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Religion Library: Christianity

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

When the Visigoths (an invading Germanic tribe) sacked Rome in 410, Christian communities could be found as far west as the British Isles, south to North Africa and Ethiopia, north to the Danube and modern-day Romania, and east from modern-day Turkey into Armenia and perhaps even India. Geographical distance and political and cultural differences gave rise to two powerful and competing seats of power, the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople. The Latin-speaking western Church referred to itself as the universal or Catholic Church. While the Greek-speaking eastern Church also affirmed the Church's universality, it developed an equally firm understanding of the pure and unchanging nature of its doctrine. Thus it became known as Orthodox, meaning "correct worship," including the sense of "correct belief."

Filioque Clause
Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Over the centuries, the two churches were involved in power struggles between the Byzantine Emperor, the Roman pope, the patriarch of Constantinople, and the various rulers and warlords of the peoples and nations of northern and central Europe. Nevertheless, the split between the churches of the East and West was not abrupt, but a result of a slow breakdown in understanding and solidarity. In the 6th century, the western Church had slightly modified the Nicene Creed in order to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity (the filioque clause), but the eastern Church was not involved in this revision, did not add the same language to the Creed, and protested the western Church's unilateral action. Detail of Triclinio featuring St. Peter flanked by Pope Leo III (left) and Charlemagne (right). Source: the 8th and 9th centuries, the entire Church was deeply upset by a serious controversy over the use of icons in the Byzantine Church. Finally, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks, the Holy Roman Emperor in 800, the eastern Church perceived this as an apparent challenge to the authority of the Emperor in Constantinople. The two branches of the Christian church grew increasingly distant.


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