The Great Schism

The Great Schism
by pragerfan

While 1054 is often given as the date of the so-called "Great Schism" between eastern and western Christianity, differences began to arise centuries earlier, and the divide did not become completely unbridgeable until perhaps two to three centuries afterward.

The Roman empire through which Saints. Peter and Paul moved was a closely-knit political and cultural entity. Although there were many peoples and many tongues throughout the empire, all of these groups from Spain in the west to the holy land in the east were governed by one Emperor who ruled by one government. Educated people throughout the empire spoke either Latin or Greek; many of those spoke both Latin and Greek. The highwater mark of the Roman empire probably occurred under Augustus. The distinction between the "Greek East" and the "Latin West" had not yet come to be realized.

However, by the end of the third century, the empire became divided - in fact if not in theory - into two parts, the eastern empire, with its capital at Constantinople, and the western empire with its capital at Rome. The emperor Constantine perhaps unintentionally contributed to the furthering of the divide by creating the new imperial capital at Constantinople in the early 300s. Although the east idealized Rome under Augustus and Trajan, Justinian was the last emperor who made a serious effort to reunite east and west.

As the years wore on, the cultural divide between the east and the west widened. By 450 there were few in western Europe who could read Greek, and by the close of the fifth century, few Byzantines could read Latin. Like those who were confounded at the tower of Babel, western Europeans and Byzantines literally stopped talking to each other. The flow and exchange of ideas from east to west and back again all but ceased. The Greek east and the Latin west no longer even read the same books, and the cultural gap grew ever greater. The barbarian invasions in the west greatly weakened the political structure such that the Roman Church was looked to not only for ecclesiastic leadership but secular leadership as well. This caused the Roman Church to become more autocratic. This autocracy went against the idea of the collegiality of Bishops. Eventually it was to play a part in evolving the view that the see of Rome was the only Apostolic See, and that the Bishop of Rome was the Patriarch not only of the western Church but that as Pope he had jurisdictional authority over all of Christendom. The Greek East, on the other hand, did not have the "problem" of a Patriarchate needing to engage in secular government: the protection of the empire and her citizens was the responsibility of the Byzantine emperor. The Greek East has never lost sight of the "collegiality of Bishops." Orthodox have always held to the ecclesiastical government of the Pentarchy and the necessity of convoking ecumenical councils to decide great questions of the Faith. In time the east and the west approached the mystery of Christianity in different ways. Let us now touch on one example of these differences.

Latin thought, and as a consequence Protestant thought as well, came to be more influenced by juridical concepts, whereas the Greek East thought more in terms of "theosis" or deification (it should be stressed that deification does not mean than man becomes God or a god in essence, but rather like God by being conformed to His image). The juridical influence is exemplified by the satisfaction doctrine of atonement, deeply rooted in the Latin legal concept of an injustice. The satisfaction theory basically teaches that Christ satisfied the demands of God's offended honor by His infinite merit. The satisfaction theory was later refined by Aquinas and Calvin who introduced the idea of punishment to meet the demands of divine justice. It sounds much like a courtroom where God the Father is the Judge pronouncing men as guilty of offending His divine honor, but before the sentence is read, God the Son steps in and says that the demands of divine honor have been paid in full. Juridical soteriology is a relatively new invention; the idea of a satisfaction theory, a subset of penal substitution, coming as it did from the mind of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). The classic view of salvation in the early church is not so much a transaction between God and men as the Christus Victor theme prophesied in Isaiah 25:8 - "He will swallow up death in victory, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces, and the rebuke of His people shall He take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it."

Christ's salvific work did not satisfy an obligation but rather overthrew the power of the Law, as the Law could not condemn the perfect Man. This approach has the advantage of safeguarding the unity of the Holy Trinity vis a vis the Father and the Son: in the satisfaction theory of atonement God the Father and God the Son are seen to be at odds, or divided, in the sense that Christ dies in man's place to satisfy the divine wrath or judgment of the Father. Satisfaction theory pits God the Father against Christ the perfect God-man, with God the Father emerging satisfied by the Son's salvific work. However, in the Christus Victor approach, God the Father and God the Son are united in Their will to destroy sin, death, the law and the devil which all enslave mankind. The foregoing is but one example of the differences that plagued the east and the west and made it difficult, and ultimately impossible, to achieve unity. Where the Latins emphasized the unity of the Trinity (which is ironic given the above), the Greeks emphasized the Three Persons; where the Latins emphasized Christ the Victim hanging on the Cross, the Greeks stressed Christ the Victorious raised in glory. All of these differences in and of themselves were not necessarily decisive. It was the filioque and the Papal claims which tipped the scales to division, and it is to these issues we now turn.

