by ProfDave, ©2022
(May 5, 2022) — Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen, Christians and heretics, believers and infidels! This week we examine the breakup of Medieval Christendom and the beginning of the modern world – so called. Please note, medieval Christendom and Christianity are not the same thing – far from it. Christianity remained at the core of western civilization, but earthly affairs came more and more under the direction of secular authority while conscience and belief gained more and more freedom.
Conventionally, we give the name of “Reformation” to the period from Martin Luther’s posting of his “Ninety-five Thesis” on the University church’s door in Wittenberg, Saxony (1517) to the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), ending the Thirty Years’ War. It refers to the alleged reform of the church by Protestants. I don’t think that is a fair use of the term. Looking more closely, I think there are three reformations going on – or maybe they are all aspects of a single movement, far broader than Protestantism or secularism. See what you think.
Where did the Reformation come from? One student made a very good point some years ago: Christianity was greatly changed by its acceptance by Constantine and merger with Roman civilization. Persecution and martyrdom went away but new temptations of wealth and power took their place. Radical Christians joined the monastic movement and/or became missionaries to heathen Germans. By 600 the task of outwardly Christianizing Europe was virtually complete. Now everyone [except a few Jews] was baptized and belonged to a parish, supervised by a priest from cradle to grave (and beyond?). But Medieval Christianity was different.
The core of Christianity was the same, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” by his death and resurrection [II Corinthians 5:19]. Christian salvation meant personal reconciliation (peace/relationship) with God, a way of dealing with personal wickedness (pardon/moral change), and an assurance of eternal life. This was understood as coming by the grace (unmerited favor) of God. The church still rested on the same “apostolic” pillars: the creeds, the Bible, and the hierarchy.
The major change of Medieval Latin Christianity was the vast expansion and Latinization of the institutional church. First, the creeds and the Bible were translated into Latin by the 5th century because western Christians no longer understood Greek. But then, a couple centuries later ordinary Christians no longer understood Latin either – but the clergy still did. The Church maintained Latin worship and theology, but for the increasingly illiterate masses, the parish filled the gap with folk religion, rote catechism, and art. Institutionally, the Church maintained Latin culture, education, and social services throughout Europe as best it could.
Second, western Christianity absorbed an extreme variety of religious expression and depth. There were three medieval levels of salvation: The religious – monks, nuns, and friars who devoted themselves full time to a separated life of prayer, work (including study of Latin Scripture and teaching) and service; the secular clergy who mediated the grace of God to the people through the sacraments and pastoral care; and the ordinary faithful whose duty it was to obey and to partake of the provision of the Church.
Thirdly, the Medieval church struggled with the entanglements of the secular world to a degree not experienced before or since. At every level there were men and women who walked with God and others who walked like the Devil. Monasteries, full of people sworn to poverty, would become rich. Wave after wave of reform movements addressed this problem. Abbots, Bishops, Archbishops, and the Pope himself would – had to – get entangled in the affairs of this world. They were members of the interlocking elites of Europe, serving an international organization jealous of its prerogatives. They managed the vast donated wealth in monasteries and cathedrals, and were among the largest landowners in Europe.
The late medieval Church faced secular competition and interference at every level. It was challenged by secular interests, envious nobility (some pious, some greedy, many just meddlesome), secular townsmen seeking freedom from their prince-bishops, everybody trying to evade ecclesiastical taxes, and most acutely by the rapid increase of the power and glory of the secular monarchs. For example, the kings of France and England, looking to maximize their own revenue and authority, were attempting to cut off the flow of money to Rome and appeals to Papal courts from their jurisdictions. The result: more deeply resented clerical exactions from Germany, where the Princes had less relative power.
Changes in intellectual climate and attitude were brought by the Renaissance, as we have seen. The carefully constructed scholastic synthesis of revelation and philosophy was set aside. Revered commentators were exchanged for original sources and a new world of ideas was made available, by the printing press and vernacular translations, to a new reading public. The Church was exposed to new criticism, too, as its elaborate structures compared unfavorably with the simplicity of the Gospel. The individualism and lay emphasis of the humanists led some of them to question whether the mediation of the Church was the only possible way to God.
Finally, the lay revival of the 15th century increased a yearning for direct personal encounter with God, rising expectations of the Church, and a desire for participation. It was not so much that the church or its representatives were more corrupt than they had been throughout the Middle Ages. But that popular standards of holiness and consistency were now very high and getting much higher. Was the problem a lack of discipline and obedience to papal direction? Or was the problem the Pope and Curia themselves?
