The Foundations of Medieval Christianity Ecumenical Councils

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The Foundations of Medieval Christianity

  • Ecumenical Councils

Imperial Structure: Tetrarchy

  • Augustus of the East: Diocletian (285-305)

    • Ceasar of the East: Galerius (293-311)
  • Augustus of the West:

  • Maximian (292-305)

    • Ceasar of the West: Constantinus (293-306)

 Divisions of the Roman Empire under Diocletian  

  • Diocletian divided the empire into 4 prefectures and 17 dioceses.

Diocletian Persecution

  • Persecutes Christians for the sake of state unity.

  • The persecution continued in the East until 311.

  • Four Stages:

    • All military personnel must sacrifice to the gods (300)
    • All churches to be destroyed and Scriptures burned (303)
    • All clergy arrested (303)
    • All citizens to offer sacrifices (304)

Constantine (306-337)

  • Born in Dacia (274), mother was Christian but father pagan.

  • Served under Galerius in 303.

  • Father (Constantinus) died in Britain in 306 and the army elected Constantine as his replacement.

  • Galerius died in 311 and the struggle for imperial power in the ensued.

“Conversion” of Constantine

  • Constantine crossed the Alps and moved toward Rome in 312 for the Battle of Milvian Bridge near Rome against Maxentius.

  • Vision: cross above the sun with the words “by this sign you will conquer” (in hoc signo vinces)

  • Dream: Christ commanded him to draw the Chi-Ro on the shields of his soldiers.

Friend of Christianity

  • After victory, he was convinced Christ was a real power and decided to show the “peace of Christ.”

  • He declared Christianity a legal religion with the Edict of Milan (313) and by 323 had united the Empire under one Emperor.

  • Favored Christianity

    • Built Churches
    • Makes Sunday a day of worship
    • Initiates Christmas as festival
    • Ordered new copies of the Bible
    • Gave bishops a rank equal to Senators
    • Excluded churches and clergy from
    • taxation

New Capital

  • During the Tetrarchy of 305, the four capitals were Trier, Milan, Thessaloniki, and Nicomedia.

  • In 330, Constantine established his new capital in the NW corner of Asia Minor and called it Constantinople (at Byzantium). Indeed, he left Rome in 324 never to return.

  • It was built on seven hills (like Rome) with a forum, hippodrome, Senate and its people received subsidized grain and paid no taxes. Unlike Rome, it was a Christian capital with few traces of paganism.

  • He also began the construction of a church in the city which would become known as the Hagia Sophia. 2/3 of the world’s wealth was said to be in Constantinople (originally name “New Rome”).

Rome and Christianity

  • Edict of Milan (312): Christianity is tolerated.

  • Constantine presided over the first Christian Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325).

  • Successive emperors were sometimes Arian (such as Constantine’s son Constantius), sometimes Trinitarians. They often used violence to coerce unity.

  • The Emperors are now all Christian, except one (Julian the Apostate, 361-63).

  • Theodosius I (Trinitarian) made Christianity the compulsory religion of state employees in 389, outlawed paganism in 391, and declared Christianity the only legal religion in 395.

Rome and the Church

  • The church (especially the clergy, specifically the bishops) grew in wealth and power due to the privileges of the state.

  • The influx of “pagans” into the church created new problems—moving from 10% of the population in 300 to probably 60% of the population in 400.

  • Even the Emperor Theodosius was forced to do “public penance” for his massacre 1000s in Thessalonica in 389.

Rome’s New Problem (360-390s)

  • The “Barbarian” tribes (the Germanic tribes), particularly the Goths, admired the Romans.

  • They sought alliances (protection from the Huns), trade and participation in Roman civilization.

  • The Romans needed alliances to defeat the Huns who were invading across Hungary, Northern Italy and into Gaul.

Rome and the Goths

  • Running from the Huns, the Goths sought a Roman alliance in 360s.

