Schisms & Heresies in Eastern Christianity Before 1054

Schisms & Heresies in Eastern Christianity Before 1054 March 4, 2020

In my paper, Roman See as Historic Standard-Bearer of Orthodoxy (+ the Ecclesiological Absurdity of Anti-Catholic-Type Eastern Orthodox Arguments Against Roman Primacy & Apostolicity) [1997], I cited five notable instances of Eastern schism before 1054:

a. The Arian schisms (343-98)
b. The controversy over St. John Chrysostom (404-415)
c. The Acacian schism (484-519)
d. Concerning Monothelitism (640-681)
e. Concerning Iconoclasm (726-87 and 815-43)

This information came from historian Christopher Dawson. He was referring to the Eastern, or Byzantine Empire, which was centered in Constantinople. Historians customarily refer to the “East” and “West” with regard to early Christian history, long before the Schism. For example, the first Ecumenical Council at Constantinople was attended by all Eastern Bishops. This is not a novel way of speaking at all.

With regard to these schisms, a representative example would be the Arian crisis. Constantius, the Emperor in the East after 337, openly embraced Arianism, so that in 339 St. Athanasius was deprived of his see and fled to Rome, where his orthodoxy was recognized in a council there in 341. In Antioch in the same year the majority of bishops accepted a form of Arianism represented by Eusebius of Nicomedia. Likewise, the Iconoclastic controversies were Empire-wide, and the Eastern Empire split off of the Western Roman “Church” (i.e., centered in Rome, and headed by the pope).

One can squabble over details and particulars, but the schismatic spirit and susceptibility to heresy was far more typical of the East than the West long before 1054. Since the East was on the wrong side of all the above schisms (even judging by its own later criteria of orthodoxy), it is plausible to contend that it was also on the wrong side in 1054 (i.e., if a side must be chosen; anti-Catholic Orthodox polemicists insist that Rome forsook the orthodox Catholic faith at that time, and that henceforth Orthodoxy became the mainstream, and the only sure source of grace and true sacraments).

Rome was always orthodox in this period, even (I believe) according to the perspective of Orthodoxy today. What, then, does that indicate about the orthodoxy and sectarian spirit of the sees which renounced Rome during these times of schism? Rome was the rock – then and now. Some things never change. The East was susceptible to heresy and schism again and again, over against the West and particularly the Roman (Apostolic) See.

Prior to 1054, there was an identifiable Eastern, Byzantine Empire, and the notion of the four major Sees of the East. There was a universal, undivided Church in those days (in the years when the Eastern Empire wasn’t out of communion with Rome), but the East showed so many of the tendencies which have plagued it ever since, off and on.

Anti-Catholic Orthodox controversialists need to deal with how it is that Rome could supposedly defect from the true faith, if indeed there is such a thing as defectibility (or how it is that it didn’t defect, while the entire East practically did do so in 449 (Robber Council) and in 482 (The Henoticon). My primary objection in all these analyses is the nonsensical notion that Rome somehow lost the true sacraments, and that only Orthodoxy now possesses them.

Even an Orthodox critic of the above paper (but not an anti-Catholic) admitted the following:

Armstrong is definitely right when he talks about the doctrinal soundness (for the majority of the time) of Rome throughout these periods. The episcopate of Rome was generally steadfast. She enjoyed, and should enjoy primacy. Naturally, the question between us is how. But there is no question that Rome is to be considered the episcopal cornerstone of the Church.

This is enough to get someone run out of town in some Orthodox quarters, yet it is plain enough from history. The same person went on to point out that such heresies as Sabellianism, Patripassianism, Marcionitism and Valentianism, did begin in Rome. Indeed, heresiarchs tended to go to Rome, knowing that it was the center of the Church, and tried to corrupt it. This shouldn’t surprise us, and has no bearing on my thesis.

What is the crucial point is that Rome never officially succumbed to, or adopted any of these heresies, whereas the major Eastern Sees did this for scores of years at a time, as my simple chart in the above-cited paper demonstrated. Rome, Rome, Rome! All my papers concerning Orthodoxy and the papacy and the Church, are seeking to demonstrate the fact that the Church is centered Rome, headed by the Roman bishop, the pope, and that the papacy has been divinely-protected from error for 2000 years.

