If interested, here's a very rough copy of a paper on the schism I began writing some time ago but never finished. It's half history, half historiography, and should give you the basic outline of the debate. Forgive the good number of sloppy, less than eloquent parts- again, a rough, unpolished draft. Also, I wasn't able to transfer over the footnotes properly.
Although, as Steven Runciman points out, “the date that the world has generally accepted for the schism between Rome and Constantinople is 1054” , most historiography of the twentieth century rejects the bull of excommunication delivered by Cardinal Humbert to the Patriarch Cerularius as the decisive point of separation between the Byzantine East and Roman West – a separation that still continues to this day. Just as it has proved difficult to date the schism, its causes and the weight that should be assigned to them have been a point of contention in recent historiography. Was it primarily questions of ecclesiastical authority, theological disputes, or political and cultural estrangement that led to and perpetuated the division?
Estrangement From the Third to the Eleventh Century: Political and Cultural Influences
All major historiography dealing with the separation of Eastern and Western Christendom agrees that there existed a long period of estrangement between the two bodies prior to a definitive schism. The gradual process by which East and West drifted apart was shaped not only by divergent theological understandings but by changing political and cultural climates that developed over time. As early as the third century the early Church that had operated under the Roman Empire, unified by Greco-Roman culture, one Emperor, and Greek and Latin as the primary languages, was forced to deal with profound political and cultural change.
By the end of the third century Christendom found itself under two emperors. After the death of Theodosius in 395 the empire was given over to his two sons to rule; Arcadius would rule the East from Constantinople while Honorius would rule the West with his capital first in Milan and later Ravenna. Barbarian invasions in the fifth century furthered this division as much of the West, with the exception of Italy, was carved up among the invaders. The sixth and seventh centuries witnessed the Slav and Avar invasions of the Balkan peninsula. As a result, the Roman province of Illyricum which formerly served as a bridge between Byzantium and the Latin West was now a barrier between the two.
The rise of Islam also contributed much to the growing, forced estrangement of East and West. By about 700 much land was lost to Islam in Palestine, North Africa, Syria and Spain. As a result, the five Patriarchal Churches began to lose touch with the rest of the Church and essentially stopped being forces in Christendom, as well as players in the Church’s decision making process.
Though the Christian Empire still existed, as did political unity, this unity was slowly eroding. Still, as Southern and others point out, in some ways the rise of Islam and isolation of the Jerusalem, Alexandrian, and Antiochian Patriarchates who had never been a part of the Roman Empire as Constantinople and Rome were, drew Rome and Constantinople closer together as the emperor in Constantinople effectively became the ruler of much of Italy, including Rome. In fact, from 654 to 752 eleven out of seventeen popes had Greek backgrounds, coming from Greece, Syria, or Sicily which was more strongly Greek at the time.
The Iconoclast Controversy (726-787) drove yet another wedge between East and West as iconodule Rome began, after spending decades out of communion with the emperor and Patriarch of Constantinople, to look to the West and away from primarily iconoclast Constantinople for support. It is here that “politics and the defense of orthodoxy combined to drive the two halves of Christendom apart”. The emperor’s refusal to send military assistance in 753 after an appeal by Pope Stephen lead him to turn to the Carolingian king Pepin with whom he came to share power- a huge shift in political orientation away from Constantinople. This, in turn, eventually lead to a policy which allowed for Charlemagne’s inauguration and further change in Rome’s orientation. It is here, Southern says, that the “foundations of the medieval Empire and Papacy were laid”. To the Byzantine east this medieval empire and “new” papacy came to be seen as being at odds with centuries of ecclesiastical tradition, while anything Frankish was seen as “barbarian”.
It is in this mutual dislike and misunderstanding that Steven Runciman finds the reasons for the schism. More than traditions and customs (which will be discussed below), Runciman cites a “mutual dislike of peoples of Eastern and Western Christendom” , because of cultural shifts that developed over time and divided the world-views of East and West, as the primary force behind this schism. Coupled with this “mutual dislike” were the political events of the eleventh and twelfth centuries like the reformed papacy, the Norman invasion, and the crusades that worked to create and later perpetuate division.
