The Undivided Church of the 1st Millennium – How Undivided?

Some time ago I asked you all for books that “thwack” hit you so hard that it changed how you viewed the world. I want to share one book that has changed by view of Christian history. This would be Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (HarperOne, 2010). The book is a long chronicle of the 5th-century struggles and fights over the doctine of Jesus Christ both God and man. By showing how the camps within the Church relied on a variety of authorities, including Emperors, to rally for their respective positions, Jenkins illustrates how Christian division is not something that began in 1054 A.D. with the Greek and Latin schism (that date is merely symbolic, anyhow). Far before the 11th century, members of the ancient Churches had formed crystallized schisms apart from one another, and all claimed they had a right to do so. The first massive sign of enduring separation was the population of Christians in Assyria/Persia, all who eventually held large populations in the far East, and these were not in communion with the Western Churches, that is, of the Roman Empire (Antioch and further West to Rome). These Christians continued to exist even to this day, and they have struggled to incorporate the Council of Ephesus (431) as binding upon them (for more info, see R&T interview with Qasha Ephraim Ashur Alkhas).


Most notable is the schism that resulted from the Synod of Chalcedon (451) which broke the unity of the Churches especially in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. These Churches, categorized as Miaphysite by general historical reference, are within Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian Orthodoxy (et. al.). Rejecting Chalcedon (451), they are content with counting only 3 Ecumenical Councils (I’m under the impression they also count Ephesus 449, and perhaps one or two more that are off the grid), and continued to exist in massive sections of the East Roman Empire throughout the 1st millennium. Of course, they are a significant portion of Oriental Christianity to this day.


These divisions show that many Christians in the first 5 centuries had different ideas of what is the “final authority” in matters of doctrine and discipline. Of course, we all know there were the bold and absolute claims of the Bishop of Rome. We also know that many felt quite ready to part ways with him. We also know, as already can be seen from above, that many Christians felt quite ready to reject the authority of Ecumenical Councils if they thought they were going against the truth of Apostolic tradition. It would seem many of them were content to simply refer to their best understandings of the tradition over and against Popes, Councils, and even renowned doctors of the faith in their time. The perception of truth was something that was verified *inwardly* in their own minds, and they were happy to tell everyone this was the case.


One impact this had on me is that I couldn’t be so bold and brash to uphold the magisterial Papacy as if this was understood by everyone to be the crystal ball in which perfect truth was revealed, or an oracle that reveals all the right answers on request Nonsense. While it is true that the Papacy was clearly claimed as divine in origin and definitive in doctrine, not everyone thought that breaking communion with the Pope was akin to grabbing a live wire that would ecclesiastically electrocute you from communion with Christ. If they thought this, they couldn’t come close to acting as they did in many instances.


I also couldn’t be so bold and brash to uphold the authority of Ecumenical Councils as if this was understood, as well, to be the crystal ball from which all questions get their divine answer. Too many were willing to thumb their nose at Councils, and we see large swoths of Apostolic churches felt they could do so, regardless of how many Bishops were present, and regardless of whether Emperor and Pope supported it. Again, their perception of the “final authority” was largely subjective to their own interpretations. Luther, therefore, wasn’t the first one to say that both Councils and Popes could err. That’s for sure. Knowing what Council was a true Council was key, and while we may gravitate towards the Papal-Episcopal explanation (which seems right to me), that wasn’t adhered to by everyone. Often times it was the Emperor who procured orthodoxy on behalf of the realm. And so, this has led me to have a much more tempered attitude when speaking with other Christians. Determining the right doctrinal epistemology in light of history is like navigating very rough waters. It can’t be done with rash presupposition and overly exaggerative platitudes. Often enough, getting to the truth involves being willing to listen to alternative views before going on the offense. Now, please don’t mistake me for thinking that there is no place for the Papacy or Ecumenical Councils. I’m simply calling attention to the crooked lines of history that God has, for whatever reason in his divine wisdom, allowed to be carried out.


One part of the book which struck me dead is cited below. Now, we might say that Jenkins here is guilty of a little bit of exaggeration, but, for the most part, it checks out. I wouldn’t go as far as saying precisely what he says, but it is true enough to make one think. Christian division is a tragedy that has been with us for far longer than many who think there was this transparently singular and visible Church until the Latin vs. Byzantine schism, let alone the Protestant reforms. Even between the Latins and the Greeks there were schisms on and off throughout the 1st millennium, all which count up cumulatively (between 324 to 787) to almost half the time, as the late historian L. Duchesne once calculated. This is all something to dwell on, for sure. Before rushing to speak of how the Roman Pope was divinely instituted by God to be the principle of unity until the end of time (a belief I’m committed to defend, however difficult), a moment to meditate on the below is in order.

