western Christian traditions.

Certain historiographical assumptions underlying the program also fail to encompass the way in which Orthodox Christians look at the history of Christianity. It begins with the observation, put forth by a noted Princeton scholar, that Christianity presents a challenge to any historian. The probability of a religious sect spawned in the relatively insignificant outposts of the Palestine ascending to dominance in the Roman Empire is slight indeed. Yet the new religion of the Christians did, in fact, spread in the first centuries after Christ to the known world of that time. In response to the challenge of this fact, the program calls on various principles of historical and social determinism. We are told that the Roman Empire itself, an ingeniously organized political body reaching from the British Isles to the threshold of the Far East, provided a ready structure for the preaching and spread of the Christian message.

According to this theory of the Christian exploitation of the political hegemony of the Roman Empire, the initial and astounding intellectual impact of Christianity was also the result, to a great extent, of its accommodation to the prevailing religions in the Empire. Christianity borrowed, the program asserts, from a variety of the cults found in the ancient world—from the native religions of Ireland, with their emphasis on the number three, to the cult of Mithra in the Mediterranean world, which featured ceremonies surrounding the birth of a child to a virgin at the time of the winter solstice. Theophagy, or the ingestion of divinity, was also a theme in some mystery cults of the time. Thus, the Christian religion, as speculation has it, had a syncretistic quality that facilitated its phenomenal spread throughout the Roman Empire.

The Fathers of the Church teach us that God prepared the world for the advent of Christ; that is, that human history is not as much the story of man's search for God as it is a narrative of God's search for man and His efforts towards human salvation and restoration. The Roman Empire, therefore, was not an historical accident, but developed under Divine Providence for the very purpose of accommodating the Christian Church. The syncretistic nature of Christianity, too, is not accidental. The images, precursors, and forerunners of Christianity, from theophagy to the "unknown god" to the rituals of the pre-Christian mystery cults, we Orthodox believe, in concord with the Patristic witness, paved the way for the advent of God's Incarnation. Christianity gave substance to these empty forms and living force to these flat, unresponsive caricatures of Divine synergy. It speaks for itself that those religious forms and symbols which were not compatible with Christianity became the objects of scorn and resistance. Indeed, the endless stream of Martyrs in the Early Church who refused to succumb to idolatry clearly indicates that the syncretism of Christianity was not simply one of accommodation; the Christian Church incorporated into its experience only those things which, properly "baptized," as it were, served in a renewed way the God who established them in His Providence.

We must also understand that, while Christian history is linear, and while Christianity acknowledges the reality of events and the integrity, within the context of its limitations, of our human grasp of time, history and time were also transformed by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. Human events and time were endowed, by the victory of Christ over fallen nature, with an ontological dimension that encompasses and transcends their limitations at one and the same time. Thus, the Christian lives in eschatological time, where the eternal "now" brings the past, present, and future into a new relationship. Christian prophecy, a kind of spiritual cognition, also operates in the realm of eschatological time, giving birth to that hope and joy which come from knowing the goodness and fullness of history in the single moment of Divine vision. The historical time line of Christian history gives way to the ineffable Providence of God, in which human acts or historical and social determinism, however important and "real" in context, give way to what is, was, and ever will be. At the same time, we come to understand the history of the Church and its encompassing nature in a wholly new way. The importance of history succumbs to its ontological significance.

Finally, if almost parenthetically, let me say that there is a world of Orthodox scholarship and historiography which Western scholars must one day acknowledge, even if the consequences of this unlikely eventuality are confusing. Throughout "The Rise of Christianity" we hear of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and these contrasting centers of social and political power in the early Christian centuries. Traditional Orthodox historians, of course, call the so-called Byzantine Empire the Roman Empire. To this day, in fact, Greeks calls themselves "Romaioi" ("Romans") and the cultural legacy of their Roman past "Romiosyne" (indeed, the Œcumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, or Istanbul, is still called the "Roman Patriarchate" by the Turks). The fall of Rome, for us Orthodox, occurred in the fifteenth century, with the invasion of Constantinople. And the Church of the Orthodox we consider the Catholic Church of the Roman Empire.

