Jan 10, 2014

The Reformation: A History

The result has been a remarkable exercise in honest thinking. In the words of the great Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung: "modern biblical criticism.....belongs among the great intellectual achievements of the human race. Has any of the great world religions outside the Jewish-Christian tradition ever investigated its own foundations and its own history so thoroughly and so impartially?"
Diarmaid MacCulloch, page 704
On Wednesday night, 10 or 12 members of the History Book Club had a vigorous discussion of The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch. On a winter evening, unusually cold for our region, we were warm and snug in the Kensington Row Bookshop. MacCulloch produced an award winning book; he is a professor of the history of the church at Oxford University.

The discussion was unusual for us in that several of the members had been able to read only part of the book before the meeting. The book, with over 700 pages of text, was unusually long for our group, and was originally planned to be read over a two month period. (In November, however, we decided to discuss the founding documents of the United States at a special December meeting -- see the summary of the meeting.)

Before this January meeting, four short online lessons from the Khan Academy were identified that would provide a basis for the discussion. They are on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and are easy listening:
Also circulated before the meeting was a recent report on the regional distribution of Christians in the world.

The Opening Discussion

The discussion began with one member commenting that, while she had only read a couple of hundred pages, she found the book very well written. Another commented that the author had too often told more than we needed to know, apparently showing off the massive knowledge he had accumulated on the subject. A third chipped in that he felt the book had really required some tables to provide a visual aid to the reader to organize the flood of information on differing theological positions and their proponents. Finally a fourth member suggested that he found the book very good indeed, summarizing a vast amount of information in a clear manner.

Following the discussion, an email was sent identifying this useful website:
Christian Denomination Comparison Charts
With the comment:
I was struck by how many ways the churches are similar. The Apostles and Nicene Creeds are widely shared. The major Christian churches use very similar versions of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, rejecting most of the same Biblical apocrypha. They have religious services led by priests or ministers, on very similar schedules, and many use books of common prayers much like the missal of the Catholic Church. 
What Was the Situation of the Catholic Church in 1500?

Author MacCulloch provides an appendix with the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, the Lords Prayer, the ten Commandments, and the Hail Mary. A member criticized these as not conforming to those she was familiar with from her church. Another suggested that these are held commonly among the Roman Catholic and the major Protestant denominations, having been originally in Latin or Greek, then translated into German or French according to denomination, and then into English, and as a result the version by MacCulloch might differ in specific wording from that used in a specific church.

More fundamentally, the member wished that the book had provided a clear statement of the theology used throughout the Roman Catholic Church before Martin Luther began his effort to reform the church. Another member (citing MacCulloch's book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, which he had also read) suggested that there were many poorly prepared priests, and that the church was spread over a very large geographical area without a strong church effort to assure theological consistency. Under those circumstances, it would be impossible for the author to provide an accurate description of the theology of the church in 1500.

The Book Is Intellectual History

MacCulloch focuses much of the book on the theological debates during the 16th and 17th centuries, and to a lesser extent on the humanists that preceded the Reformation. A member noted that she learned for the first time of the advances made by theologians of the Western or Roman Catholic Church in the centuries before the Reformation.

The History Book Club has focused primarily on the history of nations. Members are interested in political and economic institutions. These clearly had an important role in the Reformation, but seemed to be of secondary concern in MacCulloch's book. For some, that was a deficiency in the book. They might have preferred a less detailed account of the theology and theologians, and an account that explained more of the political and economic causes implicated in the Reformation.

We noted that one of the slogans of the time came to be, "My realm, my religion." Kings and queens, the Holy Roman Emperor and Electors, princes and other nobles had their own reasons for supporting or opposing the reformation, and one assumes that they were not always theological in nature. The support of political officials for Luther in Germany, for Zwingli in Zurich, for Calvin in Geneva, and for the communities that grew around them were important for the survival and success of the Reformation.

The pope was himself sire of the Papal states, and popes had been engaged in power struggles with emperors for many years. By the 16th century, the church was facing the emergence of modern nation states in France, England, Scotland and Spain. On the other hand, Germany and Italy were not unified as modern nation states until much later. Poland/Lithuania had its own complex history.

There were tensions over the role of the church and the state in the appointment of bishops and cardinals, and longstanding tensions over the rights of secular and religious authorities to adjudicate different issues.

