Index Catholic Church Historical Divisions

Historical Divisions

At various stages in the history of the Church, there were groups which did not accept the decisions of the bishops on a major point of doctrine, such as the divinity of Christ. As a result, they broke away from the main body of the Church and went their own way. At the time, some of these groups were quite large, though most of them gradually diminished over the centuries after they broke away. In many cases, this was because they happened to be located in areas which were eventually taken over by Islam. Some of them still exist in isolated pockets in the Middle East.

More serious was the gradual drifting apart of East and West over a period of several centuries, which took place in various stages leading up to about the end of the first millennium. On the doctrinal level, the Eastern Churches objected to the Western Church's addition of the phrase and the Son to the Creed's description of the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father. This was not so much because they disagreed with the doctrine, as that they disputed the right of the Western Church to alter the Creed without calling a full Ecumenical Council. On the political level, relations were certainly not helped by the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade! Despite these divisions, which still exist today, the differences in doctrine between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are very small indeed, and each fully recognises the other's priesthood, sacraments and so on.

The differences in doctrine which arose during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation were much more fundamental, and are complicated by the fact that further divisions between the Protestant Churches appeared during the following century. This process continued to accelerate towards the first half of the twentieth century, since when there have been moves to reverse the trend (such as the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches combining to form the United Reformed Church). The Anglican Communion is rather a special case, as it combines features of Catholic and Protestant belief and practice. The Reformation was obviously a complex historical phenomenon, but I would summarise it very roughly as a reaction against abuses existing within the Catholic Church. (These, by the way, were also recognised and addressed by movements for reform with the Catholic Church itself, including the Council of Trent -- which was much more than just a reaction against the Protestant Reformation.) The Protestant view w as that the Catholic Church was corrupt beyond the possibility of reform, so that it was necessary to make a new beginning and to go back to the purity of the early centuries of the Church.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica sums up the characteristic beliefs of Protestantism as 'justification by grace through faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the authority of the Holy Scriptures'. Very roughly, this means:

1. Salvation is a free gift from God and that there is nothing we can do to deserve it.
2. Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and through him we all have access to God.
3. The Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals.

In fact, these are beliefs that have been common to all Christians throughout history. In the early years of the Reformation, the differences were in the interpretation and emphasis which were given to these doctrines. Later on, as a result of the increasingly bitter controversies, each side tended to misrepresent the beliefs of the other, and to adopt more extreme positions in opposition to it. Over the past fifty years or so there has been an increasing understanding between Protestant and Catholic theologians, so that although there are still significant differences, each is in a much better position to understand and appreciate the alternative point of view.

My impression, for what it's worth, is that the main difference between Catholics and (at least some) Protestants is in their understanding of the concept of a Sacrament -- but that topic needs a new section to itself...

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