A World in Transition
Key Concepts: The late 15th Century was a watershed moment for Western Civilization and for the church, after which neither would ever be the same again. Significant factors that changed the West were the rise of humanism, desires for local political autonomy, the invention of the printing press, the corruption of the church and the discovery of the New World.
The Story: The rise of humanism, meaning the appreciation of the genius of man and the ability of the human mind, began during the Renaissance. Scholars began to find and study the works of Greek and Roman philosophers, which had been either lost or suppressed by the church. By so doing they began to recognize the value of the individual, rather than seeing people as simply members of a particular class (serfs, etc.). This can be seen in both literature and art where paintings and stories moved away from Biblical themes to everyday people and events. This meant that the church was no longer at the center of the literary and cultural universe.
The Holy Roman Empire, which had been created with the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 by Pope Leo III. This was an attempt to recreate the old Roman Empire and bring stability to Europe (which would be beneficial for the church). During the late 15th century many of the Germanic rulers were resisting the power of both the Emperor and the church. In addition the Low Countries (Netherlands) were striving to throw off the rule of the Spanish and French. Thus the time was ripe for rebellion against church and Emperor.
The invention of the printing press changed the west by allowing the wide dissemination of scientific, philosophical and religious texts. When all manuscripts had to be hand written, it meant that only a small number of people could be fully educated and that the flow of information could be controlled. The printing press changed this by allowing the printing of the Bible in native tongues and the spread of non-Catholic beliefs and theology, both of which were opposed by the church in Rome because they threatened its control over the populace.
The corruption of the church was extensive by this period of time. A significant number of the Popes had engaged in activities (political, sexual and military) which brought disrepute upon the church. In addition the church had grown fabulously wealthy and whenever it needed additional funds it would allow the sale of Indulgences. Indulgences were Papal guarantees that insured forgiveness of sins and less time, if any, spent in purgatory after death. People would purchase them as spiritual insurance against acts past, present and future. Large segments of the populace began to resent the disparity between what the church preached, poverty and humility and how the church lived its life, seeking wealth and power.
It would be difficult for us to understand the emotional and spiritual ripples that flowed through Europe with the discovery of the new world. The late 15th century had been a depressing era. The plagues had decimated Europe’s population, wars had destroyed much of its economic capacity and the feudal order was collapsing. The west saw itself at a dead end. Then with the discovery of an area of land larger than people could comprehend, it was as if the collective imagination of Europe went into overdrive. It unleashed the likes of Magellan, da Gama, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, Durer, Copernicus, Erasmus and Luther. The medieval church was no match for the fresh winds that were blowing…and religious revolt was simply a matter of time.
The Reformation Begins: Martin Luther
Key Concepts: Martin Luther (1483-1546) is one of the key figures in the religious revolution of the early 16th Century.
The Story: At first glance Martin Luther would have not seemed to be a revolutionary sort of person. He was raised in a very observant Roman Catholic family, studied for and was ordained to the priesthood in 1507. This training was accompanied by endless hours of fasting, prayer, pilgrimage and confession. He was well educated, with bachelor’s degrees in Biblical Studies and Sentences (systematic theology) and ultimately a doctorate in Theology (1512). Yet even with his very orthodox training, there was within Luther a growing sense that people could not discover God through reason, or theology, but only through divine revelation. And for Luther the one place where that revelation could be found was in scripture and not in the traditions of the church.
Luther’s role as a religious revolutionary/reformer began in 1516 when a Dominican Friar named Johann Tetzel received a Papal commission to sell indulgences (sort of a get out of purgatory free card) in Germany in order to help raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther did not believe in the sale of indulgences as means of salvation, which he had come to believe could only be received as a free act of God’s grace. So as a good academic he wrote a paper (later called the Ninety-Five Thesis) in opposition to indulgences. He sent this letter to his bishop. Unfortunately for Luther, the local arch-bishop needed the money from the sales of indulgences as badly as did the Papacy and so the church began to organize itself against Luther and his reforming theology.
While the church was moving through its judicial processes against Luther, he continued writing papers and pamphlets outlining his growing anti-Rome theology. These, along with the Ninety-Five Thesis were widely printed and distributed, becoming the first great theological works to benefit from the printing press. This led to two major outcomes. First, Luther denied that the Pope and church councils could speak for God and second, the church excommunicated Luther. The Holy Roman Emperor, who was charged with carrying out the excommunication declared Luther an outlaw, required his arrest and made it a crime to harbor him. Fortunately for Luther, a local ruler, Frederick III saved him by hiding him in Wartburg Castle, where Luther continued to write.
