Chapter 11 The Reformation

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Chapter 11 - The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation did not just happen. Rather it was the result of profound social, political and religious forces that led up to a religious rending [tearing apart] of Western Christendom that will never [in all likelihood] be healed. The Protestant Reformation began as an attempt to reform the Catholic Church mostly by priests who opposed what they perceived as false doctrines and ecclesiastic malpractice—especially the teaching and the sale of Indulgences or the selling and buying of clerical offices. But there were also many non-clerical groups that saw the Church as a powerful institution which threatened their prerogatives and freedoms. Guilds and merchants of the rising middle class in the imperial cities in Germany felt that the Church was blocking their expanding businesses. In addition many people, rich and poor, were disillusioned because they felt that the Church was not a loving parent but a greedy bully. Finally, there were many kings who envied the church’s power and wealth – and wanted a share for themselves.

All these factors led to a rising resentment that (both hypocritically and sincerely; clerical and lay) criticized the church for being too worldly. In many ways the Reformation was a rejection of the humanism of the Renaissance and its new education with its moral failings. Some scholars have called the Reformation the last gasp of medieval piety. So in the two hundred years leading up the life of Martin Luther, we have seen the founding of the loyal-to-the-church Dominicans and Franciscans along with the rebellious Lollards, Hussites, Albigensians and Waldensians. These were the first calls for thorough reform and should have been a wakeup call for the papacy and Church leaders but they went unheeded. And it is supremely important to remember that no one in the year 1500 could possibly have imagined the shattering effect of the Reformation, which would destroy the unity of Christians to our very day.

As we noted in the last Chapter, Northern European Humanists were drawn to religious sincerity and piety more than the Italian Humanists; and we also saw how Erasmus and Northern humanists urged a return to a more simple and heartfelt religion. One interesting group we noted was the Netherlands based Brothers of the Common Life, also known as the Modern Devotion. Founded in the 14th century by Gerhard Groote (1340-1384), they ran a kind of boarding school run by brothers that did not take formal monastic vows but lived a religious life of prayer and contemplation. The brothers (and there were houses for sisters) did not wear distinctive religious dress nor abandon their secular jobs. They were educators, copyists, publishers and advocates for poor children, especially boys who were preparing for the priesthood. Erasmus studied under their care and formulated his philosophy of Christ from what he learned from the brothers. Thomas à Kempis, a German monk and writer, summarized their philosophy in his famous book, The Imitation of Christ (De Imitatione Christi). Two of his famous quotes from the still popular book are: At the Day of Judgment we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; and Man proposes, but God disposes.

Luther and the Shattering of Western Christendom

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Germany to a successful Thuringian miner. He was educated at Magdeburg by the Brothers of the Common Life. In 1501, he entered the University of Erfurt. He was a brilliant student and by 1505 had been awarded both his bachelors and masters degrees. Shortly afterwards, he was caught outside in a lightning storm and (in the terror of the moment) promised God that, if is life was spared, he would join a monastery. Although his father wanted him to be a lawyer, Luther was drawn to the study of Scripture. He soon joined the Augustinian religious order and spent three years in the Augustinian Monastery (The Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine) at Erfurt. In 1507, Luther was ordained a priest and later went to the University of Wittenberg, where he lectured on philosophy and the bible, becoming a powerful and influential preacher. So charismatic was his preaching that large crowds came just to hear his sermons.

In 1510, he was sent to Rome on business for the monastery. While he was there, the laziness and corruption among the clergy appalled him. Among the abuses he saw was the sale of church services and especially indulgences. (In medieval theology, it was believed that, although God forgave sins, sinners still had to be punished. Indulgences were prayers or other rituals to remit some of that punishment. It shocked Luther that church officials sold the indulgences simply to raise money.) When Luther saw the abuse of selling Indulgences and other church services, he considered it a shameless mockery of what the Christian religion should be. In the fourteenth century it had been common for people to pay a small sum for an indulgence, but the papacy, eager for money, kept raising the scope of granting indulgences.

In 1343, Pope Clement VI proclaimed a Treasury of Merits which was an infinite reservoir of good works in the church’s possession which could be dispensed at the pope’s discretion. From this treasury, the church sold Letters of Indulgence which made good works of satisfaction on behalf of the souls of those who paid for the Indulgences. In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV declared that Indulgences could be purchased for a person’s friends or relatives or whoever in purgatory, thus reducing their time of suffering. Pope Julius II shamelessly had indulgences sold to raise money to build a new St. Peter’s Basilica and in 1517 Pope Leo X revived the practice of a Plenary Indulgence which would erase all punishment in purgatory for the living or the dead. The most famous of the Indulgence peddlers (sellers) was Johan Tetzel, a Dominican preacher, who crisscrossed Germany selling indulgences to frightened townspeople and peasants. His most famous pitch line was As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.

