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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

4. Byzantium (22 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church
Page 9

Church and State in the Eighth Century —

The Issue of Monasticism.

But the dogmatic question of the meaning of icon-worship does not exhaust the significance of the iconoclastic upheaval.
The vexing problem of Church-state relations became so acute during the controversy as to reach a breaking point, and the synthesis of Justinian collapsed.
In itself the Church’s conflict with a heretical emperor was nothing new, and St. John of Damascus was only repeating the words of St. Maxim the Confessor when he declared, “It is not the business of Caesar to engage in definitions of the faith.” The importance of iconoclasm lay in the fact that it thoroughly revealed all the ambiguity of the union of Constantine; it exposed the pagan and anti-Christian roots of the Byzantine theocracy in their fundamental form.
The overthrow of iconoclasm, therefore, became the starting point of a new synthesis, a union of Church and empire, which was to determine the subsequent fate of the Byzantine world.

I have spoken of the significance of monasticism in the preceding era: at the moment when the world was being Christianized, it embodied the eschatological aspect of Christianity as the overcoming of the world by the light of the Kingdom “not of this world,” and by that very light saving Christianity from falling into worldliness. From this standpoint there is nothing more characteristic and noteworthy in the Church’s relationship to the Christian world than the victory of monasticism in that world and its acceptance as a norm of the Christian way. Not only the Church, but even the empire yielded to monasticism: emperors vied with great noblemen in creating monasteries, so that at the outset of the struggle with iconoclasm the number of monks in Byzantium had reached a hundred thousand — an almost incredible percentage of the population.

But if the empire accepted this victory of monasticism unreservedly, and safeguarded it with every possible guarantee and privilege, monasticism in turn could not but become in the course of time a real burden. Above all, it lay like a heavy load upon the economic life of the state; tens of thousands of persons were lost to the army, the vast property of the monks escaped taxation, a whole section of the population was found to be outside state control. Rather early in Byzantine legislation we see attempts somehow to regulate this elemental fact and guide it into normal channels of activity. In addition, the very triumph of monasticism proved harmful to itself; from the beginning of the seventh century there are increasing, unmistakable signs of deterioration. The monasteries had grown rich, and privileges of every sort had now begun to attract some who had little interest in the pursuit of Christian perfection. The monks who had become the counselors, mentors, and confessors of the whole of Byzantine society were naturally often exposed to the temptation of abusing this confidence. The decrees of the Trullan Synod paint a rather disheartening picture in this regard.


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