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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 13: Faith in a New Rome (451 – 900) – Part I: “Hagia Sophia” & “Byzantine Spirituality”

Chapter 13: Faith in a New Rome (451 – 900) – Part I: “Hagia Sophia” & “Byzantine Spirituality”



Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna.jpg

Emperor Justinian I  by Meister von San Vitale, Ravenna


The imperial reign of a Balkan Latin-speaking native, Justinian I, and his wife, a former circus artist, Theodora, had a profound impact on the Byzantine Empire and the Orthodox Church.  When Justinian I came to power in 527, one of his goals was to reunite a fragmented empire through the twofold strategy of theological negotiation with Miaphysite enemies of Chalcedon and military conquests in the East and West. (loc. 8342)


One of the first major tasks he did was to preside over the Fifth Council of Constantinople in 553 when it condemned the theology of Origen and sought to intensify the Orthodox Church’s rejection of Dyophysite theology; Theodora assisted in this cause by providing patronage for those who built up a Miaphysite Church hierarchy to challenge the Chalcedons.  (loc. 8350)


The other major lasting legacy that Justinian accomplished, that can still be seen today, was the rebuilding of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople, which would serve as the cathedral of the city and the symbol of unity in his empire.  But this rebuilding effort came at a price that almost cost him the throne.  Into the fifth year of his reign his lavish spending, the heavy cost of his frontier wars, and heavy taxes he imposed to pay for these activities had not sat well with most of the citizens in Constantinople.  When his opponents gathered at the Hippodrome in an attempt to rally support to overthrow him and install one of his nephews to be the next emperor in 532, Justinian dispatched troops to slaughter all his opponents there.  (He had tried to flee, but Theodora persuaded him to fight them.)  During this time of turmoil, he executed an ambitious project of rebuilding the capitol and rebuilding the centuries-old basilica of Hagia Sophia.  This new basilica would serve as a perpetual warning to future citizens who had rebellion on their minds.  (loc. 8370)  With the design of the great dome in Hagia Sophia, which was supposed to represent the canopy of heaven, he was able to create a congregational space where the emperor, church patriarch, and people could all come together.  (loc. 8374)  The impact of Hagia Sophia’s dome was:


“[T]o promote the central dome as the leading motif of architecture in the imperial Church of the East and in those Churches which later sought to identify with that tradition.  Moreover, following the precedent of Hagia Sophia, the dome became a major Islamic feature in mosques, once mosques became covered spaces rather than open courtyards.”  (loc. 8382)


It’s interesting to see another example of Christian and Islamic cultures exchanging and influencing one another; just as Christianity incorporated the Muslim model of a university into their educational system, the Muslims incorporated Byzantine Orthodox Church architecture with their own.  This goes to show that no culture or religious tradition comes about in total isolation from another.


Another important moment in Justinian’s reign was the codification of half a millennium of imperial legal decisions that served as a deliberate Christian reshaping of the heritage law from the empire, more so than previous attempts by Emperor Theodosius II during the 4th century.  This codification was to be one of Justinian’s most lasting legacies – its rediscovery in the 11th century played a significant part in the Pope Gregory’s reforms, the creation of the first Christian universities, and provided the basis for most Western legal systems devised thereafter.  (loc. 8434 & 8441)


Despite all his significant accomplishments, one of the major blemishes to his reign was (along with his expensive military campaigns) the closing of the School of Athens in 529, and then the closing of another institution of higher learning in Berytus (Beruit) in 550-51.  All that remained was a center for higher learning in Alexandria that survived until the Islamic conquest centuries later.  The result of Justinian’s policies was that education was to become more and more the property of the Orthodox clergy.  (loc. 8457)


It is hard to tell how devout emperors and monarchs (and you can also include religious leaders like popes and patriarchs) really were in their religious convictions.  It seems like they had no choice under certain circumstances but to resort to violence or other extreme measures to hold onto power, whether it be for their own good or the good of the entire empire they were looking after.  Religion can be used as a powerful tool to motivate, rally, transform, and even divide citizens within a society – and shrewd leaders will know this, build upon that and use people’s beliefs for their own political advantage if they have to.  It seems like politics, power, and religion all go hand in hand as we have seen far too often in history, for both good and ill.   Emperor Justinian’s life is no different here – through his actions he was able to solidify his reign with Hagia Sophia and secure a distinct Byzantine tradition, culture, and theology that was distinct from the West that still prevail to this day.





