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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Meredith Riedel gives an overview of Byzantine Christianity—what it is, when it happened, how it evolved, and why Western Christians should care about it. Join Meredith, Pete, and Jared as they explore the following questions:

  • What do we mean when we use the word “Byzantine”? What’s the origin of the term?
  • How does “Byzantine” function as a way of thinking about Christianity?
  • What throughlines to current events can be provided by understanding the Byzantine era?
  • What was the Byzantine Bible like?
  • How do the various Orthodox traditions tie together?
  • How did different offshoots of Byzantine Christianity develop over time?
  • What do Ecumenical Councils have to do with the different Orthodox churches that formed?
  • What are the characteristics of the practices of the Byzantine church?
  • How did Byzantine Christians treat the Bible as part of their church tradition?
  • What are some of the theological beliefs held by Byzantine Christians?
  • What is Filioque?
  • Do Orthodox churches of the past and the present conduct church services the same way?
  • Why should any Western Christian care to know about the Byzantine Church?
  • What’s the draw for young people to leave Evangelicalism for the Orthodox Church?
  • What are some of the Byzantine and modern Eastern Orthodox conceptions of the Bible and how it functions? How do they read it and approach it? What are the hermeneutics and what are they’re going to the Bible for?
  • Where do you go if you want to learn more about the Byzantine Church and its traditions?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Meredith Riedel you can share.

  • The broadest interpretation of the Byzantine era is about from 330, when the city of Constantinople was named by Constantine, until the 15th century, 1453, when the city of Constantinople was sacked by the Ottomans. So it’s an 1100-year-long Christian empire that many Christians in the West are completely unaware of and do not study. — Meredith Riedel
  • The Byzantine stuff is foundational to [events] that [are] actually operative today. — Meredith Riedel
  • Byzantium is interesting because it’s been classically defined as an empire characterized by Roman law, Greek culture or philosophy, and Christian faith. — Meredith Riedel
  • The Greek Orthodox Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church is itself, like many other Christian traditions, subject to different theological commitments—different churches with different names. So it isn’t a single church, it’s many churches. — Meredith Riedel
  • No Russian became a “Christian” until 988. So if we’re talking about Byzantine theology and church, most of that is from the fourth century, theologically completed by the 10th century. And it’s only around then that the Russians kind of become Christians. — Meredith Riedel
  • The biggest thing about the the Byzantine church is that everything that is established in it and done in it is done through councils and as a community. None of this sort of Lone Ranger individual interpretation of scripture or practices. — Meredith Riedel
  • The idea of authority in the Byzantine church does not reside simply in the Word of God, the Bible. — Meredith Riedel
  • [Byzantine Christians] don’t believe in this word-for-word inspiration of the Bible. And the Bible is just one source of authority among others—a very important one, no doubt, but it’s not sort of the be-all end-all.  — Meredith Riedel
  • In the Byzantine Church and in Eastern Orthodoxy today, I would even say, the way that worship goes in an Orthodox Church is constitutive of their theology. So everything that happens in the liturgy reflects a theological commitment.  — Meredith Riedel
  • The use of the Bible, particularly in Byzantium, is very political, which makes it appear to modernize as polemic and not theology. But those two things sort of go together in Byzantium. It’s really the wild wild East. — Meredith Riedel
  • You need to learn from the experience of others. And this is a reason why we should study history.  — Meredith Riedel
  • Our seminaries are moving toward a model of less and less church history because “it’s a long time ago, it’s far away, it doesn’t matter.” Which doesn’t make any sense to me given that Christianity is a historical faith that arose in a historical context and developed throughout historical context. — Meredith Riedel
  • [Studying the Byzantine Church] would help our understanding of today, it would help us be less nervous about things that have developed—because they aren’t new and unprecedented and never seen before. Of course they’ve all been seen before!  — Meredith Riedel
  • God doesn’t just fit within the narrow confines of your denominational origins. And studying history, particularly the history of the church, ought to lead us to greater humility, so that we don’t think “my way is the best way, the only way the true way, the only way that’s ever been true or has ever been faithful.” — Meredith Riedel
  • There’s a wealth of biblical theology in the theology of icons. It’s worth studying. I think that’s a good place to start. — Meredith Riedel

Mentioned in This Episode

Meredith’s Reading Recommendations

  • John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images. St Vladimir’s Press, 2003. Translated by Andrew Louth.
  • Cunningham, Mary. Faith in the Byzantine World. InterVarsity Press, 2002.
  • Cunningham, Mary. “The Bible and Eastern Christianity” in Why Does the Bible Matter? The Significance of the Bible for Contemporary Life, edited by C.L. Crouch, Roland Deines, and Mark Wreford. Swindon, UK: The Bible Society, 2016.
  • Sarris, Peter. Byzantium. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Ware, Timothy (Kallistos). The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books, 1997.
  • Herrin, Judith. Byzantium. The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: the Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. Oxford, 2013.

Read the transcript

Pete  

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas.

Pete  

[Jaunty intro music plays] Hello, everybody. Welcome to this episode of the podcast! Our topic today is: What is Byzantine Christianity and why should we care? And our guest is Dr. Meredith Riedel, and she is a scholar and writer specializing in Byzantine Christianity.

Jared  

Yeah, and I think this is important in a lot of the themes that we talked about at The Bible for Normal People if you can pull from it beyond the specificity of Byzantine Christianity, which I think is interesting in its own right, but just the themes as we talk about how it broadens our view of the Christian faith, and how there’s many options, people practicing many things. And I loved, you know, one thing is how rooted it is in historic Christian expression, because it hasn’t focused on innovation or doing new things, but has really preserved a lot of what probably was a pretty ancient practice of faith.

Pete  

Right, right. And it was a thousand-year reign, so to speak, of Byzantine Christianity, which still has—

Jared  

Has many resonances to us today.

Pete  

Ripple effects, that’s even understating it. It’s not ripple effects, but the orthodoxies—the Greek orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy…

Jared  

Are direct descendants of Byzantine Christianity.

Pete  

Yeah. And something that many of us, including us, Jared, never learned about. And we went to seminary, and we never learned about this stuff. 

Jared  

No.

Pete  

And it’s just so fascinating.

Jared  

Yeah.

Pete  

And I think very liberating too.

Jared  

Absolutely.

Meredith  

Alright, let’s get into it.

Meredith  

[Teaser clip of Meredith speaking plays over jaunty music] “There is a Christian empire that lasted over a thousand years, and we don’t study it in the West. And today in our current milieu, we are struggling with issues of Christian nationalism, the relationship of church and state, which is something that Byzantium wrestled with for a thousand years. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You need to know about history in order to not repeat its mistakes.” [Jaunty music ends]

Jared  

Well, welcome Meredith, to the podcast. It’s great to have you.

Meredith  

Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m pleased to be here.

Jared  

Yeah, it’s been a long time coming. I think we invited you like a year and a half ago and you said no. 

Meredith  

[Laughing] That’s right, I did.

Jared  

And then we said, please! 

Pete  

And we said, FINE! FINE, MEREDITH! WE DON’T CARE!

Jared  

No, we didn’t! We said, please, please, please! Pretty please! And then eventually you said yes.

Pete  

And finally she said…okay.

Meredith  

Well I was very busy, first of all, and second of all, I’m not nearly at the stature of most of your guests. So I’m, I’m kind of flattered to be invited to be on it.

Jared  

Well, that’s surprising because [sarcastically] what we’re gonna talk about today is so universally known amongst our audience. 

Meredith  

[Laughing]

Jared  

We’re gonna talk about Byzantine Christianity. And we want to start with just what’s meant by that word, what do we mean when we talk about Byzantine anything?

Meredith  

That’s a good question. And the answer is probably surprising—and unsurprisingly, also a matter of debate among scholars. So the term Byzantine itself originated in the 16th century, in the field of art history as a derogatory term for Eastern Christian icons, which they viewed as flat and uninteresting (European viewers of these icons viewed them as flat and uninteresting). And if you’ve seen a Byzantine icon, you might agree. I think that anyone who thinks that has not been educated on the exegetical meanings, the theological impact of those icons.

Pete  

Well because Jared thinks that. Jared looks down on that. So this is good. 

Jared  

This is good for me.

Pete  

This is good for Jared. He has always been saying—he just said that the other day, “I still look down on this flat iconography.”

Jared  

[Chuckling] “…Byzantine iconography.” 

Meredith  

Well I mean, even the word Byzantine even used completely separate from Byzantine history or the empire, any of this, is a term that is pejorative, right? Byzantine…

Pete  

Like Philistine.

Meredith  

Yeah, exactly. It’s exactly like that.

Jared  

Okay, so what’s so interesting about Byzantine Christianity—maybe go further into how does this tie into talking about it as a, as a way of thinking about Christianity?

Meredith  

Well the Byzantines were, didn’t ever call themselves that. They actually called themselves Romans most of the time. Sometimes they called themselves Christians, and they were the citizens of what we in the West call the Christian East, Eastern Christendom, and actually the broadest time period—and I think the time period is important here—so the broadest interpretation of the Byzantine era is bout from 330 when the city of Constantinople was named Constantinople by Constantine, who obviously did not have an ego problem—until the 15th century, 1453, when the city of Constantinople was sacked by the Ottomans. So it’s an 1100-year-long Christian empire that many Christians in the West are completely unaware of and do not study. And this is, of course, an incredible crying shame. [Laughs]

Pete  

We didn’t learn this in seminary, did we Meredith?

Meredith  

You know, it was a huge, open lacuna, I suppose you might say. That, you know, given, okay, so politically, given what’s happening over in Ukraine, it might be interesting to know that so the Russian Orthodox Church is the inheritor of the Byzantine Orthodox Church or Eastern Orthodox Church. And there’s actually this very interesting sermon in the 16th century, it dates back to 1511 where this Greek monk preached a sermon to the Tsar, where he preached this doctrine called Third Rome. And he said, very memorably, two Romes have fallen—meaning, of course, Rome that was set by the Goths in the ancient period, and then the second Rome or the New Rome, also Constantinople, sacked in the 15th century by the Ottomans. And he says the third stands, there will not be a fourth according to the mighty Word of God. And the idea was the Russian Orthodoxy would be the leader of Christianity, of all Christendom on the planet till the end of time.

