In Church History in Plain Language, Bruce Shelley points out a key distinction between Western and Eastern Christianity: how each has related to the State through history.

Ambrose had hit upon the weapon—the threat of excommunication—which the Western church would soon use again and again to humble princes. But at the center of the Christian empire, in Constantinople, no bishop ever stepped so far out of line. (104)

Specific examples will hopefully make the distinction clear. First, in the East, when the emperor Leo III forbade the veneration of icons, the Patriarch of Constantinople resigned:

Leo secured the retirement of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the consecration of a new one who favored his own views. (157)

But in the West, the bishops fought back. Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius I over a massacre he ordered, while Pope Innocent III was especially prolific in applying excommunication and the interdict (prohibition of rites throughout a geographic area):

The pope's first weapon in bringing peasants and princes to their knees was the threat of excommunication. [...] Pope Innocent III successfully applied or threatened the interdict eighty-five times against uncooperative princes. (194)

This is surely a huge topic, so let me specify:

What is an overview of the theological differences that led to distinct approaches to unwanted State innovation and overreach in the West and East?

That is:

  • I'm specifically interested in the use, threats to use, and lack of use of excommunication, the interdict, and similar methods of ecclesiastical discipline, against heads of state and/or their territories.
  • I'm not interested in historical reasons for the difference. If historical reasons fully explain it (which I highly doubt), then an expansion on "there were no theological differences" would be a good answer.
  • I'm basically talking about the Middle Ages here: from Ambrose to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Earlier writers probably had an influence, so discussion of them is fine, but I'm not interested in following this into the Modern era.
  • I'm speculating that Eastern Christians reacted in writing to the excommunications performed by Ambrose and Innocent (and others), while Western Christians reacted in writing to the Patriarch of Constantinople's resignation. If so, their criticisms might shed light on the subject.
  • I'm interested in an overview: a few key points, with a few (sourced) sentences each, would be sufficiently lengthy.
  • I'm not sure your generalisation is valid. For example the Council of Ephesus excommunicated those who disagreed with its decrees, at the request of Cyril of Alexandria. The Quinisext Council apparently excommunicated those who ate eggs or cheese on a weekend during Lent. In 867 a synod in Constantinople excommunicated Pope Nicholas I.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 12:46
  • @curiousdannii Perhaps I'm mistaken, but the first two in particular look like more typical use of excommunication for sin/heresy, not specifically directed at a state or a state leader. The third one seems more like a struggle for power within the church, not state vs. church. I'll clarify my question. Commented May 26, 2016 at 12:56
  • Ah, it wasn't clear to me that you were only after examples of the church threatening to excommunicate state leaders.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 12:57
  • 1
    I doubt this question can be adequately answered in "overview" style. A proper answer would require a book. Commented May 26, 2016 at 21:09
  • The question is a good one, but the problem I have with it is the necessity to distill out the theology and church actions from the politics and church actions. Unlike our modern time, those two were often more closely connected in the time period you are inquiring about. That discomfort noted, if there is a concise answer I am keen to see it. Commented May 26, 2016 at 22:01

3 Answers 3


Your raise a lot of interesting points that are sources of great controversy between different Christian groups, but I'll try to focus on your question:

What is an overview of the theological differences that led to distinct approaches to unwanted State innovation and overreach in the West and East?

I don't think there really was much distinction between West and East along what the author suggests during the first millennium.

Ambrose did, indeed, excommunicate Theodosius I (for a massacre he ordered in Thessalonica), but his excommunication was not indefinite and, according to the Greek Synaxarion, lasted eight months. His excommunication by Ambrose took place outside the cathedral church of Milan and was quite public (The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, vol. 2, Holy Monastery of Simonos Petra, Mt. Athos, 1999, p. 343). The Emperor's response was to fall to Ambrose's feet weeping. "Theodosius returned to his palace troubled and sorry for his transgression," writes Dmitri of Rostov. "He submitted to the sentence the saint laid upon him, doing public penance with commoners. He was not ashamed to lie prostrate in the presence of his subjects" (Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, December, John Chrysostom Press, 2000, pp. 160-161).

In order to demonstrate that the West and East had "distinct approaches", one must look at cases of how the Western and Eastern Patriarchs behaved in very similar circumstances. The circumstances surrounding the disputes between Germanus and Leo on one hand, and Theodosius and Ambrose on the other, could not be have been more different. Whereas Theodosius was a generally pious emperor who bore reproaches from the Church with humility and lived a life of repentance, Leo was nearly the opposite. After announcing that he was going to remove all icons from public worship - on his own initiative - he subsequently beat Germanus, sent his troops to burn down the Patriarchal School in Constantinople, and then set him in the midst of a large assembly of senators and dignitaries to force him to accept his decree to destroy all icons in the empire.

Secular and some Protestant historians frequently attribute the actions of Church hierarchs to some self-serving, political goal, in the tradition of Edward Gibbon - not considering at all the possibility that actions may have actually been undertaken for the spiritual benefit of those concerned. There is nothing at all in any of the accounts we have that Ambrose was some sort of political manipulator, trying method after method to control emperors until he finally "hit on one".

