Church History Part 2 (of 3)


  • The fourth strand of Church history is the reforming strand – this is a complicated theme to follow, because in one sense all reforms are something new, even if they are the rediscovery of something old. It is perhaps a bit post-modern to say that all reforms result in new theology, but the Reformation opened up many new worlds.

    The Reformation period
    The Reformation is a name given to a small window in Christian history that relates to a major movement away from centralised authority towards an egalitarian ideal that all Christians are priests and saints. Generally the Reformation is identified as occurring during the sixteenth century, starting with the protest of the monk and scholar Martin Luther against church practices, and quickly becoming a socio-political force to be reckoned with. As such it not only changed Christianity, but also laid the grounds for modern Europe and the scientific revolution known as the Enlightenment.

    Before the Reformation: crusades, monasteries and the Pope
    A common, and often fairly accurate, criticism of evangelical Christians is that their church history runs something like this: St Paul dies, Council of Nicea, Augustine v Pelagius, Martin Luther nails the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg! This is fairly natural, but a large amount of ‘protestant’ thought developed long before Luther. The concepts of paid clergy, for example, or sacred buildings, or (for Anglicans) the parish church system.

    There were a number of major developments in Christian history between the fourth century (where we left off) and the Reformation. In brief these included: a huge debate between St Augustine and another theologian called Pelagius that centred on whether human beings were capable of doing good deeds on their own. Augustine’s concept of original sin negating the possibility of human beings ever doing anything good without God’s grace to aid them had a huge impact on the chief theologians of the Reformation.

    Augustine also contributed the ‘just war’ theory to Christian doctrine. Kings throughout Europe used this doctrine as Christianity’s spiritual authority became inseparable from temporal, political power. On Christmas Day in AD800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This had a dual effect. Firstly, Charlemagne used Christianity as a means of subjugating the Saxons and obviously furthered the spread of Christianity at the same time. Secondly, it was viewed as the restoration of the Roman Empire with Charlemagne as the spiritual successor to Constantine, thus giving him ecclesiastical authority as the ‘protector’ of the church. It also effectively gave the bishop of Rome, the Pope, a key ally in interesting political times.

    The effect of the partnership between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor was the idea of absolute authority. The HRE supposedly had absolute authority in matters of state – every other king in Christendom was theoretically bound to him (although it wasn’t always easy getting those kings to recognise that!) Similarly, the position of Pope had evolved rapidly, drawing on documents that purported to convey Constantine’s authority to the successors of the Bishop of Rome and also the claim of direct apostolic succession from Peter, the ‘rock’ on whom Christ would build his church (cf Matthew chapter 16, verse 18). The Constantinian documents were proven false during the Reformation and the apostolic succession argument has been hotly contested, but nevertheless, all true Christians in Western Europe were expected to look to the Pope for spiritual guidance. NB: Although it was floating as an idea in the fourteenth century, it was only much later, in 1870, that the doctrine of papal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra or in a church council was formally recognised by the Roman Church.

    Tied in with the growth of papal authority and the establishment of the HRE, are the biggest events of medieval Christianity: the Crusades. Initiated by various Popes and Emperors, the expressed intent of the Crusades was the liberation of Palestine and the holy sites of Christianity from Islamic occupation. In reality, they were a series of wars, as much against eastern Christians as against Muslims. The fourth crusade, in particular, ended with the sack of Constantinople/Byzantium in 1204, during which time a number of Christian relics were transported back to Western Europe. The antipathy of the Eastern Orthodox church towards Western European Christians (and Christians elsewhere who hail from European tradition) stems from this as much as anything. The very real hurt felt by Orthodox Christians is equal to the tension between Islam and Christianity regarding the actions of the crusader armies, although in truth the ongoing war between the Moorish and Christian kingdoms in Spain, the Islamic conquest of Christian North Africa and the occupation of Palestine in the first place, with its destruction of several Christian holy sites and churches, reduce the impact of the crusades to just another episode in a bitter and bloody history between the two religions.

    A final development to bear in mind was the growth of the monastic orders. Monasteries were also hospitals, schools and churches for the ordinary common man. Monks were respected as scholars and priests and in many places performed a dual role as civil scribes for the local rulers and priestly functions. Monasteries, as repositories of learned men and guardians of knowledge were therefore rich and powerful – they received offerings for their spiritual work and payment for their scribal work. They were usually self-sufficient, with low overheads (the life of a monk wasn’t meant to be easy after all!). At least that was the theory. Many abbots lived at an aristocratic level, with the resources to host lavish banquets and entertain high status guests. Many high-ranking individuals honoured monastic houses with large bequests, in order to earn an ‘indulgence’, a special allowance to get out of purgatory (a place of punishment that purged you of your sins before you entered heaven) that could only be awarded by the Pope (monasteries often bought these to sell on), or to ensure that the monks prayed for the benefactor’s soul after death. Through bequests, monasteries became land-owners. In an era where nearly everybody lived off the land, this was another source of prestige and power.

