One summer afternoon in the year 1054, as a service was about to begin in the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God (Hagia Sophia) at Constantinople, Cardinal Humbert and two other legates of the Pope entered the building and made their way up to the sanctuary. They had not come to pray. They placed a Bull of Excommunication upon the altar and marched out once more. As he passed through the western door, the Cardinal shook the dust from his feet with the words: ‘Let God look and judge.’ A deacon ran out after him in great distress and begged him to take back the Bull. Humbert refused; and it was dropped in the street.
It is this incident which has conventionally been taken to mark the beginning of the great schism between the Orthodox East and the Latin West. But the schism, as historians now generally recognize, is not really an event whose beginning can be exactly dated. It was something that came about gradually, as the result of a long and complicated process, starting well before the eleventh century and not completed until some time after.
In this long and complicated process, many different influences were at work. The schism was conditioned by cultural, political, and economic factors; yet its fundamental cause was not secular but theological. In the last resort it was over matters of doctrine that East and West quarreled – two matters in particular: the Papal claims and the Filioque. But before we look more closely at these two major differences, and before we consider the actual course of the schism, something must be said about the wider background. Long before there was an open and formal schism between East and West, the two sides had become strangers to one another; and in attempting to understand how and why the communion of Christendom was broken, we must start with this fact of increasing estrangement.
When Paul and the other Apostles traveled around the Mediterranean world, they moved within a closely knit political and cultural unity: the Roman Empire. This Empire embraced many different national groups, often with languages and dialects of their own. But all these groups were governed by the same Emperor; there was a broad Greco-Roman civilization in which educated people throughout the Empire shared; either Greek or Latin was understood almost everywhere in the Empire, and many could speak both languages. These facts greatly assisted the early Church in its missionary work.
But in the centuries that followed, the unity of the Mediterranean world gradually disappeared. The political unity was the first to go. From the end of the third century the Empire, while still theoretically one, was usually divided into two parts, an eastern and a western, each under its own Emperor. Constantine furthered this process of separation by founding a second imperial capital in the east, alongside Old Rome in Italy. Then came the barbarian invasions at the start of the fifth century: apart from Italy, much of which remained within the Empire for some time longer, the West was carved up among barbarian chiefs. The Byzantines never forgot the ideals of Rome under Augustus and Trajan, and still regarded their Empire as in theory universal; but Justinian was the last Emperor who seriously attempted to bridge the gulf between theory and fact, and his conquests in the West were soon abandoned. The political unity of the Greek East and the Latin West was destroyed by the barbarian invasions, and never permanently restored.
During the late sixth and the seventh centuries, East and West were further isolated from each other by the Avar and Slav invasions of the Balkan peninsula; lllyricum, which used to serve as a bridge, became in this way a barrier between Byzantium and the Latin world. The severance was carried a stage further by the rise of Islam: the Mediterranean, which the Romans once called mare nostrum, ‘our sea’, now passed largely into Arab control. Cultural and economic contacts between the eastern and western Mediterranean never entirely ceased, but they became far more difficult.
The Iconoclast controversy contributed still further to the division between Byzantium and the West. The Popes were firm supporters of the Iconodule standpoint, and so for many decades they found themselves out of communion with the Iconoclast Emperor and Patriarch at Constantinople. Cut off from Byzantium and in need of help, in 754 Pope Stephen turned northwards and visited the Frankish ruler, Pepin. This marked the first step in a decisive change of orientation so far as the Papacy was concerned. Hitherto Rome had continued in many ways to be part of the Byzantine world, but now it passed increasingly under Frankish influence, although the effects of this reorientation did not become fully apparent until the middle of the eleventh century.
Pope Stephen’s visit to Pepin was followed half a century later by a much more dramatic event. On Christmas Day in the year 800 Pope Leo III crowned Charles the Great, King of the Franks, as Emperor. Charlemagne sought recognition from the ruler at Byzantium, but without success; for the Byzantines, still adhering to the principle of imperial unity, regarded Charlemagne as an intruder and the Papal coronation as an act of schism within the Empire. The creation of a Holy Roman Empire in the West, instead of drawing Europe closer together, only served to alienate East and West more than before.
