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Lecture 14  The Protestant Reformation


We have seen that in the Late Middle Ages many Christian sectarians and theologians criticized the Catholic for its "worldliness" and "corruption," and that some critics had claimed that Church dogma itself contained errors and falsehoods.  The Church had withstood such challenges and had defined its most dangerous critics as heretics.  But in the 1500s a new wave of theological (and political) assaults on the authority of the Church resulted in a complete rupture in western Christianity, which would have great social and political as well as cultural and theological consequences.


Lutheranism (Reformation in Germany)

Martin Luther's Criticisms of Catholicism

The central figure in the drama of the Reformation in Germany was a Martin Luther (1483-1546).   In 1505 Luther, the grandson of a peasant and the son of an ambitious merchant, dropped out of law school and became an Augustinian monk.  No humble monk, Luther went on to earn a position as professor of Theology at the University of Wurtenburg (Germany).  We might describe Luther as a man obsessed by the problems of sin and salvation.  His intense study of theology and his desperate search for religious truths led Luther towards criticism of his own Catholic faith.


One of Luther's criticisms of the Church centered on the problem of venality, such as sale of special religious dispensations like marriage annulments and—more famously—indulgences.  An indulgence was a document issued by the Papacy that absolved a person punishment for sins (e.g., promised quick passage through purgatory); the sale of indulgences had become a significant source of Papal income by the late 1400s.  Luther also railed against the trade in relics of Saints, a practice that played upon ingrained superstitions and magical thinking repellant to Luther's conception on the faith. 


But more important were Luther's criticisms of Catholic Theology.  Luther argued that the Church had strayed from the fundamental teachings of the Gospels.  He insisted that the entire edifice of the Church hierarchy was man-made and had no support in the Gospels.   Moreover, Luther felt that Church doctrine had strayed from the truths explained by St. Augustine:  Luther, like Augustine, believed that at the beginning of creation God had elected some souls for salvation, and that all other souls were doomed to damnation.  (As we have seen in earlier lectures, this was called the Doctrine of Predestination.)  The Medieval Church, however, had adopted a "softer" approach to Predestination:  following the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic theologians had argued that the combination of the sacraments administered by the Church and "good works" could lead humans from sin to salvation.  (In other words, through proper behavior men and women could alter God's eternal judgment and "convince" God to grant them Grace and salvation.)  



Luther's Theology

So far we've discussed only Luther's criticisms of Catholicism, but what were the basic elements of his own theology?  In 1513 Luther went through a religious crisis that culminated in a "conversion" experience.  He worried that he would never overcome his own sin and gain Grace and salvation, and moreover wondered why God demanded that man follow commandments that humans, as sinners, were destined to break, and thus be condemned to damnation.  In studying and meditating on the Old Testament, Luther came to the conclusion (or as he would put it, the Holy Spirit revealed to him that) the key to God's grace was that God allowed humans to find salvation through faith.  Luther later said that with this realization he was "born again."  Here was the origins of one of the fundamental premises of Luther's theology—"Justification [salvation] by Faith." 


Luther's point was that good works and sacraments could not bring salvation; God had granted salvation—"saving grace"—without any reference to how a person behaves (remember Augustine!).  Augustine had said that there was no way to know if you had been granted Grace.  But Luther argued that Grace manifests itself in the form of Faith (which he considered a gift from God), and that therefore sincere faith alone (and not "works") brought salvation.   Although Luther would elaborate upon his theology considerably during the next thirty years, the concept of Justification by Faith remained his central premise, and launched Luther towards his break with Rome.


Luther's Break with Rome

Luther's lectures at Wurtenburg drew relatively little attention until 1517, when he became drawn into a debate over indulgences.  Prince Albert of Brandenburg, who had purchased positions as the Bishop of Mageburg, of Halberstadt, and of Mainz, had worked out an arrangement with Pope Leo X under which the Papacy and the Prince would divide the proceeds of the sale of indulgences.  The public advertisement and sale of indulgences became too much for Luther to bear, and in 1517 he composed a list of ninety-five arguments against indulgences, which he distributed among the faculty at Wurtenburg.  (These are the famous 95 theses that Luther is said to have nailed to the door of the Wurtenburg Cathedral).  The core of Luther's argument, again, was that indulgences and good works could not bring salvation; only faith could bring salvation.  When someone (not Luther!) published these theses, Luther became the center of a very public dispute with Church officials. 