In reading Dr. Shelley's book (I bought myself a copy), I was stunned to find that he devotes no coverage at all to , nor even seems to be aware of, what was probably the single most important event in Christian history following the first millennium; namely, the Great Schism that occurred between the See of Rome and the other four ancient Sees of the Church. The See of Rome formed what is known today as the Roman Catholic Church, while the remaining Sees today comprise the Eastern Orthodox Church. I would suggest that anyone reading this who desires a more accurate and comprehensive view of Church History in the first millennium to consult Kallistos Ware's The Orthodox Church, available from Penguin Books. Following the Schism, a great difference in character between East and West did, in fact, emerge as you suggest. Met. Kallistos explains how this developed as follows:

East and west were becoming strangers to one another, and this was something from which both were likely to suffer. In the early Church there had been unity in the faith, but a diversity of theological schools. From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the east, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But now that the two sides were becoming strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – there was a danger that each side would follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.

We have already had occasion to mention the Papacy when speaking of the different political situations in east and west; and we have seen how the centralized and monarchical structure of the western Church was reinforced by the barbarian invasions. Now so long as the Pope claimed an absolute power only in the west, Byzantium raised no objections. The Byzantines did not mind if the western Church was centralized, so long as the Papacy did not interfere in the east. The Pope, however, believed his immediate power of jurisdiction to extend to the east as well as to the west; and as soon as he tried to enforce this claim within the eastern Patriarchates, trouble was bound to arise. The Greeks assigned to the Pope a primacy of honour, but not the universal supremacy which he regarded as his due. The Pope viewed infallibility as his own prerogative; the Greeks held that in matters of the faith the final decision rested not with the Pope alone, but with a Council representing all the bishops of the Church. Here we have two different conceptions of the visible organization of the Church.

Pope Innocent III belonged to the post-schism era. In addition to whatever abuses may have been committed by him, he is also credited with the sack of Christian Constantinople during the Crusades in 1204. Pope John Paul II apologized for the event to the Patriarch of Constantinople 800 years later.

  • You're right, Shelley doesn't spend much time on the Great Schism (there's one chapter on Eastern Orthodoxy, which focuses on the lead up to the schism). You make a good point that different circumstances call for different reactions (sometimes it's wise to fight, sometimes not), but it seems like more than mere coincidence that Ambrose, Innocent, and others regularly took more aggressive approaches than those in the East. Thanks too for the book recommendation; I'll look into getting a copy. Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 22:13
  • I think it would be helpful to constrain your period a little more. I would not dispute that Roman hierarchs were much more aggressive politically than eastern hierarchs following the Great Schism, and perhaps even in the times following the installation of Charlemagne. I don't think it makes sense, though, to draw any conclusions by comparing hierarchs from opposite ends of the time period (e.g. Innocent v. Theodosius). But I also think that even if we constrain the time period, as you have in considering Theodosius and Ambrose, we need more than one example from each camp ...
    – user22553
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 12:56
  • I am sure you are aware of them, but two other works you might be interested in are Eusebius of Caesarea's "History of The Church", which documents Church history up to the time of the 1st Ecumenical Council (c. 325); and the "Ecclesiastical History" of Theodoret of Cyrrhus, which covers the period from the 1st Ecumenical Council through the 4th (c. 451) ...
    – user22553
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 13:05

I think one can easily argue that the difference is based on the division the two churches have over papal supremacy

As the West felt it truly had supremacy over the whole church, it alone was aggressive in asserting power. Historically the fact that the Roman church also rose up in a government that was persecuting it, and eventually overthrew it's pagan religion with its own, would also serve to prop up this spirit of assertiveness or aggression. The eastern church never had that historical and power-centric theology behind them to start opposing or threatening civil powers.


I would like to challenge your assumptions:

  • For starters, Ambrose of Milan was (obviously) a bishop of Milan, which, while still part of Italy, is not really Rome itself; as such, we are not exactly dealing with a Roman pontiff excommunicating a king.
  • Secondly, a brief overview shows the former incident to have been an exception, rather than a rule, within the first Christian millennium; as such, it is not clear why excommunication of either royalty or nobility would be expected to constitute the norm, when it clearly wasn't.
  • Thirdly, most of these excommunications seem concentrated in the first half of the second millennium, starting with the investiture controversy, and subsequent quarrels; as such, this question basically boils down to asking why the latter appears to have been a distinctly Western phenomenon; but there are entire books and tons of scholarly articles on the subject : if even these don't manage to shed a light, I'm not sure what (else) will. (My personal hunch would be that Western power structures were just now emerging from the Dark Ages, whereas those in the East were already well established; and, as such, lacking any real motivation to extend or increase their might by infringing upon domains traditionally reserved for the clergy).
  • ”Ambrose of Milan was (obviously) a bishop of Milan, which, while still part of Italy.” Italy did not become a state until the unification took place and completed in 1871.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Nov 25, 2021 at 16:24
  • 1
    @KenGraham: It's shorter than Italian peninsula, and also irrelevant to the main point.
    – user46876
    Commented Nov 25, 2021 at 16:42

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