ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fifth Century

Section 5: Growth and Division in Christendom

Steven Muhlberger

The fifth century, so disastrous in other ways, was a period of dramatic growth for the Christian churches. The ecclesiastical histories of the period tend to focus on the many controversies of the period, some of which still divide Christians today. Yet the new divisions are best seen as the result of organizational and spiritual vigor, energies so strong that they could not be contained within any single formal structure.

The growth of Christianity can be seen in many countries. In the Persian empire, despite the sometimes active hostility of the Sassanid emperors, the churches continued to spread and to organize. In 410, a general council of that empire's churches was held, with the approval of the authorities, in the capital of Ctesiphon, where the bishops affirmed their loyalty to the monarch and took steps to regularize relations among themselves. At this point, there were already 30 bishops and 6 metropolitan bishops supervising them. Two centuries later, the Persian empire would have 96 bishoprics and 10 metropolitan sees.

In the far west, despite some setbacks, new churches were also being founded. The "Scots" (the inhabitants of Ireland) were converted by Patrick and other missionaries, and at one point received a bishop sent straight from Rome. This may have seemed a rather minor gain at the time, since the Irish were a people without cities or wealth as Romans calculated such things; but in the next century Ireland would be producing its own missionaries to convert the Picts, the English, and even pagans and lackluster Christians on the continent.

In the smaller but all-important sphere of local life, the conquest of pagan cities was much advanced and the extension of Christianity into the countryside was gaining momentum. Many examples of Christian penetration can be given. For instance, in 370, when Martin became bishop of Tours, the only churches in his diocese were in the city itself. By the year 500, there were nineteen churches in smaller centers, so that everyone was within 10 km. of a clerical establishment -- and this does not include private chapels that rich men were building on their estates for their own use and that of their dependents.

Throughout the fifth century, and long after, classical paganism retained a certain influence, especially in schools of higher education. But if paganism was still eloquent it was in retreat. We can see how the aristocracy shifted its loyalties by examining the case of the city of Rome itself. In the fourth century, the senatorial class had contained many adamant pagans, who did not hesitate to protest loudly when the emperor removed the Altar of Victory from the senate house. Some pagans had supported the usurper Eugenius against Theodosius I in hopes of gaining greater toleration. In 408, when Rome was besieged by Alaric's army (an army by the way, that contained many Christians), high-ranking pagans had pressured the bishop, ultimately unsuccessfully, to restore the old rites and save the city through an appeal to its gods. Yet by 425 or so, paganism among the Roman upper crust was almost extinct -- either because of the passing of an older generation or because in a more uncertain world, the Romans felt the need to express solidarity through adherence to orthodox Christianity. After the last western emperor was displaced by Odoacer in 476, the involvement of city aristocrats in their local church establishment grew significantly. For the Romans of Rome -- still a leading element in Italian society -- their bishop was now a symbol of Roman unity in an country now ruled by a heretical barbarian.

The increasingly important role of the local church within the civic community can be seen everywhere, though most dramatically where imperial structures had failed. In the fifth century, towns were often threatened by foreign warlords or the equally savage armies of the imperial government. In an emergency, the pleas of the bishop or a respected monk, or the protection of a patron saint might make a big difference. In Spain, Bishop Hydatius recorded that Vandal and Suevic leaders had harmed the cities and churches of Seville and Mérida in 427-9 -- with the result that Gunderic the Vandal was possessed by a demon and perished, and Heremigarius the Sueve was "cast down in the river Ana by the arm of God and died." Similar stories may have helped Bishop Leo of Rome (Pope Leo the Great) convince Attila not to march on Rome in 452 -- though more earthly considerations probably entered into it. Even so, the role of Leo must not be underrated. When in 455, following Valentinian III's assassination, Geiseric was on the verge of sacking the defenseless city of Rome, Leo was able to convince him that the process could be a peaceful instead of a bloody one: heaps of treasure were carted off to Carthage and citizens by the thousands were carried into slavery, but there was no burning and no massacre.