The introduction of Germanic customs into the life of the Western Church in the eleventh century played a central role in the estrangement of East and West according to Francis Dvornik. Dvornik describes the evolution of the papacy as a result of the reform movement’s use of Roman law (vs. Germanic) to empower the papacy. This reform movement applied a new a concept of Roman authority to dealings with East- one which emphasized the power of the papacy over lay power. To a large extent this reform “freed” the papacy in the West from secular control. However, “these reformers were totally unaware of the peculiar situation of the Eastern churches and they naturally wished to extend everywhere the direct right of intervention of the papacy…” These new “monarchical” tendencies of the medieval papacy will be discussed below.
As a result of the new position of the papacy Dvornik sees a resulting lack of understanding in the West regarding the Byzantine concept of a universal Christian empire coupled. Likewise, in the East there existed a lack of recognition of the Western emperor as a successor to the Caesars. In addition to these divergent understandings of authority, the Norman conquest of the Byzantine controlled territory of Southern Italy drove a wedge between East and West.
The political and cultural forces that served as sources of estrangement between east and west came to shape and inform other issues faced by the Church. In this context theological questions and innovations, as well as ecclesiastical practices and customs, developed different trajectories- one eastern, one western. Tied to this was the important question of authority in the Church. More specifically, what was the proper position of the pope in Rome in deciding matters of faith and practice? These disputes over theology and authority will be discussed below.
The Filioque, or addition of the clause “and from the son” to the Nicene Creed, in the west brought the two halves of Christendom into conflict. Two issues were at stake- theology and authority. Was it theologically sound to state that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son as the west came to believe? If so, one whose authority could the Nicene Creed by altered? The east maintained that the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son undermined the monarchy of the Father and, to state it simply, was a false notion with little patristic evidence to support it. The east also argued that the Creed belonged to the whole Church and could not be revised without the authority of an Ecumenical Council.
According to Greek Orthodox bishop Timothy Ware east and west had approached theology with different “minds” for centuries. The Latin approach, he writes, “was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concept of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy”. Ware sees no necessary contradiction in these approaches, believing that each served to compliment or supplement the other, both holding a place in the Church’s tradition. However, with east and west growing estranged, a potential existed for each to “follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view”. This, Ware posits, is what happened over the Filioque question. This created for the first time, as Southern states, “a distinct point of doctrinal difference between Rome and Constantinople”.
By the eleventh century Rome became the last place in western Christendom to adopt the Filioque. Due to the Roman See’s conservative nature, it had maintained the traditional Nicene Creed and even advised Charlemagne in 808 that even though the Filioque was theologically sound it was a mistake to change the Creed and possibly create discord within the Church. However, for the rest of the west the Filioque had become standard. Most likely originating at the Third Council of Toledo in 589 as a safeguard against Arianism, the Filioque quickly spread to France and Germany. With Charlemagne’s acceptance of it at the Council of Frankfort in 794 the addition to the Nicene Creed became enshrined for the majority of western Christendom, even to the point of accusing the Byzantines of heresy for following the Nicene Creed in its original form.
When Pope Sergius IV (1009-1012) took the Papal throne he sent a customary profession of faith to Byzantium. This profession now included the addition of the Filioque. As a result, Patriarch Sergius removed the Pope’s name from the Byzantine diptychs and commemoration of the new Pope ceased. Francis Dvornik cites the opinion of Nicetas of Nicaea who in the eleventh century wrote on the nature of the East-West schism. Unlike Nicetas, Dvornik does not see this event, or the question of the Filioque, as the beginning of the schism and cites instead the political and cultural changes mentioned above.
