Exploring the Twain

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  – Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-room Ballads

Years ago, I got to know a Greek Orthodox Priest (who was, in fact, from Greece) who tried to explain to me the difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches; to me, both the RCC and the EO were quite similar.  However, to him, the RCC was closer to evangelicalism than it was to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I didn’t quite understand it then.  Now, 30 years later, I find myself considering the issue once again.  This time, however, I am beginning to understand.  Besides reading some Orthodox theology, I’ve also been trying to catch up on 1500 years of Western theology by reading summaries of the major theologians, and I’ve been listening to a great series from The Teaching Company called Philosophy and Religion in the West by Phillip Cary.

Western theology: Fundamentally Flawed?

As I learn more about the history of Western theology, I am finding I have more and more problems with the theological and philosophical direction taken by the Western theologians (as I have dealt with a bit in my Webber series and elsewhere).  In fact, I am finding that it is fundamentally flawed, and that it is very, very difficult to filter out potentially errant presuppositions, as I am so saturated in them I don’t even recognize them.  Such is the problem of worldviews.  My theory, then, is that by understanding the differences between East and West, I may be more able to find a more pure theology.  Even writing this, however, I am aware that this is a purely Western approach to the problem; but, I have to accept that I am rooted in the West, even while I look to the East.

Understanding the Schism: A little history

Even trying to understand the Great Schism, as the split between the Eastern and Western church is known, is difficult.  I have decided that the best way to approach it is by favoring the Eastern interpretation, while not ignoring the Western; reading Western points of view merely tends to reinforce the problem.  However, both sides do point to a number of political, cultural, philosophical and theological issues that contributed to the Schism.  Constantine perhaps set the stage for the split by establishing a 2nd capital city in Constantinople. This, I think, made it easier for the Eastern Church to eventually ignore Rome.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, of course, is  a major factor.  Many people are perhaps unaware that in the East, the Roman (Byzantine) Empire lasted for about 1,000 years, which contributed to more stability in the Eastern church.  The Roman Bishop (Pope), with Europe in chaos, turned to the Franks (Charlemagne) for support (which led to other problems). Besides these political differences, there was a language barrier, with the East speaking Greek and the West speaking Latin, and both churches insisting the other should convert.

Eventually, as we know, the Pope took on a quasi-political role in Europe.  While this did have a stabilizing effect on the region, it didn’t do the church any favors.  Soon the Pope was considered to be the highest source of spiritual authority in the West; the Eastern church, however, maintained a flatter church structure with a plurality of leadership among the patriarchs.  Today the Ecumenical Patriarch is still considered “first among equals” in the Eastern church.

The issues between East and West grew over several hundred years.  Possibly the biggest factor in the increasing schism was the role Charlemagne played in the late 8th and early 9th Centuries.  At this time what is known as the “Filioque Clause” was being added to the Nicene Creed in various places in the Western church.  The clause changes the nature of the Holy Spirit’s role in the Trinity, adding that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father “and the Son.”  While debated even in the West (Pope Leo III disagreed with the addition), it was Charlemagne who adopted it and subsequently accused the Eastern Church of heresy for failure to use it. Charlemagne had no authority in the East, and I suspect he thought that he could use the Church to extend his political clout.

The final straw came in 1054 with the Roman church “excommunicating” the entire Eastern church.  The Eastern church to my knowledge never officially broke ties with the West (although they finally realized that the Roman Church had, by their own actions, left Orthodoxy). Relations, however, got even worse when the Romans sacked Constantinople on the Fourth Crusade in 1204.  As one could expect, things have never been the same.

Theological Aspects of the Schism

While these issues are important in understanding the Schism, I’d like to focus on the philosophical and theological differences.  Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, an evangelical-turned-Orthodox theologian, writes this concerning the theological split:

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.

Ware, I think, does a pretty even-handed job in his analysis, and also points out in this chapter that while the contributing causes to the Schism were many, it was really the theological differences that divided the church, and which still divide it today.  The 2 primary issues that he sees are Papal authority, and the Filioque Clause. However, the issues he mentions above show a more fundamental difference which, I think, resulted in more than just a church schism; what developed seems to be more of a philosophical or worldview schism, which I will discuss in my next post.

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