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The Great Schism Between the East and Western Churches

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  • 0:04 Definition of Great Schism
  • 1:16 Political and Cultural…
  • 3:09 Power of the Papacy
  • 4:33 Schism Occurs
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will define and explain the Great Schism, which led to the formation of Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In doing so, it will highlight the political and cultural factors that led to the the great divide.

Definition of Great Schism

I have a pastor friend who served at a church that actually split over the color of carpet. One group wanted blue, the other brown, and unable to compromise, they actually went their separate ways. Although splitting over carpet might be a bit uncommon (and rather ridiculous), church splits aren't. They've been happening for generations and generations, beginning with the Great Schism.

The Great Schism of 1054, also known as the 'East-West Schism,' divided Christianity, creating Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Although 1054 is the official date of this divide, tensions between the East and the West had been brewing for years. To understand what caused the final split, we're going to take a look at the political upheaval and cultural differences of the East and the West.

We'll then tackle the straw that broke the camel's back: Papal authority, or in other words, the 'power of the Pope.' For the medieval church, this was their 'color of the carpet' issue - the one thing they just couldn't compromise on and the one thing that led to the official split.

Political and Cultural Disunity

In around the year 330, Constantine moved the political capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople. From there, he managed to rule the entire empire. However, this was no easy task, and soon the empire broke down into Western and Eastern Empires, each with their own emperors. In fact, Theodosius, who died in 395 CE, was the last emperor to rule over both halves. Although the two halves seemed to be separated politically, the Christian Church still tried to maintain its power, a task which was extremely difficult at best!

Theodosius was the last emperor to rule before separate empires were created.
Theodosius Last Emperor

With their own emperors, and being separated by geography, the two halves grew further and further apart. Making matters worse, the Western Empire (Rome and its surrounding areas) were continually invaded by the barbarians from the North, while the Eastern Empire (now known as the Byzantine Empire) thrived.

Adding to the disunity, the Church cultures of the East and West had become vastly different. While the Western Empire clung to Latin, the Eastern Church adopted Greek. Before long, even the Eastern Bishops no longer spoke Latin, and the Western Church had never used Greek in its ceremony. As the language barrier grew, so did the differences in church practices. For instance, the two couldn't agree on which type of bread to use in communion.

The Eastern Church also vehemently disagreed with the addition of the Filioque clause, which dealt with the authority of the Trinity - God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit - into the Nicene Creed, or the Church's statement of faith. Although it was eventually added, the East refused to accept it. Although this issue wasn't as big of a deal as the power of the Papacy, it caused some real tensions and was a precursor of things to come. This leads us to the biggest point of contention: the power of the Papacy.

Power of the Papacy

To explain, from the beginning of the Church, three bishops were recognized as the head guys in charge. They were the Bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Although these three were all very powerful, everyone knew and accepted that the Bishop of Rome (a.k.a the Pope), was the main man, being known as 'the first among equals.'

Now, in around 451, these three were joined by the Bishops of Constantinople and Jerusalem. This made sense, as the political capital of the Empire had been moved from Rome to Constantinople over a hundred years before. After all, if the East claimed political power, they should also have a few bishops. However, the religious power was still considered to be in the West, and the Pope was still considered to be the head honcho.

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