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St. Gregory of Nyssa: “Epektasis (ἐπέκτασις)- The soul’s eternal ‘straining toward’ God”.

“Brothers, I do not yet reckon myself to have seized hold, save of one thing: Both forgetting the things lying behind and also stretching out [ἐπεκτεινόμενος] to the things lying ahead,”

Philippians 3:13 from The New Testament- a translation by David Bentley Hart


Background – A Brief Summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s Theology

In Gregory’s account of creation, the nature-energies distinction, developed to counter Eunomius, a defender of the 4th century Arian heresy, becomes extended into a general cosmological principle.

To Gregory, the essence of God is incomprehensible, transcendent, and cannot be defined by any set of human concepts. When speaking of God’s essence, or ousia, all that can be said is what that essence is not (Against Eunomius II, IV). In saying this, Gregory anticipates the via negativa (apophatic) theology of Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century) and much of subsequent Orthodox theological thought.

If God is simply some transcendent, unknowable entity, what possible relation to the world could God ever have? Gregory answers these questions by distinguishing between God’s “nature” (phusis) and God’s “energies” (energeiai). God’s energies are the projection of the divine nature into the world; initially creating it and ultimately guiding it to its appointed destination (Beatitudes VI). The idea of God’s energies in Gregory’s theology emphasizes God’s actual presence in those parts of creation which are perfected just because of that presence. Whereas God’s nature is totally transcendent and unknowable, God’s energies are immanent and knowable to mankind. With this revelation, Gregory anticipates the more famous substance-energies distinction of the 14th century Byzantine theologian Gregory Palamas.

Gregory’s view of human nature is dominated by his belief that humans were created in the image of God. This means that because God’s transcendent nature projects energies out into the world, we would expect the same structural relationship to exist in human beings between their minds and their bodies. In fact, that is precisely what Gregory argues concerning the human nous (a word that was traditionally translated as “mind”, but by the 4th century included the Christian idea of its nature also extending beyond and separate from the physical world).

The most important characteristic of the nature of the nous is that it provides for a unity of consciousness; where the myriad perceptions from various sense organs are all coordinated with each other. Using the metaphor of a city in which family members come in by various gates but all meet somewhere inside, Gregory’s assertion is that this can occur only if we presuppose a transcendent self to which all of one’s experiences are referred (Making of Man 10). But Gregory maintains that this unity of consciousness is entirely mysterious, much like the mysterious nature of the Godhead (Making of Man 11).

Yet the nous is also extended by its energies throughout the body, which includes our ordinary sensory and psychological experiences as well as our discursive, rational mind (dianoia) (Making of Man 15; Soul and Resurrection).

There are two further important characteristics of the human nous according to Gregory. First, because the human nous is created in the image of God, it possesses a certain “dignity of royalty” (to tes basileias axioma) that is lacking in the rest of creation. Second, the nous is free. Gregory derives the freedom of the nous from the freedom of God. For God, being dependent on nothing, governs the universe through the free exercise of will; and the nous is created in God’s image (Making of Man 4).

Epektasis – the eternal ‘stretching and straining’ of the soul toward God

This concept of epektasis features heavily throughout the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (most especially in his Life of Moses and Homilies on the Song of Songs). His work leans toward an ascetic, mystical approach to the faith. Gregory believed that man’s ultimate purpose was to grow in participation in the divine. Since God is transcendent and infinite and man is created and finite, he reasoned that man could never reach a point where he fully participated in God; hence the need for the concept of epektasis. Gregory rejected the more typical view that happiness and perfection are found in attaining a concrete spiritual goal. Rather, he suggested, since humanity is incapable of reaching the actual transcendent perfection of God, purpose and meaning are found in progress toward that relationship standard. Gregory’s views on spiritualty had an early and lasting impact on the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of theosis.