When one reflects on such incidents, it is easy to understand how the city churches of the Roman empire sent down deep roots in the fifth century. Of all the institutions associated with Rome, they performed the best, and so attracted the loyalty of all ranks. The change of orientation in the higher ranks is most noticeable: Men who had sought careers in the imperial system in earlier centuries found the route to power, prestige and the coveted role of civic benefactor through the church. Substantial gains of this sort overshadow the evident problems of the church in the fifth century -- the loss of parts of Britain and other border areas to paganism, the occasional harassment of Arian monarchs, and (what looked more serious to some zealous bishops) the indifference of such monarchs toward enforcing religious orthodoxy on Roman Christians at the bishops' bidding. Bishops complained a lot in the fifth century, but theirs were the complaints of a group on the cutting edge of a rapidly changing situation, forced to deal with horrendous problems but generally handling them adequately. The very survival of their complaints is significant.

The most severe problem facing the churches of the empire was conflict between bishops. Even the savage Arian persecutions in Vandal Africa were, to some degree, a competition between rival bishops for the prize of Christian legitimacy. The most serious competition of this sort took place primarily in the eastern Mediterranean, between episcopal sees and theological schools that had been in conflict during the preceding century. Disagreements over seniority and jurisdiction between the sees of Constantinople and Alexandria, and a revival of disagreements about how human or divine the savior of humanity was, resulted in a tremendous controversy fought out in eastern church councils and in eastern city streets.

The theological issues became central, and so must be briefly discussed. They came to the fore when Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople, a theologian trained in the Antiochene tradition, became irritated with the common description of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos (Greek for "bearer of God"). This was nonsense, Nestorius said: no mortal could give birth to God. Jesus was both human and divine, and his two natures should not be confused. Nestorius's Christological formulation and even more his apparent attack on Mary brought hostility on his head, and in 431 a council at Ephesus, led by Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and representatives of the Roman see, deposed Nestorius.

Yet the question of Jesus's nature, closed with the defeat of Arianism in 380, had now been reopened. There were churchmen who thought that Nestorius, though he had been too extreme, had a point. Others, especially Cyril of Alexandria, saw this tendency as a revived attack on Jesus' divinity. He emphasized that divinity in his eloquent and widely read treatises.

So when the Nestorian position seemed to be gaining ground in Constantinople in the 440s, Cyril's successor Dioscorus, in the name of Cyril's theology and with the support of Theodosius II, hastened to destroy another bishop of Constantinople at the second council of Ephesus (449). This time, however, the Alexandrian action did not have the support of Rome. Leo, who was then bishop at Rome, thought that the Egyptian position went too far, and that Dioscorus was as heretical as Nestorius: his position was labelled Monophysite ("one nature"), and construed as a denial of Jesus's humanity. When Theodosius fell off a horse and broke his neck in 450, Leo and the Empress Pulcheria worked together to reverse the decisions of Second Ephesus. This was done at the Council of Chalcedon (452). Dioscorus was deposed for his arrogance, and a middle-of-the-road theology written by Leo himself was adopted.

The decisions of Chacedon proved impossible to enforce. No one grieved much over Dioscorus's fall, but churchmen inside and outside Egypt thought that Chalcedonian theology was Nestorianism in disguise. The revulsion spread from ecclesiastical circles to ordinary churchgoers. For everyone who was concerned about losing the humanity of Jesus, there were many more who found the ringing Monophysite affirmation of his divinity reassuring. Immediately after Chalcedon, monks at Jerusalem forced their bishop out of the city for agreeing to its decisions. It took armed force to restore him. When the emperor Marcian died in 457, the pro-Chalcedonian bishop who had been imposed on Alexandria was lynched, and a good follower of Cyril was put in his place. The richest and most populous province in the east was in rebellion against an imperial policy -- and there were similar outbreaks elsewhere.

Quite naturally, Marcian's successors looked for some kind of compromise between the two positions. However, their own bishops of Constantinople were reluctant to tamper with the decisions of Chalcedon, since important privileges of their church had been confirmed there. Leo and his successors at Rome were dead set against any changes. When Zeno tried, in 482, to return to the decisions of earlier councils and forbid further debate, the result was a schism between the churches of Constantinople and Rome. When Anastasius leaned even further towards the Monophysites, by introducing new prayers at the capital, he almost lost his throne -- as we have seen in the previous section.

The division between those who accepted Leo's theology and those who accepted only Cyril's dragged on into the sixth century, where it continued to be important. The disagreement still separates Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Armenian Christians from Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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