A Number of Different “Reformations”

b45e3-unity-away-from-romeThe term “Reformation” is used in a number of senses, and it is helpful to distinguish them. As used in the historical literature, the term “Reformation” generally refers to reform movements in different areas, each of which had different roots:

  • Lutheranism: This is probably the earliest and best known among the Reformation movements; sparked publicly by Martin Luther when he posted his “95 Theses” for discussion at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, this “reformation” spread quickly and even provided cover for the other “reformations”.
  • The Reformed movement: (often referred to as “Calvinism”) Had its origin in Ulrich Zwingli, the near contemporary of Martin Luther, in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1518. Zwingli was a priest who became enamored with the Scriptures, and from 1519 onward, he began preaching regularly from the Scriptures and pointing out discrepancies with Roman Catholic doctrine.
  • The English Reformation: This particular reform movement did have its roots in the political dispute between Henry VIII and “Pope Clement VII” over an annulment; nevertheless, some of the finest (primarily Reformed in their persuasion) theologians came out of the English Reformation.
  • The “Radical Reformation”: Still referred to as “Anabaptism”. Anabaptism literally means “re-baptism.” Oddly, the heirs of this movement are not today’s Baptists, but rather are seen in the Amish and Mennonite movements.
  • The Counter Reformation: There were Reform movements even within Roman Catholicism that worked to correct abuses and defend “traditional” Roman doctrines.

Adapted from Alister McGrath, “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (p. 5). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Throughout this work, McGrath makes the point, then, that what we know now as “The Reformation” was actually a loosely connected set of distinct reforming movements, rather than a single coherent movement with local adaptations.

As the illustration above shows, all of them had one thing in common, and that was, Rome is corrupt, and we need to do something about it. For the four branches of the Protestant Reformation, that meant leaving.

We’ll go into more detail regarding each of these movements.

Posted in A.G. Dickens, Alister McGrath, Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, The Reformation, The Roots of the Reformation | 1 Comment

Alliances of Church and State

As popes in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s became more evil and self-absorbed, their ability to even try to reform the church diminished. Given the corruption in Rome, the Reformers turned to their own civil governments for help:

It is therefore important to notice the manner in which Protestant reformers allied themselves with regional or civic powers in order to effect their program of reform. Luther appealed to the German nobility and Zwingli to the Zurich city council for reform, pointing out the benefits which would accrue to both as a consequence. For reasons we shall explore …, the English Reformation (in which political factors tended to overshadow theological issues, which were generally treated as being of secondary importance) is not typical of the European movement as a whole.

The continental Reformation proceeded by a symbiotic alliance of reformer and state or civic authority, each believing that the resulting Reformation was to their mutual benefit. The reformers were not unduly concerned that they gave added authority to their secular rulers by their theories of the role of the state or the “godly prince”: the important thing was that the secular rulers supported the cause of the Reformation, even if their reasons for doing so might not be entirely straightforward or praiseworthy.

The mainstream reformers were pragmatists, people who were prepared to allow secular rulers their pound of flesh provided the cause of the Reformation was advanced. In much the same way, of course, the opponents of the Refor­mation had little hesitation in calling upon the support of secular authorities which felt that their interests were best served by a maintenance of the religious status quo. No study of the Reformation can overlook its political and social dimensions, as secular authorities in northern Europe saw their chance to seize power from the church, even at the cost of thereby committing themselves to a new religious order.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that certain distinctive religious ideas achieved widespread circulation and influence within western European society in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was about theology, not just social and political change. These theological ideas cannot be ignored or marginalized by anyone concerned with the study of the Reformation.

Alister McGrath, “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (pp. 4-5). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Was this a good move or a bad move? The answer is unclear.

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Reclaiming the “Golden Age” of the Church?

By the year 1500, things were really bad in the church. But there were opportunities to hope:

Many looked back with nostalgia to the simplicity and excitement of the apostolic Christianity of the first century. Could not this Golden Age of the Christian faith be regained, perhaps by pondering anew the New Testament documents? This program of reform was the wistful pipe dream of intellectuals throughout half of Europe.

Yet the Renaissance popes seemed more interested in secular than in spiritual matters, and managed between them to achieve a hitherto unprecedented level of avarice, venality, immorality, and spectacularly unsuccessful power politics.

The words of Gianfresco Pico della Mirandola (not to be confused with his uncle, Giovanni), spoken in March 1517, sum up succinctly the thoughts which preyed on many educated minds at the time:

“If we are to win back the enemy and the apostate to our faith, it is more important to restore fallen morality to its ancient rule of virtue than that we should sweep the Black Sea with our fleet.”