Besides the major issue of the Filioque there existed a number of questions of custom and Church discipline that divided East and West. The Photian Schism (863-867) , highlighted a number of these issues of theology and custom. Photius, in his encyclical to the Eastern patriarchs in 866 saw the Filioque as the “crown of evils” , introduced by Frankish missionaries to Bulgaria. His objection was that it “presupposed a confusion of the hypostatic characters of the Persons of the Trinity and was, therefore, a new form of modalism, or ‘semi-Sabellianism’”. John Meyendorff presents the arguments of Photius as well as Byzantine theologians who followed him like Peter of Antioch(ca. 1050), and Theophylact of Bulgaria (ca. 1100) who agreed that the Filioque was the only issue dividing East and West. However, Meyendorff himself sees the Great Schism as having taken place as a result of more visible points of divergence, particularly in terms of those customs like the use of unleavened vs. leavened bread, married clergy, fasting practices, and the proper place for absolving penitents- all issues highlighted during the Photian Schism. According to Meyendorff it was not the “heady” theological issues that came to separate the Churches, but these “minor” matters of practice. “On the less enlightened level of popular piety”, Meyendorff writes, “polemics took a sharper tone and were often oriented toward peripheral issues… thus, the schism of the eleventh century was almost exclusively a dispute about ritual practice”.
In the summer of 1054 a delegation led by Cardinal Humbert was sent by Pope Leo IX to Constantinople with a bull of excommunication for the Patriarch. This even was precipitated by Rome’s Synod of Siponto in 1050 where the Pope called for further reform to gain control of Southern Italy and weed out the Greek liturgical practices there. In response Patriarch Michael Cerularius called for all Latin churches in Constantinople and asked Leo of Ochrida to compose a letter to the Roman bishop of Trani defending Greek usages. The Pope’s response was to ask Bishop Humbert to write a letter to Cerularius defending the Latin position and deliver it to Constantinople. Humbert, joined by Frederick of Lorraine and Peter of Amalfi, delivered this letter outlining Rome’s position on Papal authority - a position that, according to Dvornik, was entirely unfamiliar to the East . Humbert’s position, “bolstered” by the Donation of Constantine, accusations of the East’s flawed theology for not including the Filioque, as well as a flawed understanding of the East’s use of the term “Oecumenical”, would effectively end Greek liturgical practices in the West and, if accepted, force the East to relinquish their autonomy. Dvornik reminds us that this excommunication of 1054 was meant only for the Patriarch of Constantinople and therefore cannot be considered the decisive break between Eastern and Western Christendom. At this time, Dvornik believes, there still existed much room for dialogue and the possibility of rapprochement. This possibility was destroyed when Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) asked the Normans for support. Here Rome adopts “new political ideology”. In rejecting 1054 as the true date of the schism, Dvornik’s takes a position consistent with recent historiography.
According to Edward Gibbon in his 1776 Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is “from this thunderbolt (1054) we may date the consummation of the schism.” Though Gibbon does mention cultural differences between East and West that contributed to the schism, as well as internal Church disputes, he neglects the full scope of developments in preceding centuries. This seems to be the prevailing dating of the schism until perhaps until Steven Runciman’s The Eastern Schism, published in 1955. Runciman contends that it is impossible to give an exact date to the schism, stating that the schism gradually occurred and was not recognized by many for one to two hundred years after 1054. Although R.W. Southern, writing in 1970, seems to agree with Gibbon in saying that “It was in 1054 that all the elements of disunity which had come to light over the centuries were first concentrated in a single event” , Southern recognizes that the schism was hundreds of years in the making as a result of cultural, political, and theological divergence. Thomas Bokenkotter in his 1977 A Concise History of the Catholic Church contends that the schism really took place when the crusaders seized Antioch in 1098 and the Greek Patriarch was driven into exile and a Latin Patriarch installed. “The schism at Antioch was really the beginning of the schism between Eastern and Western Churches, for until then the other patriarchates were better disposed toward Rome than Constantinople, and if compelled to recognize any ecclesiastical superior would have preferred distant Rome to Constantinople”. It was the Fourth Crusade (1202-04) that ended all hope of reunion, and especially the 1203 sack of Constantinople. J.M. Hussey agrees with Bokenkotter’s assessment of the 1202-1204 crusade being a better date for the schism, pointing out that the Humbert’s bull of excommunication received almost no mention in contemporary writings. Hussey writes that “Posterity has however read into this dramatic episode ‘a formal schism’ which did not then exist. What the quarrel did was to bring to the surface once again differences in doctrine and custom which had long been recognized and which were to be exaggerated and worked over in the better polemic of the middle ages”.
