History of Eastern Orthodox Church

Last night I watched an interesting programme on the BBC2. Well, it originally aired this past Saturday evening, but I was able to watch most of it last night with the hopes of finishing the show tonight. It was a programme specifically on the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In recent months, my heart has begun to stir towards knowing a little bit more about history, and specifically, the history of our faith as held out by the generations of Christians before us. I am somewhat saddened when we try and disconnect ourselves from what has come before us. Oh, yes, it isn’t all pretty. And the programme proved that last night. And, yes, I don’t agree with everything – ethically or theologically. But we have come from somewhere, come from a cloud of witnesses that is not just to be found in Scriptural times, but in the centuries since then. I have touched on this topic before.

So it was interesting to learn a little about the history of the church, particularly the Eastern Orthodox Church. Of course, I am always a little wary of what the BBC will present about the faith. And, of course, they would be wary of how I would present the faith if given the opportunity. We each have our tainted lenses and reasons.

The Eastern Orthodox church got its initial beginnings when Constantine headed east and founded the city of Constantinople. Actually, the city had already existed for quite a while, begun during the days of the Greek empire. But, in the year 330 AD, Constantine officially founded the city of Constantinople. We now know this city as Istanbul in the country of Turkey.

Because Rome was being attacked by Germanic barbarians, and were oddly enough having success, Constantinople was to become a kind of ‘new Rome’. And it became the capital of Christianity in the east. This was also the beginnings of the Byzantine empire, which started to spread quite rapidly. Though this particular church was situated in the more eastern part of the then known world, it was still specifically connected to the western church in Rome.

One of the next major emperors to come along was Justinian I. He was quite instrumental in seeing the Byzantine empire spread, which would have meant eastern Christianity was also being spread. Remember, in those days, the church and the state were one (and, oh, what a debate this causes in the modern era).

Justinian was responsible for the building of Hagia Sophia in the 530’s AD, which served as a kind of church headquarters for the east. This building was an architectural masterpiece in those days with nothing existing like it in all the world. It’s known for its huge dome in the sky, quite unlike the church buildings in the west.

About a century later, in the 630’s, Islam was born and started to arise in the Arab world. Yet, in its desire to expand, it also headed into the eastern Byzantine area. Such would lead to the Byzantine-Arab wars, with Muslims specifically looking to strike at the heart of the eastern world itself, Constantinople. And, through force, Islam was able to gain much of the eastern empire’s territory. Will come back to the Muslims in a moment.

Not too long after, there was also a stirring of iconoclasm, headed up by Byzantine Emperors like Constantine V, Leo III and Leo IV. What is iconoclasm? It simply refers to the destruction of icons.

Now this is where I am not sure the BBC historian-reporter would have his facts right, but I am ok if this is confirmed. When most evangelicals think of iconoclasm, or not wanting to venerate specific pictures and relics of those saints that have gone before us, most base this out of Exodus 20:4-6:

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

But, the historian reported a different reason why iconoclasm arose, at least in the 700’s. He reported that iconoclasm began brewing as many leaders in the eastern Byzantine empire began to question why the Muslims were having such success against the empire and the church. Did God switch sides? The Byzantine Christians believed God’s blessing had been with them in the expansion of the church and, subsequently, the empire (or maybe it’s the empire expanded and, so, subsequently, the church expanded). But now, the Muslims were gaining ground and gaining ground rapidly. What was wrong, God?

This is where iconoclasm came in. The emperors wondered if the icons were not in accordance with God’s wishes. Muslims would never craft anything like an icon, since the Koran absolutely forbid such. So maybe the Muslims were right and the Christians weren’t, hence why they now seemed blessed in their expansion. [Side note: I think a lot of this makes up for some very poor theological thinking. But, of course, I did not live in that period as to consider all things.]

It is possible that this questioning came through a consideration of the text in Exodus 20, which is used to argue against the use of and veneration of icons. But it is interesting to consider the practical things that could have led to the edict to destroy all icons.

Again, I don’t know if this is completely true, but I am fine either way. It was simply worthy of noting. [Feel free to confirm or deny.]

Yet, in 787 AD, the second council of Nicea met and affirmed the use of and veneration of icons. This council is also known as the seventh ecumenical (universal) council. But, while most evangelicals accept the decisions and rulings of the first six ecumenical councils, they will not accept this seventh council. It is strongly maintained that veneration of icons is not in accordance with with Scriptural teaching, mainly based in places like Exodus 20:4-6.