The results of Luther’s work went far beyond anything he had imagined. They not only created a new church with a new theology but unleashed pent up hatred of the masses against the oppression of the church and many local rulers. It led to the burning of monasteries, convents and bishop’s palaces as well as some 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers, supported by protestant clergy, rising up against the aristocracy. Luther was appalled and demanded that the authorities “…smite, slay and stab…” the rebels. This led to the deaths of more than 100,000 of the peasants. Luther also nurtured a hatred for Jews. He spoke and wrote against them declaring that their homes and synagogues ought to be destroyed; statements later used by the Third Reich.
We need to note that even as Luther could not comprehend political or religious freedom, he did understand Christian theological freedom. We see this in that he organized a new church, developed a new Mass, wrote a new catechism, authored hymns and translated the Bible into German so ordinary people could have access to it. Finally, his writings helped to open the door to a new understanding of God’s grace which still informs Protestant churches to this day.
The Reformation Continues: John Calvin
Key Concepts: John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the most important and influential theologians of the Reformation. He is credited with pioneering a new set of doctrines and church government. The churches that followed him would come to be known as Reformed (rather than Catholic or Lutheran). These churches include Reformed, Congregational and Presbyterian.
The Story: Calvin was born into a French Roman Catholic family. His parents initially desired that he study for the priesthood, but eventually decided he could make more money by being a lawyer, and so sent him to study law (1529). In 1533 however Calvin had a religious conversion in which he believed himself called to reform the church. His reforming activities at first caused him to hide from the authorities and then to flee from France to the Protestant city of Basel.
While in Basel, Calvin wrote the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. These volumes were intended to defend the Reformed faith and to serve as basic instruction for Christians. He would continue to update the Institutes throughout his life and they would form the theological foundation for all Reformed churches. Through a series of circumstances Calvin ended up in Geneva where he joined another reformer, William Farel. The next year, 1537, Calvin took up the duties of pastor, which included preaching (he would preach over 2,000 sermons), teaching, baptisms and weddings. Together, Calvin and Farel, drafted articles reorganizing the church. These included rules on communion (how to and how often to serve it), excommunication (who had the power and what were the rules), worship (what should the liturgy look like) and marriage. These rules still inform much of what Reformed churches do today.
After a brief exile in Strasberg (Calvin was not always popular), the Basel city council invited him back and agreed to his division of ministry into Pastors (to preach and administer the sacraments), Doctors (to teach), elders (to provide discipline) and deacons (to care for the poor and needy). They also agreed on a separation of powers between the church and the state, with the church only having power over religious matters. Calvin’s return, was not greeted with enthusiasm by all in Geneva. There was a significant group of secular citizens who objected to his imposition of a strict code of religious/moral conduct. Because they ran the city council they could constrain his power, which they did for a period of about nine years. However in 1555 Calvin’s followers elected a new council which supported him. From then until his death (1564), his authority was unquestioned.
The heart of Calvin’s theology, as expressed in the Institutes, was Biblical concept of the Sovereignty of God. For Calvin, sovereignty meant that God had all power and did not share it with anyone or anything (for if God did share power then God could not be sovereign). This meant that everything that happened in the world happened as a direct result of the action of God. Thus there was no free will or even free choice. (None-the-less Calvin was clear that human beings were responsible for their sinful actions.) This lack of free will, or free choice, even extended into the arena of salvation. In a doctrine called Election, Calvin argued that some people are elected (chosen) by God for salvation, while others are not. This is the basis of predestination (meaning God sets our destination in the afterlife), a belief with which Presbyterians have long been associated. While this doctrine may seem odd to us, it was greeted by many as a comfort; a comfort because they could be assured of salvation whereas in the medieval Roman Church there were no guarantees.
Key Concepts: The rise of both Lutheranism and Calvinism created both religious and civil unrest in Europe. This unrest led to a series of wars 1524 to 1648. Deaths from these conflicts have been estimated at somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of Europe’s population.
The Story: The initial conflict (which was discussed in an earlier article) was the peasant uprising of 1524/1525. Peasants who were followers of Luther interpreted his manifesto of freedom to refer to political as well as religious freedom. At one point more than 300,000 peasants were in open revolt against feudal oppression. The end result was the defeat and slaughter of the peasants.
