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A Light from the East: Eastern Christianity (Part 2)

History

On the day when both the prisoner and those with him anchored near this royal city at about sunset, two imperial officials came with ten palace guards and ordered them from the boat unclothed and barefoot. Separating them from one another, they guarded them in separate quarters.  

After several days they led them to the palace and brought the old man to the place where the senate was gathered with a large crowd as well. They made him stand in the middle of the seated senators, and the bursar said to him with much anger and passion, "Are you a Christian?" He replied, "By the grace of Christ the God of the universe I am a Christian." The former said, "That is not true!" The servant of God answered, "You say that I am not, but God says I am and will remain a Christian." "But how," he said, "if you are a Christian, can you hate the emperor?"  

The above is a quote from a 7th century document called The Trial of Maximus. It recounts the trial of Maximus the Confessor—probably the most famous and influential theologian of that century. It sounds strangely similar to second or third century martyr accounts. But here there is a major difference. State persecution of Christianity ended in the early fourth century with the conversion of Constantine and his coming into power. Save for a brief interruption with the reign of Emperor Julian (call "the Apostate") in the mid-4th century, the Empire would have Christians (nominal, at least) on the throne. And so the Trial recounts the prosecution of a Christian theologian by the Christian government. A strange twist, historically—and so soon after Christianity was freed from state persecution.

The issue in Maximus' trial is his refusal to sign a document called the Typos. The Church had been in the midst of another deep Christological debate concerning whether Christ had only one divine will or both a human and a divine will. Theology was becoming more refined and so theological arguments concerned finer and finer points. The Emperor stepped in to the debate with a solution: let's stop talking about it. This is a bit of a simplistic way of putting it, but the truth really is that the Emperor thought the best way of dealing with the problem was to ban the use of divisive theological terms that were stirring up such trouble. The Typos was the imperial document that put forth the Emperor's "solution."

Maximus refused to sign the agreement. He was working off a traditional principle of the Church Fathers that "whatever Christ has not assumed, he has not healed." What this means is that the Incarnation is for the healing of humanity and therefore, anything that was not incarnate in Christ could not be healed in us. And so Maximus refused to let the issue go as the Emperor had charged—the Church, said Maximus, must be intent on proclaiming that did not only have a divine will, but a human will also. If Christ did not have a human will then our corrupt will has not been healed and it is just this that is in need of redemption in us. So Maximus stands before the Emperor firm in his belief (which he will state plainly) that the Emperor should not insert himself in the theology of the Church. (As a side note, Maximus was condemned for his position—which was to become the orthodox understanding of the will of Christ—and was put in prison with both his tongue and right hand cut off so he could no longer speak or write his "abominable" thoughts.)

In this way—this is my interpretation, of course—Maximus acts as a sort of unofficial patron saint of counter-culture for the Church. He is sincerely dedicated to the Church being able to express its thought and life on its own terms, not subject to the whims of social preferences. And so when the Emperor inserts himself into the Church debate with his own interests in mind, Maximus balks.

As a pastor I have been amazed at how subject to cultural whims the Church often is. Whether it is the new growth strategy, evangelism idea, musical expression, etc., etc., we seem to change our preferences right along with our surrounding culture. What does society want? We'll give it to them. I know that the Church should have a firm grasp on what is going on in the world (wasn't it Karl Barth who said the Christian should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?). But it does often seem that the Church is looking to society to set its agenda, trying to decipher its preferences so it can appeal to them. I wonder what Maximus standing against the Emperor and his preferences would say.