This post by David K. Clarke originally appeared at The Ramblings of a Bush Philosopher.
Since Martin Luther started the Lutheran Church and broke away from the Catholic Church there have been many other people and groups forming branches of the Christian religion. Why are there no break-away Christian groups, other than the Eastern Orthodox, that date back from the institutionisation of Christianity by Emperor Theodosius around 390AD to 1517 when Luther produced his 95 Theses? This is a period of over 1100 years.
There are no surviving break-away groups because the groups that did break-away were sooner or later ruthlessly forced back into the mainstream, with the authorities often using torture or execution on those who resisted. They were called heretics and were forced to believe, or at least to pretend to believe, the dogma held by the dominant group. The early Church eradicated many so-called heresies, including Docetism, Montanism, Adoptionism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and Gnosticism. Other break-away groups who have been eliminated included the Pneumatomachians and Priscilliansts of the 4th century; the Donatists, 5th cent; and the Albigensians, 12th and 13th centuries.
Some of the heresies and schisms
- The Montanist movement broke away in the second century, flourished in the third, had almost died out (or been killed off) by the sixth century.
- The Ebionite movement originated in the first century. Little information survives.
- The Donatists broke with the majority church in 312. It seems that Islam had more to do with the extinction of the Donatist church in the early Middle Ages than did Christianity.
- Docetism rejected the humanity of Christ; the Docetics have gone the way of many other ‘heresies’.
- Arianism began in the forth century and held that Christ was not truly divine but was a created being. This ‘heresy’ was condemned by the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and it was wiped out of both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires shortly after 381. It survived among some of the Germanic tribes until the end of the seventh century.
- The Paulicians originated in the mid-seventh century. They held that Jesus was not truly the son of Mary. Paulicianism was repressed by Constantine III, Justinian II, Michal I and the empress Theodora; in spite of this it survived at least well into the ninth century.
- The Schism of 1054, also called the East-West Schism, in which the Eastern Christian churches broke away from the Western (Catholic) Church, was the only successful bid for independence between 390 and 1517AD. The reason it succeded is that each group was supported by strong and independent geographically-based power blocs.
- The Cathari was a major break-away branch of Christianity that flourished in western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries; they were persecuted into extinction over a period of several hundred years.
- Peter Waldo (or Valdo) preached around 1170-76; his followers (Waldenses) were persecuted and executed to the point of near extinction by the end of the 13th century.
- Jan Hus, a 15th century Czech religious reformer in some ways anticipated the Lutheran Reformation by a century. However, Hus was less successful than Luther, and was burned at the stake in 1415.
It seems that many of the ‘heretical’ groups rebelled against the corruption in the Catholic hierarchy as much as against Catholic theology. The history of the ‘heresies’ of the Catholic Church up to the Reformation makes fascinating reading; but is not for the fainthearted.
After Martin Luther (1483 to 1546) there were wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics for hundreds of years, each group trying to force their beliefs onto the other. Many of those who migrated to the New World did so to escape religious persecution.
Pope Pius V caused the Inquisition to eliminate Protestantism from Italy during his reign (1566-72); it is hard to imagine how much torture and killing would be involved in such a campaign. He was canonized (made a saint) in 1712 (an act similar in its injustice to the nomination of George W. Bush for the Nobel Peace Prize).
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 1 – Root Out Heretics
Power of the Church in the Middle Ages
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