Contrary to the impression that one is given in this television documentary, the Byzantines reacted to the coronation of Charlemagne with far more arrogance than trepidation. Some historical sources suggest that they saw the Franks, at the outset of the Carolingian Renaissance, more as upstarts than a serious threat the Empire. Nor did they take seriously the notion of a separate part of the Empire in the West renewed under the aegis of the "Holy Roman Empire." They considered the Franks barbarians, carefully distinguished them from their Latin predecessors (whom they considered Romans like themselves), and established a more or less polemical attitude toward the "Frankish West," an attitude that survives in Greek scholarship to this day. Indeed, in its initial ecumenical contacts with the Roman Catholic Church in the nineteenth century, the Orthodox Church presented itself, not only as the successor to the Church of the Apostles, but as the authentic voice of the Catholic Church of the Roman Empire.

There are a few other subjects in "The Rise of Christianity" that I would like to touch upon in passing, partly in the light of my foregoing critical comments about certain of the program's historiographical presuppositions. First, I would like to address the question of the relationship between Islam and the Byzantine Empire. We are given the distinct impression by the narrator and several of the authorities interviewed that the Byzantine Empire approached the rise of Islam with religious intolerance. Though by modern standards the Byzantine Empire may have been anything but a religiously pluralistic society, it in fact tolerated great religious diversity within its boundaries. This is evidenced by the fact that recent and more objective studies of the plight of Jews in Byzantium give far better marks to these ancients than we might give to twentieth-century man. The fact is that, because of the peculiar nature of Islam, the Byzantines singled it out as a dangerous and menacing religious movement.

Whether rightly or not, the Byzantines perceived Islam, from its inception, as a militant religion, not only because of its advocacy of proselytism by force, but because its goal of establishing an Islamic political state was a direct challenge to the Byzantine ideal of the Empire as an earthly Icon of the Christian Kingdom of Heaven. More importantly, we often ignore the fact that Islam was considered a Christian heresy, in the minds of many of the Byzantines. Not only did it rise up in areas where Christianity held forth in ancient times, but many Christians, compromised already by the Christological errors of the Non-Chalcedonian heresies, succumbed to its teachings. It also drew on Christian customs, some, such as the Minaret, probably taken from the spiritual experiences of the Desert Fathers (in this case, the Stylites). This fear of Islam as a heresy that might impinge on Christianity itself was not ill-founded. As Professor Russell notes in the program, in his comments regarding this subject, the fierce opposition of Islam to the artistic depiction of the sacred undoubtedly influenced, in part, those who provoked the Iconoclastic Controversy in the Byzantine Empire, with all of its religious and political consequences. This suggests that the Byzantines were not far off the mark in the fears that the rise of Islam entailed a direct threat to Orthodox Christianity itself.

Another important subject addressed in the program is that of the first seven Œcumenical Councils (or, more precisely, "Synods"). The dramatic portrayals of the councils is absurd. Bishops and representatives are dressed in togas of sorts, clean-shaven and well-coiffured, and pictured, like witless sycophants, debating informally with the Emperor, who is seated on a throne in what looks like a catacomb complex. The Synods, were, of course, conducted in a very formal setting and according to a strictly organized agenda. And the proper dress of the time was closer to that depicted in the iconographic portrayals of the synods which complement these ridiculous dramatic scenes. Aside from a somewhat inaccurate and undignified caricature of the external aspects of the Synods, the narrator also suggested that these gatherings defined the Christian Faith and "hammered out" a kind of consensual Christianity that served the political interests of the Empire.