The cultural unity lingered on, but in a greatly attenuated form. Both in East and West, people of learning still lived within the classical tradition which the Church had taken over and made its own; but as time went on they began to interpret this tradition in increasingly divergent ways. Matters were made more difficult by problems of language. The days when educated people were bilingual were over. By the year 450 there were very few in western Europe who could read Greek, and after 600, although Byzantium still called itself the Roman Empire, it was rare for a Byzantine to speak Latin, the language of the Romans. Photius, the greatest scholar in ninth-century Constantinople, could not read Latin; and in 864 a ‘Roman’ Emperor at Byzantium, Michael III, even called the language in which Virgil once wrote ‘a barbarian and Scythic tongue’. If Greeks wished to read Latin works or vice versa, they could do so only in translation, and usually they did not trouble to do even that: Psellus, an eminent Greek savant of the eleventh century, had so sketchy a knowledge of Latin literature that he confused Caesar with Cicero. Because they no longer drew upon the same sources nor read the same books, Greek East and Latin West drifted more and more apart.
It was an ominous but significant precedent that the cultural renaissance in Charlemagne’s Court should have been marked at its outset by a strong anti-Greek prejudice. In fourth-century Europe there had been one Christian civilization, in thirteenth century Europe there were two. Perhaps it is in the reign of Charlemagne that the schism of civilizations first becomes clearly apparent. The Byzantines for their part remained enclosed in their own world of ideas, and did little to meet the West half way. Alike in the ninth and in later centuries they usually failed to take western learning as seriously as it deserved. They dismissed all Franks as barbarians and nothing more.
These political and cultural factors could not but affect the life of the Church, and make it harder to maintain religious unity. Cultural and political estrangement can lead only too easily to ecclesiastical disputes, as may be seen from the case of Charlemagne. Refused recognition in the political sphere by the Byzantine Emperor, he was quick to retaliate with a charge of heresy against the Byzantine Church: he denounced the Greeks for not using the Filioque clause in the Creed (of this we shall say more in a moment) and he declined to accept the decisions of the seventh Ecumenical Council. It is true that Charlemagne only knew of these decisions through a faulty translation which seriously distorted their true meaning; but he seems in any case to have been semi-lconoclast in his views.
The different political situations in East and West made the Church assume different outward forms, so that people came gradually to think of Church order in conflicting ways. From the start there had been a certain difference of emphasis here between East and West. In the East there were many Churches whose foundation went back to the Apostles; there was a strong sense of the equality of all bishops, of the collegial and conciliar nature of the Church. The East acknowledged the Pope as the first bishop in the Church, but saw him as the first among equals. In the West, on the other hand, there was only one great see claiming Apostolic foundation – Rome – so that Rome came to be regarded as the Apostolic see. The West, while it accepted the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, did not play a very active part in the Councils themselves; the Church was seen less as a college and more as a monarchy- the monarchy of the Pope.
This initial divergence in outlook was made more acute by political developments. As was only natural, the barbarian invasions and the consequent breakdown of the Empire in the west served greatly to strengthen the autocratic structure of the western Church. In the East there was a strong secular head, the Emperor, to uphold the civilized order and to enforce law. In the West, after the advent of the barbarians, there was only a plurality of warring chiefs, all more or less usurpers. For the most part it was the Papacy alone which could act as a center of unity, as an element of continuity and stability in the spiritual and political life of western Europe. By force of circumstances, the Pope assumed a part which the Greek Patriarchs were not called to play, issuing commands not only to his ecclesiastical subordinates but to secular rulers as well. The western Church gradually became centralized to a degree unknown anywhere in the four Patriarchates of the east (except possibly in Egypt). Monarchy in the West; in the East collegiality.
Nor was this the only effect which the barbarian invasions had upon the life of the Church. In Byzantium there were many educated laymen who took an active interest in theology. The ‘lay theologian’ has always been an accepted figure in Orthodoxy: some of the most learned Byzantine Patriarch Photius, for example – were laymen before their appointment to the Patriarchate. But in the West the only effective education which survived through the Dark Ages was provided by the Church for its clergy. Theology became the preserve of the priests, since most of the laity could not even read, much less comprehend the technicalities of theological discussion. Orthodoxy, while assigning to the episcopate a special teaching office, has never known this sharp division between clergy and laity which arose in the western Middle Ages.
Relations between Eastern and Western Christendom were also made more difficult by the lack of a common language. Because the two sides could no longer communicate easily with one another, and each could no longer read what the other wrote, misunderstandings arose much more easily. The shared ‘universe of discourse’ was progressively lost.
East and West were becoming strangers to one another, and this was something from which both were likely to suffer. In the early Church there had been unity in the faith, but a diversity of theological schools. From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the East, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But now that the two sides were becoming strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – there was a danger that each side would follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.
We have spoken of the different doctrinal approaches in east and west; but there were two points of doctrine where the two sides no longer supplemented one another, but entered into direct conflict – the Papal claims and the Filioque. The factors which we have mentioned in previous paragraphs were sufficient in themselves to place a serious strain upon the unity of Christendom. Yet for all that, unity might still have been maintained, had there not been these two further points of difficulty. To them we must now turn. It was not until the middle of the ninth century that the full extent of the disagreement first came properly into the open, but the two differences themselves date back considerably earlier.