Pete  

Sounds like a plan.

Yes, exactly. So this should explain, I think, maybe a little bit about Putin’s relationship with [Patriarch] Kirill, because, you know, Kirill preaches that Putin is God’s representative on Earth, which is an inheritance from the Byzantine Empire. And we I think we have to reckon with it because the Russian Orthodox Church has more believers than all of the other Orthodox churches on the planet combined. It may also be interesting to know that in 2004, the Ecumenical Patriarch whose seat is in Constantinople still, his name is Bartholomew. He says that the doctrine of Third Rome is, and I quote, “foolish, hubristic, and blasphemous because it resounds with the spirit of Cesaro, Papism, and Vaticanism, and is totally unacceptable to the Orthodox Church.” So there’s some enmity there. And there’s a lot to unpack there. But that’s also later. So this is what I’m talking about today. The Byzantine stuff is foundational to stuff that’s actually, I think, operative today.

Pete  

Yeah.

Jared  

Before we get into what I think is going to be a very interesting discussion about all of this—Since this is the Bible for Normal People, I think a question that people will ask is, you know, what Bible did they use? Because we know today, there’s different, you know, Catholics have different books in their Bible. There’s various Bibles out there. So what was the Byzantine Bible like?

Meredith  

Yeah, the Byzantine Bible is very interesting. The Old Testament, what we call the Old Testament, was the canon, the Hebrew Palestinian canon that we use, of 39 books. It also includes 10 Deuterocanonical books, or in Greek is called Anagignoskomena, which translates to “books that are read.” So this is what we call the Septuagint. And then the New Testament, or the 27 books of the New Testament that Western churches also agree on—interestingly, the book of Revelation wasn’t really accepted by the Eastern churches until the ninth century, and they still don’t include it in any of their lectionary readings.

Pete  

Okay, can you just—why? I can imagine why, but just explain that.

Meredith  

So the very, at the risk of oversimplifying, the reason is that the Byzantines didn’t call themselves Byzantines. They call themselves Romans, they have the, they inherited the Roman Empire after the fall of the tetrarchy. In the third century, it became the East Roman Empire, sometimes people call it. But the bad guys in the book of Revelation are Romans. And so an empire that calls themselves the Roman Empire, do not want to say in church, “Hey, let’s read all about the bad guys who sound like us.” So that, I think that makes sense politically, that they weren’t [laughing] interested in identifying themselves as the source of all evil and so on.

Pete  

Okay, that makes sense. [Laughing]

Meredith  

Yeah, Byzantium is interesting because it’s been classically defined as an empire characterized by Roman law, Greek culture or philosophy, and Christian faith. So it’s Roman because it inherited the Roman Empire after the collapse of the tetrarchy. It’s Greek because it was centered in the East with that full Hellenic legacy of Alexander the Great, and Greek language. And it was Christian because it was closer to the birthplace of Christianity, and everything was done in the Greek language. And also the Bible that was used by the earliest Christians was entirely in Greek. So the Septuagint, as you know, is multiple Greek versions of the Old Testament that is the Bible quoted by the writers of the New Testament. They don’t quote the BHS, for example, sorry, the Hebrew Bible that we use in seminaries in the West. They quote the Septuagint.

Jared  

So can I ask a question that, I mean—help us situate what we’re talking about. Because I think for a lot of our listeners, and for me, frankly, I would think of Eastern Orthodoxy in a certain way that maybe isn’t tied to like the Russian Orthodox Church. So can you situate how does Eastern Orthodoxy in general, and I don’t even know what I mean by that, how does that tie into this Byzantine—Is that also part of it? Is it a matter of geography as to these different various orthodox traditions? How do they tie together?

Meredith  

That’s an excellent question. And it has a very, very long answer, which I will try to be brief about. I think geographically is a good way to think of it. Also linguistically. So because Byzantium did everything in Greek, and used the Greek texts of the Bible, and has been carried on most I suppose forcefully by the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece and its offshoots, I suppose. It’s different from the Russian church, and that the Russian church is itself an offshoot of the Greek church in its own historical cultural context. So they don’t do things in Greek in the Russian Orthodox Church, obviously. And they, I mean, anything—from the iconography of the icons to everything is, is actually quite different. The Greek Orthodox Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church is itself like many other Christian traditions, subject to different, I don’t know if we would call them denominations, but different theological commitments, different churches with different names. So it isn’t a single church, it’s many churches.

Jared  

Yeah, that was helpful. I think, what you are, where you are going, my main question maybe is, I can tie it up this way. The way you’re explaining it, are all those different variants, all inheritors of this Byzantine tradition in their own way? So the Russian Orthodox would have gone a certain way, various of these other parts of the Eastern Orthodox or denominations or however we want to talk about that. Those are also variations on this same tradition?

