REFORMATION . [This entry discusses the sixteenth-century movement within Western Christendom that led to the emergence of the several Protestant churches.]
The term reformatio (from the Latin reformare, "to renew") was employed in the Middle Ages to denote attempts to reform church and society; the use of the term Reformation in the sixteenth century indicates a sense of continuity with earlier efforts. While the term expressed the notion of turning the church from alleged worldliness and lack of proper theological emphasis, it did not, either conceptually or pragmatically, entail the notion of separation from the one church.
When it became evident in the sixteenth-century controversy over the proper interpretation of the Christian faith that the Protestant reformers in fact believed the Roman Catholic Church to be in theological error rather than merely to have mistaken emphases, a major step in the direction of separation had been taken. The Catholic Church, in turn, viewed the Reformation movement as rebellion and revolution. The term Protestant, applied to the adherents of the Reformation, stemmed from the "protest" voiced at the Diet of Speyer (1529) by the Lutheran estates against the revocation of the policy of toleration decreed at the Diet of Speyer three years earlier.
Reformation scholarship has tended to be dominated by confessional perspectives. Catholic scholars have viewed the Reformation as a religious and theological aberration and (as regards its historical significance) the cause of modern secularism. Protestant historiography, in turn, has depicted the Reformation as the restoration of authentic Christianity, with different emphases placed, according to the orientation of particular scholars, on the particular branch (Lutheran, Calvinist-Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican) of the Reformation. Protestant Reformation historiography has generally focused on theological foci, stressing the distinctive emphases of the respective Protestant churches.
The traditional view, from the Protestant perspective, has been that in the early sixteenth century, church and society were in a state of crisis. The church was seen as suffering from various moral and theological abuses and the Reformation as a necessary reaction against that state of affairs. Recent research has drawn a different picture, holding that in the early sixteenth century, church and society were essentially stable, although not without problems. Therefore, the explanation for the outbreak of the Reformation is sought elsewhere, namely in a complex interplay of an essentially stable society and powerful new forces.
The foremost political reality of the time, the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," was characterized by uncertainties about its boundaries and the respective roles of the emperor and the territorial rulers. A demand for greater effectiveness in governance had begun to surface in the late fifteenth century, particularly among the territorial rulers. A call for imperial reform was variously voiced and diets (parliamentary assemblies) in 1495 and 1500 went far in reorganizing the formal institutional structures of the empire.
The territories of the empire were in a state of transition in the late fifteenth century. The territorial rulers sought to enhance their own power at the expense of the emperor, while striving for a balance with the nobility in their territories. Because of his need for increased financial resources to support more extensive governmental activities and the flourishing bureaucracies, the emperor had to rely for support on the territorial rulers, who in turn depended on the nobility. The towns, many of which, as free imperial cities, were politically autonomous, presented a similar picture of superficial power relationships. Important centers of commerce and finance were emerging, the political power of which remained restricted. Tensions between the towns and the territories in which they were located were real, since the territories depended on the fiscal resources of the towns but sought to curb their political aspirations.
The Catholic Church stood in the center of society. It had extensive land holdings. It controlled education. It possessed its own legal system. It provided the ethical principles on which society was based and which were meant to guide it. Above all, the church, as the guardian of eternal truth, mediated salvation. There is no doubt that, on the eve of the Reformation, the church possessed a great vitality, especially in Germany, and that it commanded considerable loyalty and devotion. Heresy had virtually disappeared. Ecclesiastical benefactions increased in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Pilgrimages were popular. Preaching positions in churches were established, and the newly invented printing press provided a host of devotional materials for a growing reading public.
Along with these manifestations of vitality, there were also problems. The hierarchy seemed distant and too cumbersome to deal with the spiritual needs of the people. The higher clergy, notably the bishops, were mainly recruited from the nobility and viewed their office as a source of prestige and power. This was particularly true in Germany, where many bishops were political rulers as well as spiritual rulers. The condition of the lower clergy, the parish priests, was often deplorable. Their theological learning was fragmentary and their economic circumstances marginal. Many parishes had absentee priests; as a result, clerical responsibilities were assumed by the less qualified curates.
In this setting many voices pleaded for church reform. The argument was that the church was too worldly, the papacy too far removed, the clergy too greedy, the religion of the people too vulgar. The humanists, notably Erasmus of Rotterdam, were outspoken in their opposition to scholastic theology. They argued that the simple religion of Christ should be restored. They objected to the scholastic concern over trivia, to the vulgar popular preoccupation with such matters as pilgrimages and relics, and to the pomp and worldliness of the hierarchy. The dominant theological influence emanated from Gabriel Biel, whose Ockhamism seemed a balanced treatment of the themes of human effort and divine action. An overall assessment of the theological situation on the eve of the Reformation must stress the presence of harmonious consistency.
The decades before the Reformation brought the growth of "territorial church government." Political authority became increasingly involved in ecclesiastical affairs, while, quite consistently, the role of the church in society—politically, fiscally, and legally—was challenged. In the towns the municipal councils became concerned with responsibility for education, the supervision of morality, and the care of the poor, all of which previously had been the prerogative and function of the church.
When all is said, however, a survey of church and state on the eve of the Reformation fails to reveal extensive symptoms of a profound crisis. Tensions existed but were hardly fundamental, and sundry efforts were being made to alleviate them. Despite criticism and anticlericalism, the call was for change and reform, not for disruption and revolution.
