ROME AND THE EASTERN CHURCHES:
A Study in Schism (2nd Edition)
by Aidan Nichols OP
(Ignatius Press, 2010, 382pp, $37.95, ISBN: 978-1-58617-282-4. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Perhaps one of the greatest stumbling blocks for non-believers is the division between Christians. Rome and the Eastern Churches (previously published in 1992) examines the major pre-Protestant schisms within Christendom, with a particular focus on the Orthodox Churches that emerged from the schism of 1054.
Well-known Dominican scholar and lecturer Fr Aidan Nichols, whose previous writings have also been published by Ignatius Press, has produced an updated version of this work, primarily because of the new flowering of Orthodox churches, particularly in countries in the former Eastern European bloc, as well as ecumenical developments over the last 20 years.
After an introductory chapter, Fr Nichols treats his material chronologically, first examining churches that separated in the wake of the Councils of Ephesus, in particular the Church commonly known as the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Council of Chalcedon, the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Both of them flourished in the Near East with the latter taking root there because those who rejected Chalcedon needed to seek refuge from persecution from the Byzantine emperors. The author then shifts his focus to the gradual separation of Eastern Orthodox churches from the Catholic Church. As with most scholars, he argues that the events of 1054 were a culmination of a long series of events and prior schisms.
The first schism between east and west, the Arcadian, occurred at the end of the fifth century and lasted for a generation. Another major schism, whose intricate causes and reconciliation are discussed in detail, was the Photian of the ninth century. However, the date most people know about is 1054, to which Fr Nichols gives a detailed analysis.
One of the major factors was the division of the former Roman Empire. In the East, the Byzantine owed its loyalty to the Emperor, to whom the Church in his empire was essentially subservient, while in the West the various lands divided amongst local rulers owed their ecclesial loyalty to the Pope.
One major tension was that of the West's insertion of the term filioque ("and from the son") into the Creed at the end of the words, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father." The major reason for doing so was to combat heresy. While Western theologians have always maintained that this addition is consistent with Scripture and patristic thought, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the insertion has been generally regarded as being anything from presumptuous to heretical.
However, it was a reformation of the Papacy in the eleventh century, together with a renewed assertion of its prerogatives, which drove the situation to breaking point. Ironically, at the time the excommunications were not seen as irrevocable to the extent that they have since been regarded.
Fr Nichols then examines the two major attempts to repair the schism, namely the Council of Lyons in 1274 and the Council of Florence in 1439. Ironically, while these unions were negotiated by clerics, they were roundly rejected by Orthodox faithful.
The emergence of Eastern Catholic rites, often called "Uniates", is also examined. Their situation has been particularly complicated, especially in the former Soviet bloc countries since the fall of Communism.
The work ends with an examination of the current ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and Eastern Churches. One particular challenge in achieving full unity that the author cites throughout the work is the different tenor between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. He argues that the Catholic Church highly values unity and for this reason has tolerated divergence of opinion, including at times heresy, within its ranks.
This explains why, for example, sections of the Catholic Church throughout history - including parts of the Antipodes within the last generation - have held beliefs that can be described as 'eclectic' while still remaining in communion with Rome. By contrast, the Orthodox Churches place prime emphasis upon upholding orthodox belief hence corporate unity is a secondary consideration, manifested in this country for example through a glance in the telephone directory or Melways which list the various Orthodox Churches that operate independently of each other, yet which share common beliefs.
Rome and the Eastern Churches is an extremely well written and thoroughly researched account of the history of the relationship between Rome and the Eastern Churches, which examines the kernel of the issues that continue to impede full communion. However, some of the sections that deal with theological matters require familiarity with theology to appreciate fully some of the writer's subtle distinctions.