This talk was given in Downing College Chapel on 27 February 2012 as part of the Theology for Beginners series.
Click here if you would like to listen to a recording of this talk.
Today, I’ve set myself the impossible task of talking about twenty centuries of history and theology in under an hour. There may be one or two things that I miss out or gloss over very rapidly, but you’re welcome to ask questions afterwards.
Over the last four weeks, I’ve made a case for theology being a real subject and have given a rapid tour of the main areas of Christian doctrine. My aim this week and next week is to look further into the diversity of belief which exists among Christians. Next week, I’ll be looking at the main issues which Christians disagree about today, such as same-sex relationships and the ordination of women. But this week, I’m going to be talking about the story of the formation of the main historic denominations and groupings of churches. So I’ll be talking about the Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and lots of others.
Why do these different groups exist? And how and why are they different?
The New Testament
One thing that they all agree on is the list of 27 books which form the New Testament. They partly disagree about the Old Testament, which has 39 books for Protestants, 46 for Catholics, and various extra ones for the Orthodox. But the canon of the New Testament is something which all Christians share.
Jesus himself didn’t write any books, but we do have various texts written by Christians from the second half of the first century. The earliest writings are some of Paul’s letters, from the 50s AD, showing how the Church was spreading around the Roman Empire. And we have four gospels, which record and preserve the testimonies of those who had seen Jesus. And there is Luke’s account of the first Christians, the Acts of the Apostles. And there are other letters, and finally the Book of Revelation.
We know that Christians were using these texts in their worship and their theology in the second century. The four Gospels and the main letters of Paul were accepted as authoritative early on. But the status of books like Hebrews, James, the Second and Third Letters of John and the Book of Revelation was uncertain for a lot longer. And a few other texts floated in and out of favour in different places at different times. During the fourth and fifth centuries, a consensus developed across the whole Church about the definitive list of the canon of the New Testament. And so for all Christians, these are texts which can be used in worship and in the development of doctrine in a way which sets them above all non-Biblical texts. They testify to Jesus Christ, who is the word made flesh, the full revelation of God in human form.
So that’s the shared Christian heritage of scripture. But, while the Church was working out what to put in the New Testament, it was working out lots of other things at the same time. The development of the canon of scripture came alongside the development of a tradition of Christian theology, spirituality and church government. And a tradition of a shared understanding of how to interpret the Bible. As the centuries have gone by, that shared tradition has deepened, broadened and sometimes diversified and fragmented. Christianity has spread into different contexts, and has been communicated within different cultures and philosophical frameworks. Different Christians now understand the Bible in different ways, and have various views of the theological traditions which developed from the early Church. But they still have a vast amount in common. In many cases, they’re exploring different aspects of something which is rich and complex. And that’s the story which I have to tell today.
Church government in the New Testament
One of the most important things to note is that the texts of the New Testament don’t provide a full set of instructions on how to run churches. That’s something which people were starting to work out at the time the New Testament was written. And the books and letters within in it come from within the early stages of that developing tradition.
Now, the Church of England today has a set of documents which define how the Church of England works. We’ve got Canon Law, various policies and procedures, and a set of liturgical texts which say how run services. So there are rules about how to appoint bishops, for example. But those various rules don’t come from the Bible, and the Church of England doesn’t claim that they do. All we can claim is that those rules are compatible with the Bible. The phrase used in canon law is that they are ‘not repugnant to the Word of God.’
If we look at what the New Testament says about how to run churches, what we find is that various things seem to be happening in a rather unsystematic, ad hoc kind of way. The Church was growing rapidly, but often having to hide from persecution. And things to do with roles and structures seem to have been worked out in different ways in different places as people went on. Various titles are used, but without any detailed definitions. So Paul writes about apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, without saying much about how those roles should work. But they seem to be very practical roles, based on the gifts that people have.
Elsewhere, there are titles which seem to suggest an ordered structure of people in authority. There are elders and overseers, who are in positions of leadership. And they are meant to be treated with respect and need to be of good character. And there are deacons, who have significant roles of service. From the Greek word for elder, presbuteros, we get the English words priest and presbyter, which are used in different ways today by different Christian traditions. And from the Greek word for overseer, episkopos, we get the English word bishop and the word episcopal.
And most Christian churches make use of at least some of those words: priest, presbyter, bishop, apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and so on. And some Christian churches have managed to convince themselves that they are modelled precisely on the ministry of the early Church. But the diversity in the government of today’s churches has arisen simply because the Bible doesn’t actually tell us how to do it. And that actually explains a very large part of the differences between churches.
So, on with the story of how things developed in the early church.
Church government in the early Church
As I said, the Bible itself doesn’t give us a system of church government. But things did settle down into a hierarchical structure by the second century. And the pattern that emerged is one called monarchical episcopacy. Those mentions of presbuteroi and episcopoi in the New Testament, the elders and overseers, seem at first to be two ways of talking about the same people. But by the second century, episcopos, translated as overseer or bishop, came to be a term for the highest level of a threefold system. There were bishops or overseers, then presbyters, elders or priests, and then deacons. So would be one bishop for a city or area, assisted by a council of priests and supported by deacons. And it’s called monarchical episcopacy because of the supreme authority exercised by the local bishop.
