The first permanent severing of the Christian community. Its beginnings lay in the division of the Roman Empire at the end of the third century. Thereafter, the Greek (Eastern) and Latin (Western) sections of the Roman world were administered separately. Their cultural and economic differences intensified. When the political institutions of the Latin empire collapsed in the fifth century, the Greek empire, centered in Constantinople, continued to flourish.
The sustaining institution during this period was the Christian church. Its theology dominated all forms of thought in both the united East and the disintegrating West. Important issues, even worldly ones, were transposed into theological questions.
Two fundamental differences between the Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions developed during the early Middle Ages. The first was the Petrine Doctrine—absolute in the West, resisted in the East. The second was a Western addition to the Nicene Creed which provoked the filioque controversy; the Eastern church resisted the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son.” Other divisive issues such as the celibacy of the priesthood, use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, episcopal control over the sacrament of confirmation, and priestly beards and monkish tonsures were the source of conflict but not schism.
Of all the institutions that the early Christian empire shared, the political was the first to collapse. In the West during the fifth century imperial authority fell before invading barbarian kings. Increasingly the Roman patriarch, the pope, filled the power vacuum left by retreating politicians. The lines between secular and ecclesiastical authority were hopelessly blurred. On the other hand, in Constantinople, where imperial power was still strong, Christian emperors continued to preside over an integrated Christian society. As heirs of Constantine, Byzantine emperors dominated the administration of church and state in the style still known as caesaropapism.
Theology in the East was speculative, with important decisions submitted to a collegial-conciliar system in which all the patriarchs—the bishops of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Rome—played an important role. It was fully acknowledged that the bishop of Rome had pride of place and certain rights of review over the other four. As early as the pontificate of Leo I (440-61), however, Roman patriarchs demanded more power. Matters were made more difficult by the rise of Islam and the new barbarian attacks in the seventh and eighth centuries. The West became even more isolated, and when contacts between Rome and Constantinople were resumed the gulf between East and West had widowed.
The filioque controversy seems to have originated in sixth century Visigothic Spain, where the Arian heresy was endemic. The Arians claimed that the first and second persons of the Trinity were not coeternal and equal. In an effort to enforce traditional theology, Spanish churchmen added a phrase to the Nicene Creed, “ex Patre Filioque,” which amended the old form to state that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Son as well as from the Father. However, it had been agreed in the fourth century that no change in the wording of the creed, except by conciliar consent, was possible. To the theologically sophisticated East, the filioque phrase seemed to challenge not only the universal creed but also the official doctrine of the Trinity. When the issue was raised during the reign of Charlemagne (768-814), the papacy seemed to agree. Pope Leo III, while approving the spirit of the filioque, warned against any alteration in the wording of the creed.
It was the fusion of the filioque controversy with the rise of papal power that created the great crisis of 1054. The “reform” papacy of the eleventh century established itself on the right of the pope, as apostolic heir of Peter, to absolute power over all Christian people and institutions. Such claims had been rejected by the early church councils. To Eastern patriarchs Christ's charge to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 was shared by all the apostles and their spiritual heirs, the bishops. In 1054 Pope Leo IX (1048-54) sent a delegation headed by Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida to discuss the problems between the papacy and Constantinople. Disaster followed. The patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, rejected both papal claims and the filioque. The Western legates accused Constantinople of having altered the Nicene Creed. In the end, Cardinal Humbert deposited a Bull of Excommunication against Michael Cerularius on the altar of the Hagia Sophia, and the Great Schism was official.
Thereafter, efforts were made at reunion. As the Muslim Turks advanced on the Byzantine Empire in the high Middle Ages, Eastern Christians were in desperate need of relief from their Western brethren. However, all such hopes ceased when, in 1204, an army of crusading knights from the West sacked Constantinople. Eastern Christians never recovered from this outrage. In recent years efforts to reconcile the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches have failed. In 1965, Pope Paul VI lifted the ban of excommunication against Michael Cerularius. However, the problem of papal rule has been rendered more difficult by nineteenth century Roman declarations of papal infallibility. The wording of the creed has not been settled.
See also Filioque.
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