"If someone says its not about money, its about money." The church had a great deal of wealth in 1500 and was accumulating more rapidly. The huge expense over the building of St. Peters and Rome, the simony of high church officials, and the huge expenses for the installations of the papacy in Avignon were only the most visible signs of that rapid accumulation. We assumed that some of the secular powers saw the opportunity provided by the Reformation to obtain some of that wealth.

Motivations were not constant for the entire period of the 16th and 17th centuries. The concerns of people also changed over that long period of time, as indeed did the principal players in the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

The invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century, together with the insistence of the reformers on people learning to read, led to an increasing distribution of bibles, books and pamphlets, notably in the vernacular. People of all ranks would over the centuries have become much more aware of and concerned with the theological issues, including the common people. (Moreover, there was much more of an effort to teach people from the new catechisms and to preach the theology from the pulpit.)

The Theological Debate

MacCulloch traces the roots of Reformation theology to a rejection of many practices of the Catholic Church, especially those of the 15th century. Luther in his 95 theses focused on the sale of indulgences. The huge flow of pilgrims to sites holding putative relics of saints and the cross -- with the pilgrimages fueled by the Church's promise of forgiveness of the sins of pilgrims -- was also of concern. Rich people endowed monasteries and churches to say perpetual masses, with the Church holding that the masses said for their souls would reduce their time in purgatory. Reformation theologians felt that these could not be legitimate ways to assure salvation. If the Church had gone wrong on such serious matters, then the Reformation theologians concluded that, as currently led and operated, the Church could not be taken as a reliable source for authoritative theological knowledge.

Of course, professional theologians were concerned with truth in theology. However, the issues were not merely academic. People were extremely concerned with achieving an eternity in heaven and avoiding an eternity in hell, probably on average, much more so than today. (MacCulloch points out that the Catholic Church had for many years emphasized that the church was the way to reduce time spent in Purgatory and achieve salvation of the soul.)

The general approach of the theologians of the Reformation to finding the truth in religion, Christians as they were,  was then to seek to learn from the bible and from the early church leaders who had the closest connection with Jesus Christ, the source for truth in theology in their judgement, Thus, using the tools of the humanists, they went back to the sources of Christianity.

They were concerned with key issues. For example, the nature of Christ and specifically the nature of the Trinity. Could Christ be worshiped as true god, or would that somehow violate the first commandment. Sacraments such as baptism and communion had firm biblical bases, but were they properly understood? If not, would the performance possibly be sacrilegious? There was biblical support for the ministry of the apostles, but how should priests and ministers be selected in their time?

We briefly discussed the theological debate about predestination versus the role of good works. would those who tried to avoid sin and do good works go to heaven, or was the ultimate fate of each individual predestined, determined only by the grace of God. We wound up in laughter on facing the difficulty of modern folk in appreciating the importance and intricacies of such a debate in the 16th century.

It turned out that the most eminent of the Reformation theologians -- Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc. -- sometimes (often) came to different conclusion about some such issues. Thus the Reformation leaders also had conclaves to negotiate formulas seeking theological positions that the various Protestant groups could all or in majority accept. These were not always successful in doing so, and thus there was a proliferation of Protestant churches.

The Changing Intellectual Climate of the Time

We noted that this was also the time of the scientific awakening. (Copernicus published his book saying that the earth revolved around the sun in 1543; Galileo was condemned in 1635). Were scientific knowledge to successfully contradict statements in the bible, then the authority of the bible -- on which so much depended -- would be compromised in the view of the theologians of the time.

We noted that Galileo's heliocentric model of the solar system was more fundamentally correct than that of the church's belief that the earth was the center. We also thought that the failure of Galileo to fully understand the orbital mechanics may have led to inaccuracies in his predictions of the locations of the planets in the sky; thus the church officials may have had some justification in saying that if his theory did not result in predictions that corresponded to measurements, then the theory was suspect. It would await Newton's theory of gravity to more accurately map planetary motion. (We were not aware of this very nice discussion of the Galileo Affair during our discussion on Wednesday.) (Following the discussion, a member shared this reference: "The Case against Copernicus" by Dennis Danielson and Christopher H. Graney in the January 2014 Scientific American magazine.)

We briefly noted that modern science gives an understanding of many phenomena that is very different than that of the people writing at the time of Christ or the people of the time of the Reformation. As a result, terms in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds would seem to have quite different meanings today than they would have had in the distant past.

Why Did the Reformation Happen?

It was suggested that in an earlier time, Luther might simply have been killed quickly as a heretic after he posted his 95 theses. Why did his action -- at the particular time and place that it occurred -- trigger so broad a response?