    Most importantly, there were movements between monasteries and many monks made pilgrimages to Rome. It was therefore very easy for the church authorities to keep tabs on what was happening in the courts of Europe, because often a monk would be the person writing the king’s edicts for him and, incidentally, hearing all the gossip of the court. Monasteries acted as a vital part of the Pope’s intelligence-gathering network

    Luther’s protest
    In 1516, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a largely-unknown monk and professor of Scripture at the university of Wittenberg. In 1517, he attached a protest – the 95 statements (or theses) against the sale of indulgences – to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. The intention was to debate whether indulgences could really save a Christian soul from purgatory. To use the language of the time: were they efficacious of salvation?’ But there were other questions in there too – why was the Pope (who was rich enough already, according to Luther in one of the statements) issuing indulgences?

    The 95 theses mark the start of the Reformation for no other reason than after Luther’s protest everything kicked off big-time. There were hundreds of grievances against the Church; there was a rising ‘humanism’ that was beginning to critique Christendom and established medieval theology; nationalism and local aristocrats, particularly in Luther’s Germany, railed against the Holy Roman Empire’s demands. All these huge influences went into the melting pot of central Europe and when the theological objections started to be raised about the power of the papacy and the legitimacy of some church doctrines, Europe was literally on the brink of war.

    It is often said that Luther never truly intended a break with Rome. The 95 theses and his initial theological objections were not significantly anti-papal. He was genuinely looking for a reformation, a return to a simpler time, to what he considered true Christianity, based on scripture alone. The phrases that have characterised Luther’s theology are ‘sola scriptura’, scripture alone, and ‘sola fide’, salvation coming through faith alone. His key basis for this was the statement in the book of Hebrews that ‘Abraham was justified by faith’ – not by works, confession, penances, pilgrimages, indulgences, or even observing the sacraments.

    However, Luther was fairly naïve. Such a return to first principles would naturally strip many people of their power and rank. Just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, people in authority, whether ecclesiastical or not, rarely hand over their power voluntarily. Luther’s proposals were rudely rejected, he was regarded as a threat and a troublemaker and (rightly) feared for his own safety. Like many a spurned individual, he became bitter, and it was then that he became vociferously anti-papal, demonising the position of Pope – a point of view often held in extreme Protestantism today with the bishop of Rome identified with the antichrist.

    Under the protection of the various rulers of some of the German states, Luther formed his own church, modelled on the Roman church he broke with. For that reason the Lutheran church model, as found in Germany and Scandinavia tends to operate as a state church. The American Lutheran church can’t because there is no state church.

    Luther’s innovations: Luther did away with most of the sacraments like confession. He retained infant baptism because his worldview was essentially catholic – everybody born in a Christian country was naturally a Christian. He adapted the doctrine of transubstantiation to a version of consubstantiation, meaning that the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ does not occur because of the priests invocation, but through the faith of the participant. He emphasised the importance of Scripture, rejecting doctrines that seemed to have no Scriptural basis (e.g. praying to Mary) and helped disseminate the Bible in German and other languages. The Biblical translation he is associated with was from original Greek and Hebrew sources, not from the Latin Vulgate, so this caused more difficulties with Rome, because the Vulgate is a flawed translation in a few places (e.g. Jesus’ brothers being called his cousins, because the translator believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary).

    Luther’s legacy is quite clear. By encouraging independent study of Scripture and down-playing the centralised authority of the church, he laid the foundations for protest and dissent. His protests have been echoed by every other sectarian view in the years since the Reformation. Ironically, Luther himself was frequently frustrated by the number of people who did not agree with his views and he was not beyond using the secular powers-that-be to quash dissent in the area where his ‘true’ version of Christianity was the only church.

    Calvin
    John Calvin (1509-64) is the other key thinker, scholar and breakaway church leader involved in the Reformation. After fleeing Paris in 1533, he settled in Geneva where he pioneered a version of Christianity that became known as Reformed theology. Despite originally being kicked out of Geneva, he became established as a dominant figure, with the express intent of making Geneva a holy city (perhaps influenced by Augustine’s book City of God or as a rival to Rome).

    Calvin’s Reformed theology spread rapidly throughout Europe, partly due to his Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published while he was on the run in 1536, and then revised five times before his death, with the definitive issue published in 1559. The Institutes was not the first systematic theology published, but it was the first to benefit from the invention of the printing press and be disseminated widely. It was also highly contentious, containing as it did a full exploration and absolute affirmation of the doctrine that most people associate with Calvin’s name: predestination. Calvin takes the concept to its logical limit in the Institutes, realising that if you believe that God predestines certain people to Heaven, then He must also have predestined certain people to Hell, because He has not chosen them for salvation.