Controversy over Indulgences
The Reformation originated in a controversy over indulgences precipitated by Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses of October 31, 1517. Indulgences, originally remissions of certain ecclesiastical penalties, had by the early sixteenth century come to be understood as offering forgiveness of sins in exchange for certain payments. Luther's misgivings about a singularly vulgar sale of indulgences by the Dominican monk Johann Tetzel found expression in a probing of the theology of indulgences. In a letter to Archbishop Albert of Hohenzollern, Luther pleaded for the discontinuance of the sale. What was meant as an academic and pastoral matter quickly became a public one, however, primarily because Luther sent out several copies of the theses, and the positive response of the recipients helped to propagate them. Moreover, Luther had inadvertently touched upon a politically sensitive matter. By attacking the sale of indulgences, he had infringed upon the fiscal interests of both the papacy and Archbishop Albert.
The subsequent course of events that turned Luther's expression of concern into a public controversy finds its explanation primarily in the astonishing intensity and swiftness of the official reaction: By early 1518 Luther had been cited as a suspected heretic. Undoubtedly, the church still had a vivid memory of the Hussite troubles of the previous century, and its strategy was to squelch the controversy as quickly as possible. The next three years were characterized by dogged pursuit of the official ecclesiastical proceedings against Luther, culminating, in January 1521, in his formal excommunication. After much deliberation and amid unresolved legal uncertainties, a rump diet issued the Edict of Worms in May 1521, whereby Luther was declared a political outlaw.
Events between 1517 and 1521 were dominated not only by the official ecclesiastical proceedings against Luther but also by the concurrent unfolding of his public presence and the increasing echo thereof. Luther's public message was a combination of cautious anticlericalism and a call to a deepened spirituality. This message explains at once the popular response: people responded precisely because they were not called upon to break with the church or to embrace a new theology.
Beginning of the Reformation
At Luther's formal condemnation in 1521 the nature of events changed. With Luther removed from the scene (many thought him dead), the message of reform was spread by an increasing number of comrades-in-arms and supporters. By that time consequences of the new message and its call for reform were beginning to emerge. What would be the practical consequences of Luther's call for a deepened spirituality? If, as Luther had argued, monasticism was unbiblical, what was to be done about the monks and the monasteries? If clerical celibacy was wrong, should priests marry? As these questions were asked and practical answers were offered and implemented, the Reformation in the real sense of the word can be said to have begun.
The Edict of Worms proved but a scrap of paper. Most territorial states plainly ignored it in view of the widespread support for Luther, the dubious legality of the edict, and the rulers' concerns for their legal prerogatives. In the Imperial Council, which exercised the emperor's function during his absence from Germany for the remainder of the decade, the debates about the execution of the edict were lengthy and inconclusive. Nor did diets meeting in Nuremberg in 1523 and 1524 have any greater success, other than issuing plaintive pleas for the convening of a general or at least a German council.
The message that evoked such widespread support is evident in the multitude of pamphlets published between 1517 and 1525. Their themes were simple. They were concerned more with personal piety than with theological propositions. Their message was that of a religion of substance rather than form, of inner integrity rather than outward conformity, of freedom rather than rules. It was also a message of utter dependence on God's grace. At the same time, certain key slogans made their appearance: "human traditions," "works righteousness," "the pure word of God," and, once the battle lines were drawn, the fateful declaration that the papacy was the seat of the antichrist.
The impact of the reformers was so strong because they deliberately took their arguments to the people whom they knew to be interested in the issues discussed. Abandoning Latin as the language of religious discourse, the reformers used the vernacular in their writings and preferred the brief tract, the pamphlet, to the weighty tome. The genres used for disseminating the message of the Reformation were extensive and varied—straightforward expositions, satires, dialogues, plays, even cartoons. The quantitative output was enormous. Within the first decade of the controversy, over a million copies of Reformation tracts were disseminated in Germany, with its population of roughly ten million. Many tracts were reprinted more than fifteen times.
At this point in its development, the movement was diverse and imprecise in its theological focus. The common denominator was the vague notion of the need for change and reform. Everything else was up in the air, so to speak; the only certainty was that Luther clearly occupied a position of central eminence. The issues propounded were not merely religious ones; they encompassed a wide variety of social and political concerns that made for an intertwining of religious and nonreligious motifs.
The further course of events brought a variety of issues to the fore that defined and divided the Reformation movement. Luther became engaged in controversy with several fellow reformers—among them Ulrich Zwingli, Andreas Karlstadt, and Thomas Müntzer—who challenged both his perspective and his eminence. The controversy with Zwingli, about the Lord's Supper, dominated the remainder of the decade of the 1520s.
By the end of the 1520s the reform movement had firmly established itself, especially in southern and central Germany, so much so that the Diet of Speyer in 1526 concluded the impossibility of enforcing the Edict of Worms. Accordingly, the diet allowed the territorial rulers for the time being the freedom to proceed with the edict according to the dictates of their consciences and their sense of responsibility to the emperor.
Two themes were dominant in the years between the Diet of Speyer (1526) and the Peace of Augsburg (1555): the expansion of the Reformation and the pursuit of reconciliation (or coexistence) between the two sides. The theme of Protestant expansion found striking expression in the spread throughout Europe and, in Germany, of the acceptance of the Reformation by a majority of the imperial cities. The convergence of societal concerns and religious goals, characteristic of the Reformation as a whole, is clearly discernible in the cities. The cities were centers of economic power and literacy, and in many were manifest a pronounced anticlericalism and a conflict between the church and those who held political power.