Meredith  

Yes, they are. I would say that the Russian Orthodox—because no Russian became a Christian until 988. So if we’re talking about Byzantine theology and church, most of that is from the fourth century, theologically completed by the 10th century. And it’s only around then that the Russians kind of become Christians. So actually, the other orthodox denominations split off from, what shall we say, Chalcedonian Orthodoxy much earlier. So for example, if you want to sort of hear what I’m talking about a little bit more specifically, the church of the East, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Church, which, by the way, is in communion with Rome, strangely, since at least since the Crusades. These churches only accept the first two Ecumenical Councils, because they split over the Antiochan Christology of Nestorius. And then there’s a whole nother set of churches after that called the Oriental Orthodox churches. So the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Malankara Indian Orthodox, and the Armenian Apostolic Church, which accept the first three councils as ecumenical

Pete  

And the councils were when?

Meredith  

[Chuckles] Right. So this is one of the main features of the Orthodox Church. It is a Conciliar Church: the authority of the Church is in, to a large degree, the Ecumenical Councils. So you start with 325 when Constantine decided what we need to do is figure out what are the doctrines of Christianity? And he was careful about doing this because he rather famously said that church disputes are “more dangerous than war, because they bring more grief.” And that’s probably still true. 

Pete  

Amen.

Meredith  

[Laughs] And he’d already outlawed pagan rites in Constantinople in 324, which, by the way, it wasn’t called Constantinople yet. At that point, it was still called New Rome, and he had actually moved his residence there. So that first council established the doctrine of God, the divinity of Jesus Christ, and also responded to some heretical theologies like the idea that Jesus is less than God. So the Arian Heresy, among others. I could go through all of those, but this isn’t a church history class. [Chuckles] And then in 381, there was another council to talk about the divinity of the Holy Spirit. And the Nicene Creed was developed, began to be developed. And then the third council in 431 was primarily about the identity of Mary as the Theotokos, as the bearer of God and not merely the mother of Christ. And then the fourth ecumenical in 451, the most famous one and had the most bishops—I think there were 650 bishops there—established the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ, human and divine, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, in one divine hypostasis. And the important thing here about in the Ecumenical Councils, is the definition of an ecumenical council is that it has representatives from the bishops, or the bishops themselves, from all five of the ancient Pentarchy of Christianity: which were Jerusalem as the oldest, and then Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, and then very last, Rome. And that’s just because of Peter.

[Ad break]

Jared  

Let’s dive into maybe some of—because it sounds like this is very churchy, it’s a very churchy episode.

Meredith  

Yes, it is, yes.

Jared  

A lot of church stuff going on. So what would be the characteristics of the practices of the Byzantine church?

Meredith  

So the biggest thing about the Byzantine Church is that everything that is established in it and done in it is done through councils and as a community. So none of this sort of Lone Ranger individual interpretation of Scripture or practices. The idea of authority in the Byzantine church does not reside, as I think a lot of Western denominations, particularly Reformed denominations, simply in the Word of God, the Bible. So Scripture is part of the authority of the Church. And the reason that they don’t put that in the sort of top place is that the church existed before the Scripture, right? The scriptures were written later after the death of Jesus and the resurrection, and so on. And the establishment of the Canon isn’t really attested before, was it Athanasius’s Easter letter of 267? So the church existed before the Canon was established. So the Scripture itself becomes then a part of the tradition. It’s written tradition. And it’s not the only revealed word of God. So the word of God also comes through the living tradition of the church in the form of the writings of the Fathers, the Canon law, the commentaries, even the icons, which, by the way, are described as written. So this, they don’t believe in the Bible as word-for-word inspired. It’s more of a communal revelation, whose interpretation is guarded by the church community. But you’re not free as an individual to interpret the Bible.

Pete  

You know, just to interrupt, Meredith, because this is striking me. Maybe this is not accurate, please correct me. But that sounds very Jewish, like a Talmudic tradition. Where, yes, Scripture is an anchor, but it always needs to be engaged by a tradition that’s ongoing and living. Where adjustments are made, changes are made, people have different perspectives. And I’m only saying that to contrast it with what I think the kind of Christianity that many people understand and live in today, especially Protestant Christianity, which is like you said, very, “let’s get back to the Bible” kind of thing. Right?

Meredith  

Right. You know, that’s an interesting insight, Pete, because, yeah, there’s common—

Pete  

I’m full of those, Meredith. I’m full of those.

Meredith  

The commentaries of the Midrash, and the Canon law is the Mishnah. Right, that makes sense actually. The writings of the Fathers are the, what is like called the Halakha.

Pete  

Yeah

Meredith  

There’s, that’s actually quite interesting, not only because there, I think there are structural parallels, but also because the Byzantine church was, I’m sorry to say it fairly anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. I can’t say anti-Semitic because there’s a lot of Syriac tradition. But very, there is quite a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Byzantine Church unfortunately.

