Daily Reading 1/12/2021

For the past several months, ever since the Amy Coney Barrett nomination, I’ve been posting a lot about how socially and politically local issues become life-or-death matters of Christian identity for many practicing Christians. This is going to be a recurrent theme in my upcoming posts, too, because I’ll be reviewing books like Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies. Today, I simply want to point out some examples of how local and particular matters can transform into apparently catholic and orthodox questions.

I’m reading through Jaroslav Pelikan’s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine at a glacial pace, jumping around from volume to volume and chapter to chapter to chapter as the mood strikes me. Today I’m reading the fourth chapter, “The Challenge of the Latin Church,” of the second volume, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600 – 1700). In this chapter, Pelikan laid out the thousands of tiny fractures that eventually led to the schism between East and West, although he admitted that “we cannot…date the schism with any precision” (echoing David Bentley Hart’s controversial assertion that the schism never really happened, at least not as a single, identifiable event). Chief among these fractures was the incursion of Roman imperial and political institutions into the Balkans and other Slavic lands, where, as Christianity spread along with Roman political power, the question of ecclesiastic authority between Old Rome (Rome) and New Roman (Constantinople) invariably arose. In most of these cases, the difference was split: the Latins got Moravia, for instance, while the Greeks got Bulgaria (and for that reason today Prague has Catholic cathedrals while Sofia is home to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church). The theological commitments of entire nations were sealed by political compromises.

Ceramic icon of St. Theodor, Sofia, Bulgaria, ca. AD 900

Some of the differences that began emerging between East and West in the first millennium bear striking familiarity with differences that exist between Christian denominations today. Look at this passage from Pelikan concerning a meeting the Byzantine emperor and Liutprand of Cremona (in present-day Lombardy) in AD 968, where the two discussed the difference between Saxon Christianity and the Christianity of the East:

…the emperor remarked that the “Saxons” had a naïve faith, implying that they were therefore immature in their attitude to matters of doctrine and theology. Liutprand replied: “I, too, agree with you when you say that the faith of the Saxons is young; for faith in Christ is always young, and never old, among those for whom works follow faith. But here [in Byzantium] faith is not young but old, here where works do not accompany faith, but where [faith] is despised on account of its age, like a worn-out garment.”

Ouch. But aren’t these attitudes all-too-familiar to contemporary Americans, who have heard adherents of “young” faiths such as Evangelical Pentecostalism accuse adherents of “old” faiths such as mainline Protestantism and Catholicism of lacking “life,” or even the presence of the Spirit, in their worship? Then there is the role of language: the Greeks repeatedly disparage the Latins for their lack of Greek, although they (the Greeks) sometimes could not read Latin diplomatic missives because no one in the courts of Constantinople could be found who read Latin.

I intend none of this to downplay the very real and theologically profound differences between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism. But the more one reads of the schism, the more one finds that small, local disunities, allowed to fester with time, compounded and became a gulf across centuries. By AD 1135, Anselm of Havelberg, discussing the theological differences between East and West with Nicetas of Nicomedia, admitted that he would not “despise or reject the gift of the Holy Spirit conferred on any faithful Christian, whether he be a Greek or a Latin or a member of any other nation.” Nicetas replied, somewhat stunned, “It seems to me that I have found a Latin man who is truly catholic. Would that such Latins had come to us at other times!”

Describing the differences that led to the East-West schism for a Westernized, Protestantized American audience is extremely difficult. The differences between the two can seem so inconsequential. To read some Orthodox accounts, the majority of Catholic heterodoxy seemed to occur after the schism, in the High-to-Late Middle Ages, leaving one to wonder what, exactly, led to the initial schism. I do not believe one needs to be a historical revisionist to assert that the schism, though touching on major issues such as the authority of the pope or the language of the creed, ultimately resulted from differences of political governance, culture, and language. It all seems so petty in retrospect, until we consider how those very same issues threaten Christian unity today. Many of the differences between us that feel so natural and essential are not, against the tapestry of Christian doctrine and tradition, ultimately all that important.

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