Three patterns of ecclesiastical change in the cities emerged. In some, the agitation for change came from the councils, which sought to bring their quest for full control of all areas of municipal life to a consistent conclusion. In others, the Reformation became part of the political conflict between the council, the ruling oligarchy, and the guilds. The attempt to introduce the Reformation paralleled the effort to democratize. In the third pattern, the quest for ecclesiastical change came from a group of intellectuals who forced the city council to embrace the Reformation.
The second Reformation theme between 1526 and 1555, the pursuit of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, had both its political and constitutional aspects. At the Diet of Speyer (1529) the Catholic estates mustered a majority, which insisted on enforcement of the Edict of Worms. But this move had no discernible consequences, and Charles V convened a diet at Augsburg in 1530 to resolve the controversy. The Lutheran estates were invited to submit a confessional statement; the Zurich reformer Zwingli was deemed politically insignificant; the theologically extreme were ignored.
The Lutheran declaration of faith, known as the Augsburg Confession, argued that there was agreement in major matters and that the disagreements pertained only to minor issues, notably the married clergy and episcopal jurisdiction. The issues that had dominated the controversy—the sacraments, authority, and justification—were treated in a broad and most general fashion. This approach of stressing conciliation may have been an astute propaganda move, since there was reason to believe that the Catholics would be rigid. In fact, however, the papacy had also decided on a conciliatory policy, and the eventual failure of the discussions was in part attributable to the failure of each side to understand the other.
At the adjournment of the diet, the Protestants were given six months to rescind their ecclesiastical changes. When the deadline came, however, nothing happened. The emperor, preoccupied militarily with the Turks, was dependent on the support of all the estates, including the Protestants. Moreover, the important Protestant territories had formed the Smalcaldic League to resist any attempt to resolve the religious controversy by force. Accordingly, Charles V had to agree to the Peace of Nuremberg (1532), which afforded the Protestants legal recognition until the convening of a general council.
The 1530s brought continued Protestant expansion in Germany. At the end of the decade new attempts were made to explore the possibility of theological agreement. At the Colloquy of Worms (1539), agreement was reached concerning justification, which had been the main point of controversy between the two sides. In the end, however, disagreement prevailed, and the attempt to resolve the controversy by theological conciliation failed.
Charles V was now determined to use force. Upon concluding peace with France in 1544, he was ready to face the Protestants. War broke out in 1546 and despite a good deal of blundering, Charles emerged successful, winning the decisive Battle of Muhlberg in 1547. The victorious emperor convened a diet at Augsburg in 1548 to impose his religious settlement on the Protestants. The result was the Augsburg Interim, which afforded the Protestants two temporary concessions—use of the communion cup and the married clergy—but left little doubt about the emperor's determination to restore Catholicism fully in the end. At the same time, Charles V sought also, through an ambitious constitutional reform project, to enhance imperial power in Germany. The pairing of these two objectives proved his undoing, for once his political objectives had become clear, his military coalition promptly disintegrated. A conspiracy of territorial rulers, headed by Maurice of Saxony, almost succeeded in imprisoning the emperor.
Charles faced increasingly formidable opposition from the territorial rulers, Protestant and Catholic alike, and he had to acknowledge that Protestantism was firmly entrenched in Germany. The formal recognition of Protestantism could no longer be avoided. Lengthy negotiations conducted by his brother, Ferdinand, culminated in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. While both sides affirmed the ideal of eventual reconciliation, the realities intimated a permanent division. The foremost provision of the peace was "Cuius regio, eius religio," by which territorial rulers were given the freedom to choose Lutheranism or Catholicism as the official religion in their territory. The emerging distribution of political power in Germany provided the framework for the settlement of the controversy. Even as political power shifted from the emperor to the territorial rulers, so was the religious countenance of Germany formed by the territories rather than the empire.
Differentiation of Reformation Views
As the Reformation movement spread, it became evident that the reformers' common opposition to the Catholic church did not entail a common theological position. Differences of views emerged, pertaining both to the timing and to the scope of reform.
The first incidence of differentiation came in 1522, when Andreas Karlstadt, a colleague of Luther's at the University of Wittenberg, publicly disagreed with Luther. Two years later Thomas Müntzer, minister at Allstedt, not far from Wittenberg, published two pamphlets in which he dramatically indicted Luther's notion of reform. He accused Luther of selling out to the political authorities by preaching a "honey-sweet Christ." In the spring of 1525, Müntzer joined the rebellious peasants in central Germany and became their spiritual leader. The pamphlets that issued from his pen were vitriolic and categorical: the true church would be realized only through suffering and by a resolute opposition to the godless rulers.
While the most famous of the peasant programs, the Twelve Articles, astutely linked peasant aspirations with the Lutheran proclamation, the connection between the reform movement and the peasants was tenuous at best. It must remain doubtful whether, given their illiteracy, the peasants were extensively touched by the Reformation. But Luther felt sufficiently implicated to publish two pamphlets against the peasants in which he expressed sympathy for their plight yet categorically declared that the gospel did not provide the justification for its amelioration and that rebellion was against the gospel. These tracts heralded a fundamental divorce of the Reformation from a major social issue of the time.
