Writing my last post, a number of related thoughts that have rattled around in my head for some time about history and religion ran into another thought I read some years ago that the Reformation was a distinctly Western response to a distinctly Western problem. The result was something that has probably been thought by someone else before and better, nor is it a finished thought on my part. Here it is.
What if what we have in Western Christianity is simply the continuation of the state religion of the Western Roman Empire and in Eastern Christianity the continuation of the state religion of the Eastern Roman Empire. The reformation of the faith and church to its true self would then need to happen outside the former empire, which it did in the Lutheran Reformation, originating in Germany.
Consider. Some consider the Roman Empire to have begun with Julius Caesar's appointment by the Senate as dictator in perpetuity (dictators formerly never held office for more than six months) in 44 BC. Julius accepted this position in the Temple of Venus Genetrix, and the denarius was minted with his image and "dictator perpetuus" on one side and the goddes Ceres -- goddess of growth, agriculture and maternal love, the Roman version of Demeter (!), see the previous post -- and the title "augur pontifex maximus", high priest of the college of pontiffs, the highest position in the Roman religion, on the other. He did not rise to accept his position, and Senators fearful that he would make himself king assassinated him in the Senate on the Ides, aka the 15th, of March 44 BC. Others consider the Roman Empire to have begun 2 September (hey, that's to-day, spooky!) 31 BC when Octavian defeated his rival Marc Antony and his ally Cleopatra of Egypt at the naval Battle of Actium in the Ionian Sea, and also ordered the execution of Cleopatra's son Caesarion, who was 17 and was held to be, and very likely was, the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, though Julius had named Octavian, his grand nephew, his son and heir. Others yet consider the Empire to have begun with the Senate giving Octavius, or Octavian, the title augustus (honoured, or august, one) on 16 January 27 BC. With any rival claimants dead by suicide, execution or military defeat, Caesar Augustus, Octavian, was the undisputed ruler, and became pontifex maximus in 13 BC. And the rest is history, as they say.
Caesar Augustus was the first real Roman Emperor, though for some time the facade of the Roman Republic continued. Despite frontier fighting with those outside the Empire, the Empire itself enjoyed a peace, the pax augustana or pax romana, that would last from 27 BC to 180 AD, attaining its greatest extent under the emperor Trajan (98-117). But by the third century, things became unworkable. The sheer size of the empire, the lack of any clear method of succession of power, and consequently frequent civil war, and the inability of the military to preserve internal order since they were concentrated on the borders to preserve external order, which in turn became impossible to maintain against invaders, about destroyed the empire until Diocletian managed to put a band aid on things and also in July 285 split the Empire in two, with himself as "augustus" of the Eastern part and his friend Maximius "augustus" of the Western half. Diocletian also considered the expansion of Christianity a threat to the state and launched possibly the most violent persecutions in history, certainly the most violent since Nero.
The arrangement yielded no new pax romana, the underlying problems still there, although the persecutions ended with Galerius in 311, then in 313 Constantine, the first Christian Emperor (more or less, he was not baptised until his death, meaning the Nicene Council, called by him in 325, was called by not only not a church leader but a civil ruler and an unbaptised person!), declared Christianity legal in 313. Constantine was proclaimed Emperor on 25 July 306 in York, England, then called Eboracum, where he was busily trying to settle the problems of the Third Century Crisis, and became sole emperor. With Constantine, everything shifts to the East. After his death, the Western Empire was split between two of his sons, and the East went to the middle son, all of them having variants of his name. Constant power struggles within and invasions from without destabilised everything. There was a reunion under Theodosius, see again the prior post, who was the last emperor of both East and West (Diocletian being the last emperor of an undivided empire).
The Western Empire continued until 4 September 476, when Romulus Augustus (what a name, combining one of the traditional founders of Rome with Octavian!) was deposed and never succeeded. The Eastern Roman Empire would continue until its defeat by the Ottomans in 1453, the Ottoman Empire itself lasting from 1299 to 1922, when the British Empire, having won World War I, partioned it into the countries that daily make the news now as a result.
The Eastern Empire considered itself and called itself Roman to the end. Latin was for some time its official language, though Greek was used outside the court and eventually became official. Yet in Rome, the elite spoke Greek, though in time that passed too. Each half, while sharing many common elements, took on its own culture even though the Roman borrowed much from the Greek, and the eventual prominence of each's language both symbolises and contributes to the outcome. The East outlasted the West by about a thousand years. However, once the Western Empire fell, the West attempted to come out of what are called the Dark Ages of overrun by the "Huns", those formerly outside the Empire, with the formation of the Holy Roman Empire when on Christmas 800 Leo III, the Bishop of Rome, an office which to this day bears the title pontifex maximus, crowned the King of the Franks Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor (imperator augustus, to be exact). This was a conscious attempt to re-establish the Western Roman Empire -- though someone famously said it was neither Roman nor holy nor an empire -- and lasted about a thousand years, until the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, dissolved it in the Napoleonic Wars in 1806. And after the Eastern Empire fell, Czarist Russia, having long since become Easten Orthodox, considered itself the "third" Rome (Rome itself and Constantinople -- I forgot, Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Empire got renamed Constantinople after guess who, and was renamed Istanbul 28 March 1930 by the secular Republic of Turkey, which would no longer deliver mail addressed to "Constantinople", the capital having been moved to Ankara, the former Angora -- being the second).
