Schism: Christian Schism

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In ecclesiastical contexts, schism is both a technical term and a general term referring to a split or division within a segment of the Christian church or between segments of the Christian church. It is a category of ecclesiology that is basic to understanding the history of the Christian church, because the church, in its understanding of itself as an institution, has placed great emphasis on the unity and integrity of structure, order, and dogma.

Schism appeared early in the history of Christianity and took a variety of forms, which makes it difficult to apply any one legal or canonical definition to the phenomenon or the term. Schisms were noted in the earliest documents of the church, including the New Testament. The first and second letters of John note the centrality of ecclesiastical harmony and the danger of heretical distortions of the teaching handed down. The same fear of divisions (schismata ) is noted in other letters, such as Paul's letters to the Corinthians.

Historically, the notion of schism has been and continues to be important to a large part of the Christian community because of its emphasis on theological and eucharistic unity as fundamental to the nature of the church. But schisms are inherent in any society that claims to have access to the truth and believes that truth is essential to salvation. Schism makes sense only in communities that have the will and the agencywhether pope, council, or Bibleto establish norms of behavior and parameters of belief without excluding the possibility of diversity in theological emphasis.

The foundational nature of this unity was made evident from different perspectives in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch in the first century and Irenaeus in the second century in response to confrontations with heresy. Ignatius emphasized the centrality of the local bishop, and Irenaeus stressed the importance of the canon of scripture and apostolic succession. In addition to the theological affirmation, the birth of the church within the Roman empire and its expansion in the Byzantine milieu heightened this sense of institutional and dogmatic unity within the context of the diversity encouraged by geography and distance. In an empire as multinational as the Byzantine empire, it is easy to understand how schism came to be a political threat and why, as in the example of Constantine and the Donatists, immediate imperial intervention was called for.

While schisms have had a variety of causes, they did exhibit similar sociological dynamics. For instance, they tended to be aggravated as the initial causes and antagonists became lost in the phenomenology of the separation itself. In fact, it is not unusual in Christian history to find that the original factors and personalities causing a schism were forgotten as each party to the dispute forced its own position to a logical extreme in opposition to the other. Hence the very diversity that the early church and even the medieval church demonstrated became perverted as differences in emphasis became dogmas in opposition, as in the cases of monophysitism and Nestorianism.

Early Schisms

Among the earliest schisms of any significance were those related initially to historical phenomena and ecclesiastical discipline. Such was the case with the Donatists in North Africa and the Meletians in Egypt during the early fourth century. These two cases, as well as the Novatian schism in Rome in the third century, demonstrate the historical conditioning of schism (in these cases persecution) and that questions of order and discipline can and did develop into theological and ecclesiological issues.

The first significant schisms to affect the Christian church were those based on heresy or a one-sided emphasis on a particular, albeit accepted, aspect of Christian belief. These were the withdrawals of Nestorian Christians in Persia in 431 as a result of the Council of Ephesus, and the so-called monophysite Christians in Syria, Egypt, Armenia, and Ethiopia in 451 after the Council of Chalcedon. Political and cultural factors would crystallize these churches in their isolation from the mainstream of Christianity, consisting of Latin and Greek portions of the empire.

Unity was not guaranteed between the two largest geocultural portions of the Christian churchthe Latin West and the Greek East. The efforts of Emperor Zeno (474475; 476491) to reconcile the monophysites to the official church by publication of the Henoticon (482) occasioned the thirty-five-year schism between Rome and Constantinople. The Henoticon, compromising the Chalcedonian formulations, was opposed by Felix II, who excommunicated both Zeno and his patriarch, Acacios. The schism lasted from 484 to 519, when it was brought to an end by Emperor Justin I and Pope Hormisdas (514523). The churches of Rome and Constantinople continued to experience minor and short-lived conflicts based on theological and political issues in the seventh-century Monothelite Controversy and the eighth-century Iconoclastic Controversy.

Rome and Constantinople

Relations between the churches of Rome and Constantinople continued to degenerate during the eighth century as these churches grew increasingly hostile as well as distant in their ecclesiology and politics. The most notable feature of the ecclesiastical developments of the eighth century was the new alliance that the papacy forged in mid-century with the new Carolingian kings. The logical result of the geographical and cultural isolation to which Rome was subjected was its turn toward the Franks, consummated by Pope Stephen II's alliance with Pépin III in 754. The Franks could give the papacy the military support that the Byzantine emperor could not supply. The crowning of Charlemagne in 800 by Leo III was both a symptom and a cause of the growing ecclesiastical hostility between Rome and Constantinople.