Growing religious literacy, piety, and idealism led to three major reform movements in the 16th century that broke the mold of the Medieval Church and of Christendom: the magisterial (or Protestant) reformation, the catholic reformation, and the radical reformation. Is it a coincidence, though, that by 1648 Western Christianity had spread around the world? We will deal with each of these reformations in turn, then examine the secular parallels and consequences that followed.
What distinguished the Magisterial Reformation? Briefly, we call the reform movements of Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII “magisterial” because they relied on magistrates – the secular arm – and produced state churches. Although the connection with catholic Christendom (under the papacy) was eventually severed, the connection with temporal Christendom (the King and the social order) was not.
Luther’s three big ideas were: faith alone, scripture alone, and the priesthood of all believers. They are pretty basic to all Protestants. Salvation is not earned by right living or by performance of what the church requires. It is a gift of God, received by faith. The Church is not the exclusive distributor of grace: it comes directly from God. Secondly, the Bible is the only final authority of Christianity. Councils, popes, and traditions are subordinate to the written “Word of God.” Thirdly, every believer is responsible directly to God for his/her own salvation and his/her own understanding of and relationship to God. Jesus Christ is the only mediator he/she needs. Clergy should be expert professionals, but theirs is no higher calling than peasant or housewife. All vocations are sacred. But Luther was basically conservative. Despite the above, he held to the sacramental nature of infant baptism and the preached Word, depended on Princes for protection and condemned peasant uprisings. He did, however, renounce his vows as a monk, supported the dissolution of monasteries, and married an ex-nun. Many Lutheran territories retained their (now Protestant) Bishops. Admittedly, Lutheran princes and noblemen had mixed motives in confiscating monastic property.
Almost simultaneously, a dozen city states in the Rhineland and in Switzerland broke with Rome in one way or another. When John Calvin came to Geneva in 1536, reform was already underway. Calvin gave it organization and a systematic theology. His movement is called “Reformed” as opposed to Lutheran. It was less conservative than Luther, with much more emphasis on the sermon than the sacrament. Because of the political environment, the Reformed relied on municipal governments (magistrates), rather than princes – often with mixed motives against their catholic Prince-Bishops. Distinctive to Reformed churches was a prejudice against bishops and the development of an independent, democratic church order that could – and did, in some places, operate in hostility to the state. They had a revolutionary potential.
How was the English case the same but different? First, Henry VIII (1509-47) had no intention of reforming the Church of England. Monarchs have a certain stud function. Too many or too few sons can bring on civil war and ruin, so his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was a serious matter. He only meant to act as France and Spain (by consent) had already done in making their churches financially and judicially independent from Rome. For a while he executed both papists and Lutherans. It was greed and not reforming zeal that dissolved the monasteries and sold off their lands. But soon English liturgies and English Bibles were being used. Protestant infiltration from the continent and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer did the rest. Meanwhile, Henry went through three wives before he produced a son.
That son, Edward VI (1547-53) was under Reformed tutelage when Henry VIII died, so England embraced the Reformation briefly. Then Mary (1553-58), the embittered daughter of first wife Catherine, tried to turn back the clock – with Spanish assistance. This tragic figure went down in history as “bloody Mary” for the 300 odd Protestant churchmen whom she burned at the stake. Ever after, English patriots, whether Protestant or not, have been anti-“papist.”
Elizabeth (1558-1603), daughter of second wife Anne Boleyn, has been called the greatest King England ever had. The Elizabethan settlement retained, as much as possible, catholic form but protestant substance. It was intended as a church for all Englishmen, but “Puritans” still hoped for a church that was more Calvinist. Some fled persecution to America in the 17th century, others fought a civil war and executed a king. They failed to rule Britain without a King and were forced to restore the monarchy. Another wave of activists left for America. Balance was restored in the Glorious Revolution when the Parliament borrowed reliably Protestant William and Mary (II) from the Dutch in 1688, expelling the Stuart line.
Was it a Catholic Reformation or a Counter-Reformation? In the 15th century, Western Christianity embraced a wide variety of orders, institutions, and ideas. The general revival in lay piety and agitation for reform was far more widespread than Protestantism. Many humanists, like Erasmus, criticized the church, but refused to leave it. They saw salvation as a human choice as well as divine, contrary to Luther and Calvin’s strong emphasis on the fallen nature of mankind (Luther wrote a dissertation on The Bondage of the Will). They hoped to revive and reform the church from the inside.