Epektasis is derived from a Greek word found in verses such as Philippians 3:13, where it is translated as “stretching out.” Epectasis, like askesis, is a term from athletics. It implies something that is becoming, developing, being strived for. It has alternately been understood as “evolving” or “growing.” As it pertains to Christian theology, epektasis implies that true joy in Christian living is found in the process of spiritual growth and development. That is, it is the internal change we experience that produces a sense of happiness, not the achievement of any particular goal. Specifically, epektasis emphasizes the need for continual “spiritual transformation” and suggests this process will continue forever in eternity. For Gregory, it is the journey that is important.

As Gregory puts it, “Deity is in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it” (Great Catechism 25). So, we directly experience the divine energies in the only thing in the universe that we can view from within – ourselves. God’s energies are always a force for good. Thus, we encounter them in the experience of virtues such as purity, passionlessness (apatheia), sanctity, and simplicity in our own moral character. “if . . . these things be in you,” Gregory concludes, “God is indeed in you” (Beatitudes VI).

Gregory tells us epektasis also imposes certain obligations on us in relation to both others and ourselves. To others we owe mercy (Beatitudes V) and the Christian virtue of agape (Beatitudes VII). To ourselves we owe the effort to overcome (through askesis; athletic training) the deficiencies and shortcomings in our likeness to God; for we are unable to contemplate God directly, and morally our free will has been compromised by the passions (pathe). Thus, with respect to ourselves we must continuously stretch out our souls (epektasis; like a straining athlete), toward intellectual and moral perfection (Beatitudes III).


“Whereby he has given us his precious and majestic promises, so that through these you may become communicants in the divine nature, having escaped from the decay that is in the cosmos on account of desire.”

2 Peter 1:4 from The New Testament- a translation by David Bentley Hart


Text references (by Gregory of Nyssa):
Against Eunomius
Homilies on the Beatitudes
On the Making of Man
On the Soul and the Resurrection
The Life of Moses
Homilies on the Song of Songs
The Great Catechism

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Icons: “… we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,”

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses1, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” ~ Hebrews 12:1


One of the most striking visuals in an Orthodox church is the great number and variety of highly stylized icons covering walls, ceilings, and seemingly any other available floor or shelf space.

Strictly speaking, an icon (εικών, eikon – image, picture) is a portable sacred image, painted on a piece of wood according to the style and techniques of Byzantine art. But in its broader sense, an icon is any sacred image painted, or otherwise reproduced, for the purpose of veneration2.

The Patristic Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” Veneration happens when we stop seeing an icon as an object of art or decoration and nothing more, and begin seeing it as a close, face-to-face encounter with the person represented. Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. In fact, those things only become veneration when they are offered towards the person who is made present in an icon.

Many icons depict persons recognized as holy Saints by the church. Of these, some of them are martyrs, having died for their Christian witness; some are confessors, having maintained their witness under especially difficult and or dangerous conditions, but not lost their lives; but the majority of Saints are neither; just people in all ages recognized as extraordinarily holy. Saints are not an anachronist relic of the distant past. They have been recognized since the birth of the church and new Saints continue to be identified and recognized to this day.

For most of church history, the majority of Christians could not read or write. In the Greco-Roman world of the Apostles, it is estimated that less than 15% of the population was literate. Hearing the Scripture read during church services and understanding the stories and people depicted in the icons adorning the church building served as important tools for the transmission of Christian tradition and faith. It follows then that icons continue to serve as educational and worshiping aids. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through icons, as images that complement the written words of Scripture. Icons also serve to transport us into the realm of spiritual experience, to go beyond our material world, to show us the greatness and perfection of the divine reality that is invisible to us.

During an Orthodox church service, it feels like the entire congregation is worshiping along with all of the Saints depicted in the icons adorning the church. And even when praying alone in an empty Orthodox church, you cannot feel alone; but rather accompanied, comforted, and supported by all of the Saints present through the icons.