Pete  

Well, I just, I just think there’s, I mean, why I find—this is one of these “who cares about the Byzantine period” kinds of things. But one reason to care is there’s a wisdom there in recognizing the kind of function that Scripture could reasonably have in the community. And it’s not without intelligent engagement on the part of people who really dig into this stuff.

Meredith  

I think that’s true. There’s a lot that goes on in the Byzantine Church, that is completely beside exegetical discussion. In fact, historical critical exegesis as we know it from the 18th, 19th centuries in the West, just isn’t a thing in the East. Never was. And in part, that’s because they don’t believe in this word-for-word inspiration of the Bible. And the Bible is just one source of authority among others. A very important one, no doubt, but it’s not sort of the be-all end-all. In fact, the other things that go on in the Byzantine church, one of the I think most interesting things about them is they never throw anything away. They never overhaul any of their theology. They don’t review it. They don’t declare anything obsolete. They actually say, because God doesn’t change, the theology of the church does not change. So if something appears new, it is merely following a trajectory that has been set by prior dogma. And that new—or they wouldn’t use the word new, they have this actually complete aversion to something called neo̱terismós in Greek, which is innovation. It’s just something coming into the light. That has always been there. 

Meredith  

Okay, yeah, that makes sense, right.

Meredith  

So it’s, I find their, their attitudes toward the idea that nothing ever changes. I don’t think that as an observer from the outside from a long time later, you can identify changes, but they’re very, very slow. And so they have the illusion of not changing. So that, so they’ll, of course they’re going to respond completely allergically to things like adding the Filioque to the Creed, because the Creed itself is a source of authority for the Eastern Church, for the Byzantines and for the Eastern Orthodox today. So it’s very hard to read theology by Eastern Orthodox theologians that doesn’t refer to the Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed.

Pete  

Right. You just referred to the Filioque—explain that just briefly, just so people aren’t like looking it up, Googling and spelling it wrong. So what—

Meredith  

So the Filioque is the Latin word, and it’s appropriately a Latin word, I think, that means “and the son” where the Western Church, specifically at the Council of Toledo in 587, added this phrase to the Creed that says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, and then they added “and the son.” And they did that as a response to the Arianism of the Goths, who were proclaiming Jesus—in the heresy of the Arians—wasn’t quite as important as God the Father. And so seeking to bolster Jesus’s credibility, I suppose, they said, No, the Spirit comes from Jesus too because he said, “I will also send you the spirit.” And so they added that to the Creed, and it so upset the Byzantine Church that in 867 the patriarch Photios actually declared the Pope, the patriarch of Rome, a heretic for adding the Filioque to the Creed. And then Rome turned around and predictably excommunicated the patriarch.

Pete  

Of course, yeah. Good times. [Laughing]

Meredith  

[Laughing] Yeah, exactly. Oh, listen, church history is fascinating and certainly not boring.

Jared  

Back when we could just excommunicate people.

Pete  

Yeah. Anyway, so…So okay, let’s move on, then. Talk about how Scripture functions.

Meredith  

In the Byzantine church, in Eastern Orthodoxy today, I even I would say, the liturgy, the way that worship goes in an Orthodox Church is constitutive of their theology. So everything that happens in the liturgy reflects a theological commitment. Now, in the Byzantine period, the liturgy was divided into two parts, The Liturgy of the Catechumens or The Liturgy of the Word, and the second part, the Liturgy of the Faithful, or also known as The Liturgy of the Mystery. And the reason this is interesting, I think, is that it puts the Bible, the Word, the homily, before The Liturgy of the Faithful. So The Liturgy of the Catechumens anybody can come to, and part of that is to hear a sermon. Then they sort of call intermission and all the non-communing members (in the Byzantine period) are asked to leave. And then they recommence with The Liturgy of the Faithful where communion is served—or The Mysteries as they’re called in the East. So the sermon or the Bible in this context is not key, not central, to worship. Worship for an Orthodox Church, and particularly a Byzantine Church is not worship unless The Mysteries are served, unless communion is celebrated. So participating in The Mystery within the community is the supreme religious experience for the Eastern Orthodox and also reflects their deeply Trinitarian, deeply Christocentric theology.

Pete  

So the sermon for the Catechumens was this, like, a 45-minute, hour-long sermon the way we sort of see them today, in certain contexts? Or was this more of a homily or how did that work?

Meredith  

It depends on who’s preaching.

Meredith  

And it depends on which liturgy is used. There’s three classic liturgies in the Byzantine Church. The standard one is about two hours. The other one, which is used on some holy days is about two to three hours. And then there’s a special one only used on very High Holy days, which is a six-hour liturgy. And just as an interesting note, Orthodox churches don’t believe you should sit during church. 

Pete  

Okay.

Pete  

Yeah, I’ve heard of that. Yeah.

Jared  

So you’re standing for two to six hours?

Pete  

But what if Timmy has soccer practice? How does that work?

