Byzantine Christianity

by Averil Cameron, SPCK, 128pp, £7.99

“I have often had occasion to realise that Byzantine Christianity is poorly understood except by specialists, and I hope that this book will help to fill what I feel is a real gap.” Thus Averil Cameron concludes the preface to this new addition to the SPCK “Very Short History” series.

Professor Cameron begins by giving a brisk shake to some of the easier assumptions readers may hold – assumptions that would, for instance, separate Byzantine Christianity too readily from early Christianity as a whole, or identify it too narrowly with Eastern Orthodoxy.

Arguments flare up on every other page. When the Arab armies arrived in Syria in 634, the Christian population was split: “Not only were there both dyophysites and miaphysites; still others held that Christ had only a human nature.” The great ecumenical councils of the 4th to 8th centuries, all held in the East and all called to settle theological controversies, gave rise to further divisions. Some debates, such as the one on iconoclasm, simply wore themselves out over the course of generations. The dispute with Rome over the Filioque wording in the Creed marked an early stage in the long process that led to schism.

Byzantium was a theological and cultural powerhouse. However, the rise of schools and universities in the Latin west, and with them the rise of scholasticism, had no parallels in the eastern empire. Equally, there was no authority in Byzantine Christianity to compare with the Catholic magisterium. Even so, the importance of tradition and citing authorities has made for a conservative approach among modern Orthodox churches.

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