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The West: reformation and counter-reformation

During the succeeding centuries after A.D. 1054, the growing distinction between East and West was indelibly marked in history. The East maintained the full stream of New Testament faith and practice. The Western, or Roman Catholic, Church, after its schism from the Orthodoxy, bogged down in many complex problems. Then, centuries after Rome committed itself to its unilateral spirit of doctrine and practice, another upheaval was festering - this time not next door to the East, but inside the Western gates themselves.

Though many in the West had spoken out against Roman domination and practice in earlier years, in the sixteen century a little-known German monk named Martin Luther inadvertently launched an attack against certain Roman Catholic practices that ended up affecting world history. His famous Ninety-Five Theses were nailed to the church door at Wittenburg in 1517. In a short time those theses were signaling the start of what came to be called in the West the Protestant Reformation. Luther sought an audience with the Pope but was denied, and in 1521 he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. He had intended no break with Rome. Unresponsive to Luther's many legitimate objections concerning the novel practices of the now-separated Western Church, Rome refused to budge or bend. The door to future unity in the West slammed shut with a resounding crash.

The protests of Luther were not unnoticed. The reforms he sought in Germany were soon accompanied by the demands of Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, John Calvin in Geneva, and hundreds of others all over Western Europe. Fueled by complex political, social, and economical factors, in addition to religious problems, the Reformation spread like a raging fire into virtually every nook and cranny of the Roman Catholic Church. Its Western ecclesiastical monopoly was greatly diminished, and massive division replaced its artificial unity. The ripple effect of that division continues on even to our day.

If trouble on the Continent were not trouble enough, the Church in England was in the process of going its own way as well. Henry VIII, amidst his marital problems, replaced the Pope of Rome with himself as head of the Church of England. For only a few short years would the Pope ever again have ascendancy in England. And the English Church itself would be shattered by great division.

As decade followed decade in the West, the many branches of Protestantism took various forms. There were even divisions that insisted they were neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic. All seemed to share a mutual dislike for the bishop of Rome and the practice of his Church, and most wanted far less centralized forms of leadership. While some, such as the Lutherans and Anglicans, held on to a basic form of liturgy and sacrament, others, such as the Reformed Churches and the even more radical Anabaptists and their descendants, questioned and rejected many biblical ideas of hierarchy, sacrament, historic tradition, and other elements of historic Christian practice, no matter when and where they appeared in history, thinking they were freeing themselves of Roman Catholicism. To this day, many sincere, modern, professing Christians will reject even the biblical texts that speak of historic Christian practice, simply because they think those practices are "Roman Catholic." To use the old adage, they "threw the baby out with the bathwater," without even being aware of it.

Thus, while retaining in varying degrees portions of original Christianity, neither Protestantism nor Catholicism can lay historic claim to being the true New Testament Church. In dividing from the Orthodox Church, Rome forfeited its place in the Church of the New Testament. In the division of the Reformation, the Protestants - as well meaning as they might have been - failed to return to the New Testament Church.

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