Meredith  

[Laughing] So during Orthodox services, even during the Byzantine period, people are not standing silently like, I don’t know, like the like the soldiers of Shi Huang. They’re moving around, they’re talking, they’re kissing the icons, they’re keeping the children from running wild, it’s a lot more of a communal experience. It’s a participation of presence more than it is of listening. So the priests are behind the iconostasis. So there’s this icon screen that divides the table and the priests, who are doing all of their things with the communion, from the people. And the icon screen started as a sort of low wall really just for crowd control. And it developed into this full blown icon theology with prescribed places for the icons on the screen that have meanings for each individual church, but also for orthodoxy as a whole while the people in the church are walking around looking at the other icons that are inside. And partly this is because when you, when you have a church service in orthodoxy, the entire church is gathered in a moment in time that is collapsed into that particular space-time of the worship service. And the church consists of everyone who’s ever been a Christian in this church, everyone who’s ever going to be a Christian, plus the angels.

Pete  

Oh, man. So that’s really sacred space. Sacred time.

Meredith  

It is sacred space and a sacred time. And the reason that it’s all sort of collapsed together, and the reason why Orthodox Churches typically are paved with icons on the walls, is that those icons represent people who were in the church previously and have gone to be in heaven. And so the icons function as a window through which those people look into the gathered worship of the believers still on Earth today. So they’re joining in the worship together.

Jared  

I want to clarify that, at least in my experience, I’ve visited a few, I think, Antiochian Orthodox churches, and this isn’t—what you’re saying is actually still how it’s practiced. I think for people who haven’t maybe been to an Orthodox Church, we keep going back and forth between what happened a thousand years ago and what still happens in Eastern Orthodox churches. And what you described is my experience. Lots of icons, the screen, the walking around, they bring around certain, I think, I’m sure it’s based on that particular congregation which icons get kissed by the congregation, and which stay on the wall. And, and it is a very participatory—a lot of icons, a lot of kissing, is what I remember, of the—

Pete  

And the worship band. 

Jared  

—What?

Pete  

And the worship band!

Jared  

[Repeating Pete] And the worship band? 

Pete  

No?! Okay.

Meredith  

[Laughing heartily] There’s a lot of great chanting, though.

Jared  

Yeah, yeah. Chanting and all that. So anyway, I just wanted to clarify that, at least in my experience, this is still how Eastern Orthodox congregations practice today.

Meredith  

Yeah. And this goes, actually, I think, to the question of why should anybody care about this right now? Why should any Western Christian care to know about this or hear about it. And partly, that’s because the Orthodox Church claims to be the original Christian church that hasn’t ever changed. That it’s just the way that the original early Christian church worshiped. There’s a case to be made either way, but the claim, and the attraction of this church for younger people, is this is closer to what is original, what is real, what the way that the disciples and the early church would have worshiped. And so there’s this connection to the history and the tradition that bypasses a lot of the modern, whatever the theological version of fast fashion is. Trends in church liturgy, and decoration and music and different rituals that we would do—this is always the same, it’s the same order, they use one of the three liturgies. And this is the attraction for young people now. And the reason we should reckon with this is that the number of former evangelicals who convert to Greek Orthodoxy is quite high in North America.

Pete  

Yeah.

Meredith  

And I’ve actually read—this is interesting to me. I read one study out of an Orthodox seminary that did a survey of their clergy, and over—this was maybe 10-12 years ago, over 80% of their clergy are former evangelicals.

Pete  

Yeah.

Jared  

Interesting!

Pete  

That is amazing. I know, I’m teaching at Eastern University and I know I’ve seen that as well with our students. And you know, for some they move to Episcopalianism and others, they move to Catholicism, but also the Orthodoxy. That dimension is very much represented. And as one person put it to me, they don’t want church to look like what they’ve seen all week, which is a really interesting insight. I think they want sacred space and sacred time. And they don’t find that in, you know, long drawn out sermons and music that sounds like what they listened to all week, you know, and I think I would be lying if I said that wasn’t attractive to me too. 

[Ad break]

Jared  

Can we go back and talk a little bit more about the Bible? Because I think it’s something that is helpful to hear again, that in this tradition, the Church came before the Bible. And so it has a place but it’s not the place of primacy in a lot of ways. You said in the liturgy, that the sermonnette is sort of the preamble, it’s the thing that everybody can do. But when we get real serious, that’s not the central function. And I think for a lot of our listeners, you know—in my tradition, everything led up to the sermon because the whole point was that the sermon is to get you saved. And that’s the point of the Bible—everything is to get you saved and that’s the climax of every Sunday. And that’s the different liturgy than what you’re talking about. And so what is the relationship of Byzantine, and maybe even up to modern Eastern Orthodox conceptions of the Bible, and how it how it functions? Or even how do they read it? Like how do they approach it? What’s the hermeneutics? What are the what’s the thing they’re going to the Bible for?

Meredith  

Okay, so let me just preface all of this by telling you something that was said to me by a Greek Orthodox friend after I presented a paper on Byzantine exegesis of a particular patriarch. He laughed when he introduced me and he said, we all know that in the Orthodox Church, we don’t read the Bible, we just kiss it. 

