The Place of Authority 3-2:Byzantium, Triangles and the Quest for Stasis

As a symbol and expression of the universal prestige of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Justinian built the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, Hagia Sophia, which was completed in the short period of four and a half years (532–537).

One of the things I’ve been doing as I took an extended break from my more historical work on the place of authority within society and religion was to do some broader thinking about where this all might be heading and to try to bring in some other disciplines that could help me process the large historical stories in a way that both made sense and was as fair as possible to the historical narrative. I’m going to take you on a brief journey into the sometimes scary process of how my mind thinks through things (clearing away as much of the clutter as possible) and hopefully you will be able to see why I am drawing some of the conclusions I am at this point and as I move forward and then I will apply the scheme I develop to the period of the Byzantine empire (what remains of the former Roman empire after Rome collapses based out of Constantinople) and then we shall see how far I move forward in history before I feel the need to re-evaluate.

One thing that every society seeks is stability, instability is notoriously bad (at least in the short term) for the people in any society and people will endure a lot of things to avoid a drastic upheaval of what is considered normal. That got me thinking about Bowen System Theory and specifically his (and other’s who followed Murray Bowen’s work from the 1970s on) work on triangles:

“The theory states that the triangle, a three person emotional configuration, is the molecule or the basic building block of any emotional system, whether it is in the family or any other group. The triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system may be stable as long as it is calm, but when anxiety increases, it immediately involves the most vulnerable other person to become a triangle. When tension in the triangle is too great for the threesome, it involves others to become a series of interlocking triangles”[i]

If any place in this time period could be talked about as stable and able to resist major changes it was the Byzantine empire and the Orthodox Church which was the dominant expression of religion within the empire. Thinking about what a triangular system might look like from the Byzantine perspective might look like took me back to another three fold characterization.

There is an ancient way of talking about Jesus which is called the three-fold office, which goes back into the ancient church, at least to the early church father Eusebius (263-339) and probably earlier than that. It breaks down the offices of Jesus as: prophet, priest and king- and as I mentioned in an earlier post for the early followers of Jesus he occupied the central defining role in forming their identity as Christians. Let me expand each of these roles briefly:

The kingly role is the role of political power, to those familiar with a Lutheran two kingdom way of thinking this is the left handed kingdom which deals with military power and security, taxes and wealth, roads and trade. Typically in every layer of society there is someone who occupies a place of political power and who guarantees safety, peace and security for the price of obedience and taxes. This is the role of the secular power, and it can be abusive or benevolent (although it more often trends towards abusive) and it often depends on the next office for it’s authorization in some manner.

The priestly role is the role of religious authority, this would be the right hand kingdom of Lutheran two kingdom typology, which deals with placing people in a right relationship with the sacred, whatever that may mean for a society. In almost every society that I am aware of the priestly function is carried out by those who are closely aligned with those in the kingly role. In a theocracy the priestly office will dominate the political office, this is less common but there are societies and times where the priestly office will hold sway. More commonly the political office will exercise greater power than the priestly office and the priestly office will give additional legitimacy to the political office. This may sound skeptical and there is give and take in the relationship, however for stability there is a mutual self interest involved since the political office protects the priestly office and the priestly office legitimizes the political office.

The prophetic role is that place, person or thing within a society which places a check on the political and the priestly offices when they are not acting in accordance to whichever divine source of authority , they are the mouthpiece of God that challenges the excesses, abuses, deceptions, oppression, idolatry or hubris of the other two offices. The prophetic role may be occupied by a person or persons or it may be an idea, book, etc…as we will see in some of the upcoming transitions. All three roles are necessary and linked together.

In the Byzantine empire the emperor remained the dominant political figure, and had a lot of authority within all realms of both political and religious authority. The bishops had and exercised their authority with the protection and in cooperation with the emperor, but for the Orthodox church and the Byzantine empire the prophetic role was occupied by tradition. Tradition was what the church had believed and confessed, hence orthodoxy, and anything that deviated from that tradition of the earlier church fathers and councils was considered heresy or at least unorthodox. After the reign of Theodosious I (379-395 CE) the eastern half of the empire based in Constantinople would remain in some form with the emperor reigning and the Orthodox church intact until Constantinople falls in 1453.

In Gruene, Texas there is a dancehall which proudly proclaims “Gently resisting change since 1872” and in many ways the Byzantine empire was able to gently resist significant changes for 1,000 years. The world around its borders changed and went through a number of upheavals and eventually it would find itself caught between the Catholics on one side and the Muslims on the other, and yet the emperor, orthodox priests and the tradition of the fathers provided stability while the world around them was filled with chaos.

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[i] Murray Bowen, 1976 quoted in Roberta M. Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and The Group, Falls Church and Basye, Virginia: Leading Systems Press, 2004 and 2006, 47.

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