For example, St Ignatius of Antioch became bishop of Antioch in about 69 AD, and he wrote a series of letters on the way to his martyrdom in 108 AD. It’s interesting reading the letters of Ignatius and others, because they’re the generation which followed those who wrote the letters of the New Testament. Like Paul, Ignatius wrote to the Romans and to the Ephesians, for example.
But in his Letter to the Magnesians he says:
‘Let me urge on you the need for godly unanimity in everything you do. Let the bishop preside in the place of God, and his clergy in the place of the Apostolic conclave, and let my special friends the deacons be entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ…. Maintain absolute unity with your bishop and leaders.’ – Letter to the Magnesians 6
And in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, he wrote:
‘Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father… The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop himself, or by some person authorised by him. Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the catholic Church.’ – Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8
So here in 108AD is an early use of the word ‘catholic’. ‘Catholic’ is Greek for ‘according to the whole’, meaning universal. So Ignatius sees the bishops as having a particular concern for the unity of the whole Church. And being part of this universal church, the catholic church, meant being united under the leadership of the local bishop. And the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharist (in other words, the communion or the mass), is to be presided over by the bishop or by someone authorised by him.
So, he wrote to the Ephesians:
‘We can have no life apart from Jesus Christ; and as he represents the mind of the Father, so our bishops, even those who are stationed in the remotest parts of the world, represent the mind of Jesus Christ.’
And later, he says:
‘When someone is sent by the master of a house to manage his household for him, it is our duty to give him the same kind of reception as we should give to the sender; and therefore it is clear that we must regard a bishop as the Lord himself.’
Now, that will probably make lower-church Christians shuffle awkwardly in their seats. But it’s not a an implausible development from the approach taken shortly beforehand in the New Testament letters. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, saying: ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.’ And the First Letter of Peter tells people to accept the authority of the elders.
It was natural for the early church to consider its clergy to be the successors of the apostles, handing on the apostles’ teaching and having their authority. And it was obvious to them that there was a clear, visible line of succession. Jesus had appointed disciples, who had themselves established churches and had appointed leaders. So each generation of leaders ordained further leaders to continue the tradition. This is what has become known as the apostolic succession. And for higher-church people it’s a very significant idea that today’s bishops are part of an unbroken chain of bishops which stretches back to Jesus Christ and the apostles.
From persecution to establishment
So this structure of monarchical episcopacy seems to have settled in all around the church by the middle of the second century. A clear form of organisation had emerged.
But the church was always under threat of persecution. It had to spread its message while trying to keep out of trouble with the Roman authorities. An interesting correspondence survives from about 112 AD between the Roman Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia, in what is now Turkey. They agree a policy on what to do with the annoying problem of Christians. If Christians are reported to the authorities, then the accused are given the opportunity to worship Roman gods, to offer incense and wine to an image of the emperor and to curse Christ. Anyone willing to do that can be set free. But anyone who refuses to worship the Roman Emperor and Roman gods and persists in professing a Christian faith is sentenced to death. So Christians met and worshipped privately in houses, trying to keep out of trouble while still trying to spread the Christian message. It was very risky, and many were killed.
But, as Tertullian wrote in the 2nd century, ‘The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ All those who were willing to die out of love for Jesus Christ were a very impressive witness to those around them. People could see that Christians had found something powerful which meant more to them than their own mortal lives. Churches grew rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, providing a source of hope, community and stability which many began to find very impressive.
And then an extraordinary turning point came in the year 312. This could be seen as the most significant event in Christian history since the Day of Pentecost. It’s certainly one which has greatly affected the whole history and culture of Europe. It’s described in the writings of Eusebius, a bishop who lived at that time. And he tells us that a great battle took place at Milvian Bridge in Rome between two rivals Roman Emperors: Constantine and Maxentius. Constantine had come to believe that there was one supreme God, rather than a multitude of deities. And he prayed to the one supreme God on the day before the battle. Constantine then saw a vision of a cross of light above the sun, bearing the inscription ‘Conquer by this’. He saw something similar again during a dream that night. At dawn, he commanded the making of a new standard, a banner to lead his troops into battle. It featured the cross, and a design made from the first two letters of the name of Christ in Greek: chi and rho. Constantine won the battle and he became ruler of the whole Roman Empire.
As a result, he passed the Edict of Milan in 313, which legalised Christian worship. He became a very generous patron of Christianity, and supported the building of great churches. He granted privileges to clergy and appointed Christians to high-ranking offices. And in 380, the emperor Theodosius established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This was a total transformation in the place of Christians in Roman society. From victims to leaders.
And here begins one of the most complex questions in Christian history: the relationship between the Church and the state. The link between Christianity and politics. Here and in America and elsewhere in the world, we’re still arguing about that issue today. Should Bideford Town Council hold prayers before its meetings? Should there be bishops in the House of Lords? Should religious groups in the United States help to fund the election campaigns of politicians?