[Pete and Jared laugh heartily]

Meredith  

[Chuckling] I think he was only half joking. So there’s a couple of things that are characteristic of Byzantine hermeneutics, Byzantine exegesis. There’s a tradition in the Byzantine Church that there’s a quote from Evagrius Pontus who died around 399, I think, who said “May the sun on rising find you with the Bible in your hand.” So reading the Bible is encouraged, but interpreting the Bible is not. So the Orthodox look at evangelical Bible studies with quite a suspicious eye. It is considered a little bit dangerous, a little bit subjective, a little bit unsafe, it’s not something that you’re really allowed to do. In terms of their hermeneutic, that’s been influenced, I think, quite heavily by Irenaeus who was the first one to explain recapitulation theory of the atonement.

Pete  

Second Century, right?

Meredith  

Yes.

Pete  

Explain him just briefly so people are not, again, Googling.

Meredith  

So the ultimate goal of Christ’s work is solidarity with humankind. So Christ is the new Adam, and Christ succeeds where the Adam of Genesis failed. In the way Irenaeus said it, Jesus became what we are, that is human, so that he might bring us to be even what he is himself, that is divine. So recapitulation theory is also known as Theosis, becoming divine, becoming deified. So that is the goal, that is the lens for everything, when you approach theology in the Orthodox Church. There’s also, and I think, actually, you’ll probably like this, Pete—a great influence of Origen [of Alexandria] and his notion of the embodiment of the Word in the scriptural text, which parallels the words accommodation to humanity and the incarnation. So that’s, you know, kind of right up your alley, right?

Pete  

I know, that’s, I had no idea I was so Orthodox.

Meredith  

You’re following the, let me just say the, Orthodox versions of Origen’s theology. [Laughing] He also I think, Origen also has this really interesting assertion that the Holy Spirit has providentially crafted and problematized the biblical text in order to spur readers to greater spiritual maturity. 

Pete  

Oh my goodness gracious.

Meredith  

Yes, you can find that in his On First Principles: IV if you’d like to look it up. And it’s actually then later worked out through the Cappadocian Fathers, some Eastern monastics, Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century. He also talked about the inexhaustibility and polyvalence of the Word. So this is something—the things that…

Pete  

He’s my homie!

Meredith  

He really is! And many of the things that Origen said were just taken for granted by Greek and Byzantine patristic interpreters. So I think that’s something that is interesting for people today. It’s actually not a million miles away from the way we think of it. Byzantine exegesis, I think I said before, it’s very heavy on Trinitarianism and on Christocentrism. And the way that Byzantine exegesis works, the way the Bible functions—this is actually a massively neglected area of scholarship. And I think it’s probably because a lot of historians don’t feel themselves to be competent in theology. So when they say they’re going to write about Byzantine exegesis, they end up writing about the manuscript transmission and traditions, the location of the books, the use of the lectionary, the composition of the lectionary, the stories from the Bible that are in the icons, and the things that are from the Apocrypha and the icons. They don’t actually talk about the theology very much.

Pete  

Yeah.

Meredith  

There needs to be, I think, an article or possibly a book that explains why Western theologians need to know about Byzantine exegesis, that has not yet been written. In part, maybe because the use of the Bible, particularly in Byzantium, is very political, which makes it appear to modernize as polemic and not theology. But those two things sort of go together in Byzantium. It’s really the wild wild east, there’s a lot of rough and tumble there in the Church.

Pete  

[Chuckling] Okay, so in the little time we have left here, let’s—you mentioned how attracted young people are becoming to this. And that’s one reason why we should care about this period. But what else? Why should we care? Who cares, Meredith, about the very thing that makes your soul soar and sing?

Pete  

So you’re asking a historian why history matters? In a certain—

Pete  

Yeah, pretty much. But we don’t want the seven volume answer here…right?

Meredith  

Yeah. How to say this in a, in a short way, because you know I’ve got 200 hours on this!

Pete  

I’m sure! I know you do!

Meredith  

Okay, so I think in part, there is a Christian empire that lasted over a thousand years. And we don’t study it in the West—or not many of us study it. And today in our current milieu, we are struggling with issues of Christian nationalism, and the relationship of church and state, which is something that Byzantium wrestled with for a thousand years. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You need to know about history in order to not repeat its mistakes in part, but also because it’s actually very important, I think, for understanding our faith and how our faith has been worked out in the past. So I think it was Claire Davis, church history professor at Westminster, who very memorably said, “No one lives long enough to learn from experience.” You need to learn from the experience of others. And this is a reason why we should study history, but our seminaries are moving toward a model of less and less church history because it’s a long time ago, it’s far away, it doesn’t matter. Which doesn’t make any sense to me given that Christianity is a historical faith that arose in a historical context and developed throughout historical context. And we really, I think, ought to know about it! I think it would help our understanding of today, it would help us be, I think, less nervous about things that have developed because they aren’t new and unprecedented and never seen before, because of course they’ve all been seen before. I think it makes us less naive.

Pete  

Well, that’s the “back to the Bible” mentality right? Rather than the living tradition mentality.

