The Fall of Constantinople & the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Scholars Launched the Renaissance
The Emperor and the Patriarch of Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire) came to Ferrara, Italy in 1438, to meet with the Roman Catholics and heal their division. 700 Orthodox Church leaders came along on this journey. A reunion between the Latin Roman Catholic and the Greek Eastern Orthodox churches was announced in 1439 in Florence, and across Europe, church bells rang in celebration.
The Byzantine visitors included many scholars, who brought with them Latin translations of the Greek Church Fathers. Ambrose Traversari, a monk from Florence, was enthralled with these writings. He said that the Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius “fascinates me so much that it is hard to believe.”
Traversari found that he couldn’t put down the treatises of Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom. Most thrilling of all were the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite. The seeds of the Renaissance were sown in Florence.
The Fall of Constantinople
Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire (Byzantium), wasn’t what it used to be. During the 12th Century, there were 60,000 foreigners living in the city, then the richest and most beautiful on earth.
Constantinople was filled with warehouses and markets. Sumptuous silks, fabulous jewelry, enameled metalwork, delicately carved ivory, perfumes, spices, and leather goods seemed to be on every corner of the commercial district. Customs duties alone brought in an estimated $20 million worth of gold to the emperor’s coffers during the 12th Century.
The emperor’s right hand man, known as the eparch, administrated the city with thousands of bureaucrats. He set prices, interest rates, and wages; certified weights and scales; levied duties on all goods passing in or out of the city; regulated the rate of exchange; and dictated terms of trade to all merchants. Commercial laws were strictly enforced.
Byzantium, founded by Constantine the Great in AD 330, had once been a vast and great empire—the new Roman Empire of the East. As the physical dimensions of Byzantium shrank, so did its political influence. The structures of the state then began to rot away, leading to riots, class conflicts, and civil war. The country was heavily taxed, but military expenditures regularly ran the treasury out of money.
By the 15th Century, the army was tiny, and the navy may as well have been nonexistent considering the pirates who ran wild in the area unchallenged. The once magnificent imperial dockyards were in a ramshackle state.
The city of Constantinople was pockmarked with ruins, abandoned monasteries, and the wrecks of ancient mansions. The city was now sparsely populated, and the inhabitants, were sad and poor, showing the hardship of their lot—a far cry from the elegantly dressed residents of days gone by. Their gold and silver goblets had been replaced by cups of pewter or clay. Even their jewels were fake.
The sack of Constantinople by Latin Crusaders and Venetians in 1204 had been the deathblow. Since then, the Muslims had been moving closer and closer to the hallowed city and were obsessed with the desire to conquer it in its entirety. Because of the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christendom, the West had long refused military assistance. Finally, the pope launched a crusade to save Constantinople in 1443, but the forces that were able to reach Bulgaria were ultimately defeated by the Muslim invaders.
The Muslim Turks, led by Janissaries—European boys captured and enslaved to be made warriors from childhood—conquered Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantine defense of the city had been heroic for eight weeks, but they were outnumbered 80,000 to 7,000, making the situation utterly hopeless. The Byzantine Empire was at long last finished.
The Muslim Turks pulled screaming girls and nuns from churches by their hair in order to rape them. After looting the city, those victims who were not selected as slaves were killed, creating a mountain of corpses. The 21-year-old sultan entered Constantinople and made a beeline for the most beautiful and hallowed church in the world—the Hagia Sofia. It was declared to now be a mosque. The name of the city would be changed to Istanbul. The Roman Empire was no more.
After the fall of Constantinople, Eastern Orthodox Christians relocated their headquarters to Moscow, under the protection of Ivan III (1462-1505). Ivan pledged to defend the Orthodox against Muslims and Catholics, and sealed the deal by marrying a Byzantine princess. He called himself the Tsar or Czar (Caesar).
The main language of the Orthodox was now Slavonic rather than Greek. Russia was to keep the Orthodox flame alive.
Before the fall of Constantinople, Greek theologians summarized Orthodox doctrine. Relations between East and West had seen their nadir—the sack of Constantinople by Christian Crusaders from the West; and their zenith—the reunion at Florence. Now orthodoxy was to be transplanted from Byzantine to Slavic soil.
Christianity was in a sorry state anyway in the East. You could see the name of Christ displayed throughout Byzantium, but there were very few genuine Christians who manifested the virtues of humility and chastity in their daily lives. There were those who were blessed and true, usually monks, whose dedication to Christ enabled them, by divine grace, to acquire a mystical awareness of the divine presence.
The mystical experience would also come upon someone in the course of the Orthodox liturgy, such as the chanting of the Trisagion or the recitation of the Kyrie. The mystical ecstasy of the individual and the liturgical ritual of the church were closely bound together.
Christ was the divine teacher who instructed the faithful through the Holy Spirit, but it was the traditional concept of Christ as the example of obedience and humility that was emphasized. The saints are members of the one body of Christ. Whoever was pure in heart could see God here and now. The imitation of Christ and identification with Christ became a summons to a life of holiness and love.
It was the commandments that marked the difference between a believer and an unbeliever. Being Orthodox and participating in the rituals of the church would not suffice to win salvation. God sought to create in those who believe in him a heart that is contrite and humble. Obedience to the demands of this love was the path to truth. Love in action was the most appropriate vehicle for the articulation of truth.