In a debate in Leipzig in 1519, Luther argued that any faithful Christian had as much authority in reading the Bible as did the Pope and the clergy, who were, he pointed out, simply men.  The Bible, he argued, contains God's one and only truth, and anyone who reads it guided by the Holy Spirit would find that truth with out the intercession of a priest.  Leo X immediately charged Luther with heresy.  But Luther refused to back down.  In 1520 he further developed the three main principles of this new religious position (which soon became known as "Lutheranism"):  Justification by Faith, the ability of all true believers to commune with God (the "Priesthood of all Believers"), and the rejection of any belief or practice not explicitly laid out in the Bible. (Luther also argued that ministers should be able to marry, and did so himself in 1525.)


In keeping with these three fundamental premises, Luther rejected practices like fasting and veneration of saints; he also completed rejected institutions such as monastic orders and the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy, including the Papacy.  He accepted only two of the Church's seven sacraments—baptism and the Eucharist, and event hen argued against the elements of the Catholic doctrine of Transfiguration.  Luther believed that Christ literally was present in the Eucharist host, but did not believe that this granted Grace or that the priest miraculously transformed the host into Christ's body and blood; instead, the function of the Eucharist was to reinforce faith (which was why, Luther argued, mass should be conducted in German, so that people could understand it).


The Politics of the Reformation in Germany

Luther's views found a ready audience, especially in Germany's universities:  as we have seen, his certainly was as not the first criticism of corruption within the Church (in particular during the reign of the Borgia family over the Papacy), which Germans saw as controlled by the French and the Spanish; moreover, the Christian Humanism of Erasmus and other Northern European Renaissance thinkers had leveled some of the same criticisms of corruption as had Luther. The quick publication of his sermons and pamphlets, written in colloquial German so that ordinary (literate) people could read them, allowed his ideas to reach a mass audience beyond the universities as well.  Perhaps the most important of Luther's publications of 1520 aimed explicitly at generals readers—the pamphlet To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, which sold thousands of copies.  In this essay, Luther made an explicitly "nationalist" argument, highlighting charges that the corrupt Church administration looked upon the German people not as a flock to be saved, as subjects to be exploited.


Luther also had a keen sense of drama and knew how to rally crowds behind him.  When Pope Leo ordered that Luther recant or face trial for heresy, Luther publicly burned the Pope's order.  Leo then instructed Prince Fredrick of Brandenburg to punish Luther for heresy.  Instead, in 1521 Fredrick convened a formal assembly of the princes of the Empire at the city of Worms, to hear Luther's side of the argument.  (This was the "Diet of Worms.")  


The new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, administered the Diet of Worms.  Charles, a member of the Habsburg family, which at this point ruled Austria, Spain, the Netherlands, and all of the Spanish colonies, considered Luther a threat to the unity of Catholicism.  For Charles V, this was as much a political matter as it was theological—in administering the huge Spanish empire, the Habsburg's depended heavily upon the Church; moreover, Luther's promotion of German nationalism posed a threat to Charles V's dominance over the Holy Roman Empire.  Charles, who was about to begin a new round of warfare against France, needed to assure the loyalty of the German princes.  Therefore Charles pressed Luther to recant, but to no avail.  But before the Diet of Worms could sentence Luther for heresy, Prince Frederick intervened, and sent Luther into hiding.


Germany's territorial princes then chose up sides in this dispute:  those who favored Luther encouraged the already considerable popular following for Lutheranism.  Those who sided with the Papacy treated Luther's supporters as heretics and threatened them with death unless they recanted.  Within five years of the Diet of Worms, Lutheranism had become the vehicle for a revolution not only in religion, but also against the political power of Rome and of the Holy Roman Empire; it had become a means by which German princes could assert absolute sovereignty over their own territories.  (In this, as in many other aspects of cultural and social life, the Reformation broke down the hierarchical relations that had characterized Medieval life.  Some of the implications for family life are discussed by Coffin on pp. 508-510.)    