Christianity had begun as something profoundly counter-cultural, persecuted by the state. Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans, and many of the early Christians were put to death by the ruthless authority of the Empire. But this situation was totally reversed in the fourth century. Now there was an alliance between the world’s greatest superpower and this rapidly growing faith. Now troops would take crosses into battle, and bishops would have places in the corridors of power.
Eastern Orthodox Christians honour Constantine as a great saint, equal to the apostles. But many Protestants have wondered if this was when things really started to go wrong for the Christian Church. Should Christianity have this kind of alliance with worldly power? What does it do to faith and holiness when Christianity becomes a good career move, a passport to status and wealth? Is this partnership a great opportunity for Christianity to be a force for good in the world? Or is it a temptation and a source of corruption? Those are important and difficult questions for Christianity from Constantine to the present day.
Whatever we think of this alliance between Christianity and worldly power, it happened. Christianity took on the role of providing the shared belief system for the Roman Empire. And therefore the smooth running of the Church became a key factor in the smooth running of the Empire. And that development had enormous significance for most of the subsequent history of Europe.
Constantine’s patronage made it possible for the Church to become much better organised as a single institution. That in itself was quite an achievement. Christians were spread across a wide area, from the Middle East to North Africa and as far as Britain. For them to organise themselves under persecution was tricky. But now it became possible for them to function openly as an institution supported by the state. And this enabled a new development in the government of the church.
In the year 325, the Emperor summoned a council of all the bishops of the Church. It was, effectively, the first time that the Christian Church had been able to have a great big conference. The Emperor wanted Christians to be united, but there was a fierce argument raging at the time. They were squabbling about a matter which the New Testament is a little ambiguous about. Is Jesus Christ equal to God the Father, or is he less than him? Even just in John’s Gospel you can find verses which might seem to support either point of view. On one side of the argument were the followers of Arius, a priest in Alexandria. He said that Jesus was the first created being, made by God at the beginning of time, the one through whom God then created the universe. Jesus is therefore half-way between people and God – partly divine and partly human. But those on the other side, like Athanasius, insisted that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. In his humanity, he is less than God the Father. And in his divinity, he is equal to God the Father. And the Council supported their views against Arius.
It’s from the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople in 381 that we get the Nicene Creed. This is still said as part of Christian worship in many churches. It proclaims that Jesus is ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.’
And the Council of Nicaea began a pattern of church government which has been very significant. When a controversial question needed to be settled, the bishops of the Church would meet together and sort it out. These councils are called ‘Ecumenical Councils’. Seven were held in the first millennium, and they are recognised as authoritative by Roman Catholics and by Orthodox Christians.
And the Roman Catholic Church has continued the practice, now reaching a total of 21 councils. The last example was the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, involving over 2000 Roman Catholic bishops from all over the world. More about that later.
During the fourth and fifth centuries, final agreement was reached on the question of which books should be in the New Testament, and of issues relating to the person of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. Christian doctrine became gradually more clearly defined, and various alternative approaches were ruled out as heresies. The first big and lasting split in the Church came as a result of the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451. Chalcedon was grappling with some of the details of the humanity and divinity of Christ. It proclaimed that Christ was one person with two natures, human and divine. And it said that these natures existed without in any way diluting or changing the other. But a group called the Monophysites insisted that Christ had only one nature, a fusion of divinity and humanity. They rejected the Council and went their own separate way, forming the Oriental Orthodox Churches. From them are descended today’s Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethopian Orthodox Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church , and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in India. To most western eyes and minds, they are extremely similar to the other eastern Orthodox churches, but the split has remained.
Patriarchs and the papacy
On with the story of what happened to everyone else. By this time, the Roman Empire had got into serious trouble. The last time that the whole empire was united under one leader came to an end with the death of Theodosius I in the year 395. And the western part of the empire came under attack from various different invading tribes: Vandals, Visigoths, Huns and so on. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410, at which time the Romans retreated from their rule in Britain and elsewhere. The capital of the Empire had already been moved to Constantinople in the east, now called Istanbul. The Empire fell apart in the west. But the Greek-speaking Christian civilisation of the eastern Roman Empire continued to flourish, known as the Byzantine Empire.
Alongside all these upheavals, the Church continued to develop its hierarchical systems of government. There were many bishops looking after local areas, but a small number of them came to develop a greater authority over wider areas, being in charge of other bishops. The Council of Nicaea recognised that the bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch had authority over wider areas. And Jerusalem and Constantinople later gained such status. During the sixth century, those bishops gained the title of patriarchs. So there were five patriarchs, overseeing the five patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Covering most of the territory around the Mediterranean. The patriarchs mostly governed their own affairs within their own territories. But the bishop of Rome was understood to have the place of highest honour among them, and came to have the title Pope, meaning father.
Things were now very different in the patriarchate of Rome compared with the other four territories further east. Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria were very much under the authority and protection of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople. But Rome was on the frontier, facing the barbarians. And there was a cultural difference: Rome spoke Latin, while the eastern patriarchates spoke Greek. So there were various political and cultural differences between the Christians of the east and the west.