We have already had occasion to mention the Papacy when speaking of the different political situations in east and west; and we have seen how the centralized and monarchical structure of the western Church was reinforced by the barbarian invasions. Now so long as the Pope claimed an absolute power only in the west, Byzantium raised no objections. The Byzantines did not mind if the western Church was centralized, so long as the Papacy did not interfere in the east. The Pope, however, believed his immediate power of jurisdiction to extend to the east as well as to the west; and as soon as he tried to enforce this claim within the eastern Patriarchates, trouble was bound to arise. The Greeks assigned to the Pope a primacy of honor, but not the universal supremacy which he regarded as his due. The Pope viewed infallibility as his own prerogative; the Greeks held that in matters of the faith the final decision rested not with the Pope alone, but with a Council representing all the bishops of the Church. Here we have two different conceptions of the visible organization of the Church.
The Orthodox attitude to the Papacy is admirably expressed by a twelfth-century writer, Nicetas, Archbishop of Nicomedia:
‘My dearest brother, we do not deny to the Roman Church the primacy among the five sister Patriarchates; and we recognize her right to the most honorable seat at an Ecumenical Council. But she has separated herself from us by her own deeds, when through pride she assumed a monarchy which does not belong to her office . . . How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman Pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory wishes to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us from on high, and if he wishes to judge us and even to rule us and our Churches, not by taking counsel with us but at his own arbitrary pleasure, what kind of brotherhood, or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We should be the slaves, not the sons, of such a Church, and the Roman See would not be the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves.‘
That was how an Orthodox felt in the twelfth century, when the whole question had come out into the open. In earlier centuries the Greek attitude to the Papacy was basically the same, although not yet sharpened by controversy. Up to 850, Rome and the east avoided an open conflict over the Papal claims, but the divergence of views was not the less serious for being partially concealed.
The second great difficulty was the Filioque. The dispute involved the words about the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed. Originally the Creed ran: ‘I believe . . . in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and together glorified.’ This, the original form, is recited unchanged by the east to this day. But the west inserted an extra phrase ‘and from the Son’ (in Latin, Filioque), so that the Creed now reads ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’. It is not certain when and where this addition was first made, but it seems to have originated in Spain, as a safeguard against Arianism. At any rate the Spanish Church interpolated the Filioque at the third Council of Toledo (589), if not before. From Spain the addition spread to France and thence to Germany, where it was welcomed by Charlemagne and adopted at the semi-lconoclast Council of Frankfort (794). It was writers at Charlemagne’s court who first made the Filioque into an issue of controversy, accusing the Greeks of heresy because they recited the Creed in its original form. But Rome, with typical conservatism, continued to use the Creed without the Filioque until the start of the eleventh century. In 808 Pope Leo III wrote in a letter to Charlemagne that, although he himself believed the Filioque to be doctrinally sound, yet he considered it a mistake to tamper with the wording of the Creed. Leo deliberately had the Creed, without the Filioque, inscribed on silver plaques and set up in St Peter’s. For the time being Rome acted as a mediator between the Franks and Byzantium.
It was not until 860 that the Greeks paid much attention to the Filioque, but once they did so, their reaction was sharply critical. The Orthodox objected (and still object) to this addition to the Creed, for two reasons. First, the Creed is the common possession of the whole Church, and if any change is to be made in it, this can only be done by an Ecumenical Council. The west, in altering the Creed without consulting the east, is guilty (as Khomiakov put it) of moral fratricide, of a sin against the unity of the Church. In the second place, most Orthodox believe the Filioque to be theologically untrue. They hold that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, and consider it a heresy to say that He proceeds from the Son as well. There are, however, some Orthodox who consider that the Filioque is not in itself heretical, and is indeed admissible as a theological opinion – not a dogma – provided that it is properly explained. But even those who take this more moderate view still regard it as an unauthorized addition.
Besides these two major issues, the Papacy and the Filioque, there were certain lesser matters of Church worship and discipline which caused trouble between east and west: the Greeks allowed married clergy, the Latins insisted on priestly celibacy; the two sides had different rules of fasting; the Greeks used leavened bread in the Eucharist, the Latins unleavened bread Around 850 East and West were still in full communion with one another and still formed one Church. Cultural and political divisions had combined to bring about an increasing estrangement, but there was no open schism. The to sides had different conceptions of Papal authority and recited the Creed in different forms, but these questions had not yet been brought fully into the open.
But in 1190 Theodore Balsamon, Patriarch of Antioch and a great authority on Canon Law, looked at matters very differently: