What Events Led to the Formal Splitting of the Christian Church?

Martin Luther's questioning of Catholic Church doctrines resulted in the Protestant-Catholic split in Christianity.
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The Christian Church has experienced some major splits in its history. There were two schisms, moments when large bodies of Christians refused to submit to the authority of the Pope. The East-West Schism resulted in a formal split between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Western Schism rose out of internal church disputes in Europe. Further challenges resulted over the issue of salvation and the people’s relationship with God. These challenges manifested in the founding of Protestant Christianity, with its many denominations that do not submit to the principle of Papal authority.

1 East-West Schism

Christianity, once united, experienced its first formal split, the East-West Schism, in 1054. Eastern Christians, centered in Constantinople, questioned the supremacy of the Rome-based Pope. A lingering dispute over the role of the Pope as head of all Christianity began in the 4th century when John IV, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, claimed autonomy within his region. Pope Leo IX, in 1054, formally requested the Eastern Church leaders proclaim their allegiance to the Pope in Rome. His request denied, Pope Leo excommunicated the entire Eastern Orthodox Church. In return, the Eastern leaders did the same to the western Catholics. In 1965, these two branches of Christianity, whose practices are almost identical, removed the orders of excommunication; however, the issue of Papal supremacy prevents reconciliation.

2 Western Schism

Pope Urban VI began his reign on April 8, 1378, but the College of Cardinals, the electing body, attempted to renounce its decision by holding another election. On September 20, 1378, the college pronounced Clement VII the new Pope. Both Popes summarily excommunicated the other. With Pope Urban leading from Rome and Pope Clement stationed in Avignon, France, the Catholic Church had an official schism. This schism continued even after both Urban VI and Clement VII had died. The church solved the affair in 1414 when both sides agreed to the resignation of their representative popes and elected Pope Martin V in 1417. Though there would remain claims to the position, from various quarters until 1429, eventually all recognized Pope Martin V as the legitimate leader, effectively ending the schism.

3 Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

In 1517, Martin Luther, a German priest, began to question the route to salvation. Catholic doctrine stated people could attain salvation through good works, or their actions. Catholics could purchase indulgences, documents issued by church officials forgiving sins or evil deeds. Luther believed that selling indulgences represented a corruption of Christianity. He published the 95 Theses, charges against the Catholic Church, that altered European theology by arguing that individual faith was the only means to salvation. This new conception of the individual's relationship with God was the root of the Protestant Reformation, the movement of Christians breaking with the Catholic Church, leading to the creation of over 30,000 separate Christian denominations.

4 Anglican Church Established

The establishment of the Church of England, the Anglican Church, as the official state religion, turned England into a Protestant kingdom. This split occurred in 1534 after King Henry VIII asked Pope Clement VII to grant him a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. King Henry’s intention was to marry his then mistress, Ann Boleyn. Pope Clement refused to grant this divorce of convenience. Incensed, King Henry proclaimed himself head of the new Church of England, which officially supplanted Catholicism as the state religion. The Protestant Anglicans would give rise to their own religious dissenters, the Separatists (Pilgrims) and Puritans, two groups that would leave England in 1620 and 1630, respectively, to help found America.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.