Meredith  

Yeah, I really, I do think church history needs to include traditions and history beyond our own. Because the way that it currently stands in many seminaries is it’s just a way of justifying or rubber stamping our own denominational flavors. And if we’re going to truly be marked by charity or love, as Jesus said, “they should know you’re Christians by your love,” that means you actually have to be open to and kind to people that maybe you don’t agree with, who also claim the same faith. So in the interest of the purity of the church, and the unity of believers, why would we ignore half or more than half of the people who claim to also be our brothers and sisters? That makes no sense. I think it impoverishes us as Christians.

Jared  

Well, and I’m hearing two different things, which is one—and I really liked this. Until Pete said this, I hadn’t really put two and two together—that maybe there’s an argument to be made to lessen the boundary between history and tradition. Because we have an inherited Bible, we have an inherited tradition, we have inherited faith. And so to think that we aren’t influenced by that, and therefore it’s important to understand it, is really naive. And that’s that kind of we, when we get to exclude everything that came before us, we get to make the Bible in our own image. We get to make Christianity in our own image, we get to do away with all of that stuff that actually is built into how we practice our faith. But secondly, I’m also hearing you say it’s important to recognize the diversity of the expression of Christianity over the centuries because we can be so myopic and think—I mean, I grew up in a tradition, and I know so many people like close friends and family who would say “I never even knew you could be anything different than X” which usually was like Southern Baptist, or nondenominational, which is Southern Baptist. 

Meredith  

[Laughs] It is.

Jared  

Basically kind of the same, and they felt trapped by that. And if only they could get kind of their older selves could go back and sort of take them around and show them these different expressions and see how many different ways there are, and which ones are rooted in what practices and traditions, it would have allowed for a faith expression that was more connected to who they were.

Meredith  

Yes, I think it also shows you a bigger God. God isn’t just fit within the narrow confines of your denominational origins. And studying history, particularly the history of the church, I think ought to lead us to greater humility, so that we don’t think my way is the best way, the only way the true way, the only way that’s ever been true, it has ever been faithful. And no one no one likes an arrogant Christian or a proud church, right? There’s too much of that going on. Let’s study some history and get a little humility in here. I think that would help everybody.

Jared  

So can I ask as we, as we wrap up our time, is there one thing to point people to, to take a next step to better understand this tradition? Where would you point people if they wanted to say, “Yes, I agree. I want to dig further into this. Where do I go?”

Meredith  

Okay, so there’s no shallow end. You just have to jump in. 

Pete  

Yeah.

Meredith  

And I think for most people, the easiest place to jump in is to go study some icons.

Pete  

Okay.

Jared  

How do you do that? What does that mean?

Meredith  

It means to learn what are the theological commitments that are present in the icon. So study some icon theology, read John of Damascus on the icons. We all like John of Damascus in the West, right? He’s not a heretic. We all like him. Let’s read him on the icons. That’s a good place to start, I think.

Jared  

So icon theology and understanding the theology of the icons that are used in church.

Pete  

Learning theology from icons instead of only the Bible and whatever confession of faith the church holds to.

Jared  

It’s a big ask.

Meredith  

Well if you think about it, and this is the point that John of Damascus makes, icon theology is all about the image of God in Christ. You can’t talk about icons without talking about Christology. Can you represent Christ as an icon? And there’s a church council in 692 that said yeah, in fact, you ought to represent Christ as a human being and an icon and not just as a lamb or some other metaphorical creature before that. Because he was really incarnated. So it’s incarnational theology that is represented in icon theology. It’s really important. It’s really fascinating. And I don’t think that it’s a violation of the Second Commandment. In the West we are way too simplistic about that. There’s a wealth of biblical theology in the theology of icons. It’s worth studying. I think that’s a good place to start.

Pete  

Yeah. Sounds good. Excellent.

Jared  

Well, thank you so much, Meredith, for bringing the heat on something that I didn’t know about at all. 

Pete  

Gently bringing the heat. 

Jared  

Yeah. Mhmm. Slow burn.

Pete  

Yeah. Thank you, Meredith.

Meredith  

Thank you for letting me talk about it! 

Pete  

You bet!

Outro  

You’ve just made it through another episode of The Bible for Normal People! Thanks to our listeners who support us each week by rating the podcast, leaving a review, and telling others about our show. We couldn’t have made this amazing episode without the help of our Producers Group: Melanie Wright, Jordan, Vicki Hansen, Ryan Campbell, Jeff Guinn, Willard Vaughan, Karen Klassen, Chris Skiera-Vaughn, Julie Fraser, and Anna Bateman! As always, you can support the podcast at Patreon.com/TheBibleforNormalPeople where for as little as $3/month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Tessa Stultz, Nick Striegel, Steven Henning, Haley Warren, Jessica Shao, and Natalie Weyand!

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

One Comment

  • Jennifer Townsend says:

    This was such a helpful episode. I would love to hear another episode on the relationship between church and state and the military in Byzantium and how that may have evolved over time. I.e., what is the current path of the church and it’s relationship to the state?

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