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9-08-2015, 15:30

The early Reformation

Western Christianity in the middle of the fi fteenth century was a powerful political, intellectual, and economic institution, and also a lived experience of rituals, practices, and beliefs. Most people accepted the church’s power, and found religious activities meaningful, but a signifi cant minority were dissatisfi ed with the church as an institution and with common spiritual practices. They complained that absentee bishops, or bishops who held more than one diocese, did not supervise priests very well; that monks and friars were greedy and immoral, wheedling money out of people, maintaining concubines, and living too well; that priests were barely able to read and write in any language, and just mumbled the mass in Latin without understanding what the words meant. Educated reformers such as Erasmus and Lefèvre agreed with these anticlerical criticisms, and also saw many popular religious practices as foolish or misguided. Instead of spending their time on pilgrimages or their money on relics or indulgences, people should help the needy or pray, they asserted. In the late fourteenth century John Wyclif ( c . 1330–84) in England and in the early fi fteenth century Jan Hus ( c . 1372–1415) in Bohemia, both university teachers of theology, added theological issues to these critiques of church structure and practice. Both of them denied papal authority, called for translations of the Bible into the local language, and questioned the accepted interpretation of specifi c practices. Wyclif rejected the idea of transubstantiation – that the bread and the wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ by the words of the priest during the Eucharist – and Hus called indulgences useless. Wyclif ’s followers (called Lollards) were persecuted in the fi fteenth century; some were executed, some recanted, and others met secretly in houses, barns, and fi elds to read and discuss the Bible and other religious texts in English. Historians differ on how widespread Lollard beliefs were by the time that Protestant ideas came to England, for they were intentionally hidden and thus are diffi cult to trace; the Lollard emphasis on biblical literacy certainly created groups of individuals who were open to Protestant views and practices. Jan Hus was tried, condemned, and executed as a heretic at the Council of Constance in 1415 (despite being granted a safeconduct to go there by the emperor), but his followers were successful in defeating the combined armies of the pope and the emperor many times. In the 1430s the emperor fi nally agreed to recognize the Hussite church in Bohemia and Moravia. Wyclif and Hus prefi gure Luther in many ways: all three held positions as university teachers, called for a return to the Bible, condemned the institutional church, popular practices, and theological doctrines, and gradually grew more severe in these condemnations. All three of their movements drew on “imagined political communities” (to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase again) created by language – English, Czech, German – to oppose the supra-national power of the pope, and, in the case of Hus and Luther, to oppose the emperor as well. Luther was the son of a copper miner and mine owner from Saxony in central Germany, who enrolled at the University of Erfurt, intending to study law. In 1505, caught in a thunderstorm, he vowed to St. Anne – by tradition, the mother of the Virgin Mary – to become a monk if his life was spared. Much to his father’s great dismay, he took this vow seriously, joined a monastery of Augustinian friars at Erfurt, and switched his studies from law to theology. He was a very scrupulous monk, and was troubled by fear of damnation, doubts about his own worth, and his own sinfulness. These doubts led him to fast frequently and wear a hair-shirt, but they did not keep him from obtaining a doctorate in theology and accepting a position as professor at the new University of Wittenberg in 1512, where he spent the rest of his life. He followed standard university procedures in lecturing, going verse by verse through a specifi c book of the Bible and giving commentary. In working through the letters of Paul, Luther found the basis of an understanding of essential Christian doctrines different from the one he had been taught. His understanding is often codifi ed as “faith alone, grace alone, Scripture alone” ( sola fi de, sola gratia, sola Scriptura ). For Christians, salvation and justifi cation come through faith, not good works, though true faith leads to love and to the active expression of faith in helping others. Faith is a free gift of God, not the result of human effort. God’s word is revealed only in Scripture, not in the traditions of the church. Luther understood the sacraments as signs of God’s promise of the forgiveness of sins, and regarded baptism and the Eucharist as the only true sacraments. At the same time that Luther was engaged in scholarly refl ections and professorial lecturing, Archbishop Albert of Mainz, who controlled the area in which Wittenberg was located, sought to become the bishop of several other territories as well, for which he needed special dispensation from Pope Leo X. To obtain this he needed money, which he borrowed from the Fuggers, a wealthy German banking family in Augsburg. Pope Leo, a member of the Medici family, was constructing family chapels and tombs (for which he