  • Rome regarded them as a buffer between themselves and the Huns, but the Romans exploited and enslaved them.

  • At the battle of Adrianpole (379), the Emperor Valens was killed and the Goths overran the Empire.

Theodosius, Last Unified Emperor (379-391)

  • After the death of Valens (378), Theodosius made peace with the Goths.

  • After Theodosius’ death in 395, the empire was divided between east and west.

  • Honorius in the West (395-423) and Arcadius (395-408) in the East.

  • Honorius moved the Western capital to Ravenna in 401.

Germanic Invasions

The Sack of Rome (410)

  • Honorius drove the Goths out of Greece twice.

  • However, he could not prevent Alaric of the Goths from moving through Italy and sacking Rome in 410 (the first time in 800 years).

Leo the Great of Rome

  • Leo was the Bishop of Rome during the time of many Germanic incursions (440-461).

  • He appropriated the title of “Pontifex Maximus” and claimed to be the ecumenical bishop of the church. Claimed to be the successor of Peter—the ruler of the “catholic church.”

  • He met with Attila the Hun and persuaded him to forego sacking Rome (through a bribe).

  • With the loss of imperial power in Italy, especially Rome, Leo and subsequent Bishops of Rome became the most powerful leaders in the West.

The Fall of the Roman West

  • The Western empire went through a succession of generals as emperors. They all failed to stop the incursions.

  • Odovacar, a Goth, took over the remains of the Western empire in Italy in 476 from the 12-year old emperor, Romulus Augustulus.

Europe Under the Germanic Tribes

Justinian (527-565)

  • Sought to re-establish the Roman Empire—for both imperial and theological reasons.

  • Reconquered parts of Spain (Visigoths), Africa (Vandals) and Italy (Ostrogoths) from the “Barbaric” kingdoms.

  • Through diplomacy and defense (600 forts in the Balkans), the eastern empire reached the zenith of its greatness.

Empire Renewed

  • Justinian restored the Empire to the practical dimensions of Theodosius I in 395 except for much of Spain and France. As such, he was the last “Roman Emperor” of the united Empire.

Justinian, State and Church

  • Justinian asserted the right of Emperor to determine church theology and force acceptance. He was as close an example of Caesaropapism as we have in history. Ultimately, it was competitive but usually more like joint spheres of influence in which both have influence in the other’s concern. The Emperor (autocrator), however, represented Christ (pantocrator).

  • Justinian codified and reformed the tax and legal codes of the Empire, called “Justinian Code”. These formed the basis of future law reform in the West (12th century). They were based on previous Roman jurisprudence, imperial edicts, and “Institutes” (a handbook for the use of law students).

  • He closed the schools of Plato and Aristotle in Athens in 529 which signaled the end of Paganism and end of the ancient world.

Map of Post-Justinian Empire, ca. 700

The Arian Controversy (321-325)

  • Arius – affirmed there was a time when the Logos did not exist

  • Alexander – the bishop of Alexandria who deposed Arius for his views.

  • Athanasius – the supporter and major theological defender of Alexander.

  • Eusebius of Nicomedia – the bishop who supported Arius and was a councilor of Emperor Constantine.

Divided Christianity

  • Arians

  • Leader: Arius

  • Taught that there was a time when the Son did not exist.

  • Sought to preserve the monarchy of the Father who alone is true God.

  • Holy Spirit is a power, energy rather than a person.

The Council of Nicea (325)

  • Called and overseen by Constantine in order to preserve unity within the church (and thus his Empire).

  • About 250 of the 1800 bishops in the Empire attended.

  • All but two signed the resultant “creed” though some were hesitant.

  • Constantine himself insisted on the language of homoousia (“same substance”) rather than homoiousia (“like substance”).

Council of Nicea, 325 AD

  • We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten , not made, being of one substance (homoousia) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence from the Father or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion--all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

Nicea and the Roman Bishop

  • The Council organized the structure of the church in parallel with the Empire using the same designations and territorial outlines.

