Lecture 31: The Reformation and the End of Christian Unity

The Reformation was the final crisis in the Medieval Church. Skepticism had been growing for centuries in the face of the church’s repeated calls to fight the infidel. The medieval Crusades had been a disaster, costing only men and money for little gain. And the constant fights against internal enemies, such as the Albigensians, had worn thin, too. One result of the growing dissatisfaction with the medieval church was the rise of powerful heresies. In England, John Wycliffe became the founding figure of what was derisively called Lollardy, at term that comes from Dutch and means ‘mumbler.’ Wycliffe denied transubstantiation and claimed that the Papacy had no scriptural authority. In 1378, he was forced to resign from his position as a professor at the university in Oxford. Wycliffe was not molested further, though his followers suffered increasing persecution. In 1401, for example, King Henry IV had a Lollard named William Sawtrey burned as a heretic. Wycliffe’s influence extended to Bohemia, where the Czech religious reformer Jan Hus read Wycliffe’s works and concluded from them that the church needed extensive reforms. In 1415, Hus was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance, which had guaranteed him safe passage to the conference but not back to his homeland. (As we will see, Martin Luther would not fall prey to the same trick.) The reform movement he founded, Hussitism, became in essence the Czech national church.
By the end of the fifteenth century the Catholic Church had lost almost the moral authority it had gained in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and a consensus emerged that the entire institution was in need of reform. In particular, people concentrated in the Papacy, which had become both venal and corrupt. From 1307 to 1377, the Papacy had moved to Avignon in France, where the Pope became a tool of French foreign policy. In 1378, in an attempt to bring the Papacy back to Rome, the reigning Pope was deposed and another one elected. Unfortunately, the Pope in France refused to step down, and the new one also became a problem, so a third Pope was elected. Each reigning Pope then excommunicated the other two. It was only with the Council on Constance 1414-1417 that a new Pope was elected. The Council of Constance began was came to be known as the Conciliar movement within the church, which was an attempt to reign in the Papacy. It didn’t work, as the fifteenth century Popes were no better than their predecessors, being worldly and, at times, downright greedy. The Borgia Popes had children and continually played politics in an attempt to gain preferment for them. One of the great Renaissance Popes, Julius II, even led his troops into battle.
It was difficult to find any morality in this situation, and many people began to think more broadly about the church’s problems. In general, it was agreed that the church had two major problems. The first was absenteeism, namely that too many high church officials, such as bishops, did not actually live in the areas that they were supposed to oversee. The second problem, pluralism, was closely related to the first. Pluralism was the practice of bishops being invested with more than one bishopric. The root of the problem was financial: a bishopric was an income source. Hence, the more bishoprics one occupied, the higher one’s standard f living. Officially the church was against pluralism, but in practice Rome did little about it, since the offending bishops often sent some of their income to Rome. Although the Council of Constance resolved the problem of three popes, it never resolved these other problems, and the festered in the minds of some believers.
One of the most prominent calls for reform came from a new group of educated people called Humanists. Humanism was a Renaissance invention and comprised two distinct streams of thought. The first was what is called Renaissance Humanism, which everyone today associates with 15th century Italy. You are probably familiar with the Renaissance world of art that included such greats as Donatello, Masaccio, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Humanism was, however, originally a literary movement, rooted in the expropriation of classical Latin texts. During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries a group of educated scribes who were mostly in state employ reached back to Latin manuscripts to recover pure Latin style and began to use the new aesthetic sense in their writings. The resulting community of writers and philosophers tended toward secular topics and themes and began to celebrate human activity in all its forms. This is classic Renaissance Humanism.
There was, however, a second school of Humanism that was centered in the north and was more closely aligned with Christian thought. The rise of this school is fundamental for understanding the origins and the course of the Reformation. This movement also began in the linguistic realm, in that it sought better ways to understand classical Latin texts. Its religious spirit, however, also impelled its adherents to investigate the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew, while also beginning the study of other lost Middle Eastern tongues. The greatest member of the school of Christian Humanists is the Dutchman Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was both deeply learned and deeply Christian. He was devoted to the Catholic Church, though he was also skeptical of much of the tradition that had been handed down over the centuries.
