Frankish Christendom and the Estrangement of East and West I

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It was the year 810, and the pope of Rome, Leo III, was alarmed. He had recently met with a delegation of Frankish churchmen who had implored him, in fact had pressured him, to accept something called the filioque. The filioque was an insertion into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the Holy Spirit. It altered that original Creed, which had read, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (period),” to: “I believe in the Holy Spirit [...] who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” filioque in Latin: “and the Son.” This alarmed Leo because, as the patriarch of the entire Western Church and one of the leading authorities within the universal Church, he was committed to upholding traditional Christianity as it had been defined by previous bishops and especially by ecumenical councils, such as those of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381.

So Leo, alarmed by this growing pressure he was receiving from Frankish Christians in the West, decided to do something quite dramatic. He had shields made of silver on which he printed, first in Latin and then in Greek, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed without the filioque on it. Two of these he placed in St. Peter’s Basilica at the very entrance to the tomb of St. Peter himself, known as the Confession of St. Peter, dramatically emphasizing that the faith of Peter was inseparable from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed without the filioque in it. He also had another shield—often this is not noted by historians—another shield prepared and placed in the tomb of St. Paul in Rome as well. This dramatic statement of defending the orthodox faith was expressed by Leo when he had completed the work in the following statement, printed underneath the shields:

I, Leo, have placed these here for love and defense of the orthodox faith.

Leo felt compelled to take this action because the filioque had become an issue by the end of the 8th century and the beginning of the 9th century. Increasingly, Frankish churchmen had begun using the filioque throughout western Europe. They did so, it appears, often thinking that the filioque had originally been part of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. What they may not have been aware of was the solemn ban that was placed on any alteration of the Creed by the Fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon, in the year 451. This is what the Fourth Ecumenical Council said about any alteration of the Creed. The Fathers of that council considered such an alteration to be an alteration of the Faith itself. This is what they wrote:

These things, therefore (as they summed up their work at the Fourth Ecumenical Council), having been expressed by us with the greatest accuracy and attention, the holy ecumenical synod defines that no one shall be suffered to bring forward a different faith, nor to write, nor to put together, nor to excogitate, nor to teach it to others. But such as dare as put together another faith or to bring forward or to teach or to deliver a different creed, to such as wish to be converted to the knowledge of the truth, from the Gentiles or the Jews or any heresy whatever (in other words, those who would alter the Creed in order to appeal to non-Christians through missionary purposes), if they be bishops or clerics, let them be deposed, the bishops from the episcopate and the clerics from the clergy; but if they be monks or laity, let them be anathematized.

Those are the words of the bishops of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, solemnly banning any alteration to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. So this had become an issue by the time of the papacy of Leo III, and it had become an issue directly under the influence of the Franks in western Europe. The Franks had advanced more and more something that’s often called Filioquism, a policy to insert the filioque Creed and to establish a theology, a Christian theology, around it. It was in wide use in the time of Pope Leo III, throughout the empire of Charlemagne, and it had formally been authorized at a council under Charlemagne’s presidency at his capital of Aachen in 809. As a result of that council, an embassy was sent to Rome by Charlemagne to plead with him, to try to persuade him to accept the filioque in Rome itself. And as we know from the anecdote I just told, Leo firmly rejected its use.

But Leo’s position in Rome during the time of Charlemagne, the most illustrious of the Frankish rulers, was one of considerable weakness and delicacy. His ascension in the year 795 had occurred in an atmosphere of tension. The papacy before that time had grown increasingly wary of Frankish interference in Rome and encroachments on papal policy and even elections. As a matter of fact, Leo, a Roman—not a Frank, but a Roman from Italy—had been elected swiftly in an apparent effort to avoid the intervention of the Franks. Leo himself had felt compelled to send to Charlemagne, then king of the Franks, the keys, the symbolical keys, to the very Confession of St. Peter, that altar within St. Peter’s Basilica, where he would later place the very silver tablets, as a gift to Charlemagne.

And Charlemagne in turn had sent a letter of congratulation to Leo, but this letter of congratulation read in some ways like a letter of instruction. In it, Charlemagne articulated the Byzantine model of episcopal-political symphony, whereby the ruler cooperated closely with the bishops of the Church to administer the Church. And this, as we saw in earlier episodes, in the history of Christendom and Byzantium, could often lead to caesaropapism, the detrimental intervention by rulers in the life of the Church. And if there was anything the popes of Rome were wary of in the 8th century, it was caesaropapism, the specter of caesaropapism, which had reared its head so vividly in the iconoclastic policies of Byzantine emperors during the course of that century.

