Major Breaks in Orthodox Christianity

As mentioned in a previous post, early Christianity was comprised of a wide range of understandings of what it meant to be a Christian. These groups struggled amongst themselves over the first centuries of the Common Era, and certain forms of Christianity were undermined, others eradicated, as the majority view of the proto-orthodox began to dominate more completely. (We name those groups who were later to become orthodox as “proto-orthodox.”) The organization of the “orthodox” form of Christianity really began in earnest under the reign of Constantine the Great (c. 274-337 bce).

The year 325 ce is an important date because this is when the First Council of Nicaea convened. This was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. (Or more accurately, those selected to be present – only those holding what were deemed orthodox views.)

Some say Constantine wished to promote Christianity because he was truly converted, and others say he believed Christianity served as the best tool at his disposal to unite his empire. I cannot settle such disputes, but I can say that when we read the Nicene Creed, what we we are reading is really a litany of exclusions to other forms of Christianity (centering on divisions of understanding over Christology). The exclusive nature of the Nicene Creed is why I personally dislike this creed, and favour in its place the unifying Act of Faith:

We believe that God is Love, and Power, and Truth, and Light;
that perfect justice rules the world;
that all His sons shall one day reach His feet, however far they stray.
We hold the Fatherhood of God,
the Brotherhood of man;
we know that we do serve Him best
when best we serve our brother man.
So shall His blessing rest on us and peace for evermore.

Compare this to the Nicene Creed (first composed in 325 ce) and refined in 381 ce:

First Council of Nicea (325 ce)

1. We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

2. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

3. By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

4. Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;

5. He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;

6. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

7. (None. Compare to 381 ce.)

8. And in the Holy Ghost.

9. (None. Compare to 381 ce.)

NOTE: [But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]

First Council of Constantinople (381 ce)

1. We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

2. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

3. by whom all things were made;

4. who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;

5. he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;

6. from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead;

7. whose kingdom shall have no end.

8. And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.

9. In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Great Schism

There are two major points of contention worth noting. First, the majority of this language centers around Christology, the understanding of what Christ means to Christians. The Father and the Holy Spirit are not really points of contention. This provides some insight as to the nature of the debates going on at this time. The second main point is to realize that while we may now read these two versions of the creed as being so similar as to be moot, at the time they were far from moot! Disagreement over defining Christology in fact is eventually what became the final straw, and split the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church! (Called the Great Schism.) That’s a pretty major event and took place about 1,050 ce. From this point forward, there is an Eastern and Western form of Christianity, both of which claim to be orthodox; both of whom share the same ancient roots.

(This link offers a RCC view of the “Eastern Schism”:


One of the fascinating theological points which I find offered by the Eastern Orthodox Churches is that of “theosis.” This is the belief that we are to strive to bring ourselves closer to God throughout our lives. This is understood to be a process of deification. It is the spiritual pilgrimage through which each of us seeks to imitate the Christ and cultivate our inner (esoteric!, spiritual) life through “unceasing prayer” (“hesychasm” and most famously, through the constant saying of the Jesus Prayer), until we are ultimately united (I would say re-united) upon our physical death with the “fire of God’s love.”

Theosis is often misrepresented (or misunderstood) as saying we are to “become God.” But this is not entirely accurate. The Eastern Orthodox view is that we become “adopted” children of God. Sharing the Divine Flame/Spark, but not exactly the same as the Divine Spark. (I don’t know… is God able to make us one with the Divine? A question worth pondering, I think.)

Theosis is an example of the more “mystical” nature of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as compared to that of the West. It also serves as an example of why I feel identifying important and instructional teachings from various understandings of Christianity is very important for my personal spiritual growth and development. Naturally, I would recommend this to others.

Patriarchs, Bishops, and the Pope

Before leaving the differences between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholic Churches, I wish to underscore another point which I think is critical. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the church leaders are known as the Patriarchs (fathers) of the church, and in the Western church they are known as Bishops. In the East each Patriarch operates as one among equals. This was originally also true of Bishops – they all held equal status.

