A Church to Shape Orthodoxy: Hagia Sophia
MacCulloch explains Eastern Orthodoxy by way of describing the symbolism and worship associated with the great Hagia Sophia (Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople.
In its present form, it is the achievement of the Christian monarchs Justinian I and his consort, Theodora (429) who succeeded in "sacralizing Byzantine society" (434). This was possible because of "an idea which over centuries became basic to Christian Orthodox spirituality: union with the divine, or theosis . . . a very different direction from Augustine's Western emphasis on the great gulf between God and humanity created by original sin" (433). Although the heirs of Justinian did much to root out anything that was Roman or non-Christian, the Byzantine empire had its enemies not the least of which were invading Muslims and a major plague which began in the 540s and continued well into the 700s, spreading west.
Byzantine Spirituality: Maximus and the Mystical Tradition
Since the Byzantine Empire disposed of the academies that anchored the intellectual world of the past, monasteries emerged in the East as "the safe-deposits and factories of learning" (436). By the eleventh century, it was the standard in Orthodoxy that bishops would first be monks (437). Two Orthodox monasteries survived the Muslim takeover of the East: St. Sabas near Jerusalem, founded in the 480s, and St Catherine's at the foot of traditional Mount Sinai, home to John of the Ladder (a.k.a. Climacus), author of a classic of Eastern monasticism, the Ladder of Divine Ascent.
But the "greatest theologian of the Byzantine tradition" (p. 438) was Maximus (or Maximos, c. 580-662), "the Confessor." Maximus consistently cited tradition that supposedly went back to Dionysius the Areopagite whom Paul the Apostle converted in Athens (Acts 17). In reality, this body of teaching likely went back no further than 80 years or so. With it, Maximus advanced the notion that theosis, deification, was the destiny of the saved, who would become "gods through grace," and even of the cosmos itself (439-40). In the Eastern tradition, the Church's liturgy is the chief means of such ascent to the divine.
Smashing Images: The Iconoclastic Controversy (726-843)
MacCulloch begins this section by addressing the question, "Where did the iconoclastic controversy come from?" One strong impulse came from Islam's rejection of images combined with Muslim military success. Maybe they were on to something. Maybe divine favor would return to a Byzantium free of its damning sculpture.
As a way of getting around the prohibition in the Ten Commandments--"You shall not make for yourselves any graven images"--Eastern Christians turned to the icon, an image that was painted, not graven or sculpted, on wood. But even these were officially prohibited, which sent them underground; they were kept and used in homes of believers, though they were not found in churches. This is not to say that images and icons had no defenders in the East. The Arab Christian John of Damascus criticized neighboring Islam for its hypocrisy: it made no room for images, but venerated the Black Stone housed in the Ka'aba. John was a great thinker and writer, "the last Eastern theologian to have a continuous impact on Western Christian thinking until modern times" (447). Thomas Aquinas claimed that he read from John every day!
In his defense of the use of icons, John advanced an earlier distinction made between two Greek words: latreia and proskynesis. The first is roughly equivalent to our English word "worship," and is appropriate only when directed toward God. On the other hand, proskynesis means something more like "honor" and can be appropriate when directed toward, say, an emperor or a holy person. Honor given to something or to someone ultimately goes to the One who made and shaped that something or someone. Through the veneration of images, the worshiper indirectly, but ultimately, worships God. Nonetheless, icono-clasm versus icono-phila was the norm in the East for centuries. Iconoclasm was finally crushed around 843.
Photios and the New Missions to the West (850-900)
Photios was an Orthodox Patriarch of the late ninth century who, as a result of reading very widely as a young man, was one of the most learned men of his day. He came to power at about the same time that Byzantine monarchs were restoring political stability and military power to the empire. His expansionist activities brought him into conflict with the popes in the West. Anticipating the rift that was to come in 1054, Photios and Pope Nicholas personally excommunicated each other in the year 867 (p. 460). One tactic of the Photios campaign was to create alphabetic systems which would become the scripts for a liturgy and theology that matched Orthodox norms, such as the Greek rite of St. John Chrysostom. This established that the Greek language did not have a monopoly over the Orthodox tradition, which experienced a real triumph during the ninth century.