The next event in the eastern world was the Great Schism of 1054. Up until this point, the church had officially been one – no other denominations, no other branches, no other groups. One church. But from this point, it would officially be in two.

The eastern church had already taken up the emblem of the double-headed eagle, one head for Rome in the west and one head for Constantinople in the east. But many believe this was an image of what was already taking place at the heart of the church – a split between east and west.

The official schism happened during a church service when Pope Leo IX sent an envoy, Cardinal Humbert, to Constantinople to excommunicate their patriarch, Michael Cerularius. Oddly enough, in the same moment, Cerularius returned the favour, excommunicating the Pope. And there we have the official point of division.

What was it all over? Many would say it was based around one word – filioque. Back in the late 6th century AD, the western church decided to add this one little Latin word to the Nicene Creed. Originally, the creed stated this about the Holy Spirit: And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.

But, in an attempt to emphasis the equal divinity of the Son with the Father, the western church decided to add this one word with the creed now stating: And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

For the eastern church, it was unacceptable to change the creed.

Of course, tensions existed beyond this discussion. But, to stay true to every other split that has happened in the 1000 years since, we need to make sure a split is over theology, right? It couldn’t happen over difference of opinions, power-hungry leaders, moral problems, or because we decided to serve coffee after our gathering instead of before. Well, divisions can (and do) happen because of these things. But we have to keep this looking the best we can to hide our shame. Anyways…

And, thus, you now officially have the split between the Western Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church.

The final straw that broke the camels back, in regards to the split between the two branches, happened during the Crusades of the 11th and early 12th centuries. Though the church had now split, with Constantinople standing on its own, the eastern church did request help from Rome during a period of heightened attacks by the Muslims.

But, where the first three crusades caused no tension between east and west, unfortunately, things were not to stay that way. In the fourth crusade of 1204, crusaders had been sent from the west to reconquer the Muslim-controlled Jerusalem. Yet, they instead headed to Constantinople and sacked the capital of the Byzantine-eastern empire. Such a tragic event that severed the church in the west and east for good.

I was pleased, though, to read that, in 2004, Pope John Paul II extended a formal apology for the attacks and destruction of Constantinople in that fourth crusade. This apology was accepted by one of the Patriarch of the eastern church, Bartholomew. Such news does give us hope for this goal of unity that we are called to.

There is more history to look at within the Eastern Orthodox church, specifically on how the church dealt with Turkish-Ottoman empire and the move of the church to Russia. That post shall remain for a later time.


8 thoughts on “History of Eastern Orthodox Church

  1. I just want to mention that in your article about the Eastern Church, you seem to refer to Evangelicalism, as the modern and accepted, undisputed, arbiter, and treasure house of “Truth”. May I remind you that Evangelicalism is a “movement” not a church. No one person speaks for this modern movement, while someone does speak for the Eastern Church. Christ founded a Church, not a movement. While it is true that Church history can certainly scandalize some, the Eastern Church remains essentially the same as when it was founded. Protestants, on the other hand, are made up of many thousands of denominations who all read from the same bible, the one you seek to inspire others with, and yet none of them agree with each other. It seems to me that this is a much “bigger” scandal than that of Church History.

  2. Ser –

    It seemed you were making sure that we knew church history wasn’t about Eastern Orthodoxy on the Theologica version of this article, but you seem to be defending the church here. I’m fine either way, just wasn’t sure.

    By no means do I think evangelicalism is THE bearer of truth in the sense of the gospel. There are a lot of things I disagree with, one being the splintered nature of it. I don’t know what made you think that I am trying to be THE voice for evangelicalism, as I’ve shared a few times on my blog and Theologica about my desire to see changes: here and here and here.

  3. Seraphim wrote:

    While it is true that Church history can certainly scandalize some, the Eastern Church remains essentially the same as when it was founded.

    Well, if you mean by “when it was founded” some time around the time of Christ’s resurrection and/or the Day of Pentecost a few weeks later, I’m not sure your statement is accurate.

    The theology and practices of the church changed over the years and centuries, and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy one celebrates today experienced some major changes as late as the 1300’s.

    I guess in some ways (to paraphrase Bill Clinton), it depends upon what the meaning of the phrase “essentially the same” is. Are you saying that the Eastern Church of today is (to use the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed term for “of the same essence”) homoousios with the original Church?

    The Book of Acts and The Didachê exhibit a lower or more elementary Christology than the Creed declares. Indeed, one cannot get to the Creed from those books without some theological development, in effect changing the “essence” of what was believed.

    For what is believed and confessed by the Eastern Church today is not clearly what was believed everywhere, always and by all.


