Trinity College

Age of Schisms: History of the Eastern Churches 451-1204

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Last Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2022
Next Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2025

The period from 451-1204 is one of the most fascinating, dynamic, exciting, and tragic in the history of the Church. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon would debate and reformulate a Christian theology of the Incarnation, yet this work of reformulation would result in a massive schism that would reshape the map of Christianity, a schism which is still with us to the present day.

In the fallout of the Chalcedonian divide, bishops and emperors would continuously seek reunion between the two new church families, both through theological dialogue and political force. Remarkable figures like the Justinian the Great forged powerful empires while seeking theological accord. Such attempts at reunion were, at times, momentarily successful. At other times, however, they created even further division within the Church, as in the case of the Monothelite controversy of the 7th Century, and the iconoclastic controversy soon to follow. Ecumenical councils would solve some of these debates with the help of great thinkers like Maximus the Confessor and John the Damascene, but never without cost.

Meanwhile, an increasing divide between the eastern and western Churches was beginning to become obvious. By the 9th Century, the problems of the filioque and the papacy began to break the Church apart during the Photian schism. Yet, in spite of the increasing pressure, a centuries long unity would be forged amid the controversy, one of the greatest feats of Christian reunion ever accomplished.

Still, by the 11th Century, the fractures within Christianity continued to grow. The breakdown of relations between what would become the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches began to take shape. Theological and ecclesial controversy would be solidified by the crusades, especially the sac of Constantinople in 1204. The age of schisms would come to a close with Christianity divided East to West, and Chalcedonian to non-Chalcedonian, with over a half dozen schisms, both temporary and lasting, in between.

Through it all, the eastern Mediterranean would be embroiled in invasions and counter-invasions, the long, slow collapse of the last remnants of the Roman Empire, the arrival and sudden rise of Islam, the growth of Russian and Slavic power, followed by the Christianization of the same, with riots, sieges, and intrigues standing next to long periods of peace, prosperity, and genuine Christian charity. The world we know today would begin to become visible, while an older order faded away, leaving the Church to find her bearings amid a new political landscape and the scars of Christian division.

In this course, we explore the history of this remarkable age of schisms. Crucially, we will ask what it is, politically and theologically, that causes Christians to separate from one another. Yet, of equal importance, we will also ask what drives Christians to seek unity in nearly every generation of the Church, and what strategies for crafting unity have been most effective over time. Emphasis will be on the complex politics of the period, contextualizing the theological and ecclesiological debates of the time. East/West relations will be a topic of special focus.