Schisms and Sects
Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Less than a century passed before a teacher and monk named Martin Luther famously nailed his list of ninety-five propositions or "theses" to the castle-church door at Wittenberg in Saxony in 1517. Luther's list addressed Church practices and the nature of faith. Luther believed passionately that truth should be sought in scripture, and that Church teaching is to be based on and accountable to scripture. His ideas echoed those of Jan Hus and John of Wycliffe, two 14th-century theologians who protested Church corruption and the abuse of authority. Moreover, Wycliffe wrote that Christians need nothing more than the example of scripture, and that they should be able to read the Bible in their own languages.
Although Luther intended his propositions as an invitation to debate within the Church, the theses prompted the second great split in Christianity, the Protestant Reformation. Luther acted at a time when the recently-invented printing press made it possible to reprint his theses. In six short years, 1300 copies were printed. The widespread dissemination of Luther's ideas made it difficult for the Church to simply reprimand him and sweep the problem under the carpet. Northern Europeans and their leaders, weary of Church corruption and yearning for independence from Rome, embraced Luther's criticisms. An airing of controversial tenets on a church door culminated in catastrophic violence and persecution, and a permanent splintering of the western Church.
Reformation ideas infiltrated England, and in 1533, King Henry VIII severed the English Church from Rome's authority, thus creating the Church of England. In 1555, the Treaty of Augsburg created Lutheranism, permanently breaking this group away from Roman authority. More schisms followed. Huldreich Zwingli, the Anabaptists, and John Calvin all led reformation movements in Switzerland. Calvinists in England were known as the Puritans, proclaiming their desire to purify the Church of any reminders of Roman Catholicism.
In response to this tide of schisms, the Catholic Church tacitly accepted Protestant criticisms of corruption and undertook its own reformation. It initiated steps to bring increased integrity and accountability to seminaries, dioceses, and monasteries. Christianity emerged from the paroxysm of reformation ready to take great strides in mission, global exploration, and conquest.
1. Was the earliest split of Christianity more about location or language? Explain.
2. What was the Great Schism? What was the result?
3. How did the crusades contribute to schisms of Christianity?
4. Who was Martin Luther? What movement did he found and why?