Orthodoxy is my doxy; heterodoxy is
another man's doxy.
Bishop William Warburton (1698-1779)
A famous fifth century definition of the one true Christian
faith is that which has been believed everywhere, always, and
by all*. So which is this
true faith? Does any faith satisfy the definition? Is there
a true one? And how can we tell? Is it the biggest sect, or
the one that sticks most closely to biblical teachings, or the
one that most resembles the early Church? How can we tell? Many
Churches see themselves as representing the one true faith,
standing like the trunk of a huge ancient tree, solid, straight
and ancient, while other sects have branched off, wispy and
insubstantial. They see themselves as different from all the
others. For non-Christians, a bramble bush might be a better
analogy for the Christian Church. There is not one main stem
to this bush, but a number of stems. Some of the oldest stems
have died off, and most of the vigorous growth is in the secondary
and tertiary offshoots. The bush bears the marks of some forceful
pruning over the years, yet it still lacks any main trunk and
remains a dense tangle.
Typically, what starts out as a single movement divides into
an ever-increasing number of related movements. This phenomenon
of division is generally known as schism, from the Greek word
schisma denoting a split, rent or cleft. Each schismatic
faction believes itself to hold the orthodox line. The word
orthodox is of Greek origin and means simply right
opinion. Each schismatic group is convinced that it holds
the right opinion, and is thus orthodox, representing in its
own mind the whole of the true Christian Church, other factions
having placed themselves outside it through their heterodox
beliefs. It is for this reason that many sects claimed to be
catholic (i.e. whole or comprehensive).
The word catholic is derived from the Greek word katholikos
meaning universal. The Anglican Church, the Roman Church and
the Eastern Churches all claim to be catholic.
Anglicans and many Protestants do not regard their own Churches
as dating from the Reformation. They see them as dating back
to the earliest Church, although temporarily misled by the Bishop
of Rome. As Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury put it
: "When an Anglican is asked “where was your Church
before the Reformation?”, his best answer is to put the
counter question “Where was your face before you washed
From the vantage point of any one sect, all others have fallen
into error, and their adherents are thus likely to be branded
as heretics. In theory a heretical sect has broken away from
its parent Church (a fallen branch), while a schismatic sect
is still part of the tree (a split trunk). In practice the distinction
between schism and heresy is largely political. If the split
can be healed by diplomacy, then it is called a schism. But
if one side thinks it can eliminate the other by force, then
accusations of heresy tend to arise. Wherever possible the branch
is chopped off and burned.
Schisms and heresies arise in most religions. The Pharisees,
Sadducees and Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament were
heretical Jewish sects from the point of view of mainstream
Judaism. So were other groups*,
and so was Christianity when it started to diverge from its
Jewish roots. Islam is sometimes regarded as a schismatic offshoot
of both Judaism and Christianity. Soon after the death of Mohammed,
Islam split into two main groups, the Shi"ites and the
Sunni. Soon these too spawned new schismatic sub-sects. In the
remainder of this section we will review some of the schisms
Jesus" followers divided into a number of opposing factions
almost immediately after his death. As we have already seen
(pages 81ff), the New Testament mentions a number of these factions,
and the Church Fathers and historians tell us of others. The
Nazarenes followers of Jesus who continued within mainstream
Judaism almost certainly represented the nearest approximation
to Jesus" own teachings, but this provided no guarantee
of supremacy within the wider fellowship. While the Nazarenes
continued quietly in Jerusalem, various Gnostic sects flourished
in Syria, and St Paul's faction grew fast in the Hellenic world.
All suffered further sub-schisms. The Nazarenes for example
had problems when Jesus" brother James was executed. As
the Church historian Eusebius
After James the Just had suffered martyrdom like the Lord and
for the same reason Symeon .... was appointed bishop.... But
Thebuthis, because he was not made bishop, began secretly to
corrupt her [the Church] from the seven sects among the people
to which he himself belonged: from which came Simon (whence
the Simonians), and Cleobius (whence the Cleobians), and Dositheus
(whence the Dositheans), and Gorthaeus (whence the Goratheni),
and Masbotheus (whence the Masbothæans). Springing from
these the Menandrianists, Marcionists, Carpocratians, Valentinians,
Basilidians, and Saturnilians, every man introducing his own
opinions in his own particular way ...*
Gnostics seem never to have been a single sect, but a collection
of disparate sects, each with its own distinctive ideas, and
liable to generate new sub-schisms. Pauline Christians were
also subject to sub-schism. Already in his lifetime Paul had
cause to reprove Christians in Corinth for dividing into sects.
