The Bible as a Source of Schism

December 10, 2011

For the Indiana Yearly Meeting Facebook Page:

We are facing a temptation to divide from one another even though we remember Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13: 10: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”

We can each identify a number of issues contributing to the threatening schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting, but the deepest fissures concern whether homosexuality is a sin, and what authority the Yearly Meeting should have towards member churches that do not fully adhere to the Yearly Meeting’s 1982 Minute on Homosexuality.

Schisms, of course, are nothing new in Christianity; there have been many.

I’ve just finished reading Lee Palmer Wandel’s The Reformation: Towards a New History (Cambridge University Press, 2011).  She is Professor of History, Religious Studies and Visual Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; this book draws on and synthesizes a great deal of research on what happened to Christianity during that critical period.  Reading her history, I was reminded that the 16th century was not just a time of divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but a time of immediate splintering (often angry and violent) among Protestants of various kinds.

Gutenberg’s printing of a Latin Bible in 1455 unleashed broader access to the Word.  Translations into vernacular languages quickly followed.  By 1500, many families had their own copy of the Bible that they could read at home.  While hardly the only cause, this wide availability of Bibles – something utterly new – sparked a religious revival to cleanse Christianity of beliefs and practices that had no apparent support in scripture.  Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in 1517, just 62 years (one lifetime) later.

Those who broke from Roman Catholicism called themselves evangelicals, and immediately such evangelicals came to be found all across Europe.  What surprised me in reading Prof. Wandel’s account, however, was how quickly the evangelical insistence on the primacy of the Bible also laid the foundation for the many schisms among them.  Evangelicals were convinced that insistence on the Bible as the only true source would create unity.  But it proved to have just the opposite effect.  The Bible quickly turned out to support many alternative readings, and yet each group insisted that its reading was the only true one.

In 1529, to take one example, evangelical leaders were called together at Marburg to consider the sacrament of Holy Communion.  What does Jesus mean when He says “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26)?  Are the bread and wine really changed into the actual body and blood of Christ?  Zwingli, Luther and Calvin, gave strikingly different answers from one another (and from Roman Catholic teaching), each grounded in a reflection on the words in the Bible.  The Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier had yet another answer, but he had been martyred the year before.  Just twelve years after the 95 Theses, schisms were separating the new evangelicals.  And the schisms fueled religious wars, not only between Protestants and Catholics, but also among Protestants.

The meaning and best practice of Baptism was another topic of schism, an argument also grounded in alternative readings of scripture.

There were efforts to heal the nascent schisms by drawing up “confessions,” statements of belief to which all should subscribe, and “catechisms” to teach authorized beliefs to the young, but these proved as much to deepen schisms as to draw people together.  These confessions and catechisms soon became instruments in the search for and punishment of heretics.

More than a century later, Quakers would lay aside all external sacraments for an inward understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit.  Quakers do not figure at all in the story of the Reformation that Wandel tells because Quakerism does not begin to take shape until the middle of the 17th century.  Nevertheless, I winced often at accounts of the severe repression of Anabaptists by Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed Christians, because Quakers share so many beliefs and practices with Anabaptists.

What leads us to certainty that our reading of the Bible (about the sacraments, about homosexuality) is the only true reading when the historical record is replete with bloody episodes of schism arising precisely from alternative readings of the Bible?  We can believe in the unity and rightness of God’s will without being convinced of the certainty of our own views.  We need faith in God, not confidence in our own certainty.

I believe we need to find ways to worship together seeking a common understanding of God’s will, while each of us maintains humility about the extent and depths of our own insights.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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1 Response to The Bible as a Source of Schism

  1. Pingback: Sources of Authority in the Present | River View Friend

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