In the ninth century, through the agency of the Carolingians, the issue of the filioque was thrust into the already hostile relations between Rome and Constantinople. The filioque, Latin for "and the Son" (asserting that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both God the Father and from God the Son) had been inserted into the Nicene Creed in sixth-century Spain to protect the divinity of the Son against residual Arianism and adoptionism. Charlemagne welcomed, endorsed, and adopted the filioque officially at the Council of Frankfurt (794) and used its absence among the Byzantines as the basis for charges of heresy. By the mid-ninth century, the two main issues that would characterize East-West ecclesiastical disputes, the filioque and papal primacy, were defined.

Photian schism

In 858, Photios assumed the patriarchate of Constantinople on the occasion of the deposition and later resignation of Patriarch Ignatius (847858). Ignatius's partisans appealed to Rome for his restoration. Their cause was taken up by Nicholas I, who was looking for an opportunity to intervene in Eastern ecclesiastical affairs to enhance his authority. A Roman council in 863 excommunicated Photios as a usurper and called for the restoration of Ignatius, but the council had no way of enforcing its decisions in the East, and the Byzantines bitterly attacked the move as an uncanonical interference in their affairs.

During the same period, the Byzantines had collided with the Frankish missionaries operating in central Europe and Bulgaria over the question of adding the filioque to the creed as well as its theological propriety, both of which Photios was to attack in his Mystagogia. In 867, Photios held a council and excommunicated Nicholas. In the same year he addressed a letter to the Eastern patriarchs, condemning Frankish errors being propagated in Bulgaria.

The schism, though short-lived, was significant in that it embodied two of the main issues that would poison ecclesiastical relations until the fifteenth century. In 867, Photios was deposed and then, in 877, restored to the patriarchate. The schism ended when the Latin church, through the attendance of three papal legates at the council of 879/880, endorsed by John VIII, confirmed Photios's restoration and the end of the internal schism between the Photians and the Ignatians.

Fourth marriage controversy

The next schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople concerned the fourth marriage of Emperor Leo VI (886912). Though married three times, Leo had failed to produce a male heir. When he did sire a son, it was with his mistress, whom he wished to marry so that he could legitimize his son as his successor, Constantine VII. Because Byzantine canonical tradition grudgingly permitted only three marriages, Patriarch Nicholas I refused to permit the emperor to marry a fourth time. Leo appealed to the Eastern patriarchs and to the pope, Sergius III, for a dispensation. In 907 a council approved the fourth marriage, partially on the basis of the dispensation of Sergius. Nicholas I resigned and was replaced by the more cooperative Euthymios. A schism resulted within the Byzantine church between supporters of Nicholas and supporters of Euthymios.

When Leo VI died in 912, his successor, co-emperor Alexander I reappointed Nicholas to the patriarchate. Nicholas addressed a letter to Pope Anastasius III (911913), optimistically informing him that the schism within the Byzantine church had ended and asking him to condemn the authors of the scandal, but he did not name either Leo or Sergius. The letter was never answered, and Nicholas removed Anastasius's name from the diptychs, the ecclesiastical document maintained by each church that records the names of legitimate and recognized hierarchies, effecting thereby in 912 a formal schism whose significance depends on the value accorded the diptychs.

In 920 a council in Constantinople published a tome of union, which condemned fourth marriages and restored harmony to the two Byzantine factions. By 923, John X sent two legates to assent to the 920 agreement and anathematize fourth marriages. The formal schism between Rome and Constantinople ended in 923 with the restoration of the pope's name to the Constantinopolitan diptychs.

The Great Schism

The issue of the filioque was to arise again in the eleventh century. In 1009, Pope Sergius IV (10091012) announced his election in a letter containing the interpolated filioque clause in the creed. Although there seems to have been no discussion of the matter, another schism was initiated. The addition of the filioque was, however, official this time, and the interpolated creed was used at the coronation of Emperor Henry II in 1014.

As the papacy moved into the mid-eleventh century, the reform movement was radically altering its view of the pope's position and authority. This movement, as well as the military threat of the Normans to Byzantine southern Italy, set the stage for the so-called Great Schism of 1054.

