CH 08: The Eastern church

The Byzantine Empire

After the invasion of Odoacer in 476 AD, the Western part of the Roman Empire fell apart. It was a time of unrest, war and poverty.

Meanwhile, the East (Greece, Turkey, Syria, Arabia, Egypt) flourished, especially in the sixth and seventh centuries. From this time onward, the Eastern Roman Empire is usually called Byzantine empire.

The capital city of the Byzantine empire was Constantinople (formerly named Byzantium). It was viewed as the “new Rome”. Especially Emperor Justinian I (around 625) made it a great and powerful city and cultural centre. The Eastern emperor was also considered the head of the church. (This type of church government is called caesaropapism.)

The Byzantine Empire lasted through most of the Middle Ages. Its territory diminished gradually due to the invasion of Muslims. (Islam began to develop around 625 AD.)

The Great Schism

The Christian church gradually became divided between West and East. While the divide started developing as early as the third century, it became official when in 1054 AD the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other.

Schism of 1054

There were multiple causes for this Great Schism.

  • A difference in language makes it easy to grow apart culturally.
  • A different political situation.
  • The question of papal primacy: does the Pope (Bishop of Rome) have greater authority than the Eastern archbishophs?
  • A difference in theology and liturgy, discussed in the next two sections.

Throughout the late Middle Ages, there were attempts at reconciliation, and during the infamous Crusades the Western church came to the aid of the Easter church; but none of this led anywhere, and the separation between West and East continue even today.


An icon is a portrait of Jesus Christ, an apostle, or another saint, which is used as an instrument for prayer and meditation. Icons were commonly used from the third century onward. Around 700 AD, the question arose whether they should be used. The iconoclast movement opposed the use of icons, believing it to be idolatry. The counterargument was that icons are not worshiped, but merely venerated.

Several ecumenical councils dealt with the iconoclast issue. Eventually, the Eastern part of the church recognized icons as an important way part of worship, but the Western church rejected them.

The fliloque clause

According to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, God the Son is begotten from the Father, and God the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. Around 600 AD, the Western Churches had adopted a formulation that added: “and from the Son”; in Latin: filioque.

The Eastern Church did not recognize this addition, and resented the West for altering a creed without involving the entire church. They also saw the theological danger that the filioque clause diminished the absolute primacy (monarchy) of the Father within the Trinity. On the other hand, Western theologians thought that a denial of the filioque smacked of subordinationism, as it made the Son essentially less than the Father.

The filioque clause was (and remains) a bone of contention between West and East. If this were the only issue, a debate might have led to a healthy compromise (e.g. the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son). But in combination with the other factors mentioned above, the issue could not be resolved and occasioned the Great Schism.

The Eastern Orthodox churches

The churches that derive from the Eastern church are known as (Eastern) Orthodox churches.

After the Muslim invasion of the Middle East and the Balkans, the centre of Eastern Orthodoxy moved northeast, to Kiev and later Moscow (Russia). In the 20th century, under Soviet rule, the Russian Orthodox Christians were severely persecuted. Today, Eastern Orthodoxy is found in Eastern Europe, Egypt and Ethiopia, and throughout the world. In the USA, about 800 000 Christians identify as Eastern Orthodox.

The theology of the Eastern Orthodox churches tends to be less systematic than in the West. The focus is less on detailed doctrine and more on contemplation. The emphasis lies on Jesus Christ as the risen King, more than on his crucifixion. The focus is not so much on the legal aspect of Jesus’ sacrifice as atonement for sin, but more on the Christian life as a transformation into the image of Christ.

Eastern Orthodox theologians summarize the purpose of life as theosis or divinization: “becoming like God”. It does not mean that people actually become gods; rather, it is a transformation of purification and increased union with God through Christ.

In Eastern Orthodox worship, the church building is divided into two sections, separated by a thin wall or screen with icons. This iconostasis represents the connection between heaven and earth. On one side, the believers gather and see the icons as “windows” into heaven; on the other side, the priest consecrates the Eucharist (communion bread and wine) and carries them out, representing the heavenly gift of Jesus’ body and blood.

A typical iconostasis in an Eastern church. Note the large door in the centre, through which the Eucharist is carried, and the two smaller doors for the priests.

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