The Protestant Reformation In Europe


At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Catholic church, modeled upon the bureaucratic structure of the Holy Roman Empire, has become extremely powerful, but internally corrupt. From early in the twelfth century onward there are calls for reform. Between 1215 and 1545 nine church-councils are held with church reforms as their primary intent. The councils all fail to reach significant accord. The clergy is unable to live according to church doctrine, and the abuse of church ceremonies and practices continues.

In the first half of the sixteenth century western Europe experiences a wide range of social, artistic, and geo-political changes as the result of a conflict within the Catholic church. This conflict is called the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic response to it is called the Counter-Reformation. The Reformation movement begins in 1517 when a German Augustinian friar named Martin Luther posts a list of grievances, called the "Ninety-Five Theses", against the Roman Catholic Church. As the spirit of reform spreads other leaders appear: Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, French-born John Calvin who settles in Geneva, and John Knox who carries Calvin's teachings to Scotland.

In the Roman church a series of powerful popes including Leo X and Paul III will respond to reform demands in various ways. Mendicant orders such as the Jesuits are formed to reinforce Catholic doctrine, and the Church will continue to be supported by the major European monarchies. Ultimately, the Reformation creates a north-south split in Europe. In general the northern countries becomes Protestant while the south remains Catholic.

The Reformation and Art

Protestant reformers reject the use of visual arts in the church. A wave of iconoclasm sweeps through the north. Stained glass windows are broken, images of the saints are destroyed, and pipe organs are removed from churches. The Catholic churches respond to this iconoclasm with an exuberant style of art and architecture called the baroque. The baroque ideologically opposes Protestant severity. Not until the Neoclassical style of the eighteenth century will there be an effective attempt to resolve this dichotomy. The theatrical designs of Saint Peter's and the Gesł in Rome are a triumphant symbol of the Roman Catholic church's belief in itself and its history. The plain churches of the north are reminders of Protestant beliefs.

A wide - ranging movement of religious renewal in Europe concentrated in the sixteenth century but anticipated by earlier reform initiatives, e.g., by Waldensians in the Alpine regions, Wycliffe and Lollardy in England, and Hussites in Bohemia. Although inseparable from its historical context, political (the emergent nation - states and the tactical interplay of forces and interests in Imperial Germany and in the loose Swiss Confederation), socio - economic (particularly urban growth, with expanding trade, the transition to a money economy, and new technologies, notably printing, promoting a new assertive middle class, alongside persistent peasant discontents), and intellectual (chiefly the Renaissance, especially in the Christian humanism of northern Europe), it was fundamentally religious in motivation and objective.

It was not so much a trail blazed by Luther's lonely comet, trailing other lesser luminaries, as the appearance over two or three decades of a whole constellation of varied color and brightness, Luther no doubt the most sparkling among them, but not all shining solely with his borrowed light. The morning star was Erasmus, for most Reformers were trained humanists, skilled in the ancient languages, grounded in biblical and patristic sources, and enlightened by his pioneer Greek NT of 1516. Although Luther in Wittenberg's new university in rural Saxony had a catalytic effect felt throughout Europe, reform was astir in numerous centers.

Probably independent in origin was Zwingli's radical reform in Zurich, provoking the thoroughgoing Anabaptist radicalism of the Swiss Brethren. Strasbourg under Bucer's leadership illustrated a mediating pattern of reform, while Geneva, reformed under Berne's tutelage, had by midcentury become an influential missionary center, exporting Calvinism to France, the Netherlands, Scotland, and elsewhere. Much of Germany and Scandinavia followed Luther's or perhaps Melanchthon's Lutheranism, while England welcomed a welter of continental currents, at first more Lutheran, later more Reformed, to energize indigenous Lollard undercurrents.

Protestant Objections

The Reformers' target may be generally described as degenerate late medieval Catholicism, over against which they set the faith of the apostles and the early fathers. Some central target areas may be specified.

Papal Abuses

There was proliferating abuse, theological and practical, connected with penance, satisfactions, and the treasury of merit. These practices were the basis of indulgences, to which were directed Luther's Ninety - five Theses with their pivotal affirmation that "the true treasure of the Church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God." Luther's anguished quest had taught him the bankruptcy of an exuberant piety that never lacked exercises for the unquiet conscience, vows, fasts, pilgrimages, masses, relics, recitations, rosaries, works, etc. The Reformation answer, to which Luther's new understanding of Romans 1 brought him through many struggles, was justification by God's grace in Christ alone received by faith alone.

"The righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith." Christ's righteousness credited to the believer gave him assurance before God, while he never ceased to be sinful and penitent, for "the whole life of the Christian is one of penitence." Jesus said "Be penitent" (Greek), not "Do penance" (Latin Vulgate). Luther's theology of the cross was a protest against the "cheap grace" of a commercialized, fiscal religion.