  • The Council recognized four chief bishops: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome.

  • The Bishop of Rome was recognized as first among equals.

The Ascendancy of Arianism

  • After Constantine was persuaded to accept an ambiguous statement from Arius, Athanasius was exiled or went into hiding five times over the next forty years.

  • Constantius became the sole ruler of the Empire in 353 and supported Arianism. Niceans were persecuted.

  • Even some Western bishops bowed to the will of Constantinus who declared “my will is the canon for you.” Pope Liberius and others were exiled, and Athanasius stood alone against the “Arian world” (having gone into hiding in the deserts of Egypt).

  • In response, some bishops met in council at Constantinople in 360 and declared that the “Son is like the Father” (homoousia).

  • During the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363), without imperial pressure the church began to gravitate more toward the Nicean position once again.

Triumph of Nicea

  • Valentian became emperor in 363 over the West and appointed his brother Valens (363-378) emperor over the East.

  • This was the time of the Cappodocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa.

  • Though Valens supported the Arian party, the Cappodocians persuaded the church to reaffirm the Nicean Creed.

  • When Theodosius became Emperor in 379, he reaffirmed the Nicean creed and called the Council of Constantinople of 381. This reaffirmed Nicea.

Rome, Arianism and the East

  • Pope Julius of Rome in 340 supported the Nicene creed and sided with Athanasius. He called for a council in Rome to decide the question. Eastern bishops rejected the call.

  • Julius responded: “Do you not know that the custom is that we should be written to first, and that judgment is rendered here? What I write you and what I say we received from the blessed Apostle Peter.”

Council of Constantinople, 381

  • And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver-of-Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And in one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Ecclesial Jurisdiction

  • Canon #3: “The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.

  • Leo I and papal legates at the later council of Chalcedon (451) rejected the reordering of the Nicean canon. Pope Damascus I was not invited to Constantinople for the council in 381.

  • The Eastern Church has always recognized the Bishop of Rome as “first among equals” but does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome in its own jurisdiction.

Nestorian Controversy (428-431)

  • Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, refused to call Mary by the title of theotokos (“Mother of God”).

  • Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, argued that since Christ is one person united to God and humanity Mary is the “bearer of God”.

  • Rome sided with Cyril.

  • Nestorius persuaded Theodosius II to call an ecumenical council in Ephesus. The Council divided into two parties: Cyril vs. Nestorius.

Council of Ephesus (431)

  • 1: If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh (as it is written, "The Word was made flesh"): let him be anathema.

  • 2: If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God the Father is united hypostatically to flesh, and that with that flesh of his own, he is one only Christ both God and man at the same time: let him be anathema.

  • 11: Whosoever shall not confess that the flesh of the Lord gives life and that it pertains to the Word of God the Father as his very own, but shall pretend that it belongs to another person who is united to him [i.e., the Word] only according to honor, and who has served as a dwelling for the divinity; and shall not rather confess, as we say, that that flesh gives life because it is that of the Word who gives life to all: let him be anathema.

Harmony Restored

  • Problem: Cyril had affirmed “one nature of God the Word Incarnate.” To John of Antioch this seemed to confuse the divine and human natures.

  • In 432 representatives from Antioch met with Cyril in Alexandria. They emerged with a “formula of union” (433).

Formula of Union (433)

  • We confess, then, our lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the virgin, according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy virgin to be the mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her. As to the evangelical and apostolic expressions about the Lord, we know that theologians treat some in common as of one person and distinguish others as of two natures, and interpret the god-befitting ones in connection with the godhead of Christ and the lowly ones with his humanity.

Monophysite Controversy (433-451)

  • Cyril’s acceptance of the “Formula of Union” upset some in Alexandria who preferred the “one nature” (mia physis) formula.

  • Upon Cyril’s death, this party emerged in rebellion against the “Formula of Union” led by Bishop Dioscurus.

  • Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, condemned Eutyches (a monophysite) and was supported by Pope Leo I of Rome who wrote a letter (Tome) against monophysitism.

  • Theodosius called a council in Ephesus (“robber synod”) in 449 which involved violent action by monks against Flavian (who was beaten, deposed and exiled).

  • Emperor Marcian called another council in 451 at the request of Leo I in Chalcedon near Constantinople. The Council decided against monophysitism.

Council of Chalcedon (451)

  • Following the holy Fathers we teach with one voice that the Son and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same, that he is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before the worlds according to his Godhead; but in these last days for us men and for our salvation born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to his manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably united, and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old time have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers hath delivered to us.

Leo’s Authority

  • Leo I (the Great) had written a letter to the council of Ephesus (449) declaring his Christological views.

  • According to tradition, after Leo’s letter had been read to Chalcedon, the 630 bishops and 4 papal legates present exclaimed unanimously, "What Leo believes we all believe, anathema to him who believes anything else. Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo."

  • His “Tome” (letter) was included as part of the official documents of Chalcedon.

Constantinople and Chalcedon

  • The Council (451) recognized Constantinople as a patriarchate (along with Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem).

  • Its jurisdiction include Asia Minor, Pontus, Thrace and all northern unconverted regions (ultimately to include Russia).

  • It was also recognized as “first among equals” in the east and given appellate authority from the other sees.


  • Chalcedon did not settle the problem. Monophysite and Chalcedonian bishops were elected in various sees (sometimes two in one see).

  • When the Chalcedonian bishop of Alexandria appealed to Pope Felix III in 484 to secure the support against Acacius, Bishop of Constantinople, Acacius refused to recognize Felix III. Pope Felix III then deposed and excommunicated Acacius.

    • This was the first formal split between West and East.
    • It ended in 518 when a Chalcedonian bishop was installed in Constantinople.
  • Ultimately Syrian and Egyptian (Coptic) churches rejected Chalcedon and affirmed monophysitism.

Council of Constantinople II (553)

  • 1: If anyone shall not confess that the nature or essence of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is one, as also the force and the power; [if anyone does not confess] a consubstantial Trinity, one Godhead to be worshipped in three subsistences or Persons: let him be anathema. For there is but one God even the Father of whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom are all things, and one Holy Spirit in whom are all things.

  • 2: If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God and always a virgin, and born of her: let him be anathema.

  • 4: If anyone shall say that the union of the Word of God to man was only according to grace or energy, or dignity, or equality of honor, or authority, or relation, or effect, or power, or according to good pleasure in this sense that God the Word was pleased with a man, that is to say, that he loved him for his own sake…let him be anathema.

Council of Constantinople III (680)

  • …one and the same Christ our Lord the only-begotten Son of two natures un-confusedly, unchangeably, inseparably indivisibly to be recognized, the peculiarities of neither nature being lost by the union but rather the proprieties of each nature being preserved, concurring in one Person and in one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons but one and the same only-begotten Son of God, the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, according as the Prophets of old have taught us and as our Lord Jesus Christ himself hath instructed us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers hath delivered to us; defining all this we likewise declare that in him are two natural wills and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will…. For as his most holy and immaculate animated flesh was not destroyed because it was deified but continued in its own state and nature, so also his human will, although deified, was not suppressed, but was rather preserved according to the saying of Gregory Theologus: "His will [i.e., the Saviour's] is not contrary to God but altogether deified."

Pope Innocent I (401-417)

  • The western Emperor Honorius had moved his government to Ravenna.

  • Innocent I was Pope when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410.

  • Innocent I took the opportunity to extend his authority in both political and theological contexts.

    • He confirmed the decisions of the North African churches against Pelagianism as he sided with Augustine.
    • He took on political and judicial functions in the city of Rome, especially the absence of imperial authority.