After his return to Wittenberg, Luther’s indignation at the sale of Indulgences and the selling of other Church services grew and grew. He became a doctor of theology in 1512, but his mind became increasingly hostile to the corruption in the Church. So he began to preach more and more his doctrine of Justification by Faith, that is, that Christian salvation is won by faith, not by works. (Re: James: I will show you my faith by my works). So on October 31, 1517 (the year Leo X started granting plenary Indulgences) Luther drew up a list of 95 complaints, his Ninety Five Theses, and nailed them to the door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg. Luther was particularly shocked that Tetzel was selling Indulgences for unrepentant sinners. Within weeks, the Ninety Five Theses had spread throughout Germany, where many, especially Christian Humanists who desired reform in the Church, welcomed them. Luther, a prolific writer, continued to attack the abuses in the Church and soon attacked the Church itself. Erasmus, who originally supported Luther, broke with him when Luther moved from an attack on the sale of Indulgences to an attack on the Roman Church itself.

Luther advocated the closure of monasteries, the translation of the bible from Latin into German, and an end to priestly and Episcopal authority (i.e., bishops but especially the pope). He also attacked the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the celibacy of the clergy (i.e. allowing married clergy), denial of the cup to the laity (i.e., allowing the people to drink from the consecrated wine from the chalice like the clergy), and held that two sacraments, Baptism and the Lords Supper, to be authentic sacraments. Most importantly, he maintained that the Bible alone [sola scriptura] was the source of all authority in the Church. (The Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches claim that authority comes from Scripture, Tradition (i.e. church councils) and Reason).

Luther’s ideas were widely embraced by many German humanists and princes; thus Luther – willingly or unwillingly – became a central figure in an already budding German cultural movement against foreign influence. Luther was summoned before the superior general of the Dominican Order of Augsburg to give an account of his radical teachings. But in January 1519, before he could appear or sanctions (legal charges) be drawn up against him, the emperor Maximlian died. This was a crucial and fortunate turn of events for Luther and his supporters because Maximilian’s death turned attention away from Luther to the contest for a new emperor. Francis I of France, supported by the pope, challenged the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles I of Spain to be the new emperor.

The nineteen year old Charles, a Hapsburg (Maximilian was his paternal grandfather), was the more natural candidate and he was supported by the wealthy Fugger Banking House of Augsburg, which paid off (i.e. bribed) the seven imperial electors. The most important of these was Frederick III [the Wise] of Saxony, who was Luther’s lord, protector and supporter. So Charles won the election and became the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

In the same month that Charles V was elected emperor, Luther debated a staunchly Roman Catholic theologian, Johan Eck. When Luther had begun to make his views known, Eck was sympathetic and felt they both had much in common but when Eck read the Ninety Five Theses, he accused Luther of fomenting anarchy in the Church and branded Luther a Hussite. This led to a bitter exchange between them. In these disputes with Eck, Luther openly challenged the infallibility of the pope and the inerrancy of church councils, openly asserting the authority of the Bible alone.

In 1520, Luther wrote a pamphlet, An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he urged the German princes to force the Church to reform, especially in curtailing the Church’s political interference and economic power in Germany. In another pamphlet, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he attacked the doctrine of the Seven Sacraments, arguing that only the Eucharist and Baptism were fully scriptural. In a third pamphlet, Freedom of a Christian, Luther formally taught his doctrine of Salvation by Faith alone [Sola Scriptura].

In 1520, Pope Leo X issued a Papal bull [proclamation], Exsurge Domine [Arise, O Lord], which condemned most (but not all) of Luther’s doctrines and gave Luther sixty days to recant (publically admit he was wrong). Luther publically burned his copy of the bull to show his complete break with Rome. In 1521, Luther, given safe conduct by the emperor, presented his views to the Diet of Worms, which was presided over by the emperor himself. Johann Eck acted as the spokesman (really the prosecutor) for the emperor and ordered Luther to recant his heresies. Luther refused, saying … I am bound by the Scriptures…and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. Charles had Luther made an outlaw so, for his own protection, his old friend, the Elector Frederick III of Saxony, “kidnapped” and hid Luther in Wartburg Castle for almost a year. While there Luther, using Erasmus’ Greek Bible and the Latin Bible, translated the New Testament into German.

Charles V would have liked to have brought Luther to his justice [code for burn for heresy] but he was occupied with dual enemies, Francis I of France and the Ottoman Turks. Charles had responsibilities both as the king of Spain and as Holy Roman Emperor. He needed loyal German troops and so he sought friendly relations with the German princes. Between 1521 and 1529, Spain and France fought four major wars over Italy (part of the series of wars known as the Hapsburg Valois Wars) and so Charles though his representatives agreed at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 that each German state was free to enforce or not enforce the Edict of the Diet of Worms which declared Luther an outlaw. This concession gave the German princes territorial sovereignty in religious matters and gave Lutheranism time to become firmly established in many parts of Germany.

