A Summary of the History of
MAJOR CHRISTIAN SCHISMS

List of Contents:
I. Christendom Today
II. The First Major Schism (451 AD): The Chalcedonian Schism
A. Recent Attempts at Reestablishing Communion between
the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches

III. The Second Major Schism (July 1054): The Roman Catholic Schism
A. The Background of the Great Schism
B. The Events of the Great Schism
C. Attempts at Reconciliation

IV. The Third Major Schism (1521): The Protestant Reformation
A. Background: Corruption of the Clergy of the Roman Catholic Church
B. The Protestant Reformation


Inspirationals from the Holy Bible:
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1: 10); “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12: 26-27); “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13: 13); “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4: 4-6).


I. Christendom Today

There are three major Christian traditions in today’s world: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. The approximate data provided herein is as of the year 2010. ┬áThe total world population was about 7 billion persons. The grand total Christian population was about 2.2 billion Christians representing about 32% of the total world population. This means that Christianity is a minority’s religion in the world. Certainly, Christians ought to be doing a lot of evangelistic work today that the light of Christ may shine through those 4.8 billion humans who live in darkness away from Him.

The approximate breakdown of the 2.2 billion Christian population was as follows:
Roman Catholics . . . . 1,100 Million
Orthodox . . . . . . . . . . . . 300 Million
Protestants . . . . . . . . . . 800 Million

The fastest growing Churches are the Protestant evangelical Churches (Baptist, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, etc) because of their emphasis on evangelism in their teachings and works. In general, the weakest Churches in the area of evangelism are the Orthodox Churches. This is in part due to the fact that these Churches were under persecution for a long time. This is beginning to change, albeit slowly.

The Orthodox world is divided into two major groups of Churches who are not in communion with each other:

1. The Eastern (Chalcedonian) Orthodox (sometimes called Orthodox) numbering about 220 million, and

2. The Oriental (non Chalcedonian) Orthodox numbering about 80 million.

The major Eastern Orthodox Churches are the following: Alexandria (Greek Orthodox), Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia (largest Orthodox Church), Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Greece, Georgia, Cyprus, OCA, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul). The major Oriental Orthodox Churches are the following: Ethiopia (the largest with about 55 Million members), Eritrea, Egypt (about 12 Million Copts), Armenia, Syria (Jacobites), and St. Thomas Church of South India.

Each Orthodox Church is autocephalous. It has its independent hierarchy of priests, bishops and Patriarch. Its top executive authority is its synod of bishops. All members of the Orthodox Church are fallible, including laity, ordained clergy, and monastics (monks and nuns). In addition, synods may err. Only the ecclesiastical consciousness, which is guided by the Holy Spirit of the living God, is infallible. The ecclesiastical consciousness of the Orthodox Church is expressed in the harmonious agreement of the totality of the body of Christ which consists of laity, clergy and monastics. This is what safeguards the democratic process in the Orthodox Church polity.

II. The First Major Schism (451 AD): The Chalcedonian Schism

The fourth Ecumenical Council was convened in Chalcedon (approximately 600 bishops), a suburb of Constantinople, in 451 AD to discuss the person and nature of Christ. It decided against the Alexandrian position led by Dioscorus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who was deposed and exiled. He died in exile in 454. The emperor approved the decision of the council to install an Alexandrian priest called Proterius to succeed him in the See of Alexandria (452-7). The Egyptians responded by installing the rival native Patriarch Timothy the second (Aelurus) after the death of Dioscorus. Subsequently, the people revolted against the foreign appointed bishop. Angry Alexandrians assassinated him, dragged his body through the city streets, burnt it and cast its dust to the winds. Since then and till now, the see of Alexandria has been split between two lines of Patriarchal succession. The Melkite, or royalist, line is Greek Chalcedonian originating from Constantinople. The other is the non-Chalcedonian native Coptic Church. At this time, the Greek bishop of Alexandria has no following in Egypt. His main responsibility is evangelism in central Africa. The local Churches that rejected the language of Chalcedon were persecuted as heretical in the Byzantine Empire. As a result, it went underground till the Islamic invasions of the seventh century.

Today, all Christendom (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and the major Protestant denominations) except the Oriental Orthodox accepts the language of Chalcedon on the person and nature of Christ.

A. Recent Attempts at Reestablishing Communion between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches

Several Byzantine emperors attempted without success to bridge the gap between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches in the Byzantine Empire before the Islamic Arab invasion.

In recent history, numerous theological exchanges took place in both Europe and the Middle East between the two Orthodox families of Churches (the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox). These meetings began in the University of Aarhus, Denmark in 1964, and ended in Geneva, Switzerland in 1990. As a result of these exchanges, the representatives of both the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches have come to a clear understanding that both families of Churches have always maintained the same authentic Christological faith, and that the division between the two Orthodox families of Churches is due to different terminologies utilized to express the same Christological faith. A historical agreement on a Christological formula was signed at the monastery of St. Bishoy in Wadi-El-Natroun, Egypt in June 1989. In September 1990 in Geneva, the joint commission of the two Orthodox families of Churches signed the Second Agreed Statement and Recommendations to the Churches reaffirming the common faith and recommending the lifting of the mutual anathemas and condemnations of the past and the preparation for the restoration of the full communion of the Churches.