Erasmus yearned for a simpler faith and did not shy from criticizing those aspects of Catholicism that seemed overblown or that may have separated people from their faith. An example of his desire to simply the faith is his 1516 text Instruction of a Christian Prince, in which he pled for greater emphasis on spiritual nearness to God, over the complexities of ritual. Consistent with his belief that all people should know their faith better, Erasmus also published a new translation of the Bible with a full critical apparatus that he used to take issue with older translations that had either mistranslated or, perhaps, mystified the faith. This Bible was an instant hit, and many people who had no theological training made reading and contemplating it a new part of their spiritual lives. Erasmus, thus, not only represents a desire for greater simplicity and spiritual authenticity in the Christian faith, but also contributed to the development of these trends through his publications. In this sense Erasmus provides a fundamental backdrop to the themes that would burst open in the Reformation, even if he always refused to leave the church.
The main protagonist in the Reformation was, as you may know, the German monk Martin Luther. Because he played such a pivotal role in sparking and extending the Reformation, we will consider his life more closely. We know little of Luther before 1517, when he (allegedly) nailed his 95 Theses to the front doors of the cathedral at Wittenberg. Luther’s father was a relatively prosperous merchant who wanted his son to study the law. Luther chose not to follow this path. The sources tell us that he became a monk in 1505 after surviving a terrible lighting storm. After getting his first degree at the University of Erfurt he spent the years 1509 to 1517 in intensive study of ancient texts and in preaching.
Luther’s studies resulted in genuinely new theological insights. He reduced the number of sacraments, claiming that not all of the Catholic Church’s seven had textual justification. He changed the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which held that the substance of both the wine and the wafer are transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus, into a doctrine called consubstantiation, which held that Jesus’ flesh and blood were really present, though not in form. Finally, he created a new theory of religious practice that is today called solifidianism, which comes from the Latin sola fide, and means “by faith alone.” This was Luther’s most radical doctrine, as it held that people are saved by their own faith in God, and not by prayer, saintly intervention, good works, or the church. It is important, at this point, to note that Luther was not a Humanist. If anything he was a medieval holdover. His tortured conception of God, his fear of divine anger, all had more in common with medieval theology than it did the gentler Humanist approaches of the fifteenth century. Nonetheless, the broader historical context guaranteed that Luther’s basically medieval message would get a full hearing.
Inspired by religious fervor and anger at the misuse of religion, Luther could not keep his religious insights to himself and began blasting every aspect of what he saw as a corrupt church. Unlike Hus, however, Luther was not burned at the state for heresy and was, thus, able to live long enough to found a new church. In order to understand Luther’s success, we need to understand two things. First, he lived in the Holy Roman Empire, whose convoluted structure and multiple political tensions gave Luther places to hide. In particular, Luther avoided the heretic’s end, because he came under the personal protection of a prince of the Empire, Frederick Wise, Duke and Elector of Saxony. Second, Luther had access to new forms of print communication. The perfection of moveable-type printing in the fifteenth century in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg meant that Luther could print multiple copies of his ideas and send them around Germany. Hence, his ideas got a hearing before the church or the government could stop him. In an environment of intense dissatisfaction, Luther’s work highlighted long-standing grievances and encouraged many people to break with the church.
Now let us consider the direct cause for Luther’s explosion. In 1515, Albrecht von Hohenzollern was named Archbishop of Mainz, a wealthy and politically important bishopric within the Empire. Albrecht had, however, only reached the age of 25, and canon law stipulated that a man had to be at least 30, before he could be invested with a bishopric. In order to get a dispensation, Albrecht had to agree to pay the church a large fine. So Albrecht needed money, but his need was made even greater by his also acquiring two other bishoprics in Halberstadt and Magdeburg. The initial cash outlay left him deeply in debt to the tune of 34,000 ducats. In order to pay off this debt Albrecht cut a deal with the Pope to sell indulgences in Germany, in which the proceeds would be split between the Papacy and Albrecht’s creditors. (The Pope needed money to help finish St. Peter’s Basilica.) When Martin Luther, who at that point was a professor at the University of Wittenberg, heard about the sale of indulgences from some of his parishioners he became enraged, and the result was his famous 95 Theses, in which he criticized harshly the notion that forgiveness of sins could come through the payment of a fee.
