The Cause of Divisions in Christianity


Since all non-Christian religions are man-made, having their source in man’s endeavor to earn remission of sins by works, it is not strange that they should appear in many and diverse forms. 

The Apology writes: “And because no works pacify the conscience, new works, in addition to God’s commands, were from time to time devised (the hypocrites nevertheless used to invent one work after another, one sacrifice after another, by a blind guess and in reckless wantonness, and all this without the Word and command of God, with wicked conscience, as we have seen in the Papacy).” (Art. III, 87.) This statement the Apology applies, first of all, to the papists, but it holds true with respect to all the religions of works. Just because the old works never pacify the guilty conscience, new works must be tried to effect a cure of the sin-troubled conscience; and so in all man-made religions there is an endless multiplication of “good works.” 

However, while divisions may thus be expected among the adherents of man-made religions, one preferring this good work and another that, so that each pagan sect has its own forms of worship as well as its own gods, there ought not to be any divisions among the adherents of the religion of faith, since this religion has only one source of doctrine, namely, Holy Scripture, which by its divine message of grace satisfies the human heart and appeases the human conscience by offering free remission of sins to all who believe in Christ. In other words, Christians having the one Word of God and holding to the one faith in Christ ought not to be split into factions, or parties. 

In addition to this, Holy Scripture very sternly condemns all divisions, demanding that all believers should “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” Eph. 4, 3. St. Paul states the reason for this demand very clearly when he adds (vv. 4–6): “There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in you all.” The divisions existing at Corinth so horrified Paul that he wrote: “Is Christ divided?” 1 Cor. 1, 13. All believers in Christ are equally members of His body, and so there is no cause whatever for any possible division in the Christian Church. 

Yet such divisions exist, and they have existed since the first proclamation of the Christian faith, so that there always have been sects within the visible Church. These divisions have been variously explained by climatic or racial differences, under the plea that the peoples of the various zones are variously affected in their religious emotions. However, all these explanations are inadequate and even false; they are disproved by the simple fact that true believers in Christ who actually do keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace are found the world over, no matter what kind of climatic or racial differences may exist among men. No indeed.

The origin and the existence of divisions within Christendom are to be attributed to more serious causes. According to Holy Scripture they are due to false prophets and apostles, who, unfaithful to the pure Word of God, in the name of the Christian religion disseminate their own perverse notions and discard the specific beliefs of Christianity, above all the fundamental doctrine of the Gospel that man is justified by grace, through faith, without the deeds of the Law. Such pseudapostles troubled even the churches founded by Paul and his colaborers. Rom. 16, 17: “I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrinewhich ye have learned; and avoid them.” 1 Cor. 14, 37: “If any man think himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.” Gal. 1, 6-8: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel. . . . But there be some that trouble you and would pervert the Gospel of Christ. But though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” Phil. 3, 18 : “For many walk of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the Cross of Christ.” The malicious attempts of such pseudapostles to pervert the Gospel of Christ, in particular the central doctrine of Christianity : salvation by grace alone, through faith in the vicarious atonement of the divine Redeemer, explain for all time the existence of divisions within Christendom. 

The truth of this assertion becomes obvious when we examine the major divisions existing within the Christian Church: the Romanistic division, the Reformed division, various divisions within the Lutheran Church, and the modern rationalistic schools of theology with their innumerable ramifications. The Roman Catholic Church, while in principle acknowledging the divine authority of Holy Scripture, nevertheless insists that the Bible must be interpreted according to the decisions of the Church, which, in the final analysis, are those of the Pope, who, as Luther points out in the Smalcald Articles (Part III, Art. VIII, 4), claims to have all rights within the shrine of his heart (in scrinio pectoris). 

The result of such interpretation of Holy Scripture according to the sense of the ”holy Mother Church” (sancta mater ecclesia) is that the cardinal article of the Christian faith, the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith in Christ, is not only rejected, but expressly anathematized, so that all true Christians who base their hope of salvation solely on Christ Jesus and not also on their works and on the merits of the saints are pronounced accursed. (Council of Trent, Sess. VI, Cans. 11. 12. 20.) Thus the Romanistic division, or sect, deprives the Christian religion of its specific character and content, and its whole theology is, as St. Paul styles it, “a religion of the flesh.” Romanism is built upon two fundamental errors, which Holy Scripture most stringently condemns: the infallibility of papal authority in religion and the meritoriousness of man’s good works. It is above all these two errors that make the Church of Rome an antichristian sect. 

The Reformed faction likewise acknowledges the divine authority of Holy Scripture in principle. In fact, over against Lutheranism the Reformed Church makes the claim that it is “more exclusively Scriptural” than the Lutheran Church, which, it says, has always been inclined to be ”historical” and “conservative” in accord with the principle that church traditions and customs may be retained whenever they can be reconciled with the Word of God. But this distinction between Reformed and Lutheran theology is not based on facts. Reformed theology is not “more exclusively Scriptural” than Lutheran theology. On the contrary; while Romanistic theology demands the interpretation of Holy Scripture according to the sancta mater ecclesia, Reformed theology insists that the Bible must be interpreted according to human reason, or according to rationalistic axioms. 