However, in the West the Bishop of Rome eventually became known as the Pope, and seen as the leader of the entire Roman Catholic Church. While there are similarities in the roles of Patriarchs and Bishops, the biggest difference is the emphasis the Western church placed on the role of leadership in the Pope. My guess is because Rome was also the capital of the Roman Empire for so long, the political power of the Bishop of Rome quickly grew to overshadow all the other Bishops. This desire for centralized power is very nearly as old as the church itself. We can even see this power being reached for in the letters of Paul, where the Bishop of Rome is attempting to dictate doctrine to the Bishops of other cities. But the Bishop of Rome does not yet have the power to do so unilaterally.

Bear in mind I was raised Protestant so I have my own unique perspective on this point. But as I now read of the historical schisms in the Christian church, the largest ones come as a direct result of the Bishop of Rome’s attempt to control other Christians. Those that obey, remain Roman Catholic. Those who refuse, form another branch on the tree of the Holy Catholic Church. (Although those that split sometimes observe they are retaining the original point of view, and therefore it is technically Rome that forms the new branch of the tree. Such points are a matter of one’s perspective.)

Papal Infallibility

Within the Holy Catholic Church, the next major schism we see is between the Old Catholic Church (OCC) and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). The most important disagreement over doctrine which caused this schism was Papal Infallibility. The “Old” catholics wished to remain with the “old” or “traditional” position while the Roman Catholic Church adopted the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Once again, it is fair to point out the schism was the result of a long series of disagreements. Papal Infallibility was merely the last straw for some Catholics.

Are the “Old” Catholics still Catholic?

This is a messy and to my mind a politically driven question. There is no easy answer to it – other than, “Yes!” While the churches which comprise the Old Catholic Church are no longer in “full communion with the Holy See of Rome,” their “Union of Utrecht of Old Catholic Churches” is in full communion with the Anglican Communion. (Of course, some argue the Anglican Church itself is not valid… and so it goes.) However, even according to the Roman Catholic Church, the Old Catholic churches of the Utrecht Union have maintained apostolic succession and valid sacraments. Therefore, they remain fully and truly “Catholic.”

Roman Catholic views

Quoting from Wikipedia (

The Roman Catholic Church teaches, “The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches” in the 2000 declaration, Dominus Iesus, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This speaks primarily to the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches as well as the Church of the East, but also to “separated churches in the West”, which is understood to be a reference to the Old Catholic Communion. Since the Old Catholic Church is not in full communion with the see of Rome a situation of schism exists between them. A schismatic church may be recognized as having valid sacraments and clergy. The Old Catholic Church has been a leader of the ecumenical movement, and the Union of Utrecht is engaged in official dialogue with the Vatican in order to address their differences and promote Christian cooperation between the two communions.

This is the official position of the RCC on the OCC. If one wishes, the source documents may be referenced. One of the primary citations concerning this aspect of this discussion (is the OCC a “real” church and are they truly “catholic”?) is the above cited, Dominus Iesus, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I’ve looked this up in the past to verify the position is as stated.

The RCC may not “like us” (I am now an Old Catholic) very much, but they do acknowledge that the OCC is valid in that their lines of apostolic succession reach back as far as the RCC’s lines. (Prior to the schism between “old” and “new” they are in fact identical.)

Why this would matter to a member of the Old Catholic Church is an entirely different matter! 😉 heheh


4 Responses to “Major Breaks in Orthodox Christianity”

  1. 1 Future Pope March 10, 2013 at 9:37 pm

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  2. 2 erikweaver March 11, 2013 at 9:44 pm

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    • 4 erikweaver March 21, 2013 at 11:09 am

      Thank you for your for your kind words from Vietnam! It’s nice to be read on the other side of the world. I’m pleased you are enjoying the posts.

      I do try to look for the best, in situations, in people. Sometimes this is easier than at other times, of course. I believe we are all on our own path, learning from our mistakes and growing in spirit. It is a process. We are a process.

      I know very little about Lady Gaga, but a couple years ago what I saw and heard on her HBO special, in its own way was “preaching acceptance” or at least tolerance for others. And, really, that is a very important starting point – spiritually and socially. I feel it is one of the most basic and critical states of mind to hold.

      As I have said elsewhere: first Tolerance, then Acceptance, which may then flower into some degree of Appreciation.

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