1 Witness (Gr. μάρτυς, mártys) in its original meaning, the Greek word martyr, was used in the secular sphere as well as in the New Testament. The process of bearing witness was not intended to lead to the death of the witness, although it is known from ancient writers (e.g., Josephus) and from the New Testament that witnesses often died for their testimonies. During the early Christian centuries, the term martyr came to mean one who gives his or her life for the faith. A confessor (ομολογητής) came to mean a person who does not actually die for the faith but witnesses to it under difficult and often dangerous conditions.

2 Veneration (Gr. σεβασμός) is a reverence, love, and recognition paid to all those persons portrayed in an icon. Many people in the West often misinterpret veneration as worship; however, worship (προσκύνησης, total devotion of the self) in the Eastern Orthodox Church is reserved for God alone.

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St. Athanasius on St. Antony the Great: “… learn what the life of monks ought to be;”

St. Antony the Great (Greek: Ἀντώνιος) (251 – 356)- was a Christian ascetic monk from Egypt. Antony was among the first anchorites known to go into the Egyptian desert wilderness in about AD 270. Because of his importance among the Desert Fathers and to all later Christian monastics, he is also known as the Father of All Monks. Most of what is known about Antony comes from the Life of Antony, written around 360 by St. Athanasius of Alexandria. It depicts Anthony as an illiterate holy man who, through his stark solitary ascetic life in the desert, forges an absolute connection to the divine Truth. This biography of Antony’s life helped to spread the concept of Christian monasticism into both the Greek and Latin worlds. The excerpt below is from St. Athanasius’ Life of Antony:

“Further, he was able to be of such use to all, that many soldiers and men who had great possessions laid aside the burdens of life, and became monks for the rest of their days. And it was as if a physician had been given by God to Egypt. For who in grief met Antony and did not return rejoicing? Who came mourning for his dead and did not forthwith put off his sorrow? Who came in anger and was not converted to friendship? What poor and low-spirited man met him who, hearing him and looking upon him, did not despise wealth and console himself in his poverty? What monk, having being neglectful, came to him and became not all the stronger? What young man having come to the mountain and seen Antony, did not forthwith deny himself pleasure and love temperance? Who when tempted by a demon, came to him and did not find rest? And who came troubled with doubts and did not get quietness of mind?” (87).

“Read these words, therefore, to the rest of the brethren that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify Him: and leads those who serve Him unto the end, not only to the kingdom of heaven, but here also— even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world— makes them illustrious and well known everywhere on account of their virtue and the help they render others. And if need be, read this among the heathen, that even in this way they may learn that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only God and the Son of God, but also that the Christians who truly serve Him and religiously believe in Him, prove, not only that the demons, whom the Greeks themselves think to be gods, are no gods, but also tread them under foot and put them to flight, as deceivers and corrupters of mankind, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (94)

~ from: St Athanasius, Life of Antony, 87, 94

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St. Gregory of Nazianzus: “The Holy Ghost, which proceeds from the Father;”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 – 25 January 390), also known as Gregory the Theologian or Gregory Nazianzen, was a 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, theologian, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers (along with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa). He is widely considered the most accomplished rhetorical stylist of the patristic age. Gregory made a significant impact on the shape of Trinitarian theology among both Greek and Latin-speaking theologians, and he is remembered as the “Trinitarian Theologian”.

“The Holy Ghost, which proceeds from the Father; Who, inasmuch as He proceeds from That Source, is no Creature; and inasmuch as He is not Begotten is no Son; and inasmuch as He is between the Unbegotten and the Begotten is God. And thus escaping the toils of your syllogisms, He has manifested himself as God, stronger than your divisions. What then is Procession? Do you tell me what is the Unbegottenness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God. And who are we to do these things, we who cannot even see what lies at our feet, or number the sand of the sea, or the drops of rain, or the days of Eternity, much less enter into the Depths of God, and supply an account of that Nature which is so unspeakable and transcending all words?”

~ from: The Orations and Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzus, Oration 31 (5th Theological Oration), VIII.

