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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The history of Christianity is often traced along a trajectory that begins with Jesus, and then flows through Rome to the Protestant Reformation and beyond. Somewhere beyond the boundaries of the West lies Orthodoxy. This situation exists despite a wealth of scholarly resources that enable researchers to describe a rich and complex history. As scholar and bishop Timothy (Kallistos) Ware has noted, Eastern Orthodoxy is not a kind of "Roman Catholicism without the pope." It is a tradition that is deeply resonant and familiar to western Christians, yet quite unlike anything in western Christianity. It is ripe for fresh research, and there are many stories waiting to be told.

One subject that has held particular interest for scholars is the dispute between Constantinople and Rome. Several scholars working on the history of this dispute have discovered a story filled with nuance and peopled by powerful personalities, in the process overturning oft-repeated and conventionally accepted assumptions about the events of the Great Schism. One early example is The Photian Schism: History and Legend (Cambridge 1948), Francis Dvornik's study of a 9th-century argument between Rome and Constantinople. Through careful research, Dr. Dvornik refuted the assumption that a schism had existed between the two sees during the second reign of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, proving instead that east and west were in full communion during this time.

Other equally careful and detailed studies shed new light on earlier assumptions concerning the 11th century, and most significantly, the events of 1054. While it is still possible to find histories that name 1054 as the date of the Great Schism, a careful reconstruction of events has shown that Rome and Constantinople remained in full communion at this time. The main actors in the events of that date, Patriarch Michael Cerularius and papal legate Cardinal Humbert, were difficult and stubborn men, unwilling to make the kinds of gestures necessary to make diplomacy possible. They fed each other's hostility until they wound up excommunicating each other. However, these declarations of excommunication were ultimately only applicable to Cerularius and Humbert, not to the eastern and western churches as a whole. Historians of Christianity have benefitted considerably from these and other studies, learning to see the schism between Constantinople and Rome as a centuries-long and complex process, subject far more to history and geography than to doctrinal disagreements.

Despite these fresh takes on old wounds, a chasm still exists between the eastern and western perspectives. The so-called Photian schism provides an excellent illustration. While the West tends to refer to this 9th-century dispute as the "Photian Schism" after Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, it is more commonly called the "Nicholas heresy" in the east, after Pope Nicholas I of Rome. While scholars and others on both sides note the need for humble self-examination by all parties, the process is slow.

 

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