Despite the theological slogans of the time, Christ was not divided; but the Christian world certainly was, irreparably. Now, Christian divisions as such were not new. At least since the apostles left Jerusalem, at no point in Christian history has one single church plausibly claimed the loyalty of all believers to the exclusion of rival institutions. In the mid-fourth century, perhaps half of all Christians belonged to some group that the Great Church regarded as heretical or schismatic, and new splits continued to form. Viewed historically, a denominationally divided world is not an exceptional circumstance for Christians, but the conventional norm. Dilemmas of interchurch conflict and cooperation go back literally to the foundation of the faith… Already in 550, Christendom was quite as divided as it would be during the great early modern split between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox” (p. 12-13)

A Simple, Scriptural Rule of Daily Prayer

A simplified prayer rule from Scripture for every man

Tom's Digest

I have written in the past about the liturgy of the hours, the “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and other relatively complex and arcane forms of prayer, primarily drawn from or connected with the Roman Catholic tradition.

Day 5: Morning Prayer

I would like to offer for any Christian who might benefit from it a rather simple, cheap (no $100+ breviaries or prayer books required!), scripturally-based rule of prayer that I have personally found helpful.

I frequently carry around with me a little vest-pocket size New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs (English Standard Version), published by Crossway and available for under $10. It is excellently made, with a handsome chestnut cover and durable Smyth-sewn binding, and it has put up with (so far) at least a couple years’ worth of near-daily abuse, being carried around in jeans pockets and bags, etc.

I have used a pencil to…

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Gregory Palamas and Created Grace

File:Gregor Palamas.jpg
Gregory Palamas 1296-1359

According to Fr. John Meyendorff (1926-1992), one of the most prolific Orthodox writers in the 20th century on Eastern Orthodox theology and history, cites Gregory Palamas on the latter’s recognition that there truly is a sense in which we can speak of “created grace”. I was pleasantly suprised to see this in light of how much the very term “created grace” gets condemned by the oecumenical council of the world wide web. I was also intrigued to see that Palamas appears (if we can trust the citation/translation provided by Meyendorff) to recognize that what effect grace (the uncreated kind, i.e. God) has in the human creature would have to be created, which is certainly one of the driving reasons why the Scholastics spoke of “created grace” in the first place.


“‘There is nothing strange,’ Palamas writes, ‘in using the word “grace” both for the created and the uncreated and in speaking of a created grace distinct from the created.’ In what sense can one use the same word ‘grace’ about fundamentally different realities? We have seen that Palamas was aware of the many meanings of the word; he defined the matter thus: ‘All that flows from the Spirit towards those who have been baptized in the Spirit according to the Gospel of grace, and who have been rendered completely spiritual, comes from the Source; it all comes from it, and also remains it it’…. So the word is the same because the origin is the same; men ‘received by the grace of God, and not through themselves, what they have receive, for God alone does not possess his realities through grace; in this context the word ‘grace’ indicates that it was given to them.’ ‘But‘, he continues, ‘all is not alike in what God gives us… God has said by the mouth of Ezekiel: “A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh(Ezek 36:26), and, “I will put my Spirit into you” (Ezek 37:5). Do you see the difference between the gifts? The new spirit and the new heart are created things: that is what the Apostle also called “a new creature” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), because it was received and renrwed by the coming in flesh of him who first created it; whereas the Spirit of God given to the new heart is the Holy Spirit.’There is a created grace and another grace uncreated,’ he writes elsewhere ‘… but since the gift which the Saints receive and by which they are deified, is none other than God himself, how canst thou say that that too is a created grace’?”

John Meyendorff, trans. George Lawrence, A Study of Gregory Palamas (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary Press,1974), 164.


So it appears that Palamas understands that the effect of uncreated grace (God) has in the human being, understood as being proper to the human creature, is created. If I’ve understood this correctly, this would have gone a long way in aiding the famous ecumenical dialogues that took place in 1953 at the monastery of Chevetogne on the subject of Grace, East & West. In attendence was Fr. Meyendorff, along with Catholics and Protestant theologians. At this meeting, the view of grace and human deification was discussed from the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox point of views. The contributions of each side were summarized in a wonderful book (incredibly difficult to find) entitled The Theology of Grace: And the Oecumenical Movement by C. Moeller and G. Philips (trans. from the French by R.A. Wilson), both Professors at the University of Louvain. It was published in London by A.R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd. in 1961 (both nihil obstat/imprimatur).


