The following is an excerpt from Gerald Bray’s The Church.
No event has ever shaken the church as profoundly as the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. There had been schisms before, such as that of the Donatists, but they had been peripheral. There had been splits caused by extraneous factors, such as the isolation of the Celtic churches after the fall of the Roman Empire, but they had been healed fairly easily once contact was restored. There had even been breakaway movements caused by theological disagreements, such as that of the monophysites of Egypt and Syria and the Nestorians, but they did not touch on the fundamental character of the church itself.
However much they disagreed with one another, all sides in these disputes claimed an episcopal succession that they could trace back to the apostles, and they organized their ministry and worship in much the same way. The Donatists and the Celtic church have now disappeared, but the non-Chalcedonian churches still survive and are regarded with sympathy by the Eastern Orthodox, who recognize the fundamental similarities between them—similarities that they do not share with either the Roman Catholics or the Protestants of the Western tradition. It was the Reformation that challenged this common pattern and forced the Christian world, or at least its Western half, to think through its principles of ecclesiology for the first time.
In the early sixteenth century there were still a few dissenting groups from earlier times, but they were localized and not very influential. Some Lollards survived in England but were so obscure that almost nothing is known about them, and there were Waldensians in the Alps, survivors of a medieval dissident movement originally led by Peter Waldo (1140?–1218?). The Hussite movement in Bohemia was far more influential than either of these, but it too was a regional phenomenon that did not spread beyond its Czech-speaking homeland. The pope did not lose much sleep over them, nor did he worry unduly about the Eastern churches, most of which were under Islamic rule or else so remote (in Russia and Ethiopia, for example) that they hardly mattered from a Western perspective.
Protestantism was something else altogether. The surviving Lollards, Hussites, and Waldensians quickly aligned with it—not the other way round—and it was to leave an indelible mark on the Christian world. In the course of a single generation, from about 1520 to about 1560, Western Christendom was torn in two and a new kind of Christianity came into being.
©2016 by Gerald Bray. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.
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