    Calvin’s double-predestination is a huge jump in doctrine. As a concept it is occasionally raised before Calvin introduced it, but it became the underlying theme of Calvin’s work. His Biblical commentaries are riddled with references to it. Most of his sermons refer to it in some way. Of course, Calvin’s preoccupation with predestination is partly because it was the main part of his theology that came under attack. Put simply, people hated it and found it abhorrent. Calvin was forced to defend it so often, he automatically ended up defending it every time he spoke or wrote.

    But Calvin’s predestination stems from an interesting source. He was obviously not raised a protestant, and he gave up a potentially well-heeled life as a scholar and lawyer when he converted. He regarded his conversion as a response to hearing the true gospel preached. What he could not understand was why anybody would fail to respond to that gospel. Who could resist the gracious offer of salvation? Which man was strong enough to resist God? Calvin was unable to imagine that anybody could resist the transforming power of the gospel, therefore, he concluded, the decision as to who will respond must rest with God. Faith is therefore a gift (and it is listed as one in 1 Corinthians) and if anyone ‘refuses’ the gospel it must be because God has already decided that they will do so.

    Calvin’s legacy is the whole debate about predestination, but also another major facet of protestant thought. The issue of predestination revolves around the choice made by the individual – salvation thus becomes the salvation of the individual. In Calvin’s scheme, being born in a Christian country, baptised into the Christian community as a baby and attending church are not enough. There has to be an individual response too. This is the root of the modern-day obsession with converting people and getting them to pray the sinner’s prayer or commit their lives to God (or whatever form of words are used). Calvin viewed the church in Geneva as being a mix of the righteous ‘elect’ and damned sinners, ‘wheat and tares’, with a great sort-out to come on Judgment Day. Calvin’s enduring legacy has been the idea of Christians within Christendom and a separation of true believers from Christians in name only – ‘nominal’, cultural churchgoers.

    The Anabaptists and ‘radical reformers’
    The vast majority of modern day ‘protestants’ would find their theology vastly differed from that of Luther or his circle, and even through many churches follow Calvin’s Reformed pattern, this has developed considerably. Many Christians today belong to Christian traditions that have their roots in a loose collection of new movements that flourished during the Reformation. Often this grouping is referred to as the Radical Reformation and it included Anabaptists, ‘Mennonites’ (after an early Anabaptist leader called Menno Simons), groups that would become the Brethren, the Quakers and the like. It also included new sects that revived old heresies, e.g. the Unitarians who denied the divinity of Christ.

    Not all the radicals were motivated by theology; there was a political element as well, bordering on proto-Communism in some cases. The Anabaptists, or ‘re-baptisers’, so-called because they stressed the need for adults to be baptised regardless of whether they had previously been christened, were noted for their ‘enthusiasm’ – a general term covering prophecy and spiritual gifts. Unfortunately, many ‘prophecies’ were about the overthrow of the established political order. In 1534 one such prophecy was enacted upon in Munster, Germany, which was renamed ‘New Zion’ and those who refused to be rebaptised were driven out of the city.

    New Zion enacted communal property laws and introduced Old Testament laws and practices, including polygamy, as they sought to create Heaven on Earth. Similar things happened across Europe, with Anabaptists sometimes forming armed compounds not unlike the situation in Waco, Texas a decade ago. Generally there was a belief in the imminent end of the Godless status quo and an exclusivism bordering on the cultic. Men and women from the radical communities were regarded as subversive threats, for two reasons. Firstly, by not baptising their own children in a culture where everybody was baptised, they were regarded as traitors to the Christian country they lived in. Secondly, the emphasis on communal property was regarded with suspicion by the ruling authorities. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities executed Anabaptists, often through drowning. As ever in the history of Christianity, such martyrdoms generated more interest in the cause and radicalism spread even as it was being driven underground.

    For all its faults, however, the Radical Reformation has had a profound effect on subsequent Christianity, mainly through the introduction of adult baptism. This is now the norm in many protestant churches and even churches that concentrate on infant baptism often make provisions for adult baptism too. The vast majority of radical sects have been reintegrated into the ecumenical community, e.g. the Mennonites. Radical groups formed a key part of the settlement of North America as they left Europe looking for their own land where they would be free to worship without fear of Persecution.

