One City or Two

During the first millennium there had been a slow uncoupling of Eastern and Western views about the world (cosmology) and man’s place within it (anthropology).

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

Strickland continues to review the work from his previous book, and I believe it is worthwhile to offer a summary of this as foundation to the next chapters.

Augustine, virtually unknown in the East, had become the unrivalled theological authority in the West.  Strickland describes Augustine’s cosmology and anthropology as “decidedly pessimistic” when compared to that of the Eastern fathers such as Basil the Great, Maximos the Confessor, and Gregory of Nyssa.

On the implications of original sin in particular, East and West had begun to show significant differences in ethos within a very short period of time.

The West, after Charlemagne, would come to distance themselves from the Greeks.  For example, the filioque was added to the Nicene Creed.  Political schisms even in the ninth century did not help the situation – with the pope claiming unilateral authority to intervene in the affairs of another patriarchate.  In this time and place, many in the West would come to see the pope as the instrument to bring about a reformation of Christendom.

Strickland would describe the inhabitant of Christendom – from the earliest days of Pentecost – as “one who lived in an incongruous union of earth and heaven” (and this is what Strickland suggests the West would come to lose).  At the same time, he writes:

It might have seemed to those who read the Scriptures that the world has little in common with the ways of heaven.

But this does not respect the meaning of the Incarnation – the “hypostatic union,” joining two natures in the person of Christ.  Strickland describes this as the “most mysterious of the Christian doctrines and in a certain sense the key to them all.”

God was beyond His creation and transcendent from it.  Yet because He had become human, He was now immanent within it.  How this could be was beyond understanding.  …heaven and earth had been united in Christ.

…until the Second Coming, the Church would bring the kingdom of heaven into the world, thereby transforming it.

As an aside… yet, in attempting to understand this most mysterious Christian doctrine, the Church brought on the first split after the Council of Chalcedon.  Forgive me a brief interjection: it will be interesting to see how this “most mysterious” Christian doctrine, “beyond understanding,” could be transformed into something meaningful enough to be the key to Eastern Christendom.  Especially, as Strickland has noted, a plain reading of the text might not lead one to such a conclusion.

Now…given the recent part of the journey and discussion at this blog, perhaps limiting ourselves to a plain reading isn’t sufficient.  And, I have seen personally, many Christians who take the distinction of or division between the two cities – one of man, one of God – to an extreme (this world is not my home).  I am also reminded that Jesus told his disciples that some would not taste death before seeing the Son of Man coming to His kingdom.

Returning to Strickland: for a thousand years after Pentecost, Christendom remained a civilization dedicated toward the heavenly transformation of the world.  This could be seen in many ways, for example, Hagia Sophia – sitting high on a hill and overlooking Europe’s maritime gateway into Asia.

Its imperial dome was imprinted within by an icon of Christ Pantocrator, proclaiming the God had come from heaven to dwell among them.  Pagan visitors from Russia would proclaim that they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth.

Russia’s own Grand Prince Vladimir would exemplify this calling: once committed to murder, rape, idolatry, and adultery, after conversion and baptism, he would dismiss his mistresses and marry a Byzantine princess; he ordered the end of capital punishment; he held meals with the poor.  His example did not long survive him.

Strickland notes the many exceptions and counter-examples to that offered by Vladimir.  The Byzantine court was a centralized autocracy, characterized by cruelty and deception.  On the one hand, blood sports were ended; on the other, the blinding of one’s political enemies.

A particularly important doctrine was that of deification (theosis): Athanasius would write that “God became man so that men might become gods.”  Maximos would add that man – the image of God – becomes God by deification.

And this comes to a point I will likely make more than once throughout this ongoing examination: I do not wish to enter into a theological controversy on this (or any other point); my intent is to understand and present the theology in a manner sufficient to understand how it influenced politics, culture, governance, and liberty.

In the East, human salvation (soteriology) was fundamentally optimistic; in the West, the world’s brokenness was emphasized.  I find value (and truth) in both, and danger in each when taken to extremes.

It must be kept in mind: after Charlemagne, the West was divided into three parts – with his heirs fighting for supremacy; further, Viking invasions took a regular toll – monasteries in England, Paris under siege.  Living through the worst of the fall of Rome and the calamities after Charlemagne (frankly, even while Charlemagne was consolidating Europe) might have an influence on one’s worldview.

Of course, the East was not free of such troubles – with Muslims extracting, perhaps, an even greater toll – albeit (and unlike in the West), primarily on the outskirts and not at the heart.  Which comes back to the theological differences between Eusebius’s influence in the East and Augustine’s in the West.

In Charlemagne’s aftermath, the West would organize very locally – under barons and bishops; decentralized governance under a commonly held cultural tradition.  Vassals would take an oath of fealty – service in exchange for protection.  Tenth century popes would do likewise, offering Otto legitimacy in exchange for his military protection in Italy.

All of this in the middle of some of the worst scandals of the Western Church.


Eventually, reforms in the West would take root.  The pope, Leo IX (serving for the entirety of the first half of the eleventh century), freed from the influence of and control by the local Roman aristocrats, would be just such a reformer.

He was aided by three men in particular: Archdeacon Hildebrand (who would later become Pope Gregory VII), Cardinal Humbert (who would later lead the fateful delegation to Constantinople that would lead to the dueling excommunications and Great Schism), and Peter Damian (who would eventually be named a Doctor of the Church).

Together, they would work to broaden the pope’s authority, and, soon enough, lead to the final break between East and West.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.