Luther began as a nuisance but rapidly became a huge political problem. After he made his positions public he agreed to a series of disputations, in which representatives of the Pope and he debated the validity of Luther’s theology. By the end of these debates, it had become clear that Luther had left the church and was not coming back. There was only option left, another burning. That Luther was not burned was due to the intervention of Frederick the Wise. Frederick’s intervention began in politics. He was against the sale of Papal indulgences in his territory, because he was selling his own indulgences to finance the completion of his own new cathedral. Martin Luther was also one of the Duke’s star professors. This was significant in those days, because professors brought students to the university who paid fees and brought money to the local economy. Luther was, therefore, a resource to be protected.
The implications of Luther’s positions led to direct Imperial intervention, as in April 1521 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V called a conference in the old German city of Worms, in order to confront and, if need be, to put down this heretic. By that point, however, it was too late, as Luther’s pamphlets had been coursing through Germany for four years already. The Emperor’s slowness in reacting stemmed from his foreign policy difficulties, as he had been confronting uprisings in both Spain and the Netherlands. The uprisings in Spain would be quelled, but those in the Netherlands led to de facto Dutch independence by the end of the century. (De jure independence came with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.) Charles V then commanded Luther to appear before him at Worms, with the sole intention of declaring him a heretic and having him burned. Frederick the Wise, however, demanded and got an Imperial guarantee of free passage for Luther to Worms and back to Saxony. The debate at Worms has become famous as the moment when a simple German monk stared down the power of both the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor, but much more was going on than simple defiance.
After the conference dissolve Luther returned to Saxony under the Imperial guarantee. Upon his arrival, Luther was “kidnapped” by a group of masked men mounted on horses that swept down on Luther’s caravan and spirited him away. The entire event was staged, and Luther was whisked off to the Duke’s castle in Eisenach, where he lived under the alias Junker Jörg. No one in the castle was fooled. Nonetheless, the kidnapping was a necessary fiction. If no one knew Luther’s real whereabouts, then no real pressure could be put on Frederick the Wise to turn him over to the Imperial authorities for punishment. Luther used his enforced solitude to begin translating the Bible into German, because he believed that all Christians should have access to the Holy Text in their own language. The translation of the New Testament into German from the original Greek took only ten months. The Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew, took longer. It was first published in German in 1534. Throughout the 1520s Luther also wrote many pamphlets against the Catholic Church and in favor of his proposed reforms. Wittenberg soon reformed in response, and other principalities followed. Much of the religious fervor that Luther inspired in people such as Frederick the Wise was, no doubt, real. It was, however, more than convenient that those princes who chose to reform got their hands on all the churches properties in their territories. In many ways, the Luther made the church territorial again in a way that it had not been since the early Middle Ages.
Luther’s theological revolution was intended to be politically conservative. Luther always held that people had to obey the rightful political authorities, and all reformations should happen only under a prince. The problem was, however, that Luther’s message could be interpreted radically. The first signs of trouble appeared already in 1522-23, when two adventurous knights, Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten, led an army against the Archbishop and Elector of Trier. Both men were famous Humanists, dedicated to literature and the cultivation of the German language. Nonetheless, the attack was a failure and both men became fugitives, dying lonely and pathetic ends. Far greater trouble came, however, with an uprising in southwestern Germany in 1524-26, when bands of peasants rose up against the nobility. Some of the peasants were under the erroneous belief that Luther had called for an attack on princely privilege, too. As the uprising spread, Luther responded with a pamphlet, delicately entitled, “On the Robbing and Murdering bands of Peasants,” in which he not only railed against people who rose up against legal authority but also called for the peasants to be put to the sword. In the end, many of them were, as the revolt was put down brutally.