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St. Basil the Great: “Homily About Ascesis – How a Monk Should be Adorned”

St. Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great (330 – January 379), was a bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). He was an influential theologian who supported the Nicene Creed and opposed the heresies of the early Christian church. Together with Pachomius, he is remembered as a father of communal (coenobitic) monasticism in Eastern Christianity. Basil, together with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, are collectively referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers.

“The monk, above all, must not possess anything in his life. He must have bodily isolation, proper clothing, a moderate tone of voice, and discipline speech; he must not cause a ruckus about the food and drink and he must eat in silence; he must be silent before his elders and be attentive to wiser men; he must love his peers and advise those junior in a loving way; he must move away from the immoral and the carnal and the sophisticated; he must think much and say less; he must not become impudent in his words, nor gossip and not be amenable to laughter; he must be adorned with shame, directing his gaze to the ground and his soul upward; he must not object with words of contention but rather be compliant; he must work with his hands and always keep in remembrance the end of this age; he must rejoice with hope, endure sadness, pray unceasingly and thank God for everything; he must be humble towards all and hate pride; he must be vigilant in keeping his heart pure of any evil thought; he must gather treasures in Heaven by keeping the commandments, examine himself for his thoughts and actions each day and not be involved in vain things of life and in idle talk; he must not examine inquisitively the life of idle people, but imitate the lives of the Holy Fathers; he must be happy with those who achieve virtue and not be envious; he must suffer with those suffering and weep with them and be sorry for them, but not criticise them; he must not reproach one who returns from his sin and never justify himself. Above all else he must confess before God and the men that he is a sinner and admonish the unruly, strengthen the faint-hearted, minister unto the sick and washed the feet of the saints; he must attend to hospitality and brotherly love, to be at peace with those who have the same faith and abhor the heretics; he must read the canonical books and not open even a single one of the occult; he must not talk about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but think and confess the uncreated and consubstantial Trinity with courage, and tell those who ask that there is the need of to be baptised, as we have received it from the tradition, to believe, as we have confessed it according to our baptism, and to glorify God, as we have believed.”

~ from: The Monastic Rule of St. Basil the Great

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St. Basil the Great: “On the Holy Spirit”

St. Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great (330 – January 379), was a bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). He was an influential theologian who supported the Nicene Creed and opposed the heresies of the early Christian church. Together with Pachomius, he is remembered as a father of communal (coenobitic) monasticism in Eastern Christianity. Basil, together with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, are collectively referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers.

“Just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent bodies, they themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth a fresh brightness from themselves, so souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God. Such, then, to instance a few out of many, are the conceptions concerning the Holy Spirit, which we have been taught to hold concerning His greatness, His dignity, and His operations, by the oracles of the Spirit themselves.”

~ from: On the Holy Spirit (De Spiritu Sancto), Chap. 9

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St. Gregory of Nazianzus: “… the confession of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 – 25 January 390), also known as Gregory the Theologian or Gregory Nazianzen, was a 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, theologian, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers (along with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa). He is widely considered the most accomplished rhetorical stylist of the patristic age. Gregory made a significant impact on the shape of Trinitarian theology among both Greek and Latin-speaking theologians, and he is remembered as the “Trinitarian Theologian”.

“Besides all this and before all, keep I pray you the good deposit, by which I live and work, and which I desire to have as the companion of my departure; with which I endure all that is so distressful, and despise all delights; the confession of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. This I commit unto you today; with this I will baptize you and make you grow. This I give you to share, and to defend all your life, the One Godhead and Power, found in the Three in Unity, and comprising the Three separately, not unequal, in substances or natures, neither increased nor diminished by superiorities or inferiorities; in every respect equal, in every respect the same; just as the beauty and the greatness of the heavens is one; the infinite conjunction of Three Infinite Ones, Each God when considered in Himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Ghost; the Three One God when contemplated together; Each God because Consubstantial; One God because of the Monarchia. No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.”

