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Eastern Christianity/Western Christianity

Eastern Christianity

"Eastern Christianity" refers collectively to the Christian traditions and churches which developed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Northeastern Africa and southern India over several centuries of religious antiquity. It is contrasted with Western Christianity which developed in Western Europe.

Families of churches

Eastern Christians have a shared tradition, but they became divided (schism) during the early centuries of Christianity in disputes about christology and fundamental theology.

In general terms, Eastern Christianity can be described as comprising four families of churches: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Although there are important theological and dogmatic disagreements among these groups, nonetheless in some matters of traditional practice that are not matters of dogma, they resemble each other in some ways in which they differ from Catholic and Protestant churches in the West. For example, in all the Eastern churches, parish priests administer the sacrament of chrismation to newborn infants just after baptism; that is not done in Western churches. All the groups have weaker rules on clerical celibacy than those of the Latin Rite (i.e., Western) Catholic churches, in that, although they don't allow marriage after ordination, they allow married men to become priests (and originally bishops). For these reasons, it sometimes makes sense to generalize, saying "In the Eastern Church, it is customary to ..." etc.

The Eastern churches' differences from Western Christianity have as much, if not more, to do with culture, language, and politics as theology. For the non-Catholic Eastern churches, a definitive date for the commencement of schism cannot be given (see East-West Schism), although conventionally, it is often stated that the Assyrian Church of the East became estranged from the church of the Roman Empire in the years following the Council of Ephesus (431), Oriental Orthodoxy separated after the Council of Chalcedon (451), and the split between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church is usually dated to 1054 (often referred to as the Great Schism).
source: Wikipedia
Definition of an Eastern Church

An accident of political development has made it possible to divide the Christian world, in the first place, into two great halves, Eastern and Western. The root of this division is, roughly and broadly speaking, the division of the Roman Empire made first by Diocletian (284-305), and again by the sons of Theodosius I (Arcadius in the East, 395-408; and Honorius in the West, 395-423), then finally made permanent by the establishment of a rival empire in the West (Charlemagne, 800). The division of Eastern and Western Churches, then, in its origin corresponds to that of the empire.

Western Churches are those that either gravitate around Rome or broke away from her at the Reformation. Eastern Churches depend originally on the Eastern Empire at Constantinople; they are those that either find their centre in the patriarchate of that city (since the centralization of the fourth century) or have been formed by schisms which in the first instance concerned Constantinople rather than the Western world.

Another distinction, that can be applied only in the most general and broadest sense, is that of language. Western Christendom till the Reformation was Latin; even now the Protestant bodies still bear unmistakably the mark of their Latin ancestry. It was the great Latin Fathers and Schoolmen, St. Augustine (d. 430) most of all, who built up the traditions of the West; in ritual and canon law the Latin or Roman school formed the West. In a still broader sense the East may be called Greek. True, many Eastern Churches know nothing of Greek; the oldest (Nestorians, Armenians, Abyssinians) have never used Greek liturgically nor for their literature; nevertheless they too depend in some sense on a Greek tradition. Whereas our Latin Fathers have never concerned them at all (most Eastern Christians have never even heard of our schoolmen or canonists), they still feel the influence of the Greek Fathers, their theology is still concerned about controversies carried on originally in Greek and settled by Greek synods. The literature of those that do not use Greek is formed on Greek models, is full of words carefully chosen or composed to correspond to some technical Greek distinction, then, in the broadest terms, is: that a Western Church is one originally dependent on Rome, whose traditions are Latin; an Eastern Church looks rather to Constantinople (either as a friend or an enemy) and inherits Greek ideas.

The point may be stated more scientifically by using the old division of the patriarchates. Originally (e.g. at the Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325, can. vi) there were three patriarchates, those of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. Further legislation formed two more at the expense of Antioch: Constantinople in 381 and Jerusalem in 451. In any case the Roman patriarchate was always enormously the greatest. Western Christendom may be defined quite simply as the Roman patriarchate and all Churches that have broken away from it. All the others, with schismatical bodies formed from them, make up the Eastern half. But it must not be imaged that either half is in any sense one Church. The Latin half was so (in spite of a few unimportant schisms) till the Reformation. To find a time when there was one Eastern Church we must go back to the centuries before the Council of Ephesus (431). Since that council there have been separate schismatical Eastern Churches whose number has grown steadily down to our own time. The Nestorian heresy left a permanent Nestorian Church, the Monophysite and Monothelite quarrels made several more, the reunion with Rome of fractions of every Rite further increased the number....
source: Catholic Encyclopedia
Eastern Christianity

During the early history of Christianity five cities became particularly important for the church: Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. Antioch was one of the first cities to be evangelised by Christian missionaries and it was there that the followers of Christ acquired the name Christian (Acts 11:26). The church in Alexandria was, according to tradition, founded by Mark the Evangelist. Constantinople, founded on the ancient city of Byzantium, became the capital of the new pro-Christian empire under Constantine. Jerusalem was at the heart of Christ's ministry and the place of his crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension. And it was in Rome that St Paul was martyred under Nero and where, tradition claims, the apostle Peter was martyred.

