This blog continues this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith. The First blog is The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World. The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World: The Byzantine Period.
The age of the Ecumenical Councils is a very distinctive time period in Orthodox Christian history. In this time period church governance, liturgy, doctrine were all standardized. The thinking of this time period has often been treated by later generations of Orthodox as normative – the means by which Orthodoxy is to be measured. The Councils adopted not only the official Creed of the Christians, they also adopted a wide variety of canon law which oversaw how the Church came to be structured, rules for dealing with church disciplinary problems, and theology itself. The age of the Councils was a very theologically active period in the history of the Church. There were numerous serious debates and divisions within Christianity centered on the questions of: Who is Jesus? How did he save us? How can the witness of scripture support both a notion of monotheism and God having a son?
These issues were central and crucial to the Christian self understanding. The debates raged for almost 600 years, but the Eastern Christians believed that with each debate and decision they were coming ever closer to possessing the mind of Christ. It was their conviction that right belief led to a right way of living and behaving. Thus being Orthodox (Ortho is Greek for right or correct, and dox originally came from dokein, thinking; later dox also meant glory or worship) meant to think or worship in the correct manner or to hold the right opinion on issues of theology.
The age of the Council produced many of Orthodoxy’s most famous theologians, among them: Athanasius, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, John of Damascus, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Maximus the Confessor. It also was an age of famous heretics and heresies. The Christians believed that the right understanding of Jesus was essential for them to know how to live their lives. They saw theology as essential to Christianity and hammered out decisions after years of debate.
In this same time period, Christianity underwent other changes as well. The Church became the dominant religion of the Empire. The Byzantine’s self understanding and mythology caused them to accept as unquestionable that their beliefs and practices were normative for all Christians. Eventually they came to see their empire as in some way the kingdom of God on earth. They attempted to Christianize the symbols and rituals of the empire. They saw no separation between church and state: the laws of the empire were blessed by the church, the decisions of the church were enforced by the empire. Officially they termed the relationship between church and state as “symphony” – a symphonic cooperation between the two gifts of godly authority. The two headed eagle was symbolic of this cooperative relationship between church and state. Despite this symphonic vision, the church leaders and emperors were often at odds, and Byzantine history is strewn with the wrecks of bishops and emperors who lost the battle to keep the balance between church and state.