There were others, however, who added another demand to this list of long-overdue reforms – a reformation of Christian doctrine, of theology, of religious ideas. To critical observers such as Martin Luther at Wittenberg and John Calvin at Geneva, the church had lost sight of its intellectual and spiritual heritage. It was time to reclaim the ideas of the Golden Age of the Christian church.

The sad state of the church in the early sixteenth century was simply a symptom of a more radical disease – a deviation from the distinctive ideas of the Christian faith, a loss of intellectual identity, a failure to grasp what Christianity really was. Christianity could not be reformed without an understanding of what Christianity was actually meant to be.

Imagine that “the infallible Church” had forgotten what Christianity actually was. But that is an accurate description of the state of affairs at the time of the Reformation.

For these men, the obvious decline of the late Renaissance church was the latest stage in a gradual process which had been going on since the early Middle Ages – the corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics. The distinctive ideas which thinkers such as Luther and Calvin held to underlie Christian faith and practice had been obscured, if not totally perverted, through a series of developments in the Middle Ages. According to these and other reformers of that age, it was time to reverse these changes, to undo the work of the Middle Ages, in order to return to a purer, fresher version of Christianity which beckoned to them across the centuries.

The reformers echoed the cry of the humanists: “back to the sources” (ad fonts) – back to the Golden Age of the church, in order to reclaim its freshness, purity and vitality in the midst of a period of stagnation and corruption. Contemporary writings unquestionably paint a picture of growing ecclesiastical corruption and inefficiency, indicating how much the late medieval church was in need of reform.

It is necessary, however, to enter a note of caution on the manner in which these sources are to be interpreted. It is quite possible that they document growing levels of expectation within the late medieval church as much as declining levels of performance. The growth of an educated laity – one of the more significant elements in the intellectual history of late medieval Europe – led to increasing criticism of the church on account of the obvious disparity between what the church was and what it might be. The growing level of criticism may well reflect the fact that more people were, through increasing educational opportunities, in a position to criticize the church – rather than any further decline in the ecclesiastical standards of the day. But who could reform the church?

By the first decade of the sixteenth century, a fundamental shift in power within Europe was essentially complete. The power of the pope had diminished as the power of secular European governments had increased. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was established, with power over clergy and religious orders (and eventually also over bishops). Yet this was an instrument of the Spanish state, not the Spanish church. Control of this system of courts rested not with the pope, but with the Spanish king. The Concordat of Bologna (1516) gave the king of France the right to appoint all the senior clergy of the French church, effectively giving him direct control of that church and its finances.

Across Europe, the ability of the pope to impose a reformation upon his church was steadily diminishing. Even if the will to reform had been there in the later Renaissance popes (and there are few indications that it was), their ability to reform the church was gradually slipping away. This diminishment in papal authority did not, however, lead to a decrease in the power of local or national churches, which continued to exercise major influence over nations. It was the ability of the pope to control such local or national power that declined during our period. The German, Swiss, and English reformations illustrate this point well.

Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Kindle Locations 441-479). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

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The state of the church at the time of the Reformation

From Alister McGrath, “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (Kindle Locations 423-440). Wiley. Kindle Edition; pgs 2-3 in the print edition:

By the beginning of the sixteenth century it was obvious that the church in western Europe was in urgent need of reform. The popular cry for “reform in head and members” both summed up the problem and pointed to a possible solution. It seemed to many that the lifeblood of the church had ceased to flow through its veins.

The church legal system was badly in need of overhaul, and ecclesiastical bureaucracy had become notoriously inefficient and corrupt. The morals of the clergy were often lax and a source of scandal to their congregations. Clergy, even at the highest level, were frequently absent from their parishes. In Germany, it is reported that only one parish in 14 had its pastor in residence. The Frenchman Antoine du Prat, archbishop of Sens, turned up for only one service at his cathedral: moreover, his presence and role at this service was somewhat passive, since it was his funeral.

Most higher ecclesiastical posts were secured through dubious means, generally relying upon the family connections or the political or financial status of the candidates rather than their spiritual qualities. Thus Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy secured the appointment of his son to the senior position of bishop of Geneva in 1451; if anyone had misgivings about the fact that the new bishop had never been ordained and was only eight years of age, they were wise enough to keep quiet about them.

Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family (famous for its lethal dinner parties), secured his election to the papacy in 1492 despite having several mistresses and seven children, largely because he bought the papacy outright over the heads of his nearest rivals.

Niccolò Machiavelli put the loose morals of late Renaissance Italy down to the poor example set by the church and its clergy. For many, the cry for reform was a plea for the administrative, moral, and legal reformation of the church: abuses and immorality must be eliminated; the pope must become less preoccupied with worldly affairs; the clergy must be properly educated; and the administration of the church must be simplified and purged of corruption.

