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If you have lasted with us this far with Tom Lee's extended study of the first 500 years of Christianity give yourself a big pat on the back and consider that you've earned yourself the equivalent of about an undergraduate degree in Christian history — or one unit for a degree at least! Over the next four weeks we're into Tom's study of what it all means—what were the results of the historical developments of the first 500 years?
Epilogue—The Results Part 29.1
The break-up of the Roman Empire and divisions in the Church...
Justinian's western reconquests were impossible to maintain, yet an ever-diminishing Byzantine Empire continued to exist, except for a brief interval under the Crusaders, until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Muhammed II in 1453. The rulers had continued to call themselves Emperors of the Romans, but their language and culture were Greek.
The break-up of the Roman Empire was accompanied by divisions in the Church. Although the ostensible grounds were doctrinal and administrative, the cleavages were largely along racial and national seams in the fabric that the empire had formerly held together. Arian Christianity was largely identified with the Germanic peoples, and in time was absorbed into Roman Catholicism. The descendants of the ancient Egyptians, the Copts, found in Monophysitism reinforcement of their antipathy to Byzantine rule. Similarly it was the bond of Syrian Christianity, and in another form, of the national church of Armenia. Nestorianism continued to be the faith of the majority of Christians in Mesopotamia and the regions of the east, although both Monophysites and Orthodox also had communities in that vast fertile valley and beyond.
In point of numbers the greatest cleavage was between the portions of the Catholic Church that centered respectively at Rome and Constantinople. The separation cannot be given a precise date. It was a gradual drift, partly because of cultural differences, partly because of rivalry between the two great sees, and partly because of the disruption of communication on any regular basis. Occasionally the breach seemed to be healed, but across the centuries it deepened and widened.
When in the centuries immediately following the first five hundred years of the faith, the Roman Empire fell apart; the unity that ideally should have existed in the Christian Church was too feeble to preserve the unity of the Mediterranean world: it was also not strong enough to hold the Catholic Church together. Yet so deeply had the Roman Empire placed its stamp on the Catholic Church; to this day the various fragments into which it broke preserved many of its features, especially those of outward organization. The largest fragment, the Roman Catholic Church, in many ways perpetuates the administrative genius and flaws of pre-Christian Rome.
Justinian's temporary achievements in Italy were nullified when the Lombards invaded Italy. They had been milling around, north of the Danube, until invited by Justinian to cross into Roman lands. Within a few years they were through the Alps, where imperial control relaxed as soon as Justinian died.
The Lombards were feared and hated by the Italians. Although nominally Arian Christians, they were far harsher and more violent than the Goths who had preceded them. Nor could they remain united amongst themselves. They divided the country into thirty-six duchies, whose dukes were constantly at war with each other. The system they created affected the whole future history of Italy.
The unconquered districts between the duchies could not be governed by the emperor at Constantinople, or by his representative in Italy, the exarch at Ravenna. They became independent duchies, like the city-states of ancient Greece, jealous of each other and often at war. Italy would not be permanently united again until 1870, when the Papal States were forcibly incorporated into the kingdom of Italy, under Victor Emmanuel.
Germans dominated Western Europe but still considered themselves settlers within an empire that still existed. All around them were monuments of a civilization that excited their wonder, which they had not produced, could not preserve, and would not be able to emulate in a thousand years.
The arrival of the Lombards was the beginning of what has become known as the Dark Ages, the long period in which, worshipful monastic Christianity tamed and educated the Germanic nations, and the wild and woolly Celtic monks preserved and valued the works of the great pagan authors, both Greek and Roman, that were burned as demonic by more puritanical monks on the Continent. Irish monks supplanted public confession before the community with private confession to a priest, at first regarded as heretical by more dogmatic Europeans.
The influence of Gregory the Great...
The Bishop of Rome, isolated from both emperor and exarch, had perforce to assume the functions of a political ruler. The duchy of Rome looked to the bishop for civil government, as did gradually other states throughout Italy. These would become known as "the patrimony of Peter". The man who did most to initiate and bring this about was Pope Gregory the Great.
With the general absence of state-imposed law and order in the west, and the disappearance of literacy from public life, reading and writing became the preserve of the monasteries, and what was read and what was written were virtually at the sole discretion of the church. Great-nephew of St. Benedict, Pope Gregory sent colonies of monks to the remotest frontiers, including Britain, where they supplanted the Celtic church that had preceded them. They carried not only the Gospel, but also Latin civilization. By the time Gregory died in 604, the Petrine Theory of the papacy was securely planted throughout Western Europe.
During the first thousand years the Roman Church had a mostly married priesthood, a married episcopate, and even married popes. Two popes — Anastasius I (395-401) and Hormisdas (514-37) — were succeeded by their sons, Innocent I (401-17) and Silverius (536-37). All four are recognized today as saints. But gradually, as monks imposed their views, celibacy was forced upon the Roman church. The last married pope was Adrian II (867-72), but married clergy persisted until the thirteenth century.
The spread of Islam...
Newly spawned Islam swept across North Africa and Southern Spain in the seventh century and virtually eliminated the Christian churches overnight, often at the point of the sword. Bedu from the Empty Quarter of Arabia crossed the Nile and made the Sahara their own.
Mentally exhausted by the doctrinal squabbles of the Christians, many people opted to adopt the simpler faith in One God without the complications of the Trinity, especially as the new faith still honored Jesus as a miraculously born prophet, and his mother as a revered virgin. The fact that Islam imposed faith-based taxes on Christians and Jews also had a major persuasive impact.
For a while Baghdad reigned as the intellectual center of the world, described by Neil deGrasse Tyson as, "a history fossilized in the night sky". The names of the constellations are Greek and Roman, but two thirds of the stars have Arabic names. The words "algebra" and "algorithm" are Arabic. But sometime about 1100, a dark age descended on Islam. Mathematics was seen as the work of the devil and Muslim dogmatic revelation replaced investigation, causing the collapse of the intellectual foundation.
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©2009 Tom Lee