Quarrelling Christians there were claiming to follow different
leaders: some St Paul, some Cephas i.e. St Peter, some Apollos,
and some Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-12). Other first century
schismatics include the Cerinthians and Nicolaitans. The Cerinthians,
like many others, held that Jesus was born of Mary and Joseph,
and that Christ descended on him at his baptism in the form
of a dove (cf. Mark 1:10-12).
Pauline Christians are now generally considered to represent
the orthodox line, but Paul had many difficulties in dealing
with others who were trying to proselytise gentiles, and who
held views other than his. On occasion Paul himself gave rise
to heterodox ideas. His statement that " ... if ye be led
of the Spirit, ye are not under the law" (Galatians 5:18)
was interpreted as meaning that the ancient laws no longer held
for Christians and there was therefore no longer any reason
for Christians to control their sexual impulses. Sexual licence
became a major problem, and Paul had to tell his followers to
stop it*. Similar ideas
were to resurface in Europe in the sixteenth century when sexual
licence again became a popular Christian theme, and the description
Antinomian was coined for those who enjoyed themselves more
than was thought proper by their Christian neighbours.
In the first and second centuries orthodoxy embraced millenarianism.
Millenarians interpreted a biblical passage (Revelation 20:2-4)
as meaning that Christ would reign for 1000 years while the
Devil was incarcerated. This view has periodically come back
into favour, generally with the assumption, based on other New
Testament passages, that the end of the world and beginning
of Christ's reign were imminent. Such ideas became popular again
in the years up to AD 1000, and yet again in the years up to
2000. Millenarianism was adopted by the Anabaptists and others
in the seventeenth century and is still taught by Mormons, Irvingites,
Adventists, the Plymouth Brethren, and many other denominations.
The Marcionites were followers of Marcion of Sinope who assembled
various writings into the earliest version of the New Testament.
Marcion, like many other early Christians, believed that Jesus
had suddenly appeared in the world as an adult. He and his followers
worshipped the god of love, adopted some Gnostic ideas, and
appointed women priests and bishops, there being no apparent
reason why they should not do so. At the time they were regarded
as more or less orthodox except that they received a little
too much guidance from the Holy Spirit for their neighbours"
tastes. Their gift of prophecy tended to subvert the authority
that priests were then establishing for themselves.
Montanists were another Gnostic sect.
They followed Montanus, a Phrygian, who believed that he had
special divine knowledge not given to the apostles. They sought,
as many sects have done since, to return to the beliefs and
practices of the primitive Church. For example, they were Quartodecimans,
meaning that they kept Easter on the 14th day of the Jewish
month of Nisan, as the entire Asian diocese had done*.
A famous Church Father, Tertullian,
became a Montanist around AD 207. Montanists were millenarians
and practised speaking in tongues,
a facility that is still claimed by Pentecostalist groups. Their
keenness on the twin joys of celibacy and martyrdom, along with
a willingness of other Christians to oblige them in respect
of the latter, ensured their disappearance in the sixth century.
Quintilians were a sub-sect of Montanists, founded by a priestess
Quintilia. They used bread and cheese at the Eucharist and also
allowed women priests and bishops. Another schismatic sect was
the Alogians, who declined to identify Christ as the Word
referred to at the beginning of the John gospel. This was apparently
a reaction to Montanists, who were keen to identify the two
as being the same, as modern theologians do.
Sabellians were followers of Sabellius,
a Libyan priest. They were Unitarians, holding that Father,
Son, and Spirit represented different states (or modes or aspects)
of a single god. In later centuries the Eastern Churches
were to accuse the Roman Church of Sabellianism and would excommunicate
popes for supporting this heresy*.
Since the time of Jesus there had been a line of followers who
believed him to have been merely human, not divine. This view
seems to have come to be regarded as heretical towards the end
of the second century*.
Yet there would still be bishops holding these views within
the mainstream Church for many years to come, especially those
whose sees fell within the patriarchy of Antioch. Eventually,
late in 268, a Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata,
was removed by the secular power for holding that Jesus was
not divine. From then on, bishops had to agree to the "orthodox"
line that Jesus had been divine. Those, like Priscillian, who
deviated from the newly established orthodoxy, claiming for
example that Jesus was merely an exalted prophet, could expect
torture and death.
It was also around this time that Adoptionism first became
unacceptable. As we have already seen (page 80), the story that
Jesus was not born as the son of God, but had been adopted as
a son of God, is related in the earliest gospel (the Mark gospel).
The early Christians who preferred this account to the ones
developed later were known as Adoptionists. Adoptionism became
ever less unacceptable as the doctrine of the Incarnation was
developed. The Church Father Origen was posthumously accused
of Adoptionism. This early doctrine was never successfully suppressed.
