A Review of Sir Steven Runciman's Book
The Great Church in Captivity

by pragerfan

Sir Steven Runciman's The Great Church in Captivity was fascinating to read. Covering the period between the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and the disintegration of the Phanariot houses in 1821, the book at over 400 pages is both majestic in scope and sufficiently detailed, that one may become familiar with the lives and personalities that shaped the Orthodox world during this period of roughly four centuries.

The first volume of the book deals with the conditions of the Great Church — as Greeks called the Patriarchate of Constantinople — just prior to the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453. The author first describes the background of the Church with an impressive sympathy and erudition. This attitude of genuine understanding on the part of author only serves to encourage the reader to plow ahead. In passing, it is worth noting that this understanding seems to be lacking in J. M. Hussey's otherwise remarkable History of he Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire.

I found the author's exposition of Orthodox theology in the various chapters of the first volume to be of the first rate and on a par with many of the Orthodox theologians which I have heard or read. Runciman also makes understanding of the East accessible to the Western reader in a way that is thorough but not intimidating or overbearing. If one who is interested in the Orthodox faith wants to learn about, for example, the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church, it would probably be better to start with Chapter 6 of this book than with the opening chapters of Lossky's formidable Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, a book familiar to most Orthodox today.

Runciman's explanation of the relationship between the church and state in Chapter 3 is critical to understanding not only why the Byzantine Empire lasted for over a thousand years but also the circumstances which brought about its fall. Byzantium was perhaps the only truly successful fusion of the secular state and the Christian Church that the world has seen. There were a number of factors that contributed to Byzantium's longevity, chief among them being the theological vitality of the laos, or lay people, the protection of the secular Emperor, and the Church's insistence to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

Throughout the first volume of the book we witness the tension between the Eastern "apophatic" approach to theology and the Western "cataphatic" approach. To put it simply, "apophatic" theology attempts to describe God by negation: talking about what God is not, rather than what He is. The premise of the apophatic approach is that the essence God is essentially unknowable: "No man hath seen God at any time..." Since God is wholly other than His created realm, His personal attributes cannot be known or perceived by men. The "cataphatic" approach attempts to describe God based on His attributes as revealed in Holy Scripture, e.g. God is good, God is just, God is love, and so forth. There are dangers in each approach. Taken too far, cataphatic theology risks defining God into an artificial box, thereby stripping Him of His divinity. But if we go too far in the other direction, it's easy to miss the theological bus altogether: all that we know about God is that we know nothing about God — a dangerous cousin of agnosticism which declares that "all we know is that we cannot know."

On May 29, 1453 the Emperor who symbolized the authority of Almighty God lay dead on a battlefield. The Byzantine Empire thus passed in the captivity of her Muslim masters and, one might argue, remains so today. Runciman starts by introducing the reader to the conditions of captivity. Fortunately, though the Sultan's tactics were cruel and the violence inflicted on the city of Constantinople was bloodthirsty and destructive, once he had conquered, the Sultan was generous. He wished the Church to enjoy "peace and be content with his government and an asset to it." Runciman recounts how the Sultan established the new pattern for their administration in great length and detail.

After discussing the relations between the Church and the infidel state, and spending some time relating how people were educated during the late 15th and early centuries, Runciman does the reader a great service by taking him through a series of chapters called "The Church and the Churches." Here, the Churches signify the Roman Catholic Church (Rome), and the discussions of union which ensued between Rome and Constantinople culminating in the Council of Florence in 1438-39; the Lutheran church, where Runciman recounts in detail the correspondence of the Patriarch Jeremias II, one of the middle ages' most formidable theologian-patriarchs; the Calvinist approach, where he discusses the Patriarchate of Cyril Lucaris, Cyril's embrace of Calvinism, and subsequent falling from grace; and the Anglican Church, where England attempts to befriend the Orthodox Church, and actually succeeds for a time in establishing a sort of exchange program for scholars. The following passage is worth noting: "The Orthodox, with their mysticism, their taste for the apophatic approach and their loyalty to their old traditions, belonged to a different world, a world which the West could not understand."

So the West of that time lost interest in the Orthodox faith. However, it is encouraging to note that people from those very same western protestant churches are displaying an interest in Orthodoxy today. People are burned out. They go to a church for a year or two, and quickly tire of the focus on other than God. Whether it's the devotion to a particular pastor, or devotion to the latest doctrinal teaching which initially tickled their ears, people are instead turning back to the Ancient Faith. A reading of the early history of Christendom quickly demonstrates the Papal claims of universal jurisdiction to be shaky at best and outright wrong at worst, and so these seekers reject Roman Catholicism, with its legalistic approaches. They are drawn to the timelessness of worship of the Orthodox Church — the very same worship that has not changed since the second or third century A.D.

It is at this point, however, following his dissertation of the Orthodox reaction to each of the various protestant churches that, in my opinion, Sir Steven Runciman begins a somewhat myopic focus on the Greeks and their problems and intrigues with various territorial princes and principalities (Moldavia, Wallachia, and so forth). The discussion of the Phanariots is interesting but not thoroughly engaging like the rest of the book. Runciman does not mention the Russian missionaries to Alaska in 1794 who first brought the Orthodox Faith to the Americas. Neither does he mention the Russian missionaries which brought the Orthodox Faith to Japan. The end result of this, unfortunately, is that he leaves the reader with the impression that the Orthodox Church is largely made up of, run by, and created for ethnic Greeks, with the notable exception of the large but distant Russian church. The universalist ideal of the Christian "Oecumene," which Runciman explained so well in the beginning of the book, seems to be forgotten toward the end of it.

But the foregoing is a minor detraction. It does not substantially diminish the value of Runciman's work. I recommend the book for those who want to understand how the Orthodox Church not only survived but flourished under the captivity of Muslim potentates, as a follow-up to either Hussey's text or in combination with Jaroslav Pelikan's notable series on the Christian tradition.