Likewise, the presence of liberal theology in Catholicism today is always pointed to by the detractors of Catholicism, yet — again — the cogent point is that none of these heretics and dissenters have succeeded in perverting or overthrowing Catholic orthodoxy as defined, passed down, and received all these centuries. In Orthodoxy, on the other hand, we see the corruption of traditional morality in an issue such as contraception, as the changes in various editions of Metr. Ware’s book, The Orthodox Church plainly demonstrate. The same thing holds for the allowance of divorce: in opposition to the consensus of the Church Fathers.

There is no double standard in my analyses, as some have charged. The Eastern Patriarchs flat-out embraced these heresies. They were heretics, pure and simple. With the popes, on the other hand, none of them ever personally embraced heresy, in my opinion, and that of many historians and theologians. Honorius, Vigilius, and Liberius (the three most often cited as “heretics”) failed to fight against heresy as vigilantly as they should have. Some orthodox Catholic scholars think that a few popes were personally heretics (we know that some were immoral scoundrels), but nevertheless did not infallibly define any heresy as binding on the Church, which would preserve papal infallibility incorrupt.

On my papacy web page, I have links about Honorius, Vigilius, and Liberius. I have there a lengthy dialogue about Honorius by myself and a Protestant friend. Once these cases are studied closely, the substance of all such accusations vanishes, and one’s faith in Roman primacy and infallibility is greatly strengthened. One can vainly attempt to defend all the heretical Eastern Patriarchs. I dare say it cannot be done, because the heresy is brazen and clear-cut in most cases.

At least Catholics can make a plausible case — agree or not — that none of the three supposed “heretic popes” actually were, or that their cases undermine Roman primacy or papal infallibility in the least. Can any Orthodox apologist make such an argument in favor of the many heretical Eastern patriarchs? Hardly . . . And I know they don’t claim infallibility, but that is not relevant to my argument in the first place.

Frs. Rumble and Carty sum up the “Honorius situation,” and how it does not establish that he was a heretic, or that he spoke heresy ex cathedra:

Sergius favored the Monothelite heresy . . . [and] wrote a very deceptive letter to Pope Honorius begging him not to condemn the doctrine. . . . Honorius wrote to Sergius, praising him for his good intentions, and sanctioning his explanations, though interpreting them in a perfectly orthodox way which Sergius did not accept for a moment. If there is one thing clear, it is that Honorius neither taught heresy in either of his letters to Sergius . . . , and that he gave no dogmatic definition on the subject. . . . Pope Leo . . . said that he had no intention of condemning Honorius for any heretical teaching, but because he was negligent in dealing with the Monothelites, fostering their heresy by his very inactivity. (Radio Replies, St. Paul, Minnesota: Radio Replies Press, n.d., Vol. III, Question nos. 404-405, pp. 99-100}

Even assuming for a moment that Honorius was personally a heretic (and condemned as such — as indeed some Catholics have argued): it is still ridiculously absurd for Orthodox to claim (as at least one I know did) that he made an ex cathedra pronouncement about the heresy. He did no such thing; quite the contrary – this was a personal letter. Personal letters are not encyclicals!, let alone ex cathedra or binding on the faithful.

There is no formula whatsoever expressed in it. So this case is in no way damaging to papal infallibility; it is quite arguable that Honorius was not even personally a heretic, and it is abundantly clear that he did not proclaim the heresy as binding upon all people, as dozens of Eastern Emperors and Patriarchs had done.

The fact that this case is considered the “strongest” against papal infallibility and the spotless record of orthodoxy of Rome shows just how spectacularly weak the anti-papal case is. If this is the “best,”  then our view is well-nigh compelling for anyone who is honest with the historical record.

A certain Orthodox polemic against Honorius runs as follows:

1a. By the same standard, Pope Honorius was as much a heretic as the many heretical eastern Patriarchs and Emperors.
2a. Honorius proclaimed the Monothelite heresy ex cathedra.
3a. In light of #2, papal infallibility is demolished.

1b. But – as briefly shown above – Honorius’ case was far different in kind from the Eastern Patriarchs.
2b. Honorius (without question) never proclaimed Monothelitism ex cathedra; far from it; quite the contrary.
3b. Therefore, papal infallibility (as understood by Vatican I, which dogmatically defined it) is altogether intact. Furthermore, that the Honorius case is considered the strongest evidence against papal infallibility, despite being so weak, supports all the more strongly the Catholic claims vis-a-vis papal infallibility.