The stature of these cities, combined with their cultural and political importance for the empire, made them obvious candidates as administrative centres for the church following the edict of toleration of 313. In 325 the Christian emperor, Constantine, called the Council of Nicaea with the purpose of resolving the dispute between the Arian and Orthodox Christians on the divine status of the Son. It was at Nicaea that Antioch, Alexandria and Rome were singled out as the three great centres of the Christian world. The second ecumenical council, held in Constantinople in 381, made Constantinople a patriarchate and assigned to it second place in importance after Rome. The third ecumenical council, held at Ephesus, made the island of Cyprus autocephalous (that is, self-governing). The fourth ecumenical council, held at Chalcedon, made Jerusalem a patriarchate. The order of the patriarchates in terms of importance were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, each of which had jurisdiction over large parts of the empire.

With the exception of Rome, which became separated from the eastern church in 1054, all of these areas fell under the dominion of Islam as it spread rapidly westwards. Within fifteen years after the death of Muhammad (632) Muslim armies had taken Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, thus placing the patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem under Muslim control.

In all these regions the strength of the church declined under the impact of the presence of Islam. The patriarchate of Antioch - which had already been considerably weakened as a result of the separation of the monophysite Syrian Orthodox Church and the Nestorian Church from the Catholic Church in the 5th century - was further weakened when the Arab Islamic rulers moved the capital of Syria from Antioch to Damascus, a decision which forced the patriarch to transfer his residence to Damascus, where he continues to reside today.
source: Overview Of World Religions
See also Eastern Christianity Flowchart for an overview of the split between Eastern and Western Christianity.
The Early Church: Western & Eastern

The Christianity that is most familiar to us in North America is Western Christianity. By this term I mean that the vast majority of Christians in this continent, can trace their background to either the Roman Catholic Church, or to the various Protestant Churches that came out of Rome early in the 16th Century.

In 312 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced the Christian religion. In 313, he published the Edict of Milan, that ended the persecution of Christians in the Empire. He chose Byzantium as his capital in 323, and renamed it, Constantinople (the city of Constantine.)

In 325, he called the Great Council of Nicea which defined the orthodox faith of the Church in a document known as the Nicene Creed.

Eventually, the Roman Empire was divided between the Western Empire, with Rome as its capital, and the Eastern Empire, with Constantinople as its capital. The language used in the Eastern Empire (known also as the Byzantine Empire) was Greek, while the language of the Western Empire continued to be Latin.

In the fifth century AD, the barbarians sacked Rome. That event marked the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire. However, the Western Church survived. It was this Church that experienced the event known as the Reformation (1517.) Thus, both Roman Catholics and Protestants trace their history back to the Western Church. But this is not the whole story about the Universal Christian Church.

The Easter Roman Empire lasted another one thousand years after the fall of Rome. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, and renamed it, Istanbul. It remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until the 1920s.

The story of the Church in the East is quite complicated. During the First Century AD, it was understood among Christians that the rank or position of an apostle was unique, and that it ceased to exist after the death of the apostle John. Most of the apostles were not only leaders of the church, but served as channels of God’s revelation. Their writings are preserved in the New Testament.

Quite early in the subsequent centuries, the First Century form of church government composed of Elders and Deacons (with some Elders serving as teaching or preaching Elders) gradually gave way to episcopalianism. The Greek word “episcopus” literally means, supervisor, and is transliterated, bishop. It was practically synonymous with the Hebrew word, elder. Christian church leaders in large metropolitan centers, began to assume the title of Patriarch or Archbishop. There were five important centers in the early church: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. The bishops in these cities were known as Patriarchs, and their specific ecclesiastical territory, as a patriarchate.

Eventually, the attempt of one patriarch (the Bishop of Rome) to assume the position of Head (or Pope) of the Universal Church, gave rise to the great division or schism of the Church. The Western Church recognized the sole leadership of the Pope in Rome; the Eastern Churches continued to recognize the historic leadership of their particular patriarchs in the East. This schism became final very early in the Second Millennium (1054).

The story of the Church in the East is even more complicated!