Several reform movements were afoot before news of Martin Luther arrived. The Kings of France and Spain, the University of Paris, and other institutions were already moving to abolish abuses such as the purchase of church offices (Simony), the holding of multiple offices (pluralism), and the holding of office without being present to perform duties (non-residence). Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros (1436-1517) reformed Spain along humanistic lines. He built up the Inquisition to enforce discipline and published the Polyglot Bible (parallel Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Erasmus did something similar). Meanwhile, in Italy, the Oratory Movement brought together devout laymen and clergymen bent on reforming the Church from within. Eventually, they produced reforming popes in Paul III and IV who were willing and able to surmount political difficulties to confront the drive for reform both within and outside the church.
Most important of the Catholic reformers would be Ignatius Loyola. He received his vocation and education late in life and intended to evangelize the Turks in the Holy Land. The impact of the movement he founded, however, belongs to the Counter Reformation. His four-week course of “Spiritual Exercises” produced men dedicated to “think with the Church.” The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) vowed unconditional obedience to the Pope just when the papacy was ready to deploy spiritual shock troops to combat heresy and evangelize new worlds. Other militant missionary orders soon joined them.
The Council of Trent also belongs to the Counter Reformation. Ecumenical (whole-church) Councils had settled the great issues of the theology a thousand years before. More recently, Pisa and Constance had dealt with the papal schism of the 14th century. For more than twenty years the Emperor and German princes on both sides had been calling for a Council to resolve the split between Luther and the Pope – as a whole generation of northern and eastern Europeans had slipped away from the Church. But it was a delicate political matter to call a church council. Trent was under Imperial, not French or Papal, jurisdiction. The Pope (Paul IV) did not attend, so he could repudiate it if necessary, but his Legates (representatives) maintained control.
Trent reformed the church. However, it was not directed towards the healing of the schism but drawing a firm line against protestant teaching. The Bishops were to be resident in their Sees and to provide Biblical and theological education for their clergy, but salvation was through the Church by faith and works, and dogma was established by Scripture and tradition. The Roman Catholic Church was established as a distinct denomination, under the spiritual leadership of Rome. In that sense, the unity of Christendom was surrendered, but the Roman Catholic Church regained its spiritual initiative, counterattacking across Europe and effectively evangelizing the rest of the world, from Peru to Japan.
What was the Radical Reformation? Notice that both magisterial protestants and Roman Catholics assumed the dual representation of God by church and by state. Both maintained parishes and the enforcement of religious policy by the civil government. There were others, outsiders from society, whose thinking ranged farther afield. They rejected the last thousand years of church history and society and hoped to restore what they deemed “original” Christianity. It is the nature of things that this movement was extremely diverse and difficult to categorize.
There were three general types: spiritualists, anabaptists, and evangelical rationalists. Spiritualists took the priesthood of believers to a new level. Not only did they interpret the written Word of God for themselves, but they received an “inner Word” – visions and prophecies – directly from God that superseded the Bible. This resulted in some pretty wild ideas.
The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, the taking of civil oaths, and military service. Today we can hardly imagine how radical this was. Re-baptizing someone already baptized by the church (ana – again baptized) was to deny the validity of all medieval religion – something that Luther and Calvin never did. It was punishable by death since Roman times. And to refuse oaths was to deny the validity of civil government and allegiance! They rejected the whole notion that everybody in Europe was Christian. Only those who made a conscious commitment and lived a disciplined life could be. Instead of a state church, they called for a voluntary church of believers. Menno Simons is credited with rescuing the movement by a return to strict Bible adherence and pacifism. Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish come from this tradition.
Evangelical rationalists were influenced by humanism and reason (as they understood it) to reject historic church teachings and actions of church councils. Such were the Unitarians. All Radicals were brutally persecuted as subversive of public order. Catholics burned them; Protestants drowned them. But some survived, and they represented revolutionary attitudes towards church and state that are now widely accepted.