In John 15, Christ speaks of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father: "But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of Me." In a little-known council at Toledo, Spain, in the year 589, it was decided to add to the words of Christ as quoted in the Nicene Creed by proclaiming that that Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In Latin, filio means "from the Son" and que means "and." Hence, filioque, meaning "and from the Son." The addition was rejected by the Christian east for two reasons. First, the Christian east held that any change to the Nicene Creed must be made in an ecumenical council. The council of Toledo in 589 could hardly have been considered ecumenical: the eastern churches were not even aware of the council, much less invited to it. Second, the intent of the filioque was probably to combat Arianism, the heresy that Christ is a created being. This was a very fine idea but it didn't work, as it introduced the theological problem of defining "down" the Divine Persons as mere relations to each other. That is, the Father and the Son are two in relation to each other but only one in relation to the Holy Spirit. This contravenes the "three-ness" of God the Trinity.

Conservative Orthodox are not generally willing to overlook the issue of the filioque. Moderate Orthodox theologians on the other hand, such as Metropolitan KALLISTOS (Ware) in his speech on the Primacy of the Pope, given at the fellowship of Saints Alban and Sergius a few years ago, are generally willing to treat the filioque as a theologumenon - that is, a pious opinion, provided that it is properly explained. In and of itself, it can neither be proven nor dis-proven, as the mystery of the Trinity is simply not able to be grasped by men. However, a much more relevant issue, one that touches every worshiper of the Trinity, is the problem of the Papal claims. If this problem could be bridged, perhaps unity would be in sight; however, this was impossible at the council of Florence in 1439 and remains a difficult issue today.

To understand the problem of the Papal claims, it is necessary to understand the three different notions of hierarchical roles (i.e. the roles of the Bishop) in both the Greek East and the Latin West. First, the Bishop is the head of all the Churches in his diocese or city. By extension, the Bishop of Antioch is the head of all the churches in Antioch, and the Bishop of Rome is the head of all of the churches in Rome and the surrounding area. Second, the most senior Bishops, the Patriarchs, are the heads of all of the churches in their respective Patriarchates. Therefore, the Patriarch of Antioch is the spiritual head of all Christians in Antioch, and the surrounding lands and nations that fall under his jurisdiction. The see of Rome was customarily given primacy as the "first among equals," it is not at all unusual to say that the Bishop of Rome is the Patriarch of the Western Church, and we Orthodox accept this. However, in the eighth and ninth centuries the Bishop of Rome began to assert unto himself the jurisdiction afforded to the other Patriarchates: it was no longer enough to be the Bishop of Rome and Patriarch of the West. The Pope also began to assert that he was the supreme head of the church on earth, with binding authority over the other Patriarchs and their Bishops. The East accepted the Pope as the Bishop of Rome, and they were willing to grant him primacy of honor as the Patriarch of the West. But the Eastern Patriarchs would not grant that the Pope had ecclesiastical jurisdiction over them. There are several reasons, among others, for this.

First, the history of deciding great issues by ecumenical councils has a long history in the Church. The things of God are not open to private interpretation. Rather, the Holy Spirit works through councils assembled for the purposes of making a decision. In Acts 15 is recorded the first ecumenical council, and in making the decision the Apostles wrote, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." They didn't write, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to Peter," or "and to Paul..." So the usurpation of ecclesiastical authority by one man contradicted the Tradition which had been taught by the Church for nearly a thousand years.

Second, the appeal to the authority of Peter - on which Papal claims ultimately rest - stands on shaky ground. Yes, Christ says to Peter that he shall receive the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven; however, Christ promises ALL the disciples, not just Peter, that whatever they will bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. It is interesting to note that the Greek tense in Matthew 16:18 occurs only twice in the New Testament. It is usually not translated correctly. It should be translated thus: "whatever you bind on earth shall already have been bound in heaven." Christ was not giving the Apostles a blank check. He was telling them that even they would be circumscribed by the will of the Father. The Roman Church also argues its jurisdictional superiority because Saint Peter was the Bishop of Rome. But he was the Bishop of Antioch before he was the Bishop of Rome, therefore should not the Patriarch of Antioch be given primacy instead of the Bishop of Rome?

Third, Saint Peter, unlike many Popes after 1870, was not infallible: he not only denied Christ and had to be corrected by Him, but he later allowed himself to be corrected by Saint Paul in the matter of the Judaizers. This is not intended to lessen the greatness of Saint Peter, but rather to illustrate that Saint Peter was, like we all are, a human being and still subject to the limitations of the fallen human condition.

Besides these two great issues of the filioque and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, there were other matters that caused problems between east and west: the Greeks permitted divorce; the Latins did not. The Greeks permitted married clergy; Latin clergy had to be celibate; the Greeks used leavened bread in the Eucharist, but the Latins used unleavened bread. These minor matters paled in comparison to the filioque and papal claims. By 1190, Theodore Balsamon, the Patriarch of Antioch, stated that the Western Church had "become alien to the Orthodox." In Balsamon's eyes, communion had been broken. There was a definite schism between the east and the west.