Let us go back to the Council of Nicea (325 AD). The great controversy that occasioned the convening of the first General or Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church was centered around the true doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ. Arius, a presbyter in the church at Alexandria, propounded the theory that our Lord was a created being. He denied the clear teachings of the Bible such as in Psalm 2, Psalm 110, John 1, Hebrews 1, Ephesians 1, Colossians 1, and Revelation 1. Another Alexandrian presbyter, Athanasius (293-373,)defended the Biblical teaching about the Messiah, by stressing both the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. His position was accepted by the Council, and the Creed that was issued at Nicea, is known as the Nicene Creed. Since that time, it became the standard of Orthodoxy in Christianity. The teachings of Arius became known as Arianism, and his followers were called, Arians. They were considered as heretics. Arianism spread among the Barbarians who later on invaded Rome, Spain, and North Africa.

It must be noted that delegates from of both the Western and Eastern parts of the Universal Church were at Nicea. The Council of Nicea dealt primarily with the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. The discussions within the Church relevant to the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ, led to further divisions. These occurred within the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Several Ecumenical Councils took place after Nicea, Council of Constantinople (381,) Council of Ephesus (431,) and Council of Chalcedon (451.) At this meeting, Christian Orthodoxy was further defined as to declare that, since his incarnation, the Lord Jesus Christ possessed two natures, divine and human. That also meant that our Lord had two wills, divine and human, but he remained one Person. Later on, this belief was set forth in a creed known as the Athanasian Creed. This creedal document is recognized only in the West, and is also known by its Latin name, Symbol Quicunque; (its opening words are: “Whosoever will be saved…”

Rather than consolidating the unity of the Church, Chalcedon became the occasion for new divisions. Some church leaders, while strongly adhering to the deity of Jesus Christ, nevertheless defended the thesis that he possessed only a divine nature. They were known as the Monophysites. They were very prominent in Egypt and in Syria. Other church leaders, endeavoring to take full account of the Biblical teachings about Jesus Christ, went to the other extreme. They so described the two natures and wills of the Messiah as to make him almost two persons. They were called the Nestorians, i.e., followers of Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople, who was the champion of this teaching.

The Monophysite and Nestorian Churches were declared heretical by the Eastern Orthodox Churches. It is very unfortunate that the Orthodox party used also the arm of the Byzantine Empire to persecute those Christians who had not accepted the Chalcedonian formulation of the doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Eastern Churches fall into two major categories:
  • The Chalcedonian Branch. It comprises the Orthodox Church, which was the State Church of the Byzantine Empire. Its territory included many parts of the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia.
  • The Non-Chalcedonian Churches, have the following distinctive names within well-recognized geographical regions of Africa and Asia:
    • The Coptic Church: Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
    • The Jacobite Church: Syria.
    • The Nestorian Church: Mesopotamia (Iraq).
    • The Armenian Church: Armenia, Middle East, and the Diaspora.
    • The Saint Thomas Church: India.
    • The Maronite Church: Lebanon.
source: Middle East Resources
Two theological controversies finally drove an irrevocable wedge between the Eastern and Western Church. The first was over papal supremacy. While the East had respect for the Pope as the bishop of Rome he was seen as an equal to other prelates. The Roman church, however, insisted on supremacy. The other dispute was known as the filoque controversy. Somehow, no one quite knows how, the Roman Church added the phrase and the son, to the statement in the Nicene Creed about the procession of the Spirit. Originally the creed read that the Spirit proceeded from the Father. The Eastern Church was adamant about changing one word of the ancient church councils. They believed this was a threat to the authority of tradition, was not true theologically, and was a threat to the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1054, Pope Nicholas, to assert his authority, excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople. To make matters worse, the Crusaders in 1204, ransacked the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. Any hope of reconciliation died with this act of desecration.

The Godhead

The Orthodox Church (OC)considers the doctrine of the Triune God the foundation of its theology. It is believed that if one deviates even in the most insignificant detail it will affect the outcome of all other doctrines. This Triune God is utterly transcendent and unknowable by mere finite beings. They teach that God can only be described in a negative manner, i.e., what He is not. God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God. (Evegrius of Pontus 4th Century). This form of theological reasoning is known as apophatism, e.g., God is not finite; He is not limited. Hence in the OC there is resistence to the use of logic and reasoning to explain God. They believe that the human response to the
incomprehensibleness of God is worship and praise. How does this God work in the world if He is totally transcendent? It is believed that we can experience His energies but not His essence. It is as we experience the heat from the fire but not the fire.
source: THE ORTHODOX CHURCH: Eastern Christianity
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