Moeller and Philips make a keen observation as they saw the exchange between Fr. Meyendorff and the Catholic party (which included Monsignor Philips and Rev. Father Walty, O.P.). They write:


“The desire of the scholastics to lay down a doctrine of created grace is explained by their different point of view: the East is concerned, as we have already said, with what it is in God that makes it possible for Him to give Himself; while the West is also concerned — though not to the exclusion of all else — with what it is in man that makes it possible for him to receive and take to himself God and His divine life. In other words, the East has never attempted a philosophical explanation of deification; and yet if it were satisfactorily described, the doctrine of the habitus [created grace] would probably be less unacceptable to them; in the same way, catholic theologians, anxious to explain as much as possible about the recipient of divine life, obviously do not deny the ‘uncreated’ character of the life itself; they merely introduce distinctions that are useful to them, but which the East has always distrusted, especially when they are taken from the philosophy of Aristotle.” (p. 9)


I’m sure there are more than one point in that statement which an Orthodox might take issue with (or even a Catholic, for that matter). But the general framework distinguishing East and West on how we get to a real deification was an apt description. Later in the book, they seem to get close to what Palamas said from the citations provided by Fr. Meyendorff, and I’d be curious if they were shared at the 1953 meeting:


“In both cases (Aristotelian/Platonic structure to grace theology), however, there is divine intervention. It can be looked at either in its uncreated source, or in its created effect, bringing about perfection in the creature, and consequently a created perfection. Those who see in grace the introduction of a new faculty (i.e. the new man), see it in its effect; those who see in it the re-establishmnet of the God-like condition of man, lay more stress on the divine, uncreated character of this progress towards deification. But the former cannot forget that the presence of the Holy Spirit (uncreated grace) comes before created grace; nor the other, that grace works in a creature and produces created effects.” (p. 40 – parantheses mine).


It seems clear to me that Palamas does not wish to say that God-qua-action becomes so communicable to the creature that the creature and God’s action become one thing, a mixture of creation and uncreation, finite and infinite. What is proper to the human being remains intact, and this seems to be a bridge on which the dialogue can make for a crossing to speak of created grace.

Abolition of Infant Communion in the West: Its Origins

The best explanation for how infant communion was abolished in the Roman rite is herein explained by J.D.C. Fisher Sadly, the title of his book had to include “A Study in the Disintegration of the Primitive Rite of Initiation” since, let’s be frank, that is precisely what occurred. Here goes it:

In the eleventh century, however, doubts began to arise about the propriety of communicating infants and sick persons in consequence of a growing scrupulosity regarding the consecrated elements, itself the result of the gradual victory of Realism over Symbolism… In these circumstances the Church began to feel uneasy about the communion of persons who might not be able to swallow the hosts… The first step taken to obviate the grave risk involved in communicating infants was to give them communion sub specie sanguinis (under the species of blood) only… But the doctrine of Realism led in time also to a growing disinclination to permit any of the laity ever to communicate from the chalice, a development which discouraged and eventually brought to an end the practice of communicating newly baptized infants sub specie sanguinis. It became increasingly common in the West during the thirteenth century for the laity to be communicated sub specie corporis (under the species of the body) only… Consequently in view of the reluctance which we have observed to give the consecreated host to infants, in many places infants ceased to be communicated at all… Infant communion, it seems, was not finally abolished in the West until the Council of Trent declared that infants lacking the use of reason were under no obligation to receive the sacramental communion of the Eucharist, since, having been regenerated through the laver of baptism and incorporated into Christ, they could not in infancy lose the grace of sons of God then received. But the Council was hard put to it to explain away the practice of the past without appearing to condemn it. Antiquity, it said, was not to be condemned if it maintained that custom (i.e. of giving communion to infants) in certain places for a time — an extraordinary statement in view of the fact that ALL CHURCHES IN THE WEST admitted infants to communion until the twelfth century, and this practice had been generally approved for a thousand years. Nor is this all: for the Council of Trent went on to allege that the holy fathers of antiquity found an adequate reason for what they did in the situation of that time, and without treating communion as necessary to the salvation of infants, a claim which is not in accordance with the facts.

J.D.C. Fisher, Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West: A Study in the Disintegration of the Primitive Rite of Initiation (London: SPCK, 1965), 100-107; Alcuin Club Collections No. XLVII

Everything above seems to be entirely accurate… save for the last sentence. While it is true certain scholastic thinkers thought that it was necessary to consume the Body and Blood of Christ (via at least one kind) was absolutely necessary for salvation such that, without doing so, one is consigned to the flames of hell, this doesn’t appear to be well supported by the Church Fathers. If anyone can point me in that direction, I’d like to see what you can point to. I’ve written briefly on that matter (Baptized but no Eucharist? Heaven or Hell). Beside this, I find Fisher’s explanation for the abolition of infant communion to be sufficient to explain the change.