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The Great Schism Begins

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Often in the West we think of the church in terms of two divisions: Protestants and Catholics. But the church experienced a large rift several centuries before the Reformation that gave us these two divisions (which we will explore later in this study). In 1054, the Eastern and Western church parted ways in an event also known as the Great Schism. We’ll discuss the split itself and its consequences tomorrow, but today we’ll look at what caused it.

Language Barriers

The main theological issue that finalized the split concerned a clause (actually, a word) that the Western church had added to the Nicene Creed: FilioqueIn Latin, filioque means “and the son.” The Western church claimed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son. It may sound like a minor detail to our ears, but for the Eastern church it was important to assert that the Holy Spirit proceeded through the Son. They were also alarmed that the creed had been changed without any prior discussion.

The tensions that led to the Great Schism were centuries in the making. The two halves had already been drifting apart because of a number of cultural differences. Politically, for example, the Western church did not have to contend with a strong state after the Roman Empire collapsed, but in the East, the church had to jockey with the Byzantine Empire. Also, the Eastern church spoke Greek, and the Western church Latin. Another disagreement that the East and West had battled over long before the split, interestingly, wasn’t about words or languages, but images.


If you’ve ever seen the inside of a Greek Orthodox sanctuary, you may have been struck by all the gilded, angular portraits of saints and biblical characters peering at you from every corner. Even today, the Orthodox tradition emphasizes icons, which are seen as “manifestations of the heavenly ideal.” They are a kind of “window” between heaven and earth.

In the 700s some church members had become concerned that the use of images in worship was verging on idolatry. They were worried that “ordinary Christians may fail to distinguish between the holy object or holy person and the spiritual reality it stood for.” The church became divided between “iconoclasts”—destroyers of images—and “iconodules”—worshipers of images.60 Iconoclasts wanted to replace religious icons with traditional Christian symbols like the cross, Bible, and renderings of the Lord’s Supper. But iconodules like a man named John of Damascus rose to defend icons. John of Damascus argued that an image imitates its original as a copy, and that to deny that an icon could depict Christ was actually to deny the incarnation.

While no one should worship an icon, John affirmed, icons could be used to help believers worship Christ. In 787 a council met in Nicaea and supported John of Damascus by condemning the iconoclastic movement. Yet the two halves of the church continued to drift apart, with the Eastern tradition largely endorsing the use of icons in worship. Both sides of the controversy did agree on the idea that images were powerful. Today, our culture is saturated with images that pour out of our computers, TVs, and cell phone screens. For a moment, think about the importance of icons in marketing. For instance, upon seeing a Starbucks symbol, you might feel very strongly that you need a cup of coffee right away.


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How do the images you surround yourself with help or hinder your life in Christ?

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