Thus, guided by rationalistic axioms, Reformed theology rejects, first of all, the doctrine of the means of grace, that is, the doctrine that the Word of God and the Sacraments are the divinely ordained means by which the Holy Ghost directly works regeneration, conversion, and sanctification. The doctrine of the means of grace is clearly stated in Holy Scripture, Rom. 1, 16; Titus 3, 5. 6; Acts 2, 38, etc. But in opposition to this Scriptural truth Reformed theology asserts the rationalistic axiom that “efficacious grace acts immediately.” In other words, Reformed theology separates the sanctifying operations of the Holy Ghost from the means of grace under the plea that the Holy Spirit needs no vehicle by which to enter the hearts of men. (Zwingli, Fidei Ratio,· Calvin, Inst., IV, 14. 17; Hodge, Syst. Theol., II, 684; etc.) It was this rationalistic axiom, consistently and strenuously applied, which caused the division between the Lutheran Church and the Reformed sects. 

Against Romanism, Luther had to defend the truth that the Word of God must not be perverted by the rationalistic views of the “Church”; against Zwinglianism he had to defend the truth that the Word of God must not be perverted by the rationalistic views of individual theologians. 

Again, Reformed theology applies a rationalistic principle when it treats the doctrines of the person of Christ and of the Lord’s Supper. It emphatically denies the real presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper, maintaining that His presence in the Sacrament is only spiritual, that is, a presence effected by the faith of the believer. In other words, Christ is present in Holy Communion only to the extent that the believing communicant is united with Him by faith. This denial of the Real Presence is manifestly in opposition to the clear words of Christ’s institution of the Holy Supper: “Take, eat; this is My body.” It rests solely on the rationalistic principle that Christ’s body, being a truly human body and having as such only a visible and local mode of presence ( visibilis et local is praesentia), cannot be truly present in the Lord’s Supper because it is locally enclosed in heaven. That is to say, moved by human reason, Reformed theology denies the illocal mode of presence of Christ’s body, taught in such passages as John 20, 19: “When the doors were shut, … came Jesus and stood in the midst”; Luke 24, 31: “And He vanished out of their sight,” etc. 

Holy Scripture ascribes this illocal presence of Christ’s human nature to Him by virtue of the personal union with its resulting communion of the two natures and the communication of attributes. But on the basis of reason Reformed theology denies the communion of the two natures of Christ and the communication of attributes. It asserts that “the finite is not capable of the infinite.” From this rationalistic principle follows another, namely, that Christ’s body cannot have an illocal presence and since the Ascension is therefore enclosed in heaven. The split between Zwinglianism and Lutheranism must be attributed to the maintenance and defense of these two rationalistic axioms on the part of the former. Luther was unable to extend to Zwingli the hand of Christian fellowship at Marburg (1529) because the latter showed a “different spirit,” namely, the spirit of rationalism, which is diametrically opposed to the Christian faith. 

Lastly, Calvinistic theology denies the universality of divine grace (gratia. universalis) and teaches that the grace of God is particular (gratia particularis), i.e., that it does not embrace all men, but the elect only, while all others are eternally predestinated to perdition. This doctrine is in direct opposition to Holy Scripture, which throughout affirms the universality of God’s grace and, besides, asserts that the damnation of a sinner is not due to any failure on the part of God to provide for his salvation, John 1, 29; 3, 16 ff.; 1 John 1, 2; 1 Tim. 2, 4-6; etc. On what grounds, then, does Reformed theology deny the universality of divine grace? 

Here again it employs a rationalistic axiom as a premise on which to rest its false doctrine. The rationalistic principle is: “We must assume that the result is the interpretation of the purpose of God.” (Hodge, Syst. Theol., II, 323.) Reformed theology reasons thus: “Since actually not all are saved, we must assume that God did not intend to save all.” In this way Calvinistic theology rejects Holy Scripture in favor of an argument drawn from reason, or a rationalistic axiom ; and on this departure from the Word of God and its consequent enthronement of reason the Reformed faction is founded. Just as soon as its theology ceases to be rationalistic, it will also cease to be separatistic. 

Within the pale of the Reformed denomination itself the strict Calvinistic doctrine of the particularity of divine grace has been emphatically denied by the Arminian party. Arminian theology denied the Calvinistic error that God from eternity has predetermined a certain number of men to damnation. However, on the other hand, Arminian theology erred by denying that grace alone (sola gratia) saves sinners. Over against the doctrine of sola gratia, so clearly taught by Luther, it reasoned that man’s conversion and salvation depends, at least to some extent, on his cooperation and the exercise of his free will. Calvinism denies the gratia universalis, while Arminianism denies the sola gratia. Thus also Arminianism is a departure from Holy Scripture, which ascribes man’s conversion exclusively to divine monergism, Eph. 1, 19; Phil. 1, 29; 1 Cor. 1, 23; 2, 14. 

