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History of the Church: Early Middle Ages - Notre Dame

The Church in the East

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame

I. The Birthplace of Heresies

During the three hundred years that saw the Western half of the old Roman Empire break up into various States, which, one after another, were won for the true Church, very different scenes were being enacted in the Eastern portion. We have already seen that every heresy but one that had desolated the Church had arisen in the East, and that even the British heresy, Pelagianism itself, had more adherents in the East than in the West. For five hundred years after the formal separation of the two empires, A.D. 586, the East continued to give birth to heresies, false religions, and schisms, some of which endure to the present day. A temporary reunion of the two empires had come about in the following way: The nominal power of the Eastern Emperors over the West had been kept up by their appointing a Consul from time to time, or by their ratifying the nomination of a ruler. Thus, Zeno recognized Odoacer as Patrician of the Romans. Clovis ruled with the same title, and was, moreover, named Consul for the year in A.D. 510. But in A.D. 527 Justinian came to the throne, an Emperor who, not satisfied with nominal power, determined on having the reality.

This monarch therefore, in A.D. 534, sent Belisarius, one of the most famous Generals the world has ever seen, to try to win back some of the lost provinces. The first attempt of Belisarius was in Africa, where the Vandals held sway. A short time sufficed to completely overthrow a dominion which had lasted a hundred years, and the whole southern shore of the Mediterranean was freed from the yoke of the terrible Vandals, the fiercest and most cruel of all the Teutonic Arian tribes. The conquest of Belisarius in this case was the triumph of Catholicity, which again flourished in North Africa. Belisarius then turned his arms against Italy. Twenty years of conflict followed, and at length the whole Peninsula submitted to him. Then for a few years, till the death of Justinian, the East again held sway over a part of the West.

The earlier part of Justinian's reign was full of promise. He built several magnificent churches, the most glorious being the still renowned Sancta Sophia at Constantinople. He is, however, most famous for the code of civil law which he compiled from the old Roman laws. His work is known as the Justinian Code, and is the basis of nearly all European law, even to our day. A French writer says that it is "a Christian work, prepared by ceaseless Christian toil for more than two hundred years, and brought to maturity when Christianity was everything."

Justinian's later years did not fulfill the early promise as far as the Church is concerned. He began to interfere in questions of doctrine, to exercise undue influence in the nomination of Bishops, and to allow his wicked Empress Theodora to carry out her infamous schemes. She was devoted to Eutychianism, and worked with the leaders of her party in favour of that heresy. She even gained over the brave Belisarius, and induced him to stain his glorious reputation by an odious crime. By her command he deposed Pope Sylverius, and set up as Pope Vigilius, a deacon whom Theodora had sent to Rome for the purpose. Then Pope Sylverius was murdered, and Vigilius was called on to pronounce judgment in favour of the Eutychians on a famous question which they had raised some time before.

The Council of Chalcedon, which had condemned the heresy of Eutyches, had not when doing so named three Bishops who had written in favour of an earlier heresy, Nestorianism, because two of them had recanted and one was dead. The Eutychians imagined that if the Pope could be got to condemn these writings, which are known as the Three Chapters, it would throw discredit on the Council of Chalcedon. They thought if it could be proved that the Council had made a mistake in leaving these writings uncondemned it might look as though it had also been mistaken in condemning Eutychianism. But God was watching over His Church. Vigilius, who had promised while still a deacon to obey the Empress, now that he was Pope refused to do what she wanted. Though he was sent for to Constantinople, and kept prisoner during seven years, he would not yield, till he saw that some began to think that by his refusal he was favouring Nestorianism. Then he had the Three Chapters  examined, and finding them full of errors, he condemned them, while he said that the authority of Chalcedon was to be respected. This decision pleased neither party, and a General Council was called, A.D. 553. This was the Second of Constantinople. The Pope was not present at its sittings. The Council began by recognizing the Four General Councils, and then condemned anew every heresy, including Eutychianism, which had been previously condemned. Finally, the Three Chapters were examined and condemned. Pope Vigilius would not approve the Acts of the Councils, because, as no Western Bishops had been present, he feared a schism. His successor, Pelagius I., however, confirmed the decrees, and thus the Council has come to be regarded as a General Council.