In the eighth century at least two Spanish bishops, Elipandus
of Toledo and Felix of Urgel, were still Adoptionists. The same
Adoptionist "heresy" has resurfaced repeatedly throughout
the history of Christianity.
The third century Novatians were followers of Novatian, a Roman
presbyter. Their sole distinguishing feature was that , in obedience
to the Bible (Hebrews 6:4-6) they rejected the re-admission
of those who had lapsed into paganism.
By the fourth century one particular Christian group, calling
itself catholic, gained the ascendancy. By various means it
gained influence over the Emperor Constantine, and used its
influence to crush the opposition. Under the influence of this
group the Emperor issued an edict announcing the destruction
of other denominations:
Understand now by this present statute, Novatians, Valentinians,
Marcionites, Paulinians, you who are called Cataphrygians ...
with what a tissue of lies and vanities, with what destructive
and venomous errors, your doctrines are inextricably woven!
We give you a warning ... Let none of you presume, from this
time forward, to meet in congregations. To prevent this, we
command that you be deprived of all the houses in which you
have been accustomed to meet ... and that these should be handed
over immediately to the catholic church*.
This was how "orthodoxy" was established and maintained,
by imperial edict. Orthodoxy was whatever the Emperor said it
was, so various parties vied for the Emperor's ear, hoping to
have their views declared as orthodox. Many sects arose and
died out through little more than historical accident. The Donatist
heresy, for example, began with the election of rival bishops,
Cæcilian and Donatus, at Carthage. Imperial preference,
obtained by dubious means, having favoured Cæcilian, the
followers of Donatus went into schism, setting themselves up
as the one true Church. They were distinguished by their zeal,
their hatred of their erstwhile colleagues, and their tendency
towards further schism. They persisted for over 300 years, disappearing
only when Muslims overran that part of Africa.
Further difficulties were raised by the Arians, followers of
Arius , a priest who tried to work out exactly who Christ had
been. He held that*:
- the Father and Son are distinct beings.
- the Father had created the Son.
- the Son, though divine, is less than the Father.
- the Son existed before his appearance in the world, but
not from eternity.
there was no single accepted authority to settle such matters,
the Emperor Constantine convened a council in 325 to determinethe
issue. Christians from around the known world travelled to Nicæa
(modern Iznik in Turkey). There they considered the nature of
Christ. The Arians said that he had been brought into existence
to be the incarnate Word (logos) of God. Their
opponents, led by the Archdeacon Athanasius of Alexandria, claimed
that this did not go far enough, because it represented Jesus
as being a lesser being than God. The matter was settled by
Constantine himself. Unbaptised
and only half-Christian, he was well accustomed to the idea
of men being gods. He had already had his father Constantius
deified and probably expected to be deified himself after death.
One danger with the Arian line was that it might countenance
other men claiming to be sons of God. The other line accepted
the Emperor as the prime focus on Earth of divine power. There
was only one divine son of God, and he was already safely back
in Heaven, leaving the Emperor as his personal representative
on Earth. This was obviously more appealing to the Emperor.
A formula was drawn up that favoured Athanasius's view, and
those present were invited to sign. For those who did sign there
was an invitation to Constantine's 20th anniversary celebrations.
Those who would not sign faced banishment. Most of those present
accepted the formula and the party invitation. Some who signed
the creed undoubtedly did so for the sake of church unity. Eusebius
of Caesarea for example was clearly embarrassed about it. Afterwards
some of the signatories reflected on what they had done and
realised its significance. Eusebius of Nicomedia, Maris of Chalcedon,
and Theognis of Nicæa wrote to Constantine to express
their regrets. Eusebius of Nicomedia summed up their position
by admitting that they had committed an impious act by subscribing
to a blasphemy out of fear of the Emperor. Ironically, Constantine
had probably not understood what the controversy had been about
anyway. Gibbon neatly sums up Constantine's views on the matter:
He [Constantine] attributes the origin of the whole controversy
to a trifling and subtle question, concerning an incomprehensible
point of the law, that was foolishly asked by the bishop [Alexander
of Alexandria] and imprudently resolved by the presbyter [Arius].
He laments that the Christian people, who had the same God,
the same religion, and the same worship, should be divided by
such inconsiderable distinctions; and he seriously recommends
to the clergy of Alexandria the example of the Greek philosophers,
who could maintain their arguments without losing their temper
and assert their freedom without violating their friendship*.
So it was that Christendom adopted as orthodoxy its doctrine
about the divinity of Christ, not through the teachings of Jesus,
not from the scriptures, but in line with the wishes of a half-pagan
self-interested Emperor. After Arius's banishment, orders were
made that Arian writings should be burned, and the death sentence
was instituted for anyone found in possession of them. Belief
in Arian views gradually declined wherever Arians were persecuted.
But the story was not yet over, for Constantine subsequently
had second thoughts. Arius was recalled from exile and restored
to Imperial favour. A series of Church Councils confirmed the
Arian line, and as St Jerome
noted the whole world now became Arian*.
As Gibbon says of Arius:
His faith was approved by the Synod of Jerusalem; and the
Emperor seemed impatient to repair his injustice by issuing
an absolute command that he should be solemnly admitted to
the Communion in the cathedral of Constantinople. On the same
day, which had been fixed for the triumph of Arius, he expired;
and the strange and horrid circumstances of his death might
excite a suspicion that the orthodox saints had contributed
more efficaciously than by their prayers to deliver the church
from the most formidable of her enemies*.
Arius, and other people that orthodox Christians disliked,
died in a particularly ghastly way, their bowels exploding shortly
after a private meeting with orthodox christian leaders. The
orthodox attributed these killings to God, an explanation that
becomes ever less convincing. Once Arius was dead there was
little chance of the decision of the Council of Nicæa
being formally overturned. Even though St Athanasius, the champion
of what is now considered orthodoxy, was condemned as a heretic
by no fewer than six separate Church Councils, even though all
the principal leaders of the orthodox faction were deposed and
exiled, and even though Constantine was baptised in the last
moments of his life by an Arian bishop, nevertheless the established
doctrine was retained, though the question was not yet closed.
In the fourth century alone forty-five Church Councils considrered
the question of whether Arius had been right or wrong. Thirteen
councils came out against him, fifteen voted in his favour,
and seventeen settled for semi-Arians positions.
When Macedonius, Bishop of Constantinople expressed ideas similar
to those of Arius, he was deposed by a council of Constantinople
in 360. His followers, Macedonians, retained their semi-Arian
beliefs for years to come. The orthodox line was that Jesus
Christ was God and from now on it would be acceptable for Christians
to pray to a deity other than God the Father. As a leading modern
theologian has put it:
The practice of praying to Christ in the Liturgy, as distinct
from praying to God through Christ, appears to have originated
among the innovating "orthodox" opponents of Arianism
in the fourth century. It slowly spread, against a good deal
of opposition, eventually to produce Christocentric piety
Disputes have rumbled on to the present day. For many centuries
the Arian form of Christianity flourished in Romania, Bulgaria,
Spain, Gaul and Lombardy. As a number of theologians have noted,
most Western Christians today unwittingly turn out to be Arian
when questioned about their beliefs.
Questions about the nature of the Son provided endless material
for dispute in early times. Another group, the Apollinarians,
supposedly fell into error by opposing Arius. They were followers
of Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea, who opposed Arianism and
denied that Jesus had a human soul. They held that the Word
(logos) fulfilled that role in Jesus" case. The
First Council of Constantinople (381) condemned their views
as heretical. Other schismatic groups included the Anthropomorphites,
who believed that God had a human form; and the Agnoetae, who
denied that God was omniscient. The Collyridians offered bread-cakes
to the Virgin Mary, worshipping her as Queen of Heaven*.
The Antidicomarianites denied Mary's continued virginity, affirming
that she had had sexual intercourse with Joseph after the birth
of Jesus }. A Donatist group known as the Circumcellions flourished
briefly, propagating violence through North Africa. But they
also had a fondness for suicidal martyrdom, and soon died out
Whichever sect enjoyed the support of the Emperor was the orthodox
or catholic faction, and it generally sought to maintain its
position by a judicious mix of persecution and politicking.
When the Emperor Julian briefly rejected Christianity as the
state religion, all sects were suddenly free to persecute each
other. Within a year of Julian's accession in 361, numerous
Christian sects were at each other's throats. There were no
fewer than five bishops in Antioch, each with a mutually hostile
following. Since then the number has never again been reduced
The question of whether or not Jesus had been a man continued
to be a major point of contention. Many disputes took place
as to whether his nature was that of a human being or a God.
Nestorius (died c.451), Bishop of Constantinople,
proposed a compromise. He suggested that Christ had two distinct
natures, one human and one divine, and that Mary was the mother
only of his human one. Mary might be Christotokos,
the mother of Christ, but not Theotokos, the mother
of God. God could not have been a baby
two or three months old, he said. God had always existed. To
Nestorius it did not make sense to say that a mother could bear
a son older than herself. Furthermore he did not like the implication
that if Mary was the mother of God then she must have been a
goddess. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, made an issue of the matter,
apparently to further his position in the political power struggle
between the patriarchies of Constantinople and Alexandria*.
A Church Council was convened at Ephesus in 431, by the emperors
Theodosius II and Valentinian III. The council, initially consisting
of Cyril's supporters, and under his chairmanship, acclaimed
the one person line. On the same day it condemned and
deposed Nestorius, the leader of the two person party.
When Nestorius's supporters arrived the council was reopened,
since Cyril had had no authority to open the earlier session.
The decision was now reversed, and Cyril the leader of the one
person faction was deposed and excommunicated. Later, more
of Nestorius's opponents arrived. The matter was reconsidered.
Deals were negotiated to induce various parties to agree: Pelagianism
(a doctrine concerning free will) was to be condemned as a heresy
to satisfy the Western representatives; Cyprus was to be granted
ecclesiastical independence (which it still enjoys today), and
the Bishop of Jerusalem was to be promoted to patriarch. Cyril
encouraged other representatives to agree with him, providing
carrots for their support in the form of lavish bribes, and
sticks for dissent in the form of a private army of violent
monks that terrorised the city. Cyril held a third session,
similar to the first one. But the two sides would not even meet,
let alone agree. In the end the council had to be dissolved
by the Emperor Theodosius without it ever having reached a consensus.
The Emperor arrested the leaders of both sides and put them
A few years later Cyril succeeded in bringing the matter before
another council, at Chalcedon in 451, which was more pliant.
This council condemned Nestorius, and the inevitable schism
soon followed. The Church was once again divided, and a separate
Nestorian Church was formed. It flourished in Asia, and boasted
enough bishops to rival the ones that are now considered orthodox.
Nestorians established a patriarchy at Baghdad, and their influence
extended far to the East. At one time there was a Nestorian
Archbishop of Cambaluc (modern Peking).
Ghengis Khan was well disposed to Nestorian Christians and married
his sons to Nestorian princesses. The Nestorian Church was subsequently
reduced by Islam, and all but wiped out around 1400 by the Asian
warlord Timur. Small groups of Nestorians, now known as Assyrian
Christians, survived in
Persia and Turkey up until World War I, during which their numbers
were further reduced.
Eutyches (c.380-c.456), Archimandrite of Constantinople, held
that Jesus had only one nature a divine nature
after the Incarnation. Eutyches was excommunicated, later reinstated,
but then exiled for his beliefs. Nevertheless he attracted many
followers. Eventually the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451)
decided that Jesus had possessed two natures one human,
one divine. To hold otherwise, as the Eutychians did, was to
commit heresy. This meant that many Christians of the time were
heretics, since many held that he had been wholly divine. Those
who subscribed to Eutyches's view came to be called Monophysites.
Alexandria was a major centre for Monophysite beliefs, and the
followers of Timothy, the Monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria,
came to be regarded as a distinct group known as Timotheans.
Alexandrian Monophysites had always retained the Jewish dietary
laws and continued to practise circumcision. They have survived
in Egypt up to the present time and constitute the Coptic Church,
headed by the Patriarch of Alexandria, who is also the nominal
head of the Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) Church. Monophysite churches
have died out in Nubia, Persia, and what is now the Yemen, but
others survive, including the Armenian and Syrian, whose common
head is styled the Patriarch of Antioch.
Another major schism was that of the Pelagians in the early
fifth century. They were followers of Pelagius,
a Welsh monk who moved to Rome around the beginning of the fifth
century. Pelagius maintained that people could take the first
steps to salvation without the assistance of divine grace. His
followers advocated free will, including the ability to accept
or reject the gospel, and denied St Augustine's doctrine of
Original Sin. The Augustinian faction employed the usual tools
of debate: personal influence, under-the-table deals, and bribery
in support of their arguments, and finally won the day by the
distribution of 80 Numidian stallions to imperial cavalry officers,
whose troops enforced Augustine's version of Christian orthodoxy.
Many modern theologians are not at all certain that Pelagius
should have lost the argument, and fewer still believe that
Augustine should have won it.
In the seventh century a schism arose over the question of
how many "wills" had been possessed by Christ, with
his one "person" and two "natures". Monotheletes,
supported by Honorius the Bishop of Rome, held that he had possessed
only one. They went into schism after the Third Council of Constantinople
in 680-681 held that he had had two. The Roman Church was obliged
to disown the views of Honorius. So did others. The Maronites
of the Lebanon were originally Monothelete Christians, but have
been in communion with the Roman Church since 1182 (when a deal
was done during the Crusades). They take their name from a Syrian
hermit, St Maron, who died in 410.