~ from The Orations and Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzus . Oration 40, XLI.

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The Chalcedonian Definition


October 23, 2018

By Donald Fairbairn

Dr. Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary

The first thing one should notice from the title of this post is that the document produced at the Council of Chalcedon in October 451 was not a “creed”; it was a “definition.”

A creed, properly speaking, is not a statement of what Christians believe about our faith (That would be a “confession.”). Instead, a creed is a pledge of allegiance to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Creeds answer the question, “In whom do you believe?” more than the question “What do you believe?”

Creeds were originally intended for liturgical use, as the people of God affirmed their allegiance to the persons of the Trinity prior to baptism or the celebration of the Eucharist. In contrast, a definition is a commentary on a creed, designed to give more terminological precision to the content of that creed.

The Council of Chalcedon

At the Council of Chalcedon (the Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Greco-Roman world), the bishops who assembled were firmly convinced that the Nicene Creed was sufficient to affirm their faith in God, his Son, and his Spirit.

They were right: the Nicene Creed clearly identifies each of the divine persons, shows that they are equal to one another, and emphasizes that for us and for our salvation, the Son came down from heaven through the incarnation. At the same time, the bishops at Chalcedon were under intense pressure from the Emperor [Marcian] to produce a new creed, because he wanted to be able to call himself a new Constantine, presiding over the writing of a creed as Constantine had done at Nicaea in 325. The bishops also recognized that they needed more specificity than the Nicene Creed gave about how to understand Christ as both divine and human. As a result, they decided to write not a creed, but a “definition.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the Chalcedonian Definition is actually about five pages long— far too long to recite as part of a worship service. It includes the full text of two different version of the Nicene Creed: the original form from the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325, and the expanded version (the one familiar to us) from the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381.

It includes descriptions of heresies that had arisen since 381 (Nestorianism—which regarded Christ not as God the Son incarnate but as a man inspired by God, and Eutychianism— which truncated the full humanity of the incarnate Son by refusing to accept his consubstantiality with us). Then the Definition concludes with a paragraph that gives specificity and terminological precision to the church’s articulation of the incarnate Christ. This paragraph is usually regarded mistakenly as being the entire definition, but with that mistake duly noted, it is still worth our while to read and consider that paragraph.

As I translate it, the paragraph reads as follows:

“Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all unite in teaching that we should confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This same one is perfect in deity, and the same one is perfect in humanity; the same one is true God and true man, comprising a rational soul and a body. He is of the same essence (homousios) as the Father according to his deity, and the same one is of the same essence (homousios) with us according to his humanity, like us in all things except sin. He was begotten before the ages from the Father according to his deity, but in the last days for us and our salvation, the same one was born of the Virgin Mary, the bearer of God (Theotokos), according to his humanity. He is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, and Only Begotten, who is made known in two natures (physeis) united unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably. The distinction between the natures (physeis) is not at all destroyed because of the union, but rather the property of each nature (physis) is preserved and concurs together into one person (prosopon) and subsistence (hypostasis). He is not separated or divided into two persons (prosopa), but he is one and the same Son, the Only Begotten, God the Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the way the prophets spoke of him from the beginning, and Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and the Council of the fathers has handed the faith down to us.”

Key Ideas

There are several things we should notice. First, even if one looks only at this paragraph rather than at the whole definition, it is obvious that it was not meant to be recited in church. It is written to teachers and leaders, indicating what we should teach about Christ. It is not a pledge of allegiance on the order of “we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ.” The Chalcedonian Definition seeks to affirm that the Son, who is fully equal to the Father, has genuinely become fully human without ceasing to be divine, in order to accomplish our salvation.

