The Awful Division of Christians pt. 2: Survey of Divisions

Posted on August 27, 2012

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In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

The Mother of God weeps as we crucify her Son by division

The Mother of God weeps as we crucify her Son by division

In our first article on this subject, we laid out a framework for assessing and judging Christian division. We said that on the one hand, truth should always be a dividing factor, separating truth from falsehood, and must lead to tragic but necessary division between Christian brethren, as is seen even in the New Testament.[1] On the other hand, Christians should equally cling to love, which binds together[2] even those who divide themselves through gentle restoration.[3]

Truth and love only seem to be opposites because of sin. In reality, truth is love and love is truth. Thus it seems that when one is obscured, the other is also suppressed, and vice versa. We see that sometimes our Christian fathers lacked love for one another, and so they trumped up some claim of “truth” in an attempt to compensate and justify their division. At other times, our Christian fathers lacked truth and so they attempted to justify a false union on the basis of love, when in fact they were only loving themselves and not the truth.

The Schisms of the Byzantine Roman Empire

The great schisms of the east, which are usually dated from 431 and 451, producing the “Nestorian” and “Non-Chalcedonian” churches respectively, are almost always left out of historical overviews. This is most unfortunate, especially since these two churches of the East (also known as the “Assyrian Church” and the “Monophysite” or “Jacobite Church” respectively) dwarfed the tiny Roman Church of New and Old Rome for centuries until it was crushed by the Muslims in the 14th century.[4] I myself have not studied these schisms enough to make much comment on them yet, but my initial impressions based on limited research are the following.

The theological controversies of both the Nestorians and the Non-Chalcedonians were not fully settled on the dates already mentioned. This is clear since the so-called “Monophysite” heresy continued to cause problems within the Roman Empire for centuries. Recent scholarship argues that the Council of Chalcedon of 451 was not accepted for some time, but that no formal schism was felt. It was only after Emperor Justinian’s troops began using violence did the schism become pronounced.[5] Although this may be oversimplified, it underscores the lack of love which provoked the schism. It seems that the schisms became very political and remained that way (with notable exceptions[6]) until the modern Ecumenical struggle began in the 20th century, when recent dialogues have shown that the theological controversies almost no longer exist between the churches. Perhaps this is evidence that the schism began and was maintained by a lack of love, and thus the truth about the other side was overshadowed. In their zeal for the truth, perhaps each side forgot love, and the Church universal suffered the consequences. Now, when love returns, each side can see “in one other the one Orthodox faith.”[7] Today these schisms are the closest to being completely healed, after perhaps 1500 years of separation. Glory to God who bestows His rich mercy upon us sinners.

The Great Schism between the East and the West

This schism follows a similar pattern as the schisms of the Byzantine Roman Empire. What seems obvious from the historical record is that the issues which caused especially tensions during the reign of St. Photios (d. 891) and finally with the mutual excommunications of 1054—the filioque, the Papacy, unleavened bread, Saturday fasts, priestly celibacy, beards, etc.—all have roots in the Latin patristic tradition. The agreed statement of our churches at Ravenna in 2007 puts it well when it states that both churches agree on the primacy of Rome, but disagree on the meaning of that primacy, since it was “a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium.”[8] The reality is that the filioque and the other issues which some considered to be “heresy” were all “understood in different ways in the first millenium” when the churches were in communion and saints were being produced by both churches.

Thus comes another instance in which there remained unresolved theological tension for some time without any formal division. This became exacerbated when love ran dry and violence and political ambition polluted the purity of the Bride of Christ. Even Fr. John Meyendorff, who did not believe the east-west schism to be a misunderstanding, admitted that the Greek polemics against the Latins after 1274 were degenerating into shallow hatred.[9] As one Greek legate to the pope said in 1339,

It is not so much difference in dogma that alienates the hearts of the Greeks from you, as the hatred that has entered their souls against the Latins, because of the many great evils that at different times the Greeks have suffered at the hands of Latins and are still suffering every day.[10]

And to this day many Orthodox Christians continue to hold onto an unforgiving spirit towards atrocities committed against them by certain Latins long ago, forgetting the word of our Lord which says that if you forgive not, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.[11] Forgetting, too, the atrocities committed by the Greeks against the Latins.

When love has returned, and the dialogues have begun, much progress has been made in mutually understanding our separate traditions. The dialogues have even gone so far as to affirm (at Balamand in 1993) that each church possesses real ecclesial reality and should not seek to convert the other.[12] The Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch has come out and said that “The differences between our churches are not dogmatic…we are capable of uniting with Rome because we are stubbornly faithful to our roots.”[13] As these dialogues progress, and the outside world becomes more and more anti-Christian, we pray that love may increase more and more in knowledge and depth of insight[14] that this terrible division may be resolved with truth and love.