The encounter began when Leo IX (10491054), at the Synod of Siponto, attempted to impose Latin ecclesiastical customs on the Byzantine churches of southern Italy. Patriarch Michael Cerularios (10431058) responded by ordering Latin churches in Constantinople to conform to Byzantine usage or to close. Michael continued this attack on an aggressive reform-minded papacy by criticizing Latin customs, such as the use of azyme (unleavened bread) in the Eucharist and fasting on Saturdays during Lent. The issues of the eleventh-century crisis were almost exclusively those of popular piety and ritual; the filioque played a minor part.

Michael's reaction did not suit Emperor Constantine IX (10421055), who needed an anti-Norman alliance with the papacy. Michael was forced to write a conciliatory letter to Leo IX offering to clarify the confusion between the churches, restore formal relations, and confirm an alliance against the Normans. Leo sent three legates east. Seeing the legates as part of a plot to achieve a papal-Byzantine alliance at the expense of his position and the Byzantine Italian provinces, Michael broke off discussions.

The attacks of Humbert of Silva Candida (c. 10001061), one of the legates, on the Byzantine church made clear for the first time the nature of the reform movement and the changes that had taken place in the Western church. In his anger at Byzantine opposition to papal authority, Humbert issued a decree of excommunication and deposited it on the altar of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In it he censured the Byzantines for permitting married clergy, simony, and removing the filioque from the creed. The value of the excommunication is questionable, because Leo had died several months earlier. A Constantinopolitan synod, giving up hopes for an alliance, excommunicated the legates.

By the mid-eleventh century, it became clear to the Byzantines that they no longer spoke the same ecclesiological language as the church of Rome. This was to become even more evident during the pontificate of Gregory VII (10731085), whose Dictates of the Pope could find no resonance in Byzantine ecclesiology.

What is interesting about the mutual excommunications of 1054 is their insignificance. As John Meyendorff notes in his Living Tradition (Tuckahoe, N.Y., 1978), "One of the most striking facts about the schism between the East and the West is the fact that it cannot be dated" (p. 69). In fact, when in December 1965 Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras lifted the anathemas of 1054, they noted that nothing had actually happened. The anathemas were directed against particular people, not churches, and they were not designed to break ecclesiastical communion. In addition to this, Humbert had exceeded his power when he excommunicated Michael and his supporters in the name of a deceased pope.

The equivocal nature of the events of 1054 was made evident in 1089 when the emperor Alexios I (10811118), seeking the West's assistance against the Turks in Anatolia (modern-day Asia Minor) as well as papal support against Norman designs on Byzantine territory, convoked a synod to consider the relations between the two churches. An investigation produced no documentary or synodal evidence to support a formal schism. Patriarch Nicholas III (10841111) wrote to Pope Urban II (10881099), offering to restore the pope's name to the diptychs on receipt of an acceptable confession of faith. There is no evidence that the pope responded to this offer. What is clear is that what was lacking in the relationship between East and West could have been rectified by a simple confession of faith. The theological issue of the filioque was considered by Byzantine theologians to revolve around a misunderstanding stemming from the crudeness of the Latin language.

Effect of the Crusades

If the intensity of the reform movement in the West accelerated the process of schism, the Crusades were the factor that formalized it on a popular level. Early in the crusading enterprise, Pope Urban II was able to maintain harmonious relations between the Crusaders and the Christians of the East. With his death in 1099, however, relations between Latin and Eastern Christians in the Levant degenerated after the appointment of Latin-rite patriarchs in Jerusalem and Antioch in 1099 and 1100, respectively. It is with the establishment of parallel hierarchies that one can first pinpoint a schism on the structural level. The close contacts between Latin and Greek Christians made differences immediately obvious; not only were they two different peoples, they were also two different churches.

The Fourth Crusade painfully brought the reality of the schism home to the Byzantines with the Latin capture, sack, and occupation of Constantinople and the expulsion of Patriarch John X Kamateros. Pope Innocent III (11981216) established a Latin hierarchy and demanded an oath of allegiance from Byzantine clergy. With the Fourth Crusade the central issue of the developing separation of the Eastern and Western churches came to the fore: the nature of the church itselfthe universal jurisdiction of the papacy and the locus of authority within the church. The existence of parallel hierarchies in Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem, the centers of Eastern Christendom, marks the fruition of the schism. The dating of the schism, therefore, depends on the locale.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, both the Latin West and the Greek East formalized their theologies in two radically divergent schools of thought: Thomistic scholasticism and Palamite hesychasm, respectively. Thus, by the fourteenth century the schism was formalized on popular, doctrinal, and methodological planes.