Luther’s critiques also led to serious theological challenges, the most important of which was Anabaptism, which spread widely in northwestern Germany and the Netherlands. Anabaptism was originally a term of opprobrium, as it means re-baptism. According to church doctrine all people can only be baptized once, and this usually happens in Christian families during infancy. Anabaptists, however, held the first baptism to be illegitimate, precisely because the baby was incapable of assenting to join the church. They held, therefore, that a true baptism was necessary, in which an adult person freely accepted the Lord. Critics derisively called them re-baptists, though from their point of view their baptism was the only legitimate one.
This theological position was, however, dangerous, since it constituted an attack not only on the church but also on the state as well. The most famous political effect of Anabaptism was the 1533-35 uprising in the German city of Münster, where Anabaptist radicals not only threw out the bishop but also overturned all traditional social and political rules. The Anabaptists declared private property illegal and practiced polygamy. Everyone turned on these people, as both Catholics and Protestants sent troops to put down the new regime. The city was put to the sword, and the resulting bloodbath was appalling. One result of the counter-attack was that Anabaptism became expressly non-political and pacifist. Led by Menno Simons, a Dutch Anabaptist, many of the remaining Anabaptists sought only to withdraw from society and pay their taxes. They became known as Mennonites, and when the opportunity for emigration arose they went en masse to America, where their descendants still live. (Perhaps, the most famous of these descendants is splinter group that is called the Amish.)
In spite of these extreme reactions, between 1522 and 1530 Lutheranism survived and spread across both northern Germany and Scandinavia. It was able to do so in the first instance, because Charles V was bogged down in Spain and Italy. While the Emperor looked elsewhere, various German princes converted to Luther’s new doctrines. Most important to the spread of Lutheranism was, however, the increased fervor of religious preaching. Between 1520 and 1560 176 preachers traversed Germany, bringing with them Luther’s new message. Fully one third of these preachers had studied at Wittenberg. These preachers convinced ordinary people of the justice of the Lutheran cause and brought, thus, thousands of believers into the new church. These preachers are also important, because some of them went so far as to develop a theory of resistance that they applied to the Emperor. This was wholly new, and one practical effect of the change was the creation in 1530 of a defensive organization called the Schmalkaldic League. This league of princes stood opposed to the Holy Roman Emperor and, eventually, went to war with him in 1546. We cannot go into the details here, but this war only came to an end in 1555 with a treaty called the Peace of Augsburg, which divided Germany with the famous phrase cuius principio, eius religio, which literally means whose prince, his religion. This treaty divided Germany into Lutheran and Catholic territories, according to the prince’s wishes. This treaty’s major weakness was, however, that it excluded Calvinism. Hence, when a few German princes converted to Calvinism, later in the century, the entire sys6tem became unstable. The result was a devastating war that began in 1618 and lasted until 1648. We will mention that war another time.
Although we are accustomed to talk of one Reformation, there were in fact more than that, as Martin Luther’s critiques set others in motion. Not all of the resulting Protestantisms have survived, however. One example is Protestantism in Strasbourg, a moderate variety that sought common ground between Luther and some of his critics. This moderate version was led by the German Martin Bucer, though it was, ultimately, destroyed by Charles V. Another is Zwinglianism, which centered on Zurich and was led by the preacher Huldrich Zwingli. Zwingli and Luther disagreed vehemently on the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli did not accept Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation, seeing the Lord’s Supper as nothing more than an historical reenactment, whose significance was purely symbolic. Bucer expended much effort bringing Luther ans Zwingli together, though in vain. This brand of Protestantism did not survive Zwingli’s death in battle in 1531.