For others, the most pressing need concerned the spirituality of the church. There was an urgent need to recapture the vitality and freshness of the Christian faith.

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Tracing the Origins of the Reformation

In his “The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation” (Malden, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, ©1987, 2004), Alister McGrath writes, “the intellectual origins of the Reformation are such that it cannot be thought of as a single coherent movement, whatever consolidation may have arisen through developments in its second phase. The two major streams of the Reformation – Lutheran and Reformed – have quite distinct and independent intellectual provenances” (pg vii, from the Preface).

My hope, over the coming year, will be to try to fulfill the promise of this blog – to discuss the Reformation, from the point of view of the need for Reformation. In the past, when I thought of the history of the church, there were certain “black holes” in my knowledge that I tried to fill. Like many people, I had a kind of skeletal knowledge of church history. But I wasn’t really aware of the details – the people and the ideas and the political currents of those years, that first of all, helped to pile on the powder of that powder keg, and then the unified sparks that set them off.

In reality, the Middle Ages, and particularly the Medieval years, were a period of particular growth and understanding. But in the process, there were also forces of poison and rot. And most importantly, the slow pace of the time in that era enabled these combining forces almost literally to explode at a time when the spark was applied.

McGrath does a very fine job in tracing the history of some of these movements and understandings. So as the Lord provides the means and the time, I’ll walk through some of the things that he outlines, and I’ll be able to bring to bear things that other writers have said in some of those same contexts. In the end, my hope will be to show both the context of and the need for “the Reformation”, at the time that it finally occurred.

It’s no secret that I’m a firm believer that the Reformation needed to occur. Rome, the official Rome of the papacy, in the era of the Middle Ages, and particularly its boastfulness, had grown to immense proportions. It needed to be challenged. It was challenged. It responded like an arrogant teenager.

I’m going to use McGrath’s work as a kind of rough framework for working through some of these “micro-Reformations”, as he works to discuss the beginnings of what he calls the “macro Reformation”.

This book is primarily concerned with one crucial question: how may the religious ideas of the first generation of mainline reformers – especially Luther and Zwingli – be accounted for? What factors – intellectual as well as social – brought them into being? The quest for the intellectual origins of the Reformation involves the detailed analysis of the continuities and discontinuities between two eras in the history of thought, raising questions of fundamental importance for the historian of ideas and the theologian. It is hoped that this book will go some way toward identifying those questions, and providing provisional answers to them (pg viii).

And as I said, I’ll bring other resources to bear, both upon these questions as he describes them and his answers as well. And in the process, I’ll hope to put some meat onto the bones of the skeletal history of the Reformation.

As I write this, we’re approximately one year away from the time when Martin Luther applied the spark that set off the powder keg of the Reformation. It is my hope that this new series will shed light for both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.

Posted in Alister McGrath, John Bugay, Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism, The Reformation, The Roots of the Reformation

The existence of God as an article of reason – Stephen Charnock

The English Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628–1680), in his famous work The Existence and Attributes of God, said the following about God’s existence and the proper objects of reason and faith:

Men that will not listen to Scripture, as having no counterpart of it in their souls, cannot easily deny natural reason, which riseth up on all sides for the justification of this truth [the folly of atheism]. There is a natural as well as a revealed knowledge, and the book of the creatures is legible in declaring the being of a God, as well as the Scriptures are in declaring the nature of a God; there are outward objects in the world, and common principles in the conscience, whence it may be inferred.

For God in regard of his existence is not only the discovery of faith, but of reason. God hath revealed not only his being, but some sparks of his eternal power and godhead in his works, as well as in his word. (Rom. 1:19, 20), “God hath showed it unto them,”—how in his works; by the things that are made, it is a discovery to our reason, as shining in the creatures; and an object of our faith as breaking out upon us in the Scriptures: it is an article of our faith, and an article of our reason. Faith supposeth natural knowledge, as grace supposeth nature. Faith indeed is properly of things above reason, purely depending upon revelation. What can be demonstrated by natural light, is not so properly the object of faith; though in regard of the addition of a certainty by revelation it is so.

The principal objects of faith are those truths above reason (e.g., the Trinity), not the truths discoverable by reason, though faith provides certainty on matters of reason, such as the existence of God. Faith therefore is supplemental for truths discoverable through reason and not the necessary epistemic ground for knowledge of such truths.

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Why Christians Can Support Tighter Immigration Restrictions

My essay on immigration is up at Mere Orthodoxy. I argue that Christians can and in most cases ought to support tight immigration restrictions.

See the essay here.

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