It is regrettable indeed that, to date, full communion is not restored between the two Orthodox families of Churches due to ecclesiastical politics, and pockets of fanatic opposition in both sides. Let us pray that full communion will be reestablished in the Orthodox world in this generation.

III. The Second Major Schism (July 1054): The Roman Catholic Schism

A. The Background of the Great Schism

The roots of the Great Schism between the Christian West and the Christian East are extensive. The drifting apart occurred gradually over a period of centuries of time. The Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) used the Greek language. The Western Roman Empire used the Latin language. Not only the languages were different, but also the bases of theological thought were different. While Orthodox Greek theology is based on the Holy Bible and the writings of the early Church fathers, Western Latin theology is largely based on Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotelian philosophy. In addition, the historical development of the West differed greatly from the East. Barbarian invasions and migrations in the Western Roman Empire disrupted the East-West unity of culture and economy, and brought German/Frankish influence on the Western Church.

This drifting apart crystallized in the following differences that eventually led to the Great Schism:
1. Politico-ecclesiastical rivalry between the Patriarch of Constantinople (representing the Eastern Churches) backed by the Byzantine Empire, and the bishop (Pope) of Rome in connection with the new German Empire in the West. The Roman Pope insisted on being the head of all the Churches on earth. The Eastern Churches’ polity was based on conciliar government. Each regional/national Church had its own hierarchy and its synod of bishops, which was the top authority in that Church.
2. The Filioque. In accordance with the Nicene Creed, which was issued by the first Ecumenical Council in 325 AD and completed by the second Ecumenical Council in 381 AD, the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father only. The Latin Church in the West added the Filioque--“and also from the Son,” claiming that the Holy Spirit proceeds both from the Father and also from the Son. This addition to the Nicene Creed was illegal because it was never approved by an Ecumenical Council.
3. The Latin (Western) Church used unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The Eastern Church used leavened bread in the Eucharist.
4. The Latin priests were unmarried and shaved. The Eastern priests were married (except those serving monastic communities) and grew their beards.

B. The Events of the Great Schism

The theological, ritual and ecclesiastical differences between the Greek (Eastern) and Latin (Western) Churches caused friction between them, which began to escalate in the reign of Patriarch Michael Cerularius (1043-1058) of Constantinople. Cerularius closed all the Latin churches in Constantinople and southern Italy. The Roman Pope Leo IX became angry and sent a letter to Cerularius, which was taken to Constantinople by papal legates headed by cardinal Humbert. Humbert was as uncompromising and intolerant as Cerularius. Theological discussions in Constantinople under imperial auspices, without the participation of Cerularius, were dead locked. On July 16, 1054, Humbert issued a papal bull excommunicating the Patriarch Cerularius and his close associates. He left the bull on the altar of Hagia Sofia, the greatest cathedral in Constantinople, at the morning liturgy which was celebrated by Cerularius, and shortly thereafter, left Constantinople. In response, Cerularius convoked his synod in Constantinople and excommunicated the three Roman legates (but not Pope Leo IX who had died on April 19, 1054 before the excommunication). The Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem (all Eastern Orthodox) supported the position of the See of Constantinople. Thus far, those were theological ecclesiastical disputes at the top. The laity of the Churches was not affected by it. That is why historians believe the effective date of the Great Schism was April 14, 1204 when Constantinople fell to the fourth Latin Crusade which ransacked and pillaged the city. The Greek East never forgave, and never trusted, the Latin West thereafter.

C. Attempts at Reconciliation

After the restoration of the Byzantine rule in Constantinople in 1261, two attempts of reunion were made before the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks. Both attempts were made under the political pressure of the Byzantine Emperor in order to obtain military aid from the Latin West to stabilize the frontier of the Empire and protect it from the Turkish threat. The first attempt was made at the council of Lyons in 1274, and the second at the council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39. The agreements signed in both councils were complete surrender to the Papal demands, which resulted in great turmoil and unrest in Constantinople. Most of the Orthodox clergy and laity rejected it. The last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, did not get the military aid he hoped for form the Latins. Constantinople fell to the advancing Turks in 1453, and the Emperor was killed in its streets fighting the Turks in the last battle of the Byzantine Empire in history. The Turks changed the name of the city of Constantinople to Istanbul.

The gulf between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches has subsequently widened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by introducing new dogmas in the Roman Catholic Church. Examples on that are: the immaculate conception of St. Mary (promulgated in 1854), the infallibility of the Pope in doctrinal matters (1870), and recognizing the false god of Islam as the same true living God of Christianity (Vatican II, 1962-5).

The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople/Istanbul Athenagoras and the Roman Pope Paul VI have revoked the anathemas between Constantinople and Rome in 1965. However, communion between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church is not restored because of the major unresolved theological and ecclesiastical differences. A joint commission for the theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church was established in 1979 to study and resolve the major differences. The work of the commission continues.