We Orthodox believe, of course, that the Christian Faith was given by the Lord, preached by the Apostles, and preserved by the Fathers, to paraphrase an ancient dictum. The Œcumenical Synods were convened, not for the purpose of defining an inexact Faith, but with the aim of preserving revealed Truth from human distortion. Indeed, the first Œcumenical Synod was convened, not to establish a Creed by which to unify the Christian community; rather, the Creed that emerged in part from this Synod was designed to defend an existent Faith. And when subsequent heresy demanded that the Creed be further refined, this refinement was undertaken, not in the interest of creating and defining new doctrine, but with the ultimate aim of protecting Holy Tradition from heresy. These Synods unfailingly affirmed that, as it seemed to please the Holy Spirit, they were walking in the path of those before them, confirming the Paradosiake Didaskalia of the unchanging Christian Faith: that is, the Traditional Teaching of the Church (or, literally, that teaching which had been handed down to them from the Lord, the Apostles, and the Fathers).

It is important that we understand this Orthodox idea of conciliar (synodal) authority. For in so doing, we understand that the spiritual exousia or authority of the Synods derives, not from their decisions as such, but from their fidelity to what one Father calls the "theology of facts" that they inherited from the ancient Church itself. Theology and the decisions of the Synods are devices by which we circumscribe the ineffable character of Christian truth; they provide the boundaries to which human thought must be confined, if it is to grasp those ontological truths that are beyond mere thought. Just as Scripture does not contain the glory of God, but simply describes it, so the Œcumenical Synods do not simply convey the Faith, but guard the realm in which it is to be discovered and revealed. Their infallible nature lies solely in the fact that they reflect the conscience of the Church, embody a living experience of Christ, and thereby, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, serve to preserve and protect the boundaries and dimensions of the Faith.

In view of what I have suggested about the Orthodox understanding of the relationship between the Synods and our Faith, it is impossible to imagine that the Emperors, as we hear from the narrator of "The Rise of Christianity," used the councils to standardize the Faith and to minimize the political effects of religious dissension. First, such a formula violates the aim and scope of the Synods as we have defined them. Second, it impugns the integrity of those who participated in the Synods, flying in the face of many historical instances in which, both in the defiance of the Emperor and the Imperial Church, when these entities embraced heretical views, right-believing Bishops stood up in protest, proclaiming at great personal risk the primacy of spiritual prophecy (revealed truth) over Church order. We need but cite the example of St. Maximos the Confessor, who was willing to forsake both his race and the Imperial Church and to align himself with the orthodoxy of Rome in defiance of the Emperor. (Hence, his famous and ironic lamentation, "I love the Romans as being of one faith with me, and I love the Greeks as speaking the same language as me.") None of these things lends support to the common misconception that the Synods adjusted Christian doctrine to suit the whims of the Emperor.

Oddly enough, in spite of perpetuating this misconception of the Œcumenical Synods, we find in the program itself specific evidence that argues against its faulty portrayal. In a short segment dedicated to the Emperor St. Justinian and his faithful wife, St. Theodora, we are told of the conversion of the latter from a decadent and profligate life to the Christian Faith by Monophysites, to which spiritual guides she maintained great devotion throughout her life. Indeed, it is suggested that St. Justinian, too, under her influence, had Monophysite tendencies. These are presumptuous and very distorted portrayals at best, though one can readily admit that St. Justinian and his beloved Empress wished to see the Monophysites brought into the fullness of Orthodoxy and certainly respected the spiritual ardour and ascetic examples of many of those who had fallen to the temptation of this Christological distortion. Yet, as "The Rise of Christianity" acknowledges, the Fathers who were present at the Fifth Œcumenical Synod in Constantinople upheld an orthodox Christology, in spite of the Emperor's personal desire for a resolution of the differences that separated the Orthodox from the Monophysites. More to the point, the Emperor and the Empress, who never confessed anything but a fully Orthodox Christology, submitted to the dictates of the Constantinopolitan Synod and the Faith of Chalcedon, as the narrator of the program is forced to admit: the Emperor followed the lead of the Synod, and not vice versa.