    Henry’s love life and The English Reformation
    In contrast to the Reformation on the continent, the establishment of the English church by Henry VIII under the rule of the King is often regarded as being politically motivated. The bare facts have passed into legend – Henry wanted a son, was unable to have one with his wife Catherine of Aragon and was angry that the Pope refused to annul his marriage. To get his divorce, Henry capitalised on the new independence movements, taking the lead from dissenting voices in his own country to engineer a break with Rome and the establishment of what is still the official Church of England. The role of the monarch in the Anglican Church that was thus established by Henry has recently come back into focus given Prince Charles’ plan to marry Camilla Parker Bowles.

    It would be far too simplistic to regard Henry’s divorce as the sole reason England went independent. For a start, new worlds were literally opening up and there was a sense that now would be a good time for England to break free from the shackles that bound it to Europe. There was also a major move among the churchmen of England towards the reforms happening on the continent. Henry was savvy enough to realise that what was happening on the continent would travel across the English Channel. In many ways the top-down reformation he enacted pre-empted the popular moves that caused so much trouble in Northern Europe.

    One of the most notable aspects of Henry’s decision was the dissolution of the monasteries. Even today the ruins of these magnificent church buildings lie scattered across the English and Welsh countryside. There were a number of reasons why Henry moved against the monastic houses. Contrary to popular belief, there was little financial gain for him in most cases, although of course the crown gained quite a bit of land, which could be doled out to keep the local aristocrats loyal. The monasteries belonged to international orders, and, as mentioned above, their first loyalty was to the Pope. Closing the monasteries also ensured that people had to attend the parish churches – it meant that there was no choice in the matter.

    In general, while the liturgy of the church now took place in English rather than Latin, the Anglican church kept much of the old traditions and practices of the Roman church, including infant baptism. Later, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the 39 Articles became the standard of orthodoxy for Anglican priests. The 39 Articles were generally Reformed (i.e. Calvinist) in doctrine and asserted many classic statements including justification by faith. They also deliberately discounted many doctrines that were considered the most papist, for example purgatory. The Anglican church is a very interesting church, because right from the beginning it tried to find a middle ground, so that those who were more traditional in outlook could still accept the new church, while those pushing for reformation theology were also kept happy.

    Not everybody was happy with the mix of old and new and within a few hundred years non-Conformist churches, puritans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers and the like had established networks of independent chapels. These groups were often excluded from holding high office or taking certain jobs and many non-conformist families (i.e. they did not conform to the normative state church) were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, mainly because, despite being highly intelligent men, they were forbidden from teaching or working in the civil service.

    The New World
    The Reformation in Europe coincided with the first outbreak of European Imperialism. Generally the ‘Catholic’ countries who still looked to the Pope began to conquer what is now called Latin America. Led principally by Spanish expansionism, the Roman Church’s missionary orders like the Jesuits began converting (sometimes forceably) local populations. This continued for a couple of centuries, even as far North as California – many of the principal cities were founded as ‘missions’ named after saints (which is why they all start ‘San’). These missions were a base for priests and missionaries and also military units designed to protect the newly-claimed territory.

    In contrast, Northern Europeans generally settled in North America. Jamestown and Charleston were named after English Kings and many principle port-towns were named after places in the home country: Plymouth Rock where the Mayflower landed, New York (formally New Amsterdam) and Boston. Many groups fleeing persecution in Europe made their way to the New World, often hoping to establish a new way of life based on their true understanding of Christianity. One notable example is the state of Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers who had been driven out of Britain.

    The dawn of the modern era
    The Reformation was not just a Christian theological movement, it had profound political and social effects. Theology justified the Puritan war against the monarch during the English Civil War. Breaks with Rome saw the fracturing of the Holy Roman Empire into hundreds of smaller states. There were reforms in what was left of the Roman Church as well through the Council of Trent, but the divisions between ‘Roman Catholics’ and Protestants had become too entrenched for any reconciliation.

    But the Reformation also ushered in the Modern era, as defined now by societal scholars. The printing press was the invention that revolutionised the spread of ideas, not just theological tracts, but scientific discoveries too. The age-old acquiescence to the Pope was gone, leaving many new-thinking individuals free to explore avenues of scientific enquiry. The authority of the church had been questioned and in many places absolute authority now rested with human government. The divine right of Kings was criticised, most notably in Britain and France where regicide was the eventual outcome. [Republicanism didn’t stick in Britain.]

    The Reformation saw the dawn of modern European Imperialism – the beginning of the age of conquest. At the same time within Christianity and mirrored outside was a growth in individualism – it was the individual who was saved and it became the right and duty of individuals to interpret Scripture themselves.

    All the hallmarks of modernity – including conquest, scientific enquiry, technological answers and development, and individualism are found in proto-form in the Reformation. What began with Martin Luther questioning papal fund-raising through the sale of indulgences continues to have ramifications for Christians today as the culture we live in has been shaped by the movement started by the monk from Wittenberg.

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