IV. The Third Major Schism (1521): The Protestant Reformation

A. Background: Corruption in the Clergy of the Roman Catholic Church

Corruption was widespread in the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church in medieval Europe. Simony (buying priestly offices for money) was practiced. Some priests sold sacraments for money. Many of the clergy were publicly drunken, adulterers, and not worthy of their office. Some priests kept concubines openly and fathered illegitimate children without rebuke. Others committed major crimes such as murder and got mild punishment because of the privileges of their office. Popes bought their See with money and defended it with sword and poison. The people despised the pervasive corruption of the Roman Catholic clergy and resented the authority of the Pope. They cried out for reformation.

The Roman Catholic Popes used to raise large sums of money by issuing indulgences and selling them through the clergy for a variety of purposes—to finance Crusades, build huge cathedrals, etc. What is the doctrine of indulgences and works of supererogation of the saints that the Roman Catholic Church adheres to, while the Orthodox Church strongly opposes? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are two kinds of penalties for sins—eternal and temporal. Faith in Christ and Repentance lead to forgiveness and removal of the eternal punishment that Christ satisfied on the cross. However, accepting the atonement of Christ through faith and repentance does not remove the temporal penalty. The temporal penalty is satisfied in the purgatory because the span of man’s life on earth is not long enough to satisfy that penalty. However, the Church can satisfy the temporal penalty by drawing upon the treasury of superabounding grace emanating from the passion of Christ and the works of supererogation done by the saints. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the good works of the great saints far exceed what they need for their own salvation. So, the Roman Catholic Church Hierarchy distributes the grace of those excessive good works to the faithful that lack sufficient good works by indulgences. This is one of the major doctrinal differences between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Several men rose in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries attacking aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine and papal authority. They were the forerunners of the Protestant reformation led by Martin Luther in the 16th century. The most famous ones are: John Wyclif in England, John Huss in Bohemia (burnt alive at the stake in 1415), Savonarola in Florence, and Wessel in Northern Germany.

B. The Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born in 1483 to a miner in Saxony, Germany. After finishing his university studies, he became a Roman Catholic monk, and was ordained priest in 1507. He became doctor of theology and professor of biblical exegesis in the University of Wittenberg, Germany in 1511. In 1515 he was made vicar of 11 Roman Catholic monasteries.

Pope Leo X issued indulgences for sale to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Martin Luther strongly opposed the doctrine of indulgences. On Oct. 31, 1517 Luther posted 95 theses refuting the doctrine of indulgences on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. It attracted considerable attention throughout Germany. It marked the beginning of the Protestant movement. The Elector Frederick of Saxony protected Luther. Luther was summoned before Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg in Oct. 1518, but refused to recant and fled for protection to Wittenberg. Luther began to write and teach against many teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. His goal was purifying the Roman Catholic Church. By 1520 almost all Germany was supporting Luther. On June 15, 1520 the Pope issued a bull condemning forty-one of Luther’s propositions as heretical, ordering the faithful to burn Luther’s books, and giving Luther two months to recant. In the morning of Dec. 10, 1520 Luther burnt the papal bull along with many Catholic books in a public ceremony before a big crowd outside Wittenberg. This led to his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church by the papal bull of Jan. 3, 1521, which completed the breach.

Luther translated the New Testament into German, and produced a German hymnal book. He allowed the monks and nuns to leave, allowed married pastors, simplified the Catholic mass, and reduced the sacraments from seven to two (Baptism and Eucharist). He discarded the robe of the monk in 1524 and married a former nun in 1525. The doctrinal basis of the Lutheran Church was established in the Augsburg Confession of 1530. The prevailing political and military conditions enabled the emerging Lutheran Church to grow and consolidate peacefully. Germany was divided. The princes and cities that favored the reformation formed a confederacy able militarily, and determined, to resist any Roman Catholic aggression. In addition, the Turkish threat in Catholic Central Europe prevented the Catholics from attacking the Protestants. The Lutheran revolution spread in Western and Northern Europe.

In his preaching, Luther emphasized spiritual life, and fought to bring the Gospel of Christ into the hearts, homes and daily lives of the people. The successes of Luther could be summarized in four achievements: the German Bible, German mass, German hymns, and German catechisms. All those were done in the Latin language in the Roman Catholic Church—a language that no one understood except scholars and some of the clergy.

At the same time, Zwingli (1484-1531) rose in Zurich in opposition to Roman Catholic teachings. The chief difference between Zwingli and Luther is their believes about the Eucharist. Luther believed in the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements united with them (consubstantiation). This is different from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation {the actual change of the substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ after consecration, while the accidents (color, taste, etc.) remain}. Zwingli believed that the presence of Christ in the consecrated elements was purely symbolic. This dispute still persists between the Lutheran and reformed wings of the Protestant reformation. The Lutheran Church is the largest Protestant Church today.

Calvin (1509-64) organized the Protestant Church in Geneva. He emphasized in his teaching the doctrine of predestination. The leading Calvinist Churches are the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches.

All the Protestant Churches reject the Holy Tradition (the Creed, decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, writings of the early Church Fathers, Liturgy, icons, etc.). They depend solely on the Holy Bible. They inherited the doctrine of the Filioque from the Roman Catholic Church.