The second conflict was between Lutherans and the Roman Church led by Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Initially the Lutherans had been allowed to expand their influence because the Holy Roman Empire’s conflicts with the Ottoman Empire (which had pushed all the way to Vienna) and France. Once these conflicts were settled, Charles turned his attention to enforcing the condemnation of Lutherans. The Lutherans organized themselves into the Schmalkaldic League. Once again however Charles faced other threats and suspended his enforcement, which only allowed the Lutherans to consolidate their power. Eventually two wars broke out (1546/1547 and 1552/1555) which were only concluded with the Peace of Augsburg in which it was declared that German princes could choose either Lutheranism or Catholicism for their subjects.
The third conflict is often known as the Eighty Years War. This was a war between Roman Catholic Spain and the Calvinist residents of the Low Countries (Netherlands and Belgium) from 1566 to 1648. The Low Countries were ripe for rebellion. They were ruled by the Spanish but had been impacted by Calvinist preaching and evangelism. The Calvinists were being persecuted by the Roman Church and so they began to engage in anti-Catholic violence. A group of Protestant nobles led by William of Orange organized an army in order to free the Netherlands. While this freedom movement was supported by many Dutch citizens, there were many others that remained loyal to the Roman Church. The end result after almost 80 years of bloodshed was the division of the country into a Protestant north and Roman Catholic south. This war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Munster (1648) in which Spain officially recognized the Protestant Netherlands.
The fourth conflict was a Protestant-Roman Catholic affair known as the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). This war involved virtually every European nation including Denmark and Sweden. It was fought mainly with mercenary armies which pillaged as they moved from battle to battle. At the same time, famine and disease were unleashed, killing more people than died in battle. It has been estimated that the Swedes destroyed 2,000 castles, 1,500 towns and 18,000 villages in Germany alone. The Treaty of Munster also helped to bring to an end the Thirty Years’ War, though it was part of a larger peace settlement called the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which established the concept of the sovereign state that is still the basis for international relations today.
The outcome of these wars was the establishment of sovereign states whose rulers could determine the official religion of their domain (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist), mutually agreed upon national boundaries and an agreement not to interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations.
The English Civil War and Westminster Confession
Key Concepts: While the Reformation was transpiring on the European continent a very different kind of religious struggle was taking place in England. The results of this struggle would give the Reformed/Puritan Churches their greatest theological documents.
The Story: A distinct form of Protestantism (Church of England/Anglicanism) came to England under the rule and reign of Henry the VIII (1509-1547) when in 1532 Parliament declared that Henry was the “Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England.” This gave the monarchy the right to determine both church doctrine and governance. Over the course of the next century the nation vacillated between Protestant/Anglican (strict or lax) and Catholicism. This struggle would eventually play a role in the English Civil War.
The roots of the English Civil War lay in both religious and political disagreement between the King, Charles I (1600-1649), and Parliament. In the English governmental system, only Parliament could levy and collect taxes. Thus if the King wanted to pay for a war or carry out any significant military action he needed Parliament to agree. This dependence was anathema to the King who believed that kings were chosen by God to rule and were “little gods on earth.” In 1628, in need of money, Charles called Parliament into session. Instead of immediately acceding to his demands for revenue, they forced Charles to grant certain rights to the people. In response he imprisoned some members of Parliament and dissolved the body.
For the next eleven years Charles ruled without Parliament, all the while struggling to raise taxes. At the same time his appointee as Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, began to impose “high church” (similar to Catholicism) practices on the English church. When the Puritans complained, Laud had many of them arrested. Desiring to expand these changes, Charles attempted to impose them on the Scots. The Scots rebelled and in a series of brief wars defeated Charles and invaded England. Desperate to put down this rebellion Charles recalled Parliament in hopes of them raising taxes to fund his war with the Scots.
This new Parliament, which became known as the Long Parliament, was more antagonistic to Charles than had been the one before. They forced him to agree to more changes in taxation and personal freedoms. Parliament also accused the king of desiring to continue to impose “high church” religious practices and to rule by military force. In 1642 Charles had had enough and so attempted to arrest several members of Parliament for treason. The nation then slowly descended into a series of three civil wars fought between those supporting the Parliament and those supporting the King. The end result was that the Royalists lost and Charles was beheaded for treason.
During this period, the Parliament commissioned 121 Protestant clergy to produce doctrinal documents for the English Reformation. The product of that work was the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Longer and Shorter Catechisms. These documents were approved by both the English and Scottish Parliaments, as well as the Church of Scotland. They are expositions of classic Calvinism with an emphasis on the Sovereignty of God and the importance of scripture. These documents became the theological foundation for The Sixteen Articles contained within the Anglican/Episcopal Church Worship Book as well as for all of American Presbyterianism.