Jackson Presbyterian Examiner’s look at ten of the most crucial events of church history will now concentrate on the Great Schism of the 11th century, followed by the 16th century Reformation.
6. The Great Schism of 1054, which divided the Church into East and West
The division of 1054 is called the Great Schism, not because there weren’t earlier schisms similar to it, but rather because this one turned out to be permanent. For several centuries, Latin Christianity and Byzantine Christianity were drifting further and further apart, for cultural/geographic reasons as much as for theological reasons. What made 1054 unique is that the rift was never fully healed, and remains unhealed to this day. Attempts to reunite were made, but in the end, always came to no effect.
The schism boiled down to two things—the Filoque Clause, which was added by the Western church into the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son].” Eastern Orthodoxy said, and still says, that the addition to the creed was not only theologically inaccurate (Orthodoxy appeals to Christ’s Last Supper discourse in John’s gospel, where he explicitly calls the third Person of the Trinity, “the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father”), but that it was also added to the creed illegitimately, without the ratification of an ecumenical council.
The Western church, appealing to papal authority, defended the addition on the grounds that the pope had authority to alter the creed, and a council wasn’t needed to ratify the change. The Eastern Church denied that the bishop of Rome had universal authority, appealing to the precedent of the early church when, though Rome’s bishop was first regarding prestige, all of the bishops had equal authority.
To this day, East and West remain divided over the issue of papal authority. At most, the East is willing to concede that the bishop of Rome, as Peter’s successor, has supremacy of honor—that he is “first among equals.” However, Eastern Orthodoxy is adamant that no one bishop is infallible or entrusted with greater actual authority than the rest. To learn more about this tragic event in church history, read Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church. Orthodox maintain that the best way to get acquainted with their history and way of life is not to read about it, but to experience it. Click here for more information about Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, MS.
7. The 16th century Reformation, which began in Germany, and spread throughout Europe
In the early 16th century, Western and Eastern Christianity had been split for four and a half centuries. In the centuries following the Schism, papal authority continued to increase, and as it did, papal corruption also increased. The 15th century saw some of history’s most infamous popes, and those who dared to promote reform, such as John Huss, were burned at the stake.
In 1517, prompted by indignation over the sale of indulgences, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk who was also a Bible professor at the University of Wittenberg, nailed 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church in hopes of debating the lawfulness of indulgences. Christians were being told that they could purchase forgiveness of sins by buying indulgences, contributing to the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
Adamant that only Christ’s blood can forgive sins, Luther protested the practice, hoping the pope would come to his defense once he heard about the abuse. Much to his amazement, Luther soon found out Pope Leo X was himself behind the jubilee indulgences being sold throughout Germany. In time, this led Luther to questioning the whole structure of the medieval Catholic Church, and he eventually concluded that neither pope nor council can be regarded as infallible, but only Scripture. Luther and his followers taught that man cannot merit salvation in any sense, but must receive it as a free gift; God declares righteous all those who trust in Christ as Savior, pardoning them of all their sins and crediting Christ’s righteousness to them. In 1521 Luther was excommunicated when he refused to recant his writings. Justification by faith alone through Christ alone became the center piece of Luther’s teaching and preaching from that point forward, instigating the Protestant Reformation throughout Europe.
At about the same time that Luther was working to reform the church in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli was working to reform the Swiss Church by teaching justification by faith alone. By the 1540s, England was undergoing its own Reformation, which was prompted initially by King Henry VIII outlawing Catholicism in his kingdom so that he could divorce his wife and remarry. Thankfully, soon afterwards godly men rose up to work to reform the Anglican Church in sincerity. The original Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer dates to 1549.
In Geneva, the Protestant faith was growing thanks to the influence of John Calvin. When he died in 1564, his greatest contribution to the evangelical church was Institutes of the Christian Religion. Some of Christendom’s most illuminating confessions were produced during this volatile century, including the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the 39 Articles of Religion (1563), the Scots Confession (1560), the Augsburg Confession (1530), Luther’s Small Catechism (1529), and the 2nd Helvetic Confession (1562). In 1563, the Roman Catholic Church concluded the Council of Trent, which formally anathematized the Protestant faith and ended any hope of reunion between the divided ranks of Western Christianity.
The most enduring legacy of the Reformation, notwithstanding the vitriolic polemics tossed back and forth on both sides of the debate, was that the gospel was proclaimed unambiguously and Christ alone was hailed as humanity’s only hope of redemption.