Princes who converted to Lutheranism—most of whom ruled territories in Northern Germany-- no longer had to divert revenues as tributes to Rome, nor did they have to enforce various ecclesiastical dues on their subjects (which meant that they themselves could squeeze more taxes, etc., out of their subjects).  Moreover, Lutheranism allowed princes to shut down monasteries and seize their land and wealth.  By rejecting the authority of Rome, princes also could assert the primacy of the state over the church more generally.  For German princes, this was a far more pressing issue than in Spain or France, where the monarchs had already won from the Papacy the right to appoint their "own" people to ecclesiastical offices (see lecture 11).   Following Lutheranism would allow princes to appoint their own ministers, freeing them from constant power struggles with the local bishops.  That is not to say that many of the German princes who converted to Lutheranism did not sincerely believe the tenets of the new faith; rather, religious and political motives came together. 


Luther's teachings may have played into the interests of the Princes, but it also touched off a popular social rebellion against aristocratic power.  In 1525 peasants in Northern Germany rose up in rebellion against their landlords.  Luther had told them to read the Bible, and had preached that the Papacy had no authority since it was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible.  Peasants indeed read the Bible, and came to the conclusion that the Bible also contained no justification of the power of the aristocrats or the justness of feudal dues and rents.  They not only refused to pay their taxes and dues, but rebelled and tried to drive the aristocrats off the land.  This horrified Luther.  Citing the New Testament, Luther argued that Christians must "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's"—meaning that in temporal affairs God expects Christians to obey their princes absolutely, no matter how tyrannical their rule.  Luther took the side of the princes in the peasant rebellion of 1525, and called for bloody repression of all unrest.


Lutheranism began in Germany, but quickly spread to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (each of which officially converted in the 1520s).  But Lutheranism was not the only "Protestant" faith to emerge in the 1500s; other forms of "protest" against Catholicism arose in England and in Switzerland.


Anglicanism (Reformation in England)

Henry VIII and the English Reformation

In England, common people proved particularly receptive to Luther's ideas (carried back by students returning from German universities):  remember that resentment against clerical abuses of power and against corruption in the Church had already flared up in England in the 1300s and 1400s (see lecture 11 on Wyclif and the Lollards).  But the fundamental cause of England's break with Rome was political.


In 1527 England's King Henry VIII, who, like his father had been strengthening the power of the monarchical state, had appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Habsburg rulers of Spain).  None of Catherine's male children had survived infancy, and Henry wanted a new wife to produce a male heir to the throne.  Rather than anger the Habsburgs, Clement allowed the case to flounder in the ecclesiastical courts.  For Henry, though, the matter had to be settled quickly (he was getting no younger!). 


In 1531, Henry VIII pressured a gathering of English prelates to accept a declaration naming the King as "supreme head" of the Church of England.  Parliament then agreed to a series of laws that made the English Church independent from Rome and placed it under the King's authority.  Most English aristocrats supported this measure, since it meant no more payments of dues to Rome; moreover, Henry then dissolved all monasteries and redistributed their lands and wealth to aristocrats loyal to the King.  In 1534, Parliament passed the "Act of Supremacy," finalizing the break with the Catholic Church and again declaring the King the head of the national Church of England.


This did not mean that England became more tolerant of dissenting religious views:  on the contrary, the Church of England proved just as intolerant of religious diversity as had been the Papacy (the same can be said of Luther and his followers).  In particular, the English Church and the Crown actively persecuted any Catholic who refused to convert.  But the establishment of the Church of England did not mark as dramatic a departure from Catholicism as had Lutheranism:  the church hierarchy of priests and bishops remained in place (this is why the Church of England is called the Episcopal Church in the United States).  Initially, the Church of England also followed the same basic elements of church ritual and doctrine as did the Catholic Church (e.g., the Eucharist and confession).


