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The Great Schism and Icons - History of Christian Spirituality, 7th-15th Century

April 15th, 2008 | 7 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

I have the privilege of taking "The History & Traditions of Christian Spirituality" with Dr. Greg Peters, a terribly sensible junior faculty member of the Torrey Honors Institute.Christ by Andrei Rublev

In good classical education fashion, rather than simply lecturing to us for three hours a week, he lectures for two hours, and forces us students to do a  presentation on large chunks of history and spirituality.

He doesn't do this in order to relieve his teaching load, but because, as they say, "teaching is the best way to learn." This has proved true, yet again, and I had the joy of researching some of the history of the Byzantine era, the 7th-15th century medeival eastern church.

The two events of greatest historical significance are the Great Schism and the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Those of us raised Protestant may often discuss the Reformation, wherein Protestants separated from the erroneous medieval Roman Catholic Church, but rarely (if ever) do we discuss the Great Schism, wherein the Roman Catholic Church from which we so violently separated, separated itself from the other four great patriarchates.

Also significant is the 7th Ecumenical council, which took place (to my surprise) before the Schism. Despite their disagreements, East and West were of one mind and spirit and purpose about the use of "holy images" in Christian worship, if it is done carefully and with proper understanding of the distinction between creation and Creator.

Here is a teaser, necessarily brief and inadequate, by way of introducing to these two great issues, from an angle admittedly sympathetic to pre-schism Christianity. I would encourage Christian scholars, pastors, and laypeople to begin looking into this period of history and these issues, which remain central to our Christian faith today.

The Great Schism (1054)
The great schism occurred gradually and for a variety of complex reasons. It is formally acknowledged to have been finalized in 1054, with the Papal Bull of Leo IX. Of dramatic significance in all subsequent ecclesiastical and theological events to follow, the Great Schism marks the beginning of the gradual formation of the medieval Roman Catholic Church as we know it today. Whereas before the five great patriarchates had worked in some measure of harmony and conciliar agreement, (in the seven ecumenical councils, for instance), after the 11th century began to solidify the independent community now known as the Roman Catholic Church, which Martin Luther so forcefully criticized in the 16th century, and from which branched the present day communions (Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed, Anglican, etc.)

Kallistos Ware, says: “What is meant by "the Orthodox Church"? The divisions which have brought about the present fragmentation of Christendom occurred in three main stages, at intervals of roughly five hundred years.

The first stage in the separation came in the fifth and sixth centuries, when the "Lesser" or "Separated" eastern Churches became divided from the main body of Christians…As a result of this first division, Orthodoxy became restricted on its eastward side mainly to the Greek-speaking world…

Then came the second separation, conventionally dated to the year 1054. The main body of Christians now became divided into two communions: in western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope of Rome; in the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church of the East. Orthodoxy was now limited on its westward side as well.

The third separation, [was] between Rome and the Reformers in the sixteenth century.”

John Meyendorff says: “All historians agree today that the schism which eventually became a permanent form of separation between Eastern and Western Christians did not occur suddenly. It was the result of a progressive "estrangement" (the English term used by the French theologian Yves Congar), and cannot even be dated.

The churches of Rome and Constantinople were often separated for long periods of time already between the fourth and the ninth centuries. Those early conflicts were sometimes caused by heresies, held in the capital of the Eastern empire (Arianism, 335-381; Monotheletism, 533-680; Iconoclasm, 723-787; 815-842) and rightfully rejected by Rome. Sometimes Rome and Constantinople differed in their attitude in the field of eccliastical [order]… and communication was broken on those grounds.

Whatever the issue and whoever was at fault, it is clear that, underneath the debate on a concrete theological or disciplinary problem, there was a developing difference on the respective authority of the "apostolic see" of Rome on the one side, and on the other, the idea of a councilor consensus prevailing in the East.”

First Iconoclastic Period (730-787)
Begun by Emperor Leo III the Isaurian and ended with the death of Leo IV, his grandson. Leo the Isaurian forbade the use of icons of Jesus, Mary, the saints and angels, and commanded their destruction. The fear and hatred of imaging the invisible God is sometimes ascribed to Muslim influence. John of Damascus, among others, defended the ancient Christian practice on the basis of the distinction between adoration and veneration; between latria and proskynesis. Adoration is due to God alone, and veneration or reverence is due to holy people, places, images, and things, according to both Old and New Testament precedents. (Cf. II Kings 13:21, Matt. 9:20-22, Acts 19:12 -- a man is brought back to life by contact with the Prophet Elisha’s bones; a woman with an issue of blood received healing from touching the hem of the Saviour's garment; the sick and the possessed were healed by laying on them the Apostle Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons) Further, because the invisible God was made visible in the incarnation of Christ, visible images are allowable and useful.

Alexander Schmemman notes: “There has been much scholarly dispute as to the causes of iconoclasm. Some have seen in it the influence of the Mohammedan east with its ban on human images, and an attempt at a certain psychological compromise with Islam; others – the first revolt against the Church of the idea of a "secular" culture inspired by the Emperors, and a struggle for the liberation of art from every sort of suffocating "sacralism"; while a third group, finally, have detected a new outburst of the perennial Hellenic "spiritualism" for which the veneration of icons was a manifestation in religion of the artificial and the material.”

Second Iconoclastic Period (813-843)

While Empress Irene was in power, she called the Second Council of Nicea (the 7th ecumenical council) affirming the veneration of icons, while expressly forbidding their worship. Emperor Leo V resumed the destruction of icons and persecution of their creation, but with less determination and violence. Eventually succeeded by Michael II, who was succeeded by his son, Theophilus. The wife of Theophilus, Theodora the Iconodule restablished the practice and restored the icons in 843. This is still celebrated as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”

The 7th Ecumenical Council (787)

Excesses in the use of images in the Church led the emperor to universally ban their use. This overaction made the Seventh Ecumenical Council necessary and beneficial. This council explained the kind of reverence that may be lawfully and reasonably ascribed to images of Christ, his mother. the apostles, etc. It gave the theological basis for reverence (veneration) while restraining the abuse of image-worship. With this clearly articulated distinction between worship and reverence, between adoration and veneration, this council and was accepted by all five patriarchates (East and West). It was viewed as equal to the previous six ecumenical councils, affirming the deity of Christ, the two natures of Christ, the deity of the Holy Spirit, etc. No one who rejected the decrees of these councils could remain a faithful Christian. Nor did the situation change after the Great Schism, but the great Christian communions of East and West today affirm the importance and necessity of intelligent and careful use of holy images in Christian worship.

The principle agents in favor of icon veneration were monasteries. A network of monks who created, preserved, and defended icons kept faithful throughout the iconoclastic destruction. These include John of Damascus, Theodore the Studite and others