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Problems Between Eastern and Western Christianity

Updated on December 3, 2014
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Council of Chalcedonian
Council of Chalcedonian | Source

With the acceptance of Christianity as a legitimate, state sanctioned religion, the rapid spreading of the faith, and the last Roman emperor in the West giving up his throne leaving just the Byzantine Empire in the east, the many issues began to arise. The Council of Chalcedonian was called by Emperor Marcian in 451 CE to again resolve the issue of Jesus’ divinity and His human nature. This was brought forth by an outgrowth of the Alexandrian school called Monophysitism. Their belief was Christ had only one nature, a divine one. The Council obviously disagreed with this belief. The Nestorian church (of the east) refused to accept this decision and split off from the rest of Christianity causing the first major schism. The Emperor Justinian attempted to bring the two groups back together at the Second Council of Constantinople in 533, but was unsuccessful.

Another important problem that separated the western and eastern branches of Christianity was the nature of the philosophical backgrounds of both. The Eastern Christians used Greek as their language while those in the West used Latin. This caused a breakdown in communication as bilingual theologians began to become increasingly few and far in between. This also led to a difference in philosophical interpretations, with those in the East clearly being influenced by the Greek theologians, philosophers and teachers. The Western Christians, however, were clearly influenced and dominated by the teachings of Augustine.

William C. Placher in his book "A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction" also describes the issue with church decorations, images of Christ, Mary and the saints and other icons by those in the east. The idea he states was to give the opportunity to teach those who were illiterate about the faith. To the early Christians however, this was nothing short of blasphemous and directly violating on of the Ten Commandments. Emperor Leo went on a mission to destroy this practice and all these “graven images” as did his son Constantine V. He also stated that some historians have even gone as far as attributing this iconoclasm to a Muslim influence. These debates lead to two eastern theologians, John of Damascus and Theodore of Studios to take on iconoclasm as well as limiting imperial power in theology.

Debate between Catholics and Oriental Christians in the 13th century, Acre 1290
Debate between Catholics and Oriental Christians in the 13th century, Acre 1290 | Source

Another major debate was the idea of the occurrence of salvation. Western theologians believed that salvation happens at the time of conversion whereas the Eastern theologians believed that works were involved and that the process would continue throughout the individual’s life. This leads to the concept that God is incomprehensible yet salvation can only come through the works of becoming a known portion of God.

The list of differences between the Eastern and Westerns sects of Christianity are numerous and many of those debates that took place then still rage today across the globe and even across various Christian denominations. There is the idea that if you don’t speak in tongues you are not truly saved as opposed to the view that if you do speak in tongues you are a stumbling block to those who hear but do not understand. There are those that believe Baptism to be fundamental in one’s salvation and eternal security and those who believe Baptism to be not saving, but an outward profession of faith only. As the splits between the east and west continued to grow, the core beliefs of the very early Christians, who were persecuted and martyred for their faith, began to fall squarely into the realm of legalism. Many Christians then and now have returned full circle to the Pharissitical practices of the law givers of Jesus’ time, missing the entire point of Christ in the first place.


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