Church of England doctrine became more thoroughly Protestant under Henry VIII's son and heir, King Edward VI (1547-1553).  During Edward's short reign, the Church of England adopted the Lutheran doctrine of Justification by Faith, abolished the veneration of icons, recognized only two sacraments (baptism and communion [Eucharist]), began holding mass in English, and permitted priests to marry and have families.  After Edward's death his half-sister, Queen Mary I (1553-1558), tried to restore Catholicism in England.  While some aristocrats supported the Catholic cause, most rejected Mary's efforts (not only for religious reasons, but also because they had profited from the Reformation); Mary fed resistance popular to her measures by executing the Archbishop of Canterbury and several other prominent Protestants, and then by marrying the Catholic Spanish Prince Philip and committing England to aid Spain in its war against France.


At Mary's death her half-sister (and Edward's half-sister), Elizabeth I became England's Queen.  Although not as fervent a Protestant as Edward VI, Elizabeth did support the Protestant cause.  In 1559, Elizabeth revoked all of Mary's pro-Catholic laws and measures and restored most of the measures of Edward VI.  A new "Act of Supremacy" outlawed all foreign religious authority in England and declared the English monarch the "supreme governor" of the national church.  Unlike Edward, though, Elizabeth aimed to soften some of the doctrinal disputes between the Church of England and the Catholic Church, as a compromise that made participation in the national church more tolerable to Catholics.


The Swiss Reformation

The champions of the Reformation in Switzerland proved much less willing to compromise (on any matters) than had been England's Queen Elizabeth.  Switzerland was a confederation of independent merchant city-states, with no royal or princely authority.  So the shape of Protestantism in Switzerland would not be determined by desire for national or princely autonomy, as had been the case in the Lutheran and English Reformations.  The merchant-citizens of the Swiss city states moved towards various forms of Protestantism on their own.  But this did not mean that they were any more tolerant of dissent that had been the other churches….


Zwinglianism and Anabaptism

In Zurich in the early 1520s, a Catholic priest named Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) began criticizing the doctrines of the Catholic Church along lines very similar to those of Luther.  The main difference between Zwingli's views and Luther's centered on the Eucharist—Zwingli did not believe that the consecrated host had actually become Christ's body.  The followers of Zwinglianism therefore did not enter the Lutheran Church, but instead established their own.  In the 1520s, the Zwinglian Church became the state church of Zurich.


In about 1525, some of Zwingli's followers broke off to establish their own church, based upon doctrinal differences with Zwinglianism.  These men and women completely rejected the idea of a "state" church, and argued that one is not "born into" any church.  Instead, they believed, one should join the church only out of full conviction and faith, which was possible only among mature adults capable of understanding the tenets of the faith.  For this reason, they argued, baptism should be administered not to infants, but to those adults who God had inspired to join the church—this became known as Anabaptism.   The Anabaptists emphasized simple piety and pacifism (and to this day the Anabaptist churches preach Christian pacifism).   Since they rejected any ties between Church and State, the Anabaptists quickly became recognized as a threat to state power and became the object of extreme repression.  (The episode of the short-lived Anabaptist rule over the German city of Munster in 1534, described by Coffin on p. 504, no doubt contributed to this persecution.)  Despite repression, Anabaptist sects continued to proliferate (including the Amish and the Mennonites). 


Back in Zurich, Zwingli's followers had reformed the church and expanded their influence over most of northern Switzerland.  This led to warfare against supporters of Catholicism; when Zwingli was killed in a battle (in 1531), his followers lost control over the Protestant movement in Zurich.  Now the leading figure in the Swiss Reformation was John Calvin.



Calvin (1509-1564), was a French-born Protestant.  His conversion to Protestantism had been driven by his own intensive study of scripture, which had led him to reject many of the basic doctrines of Catholic dogma.  Calvin's early efforts to publicize his ideas had marked him as a heretic in the eyes of Catholic officials in France, and he moved to the Swiss city of Basil to escape religious persecution in 1535.  The next year he moved to Geneva, which would become the center of his new church. 