Many German princes followed Luther and broke with the Roman Catholic Church, some on genuine religious ground, others because they thought a political advantage could be gained, especially building their own power bases. During the 1520s and 1530s many of the most important German cities (Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Augsburg) along with the Elector Frederick III of Saxony and the Prince of Hesse passed laws prohibiting Roman Catholic religious services and required all services to be Lutheran in doctrine and procedure. By the mid-16th century about half of the German population had adopted Lutheranism and the reformers had launched or were helping to launch Protestant movements in other lands. In the 1530s, German Protestants formed a powerful defensive league, the Schmaldkaldic League, to defend themselves against the emperor and his Catholic forces.

But during its first decade, Lutheranism almost destroyed itself in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524-1525. German peasants at first were wildly supportive of Luther because they believed that Luther’s views would help them do away with the burdensome taxes and medieval regulations of the local princes. Peasant leaders saw in Luther’s teaching about Christian freedom, support for their desire to free themselves. They openly appealed to Luther to support them in ending serfdom and giving equal economic rights to all. Luther was sympathetic at first and condemned the tyranny of many princes. But when the peasants revolted in open and violent bloodshed, Luther backed the nobles and urged them to crush to peasants mercilessly; and up to 70,000 peasants were killed. For Luther, Christian freedom meant a spiritual release from guilt and anxiety - not revolutionary bloodshed. A key point to remember is that had Luther joined the peasants, it is likely that Lutheranism would not have survived beyond the 1520s – at least in the form we know it.

Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation

The Swiss Reformation is linked to Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), who was born in Switzerland to a farming family and whose father was also a town administrator. Zwingli was sent to Basel to obtain his secondary education where he focused on Latin studies. He later enrolled in the University of Vienna and after that the University of Basel where he received a Master of Arts degree in 1506. His education was a product of Northern humanism and he credited Erasmus more than Luther with having set him on the path to reformation. 1506 was also the year he was ordained a priest and he served as a chaplain to the Swiss mercenaries who were on the losing side at the Battle of Marignano in 1515. It is not surprise that he became a critic of Swiss mercenary service. By 1518, he was also well known for his opposition to the sale of Indulgences and to the many religious superstitions that Erasmus and Luther had already condemned.

In 1519 he was appointed Leutpriestertum (people's priest) at the main church in Zurich because of superior reputation as a preacher and writer. He was opposed by some because it was said that he had an affair with a barber’s daughter by whom he had a child. Zwingli minimized the damage by denying paternity and claiming that the woman was a skilled seductress. This is probably part of the explanation that one of his first acts as a reformer was to petition for an end to clerical celibacy. Zwingli used his new position to become the father of the Swiss Reformation. In 1522, he openly broke the Lenten fast which was a reflection of his overarching principle: Whatever lacked literal Scriptural support was to be neither believed nor practiced. And like Luther, he criticized the practices of fasting, transubstantiation, superstitious worship of the saints, purgatory and indulgences, clerical celibacy and the sacraments other than the Eucharist and Baptism. With the agreement of the city government, Zwingli made Zurich the center of the early Swiss Reformation.

Zwingli bitterly disagreed with Luther over the nature of the Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Luther believed that Christ was present but Zwingli believed that Christ was present only symbolically. Luther taught that because Christ was truly human and truly divine, he could be spiritually present (even if bodily absent) in the Eucharist. Zwingli said that Luther was mired [stuck] in medieval superstition and that the bread and wine in the Eucharist were a meal symbolic of the Last Supper.

Philip of Hesse (1504-1567) wanted to unite Swiss and Lutheran Protestants and so brought the two leaders (along with other Protestant leaders) together in his castle in Marburg in 1529 to work out their differences. The result was a disaster for Luther and Zwingli. Luther thought that Zwingli was a dangerous fanatic and Zwingli that Luther was a medievalist. Nevertheless the debates, called the Marburg Colloquy, produced fifteen statements of which fourteen were agreed upon; only the nature of the Eucharist could not be agreed upon.

Despite their differences, the two Protestant factions continued to help each other. The differences also caused a splintering movement forming a semi-Zwinglian group led by Martin Bucer and Caspar Hedio in the non-Lutheran Tetrapolitan Confession in 1530. Moreover, the Protestants faced a more formidable foe in that much of Switzerland remained Catholic. The result was civil war during which there were two major battles, both at Kappel in 1529 and 1531. The first was a Protestant victory which forced the Catholic cantons (states) to recognize the rights of the Protestant cantons. The second (in which Zwingli was wounded and then killed by his opponents when recognized) was a Catholic victory. The treaty which followed, however, recognized the rights of each canton to determine its own religion. Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), the protégée and son-in-law of Zwingli, became the new leader of the movement and guided its eventual merging into Calvinism.