Pope Leo III’s situation was made even more insecure in relationship to the Franks when he was attacked on the streets of Rome itself in the year 799. Charlemagne was compelled to intervene on behalf of Leo and to adjudicate the pope’s defense at a special council. And it was Charlemagne who came back to Rome with Leo in order to reestablish his papacy. And it was on that occasion, in the year 800, on Christmas Day itself, in St. Peter’s Basilica, that Pope Leo III famously placed a crown upon the head of Charlemagne, declaring him emperor of the Romans.

The Franks had come a long way. Their ruler, Charlemagne, now ruled not just a kingdom, but an empire, and not just an empire, but the empire, associated with the name of Rome. This, of course, was a challenge to the Byzantine empire which at this time, as in all time in its existence, never defined itself by the name “Byzantium,” but rather by the name of “Rome.” The Byzantine empire and its rulers thought of themselves as Romans—as a matter of fact, as the same Roman state that had existed even before the time of Constantine.

The Franks had achieved a great deal, and it’s worth spending a few minutes here, at the beginning of this episode, recounting some of the high points in the rise of the Franks in western Christendom. Their beginning is associated with the conversion of King Clovis to Orthodoxy in the 6th century. Among all the barbarian tribes that invaded the Western Roman Empire, the Franks were the ones known for adhering to the Orthodox faith. Many of the other barbarian tribes and kingdoms affiliated themselves with a form of Arianism, but the Franks, from the beginning, at least from the time of their King Clovis, were Orthodox Christians.

Furthermore, they distinguished themselves in the defense of Western Christendom. In the case of Charles Martel, one of their great leaders, in the 8th century, they defeated the Muslim invasion of southwestern Europe at the Battle of Tours. And then later in that 8th century, their King Pepin III forged a close relationship with the papacy. He was crowned by Pope Stephen II himself, and he conquered large areas of northern Italy in the hands of the Arian Lombards in order to return territories to the pope, especially the territory of Ravenna. He was unable to return the much more desired territories of southern Italy that the Byzantine emperor in the earlier 8th century had stolen from the pope and transferred to the patriarch of Constantinople as a punishment against the pope for resisting the iconoclastic policies of the Byzantine emperor. Pepin III, therefore, was a heroic champion of the papacy, and his Frankish kingdom quickly became the political basis for the papacy’s strength in the 8th century.

But there was an interesting qualification to this relationship, imposed by Pope Stephen II. And that qualification was called the Donation of Constantine. This famous document—and I will speak more of it in subsequent episodes—became the most often used ideological statement for why the papacy should have authority and power in the West over all the rulers of the West throughout the high middle ages and beyond, as well as authority over all of the bishops and clergy of the West. The Donation of Constantine claimed to be a statement issued by Constantine himself—Constantine the Great in the fourth century—giving to the pope of Rome all of Constantine’s territories in the West. The document was a forgery, but this wasn’t fully realized until the Renaissance. Throughout the middle ages, the Donation of Constantine and other supporting documents helped the papacy assert its power against secular rulers. We’ll see its use again in the future.

So this is associated with the reign of Pepin III and his alliance with the papacy. But, as I said, it was Charlemagne’s reign that brought the Franks to their highest level of achievement. Charlemagne reigned as king of the Franks from the year 768 forward, and then, in 800, was made emperor of the Romans. His reign came to an end upon his death in 814. And he did many things—and there’s no way to recount or even summarize the many achievements of Charlemagne in this episode—but one of the important ones that will have an impact on the history of the rise and fall of Christendom was his conquest of Saxony, a military conquest that was quite brutal and prolonged. Thirty years were spent during Charlemagne’s very very long reign subduing the Saxons north of his kingdom. He also—Charlemagne—maintained the close alliance that Pepin III had formed with the papacy, hence his restoration of Pope Leo III that I earlier related.

In addition to this, Charlemagne thought of himself quite consciously and emphatically as a Christian ruler, and in fact the most significant Christian ruler of his time. He self-consciously sought to create a Christian society. To do this, he employed bishops as state administrators and even exercised the power of investiture over them. We’ll talk again about this point later. Investiture was the power of a ruler to appoint a bishop to a given diocese, to a given see. And he exercised this power and used bishops to administer his kingdom, something very different from the practice of the episcopate in eastern Christendom, in the Greek East.