There have been 21 ecumenical councils in the history of the Catholic Church, including the Council of Trent in the 16th century.  Each of them was occasioned by some issue on which a decision was needed by the church to resolve a dispute or to reconcile some competing points of view. In some of the Councils, negotiation succeeded and compromise reached. In the time of Constantine and Justinian, the Roman Empire accepted a specific creed; the might of the empire was then used to persecute as heretical any Christian groups that refused to accept the Council's decisions. Councils failed to heal the division between the eastern Orthodox Church and the western Roman Church, leading to permanent schism in the 11th century. The Council of Trent, in the middle of the 16th century, essentially formalized the schism between Protestant and Catholic Churches.

As had happened 500 years before, in the 16th century many Christians thought that the world would soon end; many of them believed that communities "polluted" by the wrong religion would be condemned with all their people to hell at the end of days. A member of the Club cited MacCulloch's belief that the dramatic Muslim incursion into Europe also led people to increased fear of the end of the world and increased demand for Christian theological purity. Thus it would seem that it was the complex pattern of current beliefs and problems, theological differences, power politics, and economic concerns that institutionalized the split between Catholics and Protestants.

The Violence

While perhaps compared with the genocides of the 20th century or modern industrialized violence, the Reformation was not so violent, it was still marked by religious wars and even by neighbor killing neighbor in the name of religion. To the people of the time in Europe, their time seemed very violent. That people would kill each other over what seem like fine points of theological dispute seemed inexplicable to members of the book club.

We noted, however, that there are recent examples of equally hard to understand violence: Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, the various factions after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Rwanda's genocide, the Violencia between Blancos and Colorados in Colombia, and the fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. We even mentioned the violence between loyalists and neighboring revolutionaries in the American revolution. We concluded that there are many hidden grudges among neighbors that can erupt in violence in the wrong circumstances -- especially if there were authorities promoting violence.

In the Reformation, fear of Islam and millennial fears were implicated as causes of the violence. We noted that there was a great concern for pollution. In neighborhoods dominated by members of one religion, members of the majority would fear that members of another religion in the neighbor would pollute the entire neighborhood, condemning all to damnation. What we now would call "ethnic cleansing" could follow. That has been described as happening in Paris during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.


Many of the reforms promulgated in the Protestant religions have also been adopted by the Catholic Church. Indulgences are no longer sold. Simony seems to be gone. The mass is now said in local languages rather than Latin. The bible is also available in Catholic editions in local languages and read by the laity. Music associated with the mass is now much more like the hymns in some of the Protestant churches. The possibility of allowing priests to marry is still under discussion. On the other hand, papal infallibility was proclaimed a matter of doctrine in the 19th century.

One of the members read the section from the modern Catholic catechism reflecting the decision in the Vatican Council in the 1950s on the primacy of following one's conscience. The recognition of the importance of conscience was an important change in Catholic theology. That reading, however, pointed out that the conscience should be informed of the true virtue and sinfulness of the alternatives, and that there are many dangers of accepting a sinful choice by an uninformed conscience.

Some of the conditions that were present during the 16th century and the Reformation appear to be present again today. We noted that there are again people who believe the world will end near the year 2000; Secretary of the Interior James Watt of the Reagan Administration is believed to have been one, and that his conduct in office is thought by some to have been affected by that belief.  Christian fundamentalism grew significantly in the 20th century, and there are still more recent evangelical and spiritualist movements; there are many new congregations that are not affiliated with either the Catholic nor with Protestant churches born in the Reformation.

The Great Geographic Divide

We briefly wondered why when the Reformation and Counter Reformation had run their course, the Catholic Church dominated southern Europe and the Protestant churches north western Europe. We suggested that the wealth flooding into Spain and Portugal from their colonies in the Western Hemisphere may have helped the Catholic Church retain its influence in those countries. We also suggested that greater integration of the Catholic Church and the secular powers in the south, or the role of the Dominican and Jesuit Orders which were strong there may have been important. (Of course, it may have simply been that the cultures were different -- that the areas of Europe that spoke Romance languages were more willing to remain with the Roman Catholic Church, while the Anglo, Germanic and Scandinavian peoples who had not been as closely linked to Rome were culturally more disposed to the new Protestant religions.)

The division extended in the centuries since the Reformation, as the Catholic Church still has large numbers of members in large parts of the world colonized successfully by Spain, Portugal, and France, while the Protestant churches are strong in parts of North America, Australia, New Zealand and sub-Saharan Africa colonized by the Protestant peoples.