Second, this paragraph, like the definition as a whole, is a commentary on one line of the Nicene Creed, the line that asserts that for us and for our salvation, the Son came down from heaven and was incarnated. Accordingly, this paragraph insists in no uncertain terms that the man Jesus after the incarnation is the same person as the eternal Son of God before the incarnation. The phrases “the same one” and “one and the same” occur eight times in this brief paragraph. This personal continuity between the eternal Son and the man Jesus is essential: Jesus is not (as Nestorius believed) a man with a special connection to God. He is God the Son himself, who is now fully human because he has become incarnate.

Third, this paragraph provides much more specificity than the Nicene Creed about what it meant for the Son to come down through the incarnation. It uses the Greek word physis in the sense of “nature” (previously, many theologians had used that word differently), and thus it indicates that the incarnate Son is made known “in two natures” (deity and humanity). It uses two Greek words, prosopon and hypostasis, in the sense of “person,” and thus emphasizes that the Son is a single person—indeed, the same person before and after the incarnation.

Thus, the Chalcedonian Definition seeks to affirm that the Son, who is fully equal to the Father, has genuinely become fully human without ceasing to be divine, in order to accomplish our salvation.


Sadly, the definition proved to be tragically divisive, as many in the African and Asian churches misunderstood its use of the word physis and thought it was proclaiming the Son and Jesus as two different persons. But properly understood, the definition provides terminological precision for speaking theologically about the incarnation. It isn’t a creed and was never meant to be, but it helps the theologians—and the rest of us—understand what we mean when we say in the creed that the one who is “true God from true God” truly “came down from heaven and was incarnated and was made man.”


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The Great Schism of 1054

The early united Christian Church consisted of five co-equal Patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria.  On July 16, 1054, Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius was excommunicated from the Christian church based in Rome, Italy. Cerularius’s excommunication was a breaking point in long-rising tensions between the Roman church based in Rome and the Byzantine church based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The resulting split divided the European Christian church into two major branches: the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This split is known as the “Great Schism”, or the “Schism of 1054.”

The Great Schism came about due to a complex mix of religious disagreements and political conflicts festering within the church since the 8th century. From 756 to 857, the Roman papacy shifted from the orbit of the Byzantine Empire to that of the kings of the Franks. The period was characterized by “battles between Franks, Lombards and Romans for control of the Italian peninsula and of supreme authority within Christendom.”1

Some of the many religious disagreements between the western (Roman) and eastern (Byzantine) include:  

  • Disagreement over a unilateral Roman change to the Nicene Creed (of AD 325/381) adding the words “and the Son” (“filioque” in Latin), thus changing the ontological understanding of the Holy Spirit.
  • Dispute whether or not it was acceptable to use unleavened bread for the sacrament of communion. (The west supported the practice, while the east did not.)
  • Western belief that clerics should remain celibate.

Other than the dispute over the “filioque”, one can conclude that the remaining religious issues were mainly adiaphora, “indifferent things” that are neither right nor wrong, spiritually neutral things.  Afterthoughts of man. 

These religious disagreements were made worse by a variety of political conflicts, particularly regarding the power of Rome.

  • Rome believed that the pope—the religious leader of the western Roman church—should have authority over the other four Christian Patriarchates— and thus have the religious authority over the eastern church and all of Christendom.
  • Constantinople disagreed, pointing out that each of the five co-equal Patriarchates of the united church historically recognized their own leaders.

The western church eventually excommunicated Michael Cerularius and the entire eastern church. The eastern church retaliated by excommunicating the Roman pope Leo III and the Roman church with him. 

The Schism became so politically charged that Western Latin Crusaders actually attacked and sacked the Eastern Byzantine capitol of Constantinople in 1204 during the corrupted Fourth Crusade. As with the religious disagreements, discussed above, these political conflicts were mainly adiaphora, “indifferent things”, that had little to no basis in spiritual matters.  Afterthoughts of man.

This was the Great Schism of 1054.