The False Foundations of Papal Authority

Lorenzo Valla's exposure of the forged Donation of Constantine combined with fresh biblical and historical study to undermine papal pretensions. The rock on which the church was built was Peter's faith, and in the early centuries the Roman bishop enjoyed no more than a primacy of honor. While most Reformers professed a readiness to accept a reformed papacy that served to edify the church, so resistant did it prove to even moderate reform that Antichrist seemed a deserved designation.

The Ecclesiastical Captivity of the Word of God

Whether by papal magisterium, church dogma, or the sophistries of schoolmen, canonists, and allegorists, this was a leading target of Luther's "Reformation Treatises" of 1520. In 1519 he had denied the infallibility of general councils. The Reformers liberated the Bible, by vernacular translation (notably Luther's German Bible), expository preaching (recommenced by Zwingli), and straightforward grammatichistorical exegesis (best exemplified in Calvin's commentaries). Disputations, often critical in the pacing of reform, operated like communal Bible studies. Thus were the Scriptures enthroned as judge of all ecclesiastical traditions and the sole source of authentic doctrine, as well as experienced as the living power of God in judgment and grace.

The Superiority of the "Religious" Life

The Reformers maintained a tireless polemic against monasticism, one of the most prominent features of Latin Christianity. They rejected the distinction between the inferior life of the secular Christian and the higher "religious" world of monk and nun. The Reformation was a strident protest against this distorted set of values. Luther and Calvin both stressed the Christian dignity of ordinary human callings of artisan, housewife, and plowman. Reformers almost insisted on clerical marriage, by their own example elevating the importance of family life. From another angle they objected to clerical intrusion into civil affairs, e.g., the administration of marriage and divorce, and regarded political office as one of the most significant Christian vocations.

Perverted Priesthood and Usurped Mediation

The mediation of Mary (though not necessarily her perpetual virginity) and the intercession of the saints were denied alike by the Reformers. Christ alone was exalted as man's advocate before God and God's appointed priest to bear our sins and minister to our frailty. By rejecting all but two, baptism and Lord's Supper, of the seven medieval sacraments, the Reformation liberated the faithful from the power of the priesthood. The church lost its indispensable role as sacramental dispenser of salvation. Transubstantiation was refuted, along with the sacrificial character of the Mass except as the response of thankful hearts and lives. In accordance with NT usage all believers were declared to be by baptism a royal priesthood, free to fulfill a priestly service to others in need of the Word of life.

The Hierarchical Captivity of the Church

In response to allegations of innovation and disruption of the church's long - lived unity, the Reformers claimed to be renovators, restorers of the primitive face of the church. Such a church was not dependent on communion with the papacy or hierarchical succession but was constituted by its election and calling in Christ and recognized by faithfulness to the word and sacraments of the gospel. Although several Reformers experienced doubts about infant baptism, and both Luther and Bucer hankered after a closer congregation of the truly committed, in the end all stood by the baptism of infants. A major factor was their fear of dividing the civil community which by common baptism could be regarded as coterminous with the visible church. Although the distinction between the church visible (seen by human eyes) and invisible (known only to God) was used by the Reformers, it was not their customary way of acknowledging the mixed character of the church.

The Confusion of Divine and Human

Reformation theology was strongly theocentric, and clearly reasserted the distinction between Creator and creation. Confusion between the two blighted medieval doctrine in various spheres, Eucharist, church, papacy, and made its influence felt in other areas, such as mysticism and anthropology. With a starkly Augustinian understanding of original sin (qualified somewhat by Zwingli), the Reformers asserted mankind's total spiritual inability apart from the renewal of the Spirit. On unconditional election the Reformation spoke almost as one voice. If Calvin related predestination more closely to providence and directed all his theology to the goal of the glory of God, Luther no less saw God's sovereign Word at work everywhere in his world.

The Legacy of the Reformation

Quite apart from the varying hues and shades of their theologies, which owe much to different intellectual and religious formations as well as to temperament, sociopolitical setting, and conviction, the Reformers were not agreed on all issues.

Most notoriously they parted company on the Lord's Supper. For Luther the solid objectivity of Christ's presence was created by his word ("This is my body") and could not be vulnerable to the recipient's unbelief. (His position is wrongly called "consubstantiation," because this implies that it belongs to the same conceptual order as "transubstantiation.") Others, even the mature Zwingli, stressed faith's spiritual eating of Christ's body and blood, and Calvin further focused on communion with the heavenly Christ by the Spirit. In reform of worship and church order both Lutherans and Reformed adopted respectively conservative and more radical approaches. A significant difference lay in attitudes toward the Mosaic law. Whereas for Luther its primary function is to abase the sinner and drive him to the gospel, Calvin saw it chiefly as the guide of the Christian life. Again, while for Luther Scripture spoke everywhere of Christ and the gospel, Calvin handled it in a more disciplined and "modern" manner. Overall, "careful Calvin orchestrated Protestant theology most skillfully, but fertile Martin Luther wrote most of the tunes" (J I Packer).

