In 1517 Martin Luther nailed Ninety-five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, a university town in the German province of Saxony, to start a debate over indulgences and related questions about Christian salvation.
His action is often understood to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. In 1529 Protestant representatives to the imperial Diet in Germany presented the Augsburg Confession, which enshrined the Protestant position at that time and is still accepted by all the Lutheran churches.
The rejection of that confession by the Roman Catholics with the support of the emperor, Charles V, has since been understood by many historians as the definitive division between the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, resulting in a plurality of churches in Western Christendom no longer in communion with one another.
Central to the Augsburg Confession was the doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” which together with “grace alone” and “scripture alone,” summarized the Protestant concerns. In addition, the Reformers insisted on changes in worship (especially the Mass) and the sacraments, changes unacceptable to the Roman Catholics and viewed by them as heretical. What began as a movement for the reformation of the Western (Latin) Church ended up with doctrinal division and ecclesiastical separation.
The Lutheran churches were not the only churches that came from the Reformation. Shortly after the Lutheran movement began, a similar movement, resulting in the formation of the Reformed churches, arose in Switzerland under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich. From there churches were established in many countries of Europe, with the predominant theological influence coming from John Calvin in Geneva.
In addition, groups of radical reformers (termed Anabaptists by their opponents) were formed and were persecuted by Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches alike. Each of these groups developed distinct theological positions. From them, especially from the Church of England in England and its American colonies, came many new churches including the Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals.
In the 20th century the ecumenical movement was born. The 1910 World Christian Missionary Conference in Edinburgh is often considered its beginning. The conviction of missionaries that church division was harmful for their outreach gave rise to a worldwide (ecumenical) movement to overcome those divisions.
By 1948 many of the churches affected by that movement formed the World Council of Churches, an interchurch body representing a large percentage of Protestant churches. They were, in addition, joined by many Orthodox churches— churches that had become separate from the Roman Catholic Church long before the Protestant Reformation but that are much closer in theology and practice to Catholicism than to Protestantism.
At first opposed to ecumenical endeavors, the Roman Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council in 1962–65 accepted the ecumenical movement as a fruit of “the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Afterward, it entered into more active cooperation with other churches and also began a series of dialogues over doctrinal differences with Orthodox and many Protestant churches, even though it did not join the World Council of Churches. Many Evangelical churches also did not join the World Council of Churches but have formed their own world alliance and national associations for cooperation.
As a result of the ecumenical movement, the climate has changed among a large number of Christian churches from hostility to friendliness and growing cooperation. In addition, dialogues among theologians representing their churches have produced a number of accords on previous doctrinal differences. The Faith and Order section of the World Council of Churches has sponsored multilateral dialogues.
The wide-ranging 1982 statement on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, focusing on disputed areas of worship and sacraments, is often cited as the most successful result of those endeavors. In addition, various churches or church bodies have entered into bilateral dialogues with one another.
The bilateral dialogues have produced some notable doctrinal accords. Many Protestant churches have joined together or established communion with one another as a consequence of these accords. Some of the more significant have been concluded by the Roman Catholic Church with Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian churches.
Commissions of Eastern Orthodox theologians have come to agreements with their Oriental Orthodox counterparts. Doctrinal differences that antedate the Reformation by a millennium are now discussed if not reconciled. The Roman Catholic Church has, in addition, conducted a series of dialogues with the Anglican Communion that have produced a body of agreed statements on many of the disputed points between the two church bodies.
Not all of the important dialogues have been official dialogues between church bodies. Informal study groups like the Groupe des Dombes have made independent contributions. Perhaps the most significant result produced by such groups has been the series of statements by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a committee of prominent Evangelicals and Roman Catholics in the United States.
The first statement, The Christian Mission In the Third Millennium in 1994, was widely influential in fostering rapprochement between two Christian groups that are sometimes considered to be the farthest apart from one another.
Symbolically, one of the most notable results of the bilateral accords has been the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), signed by official representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.
The JDDJ was prepared for by 35 years of dialogue between Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians on the international level and the national level, most notably in the United States and Germany. In 1983 the United States dialogue produced an agreement, The Doctrine of Justification. This was followed by The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide?, a significant 1986 statement produced by a German study group.
Then the international commission in 1993 produced Church and Justification: Understanding the Church in the Light of the Doctrine of Justification. On the basis of these and other works, the JDDJ was produced and agreed to.
The JDDJ is noteworthy as being the only agreement officially accepted by the highest authority in the Roman Catholic Church and a Protestant church body. It is even more noteworthy as being an accord on the doctrine of justification, the point of disagreement that began the Reformation.
While the JDDJ acknowledges that it did not resolve all questions about justification, it did resolve enough of the most fundamental ones that, in the view of the two parties, the doctrine of justification no longer had to be church dividing. Although other points of disagreement remain, the JDDJ in effect marked an official recognition by the two church bodies that they do not have incompatible views of what it is to be a Christian.
The JDDJ was signed in 1999, just in time for the beginning of the new millennium. It was signed in the city of Augsburg, the city where the Augsburg Confession was presented to the emperor. It was signed on Reformation Sunday, the day that commemorates the posting of the Ninety-five Theses.
The JDDJ did not put to an end the disunity caused by the Reformation. It was, however, in the minds of those who signed it, an indication that the crucial step towards ending that disunity had been taken.