The major division within the ranks of the reformers is associated with the Swiss reformer Huldrych (Ulrich) Zwingli, of Zurich. Unlike Luther, whose theological development occurred in the setting of monastery and university, Zwingli matured as a parish priest and as a theologian greatly influenced by Erasmus. In 1522, he publicly defended eating meat during the Lenten fast and in so doing precipitated a lively controversy about the propriety of the prescribed ecclesiastical practices. The Zurich city council ordered a disputation to resolve the contested issues. It took place in January 1523 and resulted in the public declaration of support for Zwingli by the council, a declaration that had the noteworthy underlying assumption that a community could itself determine the faith, regardless of established ecclesiastical authority. A new norm of religious authority was evident here.
A second disputation, in October 1523, dealt with the issues of the use of images in churches and the interpretation of the Mass. Agreement was quickly reached that both were unbiblical, but opinion differed as to the most propitious time for their abolition. From the ranks of some of Zwingli's followers came the same kind of impatience with the course of ecclesiastical change that Luther had witnessed in Wittenberg in 1522. Eventually some of these followers broke openly with Zwingli; thus was launched the Anabaptist movement.
The specific issue that was to divide the Reformation was the interpretation of the Lord's Supper. Luther, while rejecting the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, affirmed the real presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine, while Zwingli affirmed a spiritual presence. The controversy between the two men erupted in 1525 and continued, with increasing vehemence, for years to come. By 1529 political overtones to the theological disagreement had surfaced. Since military action against the Protestants was a possibility, the internal disagreement weakened the Protestant position. It became clear that the future of the Reformation lay in political strength. Landgrave Philipp of Hesse, the driving force behind such notions, arranged for a colloquy between Luther and Zwingli at Marburg in October 1529. Luther was a reluctant participant, not only because he had little empathy for Zwingli's theology but also because he reflected a different political perspective. Any rapprochement with Zwingli, who was seen as both anti-Habsburg and a theological radical, would make conciliation with the Habsburg emperor Charles V more difficult.
The Marburg colloquy, therefore, manifested both political and theological issues. No agreement was reached in the lengthy discussions, even though the document signed by those present skillfully buried the disagreement concerning communion in an inconspicuous sentence. The Reformation movement remained divided. Zwingli's influence was strong in Zurich, Switzerland, and even southwestern Germany even though the second of two military engagements between Swiss Catholics and Protestants in 1529 and 1531 ended with Protestant defeat and the curtailment of further Protestant expansion. Zwingli himself died on the battlefield of Kappel in 1531.
A second major division within the ranks of the Reformation pertained to a heterogeneous group whom contemporaries called "Anabaptists." This term, derived from a Greek word meaning "rebaptizer," indicated the Anabaptists' most prominent assertion: that baptism should be performed in adulthood as the outgrowth of an individual's decision. More important was the Anabaptist conviction, which echoed Thomas Müntzer, that the major reformers had been neither serious nor comprehensive in their effort to restore biblical Christianity. The Anabaptists thus placed great emphasis on the personal commitment to follow Christ (exemplified by the desire to be baptized), viewed the church as a voluntary group of believers, and held for complete aloofness from the political structures.
Anabaptism originated formally in Zurich among young humanist associates of Zwingli who, influenced by Müntzer and Karlstadt, were disenchanted with the slow progress of reform. Their attempt to impose their own vision of speedier and more comprehensive reform on the course of events proved unsuccessful. They broke with Zwingli, administered believer's baptism early in 1525, and found themselves promptly persecuted, since the authorities were unwilling to tolerate diverse forms of religion in their midst. Impatience and dissatisfaction with the course of ecclesiastical change were widespread in the mid-1520s, so that it is not possible to speak of a single point of origin for Anabaptism. Events were moving too slowly for many, and the theological atmosphere at the time was so diverse as to suggest a multiplicity of mentors and sources.
The Anabaptist movement expanded throughout Austria and Germany, chiefly through itinerant lay preachers. Small congregations developed as a result of their preaching. Both ecclesiastical and secular authorities declared the Anabaptists to be revolutionaries and pursued a harsh policy of persecution. This caused Anabaptism to become an underground movement. Its literature was sparse, since it had to be clandestinely printed and disseminated. It had no trained clergy. Despite such handicaps Anabaptism enjoyed a widespread, if modest, expansion.
The catastrophe of Anabaptism at the northwestern German town of Münster, in the early 1530s, proved to be a turning point in the history of the movement. The coming of the Reformation to Münster had prompted the town's leading minister, Bernd Rothmann, to embrace Lutheran notions and successfully secure the appointment of other reform-minded Lutheran clergy. Elections to the city council in 1533 resulted in a Lutheran majority. Subsequently, Rothmann came under Anabaptist influence, and Münster underwent a second Reformation in embracing Anabaptism. Early in 1534 representatives of the Dutch Anabaptist leader Melchior Hofmann arrived to administer adult baptism. Euphoria set in, since Hofmann had earlier prophesied that the imminent end would be preceded by the victory of the elect over the godless. The events at Münster seemed to vindicate his prophecy of the glorious things to come.
Extensive changes occurred in the city. In 1534 Jan van Leyden, who had assumed leadership, declared himself king of the New Jerusalem. Communism and polygamy were introduced, both measures forced upon the Münster Anabaptists as much by external pressures as by biblical reflection; these changes prompted Catholic and Protestant authorities to lay siege to the city. Food and other supplies were at a premium, and women vastly outnumbered men.
After Münster was captured in the spring of 1535, and this New Jerusalem came to its end, the consequences for Anabaptists proved catastrophic. The authorities concluded that their fears had been vindicated: religious dissent had indeed, as they had predicted, escalated into political revolution. The persecution of Anabaptists intensified, and their very credibility suffered disastrously.
In northern Germany and Holland, Anabaptism was significantly aided by the leadership of a former Dutch priest, Menno Simons. With sensitive theological reflection and organizational skill, he succeeded in directing the perplexed Anabaptists to the ideal of a quiet, otherworldly Christianity that removed itself from any involvement in the political structures of society and acknowledged that existing authorities could not be replaced. While the themes of nonviolence and withdrawal from society had been voiced by earlier Anabaptist leaders, Simons emphasized them as hallmarks of Anabaptism. The Netherlands became, with Switzerland, the center of the movement.
Although some of the intellectual roots of Antitrinitarianism can be traced to the late Middle Ages, the catalytic influence of the Reformation was paramount in the movement. The atmosphere of challenge of established opinion and the stress on the Bible as sole authority seemed to call for the repudiation of the doctrine of the Trinity. A most dramatic event, in the early 1530s, was the publication of two staunchly antitrinitarian tracts by a Spanish lay theologian and physician, Michael Servetus. Servetus's later Restitution of 1553 offered a detailed critique of traditional dogma. However, it was not until the second half of the sixteenth century that a new ecclesiastical tradition embracing such notions emerged, notably in Poland. In an atmosphere of toleration, a part of the Calvinist church in Poland became antitrinitarian, greatly influenced by the Italian reformers Laelius and Fausto Sozzini.
An urbane French lawyer and humanist by background, John Calvin was the embodiment of both the differentiation of Reformation views and of its European dimension. Calvin had left his native country for Switzerland to arrange for the publication of his brief summary statement of Reformation theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Passing by chance through Geneva in 1536, the twenty-seven-year-old scholar was pressured into staying to take part in the reform there. His first attempt to implement reform led to conflict with the city authorities and to his expulsion in 1538. Three years later, however, he was invited to return and he remained there until his death in 1564.
Institutes of the Christian Religion, an originally slender volume that was many times revised and enlarged, stands as the monumental systematic delineation of reformed religion. Its basic motif, echoed in many variations, is the majesty of God, from which humanity's eternal destiny—predestination to salvation or to damnation—is reasoned. While Calvin always wished to emphasize God's majesty as the overarching theme of biblical religion, the concept of predestination emerged as the characteristic feature of Calvin's thought.
Calvin's notion of election to salvation made the elect the warriors for God. At the same time, Calvin consciously sought to implement the societal implications of the Christian religion. Following notions of Zwingli and the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer, he undertook to reform not merely the church but all of society. Thus Geneva, Calvin's seat of action, was to become the most famous of the towns of the Reformation.
Calvin's instrument of reform was the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541, a comprehensive summary of the structure of the church and its place in society. The most important administrative institution in Geneva (and wherever Calvin's version of the Reformation gained a foothold) was the consistory, a body composed of both clergy and laity whose task was to supervise the maintenance of true faith and pure morals. Thus, it was not an ecclesiastical (or clerical) body, turning Geneva into an ecclesiastical tyranny. The political authorities participated fully in it in pursuit of an orderly and moral community.
Calvin's determination to implement his vision of God's law brought him into conflict with influential Genevans. There were several serious confrontations, and matters remained at an uneasy stalemate until 1553, when the trial of Michael Servetus forced the issue. Calvin, who despised Servetus for his heretical views, regarded his appearance in Geneva as part of a larger plot to undo Calvinist reforms in the city. Servetus's condemnation and execution consolidated Calvin's role. Elsewhere in Europe, notably in Poland, the Low Countries, Scotland, and especially France, Calvinism emerged as the major form of the Reformation. Lutheranism at the time was rife with internal theological controversy, leaving to Calvin and his followers the role of the dynamic force of the Reformation in the second half of the sixteenth century.
European Dimension of the Reformation
In light of the European dimension of the Reformation the question has been asked whether to view this dimension as the result of the transmission of ideas from Germany or as the emergence of simultaneous reform movements in a number of European countries. There has been support for both views, although there seems little doubt that the Lutheran controversy in Germany affected theologians and laity throughout Europe. Travelers and the printed word carried forth the message from Germany. To this German influence the native reformers added their own emphases.
The European theological themes were also uniform; they were determined by a common opposition to Roman Catholicism and a common stance concerning the authority of scripture. Moreover, the essential course of development of the Reformation in Europe hardly differed from one country to another, in that theological discussion was always accompanied by a quest for legal recognition. In each country the period of the Reformation ended with a legal pronouncement: in France with the Edict of Nantes (1598); in Poland with the Confederation of Warsaw (1573); and in Scotland with an act of Parliament (1560).
The spread of the Reformation movement was uniformly related to local political issues and to the concomitant ability of the Protestants to demonstrate that their religion could have relevance for these issues. The success of the Reformation hinged on its ability to convert king or nobility, whichever was crucial in the struggle. As events turned out, in England, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Scotland, the Protestants were on the winning side.
At the time the Reformation movement broke out in Germany, reform notions were already strong in France. Although Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples had anticipated some of Luther's notions and had translated the New Testament into French, one may see the first phase of the Reformation in France as the dissemination of Lutheran ideas and pamphlets. The official reaction was that of suppression. While Francis I was himself a humanist by disposition, political prudence led him to take a Catholic and papal course. The placard affair of 1534, in which a Protestant poster was affixed to the door of the king's bedroom, symbolized Protestant strength in the country. Francis responded with persecution and a stern censorship of books. His successor, Henry II, continued this policy, which found embodiment in the Edict of Chateaubriand (1551).