There were several noteworthy efforts to heal the schism between the churches of Rome and of the East, but it is ironic that it was the union efforts of Lyons (1274) and Florence (14391441) that formalized the schism, crystallized Byzantine opposition, and provoked schisms within the church of Constantinople itself. Union efforts failed during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries because there was no agreement on the locus of authority in the church and because the Eastern and Western churches had developed not only different theologies but also divergent methods of doing theology. Rome sought submission and Byzantine military assistance against the Turks. With the capture of Constantinople by Mohammed II in 1453, all possibility for union was lost.

The Great Western Schism

The church of Rome, for which centralization was essential, underwent one of the most significant schisms in the history of Christianity. Its beginnings lay in the opening of the fourteenth century, when Pope Boniface VIII (12941303) lost the battle with Philip IV (12851314) over nationalization of the French kingdom. In 1305, the cardinals, divided between Italians and Frenchmen, elected Clement V (13051314) to succeed Boniface. Philip pressured Clement, a Frenchman, to move the papal residence from Rome to Avignon in 1309. It remained there, in "Babylonian Captivity," until 1377. The stage for the Great Western Schism was set in the corruption and decadence of an exiled papacy.

The papal thrust for independence from the French kingdom came in the context of the need to protect its Italian holdings. The Romans threatened to elect another pope should Gregory XI (13701378) not return. Gregory arrived in Rome in January 1377.

When Gregory died in 1378, the cardinals elected the Italian Urban VI (13781389). Although the majority of the cardinals in Rome were French and would have gladly removed the papacy to Avignon, the pressure of the Roman popular demands forced the election. Urban immediately went about reforming the Curia Romana and eliminating French influence. The French cardinals proceeded to elect another pope, Clement VII (13781394), who after several months moved to Avignon. The schism within the Western church had become a reality.

This second election would not have been so significant if Urban and Clement had not been elected by the same group of cardinals and had not enjoyed the support of various constellations of national interests. The schism severely compromised papal universalism. The Roman line of the schism was maintained by the succession of Boniface IX (13891404), Innocent VII (14041406), and Gregory XII (14061415). The Avignon line was maintained by Benedict XIII (13941423).

In the context of the schism, it was difficult to maintain even the appearance of a unified Western Christendom. The schism produced a sense of frustration as theologians and canonists searched for a solution. In 1408 the cardinals of both parties met in Livorno and, on their own authority, called a council in Pisa for March 1409, composed of bishops, cardinals, abbots, heads of religious orders, and representatives of secular rulers. The council appointed a new pope, Alexander V (14091410; succeeded by John XXIII, 14101415), replacing the Roman and Avignon popes, who were deposed.

The newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund (14101437), and Pope Alexander V called a council to meet at Constance in 1414. Voting by nations, the council declared that it represented the Roman Catholic church and held its authority directly from Christ. John XXIII and Benedict XIII were deposed, and Gregory XII resigned. With the election of Martin V (14171431), Western Christendom was united once again under one pope. But the papacy had to contend with the challenge of the council that had settled the conflict.

By 1441 the schism between the Latins and the Greeks was declared ended, and conciliarism was effectively eviscerated by the success of Eugenius IV (14311447) in uniting the Greeks, who sought union as well as military assistance against the Turks, and other Eastern Christians with Rome. For many modern historians, however, the tragedy of the period was the failure of the councils and the papacy to face the need for ecclesiastical reform. This failure laid the foundation for the Reformation of the sixteenth century.

The Reformation

The Reformation of the sixteenth century was the second great split to strike Christianity. The same issues that determined the relations between Rome and the East figured in the separation of a large number of the Christians in Germany, Scotland, and Scandinavia. Martin Luther gradually moved from objecting to specific practices of the church of Rome to challenging papal authority as normative. Authority does not reside in the papacy, but rather in scripture; sola scriptura became the hallmark of his reforms.

The Reformation was a schism in the Western church and had nothing fundamentally to do with the Orthodox East. It was not, however, uncommon for Western ecclesiastical dissidents to use the Eastern church as an example of an ancient "popeless" Christianity. For many contemporary Eastern Christians, however, the reformers were but another example of the heresy spawned by the schism in the Roman church. As late as the nineteenth century, Eastern Christians, such as Aleksei Khomiakov, noted that all Protestants were but cryptopapists, each Protestant being his own pope.

