Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

In 1054 AD the Eastern Orthodox Church left the Roman Catholic Church…or did it?

Rome likes to say that the Eastern Orthodox Church broke ties with Rome, and that Rome is the Mother Church that goes back, unbroken, to the time of the Apostles. History, however, disagrees. This post is going to look at the Great Schism because this is a major event in the history of Christianity, though no more major that the schism between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Chalcedonian Churches (EOC and RCC) in 451 AD1.

First, it’s important to note that the schism didn’t just happen at one moment in 1054 AD, the divide had been growing since the late 800’s AD and the early 900’s AD, 1054 AD was just the flame that lit the fuse. Also important to note is that 1054 AD was the laying of the body in the casket, the first nail was driven in 1204 AD, and the final nail in 1484 AD, we will cover the entire timeline.

In the post Apostolic Sees we mentioned the sequence in which the major churches were founded – Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, then Rome. While Rome was the last, because it was the seat of the Roman Empire it was considered to be the First of the churches, but, and this is a big but, the First among Equals – it was no more important than the other churches in a hierarchal sense, the primacy given to it was more honorific than authoritarian. I like to use the example of a Board of Directors in a corporation, everyone seated at the board is equal to everyone else, but the Chairperson holds a special position in that they preside over the meeting, and are often looked towards for direction, but they still only get one vote when a motion is presented. Same with Rome, she was looked to for guidance by the churches directly under her (as were Jerusalem, Antioch, etc.), when disputes arose between Sees, Rome was sought after to arbitrate the differences, but when the differences were too great then Rome was asked to call a Council so that the entire body of the church could resolve things. Rome was never seen as a replacement for the Emperor, or as the head of a Christian Empire. This is important to note because it plays a part in the drama that will unfold.

One could put the beginning of the Great Schism as early as 324 AD when Constantine move the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium, reducing Rome to just another major city. Some of the Bishops in Byzantium would try to recenter the primacy from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople), of course Rome raised objections citing Rome as having both Peter and Paul as its Bishops, a claim also held by Antioch (and with a stronger claims). The issues was settled in 381 AD when the Second Ecumenical Council set the priority of the Sees (now Patriarchates) with Rome as primary, Constantinople as second, then the other three – Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. In 451 AD the Third Ecumenical Council formalized the provinces that each Patriarchate was responsible for, this was especially important for Antioch and Jerusalem, whose jurisdictions had been under dispute for some time.

It is also important to note that there was already somewhat of a separation at this point between Rome and the other Patriarchates. Rome was already Western-centered, with her theology already developing a flavor different from the other Patriarchates, who were of more an Eastern mindset. Some of these differences were:

  • Language – Rome and her provinces were Latin while the other four Patriarchates primarily used Greek.
  • Rome was legal and hierarchical in nature while the Eastern Churches were more philosophical.
  • The introduction of unleavened bread into the Eucharist.
  • Institution of mandatory celibacy among the clergy.
  • Roman provinces were used to a heavy-handed approach, so when the Empire collapsed the civil authorities looked towards the well organized RCC for guidance and administration. In the East the Empire was replaced by Islamic invaders so the church here never had the opportunity to rule the populace in other than religious matters. A map of the rise of Islam matches almost identically the provinces of the EO church (sans Spain and Portugal).
  • Intrusion of the Papacy into provinces assigned to the Eastern Churches by the Third Ecumenical Council in particular the Balkans, Southern Italy, and Sicily.

The final issue was the introduction of the filioque (the words “and the Son”) into the Nicene Creed. Initially this was added by the Spanish church in 587 AD in violation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council:

It is unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different (ἑτέραν) Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicea. But those who shall dare to compose a different faith, or to introduce or offer it to persons desiring to turn to the acknowledgment of the truth, whether from Heathenism or from Judaism, or from any heresy whatsoever, shall be deposed, if they be bishops or clergymen; bishops from the episcopate and clergymen from the clergy; and if they be laymen, they shall be anathematized.

The purpose of the addition was to counteract a version of Arianism that was growing in Toledo, Spain. It was banned by Pope St. Leo the Great in circa 450 AD. The addition spread to France where it was again banned at the Gentilly Council in 767 AD. Then Pope Leo III banned it in 809 AD, go so far as to have silver tablets engraved with the original Nicene Creed and installed at the Tomb of St Peter. Finally in 1014 AD, under pressure from the German Emperor Henry II, Pope Leo IX officially added the filioque to the Nicene Creed. In 1054 AD the Roman Pontiff accused the Eastern Orthodox Church of heresy for not including it in the Nicene Creed. For this reason, among others, the Pope sent envoys, including Cardinal Humbert, to the Eastern Patriarchate in Constantinople to discuss matters. Unfortunately, during the trip Pope Leo XI died, the news reached the envoys in Constantinople and should have forced an automatic recall of the contingent, however Cardinal Humbert decided to go ahead with an investigation into the “illegal” practices of the Eastern churches. Because of the Pope’s passing Patriarch Cerularius refused to meet with them, officially. Angered, the delegation, on Saturday, July 6, 1054 AD, entered Hagia Sophia during Divine Liturgy and left a writ of excommunication against the Patriarch and the entire Eastern Orthodox Church. On July 20, 1054 AD, in response, Patriarch Cerularius excommunicated the delegation (not the Roman Church). The new Pope (Victor II), under recommendation of the delegates, formally accepted the excommunication, severing all ties to the Eastern Churches.

The schism wasn’t finalized at that time, over a couple hundred years, with new Popes and Patriarchs, along with political changes, several attempts were made to bring the church back into unity. All of these efforts failed, with the prevailing issue being the filioque (and the concept of Papal Authority). The final nail in the coffin was the Fourth Crusade, ordered by Pope Innocent III, the crusaders, low on funds and nearly demoralized, burned and looted many Christian cities (Catholic) before entering Constantinople in 1203 AD, for three days the crusaders burned, looted, raped, and killed thousands of her citizens, including churches and monasteries, including Hagia Sophia. The Pope was ashamed and rebuked the crusaders, but nothing more. Unfortunately, this left the Byzantine Empire in dire straights and open to attack by Islamic forces which it tried to hold off for 200 years, with repeated calls for help from Rome ignored.

Several attempts to open communications between the two halves of the (former) Chalcedonian Christian Church were made over the centuries to come, but with little or no success. The unwillingness of Rome to rescind the changes to the Nicene Creed, the dogma of Papal Infallibility, and the difference in view over Papal authority, along with other less weighty issues, have prevented any serious progress.

In 1965 AD Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople mutually rescinded the excommunication between their churches. This did not reunite the churches, but opened the possibility for future talks. Not all of the Orthodox Churches accepted the lifting of excommunication, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church.

On November 27, 2004 AD, Pope John Paul II returned to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople the bones of Sts. John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, taken as part of the looting of the Fourth Crusade. On April 8, 2005 AD the Ecumenical Patriarch, along with other Eastern Patriarchs, attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the first time this has occurred since the Great Schism.

While I hope for the eventual reunification of the churches, I fear this will not occur until Rome is willing to return to how things were after the Seventh Ecumenical Council, then discuss the changes which have occurred since then.

Pray for the eventual reunification of the Chalcedonian Christian Church.

Next a step back to the Chalcedonian-Oriental Schism.


  1. I will cover this split in the next post. I apologize to the members of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, it should have been covered before this post.

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