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.