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10. The Great Schism of 1054 and the Mother of All Heresies

The Mother of All Heresies

The fourth century Patriarch of Constantinople John Chrysostom remarked in his commentary on Galatians that “… the desire to rule is the mother of heresies …” (NPNF1 13:40). The Great Schism of 1054 cannot be fully understood without addressing the question of primacy in the church.

The Path to Schism

By the sixth century there were two emerging models of church government. The first was the model of Papal Primacy. In this model the Bishop of Rome, as successor of Peter, was regarded as head of the universal church’s government and doctrine. The highest arbitrator of dogma was held to be the Pope. This approach – unsurprisingly - was largely a Western one. A different model dominated the Eastern Churches, this was based on the Ecumenical Pentarchy. The church, it was argued, is governed by the heads (Patriarchs) of the five major episcopal sees of the Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. This conceptual framework emerged because of the political and ecclesiastical prominence of these five Sees in the early church, but also because of the administrative structure of the Roman Empire. The highest arbitration of dogma in the Eastern model is the Ecumenical Synod. J N D Kelly has noted that, “The Eastern churches never treated Rome as the constitutional centre and head of the church, much less as an infallible oracle of faith and morals, and on occasion had not the least compunction about resisting its express will” (Kelly, 407).

Apostolic Cities or Imperial Cities?

The Roman Catholic dogma of the Papacy regarded Rome as Peter’s seat and therefore the Bishop of Rome as his apostolic heir by succession. This view was widely promoted by Pope Damascus (366-384). The Eastern view admitted Apostolic Churches but also that the primacy of honour was due to Rome as the seat of the Empire. Therefore Constantinople (which didn’t exist in the time of the Apostles) should be a second Rome because it was the new seat of the Empire (Canon 28 of the 4th Ecumenical Council).

The Evolution of Papal Power:

  1. Pope Victor (189-198) disputed with the Eastern churches over the correct date for celebrating Easter (HE 5:24). Taking the vexed question of Easter’s dating upon himself he excommunicated the Eastern Churches in Asian Minor who disagreed with him. He was rebuked by Irenaeus and other theologians in the west for this over-reach and largely ignored in the east.

  2. Pope Stephen (254-57) became involved in a long and bitter dispute with saint Cyprian of Carthage over the validity of Baptism by heretics, which Cyprian held to be null and void. Stephen refused to see a delegation from Carthage in 256 and appealed to Matthew 16:18 as Papal primacy proof text.

  3. Pope Julius (337-52) declared Rome the universal court of appeal on the basis of a spurious canon supposedly from the council of Nicaea in 325.

  4. Pope Damasus (366-84) Appealed to Matt 16:18 as a legal proof text for Papal supremacy and spoke exclusively of the Apostolic See (as if there were no others)

  5. Pope Leo (440-61) claimed the fullness of power over the church (plenitudo potestatis) as his. He cited a forged letter from Pope Clement to James (brother of Christ), in which it is claimed Peter invested full powers over the church in Clement as his successor. (Küng: 57-58). Leo adopted the pagan title of Pontifex Maximus (which the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I had dropped).

  6. Pope Gelasius I (492- 496) was the first Pope to be saluted as vicar of Christ. During the Acacian schism, Gelasius affirmed the primacy of Rome over the entire Church, East and West.[1] Duo sunt (‘there are two’), is a letter written in 494 by Pope Gelasius I to Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus which expressed the Pope’s teaching that secular temporal authority is inferior to priestly spiritual authority.

  7. Gregory the Great (590-604) opposed the rise in power of Patriarch John of Constantinople who referred to himself as the ‘Ecumenical’ Patriarch. Gregory rejected to this use of Ecumenical Patriarch in the East: “Whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called Ecumenical Priest,” Gregory wrote, “is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others” (NPNF2 12:226). Only three generations after Pope Gregory at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Pope Agatho of Rome was addressed as the ‘Ecumenical Pope’ and the Roman delegates signed the Acts as being authorized by the ‘Ecumenical Pope’.

  8. Pope Honorius I (d. 638) was formally anathematized for heresy at the 6th Ecumenical Council.

  9. From 756 to 1870 the Papacy itself was also a temporal power, ruling a large part of central Italy; since 1929 its sovereignty has been confined to the Vatican City.

The Great Schism of 1054

In 1053 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Michael I ordered the closure of all Latin churches in Constantinople, in response to the Greek churches in southern Italy having been forced either to close or to conform to Latin practices. This feud over territorial control was not helped by Michael I who was very anti-Latin. He accused the Pope and western church of heresy over the addition of Filioque clause to the Creed, and the Western use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. He also objected to Rome’s sending missionaries to Bulgaria as a violation of his territory. In response Pope Leo IX sent a delegation under Cardinal Humbert to attempt to ensure Latin churches could remain open in the capital city of the Empire, Constantinople. The Papal legate Humbert was manifestly unsuited to the role of diplomat and promptly excommunicated the Ecumenical Patriarch, who in turn excommunicated Humbert. Rome and Constantinople were now is schism with neither side backing down.

Anti-Latin sentiment in Constantinople exploded in 1182 with a massacre of Latins in the city (estimated at 60,000 at the time by Eustathius of Thessalonica). Cardinal John, the Papal legate, was beheaded and his head was dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog. In revenge during the Fourth Crusade (1204) Venetian troops sacked Constantinople and installed a Latin Patriarch (which was ousted in 1261). The sack of Constantinople was seen as an ultimate outrage against the Eastern Orthodox Church and sundered all hopes of reconciliation.

On December 7, 1965, Pope Paul VI (1963–78) and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras (1948–72), abrogated the anathemas of 1054 and in so doing showed that the issue in 1054 was neither mutual excommunication nor a process of laying the blame on one church alone (Kallis, EC: 868).

Theological Fall Out

The Schism of 1054 is still an ongoing issue in Christianity today. The increasing isolation of Eastern Christianity theologically and politically with the rise of Islam lead to the Eastern Church being largely side-lined and ignored by the Western Church.

Within the medieval Roman Catholic Church diverse views emerged as to how the church should be ordered and run. Conciliarism held that supreme authority in the Catholic Church lies with a General Council. The foundations of this view were laid in the 13th century in reaction against increasing claims of Papal authority (ODCC: 394). Another view with Roman Catholicism eventually emerged as the dominant understanding of church governance, namely, Papal Primacy. The First Vatican Council (1870) declared that the Pope was infallible when he defined that a doctrine concerning faith or morals was part of the deposit of divine revelation handed down from apostolic tradition and was therefore to be believed by the whole Church (ODCC: 836).

The issue of Papal infallibility and primacy is still an issue that divides Roman Catholicism from the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant/Evangelical churches. Unity in the church is an important question for all Christians. How can it be restored and on what basis? Eastern Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis notes that, “The Greek word for council, σύνοδος [synodus], simply means being on the same road: σύν ὁδός (syn hodos). And journeying towards conciliarity means acquiring a sense of re-conciliation. It’s called forgiveness. It’s called—the Greek word συγχώρησις (sunkoresis)—being in the same space with one another, because we must honestly admit that we have become estranged from the culture of conciliarity and communion.” (The 33rd Annual Schmemann Lecture, February 1, 2016).


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