Pope Leo I (the Great), 440-461

  • Leo centralized western ecclesial government and located juridical power in Rome.

  • Leo also led the city politically and was praised for dissuading Attila the Hun from sacking Rome in 452.

  • Stressed the priority of Rome in the universal government of the church, especially as he sought to maintain jurisdiction over Illyricum.

  • Leo is sometimes regarded as the “first Roman Pope” since he stressed his universal responsibility for the church based on Petrine supremacy and his rights as the successor of Peter.

Christian Meeting Places

  • In the New Testament, the meeting place was primarily domestic—in homes.

  • The Jerusalem church met in the temple for teaching and prayer, and also met in their homes for breaking bread.

  • The shift from domestic meeting place to a dedicated meeting facility had significant impact on the nature of Christianity.

Dura Europos: Church Plan

The Roman Basilica

  • Romans emphasized law and order.

  • Their law courts were not only places for legal proceedings but were centers of civic and public activities. They functioned sometimes as “town meeting” halls under the guidance of the government.

  • The basilica form was adopted by Christians as the best architecture suited for church buildings (rather than temples).

The Roman Basilica

Basilica as Church Building

  • A basilica was a “Roman town hall” derived from a Greek word which means “belonging to the king.”

  • The apse was the authority seat in the hall where the council or chairperson would sit.

  • The bishop’s chair was called a throne (cathedra) because the Greek word also referred to a teacher’s seat and not only to royalty.

St. John Lateran

Santa Maria Maggiore

Buildings and the Arts

  • Just as Roman public buildings were decorated with art, so church buildings were decorated with frescos and mosaics.

  • The earliest known Christian mosaic was found beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1940s—Jesus is pictured in a gold mosaic as the sun-god, Helios.

  • Frescos were more common as mosaics were expensive. Most of these are lost to us due to the Germanic settling of the West but frescos were revived in the Renaissance period.

Earliest Christian Mosaic, ca. 300

  • Earliest known Christian mosaic was found beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1940s—Jesus is pictured in a gold mosaic as the sun-god, Helios.

Building Churches

  • Europe saw a “church building” craze in the High Medieval Period.

  • In 1050-1350 France alone, 80 cathedrals, 500 large churches and 10,000+ parish churches were erected.

  • As Germanic Europe became Christian Europe, the church building was a cultural as well as a religious symbol. Churches functioned as “civic centers” in the cities and thus were also a source of civic pride.

Ralph Glaber, monk, ca. 1050

  • “Shortly after the year 1000, all Christian peoples were seized with a great desire to outdo one another in magnificence. It was as if the very world had shaken itself, and, casting off her old garments, was clothing herself everywhere in a white robe of churches.”

Romanesque Style

  • Where: Western Europe

  • When: 1000-1200

  • Major Building Form: Churches, Castles

Romanesque Style

  • Plan: cruciform (Latin Cross), compartmentalized on a basilica plan

  • Support: sturdy piers, thick walls with small windows

  • Hallmark: rounded arches, barrel vault

  • Décor: stone sculpture

Romanesque Additions

  • The pier (an upright support generally square, or rectangular in plan) is a better solution for masonry walls, than the column. Columns are subsequently replaced by piers, or transformed to better support the masonry arches.

  • The portal as a church entrance was introduced with the Romanesque style.

Piers at Saint-Saturnin Auvergne,France

Church of St. Trophime, Arles, France (12th century)

Romanesque Style

  • Effect: Massive, segmented

  • Interior: dimly lit by small windows and candles/lamps around the altar.

  • Inspiration: Roman construction (basilica plan, rounded arches, vaulted ceilings, columns)

  • Goal: To accommodate pilgrims; to express awe as eyes are drawn to the space above the ambulatory with small windows of light illuminating the altar.

St. Andrew’s Church, Krakow (1079)

St. Pantaleon, Cologne, Germany (1100)

Duomo and Bell Tower, Pisa, Italy

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