Schism and division: the East-West Schism and the Reformation

The East-West Schism

The Council of Nicaea in 425 debated the nature of God the Son. Who exactly was Jesus in relation to God the Father? (see previous post for more details)  The Nicene Creed gave an answer to this question, but the debate did not end there.

Over the coming centuries, the debates grew.  One of these debates was about the question: What exactly is God like?  Who exactly is God the Holy Spirit?

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Eastern Empire, based in Constantinople continued as the Byzantine Empire.  By the 11th century these two empires had developed into two great powers of the Christian parts of the world – the pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Alongside the rivalry between the east and the west, the differences in what they believed continued to grow.  The debate about the exact nature of God emphasised the different approaches of the two churches.  The western church took a more rational, thinking approach to theology. Great thinkers such as St. Augustine had a lot of authority.  In the east, the approach was more mystical and emotional. This resulted in a suspicion of the western attitude to God.

In 1054, matters came to a head.  The pope excommunicated the patriarch in Constantinople, who in return excommunicated the pope.  These excommunications were personal and not intended to be a permanent division in the church. However the schism was never healed and remains in place to this day.  The western church became known as the Roman Catholic Church, while the eastern church became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The split was finally cemented by the sacking of Constantinople by the fourth Crusade in 1204.  This clearly demonstrates that while 1054 is the key date, the process of schism took over 400 years.

The Reformation

In the centuries following the Great Schism of 1054, the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church spread across Europe.  Over time there were many arguments and disagreements (at one point there were 3 different popes!). For some people the behaviour of the church was becoming a problem.

Statue of Martin Luther in Wittenberg

In 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther started a significant change.  By his time, many people had come to see the church as corrupt and mostly interested in power, land and money.  Some greedy priests were selling indulgences. These were ways of relieving punishment for sin to help people get into heaven more quickly. This practice became unpopular as the people saw it as way making money rather than a true spiritual exercise.

Luther thought these indulgences were against the teachings of Christianity.  He wrote down his objections and nailed them to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg in eastern Germany.  His complaints spread across Europe and to the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, including the pope.  He was excommunicated by the church and faced charges of heresy in 1521. He stood up for his ideas under a lot of pressure from the church authorities, saying:

“Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen.”

Martin Luther, at his trial

Luther’s ideas became popular across large parts of Europe, especially among those who wanted to decrease the power of the church in land and wealth.  From this came the Protestant churches – the protest churches. These churches split away from the Roman Catholic church.  This split is called the Reformation.

While France and Spain remained Catholic, the Netherlands and later England became Protestant.  The Roman Catholic Church reacted against this split by launching a counter-reformation.  They formed a group of priests called Jesuits who sought to protect the Catholic faith and oppose Protestants.

It didn’t take long for all of this to turn violent.  The Inquisition was a way of working out if people were true Catholics. It involved the use of torture and execution.  Several wars were fought between the European powers in the 16th and 17 centuries. The two sides usually divided along religious lines – Catholic against Protestant.  Thousands of people were killed in these wars.  During this time, the great enemy had ceased to be Muslims and became other Christians.  The consequences of this schism are still relevant in the UK to this day.

The division of Christianity has continued so that there are now hundreds of different Christian groups across the world. These groups are called denominations. The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Protestant Church remain the three main branches.

The Catholic Church consists mostly of Roman Catholics, while the Orthodox Church has several different groups.  The Protestant Church has hundreds of different denominations.


The Catholic Church consists mostly of Roman Catholics, while the Orthodox Church has several different groups.  The Protestant Church has hundreds of different denominations.