Local News: Mission Mississippi, a Jackson-based ministry committed to fostering reconciliation within the Body of Christ across racial and denominational boundaries, will be hosting a Jackson Men’s Luncheon on Wednesday, July 17, from 11:30am to 12:30pm. Location is to be announced. For more information, go to www.missionmississippi.org.
This upcoming Tuesday, July 16, marks the 959th anniversary of what has since become known as the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. On July 16, 1054, three representatives from Rome deliver a papal bull of excommunication to a church known as the Hagia Sophia. The representatives interrupt a Saturday afternoon liturgy, place the bull, which excommunicates the Patriarch of Constantinople, on the alter of the church and then leave. Though relations between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church have improved, the schism has not been fully healed to this day. What’s it all about?
1. Background of the schism
Theologically, one of the biggest disputes between East and West concerned the Holy Spirit. In the original text of the 4th century Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit is described as “proceeding from the Father”. This is based on Jesus’ statement to his disciples at the Last Supper: “When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify of me,” (John 15:26).
In time, the Western Church modified the wording of the Creed to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son”. The additional words “and the Son”, known as the “Filoque Clause”, caused a rupture between the two churches for multiple reasons. First of all, the Eastern Church believed it was theologically inaccurate—the Spirit is said to proceed from the Father in Scripture. Secondly, even if the Western Church’s modification could be shown to be accurate, the Eastern Church took offense that something as sacred as an ecumenical creed could be modified unilaterally by the West without first consulting with the East. This led to a power struggle between the two sides, the West being represented by the pope, Bishop of Rome, the East being represented by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
In the early centuries of the church, an ecumenical council had declared that the Eastern Patriarch had just as much authority as the pope, but in practice, as time went on, the pope assumed more and more authority within Christendom. For the pope to, of his own authority, excommunicate the patriarch, was the supreme offense to Eastern Christians. The Eastern Church quickly responded to the Western Church with an excommunication of its own, resulting in both churches being under a mutual anathema. In summary, it would be fair to say that the Great Schism happened because of disagreements over the nature of the Holy Spirit and disagreement over the primacy and power of the pope.
2. 1965: Vatican II
The growing divide over alternate versions of the Nicene Creed go back several centuries before the Great Schism. In fact, there had already been numerous schisms prior to 1054. The reason July 16, 1054 is called the “Great Schism” is because it never healed. The closest that it has come to being healed took place in 1965, at the end of the Second Vatican Council (sometimes called Vatican II) when the current pope and current patriarch read statements to their respective churches apologizing for the schism and formally revoking the mutual anathemas that had been in effect since the 11th century.
Whether or not the two churches ever get back to where they were prior to the Great Schism remains to be seen. The centuries of division have resulted in the two faith communities having different temperaments, different customs, different emphases, etc. Since the Schism, the Western Church has conducted numerous councils, which it considers “ecumenical”, or encompassing the whole church universal. The Eastern Church recognizes only the first seven councils, which took place from 325 to 787 A.D. as being truly “ecumenical”—the rest it would regard as specifically Western councils.
Tragically, since the 11th century, the church has gotten increasingly divided. In the 1500s, the Reformation occurred, which, thankfully put the spotlight back on the Biblical gospel where it belonged. Unfortunately, the Reformation also resulted in plenty of sectarianism and evangelicals on board with the Reformation in general often found themselves arguing among themselves over secondary issues. The divide between Lutheran and Reformed Christians which continues to this day, though not quite of the same magnitude of the Great Schism, is one of the most unfortunate chapters of church history.
C.S. Lewis was keenly aware of how divisions among Christians looked to the outside world. As a man who was a professed atheist until his early 30s, Lewis understood how internal squabbles among Christians were a “turn off” to outsiders. When Lewis became a Christian, one of his most important missions was to continually draw attention to the great body of doctrine shared in common by all Christians—”mere Christianity”. Non-Christians are practically never drawn to the faith through debating about differences between Christians, Lewis said. It is by focusing on the gospel that unbelievers will be drawn to believe in Christ for themselves.
Because Lewis felt so strongly about this, he made a regular habit of praying for unity among Christians. This is something that all of us should emulate. Think of how much more effectively Christians, Protestant and Catholic, could reach the world for Christ if they all worked together, instead of spending so much energy competing with each other.
Some of the divisions, though, concern very essential matters, things that, from an evangelical viewpoint, are at the heart of the gospel itself. Yes, let us pray that a day will come when Christians, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, will be more focused on what we have in common than what we disagree on, when it concerns peripheral issues. Even more importantly, let us pray for the day when all who profess the name of Christ will be able to not only look past disagreements on non-essential matters, but to also truly agree on all things pertaining to the gospel. May God speed that day along. Christ prayed that his Church would be one. His prayer will be answered.