In spite of Luther’s fame, the most successful example of Protestantism is actually Calvinism. This was the brainchild of John Calvin, a French Humanist-trained lawyer with a gift for ancient languages. Calvin reacted strongly to Luther’s call for independence from the Pope and became Protestant somewhere between 1529 and 1534. By 1533 he was forced to flee France and lived in exile in Strasbourg, where he came under the influence of Martin Bucer. Bucer’s moderation did not take, however, and Calvin went on to develop his own theology in opposition to Luther’s. Calvin accepted the Lutheran conception of solifidianism and the corresponding emphasis on the value of direct contact with the Bible. In one key respect, however, Calvin was much more radical than Luther: he emphasized God’s will and power over his reason and mercy. Where Luther found refuge and comfort in God’s absolute mercy, Calvin insisted that man come to terms with his complete insignificance. One outcome of this insistence was Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination. Calvin held that God’s omniscience meant that he know from the moment of Creation every single person’s destiny. As a result, all human beings were either saved or damned from the moment they were born. This was an austere theological position, too austere in fact for most Lutherans, who united in their rejection of Predestination. In many ways, it was Calvin that created Lutheranism, since he gave Lutherans a common enemy to unite against.
Calvin’s great moment came in 1536, when a Genevan preacher named Guillaume Farel sought out Calvin after hearing that he was staying in Geneva. At that moment Protestantism was under siege, because the populace felt that it was being imposed from the outside, particularly the neighboring Swiss city of Bern. Calvin accepted and invitation from Farel to stay in Geneva and immediately set about creating the world’s perfect Protestant city. Calvin tried to create a balance between religion and state in Geneva. He did so by writing a constitution that clearly delineated each side’s responsibilities and privileges. The most important aspect of this cooperation is that Calvin and his disciples were not doctrinaire on politics, seeing Geneva as an exemplar, rather than a model. As a result, it became very easy to transfer Calvinism, and the religion spread rapidly in the Netherlands and France, where up to 10% of the population became Calvinist. In Germany, Calvinism was spread by the princes, particularly in the Palatinate. Calvinism was much less successful in Eastern Europe, though it did have some influence in Transylvania.
By Calvin’s death, his form of Protestantism had become the most important in Europe. Lutheranism’s association with princely power meant that it remained limited to northern German territories and Scandinavia. Some scholars have seen the seeds of modernity in Calvinism, because it created a certain type of individual that opposed governments and worked hard as a way of displaying his grace. The busy and contrarian Calvinists then became a source of instability around Europe, as state reactions against their religion sparked a terrible civil war in France and became a key factor in Dutch moves toward independence. In Germany, Calvinism sparked another war, the Thirty Years’ War, when a Calvinist Prince decided to accept the Crown of Bohemia, which had been offered to him by Czech Hussites. That, however, is an issue for another lecture.
Calvinism was the most politically significant form of Protestantism, but from a world historical perspective, the English Protestantism is probably more important, since its association with the British Empire allowed it to be spread around the globe. The English Reformation was, at best, a half-Reformation. The first thing one must understand about it is that this Reformation was political and not theological. Even today, the Anglican Church’s rites and theological assumptions are basically Catholic, with the exception that English Protestants do not accept the authority of the Pope. The problems that led to England’s break with the Papacy were rooted in dynastic politics, though anti-clericalism had deep roots in England, as we have seen. In 1527, England’s King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, because he and she had only produced daughters. Pope Clement VII, however, would not allow it. In another time and place, a deal might have been cut, but the contemporary political situation forbade it. First, the Pope was busy fighting Germany’s Protestants and to do so he need Charles V’s support. Second, Catherine of Aragon was Charles V’s aunt.
Henry desperately wanted a male heir, so he needed to get rid of Catherine, and the only avenue available was an annulment. Given the nature of the British monarchy, the pursuit of the annulment rapidly became a political issue, and contemporaries called it “the King’s great matter.” It is important to recall, however, that this story was not simply about a royal divorce. Henry had never been the Pope’s enemy, having in fact written an anti-Luther tract Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (1521), for which he received from the Pope the title Defensor Fidelis, a title that the British Monarchs still hold. Henry had come to throne amidst great expectations. His early reign was, however, a disaster, as his foreign policy alienated both his people and the Spanish government. The result was great harm to the English economy and a surly populace. Parliament, for example, refused to vote him enough tax revenue.