A Short History of Eastern Christianity

Extract from The Eastern Church by Fr Robin Gibbons

History can be an exciting route to freedom if we learn and take to heart the lessons of the past, building on them and moving forward in faith and hope. In the story of Christianity, deep history takes us ‘back to the future’, to the time when divisions, though existent, were not major ones and where there was a healthy ‘diversity in unity’.  East and West belong together!

The birthplace of Christianity lies in the Middle East. It is from Jerusalem that the Apostolic Mission set out to proclaim the Good News to the whole world and it was in the East that the Church first began to grow. In the Middle East of today, we can still find the most ancient churches of Christendom, often in a very reduced form, and often existing in difficult and dangerous situations.  All these communities claim an historical continuity with the apostles and their foundation in apostolic times: James in Jerusalem, Peter and Paul in Antioch (as well as Rome), Thomas in the lands of ancient Babylonia, (Iran, Iraq and Syria), Mark in Alexandria and Barnabas in Cyprus. Though traditions of this kind can be hard accurately to verify and date, nevertheless the long tradition of veneration given to these founders attests to a deep and abiding sense of continuity with the original mission of the church in the first few centuries of the Christian era. The political structures, communication and transportation routes of the Roman Empire formed a ready means for Christianity to be disseminated.

The division of the Churches corresponded to this political development, and also to the linguistic and cultural traditions of the two halves of the empire, which was, in the broadest sense, Latin in the west and Greek in the east. This has formed the vocabulary of distinctiveness ever since. Western Christianity gravitated around the old imperial capital of Rome and evangelised Europe, so that it became the tradition of the west. Its traditions of canon law, theology, patristic writings and thought and its liturgies are firmly rooted in Latin.

The Eastern Church originally centered on the new imperial capital at Constantinople, which was called New Rome, but then divided into two distinctive groups, which either centered on the Patriarchate in Constantinople, or, due to various schisms, broke with it.  Though the oldest eastern churches, the Armenians, Abyssinians and Nestorians have never used the Greek language, either in their liturgical rites or in their theological writings, they nevertheless depend on the Greek tradition. Their theology and liturgy show connections with common sources and a dependence on Greek terminology and concepts. Thus, in the broadest sense, the Western tradition can be said to have emerged from the Roman tradition with its Latin theological and canonical traditions, whilst the east looks to Constantinople and is the inheritor of Greek concepts and ideas.

The first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 AD, acknowledged in its canons, three major ‘Patriarchates ’, primary sees with senior bishops, around which various churches grouped in communion. They were centered at the Empire’s regional capitals and were in order of precedence (of honour, but not jurisdiction), Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Part of their task was to settle disputes and appeals amongst the local bishops.

The council of Constantinople in 381 AD, and later the council of Chalcedon in 451 AD gave formal recognition to Constantinople as second in honour to Rome; it also added to the list of Patriarchates, that of Jerusalem. From the sixth century, the five bishops of these sees became known as patriarchs, and the Patriarch of Rome and also of Alexandria were further known as ‘Pope’. The theory, supported by the Canons of the Byzantine Churches, that the supreme government of the Church is vested in the five Patriarchs, was known as the Pentarchy.

This state of affairs did not last for very long. Christological disputes in the 5th and 6th century, led to schisms and the creation of new churches with rival patriarchs. The later expansion of Eastern Orthodoxy into the eastern parts of Europe and Russia, meant that in time other Patriarchies were formed, complicated still further by the emergence of Eastern Catholic Patriarchies.

Those Churches that had accepted the decisions of Chalcedon slowly grew apart during the next millennium. In the 11th century the Orthodox Church in the East  and the Catholic Church in Western Europe eventually split from each other. The date used as a point of reference for the great split between East and West is 1054, with what is known as the Great Schism, but this dating is simply a convention because the other three great Ecumenical Patriarchates of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch broke away from the ‘Pentarchy ’ at a later date.  The real issues at stake were ecclesiological and doctrinal, made worse by political rivalries.

The divisions between the Churches were further compounded by the events of the Crusades, especially the politics of the Fourth Crusade, when in 1203 crusaders attacked, took and sacked Constantinople instead of liberating Jerusalem from Muslim Rule. The cruelty that took place has never been forgotten. Attempts were made to bridge the divide, but the mutual suspicion and hostility of the two churches made it almost impossible.

Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, contact was occasionally made between the Papacy and the Byzantine emperor, but there was no formal reunion. After the Great schism of the Western Church, Pope Eugene IV sent emissaries to Constantinople and in 1437 proposals for a Council were accepted. Because of the fear of plague, Eugene IV moved the Council to reconvene in Florence.

The Council of Florence in 1437 was far from a success for it left a tragic legacy which has still not been resolved, although with the Second Vatican Council in 1965 Catholic Church committed itself to work for unity as well as encouraging those Eastern churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome to work to keep their traditions whole and entire and to re-establish their eastern identity and links.

Today we can divide the Eastern Church into four main groupings:

  • the largest is the Eastern Orthodox Church, a communion of regional or national churches following the Byzantine tradition;
  • the six independent Oriental Orthodox churches, all in communion with each other;
  • the Assyrian Church of the East, which is not in communion with any other church; and
  • the Eastern Catholic Churches, following their own Code of Canon law and customs, but in communion with the Church of Rome and its Bishop, the Pope. There are also a small number of irregular and non-canonical Orthodox churches largely viewed by the other Orthodox churches as schismatic.