Sixth Century

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By: Fr. Thomas Hopko
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Sixth Century

Emperor Justinian I and the Monophysites

The sixth century of Orthodox Church history in the East was dominated by the person and policies of the Emperor Justinian 1 (527-65).

Justinian understood the relationship between the Church and the state to be one of unity and cooperation between the priesthood (which “concerns things divine”) and the empire (which “presides over morals”). His goals were to regain the western part of his empire from the barbarian invaders, and to win back the monophysites to the Orthodox faith of the Council of Chalcedon. He hoped to reunite completely the one Church and empire. Justinian accomplished his first goal by the efforts of his armies which were led by the general Belisarius. He failed in his second goal, although his attempts were bold and persistent.

Justinian’s main attempt to win back the monophysites to the Orthodox Church was through the official condemnation of three theologians whom the supporters of the Council of Chalcedon generally favored, but whom the opponents of Chalcedon despised. By imperial decree in 544,and by decision of a council held in 553 (traditionally referred to as the Second Council of Constantinople and the Fifth Ecumenical Council) Justinian formally condemned the so-called Three Chapters. These were the objectionable writings of Theodoret of Cyr and lbas of Edessa, and the writings and the person of Theodore of Mopsuestia.

The condemnation of the Three Chapters displeased the strict supporters of the Chalcedonian Council. They did not agree with the wrong and ambiguous Doctrines of these three theologians, but they did not see any reason for their condemnation. Justinian’s efforts to appease the monophysite opponents of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy through the condemnation of the Three Chapters was ultimately fruitless. The measure did not convince the dissenters to reunite with the Church or the Empire.

The Fifth Ecumenical Council

In addition to rejecting the unorthodox and ambiguous teachings of the Three Chapters, the Fifth Ecumenical Council carefully clarified the Orthodox doctrine of the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ. In a long series of statements, the Council affirmed, without ambiguity, the traditional Orthodox faith that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is “one of the Holy Trinity,” one and the same divine person (hypostasis) Who has united personally (hypostatically) in Himself the two natures of God and man, without fusing them together and without allowing their separation in any way.

The Fifth Council also officially condemned the teachings of Origen (d.254) and his sixth-century disciples who taught and practiced a “spiritualistic” version of Christianity which held many unorthodox doctrines. They taught that Christ was the only created spirit who did not become material through sin; that men’s souls were pre-existent spirits; and that all creation will ultimately be saved through its spiritualization by God in Christ the Savior.

Emperor Justinian I and Reform

Justinian’s reign also saw a concerted attack against the remnants of Hellenistic paganism in the empire. The University of Athens was closed in 529 and exclusively Christian learning and culture was promoted.

Justinian built many Church buildings in the imperial city and throughout the empire, particularly in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and on Mount Sinai in Egypt. His greatest creation was the temple dedicated to Christ the Wisdom of God in Constantinople – the magnificent Church of the HagiaSophia. Iconography, engraving and mosaic work flourished during this time. The basilicas of Ravenna, the seat of the imperial authority in the West during the barbarian conquests, were built.

Liturgical Development

Many liturgical hymns were written, including the Christmas Kontakion and songs by Saint Romanos the Hymnographer (d.510). The emperor, Justinian, himself wrote the hymn Only-begotten Son, which is still sung at the synaxis of the divine liturgies in the Orthodox Church.

The sixth century witnessed a certain establishment and stabilization of liturgical worship throughout the Eastern Christian world, particularly because the liturgical practices of the imperial city of Constantinople were being accepted by other cities throughout the empire. The Church of Constantinople began to use certain liturgical feasts already in use in the Palestinian centers of Church life. These feasts were the Nativity and the Dormition of the Theotokos and the Presentation of Christ to the Temple. It is likely that the feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated in Constantinople by this time.

addition to the festal celebrations of the capital city which spread throughout the empire, such elements as the formal liturgical entrances, and the chanting of the Trisagion and the Creed in the divine liturgy of the Church were added.

The convergence of several factors caused numerous changes in the Church’s liturgical ritual and piety. These factors were the rise of the Constantinopolitan Church as the model for other churches; the development of the imperial churchly ritual; the appearance of the mystical theology of the writings under the name of Dionysius the Aeropagite; and the attempts of the imperial powers to pacify the monophysites.

At this time the practices of the Church of Constantinople were combined with the original Jewish-Christian worship of the early Church, the rule of prayer which had developed in the Christian monasteries, and the liturgical practices of the Church in Jerusalem, to form the first great synthesis of liturgical worship in Orthodox history.

Five Patriarchates

In the sixth century, Constantinople, at least in the minds of Eastern Christians, was firmly established as the primary see in the Christian pentarchy, which Justinian called the “five senses of the universe”: Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The title ecumenical was given to all the chief offices in the imperial city. When John the Faster (528-95), the bishop of Constantinople, assumed the title of ecumenical patriarchate, the designation was forcefully opposed by Pope Saint Gregory the Great of Rome (590-604) as unbecoming of a Christian pastor. It is this same Saint Gregory whose name is traditionally connected with the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts which the Orthodox celebrateon the weekdays of Great Lent.

The West

In the West, in addition to Saint Gregory, the bishop of Rome who was a theologian and pastor of saintly reputation, was Saint Benedict of Nursia (c.480-542) whose monastic disciples were to have great influence on the subsequent history of the Western Church. Among the saints of this century, mention must be made of Saint Columba and Saint Augustine of Canterbury, the contemporaries of Saint Gregory. These men were the most famous of the missionaries in Western Europe, England, and Ireland who labored among the barbarian tribes.

In Spain, in the sixth century, the word filioque was added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This action, which was done to stress the divinity of Christ to the invading barbarians – who were Arians – was destined to have grave consequences in later Church history