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Introduction to Christianity

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Home  /  Religious Studies  /  Thomas Shoemaker  /  Courses & Programs  /  Intro to Christianity  /  Modern  /  Eastern & Orthodox

Eastern and Orthodox

There is a vast Christianity in the East, with deep roots spreading from Greece and Egypt across the Middle East and into India, with its own distinct history separated from the Roman Catholic and Protestant worlds for a thousand years and more. All together, they count about 300 million members.

They are often lumped together in conversation as "Orthodox Christians," but that term is inaccurate and creates the impression of a single unified body. There are actually four major groups: 1) the Eastern Orthodox Churches; 2) the Oriental Orthodox Churches (referred to henceforth as the OOC); 3) the Assyrian Church of the East (often called the Nestorians and from here on referred to as the ACOE); and 4) the Eastern Catholic Churches. As mentioned in the unit on the Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches, while distinct from the Roman Catholic Church, nonetheless recognize the authority of the bishop of Rome (a.k.a. the Pope).

We should be careful about how we think of the emergence of each of the remaining three as distinct traditions. It is common in the West to speak of them dividing from the Roman Catholic tradition, but that makes the Roman Catholic Church the standard against which they are measured. What we think of as the Roman Catholic Church, however, did not really exist until 1054 when East and West parted ways. Let's start much further back.

In 325, the Apostolic Christian movement had triumphed over the rival Gnostic tradition. There was no real name for the winners. The Nicene Creed refers only to "one holy, catholic (meaning "universal") and apostolic church." Let's just refer to it as Apostolic Christianity.

There was a series of great church Councils over about 125 years at which bishops gathered to try to work through what they considered an issue of critical importance: the exact nature of Jesus Christ and his relationship with God. Their arguments can be rather thick from our vantage point, and many people in both East and West (including such figures as John Paul II) have noted that they may have gotten out of hand. Let's try to phrase the issue simply.

Eastern Christianity and the Catholic (and later Protestant) tradition agree with the first three great Councils of the Church (Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381 and Ephesus in 431) that both were necessary; Jesus Christ was not simply a divine messenger in human disguise (that would mean his suffering and death were a ruse), and he was not simply a perfect human being (that would not have been enough to make up for anyone else's separation from God). He was both human and divine.

But there are several ways to imagine those in one person. Did they merge into some new third nature? That was called monophysitism (and condemned). Did they live side by side in perfect harmony? That was called dyophysitism (it was embraced by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and it is the position of the Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions). Or did the two natures unite in a way that cannot be separated but at the same time preserves each one as distinct? That is called miaphysitism (and it is the position of the OOC and the ACOE).

But there was a cultural and political conection to all of this. The Eastern Orthodox churches were part of the same Byzantine Empire as Roman Catholic Church (and during centuries of these great Councils, they saw themselves as one Christian tradition). The OOC and the ACOE, however, were not in that Byzantine Empire, but centered in the Persian Empire. As you may know from movies like 300, the Persians and the Greco-Romans were at more-or-less constant war for almost a thousand years. That meant that Persian bishops were not invited to and not represented at the great Councils, and when the Persian ruler saw a chance in the late 400s to gain the loyalty of the Persian churches' bishops by opposing the Byzantine bishops, he took it. The ensuing centuries of isolation of East from West for 1500 years have made a reunion difficult and unlikely, even though the theology no longer seems to justify separation.

Apostolic Christianity thus took two distinct paths over Jesus's nature, and it might be helpful to call the result "Byzantine-Roman Christianity" (including all that would one day be Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) and "Oriental Christianity". The Byzantine-Roman Church shared the history of the first churches (Jerusalem was the heart of Ebionite tradition, Antioch the heart of Paul's mission work, and Rome traced its roots to the apostle Peter). They also shared the history of the seven great Councils from 325 to 787 C.E., forging a shared definition of the nature of Jesus Christ. But from the outset there were differences that would eventually lead to division.

First and foremost, Rome and Constantinople are simply different worlds. As the centuries unfolded, the Apostolic Christianity they shared grew under the influence of two very distinct cultures. Roman Christianity took on a legal emphasis, while Byzantine Christianity took on a deeper mystical approach. (This plays out in their difference over original sin, a central feature of the Catholic and Protestant legal atonement theory, but dismissed in Eastern Orthodox tradition). Perhaps also because of this, the bishop at Rome began to assert a heirarchical1 arrangement of the five great centers of Byzantine-Roman Christianity (Rome, Constantiople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria) with, of course, the Roman bishop having authority over the other four. The other four (Byzantine) centers insisted on an arrangement of five autonomous centers, with a nod toward Rome as "first among equals", but with no authority over any of the other four.

East and West differed in the language of worship (and their biblical texts), with Latin the rule in the West, Greek in the East. East and West differed on issues of priestly celibacy. East and West differed on the use of art in worship (the East allowing only two-dimensional icons). East and West disagreed about some very fine theological issues (foremost among them, "Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the son, or from the Father alone?)

The East and the West grew apart, and in 1054 a representative of Rome excommunicated the new Patriarch of Constantinople, who responded by excommunicating the Roman representatives. From that moment, we can begin to speak of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The excommunications were lifted 911 years later, but the division still stands.

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1 Trivia time. The word "hierarchy" is made up of two Greek words – hieros is the word for "priest", and arche is the word for "first". We use it a for a lot of things, but this is its original use.