The Orthodox did not believe in the transmission of Original Sin through conception and birth; but that generations repeat the sins of Adam as a consequence of his fall.
“You become partakers in the divine nature,” said 2 Peter 1:4. To the Orthodox this means that salvation is immortality. This is authentic humanity, purified, a conjunction of divine and human, deified.
The Greeks were not above studying pagan thinkers such as Plato, as has been well established. They believed that God had enlightened ancient philosophers, living before the time of Jesus. As Barlaam wrote, “Plato himself has well understood divine transcendence. Other Greek philosophers understood that the God who is beyond essence and beyond name transcends mind, knowledge, and every other achievement."
To the Orthodox Christians, we could never know who God is, only who He is not.
Silence is a fitting expression of the relation of man to God. The Orthodox sought a mystical experience related to the Transfiguration. The emphasis of their spirituality is on vision as the instrument and the goal of faith. When Stephen, the first martyr, gazed into heaven he saw the glory God. Christ had said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
God’s eternal light is His authentic revelation and His eternal grace is conferred on the faithful as the saving gift of deification—we shall become gods.
The Relationship between Orthodox Christians and Catholics
An ever-present reality in the life of Eastern Christendom during the last two centuries of Byzantine history was the prospect of reunion with the West. But the Greeks hated the Latins for the wrongs they had suffered at their hands.
As always in the controversy between East and West, the matter of authority in the Church seemed to be the most important and to lie at the bottom of other matters. The conflict was over the authority of Rome, not the issue of the authority of the pope, since all Eastern theologians had conceded this, but how Rome had obtained the primacy.
To the Orthodox, the basis of primacy had been the position of Rome as the capital of the empire. From this premise some Eastern theologians were willing to draw the conclusion that the primacy of the bishop of Rome had lasted only as long as the imperial authority of the city of Rome. When she stopped being the imperial city because barbarians enslaved her, she lost her primacy.
To the Orthodox, if any city had a universal claim, it would be Jerusalem, the unquestioned mother of all Christianity.
The Orthodox rejected claims by the pope to have authority equal to Scripture. Even Peter, despite his primacy, had allowed himself to be corrected by Paul. So, not even Peter was infallible. The pope was to be obeyed as long as he remains in truth; but if he rejects truth, he was to be rejected. Scripture reigns supreme, and papal claims were exaggerated.
The real issue between East and West then, was the refusal of the papacy to submit to a general ecumenical council, in accordance with the ancient practice of the fathers. The Romans had set themselves up as the teachers, with the Orthodox, in the role of pupils, obliged to obey them.
To the Orthodox, his four colleagues, despite his monarchical pretensions, could outvote the bishop of Rome, as he is only one patriarch out of five. It was the custom of the ancients to submit grave issues to an ecumenical council of the Church—not to one person, even if he is the pope.
This basic conflict appeared again and again through the centuries regarding disagreements over the Filioque, the Eucharist—and the doctrine of purgatory, which was rejected by the Greeks. At the council of reconciliation at Florence in 1449, the Latins insisted that the East accept the doctrine of purgatory as apostolic teaching, binding on the entire worldwide Church. But Christ had said that when Lazarus died, the angels to the bosom of Abraham carried him directly and immediately. Western attacks on Orthodox doctrines helped the latter to clarify its concepts.
Orthodox Relations With Protestants
In 1519, Martin Luther, pressed to defend his view that the authority of the pope was not normative for Christian doctrine and life, cited the example of “the Greek Christians during the past thousand years, who have not been under the authority of the Roman pontiff.”
To the Orthodox, Mary, the mother of Jesus, had remained a virgin her entire life. On this they agreed with Catholics but in other issues, they regarded the Church of Rome to be “the lover of innovations.”
Some Greek theologians gave Scripture sole authority, some supreme authority. All of them believed that all men, and therefore the Church, could err, while Scripture could not be in error.
The Greeks agreed with the Protestants that man is justified by faith, not by works. The function of works is a testimony of our faith and a confirmation of our calling. The Greeks had two sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist.
Orthodox doctrine was declared to be the very faith handed down by Jesus Christ, which his apostles proclaimed.
While Holy Scripture is supreme, the Greeks do believe in the exegeses of the holy fathers of the church, and the divinely inspired traditions and conciliar decrees. It is believed that the church fathers were instruments of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit instructed the Church through the fathers, whose authority was joined to that of the ecumenical councils, and that of the Scriptures.
Some Eastern theologians went as far as to declare the Orthodox Church to be infallible. They also did not insist that all church dogmas be explicitly in Scripture, believing that some dogmas had been handed down orally from the apostles to subsequent generations of the church, and that both kinds of dogma were equally binding.
In the 16th Century, the Orthodox rebuffed overtures by the Protestants to join forces. One objection was that faith did not save alone, but had to be activated through love. And then there was the issue of Mary. The Orthodox Church calls her Theotokos, the Mother of God, and this title alone was enough to send Protestants running for the hills. The Orthodox agreed with the Catholics that Mary lived a sinless life, and today acts as an intercessor between God and man. Mary would keep her place in the center of liturgy and devotion in the Orthodox Church.
Against the doctrines of the West, the Orthodox rejected predestination. The affirmation of Free Will was deemed necessary and profound. The will of man is free, even without grace, to choose between good and evil. God is simultaneously the source of all things and yet the cause of only what is good. The divine nature is beyond the reach of the very experience of evil and in no sense the cause of evil.
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