Authority and The Failure of The Council of Florence
John Meyendorff writes that “most of the controversy which set Greek against Latin in the Middle Ages could have been solved easily if both churches had recognized a common authority able to solve the unavoidable differences created by divergent cultures and historical situations”. In any attempt at reunion following the separation of Byzantine East and Latin West two conflicting understandings of the source of ecclesiastical authority consistently clashed- one based on the monarchical papacy, one on the pentarchical system of the East. As a result of the West’s changing political climate the papacy responded by becoming more centralized and autocratic- a position not objected to by the East, according to Ware, as long as the reach of the papacy’s control remained in the West. The question of ecclesiastical authority loomed heavily over the 1439 Council of Florence.
After nearly four hundred years of separation a council seemed unlikely. To the West, a council could undermine the authority of the pope if convened on Greek terms. Likewise, the Byzantines feared the “Latinization” of the East and the loss of the pentarchical system. However, historical circumstance dictated the need for an attempt at reunion. After seven years of negotiations preceding it, and with the advance of the Turks into what remained of the dying Byzantine Empire, the pope agreed to allow for a council on Greek terms to discuss reunion. While the East greatly needed military aid, the Holy See could not risk being undermined by the conciliarists in Basle who saw the possibility for their union with the Greeks as an opportunity to strengthen their position in the west. In the end the emperor decided on the pope whose position and power was more familiar than that of the conciliarists. The council would follow the protocol for the ecumenical councils preceding it and in return the Byzantine Empire would receive Western aid to defend itself against the advancing Turks.
From the very beginning of the council the question of authority became obvious. Patriarch Joseph refused to genuflect and kiss the pope’s feet as had been the western tradition. Also, Emperor John Palaelogus insisted on sitting in the center of the council and presiding over it. In the end the pope received the patriarch out of public view and the seating arrangement placed the pope on Latin side but higher up than the other delegates while the emperor was seated the on eastern side, but lower. The Patriarch was seated lower than the both of them.
Naturally, questions of theology were extensively debated: The Filioque, purgatory, the use of leavened or unleavened bread, and whether the Eucharist was affected by the “words of institution” or the epiclesis. In the Filioque question Mark of Ephesus and Dominican Provincial of Lombardy were central players. Both wanted to discuss the question in light of patristic sources- they consulted Epiphanius and St. Basil’s Adversus Eunomium as well as his Homily on the Holy Spirit. However, as Mark of Ephesus pointed out at the council, the real questions that needed to be addressed were those on the nature of authority. Basing his belief on a canon of the Council of Ephesus (431) stating that no change can be made to the Nicene Creed , Mark of Ephesus argued that the Filioque was inherently invalid because of the way it had been changed and represented a clear abuse of power in the West. The Latins on the other hand believed that the argument should focus on whether the Filioque is theologically sound or not. This debate stretched on for eight fruitless months with appeals to the Greek Church Fathers presented on both sided. In the end, Geanakoplos argues, for the Latins to have accepted the Filioque as an error would have implied the recitation of a heresy for centuries.