An argument sometimes advanced by more innocent believers is
that the one true Church has always called itself "orthodox"
or has always called itself "catholic", while mere
sects were named after their leaders. This of course, is not
a helpful criterion, since almost all sects claim to be both
orthodox and catholic. It is also noteworthy that the groups
now regarded as orthodox and catholic also had names, just like
the groups now regarded as schismatic or heretical. Thus the
faction from which the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches
are both descended was given a dismissive name by the other
factions. Members of this sect were called Melkites ("emperor's
men") because they allied themselves with the Emperor and
depended upon him for their survival. Again, the Eastern Churches
refer to Roman Catholics as Azymites, a reference to their "heretical"
practice of using unleavened bread at the Eucharist.
People who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.
From the fourth century onwards there had been increasing tension
between Rome and the other patriarchies. The Church under each
of the patriarchies had always been autocephalous, i.e. self-governing
and recognising no central authority except the Emperor. This
did not entitle patriarchs to change established doctrines and
From the eighth century the Roman patriarchs (whom we now call
popes) adopted a number of innovations in Western Christendom
that might seem relatively trivial now but at the time were
not acceptable to their fellow patriarchs in the East. The Nicene
creed was changed to reflect a new understanding of the role
of the Holy Spirit, and unleavened bread was used instead of
leavened bread for the Eucharist. The popes also encouraged
fasting on Saturday and tried to enforce clerical celibacy.
Later they would discover Purgatory, a place unknown to other
patriarchs. As successive bishops of Rome became ever more wayward
in the eyes of their fellow patriarchs, the more incensed those
patriarchs became. Periodically the tension became too great,
and one or more of them would accuse a pope of heresy and excommunicate
him. He would retaliate by declaring them heretic and excommunicating
them. The reasons for their irritation were not only those already
mentioned: sometimes the Bishop of Rome was claiming new honours
for himself, sometimes he was convoking councils of his own,
sometimes he was interfering in the jurisdictions of other patriarchs,
sometimes he was using forged documents to prove a point. Generally
the quarrel would be patched up and sooner or later the mutual
excommunications would be withdrawn.
the eleventh century the position was no longer tenable. The
Bishop of Rome was claiming exclusive rights to the title of
Pope and pressing for primacy over the whole Church, backed
up by the forged Donation of Constantine. The Patriarch
of Constantinople had had enough, and a serious rift opened
up. Attempts at reconciliation failed and in July 1054 anathemas
(formal denunciations) were exchanged. The Great Schism between
the Eastern Churches and the Western Church is conventionally
dated from this time although, as in the previous centuries,
relations would continue periodically to warm and chill, and
reconciliation was always a possibility. Indeed, at the time
the incident was not regarded as a schism, and came to be regarded
as one by the Western Church only after 1204. (Rome needed to
justify its seizure of Constantinople in that year and did so
by retrospectively regarding the exchange of anathemas in 1054
as causing a permanent split in the Church.) The anathemas were
eventually withdrawn more than 900 years later, on 7 th December
As the power of the Eastern Churches waned, the Roman Church
was successful in picking off a number of isolated religious
communities. To this day,
it has allowed these communities to keep their local customs,
including clerical marriage, even though they are in communion
with Rome (which means that they recognise, and are recognised
by, the Roman Church).
For the majority of English people there are only two religions,
Roman Catholic, which is wrong, and the rest, which don"t
Duff Cooper (1890-1954), Old Men Forget
The Middle Ages saw the rise of all manner of dissident sects.
They ranged from Adamists, who insisted on conducting their
religious rites in the nude, to groups who travelled from place
to place working themselves into religious frenzy by techniques
such as dancing, chanting or flagellating each other. A major
group was that of the Adventists, who affirmed the imminence
of the Second Coming. Despite severe persecution Adventist groups
have survived into modern times. They still look forward to
the imminent Second Coming. Generally they keep to Jewish practices,
such as prohibiting the eating of pork, and keeping the Sabbath
day as required by the Ten Commandments, rather than Sunday
hence the epithet "Seventh Day Adventists".
The corruption and abuses of the Roman Church in the Middle
Ages led even its own adherents to question its authority. Peter
Waldo of Lyons was originally a conventional Catholic believer
who wanted to live like the apostles. He soon attracted followers
who came to be known as Waldensians, Waldenses, or Vaudois.
He met so much opposition from his own Church that he was effectively
driven out. Soon after the movement started around 1170, Waldo
was excommunicated, after which he rejected papal authority.