One of the key figures in the deterioration of the relations between the Christian East and West was the layman and civil servant Photius, who had a reputation as one of the leading scholars of his day. Photius quickly ascended through the orders of the Church, first reader, then subdeacon, deacon, and priest. He was ordained priest in order to be enthroned as Patriarch prior to Christmas festivities in 858. As soon as Photius became Patriarch, he became embroiled in a controversy with Pope Nicholas I regarding the previous Patriarch, Ignatius, whom Nicholas had exiled. However, Ignatius' supporters refused to recognize his exile or his resignation. Ignatius' supporters met at the Church of St. Irene and deposed Photius. Shortly thereafter Photius summoned a synod of 170 bishops and deposed Ignatius! Emperor Michael III wrote to the Pope ostensibly asking for legates to a council to discuss iconoclasm, but this was really to confirm that Ignatius had been deposed. The Pope was surprised, and he could not endorse the rapid ascension of Photius. But Photius did not want to start an argument with the Papacy. He showed the Papal legates great honor and invited them to preside at the council. There, Ignatius was deposed and Photius rightfully enthroned as Patriarch. Pope Nicholas could not accept this. He reinstated Ignatius and deposed Photius - but the Eastern church took no notice of the Pope's statements. Here we see Papal claims to universal jurisdiction being ignored. Nicolas was a reformer who had already established his authority over the entire Western Church. He also believed his authority extended to the Eastern Church, and "over all the earth," as well. But the Orthodox Christian East would never accept such a thing. To the Orthodox East, as we have seen, the Bishop of Rome perhaps could legitimately be called "Patriarch of the West" or "first among equals," but that's as far as the Orthodox would allow the Pope to go. (Hussey, 72-77) Around 850 AD east and west were still in full communion. Over the next several centuries, however, east and west gradually drifted apart. By the time of Theodore Balsamon in the late 12th century, the path of division at the seemed unavoidable. It's important to stress that no one event nor any particular year can truly be called the "year of the Great Schism." Even though historians typically date the Schism to 1054, the year that a bull of excommunication was laid upon the altar of the Hagia Sophia, fissures and cracks began to emerge between East and West centuries before, and the two Churches continued to drift apart in the centuries that followed their mutual excommunication.

While it's unlikely that the Orthodox Church will ever attain union with thousands of different protestant denominations, will the "Great Schism" with Rome ever be healed? There have been a number of different statements put forward in modern times by ecclesiastical commissions which dealt with the question of reunification, the latest of these statements being the statement at Ravenna in 2007. Pope Benedict XVI has also indicated that he desires reunification of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, even going so far as to suggest that he would drop the Papal claim to universal jurisdiction over all of Christendom. While this would be an enormous step toward reconciliation, it is not clear whether in and of itself a Papal renunciation of universal jurisdiction would suffice. Would the Roman Catholic laity accept it, given how invested the Roman Church is in the Papal ministry? Secondly, there is still the issue of the filioque. If the Roman Catholics agreed to the original text of the Creed without the filioque as Pope Leo III had engraved on silver tablets, would the Orthodox deem this sufficient, or would we also insist on the repudiation of other Roman Catholic doctrines, such as the infallibility of the Pope, the Immaculate conception of Mary, and so on? Finally, the Greek East and the Latin West are still quite a ways apart on basic theological concepts. For example, today's Roman Catholics believe in a legalistic view of salvation while we Orthodox hold to a medicinal view: in the West, man's sin puts him in jail (i.e. "bondage") and Christ is our great Emancipator; in the East, man's sin puts him in the hospital and Christ is seen as our Great Physician.

Having said all of this, it does appear that the biggest obstacles toward reunification of East and West at the present time are the Papal claims, and precisely what role a substantially diminished Papacy would have were we to reunite with our Roman Catholic brethren under the old Pentarchical system. But before we Orthodox seek to reunify with the West, we must clean our own house; that is to say, we have schisms within the Orthodox faith that need to be resolved before any serious steps toward reunification with the West can be taken. For example, the Chalcedonian Churches are not in communion with the Coptic Churches under the Patriarchate of Alexandria, although it is widely acknowledged that the difference between the two Christologies is minor and perhaps only a matter of linguistic semantics.

In the Divine Liturgy we ask "for the unity of the Faith," that we might "commend ourselves and each other, and all our lives unto Christ, our God." Let us hope that God will hear our prayers and that unity in Christ without compromise will come quickly.


1. Primacy and the Pope, by Metropolitan Kallisots

2. Hussey, Joan, The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire (New York: Oxford University Press. 1990)

3. Ware, Kallistos (Timothy), The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin, 1963)