Saturday, May 2, 2009

Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071, by Andrew Louth

382 pages with b/w photos, SVS Press, $22.00.

Louth helps get to the bottom of the millenia-old estrangement between Latin and Greek Christianity in a way that avoids blaming or preaching. He is not interested in presenting either side as more correct.

Importantly, he shows that the basis of much theological dispute is in ethnic and linguistic differences rather than in theological difficulties per se. In other words, different nations or groupings of people didn't get along theologically because they had already developed long-standing cultural or linguistic differences.

But he first shows that especially after the Islamic invasions of large parts of the Byzantine Empire, Rome and other areas of Italy, especially Sicily, were full of Greek Christians, with their own language and customs. Such groups lived side by side with the Latins for centuries, with inevitable flare-ups. The pope would occasionally shut down some Greek churches in his area, and the patriarch in Constantinople would shut down Latin-rite churches under his jurisdiction.

On the whole, though, during this entire period, Greek and Latin Christians didn't see themselves as divided except on unimportant or cultural issues. Theologically, they saw themselves as one. Hierarchical divisions, usually more about the egos of powerful men, hardly filtered down to regular Christians.

Louth spends a great deal of time on the already well-known relationship between Charlemagne and the papacy, which was a vital turning point for Christianity. The pope went under the protection of the Frankish leaders in the West and distanced itself from the Byzantine emperor, who saw his empire as the continuation of Rome.

Greek East and Latin West also gets into the lesser-known “byzantine” politics of the Byzantine empire. These politics were about scheming generals, power-mad empresses, and sometimes weak, sometimes strong emperors. The names are unfamiliar to us, but Louth portrays well the decay and decadence of the imperial court. Though this empire enjoyed many periods of stability and power, these centuries saw the constant encroachment of the Arab and Turkish Muslims, who judged Constantinople as the greatest prize they had yet to win.

Louth does not neglect the development of Eastern Christian spirituality and theology, including the missionaries to the Slavic peoples.

Greek East and Latin West spends a great deal of time on the iconoclast controversy, which was the attempt by many church leaders and members to destroy the heritage of venerating icons. The West never had such a controversy, Louth points out, because the Latin Church saw art less as a door to heaven and more as a way to instruct the illiterate masses. Again, we see 2 different yet valid ways of following Christ.

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