Schisms and Sects

Heretics did not always know they were heretics until Christian authorities defined doctrine in the 4th - 5th centuries C.E. In the interim, core heretical ideas arose that reappeared occasionally until the Middle Ages, beginning with the notion that only a chosen few had the special and full knowledge necessary for salvation (gnosis). Gnostics believed they were purer than others. Some held that the material world needed to be rejected, leading to the heresy of docetism, which claimed that Jesus, being pure divinity, only appeared to be human (docere, "to seem") since matter would have tainted him. This idea is closely related to dualism, held by Manichees who contended there was a good God who created spirit and a bad God who created matter, which had to be rejected for salvation. Dualism reappeared in the 12th century at the heart of the Albigensian or Cathari heretical movement, a fairly widespread medieval group and essentially a parallel church in France that was subject to official church investigation and even armed resistance.

A major theological heresy called Arianism emerged in the early 4th-century thought of Arius, a priest of Alexandria, who taught that Jesus was fully human but not fully divine. From this root, other related heresies emerged. Adoptionism held that the Father adopted the human Jesus as God's Son and raised him nearly to divinity. Modal monarchianism contended that God was always one, but never three--in turn, Father and then Son and then Holy Spirit. Others held that Jesus was created by the Father and therefore not co-eternal and co-equal to the Father, which Arius captured in his statement about Jesus, "There was a time when he was not."

These debates were settled by the first general council, convened by Constantine at Nicaea in 325, where Athanasius refuted the Arian question as to how the Father and Son are equal by replying, "Like the sight of two eyes." Nicaea's creed stated that Jesus is "begotten, not made" and "one in being (homoousios) with the Father." Despite condemnation, Arianism persisted in dwindling strength for centuries, especially in northern Europe, spawning other heresies such as monothelitism, which taught that Jesus had only one will, fusing humanity and divinity; Nestorianism, which contended that Mary was the mother of the human Jesus but not the mother of God (Theotokos); and monophysitism, which held that Jesus' divine nature overcame his human nature. The Church's first four general councils (Nicaea I in 325, Constantinople I in 381, Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451) set the creed and declared all other statements heretical.

The first major schism split the Greek east and the Latin west, largely over matters of papal authority and liturgical differences. The Latin west held that the primacy of the bishop, stemming from apostolic succession back to Peter, also meant supremacy over all other bishops, including the four other major patriarchates (Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople). The other patriarchs rejected this statement of supremacy, contending that the five held the Church's executive authority together and carried out decisions made in a collegial general council.

There were also differences in discipline (married or celibate clergy), liturgy (leavened or unleavened bread), and doctrine (whether the Spirit proceeded from the Father alone or from the Father and Son, the latter described by the Latin word filioque). Such differences, especially concerning jurisdiction, bubbled for centuries until the unfortunate moment in 1054 when east and west excommunicated the other-an excommunication mutually lifted in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I.

The second major schism was the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) when three rival papacies (complete with three colleges of cardinals) competed for power. From 1378 to 1409, there was one pope each in Rome and Avignon. Although there had been antipopes before, this was the first time in history that the same college of cardinals gathered in conclave elected one man in 1378 and then, months later, repudiated their choice and chose another. The split was compounded in 1409 when a council at Pisa designed to resolve the split only made it worse with the addition of a third claimant. The Schism was resolved at the Council of Constance, convened in 1414.

The third major schism--a word that is itself contentious given one's position as a Catholic or Protestant--dated from the papal excommunication of Martin Luther in 1520. Soon after, there were not only Lutherans, but Calvinists and other Protestant churches throughout Europe and then the rest of the world, which split the unified Latin west for the first time in a millennium and a half. Since Vatican II (1962-1965), there have been serious efforts at ecumenical dialogue with important steps forward, such as the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. At the same time, Vatican statements such as Dominus Iesus (2000) and a 2007 statement clarifying certain parts of it, have been seen as controversial, given Rome's assertion that Protestant groups should not technically be called churches, let alone sister churches on an equal footing with Rome.

isms, Sects

Study Questions:
     1.     Explain dualism’s role in the heretical movement.
     2.     Name a few of history’s major theological heresies. Why were they categorized as this?
     3.     Describe how power became the dividing factor of the first Christian schism.
     4.     What event was named the second major schism? What was its result?
     5.     When did Protestantism develop? What is the relationship between it and Catholicism?

Back to Religion Library