In interpreting the difficulty at Florence Meyendorff and Geanakoplos place a great deal of the blame on the centralized and authoritarian papacy that developed during the Middle Ages, presenting an almost unchanging East (in terms of Church governance) with a monarchical, distorted West. For the West Medieval canonical development gave supreme control and jurisdiction to the pope alone, while in the East authority continued to come from the Ecumenical Councils in which all five patriarchs of east and west represented. Meyendorff agrees, pointing out that until the eleventh century the council was the common way to remedy difficulties in the Church and stating that a “German-oriented reformed papacy of the eleventh century was definitely no longer attuned to this type of conciliarity” and that by Florence it was “too late to create the atmosphere of mutual respect and trust which alone would have permitted an authentic theological dialogue”. Dvornik also points out the problems that arose over issues of authority. While the Byzantines used “apostolic canons” ecumenical councils, and local Synods, The West, by as early as the sixth century had added to conciliar canons the decrees of the Pope.
In the end the Greeks submitted to Roman demands and a brief reunion took place. With Mark of Ephesus as the sole member of the Greek delegation who refused to accept the union, the delegation returned to Constantinople on February 1st of 1440 where an anti-unionist movement led by Mark of Ephesus began which attracted many monastics, lay people, and even former supporters of the union. In 1452 the union was celebrated in Hagia Sophia. One year later Constantinople would fall to the Turks and the union would be a thing of the past. So why did so many sign a decree they later rejected and why did it fail so quickly?
Hussey points to the fact that the majority of Eastern representatives at the council were not learned. While at the council a small elite, learned, pro-union force swayed the votes. These delegates, like Bessarion of Nicaea, Isidore of Kiev, and George Scholarius, had been exposed to Latin theology and were most likely genuinely convinced of Rome’s position. Southern believes that the pope did not realize the extent of the patriarch’s control over the emperor, or that the patriarch was not the equivalent of an “eastern pope”. Upon returning to Constantinople the Emperor found himself up against an “active body of lay theological opinion, an even more active and firmly entrenched monastic opinion, and a profound danger of popular disturbance”. This popular disturbance derived from Greek rivalry, hatred of the West, and a fear of the loss of Greek identity to the Latins. Geanakoplos also sees the breakdown in terms of east-west antagonism, believing that remembrance of the sacking of Constantinople, fear of God’s judgment for abandoning the Orthodox faith, and fear of Latinization all “found expression” in the Church. Runciman blames the failure to stay united on his belief that the aims of the council, for the East, were entirely political and was therefore unsustainable when circumstances changed.
Although historians disagree on the extent to which theology, politics, culture, or authority played a role in creating and perpetuating the Great Schism, all agree that it was a combination of these factors that contributed to the divide. While some emphasize theological disagreements and others point to cultural estrangement as primary culprits, the consensus points to not just one, but many points of contention as well as misunderstanding. As ecumenical dialogue continues to try and bridge the gap between Eastern and Western Christendom, we see the same basic questions raised time and time again. Despite the “lifting of anathemas” between East and West in the 1960s, and despite the increased work of the ecumenical movement, the central issues of cultural difference, the Filioque, and the nature of ecclesiastical authority remain.
Steven Runciman. The Eastern Schism. a Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches During the XIth and XIIth Centuries. (New York: Oxford UP, 1955) 159.
Timothy Ware. The Orthodox Church. (London: Penguin Books. 1997) 43-45.
R. W. Southern. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970.) 55.
Thomas Bokenkotter. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1977)
Steven Runciman. The Eastern Schism. a Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches During the XIth and XIIth Centuries. (New York: Oxford UP, 1955.)
Francis Dvornik. Byzantium and the Roman Primacy. (New York: Fordham UP, 1966) 127-128.
Francis Dvornik. The Photian Schism: History and Legend. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1948.
John Meyendorff. Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. (New York: Fordham UP, 1987) 92.
Francis Dvornik. Byzantium and the Roman Primacy. (New York: Fordham UP, 1966) 132.
Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Great Britain: Chatto and Windus Ltd, 1960) 755.
J.M. Hussey. The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire. )Oxford: Clarendon P, 1986)136.
Deno Geanakoplos. (Byzantine East and Latin West. New York: Barnes & Noble 1966) 91-92.