Henry's unexpected death in 1559 precipitated a constitutional crisis over the exercise of regency during the minority of the new king, Francis II. Cardinal Guise summarily assumed the regency, but his move was opposed by the prestigious Bourbon family, which argued for a council of regency. The constitutional issue had religious overtones, since the Guises were staunch Catholics, while the Bourbons had Protestant leanings. To side with the Bourbons seemed to promise toleration for the Protestants. The constitutional uncertainty prompted the question whether royal authority was being properly exercised. This crisis saw the emergence of the issue of political resistance among French Protestants. Calvin's doctrine of the right of resistance to rulers who did not fulfill their duty served as sanction for the contention that the higher nobility had the right to oppose the king when he violated the law.
The Wars of Religion, which began in 1562, sought to resolve the issue of political power in France and saw the French Protestants (Huguenots) combine political concerns with their religious cause. The Edict of Nantes (1598) ended the struggle and brought the French Reformation to an end. It resembled the Peace of Augsburg in that the Protestants failed in their effort to win acceptance of their religion by France. They were recognized legally, however, and were given freedom of worship. In Germany only the territorial rulers possessed freedom of religious choice; in France this freedom was extended to all.
The Reformation in England
In the 1520s England underwent a period of lively agitation against the Roman Catholic Church. Although this agitation was influenced by events on the continent, there were indigenous forces at work as well: anticlericalism, the tradition of the Lollard heresy, and Erasmian humanism. Henry VIII had himself participated in the initial Reformation controversy with a defense of the traditional Catholic teaching on the sacraments, for which Pope Leo X granted him the title "Defender of the Faith." The king's conservative temperament was thus on record.
This atmosphere of religious agitation was complicated by Henry's sudden desire for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (his deceased brother's widow) on the grounds that the marriage violated canon law. Extensive efforts to obtain a favorable papal decision proved unsuccessful, and Henry eventually chose, on the advice of Thomas Cromwell, the parliamentary route to provide legal justification for his intention. In 1533 Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome, which declared England an "empire" whose sovereign could adjudge all spiritual and temporal matters in his realm. This act kept the judicial resolution over Henry's "divorce" in England. The king had broken with the papal church.
The doctrinal statement of the religion imposed by Henry came with the Six Articles of 1539. These articles were Catholic in orientation—as, for example, in espousing transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who was married, had to send his wife abroad. Although the legal situation was restrictive, the actual situation was relatively free. The penalties imposed by the articles were rarely applied, and antipapal propaganda flowed openly. Protestant sentiment, except of the ardent kind, could be easily disseminated. Adamant Catholics were persecuted no less than adamant Protestants. The influence of Erasmian religion made itself felt in England, a religion relatively open, yet essentially Catholic in orientation.
When Henry died in 1547 religious affairs were thus in a precarious balance, neither strongly Protestant nor strongly Catholic. He had intended this state of affairs for his minor son, Edward VI, but the Council of Regency was dominated by men of Protestant sympathies. The official religion of the land veered in the direction of Protestantism. Under the aegis of Archbishop Cranmer, a new order for worship (The Book of Common Prayer) was promulgated in 1549. Drawing on the rich liturgical heritage of the medieval church, this order for worship, with the beauty of its language and its structure of the divine office, proved to be an immensely enriching contribution to English Christendom. The theological tone of the prayer book was conservative in that it espoused a Lutheran view of Communion. A revision of the book, three years later, embraced a Zwinglian view.
Mary, Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon, who succeeded her half brother in 1553, attempted to restore Catholicism, with an increasingly heavy hand and, in the end, with a ruthless persecution of all avowed Protestants. In so doing, she overlooked the fact that England's ties with the Catholic Church had been severed for almost a quarter of a century; what is more important, she failed to understand the danger of creating martyrs. After her reign (1553–1558), John Foxe wrote his Book of Martyrs, a gripping, often melodramatic description of Protestant suffering, torture, and martyrdom. Put into the context of the martyrs of the faith of all times, the book helped make Catholicism impossible in England.
The Elizabethan settlement
With the succession of Mary's half sister, Elizabeth I, in 1558, the English situation changed dramatically. Elizabeth was predisposed to Protestantism and promptly set out to effect a religious settlement in that direction. She wished only for a limited restoration of Protestantism, aiming for the initial reestablishment of royal supremacy and the possibility of further religious change later. But Parliament, convening in 1559, was determined to move in a more Protestant direction. Elizabeth yielded to a settlement that restored religion as it had existed at the end of Edward's reign. An important change, however, made the section on Communion in The Book of Common Prayer less precise. By juxtaposing language of the 1549 and 1552 editions of The Book of Common Prayer with respect to Communion, it was left uncertain if Christ was bodily present in the Communion bread and wine.
In 1563 the Convocation adopted a theological statement for the Church of England. With Thomas Cranmer's Forty-two Articles of 1551 serving as the point of departure, various revisions resulted in the Thirty-nine Articles, a theologically moderate statement.
Before long the settlement of 1559 began to evoke opposition from those for whom it was not sufficiently Protestant. Its critics argued that too many vestiges of Catholicism remained in the English church. They wanted a "pure" church, and before long they came to be called "Puritans." The Puritans were to be a major element in English history until the second half of the seventeenth century. Puritanism underwent significant changes in the course of its lengthy history. Toward the end of the sixteenth century it became increasingly diverse and sectarian, some strands determined to break with the established church. It also became increasingly political.