Another disturbing impression with which the program leaves the viewer also centers on the Monophysite controversy and the synodal witness of the Church. The issue of the nature of Christ is central to Christian soteriology, as Professor Russell once more very correctly points out in his comments on this important historical controversy. For us Orthodox, who define salvation as theopoiesis or theosis, the "Divinization" of man through union, by Grace, with Christ, a correct definition of the human and Divine natures of Christ is of the greatest possible significance. How, indeed, would Saints, "Jesus Christs within Jesus Christ," or the Theotokos, who, in giving birth to Christ in the flesh ("somatos" or "somatikos"), represents the birth of Christ in an unbodily way ("asomatos" or "asomatikos") in our hearts when we are transfigured in Christ, witness to the Christocentric core of our Faith, if, indeed, Christ were not Theanthropos, Perfect God and Perfect Man? Unless Christ took upon himself human nature and was Divine in the precise sense and within the precise boundaries set forth by the Christological Synods, the whole of the Hesychastic and, in fact, Eucharistic traditions of the Orthodox Church would collapse.

Yet, in the "Rise of Christianity," despite the wholly Orthodox stand of Professor Russell, a Roman Catholic, a representative of the ultra-modernist Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, Bradley Nassif, tells the viewer that "we scholars" now understand the Christological controversies to have been matters of "terminology." If one understands the Œcumenical Synods as I described them above, the consequence of such a statement would be to deny that the Synods at Chalcedon and Constantinople actually express the genike syneidesis ("the general conscience") of the Church, as we have always believed. Rather, these convocations would be nothing more than theological conferences in which sometimes faulty conclusions, based on the misinterpretation of certain theological nomenclature, led to unnecessary division. In fact, however, one of our most eminent Orthodox scholars, Father Georges Florovsky, points out that not only the Non-Chalcedonians, but many Protestants ("crypto-Nestorians," as he calls them), have estranged themselves from the traditional soteriological foundations of ancient Christianity by way of their Christological errors. And needless to say, outside an ecumenism that has gone beyond the laudable aim of Christian unity and religious tolerance to the simple-mindedness of equating all religious and theological thought, there are few competent scholars who, having read the Patristic arguments surrounding the Christological debates, would be so foolish as to dismiss the controversy as one based on the misunderstanding of language. Such a claim is ludicrous.

Finally, I would like to make a perhaps petty observation about the image of the Byzantine Empire that emerges from "The Rise of Christianity." Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, who was interviewed, as I mentioned above, several times during the program, made a rather astonishing remark about the Byzantine Emperors. He noted that the Emperor was "an Icon of God on earth," ruling over the world in the same way that God rules in Heaven. This is, of course, a popular portrayal of the Byzantine social ideal. But the Emperor was not, as Western scholars often argue, an autocrat of unlimited dimensions. His status, too, cannot be separated from the fact that he was an anointed servant of the Church. And his position as an Icon of the Pantokrator was always understood, by the Byzantines, in the Hesychastic tradition of the Church, in which man, transfigured and transformed by Divine Energy, may never usurp the Essence of the Divine. His Grace’s rather stark words can lead one to a vision of the Byzantine spirit which is neither accurate nor consistent with the theological precepts on which Byzantine political and social policy were in fact based. He conjures up the old bugaboo of caesero-papism, a spectre which is better left in the trash of poor historiography.

This commentary does not, I should add here, pretend to be scholarly. I apologize, too, if there are errors or instances of poor syntax in my comments. These were written hastily and are not, again, meant to present my objections in the style of an academic argument and with scholarly apparatus. They are meant as pious reactions to ideas and thoughts which we Orthodox must confront from within our Faith and with the goal of preserving spiritual images and ideas that facilitate, rather than compromise, the ascent to Christ. On an academic level, or in terms of scholarly speculation, I take no exception to much of what was presented in "The Rise of Christianity." I am, in fact, delighted that Christianity, and especially Orthodox Christianity, as well as such pious and competent scholars as Bishop Kallistos and Professor Russell, have been given exposure in such a well-known medium. This is a cause for tremendous joy.

Webmaster Note: an excellent complement to this article is the author's book, written with Bishop Auxentios of Photiki, entitled The Roman West and the Byzantine East. This can be purchased from the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies or any good Orthodox bookstore.