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Book Review: The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque by Sidney H. Griffith

Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007).  220 pp.

How did Christianity change and develop differently for Christians outside the Roman Empire during the Islamic Expansion?  In The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque Griffith wants to emphasize the contribution of the Arabic-speaking Christians in the East to the Christians in the West (128), the influence of Islamic culture on Arabic-speaking Christians under Islamic rule, and to the formation of the religious identities of the Christian communities of the Nestorians, Melkites, and Jacobites (130).  He is concerned to demonstrate the shift in articulation of the Christian faith that took place under Muslim rule.  For example, Griffith notes that Christian Trinitarian theology took on “a design and vocabulary very different from that of the Patristic era and largely unfamiliar to Christians outside of the Islamic world” (96).  The genre’s of apologetics were heavily influenced by the world of Islam.  Griffith is concerned to show how the terms of discourse were basically set by the Islamic attacks on Christianity.  For example, the list of topics found in popular genres of Christian apologetics in Syriac and Arabic in the early Islamic period are “distinctively Islamic” (97).  Christian kalam is basically a borrowing of the “Islamic style of religious discourse in Arabic” (89).

Our author is also concerned to point out that although the characters are often fictional or symbolic in the popular apologetic genres that depicted dialogue between Christians and Muslims, these texts nevertheless shed light on real historical circumstances of open dialogue between Muslims and Christians (102-103).  Griffin also shows a concern to demonstrate that Christians made use of the authority of the Qur’an to validate their Christian doctrines to the Muslims (168-70).  Finally, Griffith thinks that Christianity should not discount the churches that were considered as “dissident churches” by the exclusive Roman imperial authority (129).  Latin Christians in particular, Griffith thinks, have wrongly considered Christians of the Orient as heretical and schismatic.  He thinks that “now is the time to take steps to remedy this situation” (3).  He refers to those normally considered heretics (Jacobites and Nestorians), not as non-Chalcedonian heretics but as “non-Chalcedonian Christians” (130). 

Taxonomy of Christian Groups & Literature

The main groups into which Christians in the Islamic world were divided in the period Griffith discusses were Greek, Syriac, and Arabic.  Although Greek works were translated into Syriac and Arabic, Greek was distinctive in that it was the language of the Hellenized culture in which the first doctrinal positions of Christians were articulated.  Greek culture was heavily influenced by philosophy—particularly the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Aristotle’s works had an especial influence over the churches in Syria through the translation and appropriation efforts of Hunayn ibn Ishaq who was a Nestorian Christian.  Syria served uniquely as the culture that “passed” the baton of Aristotle’s philosophical legacy (114).  Syria, after the time of Alexander the Great, was often caught in the middle of the Roman and Persian empires (115).  Nestorianism had its origins in the Syriac-speaking academic communities of Edessa and Nisibis (131).  These communities were influenced by the Syriac translations of Theodore of Mopsuestia, “the blessed interpreter” whose patriarchal see was in Persia (131).  The Jacobites also flourished in the Syriac-speaking communities under the influence of the bishop Jacob Baradaeus in Edessa who wrote in Syriac (135).

A distinctive feature of the Arabic language was that it often carried anti-Christian (or non-Christian) connotations within its very language, making translation of Christian words like ousia, for example, difficult to translate into the Arabic idiom.  The understanding of certain religious terms in Arabic language was also heavily influenced (biased we might even say) toward the exclusive Islamic faith.  The domination of Arabic language—which set the tone for theology in the East—alienated the East from the West to some extent and created theological and genre developments that were distinctively shaped by the Islamic-Christian dialogues and polemics (130).  By the time of The Great Schism, the East was speaking a different language (literally and figuratively) than the West, and this only made their differences all-the-more difficult to resolve.

The Copts, who possessed their own identity and language (Coptic) are usually lumped in with the Jacobites because of their common theological identity through the articulation of the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria, although Griffith is concerned to point out that “they are the much larger community and have their own independent church structures” (137).  Likewise, the Armenians professed the same faith as the Jacobites, but had their own language and independent hierarchical structures (137).  The Maronites and Gregorians, although Syriac/Aramaic speaking churches, were Melkite and eventually came into communion with Rome (139-140).

Conclusion

Griffith’s book is more-or-less a taxonomy and introduction to Arabic Christian literature.  As such, the book is more useful for those who actually plan on spending a great deal of time following up with Griffith’s suggestions on literature to read.  But for those wanting a stimulating introduction to the history of Christianity under Islamic rule, the book is more of a letdown.  In other words, it’s a useful and indispensable resource for those specializing in Arabic studies, but not much else.

Top 10 Events of Church History Up To 1453

1.

64 C.E.—The Burning of Rome—When Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome in 64 C.E., he incited the first imperial persecution of Christians and set the tone for imperial relations with Christians for future Roman Emperors.  The Neronian Persecutions were followed by four major waves of imperial persecution (under Septimius Severus’s reign from 193-211 C.E., under the reign of Decius beginning in 250 C.E., under the emperor Valerian beginning in 258 C.E., and under the reign of Diocletian beginning in 303 C.E).  Ironically, such persecution aided church growth after the waves died down because of the courage that Christians showed in the face of violence. 

2.

70 C.E.—The Fall of Jerusalem—The fall of Jerusalem—especially the destruction of the Jewish Temple—that ended the First Jewish-Roman War would drastically alter Judaism by removing one of its two pillars (Temple & Torah).  This event would be seen as a vindication for Christians because many of them interpreted the event as punishment on the Jews for rejecting Jesus as their Messiah in according with prophecies attributed to Jesus by early gospel writers. 