Until the end of the sixteenth century, England witnessed successive waves of Puritan dissent. Clerical vestments and the episcopal form of church government soon became the subject of controversy. By the 1580s some Puritans had concluded the impossibility of effecting change from within. Robert Browne's A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for Any argued for the establishment of separate congregations because the Church of England was unable to reform. In response, Richard Hooker's monumental Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity stated the case for Anglicanism as the perfect middle way, arguing with an impressive command of the principles of natural law and the early church.
On the continent the Reformation controversies had virtually subsided by the end of the sixteenth century. In England, however, the separatist sentiment came to fruition during that time with the emergence of different groupings, of which several—Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers—were to become ecclesiastical traditions in Anglo-Saxon Christendom.
The Catholic Reaction
The initial reaction of the Catholic church to Luther was astoundingly swift and categorical. Undoubtedly, it was influenced by the apprehension that, if not properly handled, the conflagration would lead to another Hussite debacle. By 1520 the position of the church had been delineated: Luther's understanding of the Christian faith was declared heretical and his notion of reform rejected. It was to be of profound import for subsequent events that despite this condemnation, the Catholic Church possessed neither a comprehensive policy for reform nor a clear perception of how to execute the judgment against Luther or halt the increasing defections. Moreover, the papacy had its own priorities, which were slow to focus on the Lutheran affair and the Protestant Reformation, even though there was no dearth of voices predicting disaster unless a solution was found.
The disadvantages facing the defenders of the Catholic Church were obvious. They had to defend the status quo with all its shortcomings, while the reformers were able to delineate a splendid vision of an ideal church. Many of those who attacked the church did so for other than religious reasons, thus introducing an element of power politics into what purported to be a religious matter. Pope and emperor, whose concerted efforts would have been able to stem the Protestant tide, frequently were at odds with each other, working at cross-purposes, and thereby aiding the Reformation.
The question of whether a general council should be convened was undoubtedly the overriding issue during the first two decades of the Reformation. With striking unanimity Christians throughout Europe saw a council as the panacea not only for the ills of the church but also for those of society. To be sure, notions differed as to what the function of a council should be, and perhaps not much would have been accomplished had a council actually convened. But the negative stance of Pope Clement VII, who feared a resurgence of conciliarism, precluded a council in the early years of the Reformation.
When a council eventually convened at Trent in 1545, it was clear that it could have no other function than to sharpen the true Catholic position on a wide variety of issues. Thus the council, which met intermittently until 1563, possessed significance only for the Catholic Church. Its canons and decrees were consciously anti-Protestant and offered conciliatory views only with respect to issues contested within Catholicism. Thus the council served to revitalize the Catholic Church, formulating the principles and policies that characterized an invigorated Catholicism for the century to come.
The Council of Trent gathered together the sundry strands of renewal within the Catholic Church, some of which had been discernible even before 1517. The revival of monasticism, for example, antedated the Reformation. Renewal continued in the 1520s and 1530s, in many instances not influenced by the Reformation. The foremost expression of this renewal was the work of Ignatius Loyola and the Society of Jesus, which he founded. The manifestation of Catholic renewal became an instrument of reaction against the Reformation, and in one of its central forms, namely, monastic spirituality, it reiterated the traditional vehicle of Catholic reform.
Significance of the Reformation
Perceptions of the significance of the Reformation have differed markedly since the sixteenth century. Generally it is the ecclesiastical persuasion of the observer that has provided the cue for the interpretation.
Protestants saw the Reformation as the restoration of biblical Christianity against a worldly and perverted church. In turn, Catholics saw the Reformation as rebellion against truth and, concomitantly, as a triumph of subjectivism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholics have argued that, because the Reformation repudiated authority, it was a direct forerunner of the French Revolution. Such stereotypes as these have largely disappeared. Catholic scholars have been willing to acknowledge the religious depth and significance of Luther, while Protestants have revised their negative assessment of the pre-Reformation church and are prepared to see greater continuity between the late Middle Ages and the Reformation. Recent scholarship has also made clear that there was great misunderstanding among the protagonists on both sides of the sixteenth-century controversy. The theological differences are nowadays seen to have consisted in divergent notions of authority and salvation: authority of the Bible and the church or of the Bible alone; salvation by works and grace or by grace alone.
Although the divergence between Catholic and Protestant historiography of the Reformation has largely disappeared, the resurgence of the interpretation first delineated by Friedrich Engels has perpetuated the tradition of divergent assessments of the Reformation. Marxist historians view the Reformation and the German Peasants' War collectively as "early bourgeois revolution." In their view the rising class of townspeople engaged in commerce and trade and holding increasing economic power, found itself in conflict with the holders of political power. In opposing this political power, the new class had to reject the ideological undergirding of medieval society, the Catholic Church. Luther was the religious spokesman for economic power and a new, bourgeois mentality.
The foremost consequence of the Reformation was the division of Western Christendom into several churches. The centrality of the Catholic Church was irretrievably destroyed, and the universal church gave way to national churches. While the political authorities precluded the formal recognition of more than one church, the existence of several religious perspectives (bitterly opposing one another) surely diminished the public as well as private significance of religion in Europe. This disintegrated the notion that had characterized medieval society—the oneness of this world and the next. The existence of diverse religious options did not, however, entail a sense of toleration or religious liberty. All parties clung to the notion of objective truth and the impossibility of allowing the public expression of religious error.