Like others after him, he turned to the gospels and based his
theology on them. Waldensians were soon advocating a priesthood
of all believers and giving away their wealth. They rejected
sacraments not sanctioned by the Bible and condemned practices
such as the sale of indulgences and the adoration of saints.
Persecution followed, and continued for centuries, with unknown
thousands killed, and a few survivors taking refuge in ever
more remote places. By the late eighteenth depleted survivors
had been scattered to the alpine valleys and other remote areas.
In the nineteenth century they were assisted financially by
Protestants in the UK and USA, and many emigrated to Uruguay
Other groups split off from the Church, or were rejected from
it. The Beghards for example were essentially orthodox except
that they used vernacular translations of the Bible. Eventually
they were ejected from the Church and came to be known as Lollards.
In England John Wycliffe, a leading Oxford scholar, took the
Bible as the sole rule of faith and questioned the Roman sacraments.
His followers also came to be known as Lollards and were rejected
as unorthodox. Wycliffe's ideas spread throughout Europe and
took root in Bohemia. In Prague, Jan Hus adopted them, and his
teaching attracted an ever-increasing following. In the fifteenth
century, Hussites challenged all rites, institutions and customs
not sanctioned by the Bible and questioned the Roman Church's
practice of not allowing the Communion cup to the laity. Once
again the sect was admonished and then rejected and persecuted.
The rejection of these sects in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries
was to prepare the way for much larger schisms within the Western
Church at the Reformation. The sixteenth century saw a huge
reaction to the corruption and venality of the Roman Church.
Orthodoxy was reconsidered, and whole countries defected to
new Protestant denominations: Lutheran, Calvinist, and many
others. Martin Luther was prepared to admit into worship anything
that was not explicitly prohibited by scripture, while John
Calvin would admit only that which was expressly allowed by
it. Many German states and Scandinavian countries became Lutheran;
Holland, Scotland and Huguenot areas of France became Calvinist;
while the Anglican Church found a middle ground, purporting
to remain Catholic while adopting ever more Protestant ideas.
From around the same time, several separate groups arose that
are now known as Anabaptists.
The Roman Church has continued to generate schismatic groups
into recent times. For example, the declaration of the dogma
of papal infallibility in 1870 was unacceptable to many Roman
Catholics. Excommunicated, they formed themselves into the Old
Catholic Church, and are now in communion with the Church of
England. In 1988 Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre formally split with
the rest of the Roman Church when he ordained four new bishops.
His intention was to continue the one true Church, which he
thought had been abandoned by an excessively liberal papacy.
His followers now number hundreds of thousands in 30 countries.
Each of the new Protestant Churches started generating new
schismatic groups almost as soon as they were established. The
Anglican Church gave rise to Puritanism and later to Methodism.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was an Anglican priest,
who died still regarding himself as an Anglican. Animosity from
other Anglicans led to the new Methodist group becoming a separate
Church. The Methodist Church, like other schismatic groups,
behaved much like the early Christians had, and consequently
they were regarded much as the early Christians had been by
their fellow citizens. Their love feasts were believed to have
been orgies. Their fits and convulsions were advertised as the
work of God but believed by others to be evidence of demonic
possession. Their habit of luring new believers away from their
families caused massive resentment, and they were accused of
robbing widows and other vulnerable individuals of their savings,
just as the early Church had been. The new breakaway Methodist
Church soon went into schism and formed half a dozen major sub-sects,
followed by many other even smaller ones. Methodism now boasts
over 75 million members worldwide. Another schismatic group,
the Baptists, claim an estimated 47 million members in the United
Schismatic sects with a strong Calvinist flavour include Congregationalists
and Presbyterians. Some are peculiarly attached to specific
countries. For example, the Free Church of Scotland was a schismatic
sect of the Church of Scotland, seceding from the latter in
1843. It combined with the United Presbyterian Church in 1900
to form the United Free Church of Scotland. In 1929 this joined
up again with the Church of Scotland, apart from a small minority
who retained the name of United Free Church. Tens of thousands
of schismatic sects far too many to list here
have arisen from the Western Church. New evangelical churches
are created virtually every day.
In the East, the Orthodox Church has also suffered a number
of schisms. Before the Great Schism of 1054, there had already
been a major schism over the use of icons. Eastern Christendom
was riven between those who worshipped icons (iconodules) and
those who rejected icons as idols and wanted to destroy them
(iconoclasts). Many people were persecuted and killed over this
Often, schisms arose over matters that seem remarkably trivial
to non-Christians. The seventeenth century saw an Eastern schism
concerning the number of fingers to be used when making the
sign of the cross. Was it two, the ancient practice used by
the Russian Orthodox Church, or three, an innovation used by
the Greek Church? Men were executed for supporting the wrong
side. The schism continues to this day, the smaller party ("The
Old Believers") having split again between the Popovtsy
(with a priesthood) and the Bezpopovtsy (without a priesthood).