The Anabaptists and Radical Protestants

There were also reformers who accused the Lutherans and Zwinglians of being half-hearted in reforming the Church. The most important were the Anabaptists, ancestors of the modern Mennonites and Amish. They particularly objected to infant baptism and taught that only a sincere, knowledgeable adult could understand the Biblical way of life and truly be baptized. Luther and Zwingli also taught that believers must believe for themselves (Luther called it the Priesthood of all Believers) but rejected the Anabaptist position since there was no clear Biblical Mandate against infant baptism. For Luther, Zwingli - and the Catholics - the congregation believed for the infant.

Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) was the first person to perform an adult rebaptism in Zurich in 1525. He had worked with Zwingli but was even more radically literal in his interpretation of the bible – and eventually broke with Zwingli, who preferred a more gradual rejection of corrupt religious practices and resisted the headlong rush of Grebel and the Anabaptists. Grebel’s group came to be known as the Swiss Brethren. They declared that since the Bible did not mention infant baptism, it should not be practiced by the church. This belief was subsequently attacked by Zwingli. Consequently, there was a public debate in Zurich and the city council sided with Zwingli. Although Grebel died the next year, this rejection solidified the Swiss Brethren - and also resulted in their persecution by all other reformers as well as the Catholic Church.

In 1527, an Anabaptist leader, Michael Sattler, authored the Schleitheim Articles, the first Anabaptist Confession of Faith which not only affirmed the necessity of adult baptism but also the practice of refusing to swear oaths and taking part in secular government. This latter position angered the civil authorities because they saw it as a threat to the social bond of the community and a form of sedition [treason]. Sattler was arrested, along with his wife and several other Anabaptists. All were condemned as heretics. Sattler was burnt at the stake; the men were killed by sword and the women - including Sattler’s wife - were drowned. Thus by 1529, Lutherans, Zwinglians and Catholics all persecuted Anabaptists. To be rebaptized became a capital offense [punishable by death] and thousands of men and women were executed for re-baptizing themselves between 1525 and 1618.

The opposite was the case in 1534 when Anabaptists came into the German city of Münster. Led by two Dutch emigrants, Jan Matthys and Jan Beukelsz, they required all Lutherans and Catholics to convert to Anabaptism or immigrate to another place. After the refugees fled, the city was besieged by their opponents and, under this pressure, Münster was transformed into an Old Testament theocracy with charismatic leaders and polygamy. Polygamy (a marriage of one man to multiple wives) was a measure of social control to deal with the problem of so many women that had become widowed. Nevertheless, women who objected were allowed to leave such marriages. Catholics and Lutherans were shocked and the Anabaptists were crushed by Protestant and Catholic forces and the corpses of their leaders hung in public squares till they rotted. After the Münster debacle, Anabaptists became moderate and pacifistic. Menno Simons (1496-1561), the founder of the Mennonites, modeled this non conformist pacifism.

Another group of diverse and non conformist Protestant dissenters were the Spiritualists. They were mostly isolated individuals who were characterized by a dislike for external, institutional religion. Their only religious authority was the Sprit of God which spoke to them, not in some past revelation, but in the here and now. One of their leaders was Thomas Müntzer, who abandoned Lutheranism and flirted with Anabaptism until he was killed in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525. Sebastian Franck (1499-1543) was hostile to all organized religion and condemned all religious dogma and teachings. He proclaimed religious autonomy and freedom for every Christian human. Caspar Schwenckfeld (1489-1561) took the Reformation to Silesia. He was influenced by the Spiritualists but developed his own principles such as opposition to infant baptism, war, secret societies, and oath-taking. He fell out with Martin Luther over the Eucharistic presence controversy. His followers were outlawed in Germany and many later immigrated to America. Five churches in Pennsylvania with about 3,000 members are all that remain of his movement. Nevertheless, his ideas influenced Anabaptism and Puritanism in England, and later in the eighteenth18th century, Pietism.

Antitrinitarians believed that they were people of commonsense, rational and ethical religion. Most prominent among them was Michael Servetus (1511-1533) who was a Spanish theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist. (He was the first European to correctly describe the function of pulmonary circulation.) He also participated in the Reformation and denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and was subsequently burned for heresy (not by the Catholics) but by the encouragement of John Calvin in Geneva. Faustus Sozzini (1539-1604) was an Italian who spent his last years in Poland and one of the founders of Socinanism which became most famous for its Antitrinitarian Christology but also a number of other unorthodox beliefs as well, such as a rejection of Original Sin and that Christ existed as God before he was born as a man. In 1658, his followers were forced to leave Poland and most fled to Transylvania or Holland where they took the name Unitarian and are today the Unitarian Church.

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