3.

313 C.E.—The Edict of Milan—Following Constantine’s vision before the decisive battle of his campaign in 312 C.E. against Maxentius (who controlled Italy and North Africa after the division of the empire by Diocletian known as the tetrarchy or “rule of four”), Constantine decided to join forces with Licinius (the emperor in the east).  Together they issued the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E., granting freedom of religious practice to Christians and ending the early waves of imperial persecution but also marking the beginning of imperial intervention into the controversies of the Christian church.   

4.

325 C.E.—The Council of Nicaea—In response to Arian’s teaching that the Son was not eternal (a teaching received from Lucian, bishop of Antioch, who was executed under the emperor Constantine in 324 C.E.)—“there was a time when the Son was not”—a council was called to meet in Nicaea (a summer resort near the emperor’s court in Nicomedia) and presided over by the emperor Constantine.  Arius’ teachings were decisively condemned and Constantine himself is credited for introducing the word homoousios (“same substance”) to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son, and followed Tertullian who first used the term trinitas for God and described it as three persons of one substance.  The view of God endorsed by this council would be considered by many as the touchstone orthodox Christian doctrine and lead to centuries of persecutions between followers of Arius and followers of the Nicene Creed.        

5.

367 C.E.—Deciding the Canon—After Christians had over two hundred years to respond to the challenge of Marcion’s proposed canon (144 C.E.), Athanasius writes a letter in which he commends a certain list of books to be the authoritative body of literature for Christians.  Not only was Athanasius’ letter the first time the word “canon” is applied to such a list, but his proposed list eventually became accepted by most Christians and remains today the widely accepted content of the Christian canon—the New Testament.

6.

451 C.E.—The Council of Chalcedon—Questions left unanswered by the Council of Nicaea about how the human Jesus could also be considered God led to the condemnation of Apollinaris (forerunner of one-nature Monophysitism) by the Council of Constantinople in 381 and Nestorius (who supposedly separated the two natures of Christ) at the council of Ephesus in 431.  This controversy culminated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. where Eutyches (exponent of Monophysitism) was also condemned and the explanation of Leo’s Tome, which posited Christ’s having two united natures (divine and human, each of whose characteristics were distinct), was endorsed.  The decision of the council would become known as “The Chalcedonian Definition,” and the relationship of Christ’s natures as delineated by this council would be called a hypostatic union.  This decision would lead to centuries of persecution for non-Chalcedonian Christians.

7.

589 C.E.—The Third Council of Toledo—After many years of pressure from Catholic Franks on the Arian Visigoth kings of Spain, when the Visigoth king, Reccared, converted to the Catholic faith in 587 C.E. he called together the Third Council of Toledo of 589 C.E. in which anathemas were pronounced against Arianism afresh.  Unfortunately, however, while reaffirming the Nicene Creed, the council took the liberty to endorse the view that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son (a view later strongly endorsed by theologian Isidore of Seville in the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633 C.E.).  Since by inserting this word filioque (“and the Son”) the Western church had tampered with the Nicene creed and endorsed a view not shared by the Eastern churches without an ecumenical council, this fueled the already existing tensions between the Eastern and Western churches culminating in The Great Schism of 1054.

8.

610 C.E.—The Rise of Islam—610 C.E. would mark the year that Muhammad would begin to receive direct revelations from the angel Gabriel who told him to “recite” the very words (Qur’an means “to recite”) that would comprise the Qur’an.  The result of Muhammad’s preaching a message of submission (Islam means “to submit”) to only one God (Allah means “God”), along with an organized military force that reduced Christians to the humble status of dhimmi communities, eventually led to a succession of Islamic Dynasties ruled by Caliph’s (“deputies” or “successors”) encompassing nearly half of the previously Christian world by the year 750 C.E., stretching from the Indus River in the East to Spain in the West.   

9.

800 C.E.—The Coronation of Charlemagne—Following the example of his grandfather Charles Martel and his father Pepin who formed alliances with the pope’s of Rome, by the time Charlemagne went to Rome to strengthen connections with the Pope he had (by his success against the Saxon’s to his north and east, the Spanish to his west, and the Lombards to his south) become the ruler of much of Europe.  The crowning of Charlemagne as the new Augustus (evoking the majesty of the old Roman Empire) on Christmas day of 800 C.E. by Pope Leo III illustrates how the wake of the expansion of Islam turned the attention of the popes from the East to the North for political alliance (realizing that the emperor in the East could not necessarily secure Europe against Islam), signaled the papal willingness to give up on the ideals of a Mediterranean centered Empire and look for a similar Empire in the North, and helped lay the foundations for shaping the vitality of Christian existence in Europe for almost 800 years that would become known as “Christendom.”     

10.

1054 C.E.—The Great Schism —When the Normans took Leo IX captive for seeking alliance with the Eastern Emperor and Leo sent three envoys to Constantinople led by Cardinal Humbert to pursue negotiations, the fierce debate between these envoys and the Eastern theologians over longstanding political, cultural, and theological differences led Humbert to charge the Greeks with an assortment of heresies and draw up a bull of excommunication against Patriarch Cerularius.  The patriarch responded by excommunicating the papal legates, illustrating the great distance that had developed in the Latin and Greek traditions over the past seven centuries that would be intensified by this mutual excommunication and even moreso by the sack of Constantinople by western crusaders in 1204.

 

Sources Used

Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, second ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.  

Dale T. Irvin & Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006.

Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 1996. 

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation.  New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984. 

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