It will be remembered that the Eutychians had said that there is but one nature in Jesus Christ, (they are therefore sometimes called Monophysites—asserters of one nature) and that the Church, in condemning this heresy, had defined that in Jesus Christ there is but one Divine Person, but that He has both the nature of God and the nature of man.

An attempt was made to reconcile the Eutychians to the Church by Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and others. Unfortunately, in trying to gain them, they altered the clear statement of doctrine that had been made by the Council of Chalcedon, and said that though there were two natures in Jesus Christ, our Lord had but one will, namely, the Divine. (These heretics bear the name of Monothelites—assertors of one will.) This was really to fall back into the old error, as our Lord could not have the nature of man if one of the essential powers of the human soul were wanting. The Catechism teaches us that to have the nature of man is to have a body and a soul like ours. Now, the three powers of the soul are the memory, the understanding, and the will. To believe that our Lord had no human will was to believe that our Blessed Lord had not a perfect human nature.

But Sergius did worse than this. He tried to deceive Pope Honorius and to beguile him into saying something that the Monothelites could consider as approving their doctrines. He wrote a misleading account to the Pope of what was going on, pretending that if all debates on the subject could be stopped the trouble would cease. So Pope Honorius wrote forbidding for the present all discussion on the matter of the two wills in Jesus Christ. He evidently did not suspect Sergius, and answered in words that might easily be misunderstood, and unfortunately they were.

The Emperors took great part in this controversy, defending the heresy and persecuting the Popes. Constans II. summoned Pope Martin I. to Constantinople, had him ill-treated, imprisoned and exiled. The holy Pope soon died of hardships and want.

The miserable contest went on for nearly a hundred years. Then Pope Agatho called another General Council. It met at Constantinople in A.D. 680, and condemned the heresy, stating the true doctrine thus: That in Jesus Christ there are two distinct wills and operations, the one Divine, the other human, never conflicting, but the human will always perfectly subject to the Divine.

This Council also censured Pope Honorius, not for any error of doctrine, but for negligence in not doing what he might have done to stop the growth of the evil.

II. Mohammedanism

While the events last recorded were in progress, a still more terrible evil arose in the East. Perhaps it was a chastisement from God on the Eastern people, who seemed as if they could not do without framing new heresies.

This was the false religion known as Mohammedanism, which to this day numbers so many millions of adherents, and still keeps them hostile to the Church.

Mohammed, or Mahomet, was born at Mecca, in Arabia, A.D. 570. He was brought up by his uncle, keeper of the Kaaba, or Great Temple, where three hundred and sixty-five, idols were honoured by the superstitious Arabians. While still young he undertook to manage the affairs of a rich widow, and later on he married her.

In A.D. 609 he announced himself as commissioned by God to do away with paganism, and to reform both Judaism and Christianity. This he endeavoured to do by making one religion out of the three, and by preaching a new creed to his relatives and neighbours. They would not believe in him, and after many a contest with him they drove him out of the town. Mohammed fled to Medina in A.D. 622. This is a memorable date to Mohammedans, as they reckon their chronology from it. The event is known as the Hegira.

From this time Mohammedanism began to spread. Followers gathered and fought under a new standard, the Crescent, and raised a new battle-cry: "There is but one God, and Mohammed is His Prophet." Several years of warfare caused Mohammed to be recognized in Arabia as the sole political and religious ruler; but at this point he died, leaving to his successors, the Caliphs, the task of making his new creed, Islam, the religion of the world.

The Caliphs had only too large a measure of success. Sword in hand, they preached the new doctrines. Men must believe it, pay tribute not to believe it, or die. It can be easily understood that under these circumstances there were numerous converts. As the new religion asked of them no sacrifices of evil passions, and only imposed prayers, fasts, pilgrimages, and other outward observances, men found it a comfortable kind of doctrine, and those even who had been forced into it rarely gave it up again. To this day missionaries say no one is so hard to convert as a Mohammedan.

The lands conquered by Mohammed lay between the two great Eastern Powers—the Roman and the Persian Empires.

