The Undivided Church of the 1st Millennium – How Undivided?

Some time ago I asked you all for books that “thwack” hit you so hard that it changed how you viewed the world. I want to share one book that has changed by view of Christian history. This would be Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (HarperOne, 2010). The book is a long chronicle of the 5th-century struggles and fights over the doctine of Jesus Christ both God and man. By showing how the camps within the Church relied on a variety of authorities, including Emperors, to rally for their respective positions, Jenkins illustrates how Christian division is not something that began in 1054 A.D. with the Greek and Latin schism (that date is merely symbolic, anyhow). Far before the 11th century, members of the ancient Churches had formed crystallized schisms apart from one another, and all claimed they had a right to do so. The first massive sign of enduring separation was the population of Christians in Assyria/Persia, all who eventually held large populations in the far East, and these were not in communion with the Western Churches, that is, of the Roman Empire (Antioch and further West to Rome). These Christians continued to exist even to this day, and they have struggled to incorporate the Council of Ephesus (431) as binding upon them (for more info, see R&T interview with Qasha Ephraim Ashur Alkhas).

Most notable is the schism that resulted from the Synod of Chalcedon (451) which broke the unity of the Churches especially in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. These Churches, categorized as Miaphysite by general historical reference, are within Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian Orthodoxy (et. al.). Rejecting Chalcedon (451), they are content with counting only 3 Ecumenical Councils (I’m under the impression they also count Ephesus 449, and perhaps one or two more that are off the grid), and continued to exist in massive sections of the East Roman Empire throughout the 1st millennium. Of course, they are a significant portion of Oriental Christianity to this day.

These divisions show that many Christians in the first 5 centuries had different ideas of what is the “final authority” in matters of doctrine and discipline. Of course, we all know there were the bold and absolute claims of the Bishop of Rome. We also know that many felt quite ready to part ways with him. We also know, as already can be seen from above, that many Christians felt quite ready to reject the authority of Ecumenical Councils if they thought they were going against the truth of Apostolic tradition. It would seem many of them were content to simply refer to their best understandings of the tradition over and against Popes, Councils, and even renowned doctors of the faith in their time. The perception of truth was something that was verified *inwardly* in their own minds, and they were happy to tell everyone this was the case.

One impact this had on me is that I couldn’t be so bold and brash to uphold the magisterial Papacy as if this was understood by everyone to be the crystal ball in which perfect truth was revealed, or an oracle that reveals all the right answers on request Nonsense. While it is true that the Papacy was clearly claimed as divine in origin and definitive in doctrine, not everyone thought that breaking communion with the Pope was akin to grabbing a live wire that would ecclesiastically electrocute you from communion with Christ. If they thought this, they couldn’t come close to acting as they did in many instances.

I also couldn’t be so bold and brash to uphold the authority of Ecumenical Councils as if this was understood, as well, to be the crystal ball from which all questions get their divine answer. Too many were willing to thumb their nose at Councils, and we see large swoths of Apostolic churches felt they could do so, regardless of how many Bishops were present, and regardless of whether Emperor and Pope supported it. Again, their perception of the “final authority” was largely subjective to their own interpretations. Luther, therefore, wasn’t the first one to say that both Councils and Popes could err. That’s for sure. Knowing what Council was a true Council was key, and while we may gravitate towards the Papal-Episcopal explanation (which seems right to me), that wasn’t adhered to by everyone. Often times it was the Emperor who procured orthodoxy on behalf of the realm. And so, this has led me to have a much more tempered attitude when speaking with other Christians. Determining the right doctrinal epistemology in light of history is like navigating very rough waters. It can’t be done with rash presupposition and overly exaggerative platitudes. Often enough, getting to the truth involves being willing to listen to alternative views before going on the offense. Now, please don’t mistake me for thinking that there is no place for the Papacy or Ecumenical Councils. I’m simply calling attention to the crooked lines of history that God has, for whatever reason in his divine wisdom, allowed to be carried out.

One part of the book which struck me dead is cited below. Now, we might say that Jenkins here is guilty of a little bit of exaggeration, but, for the most part, it checks out. I wouldn’t go as far as saying precisely what he says, but it is true enough to make one think. Christian division is a tragedy that has been with us for far longer than many who think there was this transparently singular and visible Church until the Latin vs. Byzantine schism, let alone the Protestant reforms. Even between the Latins and the Greeks there were schisms on and off throughout the 1st millennium, all which count up cumulatively (between 324 to 787) to almost half the time, as the late historian L. Duchesne once calculated. This is all something to dwell on, for sure. Before rushing to speak of how the Roman Pope was divinely instituted by God to be the principle of unity until the end of time (a belief I’m committed to defend, however difficult), a moment to meditate on the below is in order.

Despite the theological slogans of the time, Christ was not divided; but the Christian world certainly was, irreparably. Now, Christian divisions as such were not new. At least since the apostles left Jerusalem, at no point in Christian history has one single church plausibly claimed the loyalty of all believers to the exclusion of rival institutions. In the mid-fourth century, perhaps half of all Christians belonged to some group that the Great Church regarded as heretical or schismatic, and new splits continued to form. Viewed historically, a denominationally divided world is not an exceptional circumstance for Christians, but the conventional norm. Dilemmas of interchurch conflict and cooperation go back literally to the foundation of the faith… Already in 550, Christendom was quite as divided as it would be during the great early modern split between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox” (p. 12-13)

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