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The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy - Fr a Schmemman

The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy - Fr a Schmemman

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Published by: ikonographics on Apr 29, 2010
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Alongside this natural process of co-ordination, perceptible even before Constantine‟s
conversion, we now observe the creation of a sort of imperial center of the Church, wholly linked
in its rise and development with the changing relationship of Church and empire and with the
ambiguous but fully obvious weight of imperial authority itself in Church affairs. We have seen
that a kind of ecclesiastical general staff grew up around Constantine almost immediately after
his conversion and strove to influence the Church through the emperor, thus counterbalancing, as

it were, the previous centers of catholicity. Its members included Constantine‟s old friend Osius

of Cordova and the two Eusebiuses and their group. The Christian emperor inevitably created
around himself a new center of attraction for the Church, but this must not be regarded — as it is
by some historians — as the enslavement of the Eastern episcopate in rudiments of that “caesa-
ropapism” with which they constantly charge the Eastern Church.
We must from the start perceive the unique profundity of the Byzantine concept of rela-
tions between Church and state, which are linked not by any concordat or juridical limitation of
power, but by the truth; which is to say, by the faith of the Church, which the emperor first, and
through him the empire itself, recognized as its truth, and as a truth superior to themselves. The
religious attitude of the empire was not at all a matter of indifference to the Church. A heretical
or apostate emperor would mean the downfall of the Christian world, a new defeat of truth by a
lie, over which it had only just triumphed — a new defection of the world from Christ. We must
not forget that the modern lay state, which arose out of the failure and decay of this Christian ex-
perience, was born at a time when Christianity itself had lost its universal appeal, and religion
became for a long period the private affair of each individual, particularly a matter of his fate af-
ter death. But the success or failure, the errors and achievements, of Byzantium can be evaluated
only if we assess the completely different experience of Christianity itself, in that period, as pri-
marily a sense of the cosmic victory of Christ over the “Prince of this world.” In this victory the
conversion of Constantine acquires a special significance, as already noted: here the state, hither-
to the main instrument of diabolical malice against the Church, bowed down before Christ. But
in doing so it immediately reacquired all the positive significance that Christians, beginning with
St. Paul, had never denied it. To orthodox and heretics alike, the concept of a religiously neutral
state was equally alien, as was the concept of “clericalism” — the hierarchical subordination of
state to Church — which arose later in the West. In the Eastern concept the Church embraced the
whole world and was its inner essence, standard, and the source of gifts of the Spirit within it;
but it was not the authority in worldly political matters, nor even the source of authority. The lat-
ter was granted to emperors and rulers; they should be guided by the truth of the Church, but
they did not receive authority from the Church.
Only in this light can we understand why orthodox and heretics alike exercised influence
over the emperor, and not merely from opportunism and ambition. Each sincerely believed in his
own truth and wished to make it the norm for the Christian empire. The drama of the East lay in
the fact that this vision turned out impossible to fulfill, and in actual life frequently alternated


Canon 17, Chalcedon.


with evil. The state itself was still too set in its pagan categories, continuing to believe itself the
final goal and value, and religion only its instrument. While for the state, too, the fate of the
Church and its dogmatic disputes were not matters of indifference, this was for other reasons.
Any division within the Church immediately reflected on the tranquility of the state.

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