Both were attacked. The immediate successors of Mohammed, the Caliphs Abu-bekr and Omar, conquered Syria and Egypt. Then it was that Jerusalem was lost to the Christian world, and that pilgrimages to the Holy Land became dangerous, if not impossible. During the seventh century the Moslems gradually advanced westward along the southern shores of the Mediterranean. By its close they were opposite Spain, having settled in great numbers in the province called Mauritania. Every trace of the Roman and Teutonic occupations of North Africa was swept away, and these lands have retained the Moslem faith even to this day.


In the first years of the eighth century the Moslems of Mauritania—Moors the Spaniards called them—crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar, and speedily conquered the whole of the peninsula, except a strip near the Pyrenees. Thence they passed into Gaul and made a small settlement. Advancing still further north, they were met at Poictiers, on the plains near Tours, by Charles Martel. One of the most famous battles in history was here fought between that renowned warrior and his brave Teutons and Abderame and the turbaned Moslems. Seven days the armies were face to face; then the attack commenced, and the fight raged for hours. At length the invaders were defeated and driven back into Spain. This was in A.D. 732. Twenty years later the last Moslems north of the Pyrenees were also driven away, and Northern Europe was saved from the power of the Crescent. Spain, however, remained under Moorish dominion for seven hundred years.

While these things were going on in the West, the Mohammedan Arabs had carried the sword eastward into Persia and India, and northward into Turkish lands. They had also attacked Constantinople, but were defeated by sea and land in A.D. 718. As usual, conversions and conquests went on together, so that all these lands embraced Mohammedanism. About this time one Caliph ruled over the vast Saracen Empire, as it was called, and was obeyed from India to Spain. But disputes and schisms arose among the Mohammedans themselves. Two empires, or caliphates, were founded: the Eastern, with Bagdad as its centre; the Western, having its Caliph residing at Cordova, in Spain.

The Saracen Empire in the East lasted till the thirteenth century, when Bagdad was taken by the Tartars in A.D. 1238.

The Western caliphate came to an end in the eleventh century, but the Moorish dominion in Spain went on almost up to the date of the discovery of America, in the fifteenth century. Though the empires gradually broke up into various States, Mohammedanism as a religion continued to hold its ground.

However, very numerous differences arose in the doctrines taught in these various States, so that there are many kinds of Mohammedanism in different parts of the world in the present day.

More than a tenth part of the human race still professes Mohammedanism. Of these, the greatest numbers are found in Southern Asia, from Turkey to Malaysia; and in Northern Africa, where it is spreading among the native populations.

The members of this religion have gone, and still go, by many different names. Mohammedan means, of course, follower of Mohammed. They are also called Moslems, Muslims, or Mussulmans; that is, belonging to the sect of Islam—that is, Resignation. With reference to the land whence they began to fight, they were termed Arabs (people from the West) by the tribes who dwelt farther east, and Saracens (people from the East) by the African and European nations whom they attacked. The Spaniards, as we have seen, called them Moors. We now often name them Turks, from the principal country in Europe where this faith is followed.

From the day that Mohammedanism was imposed on the Eastern peoples, the fairest countries of the earth became a wilderness. Religion is but a name, the peoples are down-trodden, woman is degraded, slavery exists to a fearful degree, civilization has made no advances, sloth paralyses everything, and the only energy the Turk seems to know is hatred of Christianity, which is constantly breaking out into open persecution.

III. The Iconoclast Heresy

The unhappy Eastern Empire was the scene of yet another heresy, which desolated the Church, even to the Western provinces, for upwards of one hundred and fifty years.

Emperors had, up to this time, contented themselves with being patrons of error, but one ascended the throne of Constantine in A.D. 717—Leo III., the Isaurian—who undertook himself to be the founder of heresy. This Prince was a brave barbarian, an ignorant but clever man, who would have been a good Sovereign but for his absurd and wicked attempt to teach the Church what he thought was true doctrine. The point of Catholic teaching attacked by Leo was the veneration given to the pictures and statues of our Lord and His Saints.

From the earliest ages of the Church sacred pictures had been in use. It is a pious tradition that St. Luke painted the portrait of our Lord and His Blessed Mother. These sacred pictures were guarded with jealous care, and are venerated to this day. The Catacombs were full of such holy paintings, many representing our Lord and His Saints directly, others being of a symbolical character—that is, showing the truth by signs or types rather than by actual representations. Later on, as well as statues, representations of the Crucifixion, etc., scenes from the Old and New Testaments, were frequently painted on the walls of churches; thus men learned the truths of faith and the history of God's dealing with man, even when they could not read, for, as St. John Damascene said, "Images are for the untrained what books are for those who can read; they are to sight what words are to the ear." But Mohammedans and Jews would permit no species of image in their mosques and synagogues, saying that all such representations gave rise to idolatry.