The east was firmly dominated by the Emperor. But the Bishop of Rome had become the leading figure in the Christian civilisation of the west. The western church was well-organised and resourceful in itself, and began to be very successful in its mission to bring Christianity to the tribes who ruled western Europe. They began to convert the surrounding peoples, such as the Franks, and their kings. King Ethelbert welcomed St Augustine to Kent in 597, where he became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He spread a form of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons which was under the authority of Rome. And this new movement eventually reabsorbed the Celtic Christianity which had persisted in the remoter parts of the British Isles. On the continent, in 800, Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne as Emperor over today’s France and other nearby regions.
Back in the east, the Church was still the religion of the Byzantine Empire. But in the west, the pope came to preside over the state religions of several different countries. And his authority stretched over a territory which was much greater than those of the other four patriarchs in the east. The western church was well organised, successful, outward looking and increasingly powerful.
As the patriarchate of Rome grew, so the theological understanding of the Papacy developed. The Pope was understood to be the successor of St Peter, who was believed to have been the first Bishop of Rome. And it was believed that Christ had given the leadership of the Church to Peter in order that he would pass it on to his successors as Bishops of Rome. The Popes therefore began to claim more and more authority over the rest of the Church. They claimed to have authority over all five patriarchates.
But these claims to universal jurisdiction were never formally recognised by the eastern patriarchs. And the eastern Christians were somewhat preoccupied with their own troubles. From its beginnings in 622, Islam had been spreading aggressively across the territory of the eastern patriarchates in North Africa and the Middle East. The eastern churches were in retreat.
To western Christians, the Pope was the obvious leader of the world’s Christians. And the Latin-speaking western Church was on the rise. But the Greek-speaking eastern patriarchs were never willing to accept him as more than the first among equals, the patriarch of greatest honour. And so the Christian faiths of the east and the west continued to grow apart over a long period, for political and cultural reasons. The division became formal and final in the year 1054 in the event known as the Great Schism. Following a row over the authority of Rome, both sides excommunicated the other. And they have remained divided ever since.
Those four eastern patriarchates are the origins of the Orthodox Churches of today. While the western Patriarchate became, of course, what we know as the Roman Catholic Church. As I’ve described, the main thing they fell out over was the authority of the Pope. But Orthodox theologians also get very annoyed about one extra word which western Christians have inserted in the Nicene Creed, saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father.
From a protestant perspective, Orthodox and Catholic theology and spirituality have much in common. Both groups attach great importance to their hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons. They value beautiful buildings, elaborate ceremonies and traditional liturgies. They ask for the prayers of saints whom they believe are in heaven, and they pray for the souls of others who have died. They venerate Mary as the Mother of God. They place a great emphasis on sacraments: not just baptism and the eucharist, but also confirmation, ordination, marriage, the confession of sins to priests and the anointing of the sick. They have well developed traditions of religious orders, in which communities of monks and nuns live under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These are all aspects of Christian faith which developed during the first millennium.
But the story now leads us on towards the Reformation and the origins of Protestantism. The Christian civilisation of western Europe continued to develop at an accelerating pace in the second millennium. And the Catholic Church provided the shared vision of life which held this civilisation together. The love of scholarship found in religious communities lead to the development of universities, such as Bologna in 1088 and Cambridge in 1209. Many of the great texts of the classical world were rediscovered and studied enthusiastically in these new Catholic universities. And there was economic growth, technological growth and the growth in the military power of individual monarchs.
The Catholic Church became even more powerful and wealthy during the Middle Ages. It was a force for good in many ways, holding society together. But it could also be ruthless to any who opposed it, as seen in the inquisitions and the crusades. And its power and wealth attracted leaders who were sometimes scandalously immoral. Popes and senior clergy lived as wealthy aristocrats, with palaces, many servants, courts, coats of arms, and sometimes even their own private armies. Inevitably, some of them really were there just for the money and the power. Their lives could be a long way from the example of Jesus – the one who had washed his disciples’ feet and told them that the greatest among them would be their servant.
Lots of different tensions developed at this time. Individual monarchs were becoming more powerful and were flexing their military muscles. Theologians were looking closely at the Bible and the writings of the early church fathers. And devout Christians were sometimes shocked by the state of the Church and its leaders. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440 made it much easier for radical thinkers to share and spread ideas. And it became less and less easy for one central authority to keep a hold on what everybody taught.
It all burst apart in the 16th century in the time known as the Reformation.
The trigger was something I mentioned two weeks ago: the scandalous practice of the sale of indulgences. The Church was raising money for the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome by selling documents which claimed to reduce people’s time in Purgatory. In other words, the Catholic Church was selling places on an alleged fast track to Heaven. A German monk called Martin Luther began a protest against this in 1517, by nailing his famous Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg. Luther was a very scrupulous, earnest monk who had found Catholic spirituality to be arduous and disheartening. However much he devoted himself to fasting, prayer, pilgrimage and the frequent confession of his sins, he couldn’t find a sense of peace with God. He found the answer in the Bible, especially in Paul’s Letters to the Romans and the Galatians. There, he found an emphasis on the grace of God, a free gift of forgiveness which we receive through faith. He found a sense that he could trust his future into God’s hands because of Jesus Christ, rather than having to go through a daily panic about the state of his eternal soul. And he was appalled that people were being told that they needed to pay the Church in order to receive the grace of God.