The ancient Greeks contributed the intellectual foundations of what we now call the Western World, including those of ancient Rome, but it is to ancient Rome that the Western World and increasingly just the world, owes it ideas of public administration, what relates to how we live, how we rule, how we govern, how we exist as a society.
And I think it not too far a stretch, in fact not a stretch at all, to see the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as a religious image of the differences between the culture of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. The Western Church, complete with a pontifex maximus, inherited Rome's administrative and legal bent, and the Eastern Church inherited Constantinople's more philosophical and artistic bent. The formal schism between the two in 1054 had immediate theological causes, but was culturally inevitable, bound to happen theology or not. One may note that in the East the Eastern Empire still existed at this time, but the Western Empire was gone and the intended reincarnation as the Holy Roman Empire in its place, and the recognition of the bishop of Rome as "first among equals" at world-wide, called ecumenical from the Greek, church councils was then also extended to the bishop of Constantinople, the new Rome -- both, curiously, called cities on seven hills, see the Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse from its Greek name).
This is not to say at all that the faith of Jesus Christ delivered to the Apostles disappeared. It is to say that Christianity took on much, some of which it would regard as essential and not cultural, from the state which adopted it as a religion, the Roman Empire East or West. The primary remains of this in the West is the Roman administrative, legalistic flair, and in the East the philosophical, mystical flair. In Roman Catholicism, even with the moderating and revisionist slant given it by Vatican II, one hears the religion of the Western Roman Empire, and in Eastern Orthodoxy one hears the religion of the Eastern Roman Empire. While the Roman Empire, as a unified whole and as a divided empire, has passed into history, their eventual religions have not. And so the reformation of the church, the freeing of it from the accretions of Imperial culture East and West, was to happen from outside the Empire, had to happen from outside the Empire. And so it did, the Reformation being then not an event in the Western Church surviving the Western Empire, but an event in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church from outside the Empire, undivided, Eastern, or Western.
A couple of side points. In the lands of the Western Empire, the modern languages spoken are largely descendants of Latin, whereas in the lands of the Eastern Empire the languages are not derived from Greek, When Constantine was dedicated in 330, the ceremony was partly Christian and partly pagan -- and you thought Yankee Stadium was syncretism!
And about those accretions. They aren't necessarily bad. What's bad is if they contradict the books the church has said we can rely on, the Bible. Not if they are not found in the Bible, if they contradict the Bible. Big difference. What's also bad is, whether they do or don't contradict the Bible, if they are made into essentials. On these points, the Reformation would go well beyond the Lutheran Reformation to a near eradication of them, and then a replacement of them with other forms of righteousness before God through works rather than Jesus Christ, either way confusing justification before God with santification, personal growth in faith and grace -- confusing participation in the sacraments, personal decisions for Christ, avoidance of immorality and doing good works in general, with justification before God through faith given by the Holy Spirit apart from any external or internal work or act on my part in the saving Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This post and non Lutheran Reformation resulted first in new state churches, sometimes forcibly including Lutheran ones (the Prussian Union comes to mind) and later in churches influenced by the "Enlightenment" political and theological theories which have become the unofficial state religions of the modern Western secular liberal states, abandoning even their prior confessions of faith, one broad group representing the religious Left and another the religious Right. So we confessional Lutheran churches uphold and teach the faith of Jesus Christ taught in the Bible and accurately stated in the Book of Concord, and uphold and maintain the usual customs, rejecting only what contradicts the Gospel and recognising that the rest are customs, not Gospel or even Law. We are the churchly echo of neither the ancient empire nor the contemporary liberal state. And we worship accordingly, in Divine Service, where God the Divine serves us his Word and Sacrament, not the other way around.
Oh well, Ceres is why we call it cereal. And July is for Julius Caesar and August for Caesar Augustus. You get to have your own month when you're a founding emperor and then proclaimed a god, otherwise we'd call the old fifth and sixth Roman months Quintember and Sextember, as we still do the remaining months September (7th), October (8th), November (9th) and December (10th). And drag, it really is 2 September even if the date stamp says otherwise -- I started writing this post just before midnight and forgot the date comes from when you hit Create, not when you hit Publish!.
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