CHURCH HISTORY: AD 700 thru AD 1000
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.
The next item that leads to major disagreement and arguments in the Byzantine Church is the use of images and icons. Often referred to as the Iconoclastic Controversy, this period of history would eventually put an end to the Byzantine period (at least as it is concerned with the papacy and the Holy Roman Church; some would extend the Byzantine Empire all the way to the Ottoman period, but I don’t find this useful for our purposes here).
The controversy stemmed from a major difference in mindsets — the eastern worldview versus the western worldview. If you’ve never heard of this discussion before, you could listen to my podcast on it. The two worlds interact with information and experiences in a completely different way. Neither one is more right or more wrong — they are simply different. As the Greeks rose to power and the western world came to dominate Europe and eventually spread over the globe, this controversy was bound to happen.
The relevant difference between the worlds for our conversation here is how they communicate truth. The westerner communicates truth with words, definitions, and prose. One can see this world at work clearly in the early stages of Christendom as we form creeds and doctrinal statements to be circulated throughout the empire. However, there is another side of the world that communicates truth using pictures and images. This is the eastern world of the Bible. In the world of the Bible, we had preserved the Text in a culture that was committing it to memory, and we had an education system that was dedicated to the preservation of the Text. When one maintained the Text and used images to convey its truth, this wasn’t nearly as problematic. But once we kicked out the Jews, we needed to figure out how to preserve the Text we were in danger of losing.
Now I certainly don’t mean the Text in its physicality. The monastic movements were working hard to preserve the physical (written) Text, but we have to remember we are dealing with a world that hadn’t seen the invention of the printing press. How do you preserve the Text in a world that has no distribution of printing (and is mostly illiterate)? The western world wrote down what the Text said; we’ll call it doctrine. The eastern world drew images and pictures to help them remember the content; these were called icons.
And the western world did not like icons.
One can understand the confusion. Most of my readers are likely western minded, and if they found themselves lost in an Eastern Orthodox church on a Sunday morning, they might be shocked to see people enjoying incense and praying at stations where they kneel in front of a picture or statue — an icon. To the westerner, this seems to be idolatry. The kneeling congregant is obviously worshipping the icon. But this is a misunderstanding of the eastern worldview. No eastern worshipper sees themselves as worshipping the icon. They are worshipping the God who lies behind the story the icon represents.
While a westerner listens to a lecture (sermon) and reads a book (the Text), the easterner hears a different kind of lecture (narrative) and reads a different kind of book (icon). In fact, the easterner could just as easily accuse the westerner of drifting away from the eastern world of the Bible and engaging in a new kind of doctrinal idolatry.
Nevertheless, this controversy took its toll on Christendom; the next 250 years would be a battle to hold a splintering kingdom together in unity. With the ending of the Byzantine papacy, the Holy Roman Church would find moments of hope in new leadership throughout this era. People like Boniface would help unite order under a struggling papacy, as would many others.
One of the more influential names is that of Charlemagne. One could look at Charlemagne with either critical eyes or eyes of admiration, but one thing is sure, Charlemagne is often called the Father of the West for uniting the Western Church unlike anybody had since the days of Constantine. Charlemagne led the Church on the path of productive renaissance, urging intellectual and spiritual revitalization. While the Middle Ages is certainly seen as a dark time (more on that later), the work of Charlemagne may be seen as a catalyst for the progress made during that era. (It was really the setup to the scientific revolution; for more on this, one could read this book by Hannam.)
Eventually, though, this unity and progress would not hold under the growing tension between the East and the West. With an empire as big as Rome itself, the West was finding it impossible to control their eastern brothers as they attempted to kick against the goads of western progress. At the turn of the first millennium, the great East-West Schism took place, tearing Christendom into what would be known as the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. As the Western Church banked on the power of the papacy and what they saw as God-ordained authority, they made demands of their eastern brothers. These demands were refused and denounced.
The fact that half of the Christian empire simply denounced and tore away from the papal-led church left the West in shock and terror. To many, it seemed as though Christendom could never survive.
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