Before the Reformation, the Church had gradually developed a very busy repertoire of sacraments, penances, pilgrimages, ceremonies and financial transactions. Salvation could seem to involve a large number of works which people had to do. And even the most earnest Christian, who tried his hardest, could still fear that it wouldn’t be enough. Hence the need for large donations to make up for our human shortcomings.
Against this emphasis on works came the new Protestant emphasis on justification by faith alone. Luther said that salvation is all about something which Jesus Christ has done for us. Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God is willing to see us as righteous. God forgives us and accepts us because of Jesus Christ, not because of our achievements.
And this belief in justification by faith alone was based on Luther’s reading of the Bible. Not on the traditional Catholic reading of the Bible, but on a view that Luther himself had reached. So he concluded that the Church could go wrong. He concluded that Popes and councils of bishops could make mistakes. For Luther, there was an urgent need to go back to the documents which defined the beginnings of Christianity. To try to read the Bible with fresh eyes and to bring reform to the Church.
Tragically, the church hierarchy didn’t engage constructively with Luther’s criticisms of the scandal of indulgences. Luther was excommunicated by the Pope in 1521, and so began the separate existence of churches which protested against the errors of Rome: the Protestants.
Protestants, Catholics and the relationship between God and people
I’d like to reflect a little on that divide and on the question of how we interpret the Bible.
I spoke in my fourth talk about the differences between high and low church views of Christianity. High church Christianity believes that the traditions and practices of the Church have been revealed by God as his gracious ways of helping us. But low church Christianity seeks a simple and direct sense of faith in a message revealed in the scriptures. I said then that both sides had things to learn from each other. And I would say the same thing about the central theological arguments of the Reformation.
It seems to me that the Bible is describing a relationship between God and people. God does everything to make that relationship possible, and invites us into it. And that means that there’s something important about what he does, and something important about how we respond. But, there’s a great diversity even in the Bible in the ways in which the relationship between God and people is described. And so it’s possible to interpret it in very different ways, as Protestants and Catholics have done.
Sometimes, the emphasis in the Bible is very strongly on divine power, divine decision and divine providence. And sometimes, the emphasis in the Bible is very strongly on the importance of the decisions and actions of human beings. Sometimes, salvation is described entirely as something which God has done for us. And sometimes it’s described as something which we have to accept, which we have to work out and persevere in. On the one hand, there are a few mentions of predestination and plenty of mentions of God’s plans, God’s prophetic words and God’s providence. On the other hand, there are lots of passages which show real human choices and their consequences, and which are meant to provoke us to make the right choices. So Paul writes about faith, and James says that faith without works is dead. Both sides of the relationship seem to matter.
But there are various points in Christian history in which people seem to me to have gone too far in emphasising one side of the divine-human relationship. And an imbalance tends to be followed by people overcorrecting in the other direction. There was a big argument like this in the fourth century between Pelagius and St Augustine, for example. And this see-saw effect seems to me to have occurred again at the Reformation. The Medieval Church had emphasised a very busy Christian spirituality. Medieval Catholicism could seem like having to work very hard and spend very generously in order to find your way to God. In reaction, Protestant theology placed all or most of its emphasis on God. At its most extreme, the followers of John Calvin concluded that we are all either chosen by God to be saved or damned. For Calvinists, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to change which group we are in. Salvation is all about God and his glory, not about us.
So do we buy our way to salvation? Or are we utterly powerless to do anything to change our fate? It seems to me that both of those views miss the real richness and wonder of the faith described in the Bible. The Bible emphasises both the gracious work of Jesus Christ, and the importance our response to it in our faith and in our actions.
Protestants, Catholics and the Bible
So let me say a little more about the Bible. The Catholics had said that only the Church could interpret the Bible. They had insisted that the Bible should be only studied by professional theologians in Latin, and kept out of the hands of the laity. They believed that the Church should teach the Christian message to ordinary people through sermons, catechisms, paintings, stained glass, ceremonies, plays and pilgrimages. But the Protestants, armed with their new-fangled printing presses, said that all people should have Bibles in their own languages. And I firmly believe that they were right to say that, as indeed does the Catholic Church today.
But the 16th century Catholics did have a valid reason to be worried. The great problem of the Reformation is that it didn’t produce just one Protestant Church. There was Luther, but then there was also Zwingi, and they didn’t agree about some aspects of what the Bible says, such as what happens in the Eucharist. And then came Calvin, who took Zwingli’s teachings much further. And then other people came up with other ideas. And today there are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations in the world. Protestantism has a continuing story of disagreements about the Bible which lead to more and more divisions.