Charlemagne also advanced liturgical reforms within his empire. He especially sought to universalize and even, in a sense, homogenize, worship throughout his lands, and always looked to Latin and especially to the Roman model of liturgy for this process. During the course of his reign, he displaced and eliminated what was then known as the Gallican Mass in favor of the Roman Mass which he imported from Rome itself and made universal throughout his lands. Charlemagne also, in creating a Christian society, placed great stress on the conversion of all the non-Christian peoples in his empire, and that went especially for the Saxons in the north, who only during the course of his reign had been brought in large numbers into that state.

The way he did this was violent, and he imposed Christianity on his Saxon subjects. Historians often comment on this important precedent in the history of Western Christendom, when violence was now used to advance conversion to the Christian faith. In his wars against the Saxons, his soldiers were led often by clerics, by actual members of the clergy, bishops and priests. And when they weren’t being led on the battlefield by clergy, they were often being encouraged by the clergy who would integrate worship services and ceremonies into the actual battles, the preparation for battles, before they took place. Christianity, for Charlemagne, in the case of the Saxons particularly, became a tool of colonization. And for those Saxons who resisted or refused to be baptized, the penalty, according to Charlemagne’s laws, was death. They would be baptized or they would be executed.

Finally, Charlemagne supported the creation of a distinctively Frankish theological school in his realm, one especially centered upon his capital in Aachen. He had actually multiple capitals, but the one he most often used and which he gave the most attention to, at which he built a beautiful, very big and important temple that was modeled on the temple of San Vitale in Ravenna—he established here in Aachen a theological school headed by the English theologian Alcuin. And Alcuin and other theologians, bishops especially, throughout Charlemagne’s realm contributed to the development of a uniquely Frankish vision of Christianity.

And that vision of Christianity redefined, had the effect of redefining Christendom itself in a way that was often directed self-consciously against the East—against the Greek Christians of the Byzantine Empire. Charlemagne, in fact, undertook what can be called an ideological campaign against Byzantium. He had a desire to be crowned as emperor of the Romans, a desire that was fulfilled in 800, when Pope Leo III crowned him in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day, despite protestations later to the contrary. Charlemagne clearly seemed to desire this elevation as emperor.

Crowned emperor of the Romans, he was nevertheless frustrated in his relationship with Byzantium. He had hoped to have his daughter marry the Byzantine Empress Irene’s son, but this hope was frustrated and left him very bitter. Furthermore, he perceived that the Byzantine state was weak in the wake of the iconoclastic controversy, and he had nothing short of contempt for the Byzantine emperors and for the Church leaders in Byzantium that seemed to support them. As a result, during his reign he repeatedly charged the Greeks with heresy, and denigrated their position within Christendom as a whole. They were, according to one of his court theologians, Bishop Aeneas of Paris, a brood of vipers, historically given to heresy, and unworthy of leading Christendom forward, of defining the character, the proper character, of Christian civilization.

This distinctively anti-Greek tendency, by Charlemagne and by the Frankish theologians that supported him, was expressed with particular vividness in response to the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 that brought an end to iconoclasm. Iconoclasm, in fact, would continue into the 9th century, but the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 definitively rejected iconoclasm and defined the bases for the veneration of icons, declaring icons to be worthy of veneration but not worthy of worship, in the Greek language; and claiming, furthermore, that icons were a necessary part of the Christian faith, the traditional Christian faith, because of their ability to manifest their faith in the incarnation of God in the Person of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Well, the refutation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, a bold action for sure on the part of Charlemagne and his theologians, was based in part upon a severely flawed and mistranslated Latin version of the council which had ignored the great distinction between “veneration” and “worship” for icons. But be that as it may, this refutation of the council was consistent with the overall ideological program of Charlemagne’s court to denigrate the Greeks and to try to present the Franks as the new leadership of Christendom.

