Orthodox Survival Course
St. Irene Orthodox Church
Rochester Hills, Michigan
Class 2 – A.D. 313 – 1054, The Church of the Romans: Overview
…the whole world is like one well-ordered and united family. For our Emperor, invested as he is with the semblance of heavenly sovereignty, directs his gaze above and frames his earthly government according to the pattern of the divine original, finding strength in its conformity to the monarchy of God.”– Eusebius of Caesaria, Oration in Praise of Constantine (English translation, 1845, p. 303), quoted by Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (Ignatius Press reprint 2008, p. 140)
A [Western] Christian of the fourth or fifth century would have felt less bewildered by the forms of piety current in the 11th century than his counterpart of the 11th century in the forms of the 12th. The great break occurred in the transition period from the one to the other century. This change took place only in the West where, sometime between the end of the 11th and the end of the 12th century, everything was somehow transformed. This profound alteration of view did not take place in the East, where, in some respects, Christian matters are still today what they were then – and what they were in the West before the end of the 11th century.-Yves Congar, O.P., After Nine Hundred Years (Fordham University Press, 1959, p. 39), quoted by Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), in the introduction to his translation of the Vita Patrum of St. Gregory of Tours (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988, p. 70)
Introduction: The two quotes above refer to the beginning and the end, respectively, of the period we will now study, the seven hundred years from the Triumph of the Church under St. Constantine to the eleventh century. This is sometimes called the time of the “Undivided Church,” not that the Church Herself can actually be divided, but because this was the period prior to the great schism when the entire Western Church fell away from Orthodoxy. Of course, even during this period, there were heresies and schisms, but they were always caused by very specific doctrinal disagreements or power struggles.
The significance of the West’s departure from Orthodoxy in the “middle ages” is much greater and deeper than any specific dogmatic disagreement – it was caused by the West’s abandoning the unified vision they shared with the East for the first thousand years and adopting an entirely different approach to understanding and experiencing Who God is, what spiritual life is, what sanctity is, and what the Church is. This fundamental shift in spiritual matters, in turn, created a new, distinctly non-Orthodox culture and civilization, which is the direct predecessor of the present “world culture,” to which we all now belong, to a greater or lesser extent, whether we like it or not, though we are Orthodox Christians. Thus to understand how we got to where we are today, we need to understand what Orthodoxy is, how the West fell away from Orthodoxy and created this new civilization based on non-Orthodox principles, and how this led directly to modern and post-modern society.
Our first step, then, must be to study the Orthodox life and vision that both the Greek and the Latin halves of the Roman Empire had in common, until the Latin West developed a radically different religious and philosophical outlook. Our next several classes, then, will be about the fundamental features of this life and this vision. Tonight’s class is an overview of what we will be discussing in this section of our course.
The Church of the Romans
In the doxastikon for Vespers of the Nativity, the hymnographer (St. Kassiane) writes of the providence of God in bringing “all the nations” under the rule of Caesar precisely in time for the birth of the Lord. All of the Fathers agree that the Lord worked in history (our theme again!) to bring this about, in order to facilitate the spread of the Gospel and to create a society prepared for unity in Christ. Then, with the Triumph of the Church under St. Constantine and his successors, not only did the unity of the Roman state and civilization facilitate the spread of the Gospel, but actually gave protection to the Church and proactively advanced her interests. Without deifying or idolizing Greco-Roman civilization, we have to recognize that the synthesis of Biblical Faith, Hellenic culture, and Roman rule was the will of God, and that this synthesis became the standard for all time.
It was precisely when the West began to depart from this fully formed synthesis to create radically (that is, “at root”) new expressions of Church life that the schism occurred. Then, in the centuries following the schism, adrift from its moorings in the authentically Catholic and authentically Roman Church and culture, the West fell into an endless process of creating new thought forms, cultural expressions, and modes of life farther and farther away from the authentic Faith and God-grounded philosophical outlook, and, moreover, following the “Reformation,” not in a united fashion, but with rapid and constantly increasing fragmentation.
This great era which followed the Triumph of the Church, the age of the Ecumenical Councils, was the period in which the Church and the culture it created became fully developed and articulated. This is not to say that this period was holier or “better” than the Early Church, but rather that the features of Orthodoxy can be more easily studied in this period, because the expressions of the Faith – liturgical, theological, artistic, administrative, etc. – matured and became fully developed, and we have a clear record of them. It is like the life of a tree – It grows for a time and then becomes mature, and after that there is little significant change. By the end of the ninth century, the expressions of Orthodox Faith and culture were comprehensively, intensively, and completely developed, and since then there has been little or no significant change, and there cannot be, because to make significant changes would be to derogate from organic perfection for the sake of a superfluous, spurious – and therefore pernicious – “creativity.”
The aspects under which we will study this fully articulated Orthodoxy are 1. Spiritual life and sanctity, 2. The method of theology and the place of philosophy, 3. Sacred art, 4. Ecclesiology, and 5. Church and State.
- Spiritual Life and Sanctity: Orthodox culture, Orthodox civilization was created by Orthodox saints. Every culture ultimately has religious roots – people shape the world around them according to their concept of the meaning and purpose of life. In the case of Orthodoxy, God’s grace, working through the saints, formed every aspect of culture: family life, social mores, the life of the state, art, architecture, etc. What authentic spiritual life, or, to put it another way, the process of becoming a saint, is, is at the very root of culture itself. We will review, briefly, the Orthodox teaching on how man is constituted to relate to God, how this happens authentically, and therefore what sanctity is.
- The method of theology and the place of philosophy: How did the great Fathers theologize? This flows naturally from the topic of spiritual life, because Orthodox theology is the articulation of the experience of the saints. What does it mean to have an “empirical” or “experiential” theology as opposed to an “academic” or “scholastic” theology, or, to put it another way, what does it mean to have an undeceived spiritual life that enables one to have undeceived theology? What does theology become apart from authentic experience?
- Sacred art: This is one of the most powerful aspects under which to study what Orthodoxy is, for the art and architecture of the Church reveal Her life in a non-verbal, direct way that has an instant impact on the whole person. We will discuss what sacred art is and what secular art is, and look at examples of the exemplary sacred art of the Church and, later, at the gradually more and more secular religious art of the post-Orthodox Western Christianity.
- Ecclesiology: What, after all, is the Church? Is She primarily an organism or an organization? Are these two aspects of the Church distinct? How does the vision of what the Church is affect one’s vision of what society is? This last questions leads us to the topic of Church and state.
5. Church and State: What is the Orthodox vision? Should Church and State be completely identified? Totally separated? What is the Orthodox concept of symphonia? Of the vocation of the Emperor or King? Of the respective duties and sphere of authority of the earthly ruler and the Church’s hierarchy? How does this affect the development of society?
In our next class, we will discuss topic #1, the spiritual life and the concept of sanctity.
You can listen to an audio recording of this class at