This idea of Theosis intrigues and draws me in. I would like to step outside its bounds in Eastern Orthodox thought and take it in a different but related direction. Specifically, I am inquiring about the part of Theosis which deals with the ‘substance’ (what we are ‘made of’) of our post-resurrection body. Now our body is physical ‘flesh and blood’ (in substance). What will be the spiritual ‘flesh and blood’ of our new resurrected body?


Theosis is often defined as ‘deification’ or ‘union with the Divine’. (MacCulloch p.433) This idea has invigorated my thoughts about OUR resurrection. Paul says: “We see through a glass darkly but then we shall see Him (God) as He is.” Will we be (‘made of’) the same substance (Energia? Immanence?), even essence (ousia), as God?


I am NOT saying that we will be God as God is God. He is Eternal, Uncreated and Almighty. Our existence depends on His ‘existence’ and always will! We exist at God’s pleasure as not a necessary but a wanted PART of God. God inspired human writers to speak of Him as a Family – Father, Son, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters- throughout the Bible, OT and NT. (e.g. Rom 8 we are sons of God, 1Cor 15 our resurrected body, Gen 3 made in His image and likeness (Imago Dei).)


In our ultimate change (resurrected form) is it not possible, even plausible, that we will share the same substance as God? Or, as some say, that God transcends Being and as created beings we can never attain the same?


Only God can understand the things of God. If we are to share fully in the Holy Spirit need we somehow be ‘god’ (substance) also? Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. Flesh begets flesh. Will God (Spirit) not beget God (Spirit)? Is this a form of Theosis? (NB This Theosis is all by Grace not by works and I speak of substance.)


It seems that God is seeking to ‘expand’ (i.e. ‘reproduce’) His own Family. In a crude analogy, as the caterpillar, who cannot fly, morphs into the butterfly, who can fly, will we ‘morph’ from human flesh into God Spirit substance wise? Can we make a further analogy of this life being a ‘conception and gestation’ period prior to actual ‘birth’ (resurrection) as ‘God’ beings (in substance)?


Further, it seems that all Christians share in, and the Bible seems to point to, this idea of ‘union with the Divine’. What is this in its ultimate post-resurrection form?


Theosis raises very interesting thoughts about what it is to be fully with Christ and in the God Family (Kingdom of God).  Church Fathers as diverse as Clement of Alexandria and Augustine have spoken of “…how man may become God.” (Clement)  If defined and used correctly it could offer valuable insights into the Nature of God.


PS   Staying within the bounds of Theosis as discussed in the chapter, the Eastern Orthodox Church’s concept of Theosis is often translated ‘deification’. “It asserts that human society could be sanctified through the ministry and liturgy of the Church, and by the meditations of those prepared to enter such difficult and testing labor”. (MacColluch, p.433)


My question: Is this just another scheme for salvation by works, a plan as old as man himself? It seems to say that we (mankind) can redeem ourselves. Does this eliminate the need for Christ’s sacrifice, making it redundant? This explanation is extremely dangerous and qualifies as true heresy. I have great difficulty with this definition much as the concept of Penance in the previous chapters.


To be fair, I admit my unfamiliarity with their understanding. Seems we need to discuss what is meant by the phrase “…through the liturgy…and…labor” more thoroughly.





The Eastern theology of theosis or ‘deification’ – union with the divine:  Do you think it’s heretical?  Unbiblical?  Or something Western Christians can learn from or should incorporate into their spiritual practice?


“Are you a God?” – Gozer, “Ghostbusters” the movie


“Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say ‘YES’!” – Winston, same movie



“You will be like God, knowing good and evil” – Genesis 3:5

“Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life?” – 2 Kings 5:7


“Be like Christ” header added to Philippians 2 by New American Standard Bible


Deification, on first hearing it to my Western ears it does sound alarming.  It reminds us of the arrogance of Adam where he decided to become equal to God, to be our own God.  Idolatry is to hold something in place of God.


What the Eastern thought is more of is a union with God- to be with God and be more like God.  Ultimately isn’t that a Christian’s goal? Sin separated us from God and Christ’s blood enabled us to be with God once more.  We study to learn more of God’s nature and try to do good as God would do, replacing our human nature with a godly one.


We are not to be absorbed by God into a sort of collective, but should retain our own identity that is closely entwined with God.  Such as lovers who annoyingly finish each other’s sentences.  Christ was the best example of a how a human nature to a Godly nature with Maximus’s example of the passion in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus did not want to be crucified, as a man he used this human will to obey his divine will.






1 Comment

  1. […] New updates and submissions about the reign of Justinian I (aka Justinian the Great), the Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia, and the Orthodox theology of theosis.  You can find them here. […]

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