As Far as the East is from the West (1054 A.D.)

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken January 10, 1999

Technically speaking, the new millennium will not begin until the first day of January in the year 2001. Yet 2000 is such a nice round number that most people are already thinking of 1999 as the last year of the millennium.

Here at Tenth we have a number of special things planned, including—and I announce this in public tonight for the first time—a special celebration on New Year's Eve. More details are coming, but start saving the date—Tenth is the place you will want to be.

Over the course of the next year we will have a special series of Windows on the World called “One Thousand Years of Church History.” Each month we will take a significant event from each of the last ten centuries of Christianity. Our purpose is to learn biblical lessons from the saints of the past to help us live as the church in the present.

I should also mention that our Hymns of the Month will take us through the last millennium of Christian worship. This month's hymn, “Jesus Thou Joy of Loving Hearts,” was written by Bernard of Clairvaux, who was born near the end of the 11th century.

This week I want to talk about a decisive moment in church history from the year 1054. That was the year of the Great Schism, the tragic and final split between the church in the East and the church in the West.

The East and the West had always had their differences. Some of these differences were geographic and cultural. Eastern Christianity was centered around Constantinople, and the theologians of the East wrote in Greek. Western Christianity was centered around Rome, where people communicated in Latin.

There were differences in worship, too. The Eastern church used icons as an aid to worship. An icon is a stylized portrait of a saint, a biblical figure, or even of Christ himself. Eastern worshippers “venerated” these icons by kissing them as they entered the church.

But the most significant difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and biblical Christianity had to do with the person of the Holy Spirit. In the expanded form of the Nicene Creed (381), Christians confessed faith “in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father.” However, two centuries later, at the Synod of Toledo in 589, the church added this phrase: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

The Latin term used to change the creeds was filioque, meaning “and the Son,” so this dispute is often called the “Filioque Controversy.” Both sides agreed that the Holy Spirit is of the same substance with the Father and the Son, equal with them in power and glory. But they differed in their understanding of the relationships among the three persons of the Trinity.

Eastern theologians taught that the Spirit comes only from the Father. They were trying to safeguard his individuality, his unique identity. They were outraged that the Western church had so casually added a major doctrine to the creed. Although this happened way back in 381, the Eastern church has never gotten over it.

What does the Bible teach? The New Testament often describes the Spirit as the “Spirit of Christ.” A good example is Romans 8:9 which calls the Spirit both the “Spirit of God” and the “Spirit of Christ” (cf. Gal. 4:6). The Spirit is called the Spirit of Christ because he brings Christ to us. As Jesus promised, “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you” (John 16:14). The Spirit is the one who teaches Christ to us and enables us to trust in him.

The reason the Spirit brings Christ to us is because he was sent by the Son as well as the Father. This is what Jesus promised his disciples. “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father (John 15:26). This gives us a glimpse of the relationships within the Trinity, where the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.

The dispute between East and West came to a head in 1054. The leaders of the two churches had been squabbling for control of Greek churches in Italy. The Roman pope sent a letter to Constantinople asserting his right to “have an unfettered jurisdiction over the whole Church… because the [Pope] is judged by none” [Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1963, 97]. When the patriarch of the Eastern church refused to accept this letter, the pope's representative took an order of excommunication and placed it on the altar of the great church of Hagia Sophia.

The ill will created by this rash act has lasted for an entire millennium. Several councils have been held to try to heal the divide between East and West (Lyons, 1274; Florence, 1438-39; Jerusalem, 1964). But the differences between East and West continue to isolate the Eastern Orthodox church not only from the Roman Catholic church, but also from the churches of the Reformation. For example, Orthodox adherents continue to venerate icons. But biblical Christians have always viewed this practice as a form of idolatry, the kind of worship by images which the Bible expressly forbids (Exod. 20:4).

The main lesson to be learned from the Great Schism is the danger of division in the church. Division in the church never goes away on its own. In this case, the results of careless theology and rash words have lasted for a thousand years.

Remember that division is equally dangerous at the personal level. Our own petty disputes may not turn out to be as catastrophic as the Great Schism of 1054. Still, even minor breaches in our unity hinder the work and worship of the church.

If anyone has anything against us, the Scripture tells us to take the initiative to go and be reconciled (Matt. 5:24). We do this in the hope that one day the prayer of our Lord will be answered: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).

[For further details, consult Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), or Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, rev. edn. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995)]

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