Unfortunately, among the Greeks there were some who were not content with giving to these holy objects the honour that the Church allows, but who fell into great extravagance in their mistaken devotion. Leo saw the contrast between their exaggeration and the cold form of worship practised by Saracens and Jews, and he preferred the latter.

The war against holy images, or iconoclasm (image-breaking), began with an edict of Leo III., in A.D. 726, by which he ordered the removal from churches and public places of all crucifixes, statues, and holy pictures. This decree met with great opposition. From all parts of the world, holy and learned men took up the cause of truth, but Leo met all reasoning with still stricter orders and more cruel persecution.

A second edict, A.D. 730, commanded the destruction of all sacred images, and a regular persecution commenced of all who attempted to oppose the Emperor's orders.

The monks were especially objects of the Emperor's anger, because they were often the makers of statues and the painters of pictures; moreover, they taught openly that the Emperor was not justified in acting as he was doing. The destroyed images were replaced by all kinds of profane paintings—the chase, drinking scenes, and even worse subjects, being chosen to decorate the walls of churches. The holy Patriarch of Constantinople, St. Germanus, who refused to sign Leo's edict, was deposed, though eighty years old.

Pope St. Gregory II. resisted the heresiarch Emperor with all the force of his authority. Leo, the Emperor, made every effort to seize the holy Pope, in order to murder him, but all Italy gathered to the defence of the Holy Father, and the Emperor had to withdraw his troops. Pope Gregory III. was equally resolute in withstanding the Emperor and in preventing his orders for the destruction of sacred images from being carried out in Rome and the rest of Italy, for Eastern Emperors still claimed authority in the West, and also attempted to exercise it.

Leo's son, Constantine Copronymus, who succeeded to the Empire, in A.D. 741, was an even more violent partisan of iconoclasm than his father. He held an Assembly at Constantinople, which he meant should rank as a General Council, but at which neither the Pope nor his legates assisted. This meeting condemned the veneration of images as idolatrous, and all makers of images to be excommunicated and punished. These decrees were put into vigorous execution. Martyrdoms were numerous.

The most spirited opponent of the Emperors and their false teaching was St. John Damascene, who, for his vast learning and clear doctrine, is styled the Aquinas of the East. Constantine would gladly have put him to death, but the holy man was preserved from falling into his hands, and continued to uphold the Catholic faith and to encourage the Catholics till his death. The next Emperor, Leo IV., was also an iconoclast, but he reigned so short a time that he did little harm.

The Empress-Regent Irene, mother of the late Emperor and a Catholic, took steps to put an end to this terrible contest. She begged Pope Adrian I. to convoke a General Council. In A.D. 787 the Fathers met at Nicaea, and, after due examination, the Catholic doctrine on the subject of sacred images was declared to be that it is lawful to give relative honour to statues and holy pictures, because they represent our Lord and His Holy Mother and the Saints, and that the honour paid to these representations is not given to them directly, but that it passes on to those who are represented. The Pope confirmed the decision of the Council, but iconoclasm continued in the East for another fifty years. Then another Empress, Theodora by name, restored the holy images and recalled the exiled monks. To commemorate the happy end of so disastrous a division, the Feast of Orthodoxy (Right Doctrine) was instituted. It is still kept by the Greeks.

In the West a wrong translation of the Acts of the Council led to much trouble. No one had doubted that it was right to honour sacred images, but the Western Church would not receive the decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea for many years, because they thought that the Council had really made a mistake in doctrine. When it was at last proved that it was a wrong translation that had done this mischief, things were easily put straight, and the West joined with the East in recognizing the Second Council of Nicaea as the Seventh General Council.

Contests like these, however, leave many sad traces in history. The bad feeling which had sprung up between the East and the West was the cause of the final separation of the two empires—no great misfortune; but it led later on to the schism which still separates the Greek Church from the unity of the true fold of Christ.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame