Session 6: The Formation of the Papacy and Eastern Christianity

Session 6 The Formation of the Papacy and Eastern Christianity

Augustine helped to shape the whole history of Christian theology. His understandings on sin and grace, and his interpretation of Paul, influenced not only the Roman Catholic Church, but also Reformed Protestant theology. Yet Augustine fused dogma with Platonist philosophy.

The bishop of Rome began to assume greater and greater powers and prestige in the Early Church. This lesson will extend until the time of Gregory the Great (590-604).

The church in the Eastern part of the empire assumed different characteristics and emphases than the church in the West.


At the end of this lesson, participants should
• review the life of Augustine, using excerpts from his Confessions
 • explain the two positions of Augustine and Pelagius on grace in relation to
            the Articles of Faith
• explain that Augustine’s thinking became the dominant characteristic of
            Western theology
• understand the reasons for the preeminence of the bishop of Rome
• understand how the leadership of Gregory the Great strengthened the
            Papacy and contributed to the church’s theology
 • explain the beginnings of Eastern Orthodoxy
 • explain distinctive theological patterns emerging in the East

Prepare Before Class

A. Read: Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, chapters 13, 14 and 15

B. Read the following articles and give a one paragraph answer to the question asked.
            1. Augustine
                        What are the differences between Augustine and Pelagius views concerning

2. The Rise of the Papacy
                        What is the danger in the Church having civil power?

            3.The Rise of Eastern Christianity
                        What was the Eastern Church’s understanding of holiness, i.e. Christian

C. Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:  


We see in Augustine many of the antecedents of both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. John Calvin was especially indebted to Augustine’s understanding of predestination and election.

Meanwhile, Pelagius was uniformly condemned not only by Augustine and the Early Church but by Jacob Arminius, John Wesley, and holiness theologians. Their objection to Pelagius lay not in the aspirations he had for holiness, but in his denial of original sin. When John Wesley described original sin and human beings apart from grace, he did so with as dark and dire descriptions as John Calvin or Augustine.

With this background, Wesley fully agreed with the Church of England’s Articles of Religion on “Original or Birth Sin” and “Free Will,” which descended in its very language, from Augustine’s own writings against Pelagius. The Church of England’s position was that “original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.”

Article Eight states that “the condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.”

This Article of Religion was in essence a denial of natural free will in human beings in their present state and an affirmation of free grace. It emphasized that because of human depravity, no good work could come from human beings, apart from the active work of Christ in them to enable them to will the good.

Wesley strenuously defended the doctrine of original sin, but Wesley and his followers understood the Eighth Article of Religion to affirm prevenient grace, the grace that gives all human beings freedom in grace to choose salvation. The Seventh Article of Faith in the Church of the Nazarene, on “Prevenient Grace,” had its origins in the statements of the Church of England, and its wording remains very close to them.

The Rise of the Papacy
The Early Centuries
Refer to Resource 6-1 in the Student Guide.

Paul’s independence from Jerusalem, and the missionary movement of Christianity into the Roman Empire, were important aspects of moving the church’s center westward. By 160 the church at Rome had monuments to Paul and Peter. Rome, being the capital of the empire, quickly became the strategic center of the church. The bishop of Rome considered himself first among equals. In a controversy over baptism (about A.D. 250) Stephen, bishop of Rome, used Matthew 16:18 to justify his own authority over Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. This was perhaps the first time the text was used to justify, on the basis of Jesus’ words to Peter, the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, his supposed successor. But it did not convince Cyprian.

The term “pope” originated in the Latin word “papa,” meaning father. Originally, it applied to all teachers and ministers, but soon became limited to bishops and abbots. By 300 it was even more confined to the bishops of the ancient sees, including Rome.

Claims to Authority Increase

Theological controversies indicated need for central authority. Toleration under Constantine legitimized the centrality of both Constantinople and Rome as centers Theological controversies indicated need for central authority. Toleration under Constantine legitimized the centrality of both Constantinople and Rome as centers of church authority, but the church in Rome claimed historical precedence. The church at Rome collected the laws and codes of the church from throughout the empire. It began to place these in a system so churches could understand precedents for action. Often churches throughout the empire called upon the Roman bishop to arbitrate disputes and to interpret and apply the precedents.

Meanwhile, the general councils of Nicea and Constantinople (381) weakened the authority of local synods. Damasus, who was bishop of Rome from 366 to 384, saw requests and inquiries to Rome as similar to appeals made to the emperor. Damasus’s letters became decrees. Roman liturgical customs were widely copied in the West. The Constantinople Council in 381 referred to Rome as the first see and Constantinople as the second, but based this on political realities, not scriptural authority. It also transferred Thessalonica to Constantinople’s jurisdiction.

Claims to authority increased under Leo I, who was bishop of Rome from 440 to 461. He brought grandeur and a sense of the imperial to the Papacy. He thought himself to be Peter speaking and writing. His influence increased when the tome he issued prior to the Chalcedon Council (451) was favorably received, though not because it was from Rome, but because it was consistent with tradition and earlier councils. Yet the Chalcedon Council also lifted Constantinople to a place equal to Rome, and widened the gulf between East and West. In 452 Leo personally met with Attila the Hun and persuaded him to refrain from attacking southern Italy. When Vandals invaded Rome from Africa in 455 Leo met with the leader and persuaded him not to set fire to the city or to torture and massacre its inhabitants. At the same time, Leo helped console the populace.

Leo was the first to use officially the term “pope,” which had been adopted by one of his predecessors in the late fourth century. The term was not exclusively confined to the bishop of Rome until the eleventh century.

The pope again became symbolic of political, social, and religious stability as the Ostrogoths moved into Italy in the 470s. In 476 the last Roman emperor was dethroned and Ostrogoth rule began. As a result of missionary work the previous century by Ulfilas, an Arian, the Ostrogoths already were Christian. The pope formed alliances with Arian Gothic rulers.

As claims to the authority of Rome increased, the church of the East increasingly resented the interference of the West and the pretensions of the pope. In the 490s Pope Felix II excommunicated both the bishop of Constantinople and the Eastern emperor for consorting with Monophysitism. Felix’s successor, Pope Gelasius, argued that the emperor himself and all civil powers were to obey the pope. Emperor Justinian reunited the empire, 527-565, and with this the power of the pope temporarily subsided.

Gregory the Great

Refer to Resource 6-2 in the Student Guide.
Gregory (b. c. 540) was pope 590-604 and is considered one of the “doctors,” along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, of the Catholic Church. Under him the power of the Papacy reached a new height.

Gregory was born to a wealthy, patrician family. He entered a monastery in 574. He proceeded to establish six monasteries on family-owned land. Gregory became a deacon in 578.

The pope sent him as his emissary to Constantinople in 579. He stayed for several years, becoming an expert on Eastern Church affairs. He returned to a monastery in Rome in 585 and became advisor to Pope Pelagius II. During this time he saw slaves from England being sold in Roman markets. Because of their light hair and complexion he called them “angels” and developed a desire to see them evangelized.

He was reluctant to accept election as pope, since it would lead him away from the contemplative life. Gregory was the first pope to have been a monk. As pope, Gregory’s chief advisors were monks. He described himself as “servant to God’s servants.” As pope he was forced to assume civil responsibilities. Roman citizens were starving and under threat of the Lombards, a German tribe, partly Arian in religion, that had established a kingdom in northern Italy.

Gregory established alliances with other states and worked out treaties with the Lombards, whom he also attempted to convert. At the same time, Gregory was responsible for rebuilding the old Roman aqueducts of the city. He reorganized the vast estates now controlled by the Papacy in Italy, Sicily, Gaul, and North Africa. He sought to provide accountability for their administration and effect a more efficient, humane management of the citizens of these states.

In other reform measures, Gregory established codes for election and conduct of bishops. He also enforced clerical celibacy. Some priests had taken to living under the same roof with women. The church still, in this time and place, allowed married priests. If a priest had been married before his ordination, he could remain married. But a rule was decreed by local councils since the early fourth century that married priests could not live with their wives. Their wives were expected to enter convents. But this rule was often broken, and Gregory aimed to enforce it among bishops, priests, and deacons.

Gregory guarded the prerogatives of the church to discipline its own clergy, rather than having them go before civil tribunals. At the same time, he refused the restoration of lapsed clergy to clerical orders.

Outside of Rome, Gregory argued for supremacy of the Roman bishop vis à vis Constantinople. He also strengthened ties between the Papacy and churches in Spain and Gaul.

The pope worried about the overzealousness of the Irish missionaries, who possessed ancient Christian customs not always in accord with Roman practices. He sensed that the Irish missionaries would dominate and weaken loyalty to Rome. In 596 or 597 Gregory sent a well-educated monk, Augustine (d. 604), along with 40 other monks, to evangelize England. They settled in the Kingdom of Kent in 597. Within a few months, King Ethelbert—whose wife, Bertha, was already a Christian —accepted the faith. Augustine sent missionaries to other parts of England.

King Ethelbert gave Augustine charge over the cathedral of Canterbury. But his fellow monks became weary of evangelizing the English. Gregory sent the discouraged monks a letter:

Gregory, Servant of the servants of God, to the servants of our Lord. My very dear sons, it is better never to undertake any high enterprise than to abandon it when once begun. So with the help of God you must carry out this holy task, which you have begun. Do not be deterred by the troubles of the journey or by what men say. Be constant and zealous in carrying out this enterprise which, under God’s guidance, you have undertaken: and be assured that the greater the labour, the greater will be the glory of your eternal reward.

Gregory instructed that English converts could keep their old, pagan places of worship if they were consecrated with holy water.

Gregory introduced changes in liturgical music. He popularized the plainsong, the traditional music of the Latin church, which was based on older Roman chants. It became known as the Gregorian chant. The chant was “monodic,” made up of one part only. It was purely vocal, needing no instrumental accompaniment. The chant was founded on verbal prose-rhythms, and so lacked musical time values. Its scales or modes, instead of running from C or A—as does modern music—ran from D through G. The chants were eventually printed with square notes.

Among the hymns attributed to Gregory himself is one entitled “Morning”:

Father, we praise Thee, now the night is over;
Active and watchful, stand we all before Thee;
Singing, we offer prayer and meditation: thus we
adore Thee.
Monarch of all things, fit us for Thy mansions.
Banish our weakness, health and wholeness
Bring us to heaven, where Thy saints united joy
without ending.
All holy Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Trinity blessed, send us Thy salvation;
Thine is the glory, gleaming and resounding
through all creation. Amen.

Gregory also encouraged art. “Painting,” he said, “can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read.”

Gregory was also a practical writer. One of his most important works was Pastoral Rule—or Pastoral Care— written in 591. It became the textbook of the medieval pastorate. Gregory admonished that the priestly office is to care for souls. The pastor must be compassionate and selfless in devotion. He must be a physician, ready to meet moral diseases by a variety of methods.

The authority or government over souls, said Gregory, was the “art of arts.” It required humility and selfless devotion. The pastor was to be the model or example. That was more important than the precepts he might teach. The priest must be compassionate to all, but superior in spiritual qualities. He is the shepherd of their souls. The Pastoral Rule provided a kind of psychology, listing contrasting personality traits, with corresponding warnings. Aiming to help people guard against vice, Gregory listed seven deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Anger, Dejection (low spirits), Avarice (greed), Gluttony, and Lust.

As a theologian, Gregory developed a theology of prevenient grace. On original sin, Gregory closely followed Augustine. But Gregory understood that God set the will free from its bondage to sin and made it possible for to choose the good. God assisted the will, once freed, to will the good. Gregory stressed the free action of the will as an original agent, not merely as an instrument of God. To Gregory, the will can refuse to cooperate with God’s grace. Free will and grace, said Gregory, were two independent and necessary factors necessary for sanctification. Gregory cited 1 Corinthians 15:10 in this regard.

The good we do belonged both to grace and to ourselves. Subsequent grace enabled human beings actually to carry out the good they willed, for without this subsequent outpouring of grace we could not carry out the good we will, and no merits, no good works were possible apart from grace. Yet, said Gregory, merits do derive from our acting and cooperating with grace. It is truly our righteousness, and not God’s alone, and God imputes this righteousness wholly to us alone. Gregory rejected the idea of irresistible grace.

 Gregory taught that baptism alone delivered from the guilt of original sin. He developed a doctrine of purgatory based on the idea that no sin can go unpunished, and that those who go to purgatory have sins that can be cleansed by its “fire,” aided by the prayers of the faithful, who may offer mass for the dead.

Gregory has become highly regarded by historians for his noble attempts to see the church reformed. His “servant of the servants” mentality was genuine. The prestige of the Papacy grew. However, lesser bishops of Rome were less noble in their intentions and more apt to abuse the power the Papacy had attained.

The Rise of Eastern Christianity

Refer to Resource 6-3 in the Student Guide.
Constantinople became an important and prominent center of Christianity almost as soon as Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople, in honor of himself, in 324. Like the apologists earlier in the church’s history, and even more than in the West, the Eastern churches retained the Greek language and promoted the integration of Christianity and Hellenism.

In 379 Theodosius, the newly crowned emperor, went farther than Constantine had, in declaring Christianity the state religion. Like Constantine, Theodosius wanted the Christian church to establish one determined form of Christological orthodoxy.

Philosophy and Theology in the East

While theology in the West remained influenced by Paul’s writings, Roman law and terminology, and Augustine, theology in the East moved in more mystic and Johannine ways. It understood itself as a Semitic religion in a Greek setting, attempting to combine charity, a Hebrew virtue, with reason, a Greek value. Longer than in the West, the Eastern Church continued the study of Plato and Aristotle. Partly as a result, the East stressed the immortality of the soul.

One significant Eastern theologian was Gregory of Nyssa (330-395). He became bishop of Nyssa in 371 but was deposed by a party of Arians in 376. He regained his bishopric in 378. Along with his older brother, Basil, and Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory was one of the Cappadocian Fathers who defended the Nicean faith and opposed Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381. He was known as an eloquent preacher. Though his theology was influenced by Origen, it was ardently Trinitarian.

Of particular interest is Gregory’s understanding of Christian perfection. He understood perfection to be a virtue that, though unattainable, is the highest goal of the Christian. “It may be,” he said, “that human perfection lies precisely in this—constant growth in the good.” The Christian should be growing and maturing in goodness. The ability to improve increasingly transforms the soul. In particular, our growth is toward Christlikeness. “None can accurately be called a Christian if his mind assents but his body does not harmonize with his declared way of life.”

Gregory understood the process of perfection to begin at baptism and to be sustained by the Eucharist. It depended on the gracious act of God in Christ. The alternative to growth toward perfection is to succumb to the world. Gregory’s understanding of perfection as a dynamic growth process was quite a different emphasis from others, influenced by Platonism, who considered perfection as a static ideal.

Gregory’s influence upon Eastern thought lay also through his emphasis upon the inscrutability of God. Not only is God invisible, but He is incomprehensible. The only way to speak of God was by “way of negation,” saying what He was not. Yet this way of negation was a means toward mystical union with God.

Another leading Eastern theologian who undertook theology as a “way of negation” was a person known only as Pseudo-Dionysius, who lived about A.D. 500. He was probably a Syrian. Dionysius spoke of a hierarchical world that formed the basis of a hierarchical church. He sought ways to find union with God. The three ways an individual may come to God, explained Dionysius, were purgative—cathartic, illuminative, and finally, unitive. Dionysius typified the Eastern church’s mysticism.

Continuation of Christological Controversies

Refer to Resource 6-4 in the Student Guide.
In 451 the Council of Chalcedon affirmed that Jesus was not divided, but was one person in two natures— truly God and truly human. It confessed that the deity and humanity of Jesus were not changed into something else. Numbers of Christians in the East rejected this creed and held that Jesus possessed but one nature, in which divine life and human were indistinguishable. This one nature teaching was an important factor contributing to the breaking away of the Monophysite churches from the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Yet opposition to Chalcedon’s understanding of Christ as one person in two natures—human and divine— remained in the East, where Monophysitism was strong. Monophysitism preferred to understand Christ as having one incarnate nature. Emperor Zeno—who ruled from 474 to 491—attempted mediation. He issued an “Edict of Union” or “Henoticon” in 482. It refuted the Chalcedon conclusions but affirmed the Nicene Creed and earlier councils. But this was not accepted in the West for ecclesiastical as well as theological reasons. The Henoticon diminished Rome’s authority and elevated that of Acacius, who was patriarch of Constantinople from 471 to 489. Pope Felix excommunicated Acacius. This act led to the “Schism of Acacius” (484–519), during which time the Eastern and Western branches of the church were broken apart.