It’s a wonderful thing for people to have their own Bibles. But we lose something if we just try to read the Bible as individuals and as little groups and sects. We lose something if we pay no attention to the ways in which other people interpret scripture, if we insist that everyone else today must have got it wrong. And we lose a lot if we insist that the whole history of the church for many centuries must have been entirely full of error.
Today there’s a divide between the Catholic view that the Church and its traditions are infallible, and the widespread Protestant assumption that most of the history of the Church can be safely ignored. As a Protestant, I do believe that the Church gets things wrong and is always in need of some reformation. But I also think that the Holy Spirit has been seeking to guide the whole Church down through the centuries and seeks to do so today. And therefore there’s something deeply important about trying to read the Bible together – with other kinds of Christians today, and with a sympathetic knowledge of the history of Christian theology.
The English Reformation
When I talk about bringing these Protestant and Catholic understandings together, I’m speaking from a perspective which is distinctively Anglican. I find in the Church of England a rather wonderful opportunity to draw on the best of a range of different Christian traditions. And I shall therefore be unashamedly biased in what I’m about to say about the English Reformation, which is my next topic.
It’s an extraordinary story. It begins, of course with Henry VIII. In 1521, Henry wrote a book attacking Martin Luther and defending a Catholic view of the sacraments. So the Pope awarded him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’, which the Queen still holds today. In most respects, Henry was a very loyal Catholic. But, he struggled to produce a male heir to the throne of England. For the security of England and its political stability, the King needed a son who would be in a strong position to continue the Tudor dynasty. Henry’s first wife, Catherine, bore him a daughter, but no sons. And so Henry sought to have his marriage annulled by the Pope so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
In the way that things normally worked for monarchs at the time, Henry had reasonable grounds for expecting the Pope to annul his first marriage. She’d previously been married to his brother, and so the marriage had always seemed a bit dodgy. But Catherine’s nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, ruler of today’s Germany, northern Italy and other surrounding areas. Charles V had recently sacked Rome and imprisoned the Pope, so the Pope was rather scared of him. Ejecting Charles’ auntie from being Queen of England can’t have been an attractive idea. And so there was no annulment. And Henry seemed stuck.
But this all happened ten years after the Reformation had begun on the continent. Many other people had already rejected the authority of the Pope. Cambridge and other places were awash with Protestant texts and ideas. And a significant number of senior clergy wanted to reform the church. England was becoming more powerful, and there was plenty of support in England for the idea that no foreigner deserved jurisdiction over England and its church. You might see it as an early form of euroscepticism. And so a series of Acts of Parliament reduced the power of Rome in England, culminating in the Act of Supremacy of 1534, which made Henry the supreme head of the Church in England.
Henry’s theology otherwise remained mostly very Catholic. But he did order the dissolution of the religious communities of England, who had amassed a large proportion of the nation’s land and wealth. And he permitted himself to get married a few more times.
It was Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour who bore him the son who became King Edward VI at the age of nine. That was in the year 1547, 30 years after Luther’s 95 theses. And it was in Edward’s reign that England became firmly Protestant, as the young King’s Regency Council pushed through their reforms. Clergy were allowed to marry, and the Catholic services in Latin were replaced by the Book of Common Prayer in English, written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. The 1552 Book of Common Prayer contained a very Protestant view of the Eucharist. And a Litany which prayed for deliverance from the ‘tyranny of the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities.’
But Edward died six years later, and England suddenly became firmly Catholic again under the rule of Mary, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon. But she died five years after that, and was succeeded by the Protestant Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry and Ann Boleyn. So, once again, Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy and England broke with Rome.
But things were a little different this time. Elizabeth reigned for a very long time, and took a more moderate approach to religious controversy. The revised Book of Common Prayer of 1559 was much less rude about the Pope. And the wording of the communion service allowed people to believe in either a physical or a spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Elizabethan Religious Settlement tried to unite as many English people as possible after the religious divisions caused by the previous three monarchs. Elizabeth was called the supreme governor of the English Church, rather than its supreme head. She herself said that she refused to make windows into men’s souls, indicating that she didn’t want to enquire too rigorously into her subjects’ beliefs. She said: ‘There is only one Jesus Christ and all the rest is a dispute over trifles.’
The result was a Church of England which had a moderate Protestant theology, but which also preserved elements of its Catholic heritage. There were still bishops, priests and deacons. And an ordered, dignified, beautiful form of liturgical worship. And a strong belief in the importance of the unity of the church – a desire to bring Christians together rather than to split into many groups. So there were things which high-church people liked, and things which low-church people liked. This Anglican approach believes first of all in the authority of the Bible, but also values the traditions of the Church when they are agreeable to the scriptures. And that seems to me to be a very valuable combination.
The Church of England as we know it today dates from that Elizabethan Settlement. And since then it has provided a home for many different English Christians. In today’s Church of England, even just here in Cambridge, there are many kinds of churches. Some, like Little St Mary’s, seem more Catholic than the Pope in their ornate style of worship. Others, like St Andrew the Great, are very similar to independent Evangelical churches. And there are a whole range of C of E churches in between. So people have often described the Church of England as a broad church, or as a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism, a Church which is both Catholic and Reformed. There are still many things which Anglicans argue about, and I’ll talk about some of them next week. But there’s something about trying to stay together despite our differences which seems very important to me.