Arminianism simply revamped the error of Erasmus, who, Luther said, “seized him by the throat” when he taught that man by nature has the ability to apply himself to divine grace (facultas se applicandi ad gratiam) and thus to cooperate in his conversion. What has just been said of Arminianism applies also with regard to synergism (an error taught within the Lutheran Church). Synergism also denies the sola gratia and affirms, in opposition to Holy Scripture, that man’s conversion depends in part on his right conduct, self-decision, lesser guilt, etc.

Synergism was introduced into Lutheran theology by Melanchthon, who maintained that there are three causes of salvation: the Holy Ghost, the Word of God, and man’s assenting will. This doctrine is distinctly antichristian and, if actually believed, will prevent the sinner’s conversion, since saving faith is engendered only in a contrite heart, which trusts for salvation alone in divine grace. If synergists are actually saved, it is only because they give up their false doctrine and cling solely to God’s grace in Christ Jesus while smarting under the terrors of conscience ( terrores conscientiae). It is said of Melanchthon that he personally did not believe his false doctrine ; for invariably when imploring God as a penitent sinner, he appealed exclusively to divine grace for salvation. 

Nevertheless this influential teacher, by promulgating his synergistic errors, caused divisions within the Lutheran Church that did incalculable harm and are still troubling the Church in many ways. Thus also within Lutheran Christendom divisions and offenses have been caused by manifest departures from Holy Scripture. Finally we may speak of the divisions within Christendom that owe their origin to modern “scientific theology.” Modern rationalistic theology, which dates back to Schleiermacher and Ritschl, denies the Christian doctrine that Holy Scripture is God’s own, infallible Word and hence discards it as the only source and norm of doctrine. It thus rejects the only principle by which the Christian Church may preserve its inherent and essential unity ; for the unity of the Church does not consist in external forms, but in doctrinal agreement, which must necessarily cease if Holy Scripture is rejected as the only norm of faith. 

Modern theology suggests as norms of faith the “Christian experience,” “Christian consciousness,” “the regenerate heart,” etc. ; but all these “norms” in the final analysis coincide with carnal reason, which by its very nature is in opposition to divine truth. This is conclusively proved by the results, found everywhere where the “norms” just named have been adopted. Thus modern rationalistic theology unanimously denies the cardinal doctrine of justification by grace, through faith, teaching in its place the paganistic doctrine of salvation by work-righteousness. Again, it denies the fundamental Christian doctrine of the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and consequently also its inerrancy. Thus it rejects the two distinctive articles of the Christian faith and causes divisions and offenses contrary to the teachings of Christ and His apostles. 

The Christian Church demands of modern theology that it must surrender its opposition to Holy Scripture as the only source and norm of faith and to the vicarious atonement of Christ as the only means of a sinner’s justification. And that is Christ’s own demand, John 8, 31. 32; 1 Pet. 4, 11. The point, then, is clear: Divisions within Christendom owe their origin and existence to actual departure from Holy Scripture and its divine doctrines. Wherever they exist, they may be traced to the perversion and rejection of divine truth and must be condemned as the vicious work of Satan and his false prophets. 

The confessional Lutheran Church itself has been styled a “sect” within Christendom by non-Lutheran writers. But no charge is more unjust than that. The charge is due to a complete misunderstanding of the Reformation. The Lutheran Reformation was not an effort to found a new sect, or division, within Christendom, but to restore the corrupted Church to its ancient apostolic purity in doctrine and practise. The confessional Lutheran Church is therefore the ancient Church of Christ and His apostles, purified from the corruptions of papistical errors and restored on the basis of Holy Scripture. Its character is truly ecumenical; for its doctrines are not peculiar views and tenets, distinct from those of the Apostolic Church, but the very doctrines around which the ancient ecumenical creeds of Christendom center. Its theology is that of the Holy Bible, and of the Bible alone; its doctrine is the divine truth of God’s Word. The Lutheran Church is therefore the orthodox visible Church of Christ on earth. This is both its claim and its glory, and it challenges every charge of sectarianism made against it. 

We freely admit of course that also within the Lutheran Church divisions have been caused by departures, both in doctrine and in practice, from Holy Scripture and from the Lutheran Confessions. Hence, when we use the term Lutheran Church, we do not include those divisions, or parties, but refer exclusively to that Lutheran Church or those Lutheran churches which are thoroughly Scriptural and thoroughly Lutheran both in doctrine and in practice. In other words, the Lutheran Church is that Church which stands four-square on the principles of the Reformation. 

With regard to Christian unity it must be emphatically stated that this is not the work of man, but of divine grace, John 17, 11-15. 20. 21; Ps. 86, 11; etc. Human influence, wisdom, and ingenuity do not suffice to preserve the unity of faith or doctrine. That precious boon is the gift of the Holy Spirit, who graciously bestows and maintains it through the Word of God. For this reason all Christians must diligently pray for the unity of the Spirit and zealously use the means of grace, by which alone it is preserved. For wherever the Word of God is despised or rejected, no true unity of faith can prevail. Christians remain united in the faith only as long as they stand united upon God’s pure Word.

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