Recently, a number of people have asked me questions about the history of Christianity, specifically about the big splits that have occurred in Christianity so far. There have been three big splits in Christianity, one in the mid-400’s, one in the mid 1000’s, and one in the 1500’s. Those are what I’d like for us to think about today. Understanding the history of Christianity is essential if you want to understand Christianity and its beliefs.
To understand the first split, we need to start at the beginning. We know very little about the first 250 or so years of Christianity. Very little in the historical record has survived. From the few things that did survive, we know Christian beliefs went in many different directions. There was not one version of Christianity; there were many, with many different beliefs.
But, about 300 years after the time of Jesus, the Roman Emperor Constantine created “The Church,” and Christianity became an institutionalized religion. Constantine’s church officials decided on “correct” beliefs. Christian beliefs became standardized. This process of deciding correct beliefs, though, was something that didn’t happen overnight. It happened over a period of a couple of hundred years. As this process happened, beliefs that did not fit the official version were outlawed, and those versions of Christianity disappeared.
At a late point in this process, something was decided that a large number of Christians could not accept. There was controversy over what was called the “nature” of Jesus. Christians believed Jesus was God coming to us as a human being. When you look at Jesus, you see a real human being, but you also see God. There was controversy over exactly how that resulted.
One faction said Jesus had two separate “natures” combined into one person—a human nature and a divine nature. Jesus had two different “things” living inside Him—human nature and divine nature.
The other faction said Jesus had only one nature, a unique nature that was a combination of human and divine.
Christianity split over this. We may think this is splitting hairs, but back then, people saw a real difference between the two positions. The Church took the position that Jesus had two separate natures, and that became the “official” position.
A large number of Christians who could not agree with that split off from Christianity and went their separate way. This happened in the year 451. The Christians who insisted Jesus had only one nature split off and became known as Oriental Orthodox. They were mostly located in Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, parts of the Middle East, and India. They were in areas where the Roman Empire had little control. That’s how they were able to get by with splitting off.
From that point on, the Oriental Orthodox went a completely different direction than the official Roman church, and today they have beliefs that in many ways are very different from what most American Christians think of as “correct” beliefs. Many of the opening prayers we use here, including the one today, and some of our Communion service, come from Oriental Orthodox Christianity. So, you have been exposed to some of this line of thinking.
Today, these Christians are represented by several organizations, including the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Church. Most of these have some congregations located here in the United States, but they don’t have a large presence here, and we seldom hear about them. However, they do have a large presence in other parts of the world.
That was the first big split, in the year 451.
Now let’s get back to “official” Christianity. Rome had originally been the center of the Roman Empire, which meant that it was also the center of Christianity. But in the year 476, according to historians, the Roman Empire in the West officially fell. The West is, in general, what we think of as Europe. When the Roman Empire fell in the West, Europe was plunged into what historians call the Dark Ages. However, a vestige of the Roman Empire continued in the East, with its capitol at Constantinople, which today is modern-day Istanbul, Turkey. This remaining part of the Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire. It comprised the area of modern-day Egypt, Greece, Syria, and Turkey. By this time, the official center of Christianity was seen to be in Constantinople. But, there were beginning to be significant disagreements between Christians in the West and Christians in the East.
A generation or so earlier, a man named Augustine, from the West, had come up with an idea called “original sin.” According to Augustine, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden that God told them not to eat, God got angry. So angry, in fact, that He completely changed human nature. God made it so that everyone, from the moment of their birth, was 100% evil through and through, so evil in fact, that no one could do anything good at all. Every person was nothing but evil and could do nothing but evil. This was because God flew off the handle and ruined everything because Adam and Eve ate the fruit.
This idea was attractive to many in the West, and Christians in the West began adopting it. However, it was rejected by Christians in the East. Their rejection was significant because, after all, the East, in Constantinople, was where the center of Christianity now was.
But having the center of Christianity in Constantinople didn’t sit well with Christians in the West, and there was a period of time when Christianity was in chaos. Law and order broke down in the West when the western Roman Empire fell, and church officials murdered each other. There were at times competing popes, and some of these murdered their rivals and competitors. Christianity went in two different directions—one in the West, based on Augustine’s idea of original sin, and one in the East, which held to the older Christian beliefs.
As time moved on, beginning in the 800’s, Europe began to recover from the Dark Ages, and what’s known as the main Medieval Period began. Something called feudalism developed. Feudalism was a hierarchical system of organization of society modeled on the old Roman system of government. By the 900’s, some semblance of law and order and societal organization had returned to Europe because of feudalism. Feudalism, though, never developed in the East.
Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that any group of people will interpret Christianity in terms of its own society. In Europe, Christianity began to be reinterpreted in terms of feudalism. Christianity in the West had changed earlier through the adoption of original sin, and now it changed even more as it was reinterpreted in terms of feudalism. But remember, Eastern Christianity had rejected original sin, and feudalism never developed in the East, so those changes never happened in Eastern Christianity.
Eventually in the West, because they had reinterpreted Christianity several different times, an entirely new way of seeing Jesus arose. By the 1000’s, the idea had arisen in the West that Jesus was a completely separate divine entity from God. A new idea of salvation was developing in the West—the idea that Jesus sacrificed Himself to God as payment for human sin. That idea did not find full expression until it was promoted by a man named Anselm in the late 1000’s, but the beginnings of it were there much earlier. With all those changes going on in the way Western Christians looked at things, Eastern Christians felt there was no longer enough commonality between them and Western Christians for both to be together in one organization.
And so in the year 1054, Christianity split again, into Roman Catholic Christianity in the West, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the East. From this point on, Christianity in the West and Christianity in the East went in two completely different directions.
