In this one and only Church of God from it's very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church -- for which, often enough, men on both sides were to blame (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 817)
I didn’t used to think much about it. Truthfully, I was so used to the idea that Christianity existed in a fragmented state, that it didn’t bother me. Like kids growing up in a broken home. At first it may seem impossible that dad isn't coming home. After awhile it seems natural.
Oh, I knew the Church had been divided when the Coptic Church separated in the 5th century over the Council of Chalcedon. I knew the Church was divided again in the 11th century between Catholic and what we now think of as the Eastern Orthodox churches. I knew the Protestant churches had broken away from the Catholic Church in the 16th century and since had splintered into Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Brethren, Congregationalist, Nazarene, Church of Christ with multiple variations within each of these and a thousand other Independent Christian fellowships.
I knew that these Churches were not united, that they contradicted one another on many points of doctrine -- even in their moral teachings. I viewed this as unfortunate, but as something for which there really was no answer. After all, these churches simply don't agree with one another on what the true teachings of Christianity are. And since (in my view as a evangelical Protestant) there was no spiritual authority on earth to decide these issues and unite all Christians in one Church, what could be done?
It was just the way things are.
In fact, it wasn't until many years later that the prayer of Jesus recorded in the 17th chapter of John's Gospel caught my eye.
My prayer is not for them alone [referring to his disciples]. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father.... May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
The Argument of Unity
Here’s Jesus in the upper room with his disciples. He's just spoken of the New Covenant, instituted in his body and his blood. In a few moments he will leave that room to enter a garden called Gethsemane. These are close to being our Lord's last recorded words before his arrest and passion.
And what does he have on his mind? "Father, may they be brought to complete unity."
And why? "To let the world know -- that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." In other words, one of the strongest arguments for the truth of the Christian message will be the unity of Christ's Church. This is what Jesus says.
Another passage that caught my eye was 1 Cor.1:10, where St Paul wrote to the believers in the Greek city of Corinth specifically about division in the church:
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.
As Jesus established but one Church. As he envisioned but one Shepherd with one flock. As Christ the head has but one body; Christ the bridegroom, one bride. As the Church has but one soul, the Holy Spirit. As our Lord and his apostles gave only one teaching, isn't it kind of obvious that he wouldn’t want his Church divided and splintered into a vast number of conflicting denominations, sects and independent churches, each with its own vision (and version) of Christianity?
I thought of where St Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 14:8, "If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?" and I wondered (and still wonder) how many have turned away because they looked at the Church and instead of seeing One Church they saw many, competing with one another for members, contradicting one another in teaching, unable to present one clear message.
What do you think? Five? Ten? A hundred million? Five hundred million?.
I think apologist Peter Kreeft is correct when he writes:
The divisions that make the [Christian] Church visibly many rather than one are scandalous and intolerable. If you do not agree with that statement, then either you don't believe the Bible is the revelation of God's own mind…or else you can't read. The most serious division today, and the most serious one in history, is the division between Catholics and Protestants.
With this in mind, in this short series we're asking two questions:
What was the Reformation and Why did it Happen?
In What Was the Reformation? I argued that at its heart the Reformation was a reaction -- ultimately a revolt -- against the idea that there existed on earth a united spiritual authority. That Christ had established a Church with the Spirit-given ability to preserve and pass down the truth of the apostolic teaching, and the authority to decide in matters of dispute.
Specifically, the Reformers rejected the authority of the Catholic Church and determined to stand on the authority of scripture alone. Sola scriptura was the battle cry of the Reformation.
In Part I of Why Did the Reformation Happen?, we began answering the question by looking at the historical and cultural forces at work at the time -- forces that were (and I'm not exaggerating at bit) literally driving the world in the direction of what was to occur. And basically, what we learned was that nothing short of a cultural revolution was taking place at the time of the Reformation.
As the internet is changing our world, so the invention of the printing press was changing the world in the decades leading up to the Reformation in the early 16th century. There was a dramatic rise in literacy. Inexpensive tracts, pamphlets and books were being cranked out for the first time in history. Colleges and universities were springing up. There was an explosion of new ideas.
And at the same time...
The Rise of Renaissance Humanism
Now, when we use the word “humanism” today, we think of secular humanism, even atheism. We think of that philosophy that emphasizes the dignity of "man" apart from God, man's ability to decide all things for himself without reference to God. Man as the “measure of all things.”
That's not what I'm talking about here.
I'm talking about the humanism of the Italian Renaissance, an aspect of which was an educational philosophy gaining a strong foothold in the universities at the time that was critical of the kind of theology being done by the great Doctors of the late Medieval Church -- the scholastic theologians, the "schoolmen," as they were called. We're talking about men like Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus (from whose name, by the way, we get the word "dunce").
Basically, the humanists despised scholastic theology, viewing the writings of the schoolmen as too philosophical, too abstract, too complicated. They portrayed the scholastics as, quoting Alister McGrath, "engaged in pointless, intellectual speculation over trivia."
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? That kind of thing.
Now, this interesting question never was actually debated, but this was the impression the humanists had (and delighted to spread abroad) of the official doctors of the Church..
And there's truth in it. Think of the mind-blowing complexity of a Bach fugue. Think of the amazing intricacy of a Gothic cathedral. You read St.Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae and you're reading the theological equivalent, more or less. Now, I love the richness and beauty and depth of Aquinas, but if you've ever tried to actually read especially some of the more philosophical passages of the Summa, maybe you can understand at least a little tiny bit how someone might feel as the humanists felt.
Well, the humanists were bored with medieval scholasticism.They wanted to abandon what they viewed as the "intellectual stagnation" of the Middle Ages and return to something "more pure".
For them this meant a return to the original sources.
The humanists wanted to go back. They wanted to drink at the fresh springs of the Old and New Testaments, the writings of the Church Fathers, the classics of Greek and Roman civilization. Their cry was ad fontes -- "to the sources" (literally "to the fountains"). McGrath explains:
By returning to the original sources, the intellectual stagnation and squalor of the Middle Ages could be bypassed, in order to engage directly with the cultural glories of antiquity. Instead of wrestling with the conceptual confusion and literary inelegance of medieval commentaries on the Bible, it was necessary to return to the biblical texts themselves, and recover their freshness and vitality…. (p. 54).s
Questions and Answers
And so, back to Martin Luther and John Calvin and the other reformers. As Luther studied for his doctorate in theology at the University of Wittenberg and Calvin talked Seneca and Erasmus at the cafes of the Latin Quarter near the University of Paris, the world was dramatically changing.
Literacy was rapidly expanding. New ideas were everywhere. And for the first time in history these ideas could be disseminated widely in the form of tracts and treatises, pamphlets and books. And at the same time, there was a growing culture and attitude in the universities that said, in essence, “The official theologians of the Church are impractical and boring. Let’s bypass them and get back to the pure study of scripture and the fathers and the classics!”
I can already hear the questions flying: "Are you saying increased literacy was a bad thing?" Of course not. "Are you saying that wanting to interact directly with the Old and New Testaments and the church fathers was a bad thing? No. These are both good things.
I'm simply saying that they were ingredients in the creation of a general atmosphere that, quoting Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc, could be characterized as "reaction against a united spiritual authority." Mix in a veritable explosion of fresh theological speculation and opinion coming from the universities and an increasingly arrogant mockery of the "official" doctors of the Church, and it wouldn't have taken a genius to see the direction in which things were headed.
But there were even more forces at work, moving Catholic Europe in the direction of what was to eventually occur. Stay tuned.