The masses, illiterate and living in isolation in rural areas, remained untouched by the controversies of the Reformation. In other words, the sixteenth century is not to be viewed as a time of intense popular preoccupation with religion. Evidence abounds of outright disinterest in religion, despite countless governmental mandates stipulating church attendance or religious instruction. Popular religion was a simple folk religion, little influenced by the sophisticated theological arguments that characterized Reformation controversies.
The role of the political authorities in these religious controversies has already been noted. Throughout Europe the rulers had the last word about the success or failure of the Reformation. They rarely hesitated to exercise that power, at times for religious reasons and at other times for political reasons. In exercising their power, they enhanced their political stature and enlarged the scope of their authority.
Clearly, the role of political authority in religion was more firmly established at the end of the sixteenth century than it had been at the beginning. If the Reformation thus conformed harmoniously with the new self-understanding of the political rulers, it also proved exceptionally congenial to the mentality of a new type of person, very much in evidence in the late fifteenth century—literate, self-confident, and energetic. The Reformation, after all, affirmed the priesthood of all believers, the freedom of the Christian individual, and the sanctity of the common life. The autonomy of the individual was asserted not with respect to transcendental concerns but with respect to the role and place of the church in society.
In such a setting, the Reformation provided a host of stimuli for all areas of life. The notion of vocation declared all jobs to be spiritually meaningful. This sanctity of the common life must not be defined merely by an individual sense of liberation, enabling men and women to go about their daily rounds with confidence, but also by a societal sense, embodied by statute no less than by ethos, that society did not need to be dominated by the church. All facets of life, both individual and societal, became subject to new formulations. Conceptual and practical problems of education, law, commerce, and behavior were approached with eagerness and enthusiasm. The common denominator was the notion of a lay culture, where the laity rather than the clergy played the incisive role. This did not entail the secularization of society: religion continued to be very much in the center of things, if for no other reason than that a divine order was generally agreed to govern all of life. If the genius of the medieval world had been its notion of the oneness of society under the aegis of the church, the Reformation stipulated a oneness that entailed the equality of church and society.
Anabaptism; Anglicanism; Browne, Robert; Bucer, Martin; Calvin, John; Christianity, article on Christianity in Western Europe; Church; Denominationalism; Eucharist; Free Will and Predestination, article on Christian Concepts; Grace; Hooker, Richard; Humanism; Ignatius Loyola; Justification; Luther, Martin; Monasticism, article on Christian Monasticism; Müntzer, Thomas; Papacy; Protestantism; Puritanism; Reform; Revival and Renewal; Sacrament, article on Christian Sacraments; Servetus, Michael; Simons, Menno; Sozzini, Fausto Pavolo; Theology, article on Christian Theology; Trent, Council of; Zwingli, Ulrich.
The best general introductions to the history of the Reformation are G. R. Elton's Reformation Europe, 1517–1559 (New York, 1963); The Reformation, 1520–1559, edited by G. R. Elton, "The New Cambridge Modern History," vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1958); Lewis W. Spitz's The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Saint Louis, 1980); and my The World of the Reformation (New York, 1973). The Literature Survey of the Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (Leipzig and Berlin, 1903–) provides an annual annotated survey of all literature pertaining to the Reformation. Useful also is Bibliography of the Continental Reformation: Materials Available in English, 2d ed., rev. & enl., edited by Roland H. Bainton and Eric W. Gritsch (Hamden, Conn., 1972). A survey of current research emphases is Reformation Europe: A Guide to Research, edited by Steven E. Ozment (St. Louis, 1982).
Blickle, Peter. The Revolution of 1525. Baltimore, 1982.
Brady, Thomas A. Ruling Class, Regime and Reformation at Strasbourg, 1520–1555. Leiden, 1978.
Clasen, Claus-Peter. Anabaptism: A Social History, 1525–1618. Ithaca, N.Y., 1972.
Edwards, Mark U., Jr. Luther's Last Battles. Ithaca, N.Y., 1983.
Elton, G. R. Policy and Police. Cambridge, U.K., 1972.
Goertz, Hans, ed. Profiles of Radical Reformers. Scottdale, Pa., 1982.
Hendrix, Scott H. Luther and the Papacy. Philadelphia, 1981.
Lienhard, Marc, ed. The Origins and Characteristics of Anabaptism. The Hague, 1977.
Lortz, Joseph. The Reformation in Germany. New York, 1968.
Moeller, Bernd. "Piety in Germany around 1500." In The Reformation in Medieval Perspective, edited by Steven E. Ozment, pp. 50–75. Chicago, 1971.
Moeller, Bernd. Imperial Cities and the Reformation. Philadelphia, 1972.
Ozment, Steven E. The Reformation in the Cities. New Haven, Conn., 1975.
Stayer, James M. Anabaptism and the Sword. Lawrence, Kans., 1972.
Walton, Robert C. Zwingli's Theocracy. Toronto, 1967.
Williams, George H. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia, 1962.
Aston, Margaret. England's Iconoclasts. Oxford and New York, 1988.
Greengrass, M. The French Reformation. Oxford and New York, 1987.
Oberman, Heiko. The Dawn of the Reformation. Edinburgh, 1992.
Oberman, Heiko. The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World. New Haven, Conn., 2003.
Olin, John C. Catholic Reform from Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent 1495–1563. New York, 1990.
Olin, John C. The Catholic Reformation from Savanarola to Ignatius Loyola. New York, 2001.
Williams, George H. The Radical Reformation. 3d ed. Kirksville, Mo., 1992.
Hans J. Hillerbrand (1987)
"Reformation." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/reformation
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