The Protestant Divisions

Once again we see the same pattern: misunderstanding caused by a lack of love is exacerbated by violence, provoking schism. The Protestant reformers had legitimate concerns, as did the reforming Catholic council of 1517 (which met a few months prior to Luther’s 95 Theses), but since the latter was never implemented by corrupt priests and bishops, the former felt the need to implement their own reforms on their own terms—even if that meant dividing into countless divisions.

But upon examination of both sides of this division between Catholic and Protestant in the 16th century, very little love is shown to the other side, and thus truth became obscured. To this day almost all Protestants believe that Catholics teach Pelagianism,[15] which came from a misunderstanding by Luther and the Reformers of Catholic theology.  Still fewer Protestants understand the meaning of the Christian communion of Saints or the veneration of the Virgin Mary (being often terrified of it), and devotion to the Eucharist—completely universal beliefs of all Christians everywhere before the 16th century. On the other hand, Catholics often dismiss Protestants as divisive and immature, failing to take seriously their true devotion to our Lord and the many beautiful contributions which Protestants have made to the Christian Church universal despite their many divisions. Moreover, many of the Protestants’ legitimate reforms—more vernacular in Bible and liturgy, greater lay participation—were eventually adopted by the Catholic Church in the reforms of Vatican II.

When love has returned, and both sides have begun to be more open-minded, mutual understanding has begun to be pursued. The notable documents at Lima in 1982 on Baptism, the Eucharist and Ministry and the joint Lutheran-Catholic declaration on justification of 1999 seek to alleviate misunderstandings and create a common language with which to build further understanding. If love is pursued, we cannot help but succeed, with the help of God.

Perhaps, in the daunting task of the Ecumenical Struggle, we may be comforted by our Lord’s words—seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all else will follow.[16] We must pursue truth and love, and God will wipe away every sorrowful tear that lacerates the Pure Body of Savior.

Grant us grace, O Almighty God, to be filled with truth and love, so that we may be able to offer up a pure sacrifice of repentance on behalf of our own sins and the sins of all our Christian brothers and sisters, forefathers and mothers, in order that thy Church may be built up with the fullness of unity against the forces of darkness and sin. We ask this through Christ our Lord, amen.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.


[1] For example, 1 Corinthians 5:11: “…with such a person do not even eat.”

[2] Collosians 3:14

[3] Galations 6:1

[4] I am currently reading Philip Jenkins’ great work The Lost History of Christianity which details the rise and fall of the churches of the east. It is a good introduction to the study of these Christian churches.

[5] I refer the reader to this excellent (but defunct) website to access such scholarship: orthodoxunity.org

[6] I refer the reader to the case of St. Isaac the Syrian (d. 700), who died a Nestorian, but is recognized as a Saint by both Catholics and Orthodox; St. Nerses IV (d. 1173) who nearly healed the Chalcedonian schism and is venerated by Catholics, as well as the story of Rabban Bar Sauma (d. 1294) and Yahballaha III (d. 1317) both of whom communed with the Latin Catholics—the latter being officially recognized by the pope as the patriarch of the eastern Christians.

[7] Qtd. in Ware, The Orthodox Church, 312., from one of the official dialogues between Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches.

[8] Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church (the “Ravenna Document”), 41 accessed at <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/

chrstuni/ch_orthodox_docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20071013_documento-ravenna_en.html>

[9] See his essay in The Primacy of Peter (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992), edited by him.

[10] That is, Barlaam of Calabria. Qtd. by Tia M. Kolbaba in “Byzantine Perceptions of Latin Religious ‘Errors’: Themes and Changes from 850 to 1350” in Laiou and Mottahedeh, eds., The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World (2001), 117

[11] Matthew 6:15

[12] Access this important and controversial document here: <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/

pontifical_councils/chrstuni/ch_orthodox_docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_19930624_lebanon_en.html>

[13] From his 1983 speech in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (Al-Anouar, June 12, 193) Qtd. by Orthodox scholar Linn Mur in her work Muhammad II Imposes the Orthodox Schism which argues that the Council of Florence is valid from an Orthodox point of view and that the Ottomans imposed the schism and a historical lie on the Orthodox people.

[14] Phillipians 1:9

[15] A heresy condemned in the 4th century (by the Catholic Church) which taught that one could “work one’s way to heaven” somehow without the grace of God.

[16] Matthew 6:33

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