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Commemoration of Emperor Justinian

Today, we commemorate Emperor Justinian, Christian ruler and confessor of Christ. We take our devotional reading from Church History: The Basics, speaking historically on Justinian and the debate on the person of Christ in his empire.

Devotional Reading

While Europe was under siege by barbarian invaders during much of the early medieval period, causing the political transformation referred to commonly as the “fall” of Rome, the empire continued in the East as a stable institution for more than a thousand years. The Eastern empire at one time or another comprised Asia Minor (its heartland), the Balkan peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and parts of North Africa. Modern scholars have labeled this civilization by using the name of the old Greek town Byzantium, on the site of which Constantine built Constantinople, but the “Byzantines” always referred to themselves as Romans. Latin continued to be the official language until the sixth century, when it was replaced by Greek. The Roman Empire was never officially divided between East and West, but Diocletian’s and Constantine’s creation of a second capital at Constantinople in AD 330 tended to polarize loyalties around two administrative centers. When the imperial insignia were transferred from Rome to the East in 476 (the event often associated with Rome’s fall), the empire was still considered to be united under the Eastern ruler.

The last great effort to realize this unity in actual fact was made by Justinian (527–65), who sought to reconquer North Africa, Sicily, and Italy from the Vandals and the Goths who had taken control of these territories. Although Justinian’s generals, Belisarius and Narses, were initially successful, Italy fell prey to the Lombards after the emperor’s death. Within a few years, all of North Africa was lost to the Arabian Muslims. From the sixth century on, therefore, the West tended to pursue its own course, although lip service continued to be given to the ideal of empire with the Eastern monarch acknowledged as the supreme ruler in Christendom. Until the coming of Charlemagne, popes sought the confirmation of their election from the ruler in Constantinople, and Western kings took pride in their status as consuls, thus deriving their legitimacy from the Eastern emperor.

Justinian was also active in promoting Christianity, in making Constantinople a capital worthy of the empire, and in codifying Roman law. Justinian’s building program was crowned by the erection of Santa [or Hagia] Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom (i.e., Christ), one of the most perfect examples of Byzantine architecture. Its chief feature is its enormous dome, over 120 feet across and 180 feet high. For centuries, this was the largest church in Christendom, surpassing in size all the churches of Europe and providing the nerve center for Orthodox (Byzantine) Christianity. In 1453, it was converted by the Turks into a mosque, and in modern times it serves as a museum.

During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Eastern Church was torn by controversies over the person of Christ. When the Council of Chalcedon (451) determined that Christ was one person in two natures, it condemned those who insisted on overemphasizing His divine nature (Monophysites—literally, one nature) and those who went to the opposite extreme, stressing His duality (Nestorians). In 551, Justinian condemned three alleged Nestorian writers (an issue therefore named the “three chapters” controversy) in the hope of conciliating the Monophysites. In 553, the Fifth Ecumenical Council, convened by Justinian, ratified his earlier condemnation of the Nestorians. When the pope in Rome condemned this council, the Eastern Church removed his name from the diptychs (lists of people for whom the churches prayed), and the pope eventually acquiesced in the conciliar decisions.

By the end of the seventh century, these theological controversies had resulted in the formation of several Eastern churches that opposed the theology of Constantiople. There was the Church of Armenia, which had never accepted the decisions of Chalcedon. The Armenians, furthermore, were politically the subjects of Persia, and to emphasize their patriotism, they repudiated the Eastern empire by embracing the Monophysite position. The Syrian Monophysites also became a separate body under the leadership of Jacob Baradaeus, from whom they are known as Jacobites. The Egyptians were also inclined toward Monophysitism, and the Coptic Church there was organized in opposition to the Byzantine Church. A political factor also entered into this situation, because the Egyptians resented Byzantine political controls, and the theological argument over the nature of Christ served to lay bare submerged feelings of exasperated nationalism. They referred derisively to the Greeks who lived among them as “Melchites” (followers of the emperor).

After Justinian, “the last of the Roman emperors,” Byzantium was threatened by invasion from two sides: to the south and east were the Arabs and Persians; to the north lay the Slavs and Bulgars. The task of defending the empire for the next five hundred years fell primarily to four dynasties: the Heraclids, the Isaurians, the Amorians, and the Macedonians.

The empire soon fell on evil days. The Arabian caliphate was itself taken captive by migrants from central Asia, the fierce Seljuk Turks. In 1071, they defeated a Byzantine army at Manzikert, capturing the emperor himself. Shortly thereafter, they established their capital at Iconium in the heart of Asia Minor. It was this threat that led to Byzantium’s appeal for help from the Franks, resulting in the First Crusade.

Devotional reading adapted from Church History: The Basics, copyright © 2016 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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