During this time, Severus (465-538), patriarch of Antioch from 512 to 518, espoused a moderate position he hoped would mediate between the Monophysite and Chalcedonian understandings. Against strict Monophysites and Docetists, Severus affirmed the true, bodily incarnation, as well as the divinity of Christ. He taught the consubstantiality of both natures in one. However, the emperor deposed Severus in 518. The Eastern Church then returned to the formula of Pope Leo, which had preceded the Chalcedon Council’s conclusions, and repealed the Henoticon. But “verbal” Monophysitism, which affirmed the consubstantiality of both the human and divine in one incarnate nature, remained the position of the Coptic or Egyptian Church.

Another controversy separating Western and Eastern understandings was the theopaschite controversy, which centered on whether it was more correct to say the deity of Christ suffered, or only the humanity of Christ. It was prompted by a Greek liturgical phrase— known as the trisagion—“Holy God, Holy and strong, Holy and immortal, have mercy on us.” It implied that since Christ was both God and human united, God himself suffered.

   Justinian (483-565), who ruled from 527 to 565, was the most important political figure of the time. He reconquered North Africa and Italy from the Vandals and Goths, closed the philosophical academy in Athens, built impressive churches, and sought to unify Christianity. He persecuted Montanists and attempted to reconcile the Monophysites. Justinian strengthened the position of the patriarch of Constantinople, whom the churches now revered as successor to the apostle Andrew, brother of Peter.

Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following: 

AUGUSTINE’S CONFESSIONS, READING 6  BOOK FIVE A year of decision. Faustus comes to Carthage and Augustine is disenchanted in his hope for solid demonstration of the truth of Manichean doctrine. He decides to flee from his known troubles at Carthage to troubles yet unknown at Rome. His experiences at Rome prove disappointing, and he applies for a teaching post at Milan. Here he meets Ambrose, who confronts him as an impressive witness for Catholic Christianity and opens out the possibilities of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Augustine decides to become a Christian catechumen. 

CHAPTER III 3. Let me now lay bare in the sight of God the twentyninth year of my age. There had just come to Carthage a certain bishop of the Manicheans, Faustus by name, a great snare of the devil; and many were entangled by him through the charm of his eloquence. Now, even though I found this eloquence admirable, I was beginning to distinguish the charm of words from the truth of things, which I was eager to learn. Nor did I consider the dish as much as I did the kind of meat that their famous Faustus served up to me in it. His fame had run before him, as one very skilled in an honorable learning and pre-eminently skilled in the liberal arts. And as I had already read and stored up in memory many of the injunctions of the philosophers, I began to compare some of their doctrines with the tedious fables of the Manicheans; and it struck me that the probability was on the side of the philosophers, whose power reached far enough to enable them to form a fair judgment of the world, even though they had not discovered the sovereign Lord of it all. For you are great, O Lord, and you have respect unto the lowly, but the proud you know afar off. You draw near to none but the contrite in heart, and canst not be found by the proud, even if in their inquisitive skill they may number the stars and the sands, and map out the constellations, and trace the courses of the planets.

Preparation for Session 7
Email your response paragraphs to the Sunday before the session.

A. Read: Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, chapters 17 and 18
            Write a Big Idea paragraph from your reading

B. Read the following articles and give a one paragraph answer to the question asked.
            1. The Church and the Ministry in the Early Middle Ages
                        Should ministers today become involved in politics?
2. The Spread and Development of Christianity in Europe
                        Compare the advantages of reaching out to the ruling class or the common
            3.Expansion Eastward
                        What are appropriate ways to expand the gospel today?

C. Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:  


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