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.

Evidence? What evidence?

Over the years I’ve sat through a number of civil trials as an observer.  Over 2 or 3 days (sometimes more) I would hear the plaintiff put on their side, and the evidence always seemed overwhelming.  It wasn’t until I heard the defense evidence that things were put into perspective; at times, the plaintiff’s case would simply evaporate in light of the rest of the evidence.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately from folks like Bart Ehrman about the many problems with the Biblical texts, yada, yada.  His rhetoric can sound pretty convincing if that’s all you hear.

A blogger who calls himself Makarios has put together a short series of posts listing just a partial listing of facts that start to tell “the rest of the story.”

In Can you trust Luke? he mentions all of the valid historical facts in the Gospel of Luke; enough to certainly give any historian credibility (except, of course, if he’s talking about Jesus).  With ancient history (or current history, for that matter) credibility is important.  He continues that discussion here.

Then, in I’m an expert!, he provides some facts that support the historicity of the New Testament in general, and compares the NT docs to other ancient historical documents. The comparison is striking.  With regard to the NT, he writes:

When it comes to the New Testament, especially as it attests to the reality of Jesus the Christ, His life, His death and especially His resurrection, there is more witness testimony than for any other document in ancient literature. With respect to the accuracy and continuity of the documents:

. There are more than 5,700 Greek copies of the New Testament.

. There are 10,000 copies of the New Testament in Latin.

. Take into consideration copies that are available in other languages and we have available to us 30,000 handwritten copies of the New Testament.

. Take into consideration all the quotations of the early Church Fathers and you will find over one million more verses that have been preserved from the first century onward.

Comparing the ancient documents that we have,

At the latest, there is only a 75 year gap between available copies and the time that the New Testament was completed. For the early Church’s creed that Paul passes on to the Christians in Corinth and which he most certainly got from the apostle’s oral, eye witness reports, we are looking at within 5 years of Jesus death and resurrection at most.

For copies of materials from other ancient historical writers, a gap of 1,000 years is not unusual and what we have in those cases are mere fragments of their works.

and he continues,

. The history of Thucydides has just eight copies dated 1,300 years after he wrote.

. Copies of Aristotle’s poetics are dated 1,400 years after the originals and only five copies exist.

. Copies of Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” are from 1,000 years after the originals and only ten copies exist.

Even though the time between the original and copies seems very long indeed, no classical scholar, or atheist for that matter, would ever conclude that the copies are not dependable because they were written over a thousand years after the original. They do however complain if a document that’s been included into the New Testament is dated 30 years later than the original. (You may roll your eyes now)

He concludes this series of posts here.

None of this is, of course, conclusive. It merely provides credibility to what we have as the New Testament documents.  But, that’s what history is all about.