Separate attention must be paid to the orthodox Anabaptist Radicals whose Reformation was more sweeping than the "new papalism," as they called it, of the magisterial Reformers. Believers' baptism identified and safeguarded the bounds of the church, the gathered community of the covenanted band. Discipline was essential to maintain its purity (a point not lost on influential Reformed circles). The church's calling was to suffering and pilgrimage, and to total separation from the world. By its accommodation with the empire of Constantine the church had fatally "fallen." The restitution of the apostolic pattern in all particulars entailed the renunciation of the sword and of oaths. By advocating toleration, religious liberty, and separation of church and state, such Anabaptists were ahead of their time, and suffered for it. As Christendom dies out in the West, the attraction of the Radical Reformation option appears in a clearer light.

At times, e.g., c. 1540 in Germany, it seemed as though reform - minded Catholics might prevail. Rome thought otherwise, and in theology the Catholic reforms of Trent were in large measure counter - Protestant reaction. If renewal was more evident elsewhere, in the new Jesuit order, the Spanish mystics, and bishops like Francis of Sales, not until the twentieth century and Vatican Council II did the Roman Church take to heart the theological significance of the Reformation.

Bibliography. A C Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century; B J Kidd, Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation; H J Hillerbrand, The Reformation in Its Own Words; H A Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought; W Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation; B M G Reardon, Religious Thought in the Reformation; H Strohl, La pensee de la Reforme; G W Bromiley, Historical Theology: An Introduction; H Cunliffe - Jones, ed., A History of Christian Doctrine; S Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250 - 1550; H J Grimm, The Reformation Era 1500 - 1650; A G Dickens, The English Reformation; I B Cowan, The Scottish Reformation; G H Williams, The Radical Reformation; F H Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church; G F Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision; P E Hughes, The Theology of the English Reformers; P D L Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers.

The Protestant Reformation had a major effect on Europe in many ways, especially in political, social, economic, and religious ways.  Many people decided that the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, was not worth following because of many reasons, including the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism.  To many European citizens, the Church seemed too concerned with worldly affairs.  Practices within the Church were questioned for their integrity.  Some of the people who opposed the Church’s practices became religious reformers, who created their own religions in order to improve on Catholicism.  Many rulers outside of Italy, especially in Germany, decided to support the reformers of the Catholic faith so that they could keep the tithes within their own country instead of giving them to the Pope.

    Many practices within the Catholic Church drew criticism.  Three of these practices: simony, indulgences, and nepotism, were brought up in the 95 Thesis of Martin Luther, a German monk who later started the Lutheran faith.  Simony is when people who contributed vast amounts of money to the church would be able to get a relative into a position in the church.  An indulgence is when priests in the church would sell the forgiveness of sins.  Nepotism is when a member of the Catholic Church would be able to get a relative into a high position in the church.  All three of these things where practiced in the Catholic Church, and all three of these things brought criticism with them.

    There were many religious reformers for Catholicism.  Five of the most important religious reformers were Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry of Navarre, Henry VIII, and Ignatius (Ignacius?) Loyola.  Martin Luther brought about the Lutheran faith after the Diet of Worms.  His 95 Thesis argued about the problems in the running of the Catholic Church, mainly in simony, indulgences, and nepotism.  John Calvin created the Puritan faith, known to Americans as the Presbyterian faith.  He believed in predestination and that you were either predestined to go to heaven (the Elect) or predestined to go to Hell (the Damned) when you were born.  Your actions in life proved if you were one of the Elect or one of the Damned.  He wrote a book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion,  and he created a theocratic (non-secular) state.  Henry of Navarre, the King of France, was a Huguenot, a French Puritan, who gave religious freedom to Huguenots with the Edict of Nantes.  In return for this religious freedom, he became a Catholic.  He took up the title, Henry IV.  Henry VIII was the King of England, and he founded the Anglican Church, otherwise known as the Church of England, due to the fact that the Catholic Church would not grant him a divorce.  Ignatius Loyola’s mission was to bring people back to the Catholic Church.  He created Jesuits to spread the Catholic Doctrine, and he created the Inquisition to get rid of heresy.

    One problem leading to the reform of the Catholic Church was the Great Schism.  In 1378, two competing Popes were elected, one in Avignon and one in Rome.  It lasted until 1417.  Finally, a Church council ended the crisis.  It elected an Italian Pope to rule from Rome and persuaded the French King to support the new Pope.  During the Great Schism, the Catholic Church lost much of its political power.

    The Protestant Reformation brought about an end to religious unity in Europe by breaking apart the roots of the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Counter Reformation actually hurt the Catholic Church because it forced pain upon those who were suspected of heresy.



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