1 Goodson, Caroline J.  The Rome of Pope Paschal I: Papal Power, Urban Renovation, Church Rebuilding and Relic Translation, 817-824. Cambridge University Press. 2010


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The Seven Ecumenical Councils

A Church Council is an official ad hoc gathering of representatives to settle Church business. Such Councils are called rarely and are not the same as the regular gatherings of church leaders (synods, etc.). An ecumenical council is one at which the whole Church is represented. The three major contemporary branches of the Church (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant) recognize seven ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), Nicaea II (787). Further ecumenical councils were rendered impossible by the widening split between Eastern Orthodox (Greek speaking) and Roman Catholic (Latin speaking) Churches, a split that was rendered official in AD 1054 and has not yet been healed.

Note: In addition to these universally-acknowledged councils, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes a further fourteen ecumenical councils: Constantinople IV (869-70), Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311-12), Constance (1414-18), Florence (1438-45), Lateran V (1512-17), Trent (1545-63), Vatican I (1869-70), Vatican II (1965). But these were councils of only the Catholic Church, and are not recognized by the Orthodox or Protestant Churches.

The Council of Nicaea, 325

In 324 Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire, reuniting an empire that had been split among rival rulers since the retirement of Domitian in 305. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, reunified the empire but found the Church bitterly divided over the nature of Jesus Christ. He wanted to reunify the Church as he had reunified the Empire. The major dispute was over the teaching of Arius, but there were other doctrinal issues also.

  • Arianism: teaching of Arius of Alexandria (d. 335), who believed that Jesus Christ was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by the Father to be the means of creation and redemption. Jesus was fully human, but not fully divine. He was elevated as a reward for his successful accomplishment of his mission. The Arian rallying cry was “There was a time when the Son was not.”
  • Monarchianism: defended the unity (mono arche, “one source”) of God by denying that the Son and the Spirit were separate persons.
  • Sabellianism: a form of monarchianism taught by Sabellias, that God revealed himself in three successive modes, as Father (creator), as Son (redeemer), as Spirit (sustainer). Hence there is only one person in the Godhead.

Constantine summoned the bishops at imperial expense to Nicea, 30 miles from his imperial capital in Nicomedia. Here they were to settle their differences in a council over which he presided. The council rejected Arianism. The Council issued a creed based upon an existing baptismal creed from Syria and Palestine. This creed became known as the Nicene Creed, or Confession of the Faith.

The Council also issued a set of canons, primarily dealing with church order.

The Council of Constantinople, 381

The second council met in Constantinople, the new imperial capital. The council issued a new creed, clarifying the understanding of the Holy Spirit as a co-equal Person of the Trinitarian Godhead as expressed in the Nicene Creed adopted in 325. This creed became known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and remains the Confession of the Faith today in the Eastern Church.

Later, the Roman Church, under the influence of the Franks in the 8th century, unilaterally added a single word to the Creed, inserting Filioqueand the Son” to the statement about the Spirit, so as to read “the Spirit…proceeds from the Father and the Son.” In 867 the Patriarch of Constantinople declared Rome heretical for unilaterally inserting this clause into the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. To this day the Western Church (Roman Catholic and Protestant) accepts the filioque clause, while the Eastern Church (Orthodox) does not.

The Council of Ephesus, 431

Condemned Nestorius and his teaching (Nestorianism) that Christ had two separable natures, human and divine. Declared Mary to be theotokos (lit. God-bearer, i.e., Mother of God) in order to strengthen the claim that Christ was fully divine.

The Council of Chalcedon, 451

Issued the Chalcedonian Formula, affirming that Christ is two natures in one person.

The Council of Constantinople II, 553

Condemned the Three Chapters, which emphasized Christ’s humanity at the expense of his deity. Their opponents held Alexandrian theology emphasizing Christ’s deity.

The Council of Constantinople III, 680

Condemned monothelitism (Christ has a single will), affirming that Christ had a human will and a divine will that functioned in perfect harmony.

The Council of Nicea II, 787

Declared that icons are acceptable aids to worship, rejecting the iconoclasts (icon-smashers)

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