CHURCH HISTORY: AD 500 thru AD 700
NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.
So this (mostly) Gentile Christian empire finishes their councils, and Rome falls. The Roman Empire shifts from an imperial political state to what some would call the “Holy Roman Empire” and a[n imperial] religious state. To be sure, all of these labels are unfair to use, since the ancient world knew nothing about the separation of church and state, and to insinuate that the Roman empire of the Caesars was not religious would be ludicrous. However, I hope the reader understands my point: we shift from Emperors to Popes, from Rome to Christendom.
This newly established kingdom, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire, played its role in the history and growth of Christianity. It indeed had some bright, shining moments, but none of this could cover up some of the darker problems of the era.
Toward the beginning of Byzantine history, Justinian expanded their rule to its largest extent in history. This chapter is full of dark stories of Christian faith combined with the empire’s sword. People were forced to affirm holy creeds and Christian doctrines. If they did not, they were offered the opportunity to convert. If they refused, they were persecuted, sanctioned, or even executed. Christianity’s anti-semitic history continued in this era; there were corners (sometimes very large corners) of the empire where we would beat or kill Jews who did not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.
How things change when you find yourself at the handle end of the sword.
We could (and maybe should) go on and on about this, but that paragraph will serve to sum up the darker chapters of this history for now. There were also some important developments in the Christian faith, sometimes connected and sometimes disconnected from the imperial efforts of the Byzantines.
Again, since we had cut the Christian faith away from from our Jewish heritage, we lost contact with a faith — and more importantly a practice — that had defined God’s people for centuries and centuries. Having spent over a century perfecting our doctrine and theology (something Gentiles have been very, very concerned with) and focusing on orthodoxy (right belief), we now needed to ask questions about orthopraxy (right practice).
Since Gentile Christians did not believe in following Torah, they were missing the “playbook” on what it meant to walk the path of faith. (In fact, Augustine had written a horrible edict commanding the African Christians not to even entertain Jewish relationships. He penned a seven-point document that forbade doing business with Jews and lighting candles for Sabbath, in addition to commanding the consumption of ham on Easter, etc.)
In this setting, the monastic movements shined. While many flippantly critique the monastic movements as being secluded and isolated (somewhat reminiscent of the Essenes), we owe much of what is good in our Christian faith to their faithfulness. They were committed to trying to preserve the physical Text, becoming people of service (they continued the work of what we would call hospitals and clinics), and being devoted to their faith. When we needed to know what it meant to create space for God in this new world, these movements helped many spiritually blind folks see. They were experts in prayer and discipline, corporate spiritual practices, and service. Because they struggled with isolationism, great thinkers like Gregory of Nissa and Basil taught some very important things about community.
As history turned the corner into the seventh century, Gregory the Great (who would be the pope) came along and became what some have referred to as the father of medieval spirituality. Gregory brought the world of Christendom its first large-scale taste of liturgy (church order) through things like Gregorian Chant and a public, corporate practice of worship — many elements of which can still be found in Catholic mass today.
While there are always ways to look at history through overly rosy lenses or overly critical lenses, it’s important to note the things this era brought us. Unfortunately, this period of history did very, very little to undo the imperial abuses of Christian freedom; in fact, quite to the contrary, they only systematized the chronic power struggle that had (and would) ruin the trajectory of our Christian story.
However, the next century would be spent learning to create space for a God we (maybe) largely misunderstood. I am a firm believer that this allowed God to continue to work through the story of Christianity, in spite of itself. As God told the Hebrews in the Tanakh more than once, there is always a remnant. There will always be a group of people who are trying to follow the Creator to the absolute best of their ability. And because of that — be them Jews, Christians, or pagans — God will always be looking for partners.
But we will continue to have a hard time getting along, and it won’t be long before we find more problems to argue about in our next chapter of history.
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