Were the Wars of Religion really about Religion? A lot of other things were going on! Any understanding of the Reformation period has to recognize four other layers of international and political conflict: the Habsburg and Valois superpowers, the Turkish menace, the Emperor’s struggle with his princes, and the Pope jockeying with secular rulers everywhere. Charles VIII Valois, King of France, invaded Italy in 1494 and was opposed by the “Holy League” of the Pope, Venice, Milan, and Spain. There was sporadic war involving Valois France and the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire in Italy and the lower Rhine throughout the period, with the Pope and the others periodically switching sides. Rome was sacked in 1527 and twice in 1529. When Charles V Habsburg became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, he inherited additionally (by marriage) Spain, Austria, Burgundy/Netherlands, and most of America. He was a most reliable and devout foe of Protestantism, but often found himself at war with the Pope! He had a lot of subjects, but not a lot of control over them. France was the strongest monarchy in Europe but surrounded by vast Habsburg territories and willing to ally with Turks or heretics to redress the balance.
These were also the days of Sulieman the Magnificent, the height of the Ottoman Empire. The Diet of Worms (pronounced “vorms”) was not called to deal with Luther, but to recruit men and money from the German princes to defend Vienna against a huge Turkish army. Control of the Mediterranean was hotly contested by North African pirates and the Ottoman navy. The Turks were allied with the Pope 1536-38 and often with the French!
The rise of centralized monarchies in the 16th and 17th century pitted powerful noblemen against their kings and burghers against their princes or bishops. It is not entirely coincidental that these also divided along confessional lines. Nowhere was this as acute as in Germany. Hundreds of principalities and city-states of all sizes owed nominal allegiance to the Emperor. Seven of the most important elected him. But they were jealous of their prerogatives and resisted any attempt on his part to centralize and reform the Empire. So, Charles V came to the Diet of Worms with hat in hand, so to speak, begging for help against the Turks. He judged and banned Martin Luther but could not take effective action. Later, even staunch Catholic princes refused to cooperate with him against the heretics if their cooperation might increase his power.
Not even the Pope would cooperate against the heretics if it would increase the secular power – especially that of the Emperor, good Catholic though he was.
None of the above should be taken as reflecting on the sincerity of believers on both sides who fought like the devil for the cause of God. [Think about it: if men could at times be persuaded to fight and risk their lives for land or booty, how much more for the institutions at the core of their way of life, temporal and eternal life, and of the meaning of existence?] Indeed, religious zeal added a level of ferocity and suffering, only suggested by the Crusades, to the wars and civil wars of the 16th and 17th century. Larger armies, assisted by gunpowder, devastated swaths of central Europe. It didn’t much matter whether they were yours or theirs: all of the combatants lived off the land and destroyed what they didn’t consume.
Here’s a list of some of the “religious wars” and their results. But religion wasn’t all that was going on. In the end, the political issues predominated.
1. War of the League of Schmalkalden (Germany 1546-55) – the Prince determines the religion, Lutheran or Roman
2. The Scottish civil war (1559-67) – Presbyterians & parliament won against the Catholic monarchy
3. French civil wars (1562-98) – resolved when Calvinist Henry of Navarre, heir to the throne, decided “Paris is worth a mass” and became Catholic King Henry IV. He promulgated Edict of Nantes – religious toleration.
4. Dutch struggle with Spain (1566-1648) – the Protestant-led nationalists won.
5. Thirty Years War (1618-48) – a Cardinal led the Protestant cause to victory (Cardinal Richelieu of France, Prime Minister 1635-48). In the Peace of Westphalia: Princes confirmed the right to determine religion of their territory, including Calvinists. The pope was left out of the peace conference, no longer a major power in Europe.
6. English Civil War (1639-49). The parliamentary victory led eventually to a limited monarchy – the King in Parliament.
The spiritual unity of Europe under the Papacy was at an end. Each European state and German principality had its own Church which might or might not answer to Rome, but most certainly answered to their prince. Thus, several hundred civil “Christendoms” survived. Protestant states also had religious minorities, called nonconformists or dissenters, subject to various legal liabilities and persecution – even exile – but not extermination. Disbelief was still regarded with some suspicion but was no longer automatically treasonous. It was not worth the price to force a people to go against their consciences. Christendom was at an end.
Think About It!
- Where did the Reformation come from? From the strength or weakness of late medieval religion? From secular forces?
- What distinguished the Magisterial Reformation? From late medieval Christianity? From catholic and radical reform movements?
- Was it a Catholic Reformation or a Counter-Reformation?
- How important was the Radical Reformation?
- Were the Wars of Religion really about Religion?
- Was this the end of Christendom?
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David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.