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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The decisions of these councils had a lasting impact on eastern Christianity. The members of the East Syrian, or Nestorian church, rejected the decisions of the Council of Ephesus and the second Council of Constantinople. These two councils had decreed that God had been born with a human body from a human body, and when he was crucified, had physically suffered. In the eyes of the Nestorian church, these teachings confused the divinity and humanity of Christ, and undermined the belief in a transcendent God. Their rejection of these two councils was an important element in the separation of the Nestorians from the rest of the church in what became the first schism suffered in Christianity. The rift was never healed, due to the lack of contact between the Nestorians, who lived in the Persian Empire, and the rest of the church, still in the Roman Empire. Today the Nestorian churches include the East Syrian Church, the Chaldean Church, and the Church of the East.

A number of other eastern Churches rejected the decision of the Council of Chalcedon, resulting in the second schism of the Christian churches. The Council of Chalcedon had determined that Christ is both completely divine and entirely human, "in two natures." In the view of those who rejected this decision, the affirmation of Christ's divinity and humanity existing "in two natures" divided the one Christ into two. They prefer to speak of "one incarnate nature of God the Word." These churches are alternatively called, perhaps unfairly, the Monophysite Churches, the non-Chalcedonian Churches, or the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and include the Syrian Church of Antioch, the Syrian Church of India, the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Armenian Church, and the Ethiopian Church.

The Nestorians and the non-Chalcedonians are also called the "Separated Churches," because although they separated from the rest of the church over these doctrinal disagreements, history and politics hardened the separation. The Roman Emperor Justinian fiercely persecuted the churches in Syria and Egypt with serious consequences. When the Arabs conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the middle of the 7th century, the churches welcomed them based on Muslim guarantees that their religion would be tolerated. The Arab conquest of these three ancient patriarchates—Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria—left the patriarchate in Constantinople alone as the only major center of Christianity in the east.

The seventh and last ecumenical council, held at Nicaea in 787, affirmed the veneration of icons as valuable and consistent with the doctrine of the Incarnation. This did not provoke any schisms, and played a significant role in affirming several distinguishing features of Eastern Orthodox belief and practice.

Study Questions:
1.     What events led to the “Great Schism” separation?
2.     Why is the Eastern Orthodox Church often referred to as the Church of Seven Councils? Describe each of the councils.
3.     What councils had lasting impacts on eastern Christianity? Why?
4.     Describe the divide between the Nestorian church and the Council of Constantinople. What are the contemporary effects?


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