"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (I): Historiographical Problems

We have, for more than two decades, been living in a time of increasingly intense study of the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium. That call for study was, of course, given special impetus by the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, about which I have had a few things to say in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

Recent popes and scholars have sought--following Congar's "grand law of Catholic reform"--to find models from earlier in the Church's history that might be useful today. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it runs the risk of romanticizing the first millennium as a period of unity, when the reality is far messier than that. The further problem is--as the eminent Byzantine historian Robert Taft has often remarked--that "history is instructive but not normative." In other words, even if we find all sorts of attractive or plausible models from the first millennium, that in no way absolves us of the responsibility to decide what is necessary for our own time and context, vastly different in some ways from any earlier period of Church history. We cannot simply say "Well, the Fathers did it, so we must too" and imagine that that solves anything.

So this process of studying the first millennium remains important but is rather slow-going, primarily because as we study this vast and diverse period in more detail we are constantly confronted with evidence that does not fit anybody's pre-conceived notions.

A new collection further deepens our understanding of the papacy in this period, but further complicates matters also: Geoffrey Dunn, ed., The Bishop of Rome in Late Antiquity (Ashgate, 2015), 273pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
At various times over the past millennium bishops of Rome have claimed a universal primacy of jurisdiction over all Christians and a superiority over civil authority. Reactions to these claims have shaped the modern world profoundly. Did the Roman bishop make such claims in the millennium prior to that? The essays in this volume from international experts in the field examine the bishop of Rome in late antiquity from the time of Constantine at the start of the fourth century to the death of Gregory the Great at the beginning of the seventh. These were important centuries as Christianity underwent enormous transformation in a time of change. The essays concentrate on how the holders of the office perceived and exercised their episcopal responsibilities and prerogatives within the city or in relation to both civic administration and other churches in other areas, particularly as revealed through the surviving correspondence. With several of the contributors examining the same evidence from different perspectives, this volume canvasses a wide range of opinions about the nature of papal power in the world of late antiquity.
Among the authors who have written chapters in this collection, we find the Orthodox scholar George Demacopolous, author of The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity, which I have elsewhere largely favorably reviewed. Demacopolous contributes a chapter, "Are All Univesalist Politics Local: Pope Gelasius I's International Ambition as a Tonic for Local Humiliation."

The patrologist Bronwen Neil, author, editor, or translator of such works as The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor and Pope Gelasius I, The Letters of Gelasius I (492-496) contributes a chapter, "Crisis in the Letters of Gelasius I: a New Model of Crisis Management."

Glen Thompson's chapter is "The Pax Constantiniana and the Roman Episcopate." Thompson is the translator and editor of the recently published The Correspondence of Julius I.

The book is divided into three sections treating the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. In subsequent entries in this series, I shall have more to say about some of the essays in each.

In his introduction, Dunn, a senior research fellow in the Centre for Early Christian Studies at the Australian Catholic University, notes some of the many challenges posed by studying the papacy in this time period. The question that is often asked is about the power of the pope in this time, and whether Vatican I's notion of "universal jurisdiction" was in fact promoted or discussed seriously in the antique period. Dunn acknowledges up front that answers to that question have varied and continue to vary, and part of the variance is determined by present political purposes as well as the ecclesial situation of a given scholar.

He raises the problem of whether scholars in 2015 can read antique evidence without allowing present considerations to control that reading, and without allowing, moreover, a reading that gives in to the temptation to see individual persons, practices, and texts as part of one grand narrative of historical or doctrinal development--what he calls reading "prochronistically, whereby modern ideas are projected back into the literary evidence" (2). As he goes on to say, "good scholarship should avoid looking at events in one period through the prism of later developments" (3).

There are other issues that bedevil study of this period, including the fact that much of it has not in fact been well studied at all. Apart from some really towering figures such as Leo I and Gregory I, few other popes have been studied in depth, and apart from these two, the correspondence of the rest of them, with rarest of exceptions, remains both untranslated into modern Western languages and often uncollected into Latin critical editions.

Dunn next acknowledges that much of what determined Roman pre-eminence in this period comes from its geopolitical situation as the largest city, the capital city, of the Roman Empire. This, of course, is simply a restatement of the "principle of accommodation" which Francis Dvornik made famous more than fifty years ago in his Byzantium and the Roman Primacy.

To be continued. 

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