Eastern Orthodox Christians are represented in modern times by Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and a number of other Orthodox groups, all under a loose umbrella group referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church or Orthodox Catholic church.
So far we’ve seen two main splits in Christianity, and so now there were three main groups in Christianity—Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic.
The third split would happen in Roman Catholic Christianity. As we’ve seen, Roman Catholic Christianity embraced feudalism. In fact at one time, the pope was the largest feudal lord in all of Europe, controlling more land, vassals, and serfs than any king.
But of course, feudalism didn’t last forever. By the 1300’s, feudalism was on the way out. The rise of what’s called the merchant class killed feudalism. The merchant class was composed of people who had money not because they were born with it, but because they worked for it. The rise of the merchant class sparked a new period in Europe called the Renaissance. The Renaissance marked the beginning of the economic system known as capitalism. The Renaissance also brought out the basic ideas of democracy and ideas like the separation of church and state.
Remember, we said earlier that Christianity is always interpreted through the lens of the society in which people live. We saw how, beginning in the 800’s, European Christians reinterpreted Christianity in terms of feudalism. Then, as feudalism was ending, some of them reinterpreted Christianity in Renaissance terms of capitalism and democracy. But not all would go along with that. Many were firmly planted in a Christianity interpreted in feudalistic terms.
That led to the third big split in Christianity—the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was a reinterpretation of Christianity using the ideas of the Renaissance. Protestants rejected the interpretation of Christianity based on feudalism and came up with an interpretation of Christianity based on Renaissance ideas.
And so in the 1500’s, European Christianity split into two parts—Roman Catholic and Protestant. Roman Catholics held to an interpretation based on feudalism, while Protestants developed a new interpretation of Christianity based on the ideas of the Renaissance.
Protestants were the first English settlers in this country, and in fact, Protestants formed the main bulk of people who would eventually settle here. That’s why Protestant Christianity is the most common form of Christianity in the United States. Protestants outnumber Catholics 2 to 1, and much of the Catholic population in the United States is recent or relatively recent immigrants to this country.
From Protestant Christianity eventually developed the multitude of Christian denominations we have in the United States today—Baptist denominations, Presbyterian denominations, Episcopalians, Methodists, Church of God, Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, Lutherans, etc.
Those are the three big splits in Christianity, and the result of it was that there are now four main Christian groups in the world—Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Their beliefs are very different. Each of the splits happened as a result of society changing and Christianity being reinterpreted according to new ideas and conditions arising in society.
And that brings us up to today. American society today is, at least theoretically, still based on Renaissance ideas, ideas like capitalism, self-rule of people, individualism. But new ideas and new conditions are arising in American society.
The way history works is that one historical period eventually ends and another begins. We talked about how the Roman period ended, and then the Dark Ages begin. The Dark Ages ended, and the period of feudalism began. Feudalism ended, and the Renaissance began. Today, we’re still in the period of society based on Renaissance thought. However, the unrest and dissension, the conflict and lack of agreement we see in society today may be an indication that one period is ending and another period is beginning.
One of the best sermons I’ve ever heard was years ago. I don’t remember exactly how long ago, but it was a while back. There was some kind of unrest in society over something back then. I don’t remember what it was, but there was conflict in society over something. The sermon was about the Protestant Reformation. The minister talked about how history moves very slowly. Changes don’t happen overnight. Big changes in history were the result of a process that spans many, many years, many generations. His point was that the Protestant Reformation didn’t happen overnight. The Reformation was a process—years and years and years set the stage for it, and then the Reformation period itself lasted over 100 years.
The minister said he believed what we’re in now is the process of one period ending and another beginning. Remember, history changes very slowly, and there’s no way to tell where we are in the process. It might be that the stage is being set now for a new period to begin, or we might actually be in the early stages of the new period now. That will only be clear years in the future, when people look back on today. But whatever the case, he said he thought we were beginning a period of change that would be every bit as significant as the Protestant Reformation.
Of course, whether this new period will be better than the period that preceded it is another question. The new period may very well be worse than the period that preceded it. Changes don’t necessarily bring something better; sometimes they bring something worse. So it’s not necessarily that this man thought the new period would be better, only that a new period was beginning that would be different.
His interpretation was that other ideas are now coming to the forefront, and American society will eventually change to conform to those ideas. It won’t happen overnight, just as the Reformation didn’t happen overnight. There will be setbacks along the way, but eventually, different ideas will come to the forefront, and years and years and years from now, historians will look back and see that we, today, were in the period when things were changing.
This minister said that’s why Christianity is changing so much today. Society is changing, and remember, Christianity always changes along with society, so Christianity is changing, too. But some parts don’t want to change. And so the time is ripe for a split.
Looking back at history, you see that periods like this very seldom result in things being brought back together again. They usually result in splits. That’s how, looking back over history, it’s usually worked out. And so his interpretation was that we’re seeing the beginnings, just the beginnings, of another split in Christianity, one that will be every bit as significant as the Protestant Reformation, and it will be a result of changes that are happening in society, as people reinterpret Christianity in light of new societal conditions.
That sermon made an impression on me, and I’ve kept it in mind all these years as I’ve seen things happening in Christianity and in society. I don’t know if it will work out the way this guy predicted or not, but it’s certainly an interesting idea to consider, especially given all the disagreements and dissension we see within Christianity today.
There’s no denying that times are changing. It’s up to each individual to decide whether they think the changes are going in the right direction or the wrong direction, but whatever our personal opinions might be, things are in fact changing in both society and Christianity. They’re not changing overnight. They’re changing in the way history always moves, in very slow, incremental steps—a step or two this way, then a step back or in another direction, another step or two this way, then a step back. But they are changing, and hopefully this way of looking at thing will allow you to make sense of what’s going on in the world today.