The history of schism, particularly the schism between the churches of the East and the West, may be considered from the perspective of social, cultural, and political factors. While these are necessary to an adequate understanding of conflict in Christianity, they are not sufficient. Only a consideration of theological and ecclesiological factors allows full appreciation of the roots of schism in Christian history.

See Also

Crusades; Donatism; Heresy, article on Christian Concepts; Iconoclasm; Icons; Monophysitism; Nestorianism; Papacy; Reformation.


Bouyer, Louis. The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. London, 1956. Offers an excellent introduction to the theological hallmarks of the Reformation and their Roman Catholic sources. Bouyer, a Roman Catholic, considers each Reformation principle as a basis for unity and for schism. The approach is valuable for considering the Reformation as a schism.

Dvornik, Francis. The Photian Schism: History and Legend (1948). Reprint, Cambridge, 1970. A brilliant summary of the author's research on the ninth-century patriarch Photios, elucidating the misunderstandings of the complex relationships of the ninth century. The author concludes that Photios was not opposed to Roman primacy and that the idea of a second Photian schism was a fabrication of eleventh-century canonists.

Dvornik, Francis. Byzantium and the Roman Primacy. New York, 1966. A historical survey of the relations between the church of Rome and the Byzantine East. Although tendentious in its defense of Roman "primacy," it provides excellent coverage of events from the Acacian schism through the Fourth Crusade. Concludes that the Byzantine church never rejected Roman primacy, but does not define the differing Roman and Byzantine interpretations of primacy.

Every, George. The Byzantine Patriarchate, 4511204. 2d rev. ed. London, 1962. Still the best introduction to the Byzantine church from the fifth to the twelfth centuries; highlights the major conflicts between Rome and Constantinople, including the role of the filioque, the Crusades, and papal primacy. Concludes that the progressive estrangement between the two portions of Christendom was not a straight-line process. The timing of the schism, the author notes, depends on the place.

Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. 2d ed. New York, 1979. A superb presentation of Eastern Christian thought and doctrinal and historical trends that clarifies the roots of the schism. The author considers the process nature of the final separation between the two churches and notes the underlying agenda of authority in the church.

Runciman, Steven. The Eastern Schism (1955). Reprint, Oxford, 1963. A highly readable account of the relations between the papacy and the Eastern churches during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The author maintains that the traditional reasons of doctrinal and liturgical practices for the schism are inadequate; the schism was due to the more fundamental divergence in traditions and ideology that grew up during earlier centuries. He highlights the proximate causes as the Crusades, the Norman invasions of Byzantine Italy, and the reform movement within the papacy.

Sherrard, Philip. Church, Papacy, and Schism: A Theological Inquiry. London, 1978. A theological analysis of schism in general. The author focuses on the schism between Rome and the Eastern churches. He argues from the historical perspective that doctrinal issues, which he enumerates, were at the root of the schism and continue to be the reason for separation between the churches of the East and the West.

Ullmann, Walter. The Origins of the Great Schism: A Study in Fourteenth Century Ecclesiastical History (1948). Reprint, Hamden, Conn., 1972. Insightful and thorough presentation of the Great Western Schism in the context of fourteenth-century ecclesiastical and political events.

New Sources

Bruce, Steve. A House Divided: Protestantism, Schism, and Secularization. London and New York, 1990.

Fahey, Michael Andrew. Orthodox and Catholic Sister Churches: East Is West and West Is East. Milwaukee, Wisc., 1996.

Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Northern Africa. Oxford and New York, 1952; reprint, 2000.

Meyendorff, John. Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church, 450680 ad. Crestwood, N.Y., 1989.

Nicols, Aidan. Rome and the Eastern Churches: A Study in Schism. Collegeville, Minn., 1992.

Papadakis, Aristeides, and John Meyendoff. The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church, 10711453 a.d. Crestwood, N.Y., 1994.

Storman, E. J., ed. and trans. Towards the Healing of Schism: the Sees of Rome and Constantinople: Public Statements and Correspondence between the Holy See and the Ecumenical Patriarch, 19581984. New York, 1987.

Stump, Phillip M. The Reforms of the Council of Constance, 14141418. Leiden and New York, 1994.

John Lawrence Boojamra (1987)

Revised Bibliography