There are also extensive disagreements within the Church about
the calendar. In particular the date of Easter is still problematical,
and some groups have been excommunicated for celebrating it
on one day rather than another.
Of the tens of thousands of Christian sects, virtually all
purport to be the one true mystical body of Christ and the sole
ark of salvation the Mother Church in a monogamous relationship
with God. None has a claim to orthodoxy that, to a disinterested
observer, is noticeably superior to the others. Certainly, size
is not a reliable guide. Many of the larger denominations have
thin claims to orthodoxy, even by their own criteria. It is
clear to non-believers that what is now generally called orthodoxy
is really whichever line historically came out on top, often
by politicking, threats, deception, brute force, or the whim
of an emperor.
Any objective assessment would assign orthodoxy to denominations
that have been eliminated. The Nazarenes seem to have had the
strongest claims. Again, the Donatists were, if anything, ultra-orthodox
by the standards of the early Church. After them come the various
sects that were universally accepted as "orthodox"
except for beliefs or practices that, though now condemned,
are known to have been shared by early Christians. The sole
distinguishing feature of the Quartodecimans was that they continued
to calculate the date of Easter in the traditional way. The
heresy of the Montanists was that they continued to accept the
inspiration of the Holy Spirit after the "orthodox"
had changed their views about it. The Marcionites" principal
heresy was to regard God as a God of love rather than as a God
of fear. Other groups were regarded as heretical because they
paid salaries to their clergy as late as AD 200 the orthodox
in Rome and elsewhere regarded this practice as outrageous.
The "heresy" of the Millenarians was to agree with
biblical views about the end of the world, while the Collyridians"
principal heresy was to worship the Virgin Mary as Queen of
Heaven long before other mainstream Christians accepted it as
orthodox to do so. The Antidicomarianites on the other hand
continued to hold traditional views about Mary after others
had abandoned them. They held, for example, that Mary had had
a normal marital relationship with Joseph after the birth of
The Roman Church developed its own ideas of heresy, often falling
into heresy itself by its own earlier standards. For example,
it had undoubtedly been heretical to attempt to enforce clerical
celibacy before popes tried to enforce it on their own priests.
In the Middle Ages the Spiritual Franciscans fell into heresy
according to the Roman Church by preaching absolute poverty,
copying the example of Jesus as closely as they could. Members
of many sects were persecuted as heretics for adhering to the
Ten Commandments. Because of the injunction "Thou shalt
not kill", some sects opposed capital punishment, and for
this belief they were often executed as heretics by the Christian
Of the surviving denominations, none has a clear claim to orthodoxy
that anyone else considers convincing. If we take as a criterion
the extent to which denominations have departed least from biblical
teachings (or that least contradict biblical teachings), then
we can discount all of the largest denominations, and must look
to sects out of the mainstream. There are a few tiny sects that
continue to honour the Sabbath rather than Sunday, practise
poverty as well as preach it, avoid man-made images of any living
thing, refuse to kill, and decline to swear oaths. If anyone
has a claim to orthodoxy it seems to be minority groups like
The idea that there is a single straight trunk to the great
tree of Christianity is untenable. All present day denominations
represent branches, whether young or old, large or small. Generally,
it is not difficult to trace back today's offshoots through
the older branches from which they grew. To take a simple example,
Southern Baptists are an offshoot of the original Baptists,
who developed from the Anabaptists, a group of nonconformist
Protestant sects that had split off from the Roman Catholics.
The Roman Catholic Church itself may be seen as a branch of
the Orthodox Church, itself the successor of the Melkites, one
of the many outgrowths that vied with each other during the
Dark Ages, after the Pauline Christians had pruned back other
boughs of the Christian tangle-tree.
It has been remarked that the success or failure of the various
early Christian sects was determined not so much by comparative
reasonableness or skill in argument (for they practically never
converted each other), but by the differences in birth and death
rates in the respective populations. Whether or not this is
true, it is clear that what we call "orthodox" is
not objectively orthodox, it is "orthodox" only by
That famous fifth century definition of the one true Christian
faith as that which has been believed everywhere, always, and
by all would be convincing if there were such a faith, but there
is not, and apparently never has been. The definition was first
formulated by an orthodox Roman Catholic monk attacking the
novelties of St Augustine novelties that have now become
the pinnacle of orthodoxy in the West. The simple truth is that
orthodox belief changes from place to place, from time to time,
and from denomination to denomination.
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