Calvin laid out his theological positions in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.  In it, he proposed a strict interpretation of the Doctrine of Predestination.  God, who exercises complete and absolute control over all creation, had predestined some souls (the Elect) for salvation and condemned the rest to damnation, independent of any action that men or women (all of whom are sinners) may take in their lives.  (We have seen this idea before.)  The Elect, Calvin argued, will behave in a proper Christian manner because God has infused them with the desire to do so.  Good works could not bring salvation, but were a sign that one might already have been saved; the same was true of participation in the church. 


Calivin's rejection of the Catholic Church hierarchy and ritual extended even farther than did Luther's.  Calvin insisted that the church be governed by elected elders and elected ministers, he prohibited all rituals and all adornments (including not only icons, but even stained glass decorations and all instrumental music).  All "true" Christians, Calvin argued, must act as God's "instruments" in the service of God's glory.  Passive faith was not good enough:  Christians must be constantly vigilant to do God's work and follow God's rule.  Calvinism therefore demanded strict adherence to "proper" Biblical (especially Old Testament) practices, supervised by the church elders.


In 1541, Calvin became, in effect, the ruler of Geneva, which became a theocracy.  Government power in the city was exercised by a "Consistory" of church elders and ministers.  The ministers themselves made laws for the people of Geneva, which the Consistory then enforced.  The church and the Consistory supervised every aspect of the population's lives—not only their public lives, but their personal lives as well--to ensure "proper" Christian moral behavior.  Anyone caught doing the devil's work—say, playing cards would be punished; such blasphemy, like heresy, could be punishable by death—in the 1540s, the Consistory condemned about one in every 200 people in Geneva to be burned at the stake for heresy, blasphemy, or witchcraft. 


The very strictness and austerity of Calvinism contributed to its appeal in the 1500s.  In the 1500s, Calvinism spread to France (where Calvinists were known as Huguenots), to the Netherlands (the Dutch Reformed Church), to Scotland (the Presbyterians), and to England (the Puritans).  Through the Puritans, the Presbyterians, and Dutch Reform, Calvinist doctrines would shape the nature of religious and community life in colonial New England.


The Catholic Reformation

Historians used to interpret the policies followed by the Catholic Church in the 1500s entirely as reactions against the Protestant Reformation, and hence called the 1500s the period of the Catholic "Counter-Reformation."  But in the past few decades, historians (like Dr. Hudon here at Bloomsburg) have demonstrated that the Catholic Church's policies of the 1500s also resulted from internal pressures for reform, so that historians have begun to refer to the "Catholic Reformation."


Pressure for reform within the church had been building since the late 1400s (remember Erasmus?)  From the 1530s, a series of Popes (Paul III, Paul IV, Pius V, Sixtus V) pushed for reform within the Church, and worked to reverse the public image of the popes and bishops as corrupt and worldly.  One of the most important steps in the Catholic Reformation was the Council of Trent (1544-1563), which laid out the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant Reformation.


The Council of Trent concluded that good works were a path to salvation; that the sacraments were necessary to receive Grace; that the priests did perform the miraculous transformation of the host into Christ's actual body and blood in the Eucharist; that the Pope was the successor of St. Peter and the undisputed head of the Church; that priests must be celibate; that the saints can intercede on the behalf of worshipers; etc.  In other words, the Council of Trent rejected all of the arguments that Luther and Calvin had made against Catholic doctrine. 


The Council also established a list of "dangerous" books that were to be banned because they promoted reformation ideas (etc).  This "Index of Prohibited Books" put a chill on free intellectual inquiry and helped bring the Renaissance to an end.  On a more positive note, the Council of Trent also moved to eliminate some of the abuses that had stirred up the Reformation (e.g., it established theological seminaries to give priests better training). 


In addition to Papal reforms and the measures taken by the Council of Trent, the creation of a new order within the Church contributed to reform (and repression) during the Catholic Reformation—this was the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), formed by (Saint) Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556).  Shortage of time does not allow me to discuss the activities of the Jesuits at any length (see Coffin pp. 512-515); what I do want to emphasize is that the uncompromising fervor of the Jesuits matched the doctrinal militancy of the Calvinists, which made them an extremely useful weapon in the Catholic Church's fight against the spread of Protestantism. 


Conflict over the spread of Protestantism would lead to a century of warfare, from the mid 1500s to the mid-1600s.