Protestantism and establishment
One of the key things to note about the English reformation is that the religion of the people was determined by the religion of whoever happened to be on the throne at the time. The Church of England broke away from the Pope, but it remained a hierarchical structure which was established by the authority of the king. It was still a top-down approach to Christianity. And that pattern was seen across Europe. Today’s Germany was then made up of many different territories governed by different princes. In some places, the local prince supported Luther and so his people became Lutheran. In other places, the local prince supported Rome and so his people remained Catholic. Most of the early Protestants assumed that the Church and the state should remain interconnected. They assumed that any process of reformation would rely on the support of a godly prince, the patronage of the local ruler. Both Protestants and Catholics wanted their version of Christianity to be their established, state religion. A whole country or principality would be understood to hold that faith. All infants would be baptised, all children would be taught the faith, and everyone would be expected to go to Church.
But, of course, that approach isn’t mentioned in the Bible. And the Protestants were enthusiastically seeking to base their beliefs on scripture. And so there came also a more radical approach to reformation which turned its attention to the ordinary people and their faith, rather than to monarchies and hierarchies.
The first flourishing of this new radicalism came in a group called the Anabaptists. They began as a small minority in Germany, and they were regarded at first as dangerous lunatics by everybody else, both Catholic and Protestant. They wanted the separation of Church and state. They said that infant baptism was invalid because they couldn’t find it in the Bible. They thought that the Reformation hadn’t gone far enough. They emphasised the priesthood of all believers, not just the clergy. Instead of a top-down view of the Church, with a hierarchy imposed from above, they had a bottom-up view. They emphasised the local congregation, formed by people freely choosing to be in fellowship with each other as Christian disciples. Their approach was made possible by the fact that individuals could now read the Bible for themselves. And the Anabaptists emphasised the New Testament teaching that each Christian can be guided by the Holy Spirit.
And so people started to discover that there’s something inherently democratic in a Protestant approach to Christianity. The Protestant view of the Bible leads to radicalism. It leads to ordinary people being able to reimagine the world and to set about trying to change it. This radicalism is something which causes no end of headaches for monarchies and aristocracies. And so the history of Protestant churches and the history of the development of western democracy are deeply interconnected. The Elizabethan attempt to unite the Christians of England under the authority of the monarch and the bishops never fully succeeded. It couldn’t contain all of those who had a radical, passionate, restless longing for a Biblical faith. A faith which questioned the powers and authorities of the world, and which sought a purer church.
So, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, lots of different Protestant groups developed in various countries. Puritans tried hard to purge the Church of England of its remaining high-church tendencies. Some of them gave up and set up separatist congregations. Some of them went to America, such as the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, gaining the freedom to practice their own approach to Christianity. The first Congregationalists got started in 1592, forming independent churches which were governed democratically by all their members. Baptists got started in England soon afterwards, being Congregationalists who rejected infant baptism. Thomas Helwys wrote in 1612: ‘Men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it.’
Another form of Protestantism developed north of the border. Scotland adopted Presbyterianism in 1560, a state church which had got rid of bishops. The presbyterians noted that there had originally been no difference between the presbuteroi and episcopoi of the New Testament. And so they set up councils of elders, or presbyters, to govern the church. It was democratic among the elders, although not among the laity. And the Scottish fiercely resisted all later royal attempts to impose bishops on them again.
In England, political radicalism and Protestant radicalism developed alongside each other during the 17th century. Dissenting groups such as the Ranters, the Diggers, the Levellers, the Grindletonians and the Muggletonians all objected in various ways to the authority of the King and his established Church. They had their greatest impact in the period called the Commonwealth, from 1649-1660, when the King was executed and England was plunged into civil war.
By the end of the 17th century, England had a more powerful parliament and a restored monarchy whose powers were carefully limited and who were forbidden from being Catholics. It had a Church of England which was established, but people were no longer persecuted if they chose to adopt their own approach to Protestantism. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists and others became a more settled part of the English landscape.
Calvinism and Arminianism
So the main thing that the various Protestant groups disagreed about was the nature of the Church, how it should be governed, and how it should relate to the government of the country. And Baptists had a different understanding of baptism. But there was also a widespread fundamental theological difference about the scope of salvation. And this is another example of the debate about the divine and human roles in salvation.
One of the biggest theological differences in Protestantism is between Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinists emphasise predestination. They say that God has chosen in advance who will be saved, and that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. God’s grace is irresistible, and those whom God choses to be Christians inevitably become Christians and persevere in their faith. Everyone else is damned and lost, due to the total depravity of the human race. That’s the Calvinist view. On the other hand, Arminians believe that God would like all people to be saved and that Christ died for the sins of the whole world. They insist that God gives people genuine freedom to choose, which is why some respond to him and some don’t. And they interpret the Bible’s occasional references to predestination as a way of saying that God has foreknowledge of who will choose to become a Christian, rather than that God chooses for them.