Some seem to think that Rome was lax in helping the East with regard to heresy. This is an odd accusation, in light of tha fact that the East so often eschewed papal primacy and arbitration throughout history (I think of Athanasius and Chrysostom and Flavian and their support in Rome while Eastern powers persecuted them). Rome indeed spoke, but its words were often not heeded due to provincialism, prejudice, or refusal to accept Roman primacy (and if one is seeking roots for the Protestant Revolt, is not this tendency one?).

I want to emphasize, again, that my main concern is with the sub-group of anti-Catholic Orthodox polemicists who insist on trashing my Church, the papacy, Aquinas, Augustine, our liturgy, our art, our sacraments, our understanding of the Holy Trinity (filioque), the supposed lack of piety and devotionalism in our ranks, alleged hyper-rationalism, etc. We must defend ourselves in such instances, and I seem to have the most extensive Catholic defense against anti-Catholic Orthodoxy on the Internet (though I have not sought to make this a goal of mine. At any rate, someone’s gotta do the “dirty work”). I simply respond as a Catholic apologist to spurious or illogical claims with regard to the Catholic Church.

But I am also all for unity and commonality — make no mistake about it! I have expressed this desire over and over on my website, and have a web page devoted to ecumenism. Catholics and Orthodox have much more in common than what divides them, for sure, and I rejoice in that. I am not anti-Orthodox; I merely state the reasons why I am Catholic and not Orthodox, and point out errors in various critiques of Catholicism, and the positive factors in our favor. I would expect Orthodox apologists to do the same from their perspective. I am merely responding to those anti-Catholics who are hung up on an “East vs. West” provincial, sectarian mentality. A response to error is very different from wishing to promulgate the same schismatic mentality.

When I argue that the “entire East” fell, I refer to the mass apostasies of 449 and 482, and to frequent and long-running schisms of the entire Eastern Empire from Rome and the West. If Honorius, on the other hand, had indeed “fallen,” the West would have too, since the pope reigned supreme and was the ultimate arbiter of orthodoxy. So the duo Orthodox arguments that he truly fell and adopted the heresy, and that if he did, it would have no larger significance than just the Roman See, are both false.

I do think it is legitimate and not “anti-Orthodox” to present to a prospective convert (usually from Protestantism) why I am a Western Christian (Catholic) rather than an Eastern Christian (Orthodox). They have a right to know what the (tragic) differences are, and how both sides regard them. If they go to the Orthodox and ask about Catholicism, often (at least on the Internet) they will get anti-Catholic gibberish and falsehood.

If they come to me and ask about Orthodoxy, I acknowledge that it is a valid, good, praiseworthy, and apostolic Christian Tradition, but that it falls short in a few areas, over against Catholicism. I would fully expect Orthodox converts to do the same, from their perspective. In fact it is our duty. I try to be as accurate as I can about these differences,  with no desire whatsoever to slander or misrepresent my Eastern brethren in Christ.

An Orthodox friend with whom I have dialogued stated on a public list that “anti-Catholicism is a very strong thread through all of Orthodoxy.” This came as no surprise to me, based on long personal experience. And it fits in with my overall thesis vis-a-vis the ongoing Orthodox-Catholic debate.

I have not contended that the entire “West” was free from heresy at all times. My view is that Rome, as possessing the supremacy of jurisdiction, and as arbiter of orthodoxy, could determine who was right and wrong in doctrinal disputes. There was (always has been) — and is — a court of final appeal. In Orthodoxy, such a basic ecclesiological question has become so complex that a short answer to it cannot even be given: a scenario that demonstrates the problem probably more clearly than any of my polemics could. I’ve even been told (amazingly and astonishingly enough) by Orthodox that one might have to wait hundreds of years for the Orthodox Church to determine what was orthodox!

Related Reading

Roman See as Historic Standard-Bearer of Orthodoxy (+ the Ecclesiological Absurdity of Anti-Catholic-Type Eastern Orthodox Arguments Against Roman Primacy & Apostolicity) [1997]

Sack of Constantinople (1204) & Unknown Byzantine Atrocities [1998]

Is Orthodoxy Immune from Modernism and Dissent? [11-7-98]

Anti-Catholic Orthodox Claims of Exclusive Apostolic Succession [Nov. 1998; revised in 2004]

Caesaropapism in Orthodoxy & the Byzantine Empire [2000]

Clarification on Heretical Eastern Patriarchs (260-715) [1-7-03]


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(originally posted in 2000)

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