And this ideological program was documented quite well in a series of books known collectively as the Caroline books, the Libri Carolini, in Latin, that were published in the 790s in immediate response to the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The composition of these books was dominated by a Spanish theologian named Theodulf of Orléans. And Theodulf is one of the leading figures in Charlemagne’s court as a theologian. In addition to attacking the Greeks, the Caroline books are interesting in that they not only attack the iconoclasts, but they also attack the so-called iconodules, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council [who] defended icons. They showed satisfaction with neither Greek party, either the iconoclasts or the defenders of icons. The Caroline books positioned themselves against the Greeks on the basis of an interpretation of St. Augustine.

Augustine, as we know, had become the dominant voice in Western Christendom for the past several centuries, and the Caroline books give expression to a dualistic appropriation of Augustine with the effect of diminishing that feature of Eastern Christendom which emphasized the presence of paradise in this life, emphasized heavenly immanence in this world. This point has been noted by an historian of Frankish Christianity named Celia Chazelle, in a book she wrote in 2001, [published] by Cambridge University Press, called The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era. (“Carolingian” means that relating to the reign of Charlemagne.) The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era: Theology and Art of Christ’s Passion. And in giving kind of a theological background to her subject, she comments on the Caroline books composed by Theodulf, and this is what she writes.

The Carolingian treatise proceeds from the axiom, supposedly forgotten by the Greeks, that in order to seek heaven, the mortal must turn from the earthly sphere, for the world of matter is radically different from and inferior to all that spiritual and heavenly. This perspective seems to have been influenced by a dualistic reading of Augustine.

Those are the words of Chazelle in her book. And instead of expressing a principle of heavenly immanence in which paradise is experienced even in this age, in this world, so typical of Eastern Christendom as we’ve explored it in past episodes, the Caroline books of the Frankish theologians such as Theodulf of Orléans, put forward an alternative vision according to a principle that might be called “heavenly transcendence.” The focus is still on heaven, but now heaven transcends the world and has less and less to do with it. As a matter of fact, it’s in exactly this feature of Frankish Christendom during the reign of Charlemagne that we can begin to see the concept of the secular creeping into the culture of the West. Let me quote here the book that I’ve quoted before by Peter Brown, called The Rise of Western Christendom. And this is what he has to say about the Caroline books and their expression of this principle that I call “heavenly transcendence,” as distinct from the Eastern principle of “heavenly immanence.”

In his memoir (Brown writes), Theodulf spells out with great care the basic religious assumptions which governed his own worldview. It was a worldview very different from Orthodox Byzantines. For Theodulf, God was a distant ruler, sharply separated from his creatures. God was to his creation as a lord to his servants.

Then he notes by Charlemagne’s own hand a comment made in the margin to this idea by Charlemagne: “Optime! Excellent idea.”

It was his will alone that bridged the chasm between himself and human beings. He did not offer to the human race a gentle flow of visual symbols which linked the invisible to the visible world in a seemingly unbroken continuum, as Greek thinkers such as Dionysius the Areopagite and John of Damascus liked to believe. He preferred to make himself known by his commands. Law was God’s greatest gift to mankind.

Then he quotes Theodulf in the Caroline books and his attack on the Greeks, and contrasting them with the more law-oriented Franks.

You (Theodulf was here addressing the Greeks) who claim to have preserved the purity of the faith by means of images (icons), go and stand before them with your incense. We will search out the commands of our Lord by eager scrutiny, in the bound books of God’s own law.

And then Brown continues:

Behind the contemptuous tone adopted by Theodulf toward Byzantine piety, there lay a great fear. Incorrect Christian worship might erode the boundary between the sacred and the profane. This boundary had been put in place only recently and with considerable effort in many newly converted areas of the Latin West. The stark contrast between a world of profane objects and a small cluster of sacred things was basic to Theodulf’s arguments. In Byzantium, he claimed, far too many things were treated as holy. Theodulf showed no sensitivity to the central argument of John of Damascus; this was that God’s mercy had suffused the entire created order with a generalized sacrality. The world was filled with visible tokens which led the worshiper to the invisible God. Such arguments did not impress Theodulf. They struck him as opening the way for a dangerous blurring of the sacred and the profane. In Theodulf’s opinion, Charles’ empire (Charlemagne’s empire) was superior to Byzantium because in the Latin Church the profane and the sacred had been held apart. Neither was allowed to invade the other; each had its proper place. Altogether, the sharp separation of the sacred from the profane had opened up a neutral space.

Join me next time, when I continue to discuss the unique and innovative characteristics of Frankish Christendom and their impact not only on Western Christendom, but on the growing estrangement of East and West.