Calvinism seems to me to be an overreaction against the errors of the Catholic Church. And Arminianism seems to me to get the divine and human balance about right. But that’s just my opinion.
Both Calvinism and Arminianism have been found widely within the same Protestant denominations, such as in different parts of the Church of England. And they’ve sometimes resulted in divisions, such as the separation of the Calvinist Strict and Particular Baptists from other Baptists churches.
But Protestants have often been at their most successful when they have emphasised the importance of the individual decision to follow Jesus Christ. Two weeks ago, I spoke about the evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic revivals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Evangelical Christianity stresses the importance of the faith and the experience of individual people. It’s very different from an emphasis on hierarchies and monarchs. Evangelical Christianity grew rapidly from the 18th century, flourishing within the older denominations and also spilling out beyond them.
One of the key leaders of the evangelical movement was a Church of England clergyman called John Wesley. He lived in the 18th century and is remembered as the founder of Methodism. Wesley was a passionate preacher who travelled very widely, preaching an enthusiastic, Arminian view of Christianity, and calling people to respond to Jesus Christ. As a result of his preaching, keen groups of Christians began meeting locally in many parts of Britain and America. Wesley tried hard to keep his enthusiastic converts within the Church of England. But the Church of England lacked Wesley’s vision, and it failed shamefully to organise the ordination of clergy for the colonies in America.
The Church of England has preserved that second-century tradition that only bishops can ordain people to be priests, and Wesley was only a priest. But he desperately needed to appoint new church leaders for new churches in America. Eventually, Wesley fell back on the fact that there’s no difference between bishops and priests in the New Testament, and he started carrying out ordinations himself. Sadly, but inevitably, this led to the development of Methodism as a separate movement.
Other developments in Protestantism
Time for a few brief mentions of some other trends in Protestantism. The Enlightenment of the 18th century had a huge impact on Protestantism. It led to the development of liberal approaches to theology, which applied human reason to scripture and tradition. Scholars started to study the Bible as a collection of historical texts for example, and to ask searching questions about the reasons why faith developed as it did. People have often associated this approach with doubt and with the gradual loss of faith. But it has also greatly helped people to understand the Bible in its own context and to ask important questions about how the Church should relate to a rapidly changing world. I’ll say more about that next week.
Finally, the most recent set of new Protestant churches has resulted mostly from Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement, as I mentioned two weeks ago. Some of these have settled down into established denominations. And others come and go rapidly as individual congregations and as shifting alliances of churches.
Catholics since the Reformation
But I really must say some more about the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church worked hard in the sixteenth century to renew and strengthen its vision, in a movement known as the Counter-Reformation. And they held another council of bishops, this time at Trent over the years from 1545 to 1563. Sadly, Trent completely rejected any possible compromises with the Protestants, and restated the Catholic faith in a way which was even more confident of many of the things that the Protestants didn’t like. But Cathlics also worked hard to tighten up administration and discipline and to get rid of corruption in the church.
New religious orders such as the Jesuits, founded in 1540, had a huge impact. And Catholics got their act together in taking the Christian message to the world long before Protestants did. When Catholic countries like Portugal and Spain were exploring the world, Catholic missionaries went with them. Protestant missionary work didn’t really get going until the 18th century and the evangelical revivals.
On the whole, the Catholic Church followed its own triumphant, separatist approach to faith, regarding itself as the one true Church. In 1870, the First Vatican Council proclaimed that the Pope on his own has the authority to make infallible pronouncements of Christian doctrine, an innovation which did nothing to placate the Protestants and the Orthodox.
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church was able to re-establish its hierarchy of bishops in England in 1850. And the Church of England was greatly changed by the anglo-catholic revival of the 19th century, which emphasised the Catholic heritage of Anglicans. And many began to hope for reunion or at least for mutual recognition between the Catholics and Anglicans. But the Pope responded in 1896 by saying that the ordination of Anglican priests is ‘absolutely null and utterly void’
But a huge change came in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council. For the first time, Catholics affirmed that Protestants really are Christians. It became possible for Catholics and Protestants to worship together, and a new era of ecumenism began. A new form of the Mass was produced, which was translated into people’s own languages, instead of Latin. Ordinary Catholics were encouraged to read the Bible themselves. And there was a lot of shared liturgical scholarship conducted by Christians of different denominations. Anglicans and other Protestants rediscovered some of the patterns of worship of the first millennium, while also starting to use contemporary language in their services instead of all those 16th century ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s. The result was that it became possible to find Eucharistic services in Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and other churches which looked and sounded very similar.
In many ways, the 20th century brought a lot of reconciliation between the divided denominations. It became much more normal for Christians of different kinds to worship together and to seek to serve God together. Congregationalists and Presbyterians in England and Wales, for example, joined forces in 1972 to form the United Reformed Church. Christians have at least partly healed many of the divisions of the past.
But recent times have brought a whole new set of questions and challenges to the church. The ordination of women by Anglicans is a great barrier to ecumenical relationships with the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, which firmly believe that only men can be priests. And arguments over same-sex relationships are prominent among many Christians. Those are some of the issues which I’ll be discussing next week.