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The Church of Imperial Byzantium
Byzantine Christianity about AD 1000
Not without reason has Byzantium been called 'the image of the heavenly Jerusalem'. Religion entered into every aspect of Byzantine life. Byzantine holidays were religious festivals; the races which took place in the Circus began with the singing of hymns; and 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.'
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." 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 humans, but it believes that these imperfect humans 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 people confidently turned when in trouble. The concern for the poor and oppressed which John Chrysostom displayed is found in many others. St John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria (died 619), for example, devoted all the wealth of his see to helping those whom he called 'my brothers and sisters, the poor'. When his own resources failed, he appealed to others: 'He used to say,' a contemporary recorded, 'that if, without ill-will, someone were to strip the rich right down to their shirts in order to give to the poor, he would do no wrong.'' 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.' The Church in the Byzantine Empire did not overlook its social obligations, and one of its principal functions was charitable work.
At the beginning of the 2nd millennium of Christian history, the church of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, was at the peak of its world influence and power. Neither Rome, which had become a provincial town and its church an instrument in the hands of political interests, nor Europe under the Carolingian and Ottonian dynasties could really compete with Byzantium as centres of Christian civilization. The Byzantine emperors of the Macedonian dynasty had extended the frontiers of the empire from Mesopotamia to Naples (in Italy) and from the Danube River (in central Europe) to Palestine. The church of Constantinople not only enjoyed a parallel expansion but also extended its missionary penetration, much beyond the political frontiers of the empire, to Russia and the Caucasus.