How should Orthodox Christians view history? Our first step is to look at how we view the scriptures. We read everything as pointing to Christ (Luke 24:27). Although we find great typological meaning in scripture, we also, as St. Basil said, “take all in the literal sense.” Literal history reflects typological theology because God is the author of both history and theology.
I want to propose the idea that the history of the Church reflects the history we find in scripture. We should not find this surprising. After all, the Church is the new Israel.
The Israelites started under the persecution of the Egyptians, just as the Church started under the persecution of the Romans. An Israelite woman, Jochebed, birthed a son who ended up leading the Israelites to freedom. Similarly, a Christian woman, Helena, birthed a son who lead the Church to freedom. Maxentius’ defeat by St. Constantine actually echoes back to the defeat of the Pharaoh, as the Milvian bridge broke and the Red Sea ceased to part, and both Maxentius and the Pharaoh were drowned.
In the early history of the people of Israel, the northern tribes dominated the nation (see the book Judges, every Judge was from a northern tribe). Similarly, in the early church, the eastern Church dominated the Church. This ended with power being centralized from the many ruling in Judges, just like many bishops had equal power, to the centralization of power to Saul, just as the Byzantine Emperor gained more power over the Church. Saul ultimately became corrupt and apostatized into idolatry, just as the Byzantine Emperor became an iconoclast. It is interesting that these two opposite heresies are contrasted here.
This lead to the tribe of Judah and the bishop of Rome becoming central in Israel and the Church. These both fulfilled prophecies of their eventual kingship (Genesis 49:10, Matthew 16:18-19). This was then shortly followed by the division of the northern and southern kingdoms, mirrored here in the division of east and west, with the north run by 9 tribes, mirrored by 9 patriarchates, and the south run by 1 tribe, mirrored by 1 patriarchate.
Just as the north was conquered by the Assyrians, the east was conquered by the Turks. In the west we see something much more subtle. First we see the rise of a new Pharisaism. Scholasticism, just like Pharisaism, was very legalistic. Scholasticism also has a very similar hermeneutic to the Rabbis, treating the scriptures like a science rather than allowing them to speak like art through typology. They also add to sacred tradition the traditions of men, such as purgatory, indulgences, papal supremacy, and many other things.
We then see a Babylonian Captivity in the west, with the papacy in Avignon for almost 70 years. The west remained Christian though and did not get conquered. So what does it mean for the west to have been conquered by Babylon? Just as scripture gets more complicated and the narrative harder to follow after the exile, it is the same with Church history. Isaiah 4:12-15 and Luke 10:18 connect Satan to the king of Babylon, as noted by Church Fathers such as St. Pope Gregory the Great. So the conquest of the west by Babylon is a fall of the west into heresy.
After the return from exile, the Jews never returned to their former glory. The same happened to the western church. We also see the rise of a new form of the Sadducee, the Protestants. Both reacted to the traditions of men by throwing out tradition altogether. They also both saw books not part of the original canon as only telling history, but not sacred scripture.
Can we claim the east held true to the faith though? Following this typological structure, the east should be the Samaritans who began worshipping foreign gods along with the God of Israel (2 Kings 17). However, if we look closely at the Samaritans, we see they are actually the Jews. They introduced pagan forms of worship such as Kabbalah (which is gnostic), modified the scriptures in order to defend that they were right, and rejected prophets.
Just as Judah’s reign over Israel will never end, neither will Peter’s. However, the western Rome fell into heresy. The Council of Chalcedon refers to Constantinople as “the New Rome” (Canon III). We see a common theme throughout scripture here. The older son had the right of honor, but loses his birthright, causing the younger son to be exalted. The older son of Rome loses its birthright to the see of Peter, and it is replaced by the new son, the New Rome. This New Rome is conquered by the Turks. We see the rise of a third Rome to preserve the seat of Peter. This is unlike anything in scripture among the ancient Israel. This is Christ acting to preserve his Church.
The west is similar to Persia. Persia was a monotheistic culture, but was not following the faith exactly as passed down to them from Noah. The West was not following Christianity as passed down to them from Christ, but recognized the similar faith among the eastern Christians and liberated them from their Muslim oppressors. After the collapse of Persia, Israel was subjected under the pagan Seleucids. So too is the church now subject again under Muslim rulers.
The third Rome had a similar captivity under pagans from communist rule. Once again the West acted as Persia in liberating Russia from communism. I want to look at the full typological implication of the United States in more detail in a future post.
So what does the future of the Church hold? If we can learn anything from history, we should never look for typology going forward. Just as we needed Christ to understand the Old Testament, we need to wait until the future to understand the past.
Revised Standard Version Bible
Hexameron by St. Basil