26.12.09

Ideas and power

Some notes on the 5th century Christological controversy:

Pagan Romans viewed the world as being permeated by a whole host of supernatural beings -- malovalent deamons and benevolent gods. Material and spiritual success depended upon performing very visible rites correctly, and getting the local spirits on your side.

Constantine's 'imperial' Christianity inverted this local, immediate spirituality. Local spirits were all branded as malovalent daemons, and were set against a distant High God who made his commands known through a series of priviliged representatives of his will, of which Christ had been the greatest and Constantine the most recent. God is a remote monarch, whose agents were different from himself. The Emperor (like Christ) was sacred by association, not sacred himself. You can clearly see the way Christianity was shaped to suit the needs of those promoting it.

This 'Arian' view becomes challenged in the 5th century by assertive church leaders, who wanted to bring God down to the level of their congregations. They emphasise that God himself came down to the earth, was tempted, suffered and died. God knew about the daily trials of humanity, because He had experienced and overcome them. Father and Son were of one nature. Monophysite -- monos, single and physis, nature. Cult of the Virgin Mary: like every human being, God had a mother. The Virgin Mary could intercede on your behalf by reminding God of his bond with humanity. God cared about everyone. Jesus can be called upon at every moment as a source of comfort and inspiration. He wasn't a distant presence, filtered down through the judgements and laws of the mighty. He was active in the hearts and minds of every local congregation. You can clearly see the way Christianity is shaped to suit the needs of those promoting it.

The Emperor Marcian convenes the Council of Chalcedon in 451 to resolve this dispute. The greatest such council ever assembled, over 600 bishops present. Invites the bishop of Rome to provide a compromise agreement. An appeal to an outside Latin authority that would not rile the two sides. Pope Leo gives due weight to both the human and divine elements in the person of Christ -- a completely uncontroversial statement in the West. It is close to the 'imperial' Christianity of Constantine. The Emperor choses the side most beneficial to him, but presents it as a compromise. The Monophysites are horrified. Refer to Chalcedon as 'the Great Prevarication'.

Throughout, you can see the way political power-struggles infuse spiritual debates. The Emperor wants to maintain his authority over a unified Church. Eastern bishops want the opposite -- independence from Constantinople. In the west, there is no Emperor and the pope is little more than a bishop in Rome. The Christological controversy is a purely intellectual conundrum, and is not particularly divisive.

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