Understanding Eastern and Western Churches

Key Points of Understanding Eastern and Western Churches

  • After the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, the Eastern church experienced a three-way split between the Church of the East (“Nestorians”), Chalcedonians, and Miaphysites/Henophysites, each with its key leaders and trajectory of later development.
  • During the emperor Justinian’s reign, the empire experienced its first flourishing of Byzantine culture.
  • Justinian sought to achieve unity in the empire, involving himself in the Theopaschite, Origenist, and Three Chapters controversies, without accomplishing lasting theological unity.
  • Justinian’s Byzantine culture saw marked developments in law, reconquest of territories, architecture, liturgy, art, theology, and popular devotion.
  • The monastic legacy of Benedict of Nursia and the “monkish papacy” of Gregory the Great combined to establish structures, practices, and expectations that would characterize ecclesial leadership through the Middle Ages.
  • The great liturgies were formalized in the sixth–seventh centuries, with the result that several distinct families were in use in different areas.
  • From the time of the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, Eastern and Western expressions of Christianity may be distinguished according to different theological emphases, organization, and engagement with society.
  • The monotheletism promoted by church leaders and emperors as a means by which to accomplish unity was condemned in the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople III (680–81), defeated by a lasting reticence to revise Chalcedon and by the Christology typified in Maximus the Confessor.
  • The rise of Islam and its dramatic spread in the seventh and eighth centuries transformed the shape of the empire, posed significant challenges to the church, and prompted a series of Christian responses.
  • The iconoclasm sponsored by military emperors in the eighth and ninth centuries was refuted in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II (787), defeated by popular piety and by the incarnational theology typified in John of Damascus.
  • The Photian Schism illustrates the complexities of Byzantine church politics and the growing differences between Byzantine and Roman expressions of Christianity and church.
  • Middle Byzantine culture saw developments in monasticism, literature, liturgy, popular piety, art, and architecture that would characterize the Byzantine church from that period forward.
  • Byzantine missionaries and missionaries from the Church of the East established Christianity in Moravia, Bulgaria, Russia, Central Asia, China, India, Korea, and Japan.

Summary of Events

Before Justinian came to power, in the aftermath of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, three different groups could be clearly distinguished in the Christian East.The Church of the East rejected Ephesus in favor of a stronger emphasis on the duality of Jesus Christ (“Nestorians”). The Chalcedonians adhered to the formulation of 451 and enjoyed a strong measure of imperial support. The Henophysites/Miaphysites (“Monophysites”) understood themselves to be more faithful followers of Cyril of Alexandria. They upheld an emphasis on Christ’s unity, rejecting Chalcedon and thereby prompting official repression. Each of the three streams experienced distinct processes of development, guided and informed by its own leaders. The Church of the East flourished in Persia and outside the Roman Empire. Within the empire, attempts on the part of emperors and church leaders to find a formulation that would satisfy Henophysites and Chalcedonians were ultimately unsuccessful.

Justinian’s rule (527–65) saw the first flowering of Byzantine culture, with major developments in law, art, liturgy, architecture, and theology. His efforts to regain lost territory brought Byzantine influence into Western provinces. In the face of continued disunity, Justinian got involved in several theological controversies, culminating in the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), the result of which was the condemnation of the Three “Nestorian” Chapters. His efforts to reconcile Miaphysites were unsuccessful. Justinian’s time was marked by the construction of grand church buildings and monasteries, creative developments in art and liturgy, and the growth of Mariology. In the West, the career and influence of Benedict of Nursia (d. 540) supplied the foundation of Western monasticism for centuries. With papal support, the Benedictine style of monasticism, with its emphasis on stability, authority, and moderation, came to be adopted throughout Western Europe. Gregory the Great (590–604) brought monastic ideals to the papacy and established lasting patterns for the functioning of the papal office and the Roman church. Combining ascetic discipline and strong administrative capabilities, Gregory’s leadership was characterized by a strong sense of the need for pastoral care.

The great liturgies arose in the fourth-fifth centuries and were formalized in sixth-seventh centuries. A number of factors favored the use of fixed liturgies, and several different families developed in both Eastern and Western churches. More pronounced than liturgical differences were the deep differences between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Roman Catholic churches. Partly due to the impact of barbarian invasions in the West, the two branches of Christianity proceeded along different trajectories, in theological emphasis, organization, and conceptions regarding the proper place of the church in its social context.

During the era of the great emperor Heraclitus, continuing efforts to unify Chalcedonian and Miaphysite Christians in the empire led to the proposal of monotheletism, emphasizing the unity of will in Jesus Christ. The view was ultimately rejected in the sixth ecumenical council, Constantinople III (680–81), at which the Christology of Maximus the Confessor was adopted instead, becoming deeply influential in Orthodox theology. The Roman church worked to affirm the orthodox legacy of monothelete-leaning Pope Honorius.

The rise of Islam was sudden and devastating to the Byzantine Empire and church. As a preacher of radical monotheism, Muhammad attracted many followers, who conquered large portions of Persian, Byzantine, and even Roman territory. Christian response to Islam shows a rapid process of development in thought and engagement. Certain militaristic Byzantine emperors adopted iconoclastic policies for the sake of purifying Christian practice, though the lengthy and difficult battle over the use of icons as objects of devotion resulted in the affirmation of icon veneration at the seventh ecumenical council, Nicaea II (787). John of Damascus’ incarnational theology prevailed, shaping Eastern Orthodox attitudes towards icons, religious art, and worship.

The Photian Schism resulted from the complexities of Byzantine church politics and conflicts between Orthodox and Roman churches. It illustrates the deepening differences between Byzantine and Roman expressions of Christianity and church. The Middle Byzantine period saw a dramatic flourishing of culture, expressed in Orthodox asceticism, church buildings, mosaic art, iconography, literature, and liturgy. In contrast to Roman missions, Eastern missionary efforts allowed churches to organize themselves along national or ethnic lines, in terms of language and polity. During the seventh–eleventh centuries, churches were established in many different regions, including Moravia, Russia, Hungary, India, China, Central Asia, Korea, and Japan.


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