  4. I am a Eastern Orthodox (former protestant) Christian and I have some questions and comments I would like you to repond to. Please also listen to this and let me know what you think.


    The LORD said HE would build HIS Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. If the Protestants are right and the Church fell into heresy for almost 1500 years until the reformations then did not the gates of hell prevail. Did you know the early Church had the Sacraments and liturgy. There is no evidence of a group of Christians before the Waldesians who held Protestant Doctrine. If all facts are considered it is the Protestants who are heretical. The Bible clearly shows the LORD left a visible Church with leaders not just his Holy WORD. I was shocked when I found out that the early Church fathers writings were by no means protestant in doctrine from St Augustine to Athanasiushttp://www.willcoxson.net/faith/augprot.htm. Even more convincing was the writings of st Ignatius of Antioch a student of St John the apostle whose writings are clearly not protestant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignatius_of_Antioch.

    The protestant doctrine of Sola Fide opposes scripture “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. ” There is not one place in the bible that says we are save by faith alone. In fact the only place that uses faith alone is James 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. I do not see any difference in the modern day heresy of easy believism and the protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.

    Even some of the reformers were sacramental . I think you would be surprise also on Luther’s and Calvin’s view on Mary

    The true Church has to have apostolic succession and be one. I have heard there are over 20 000 protestant denominations with all different doctrines and practices. Where the Orthodox Church has stood firm for 2000 years holding to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.

    I believe it is true that he who studies history ceases to be protestant. I still consider protestants brothers and sisters who are outside the true Church which holds the fullness of the faith. The bible says whosoever believes in HIM shall not perish but have everlasting life not whosoever has calvin reform theology shall be saved.

    Take care brother


  5. Aaron –

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing some thoughts. I was not necessarily evaluating the EO church in this article, but presenting some historical information, especially connected with the BBC documentary I viewed.

    You said: The LORD said HE would build HIS Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. If the Protestants are right and the Church fell into heresy for almost 1500 years until the reformations then did not the gates of hell prevail.

    I suppose the Roman Catholic church would also argue against the schism in the mid-12th century, asking why the eastern church believed it needed to happen if Christ was truly building his church.

    I don’t know how each Protestant church group/person would argue with regards to how the church fell into heresy. Heresy is a big word, but there would be some belief that the church fell into some error. But I am not sure we should equate having fallen into some error means that the gates of Hades (death, the grave) prevailed overall. Not to mention that I believe the Protestant church has fallen into some error at times, no doubt. But that does not mean the church has been overruled by Hades.

    You also said: The protestant doctrine of Sola Fide opposes scripture “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. ” There is not one place in the bible that says we are save by faith alone.

    I suppose many would point to passages like Eph 2:8-9, other passages in Romans (i.e. 6:23), and some words from the teachings of Jesus to support sola fide. I think the teaching of sola fide arose in the midst of Martin Luther challenging the Roman Catholic’s perspective on salvation, especially with the selling of indulgences to receive the gift of life eternal. Such was atrocious in the eyes of Luther, who saw a presentation of an actual monetary buying one’s way into the age to come. Such was erroneous, no doubt.

    Of course, most Protestants recognise the reality of having to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as Scripture teaches. Faith without works is dead. Our life lived now points to the reality of the work of Christ and the final judgment. Some Protestants might say works are completely unnecessary. I suppose I understand what they are communicating, but I do agree that can be a harmful approach. We will be judged according to works, as Scripture teaches, but those works line up with the work of Christ in believers.

    You said: The true Church has to have apostolic succession and be one. I have heard there are over 20 000 protestant denominations with all different doctrines and practices. Where the Orthodox Church has stood firm for 2000 years holding to 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

    I, again, suppose the Roman Catholic church would say the EO church has not existed for 2000 years, but rather for only 1000 years. I think what might be pointed out is that the focus of apostolic succession that was chosen by the RC (and EO) church led to some unaccountability, leadership manipulation, etc. This has happened in Protestant churches, no doubt. But these people are not seen as the final authority, but must submit to the rule of faith as shown in the canon of Scripture. At this point, Protestants feel it is the best approach, though I recognise it too has difficulties as does apostolic succession taught in the RC and EO churches.

    I, too, believe I have numerous brothers and sisters in the RC and EO churches. At this point, I don’t personally sense a calling to be a close part of those groups. But I do have deep respect for both branches and believe we can learn great things from both groups.


  6. Scott, I don’t know that the BBC did a very good job. If you are interested in the best book on the subject of the schism, I’d refer you to

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