hired Michelangelo) and continuing the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. He authorized a special St. Peter’s indulgence, which promised the living and the dead the remission of church penalties for the payment of a fee, and allowed Albert to keep a portion of the revenue collected in the territories over which he was bishop in order to pay back the Fuggers. Albert hired a friar from the Dominican order, Johann Tetzel, to run the indulgence sale. Tetzel was a very effective salesman, hawking indulgences – printed on the newly developed printing press – in a way that promised full forgiveness for sins or the end of time in purgatory for one’s dearly departed relatives; people traveled for miles to buy them. Luther was disturbed by what seemed to him a combination of the worst of both institutional corruption and misguided popular beliefs. He wrote a letter to Archbishop Albert, laying out his ideas – in a style very typical of a university professor – as ninetyfi ve theses, or scholarly points of argument, against indulgences. Later biographies of Luther reported that he also nailed these theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church on October 31, 1517, the day before All Saints’ Day, when church attendance would be high. Such an act would have been very strange – they were in Latin and written for those learned in theology, not normal church-goers – but it has become a standard part of Luther lore, much like “Here I stand.” Whether the theses were posted or not, they were quickly printed, fi rst in Latin and then in German translation. Luther was ordered to come to Rome, which he was able to avoid because of the political situation in the Holy Roman Empire, but he did engage in formal scholarly debate with a representative of the church, Johann Eck, at Leipzig in 1519. He refused to take back his statements, and continued to develop his reform ideas, publicizing these in a series of pamphlets in which he moved further and further away from Catholic theology. Luther clearly understood the power of the new medium of print, and so authorized the publication of his works, which turned his ideas into a movement. Printers also quickly realized that Luther would sell, so they printed additional unauthorized versions of his more popular works as fast as they could. In his writings, sermons, and university lectures, Luther asserted that both popes and church councils could err, that secular leaders should reform the church if the pope and clerical hierarchy did not, that there was no distinction between clergy and lay people (an idea often described as “the priesthood of believers”), that requiring clergy to be celibate was a fruitless attempt to control a natural human drive, and that marriage brought spiritual advantages so was the ideal state for nearly all human beings. He gathered followers from among the faculty at Wittenberg, most prominently Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), a professor of Latin and Greek, and by the early 1520s from other parts of central Germany as well. His appearance at the Diet of Worms only created an even broader audience for reform ideas, and throughout central Europe other individuals began to preach and publish against the existing doctrines and practices of the church. In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), the priest at Zurich’s major church, developed his own reform ideas at the same time as Luther. He agreed with Luther about the primacy of faith and Scripture, preached against indulgences, the veneration of saints, religious images, clerical celibacy, and the worship of Mary, and began translating the Bible into Swiss German. He advocated a simpler service than Luther did, with no liturgy, church decorations, or music other than the singing of psalms. He and Luther also disagreed vehemently about the meaning of the Eucharist (also called “the Mass,” “Holy Communion,” “the Lord’s Supper,” “the Breaking of Bread,” and “the Sacrament of the Altar”), the central ritual in Christianity based on Jesus’ words to his disciples as he gave them bread and wine at the Last Supper (Matthew 26: 26–8; Mark 14: 22–5; Luke 22: 17–19). No issue was debated as sharply in the Reformation as the Eucharist. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, made dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and reaffi rmed at the Council of Trent, taught that at the moment a priest repeated Christ’s words “this is my body, this is my blood” – these are called the “words of institution” – the substance of the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The outer form of consecrated bread and wine, termed the “accidents,” did not change, but the inner substance, what we might call the essence, was really Christ. This ritual, in which the priest offered up Christ as a visible sacrifi ce, renewing Christ’s sacrifi ce on the cross, could only be done by an ordained priest, giving him a power that no lay authority had. The priest’s central role was emphasized in the ritual itself by the fact that he was the only one to drink the wine. The Eucharist was effective in itself ( ex opere operatum ), not dependent on the moral or spiritual state of the priest or the recipient. Luther rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, but he took the words of institution literally, believing that sin was being forgiven in the Eucharist and that Christ was really present in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. This “real presence” was the result of God’s mystery, however, not the actions of a priest, and faith was absolutely necessary to make the sacrament effective; the Eucharist is a sign of the fellowship of believers with one another and with Christ, what Luther calls Christ’s “testament.” Some Lutherans, such as Philipp Melanchthon, preferred to emphasize the presence of Christ with the bread and wine during the ritual itself, and the Formula of Concord (1577), trying to accommodate all views, established the lasting Lutheran position: in the Lord’s Supper Christ is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. (This position was later termed “consubstantiation,” but this word was not used in the sixteenth century.) Luther called for both the bread and the wine to be administered to all who wished to participate, and communion “in both kinds” became standard in Protestant services. Zwingli understood the Eucharist differently than Luther, as a memorial service in which Christ was present in spirit among the faithful, not in the bread and wine. To him, the “is” in the phrase “this is my body” really means “signifi es,” and the sacrament is a sign of God’s grace already given, not a means of giving that grace. Luther attacked Zwingli in several pamphlets of the mid-1520s, and the reformer Martin Bucer (1491–1551) attempted to mediate between the two. A number of reformers, including Luther, Zwingli, and Bucer, met at Marburg in 1529 to see if they could reach agreement, but found that on the issue of the Eucharist they could not, though they did agree to tone down their rhetoric. From that point, the reform movement split into two wings: those who followed Luther, often called Evangelical , and those who followed Zwingli, called Reformed . In general, Zwinglian Reformed ideas spread more widely in Switzerland and south Germany, and Lutheran Evangelical ideas in northern Germany and Scandinavia. Both Luther and Zwingli recognized that, if reforms were going to be permanent, political authorities as well as concerned individuals and religious leaders would have to accept them. Zwingli worked closely with the city council of Zurich; it was the city council that decided it would accept only the authority of Scripture in matters of religion, offi cially changed the structure of the church service, ordered that religious images be removed from the churches, and established a new court to adjudicate marriage and morals cases, which had previously been under the jurisdiction of the bishop’s court. In other cities and towns of Switzerland and south Germany, city councils similarly took the lead, appointing pastors that they knew had accepted Protestant ideas, requiring them to swear an oath of loyalty to the council, and overseeing their preaching and teaching. Some historians have argued that cities were especially fertile

SOURCE 12 Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian (1520)

In 1520, right after the Leipzig debates, Luther published three signifi cant pamphlets that marked his clear break with the papacy: Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, demanding that German rulers reform the church; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, condemning the papacy for holding Christians in “captivity” for centuries by distorting the meaning of the sacraments; and The Freedom of a Christian, summarizing his own beliefs. In this brief pamphlet, written in Latin for the pope but translated immediately into German and widely published, Luther wrote that Christians were freed through Christ – not their own actions – from sin, death, and the devil, though the true Christian life was one of service to one’s neighbor. What can it profi t the soul if the body is well, free, and active, and eats, drinks, and does what it pleases? For in these respects even the most godless slave of vice may prosper. On the other hand, how will poor health or imprisonment or hunger or thirst or any other external misfortune harm the soul? Even the most godly men, and those who are free because of clear consciences, are affl icted with these things. None of these things touches either the freedom or the servitude of the soul … One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ … as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justifi ed by faith alone and not any works … a Christian is free from all things and over all things so that he needs no works to make him righteous and save him, since faith alone abundantly confers all these things … in his spirit. But as long as he lives in the fl esh … and remains in this mortal life on earth … a man cannot be idle, for his body drives him and he is compelled to do many good works to reduce it to subjection [that is, to make sure his desire for power, money, fame, food, or other earthly things does not take over his life]. Nevertheless the works themselves do not justify him before God, but he does works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God. (From Luther’s Works, ed. Harold Grimm [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957], vol. XXXI, pp. 345, 346, 348, 359 reprinted by permission.) grounds for reformed ideas in which the religious and political community were understood to be coterminous. Even before the Reformation, city authorities passed and enforced laws that sought to make their cities more moral and bring all activities under the control of the city council; reformed ideas thus provided theological justifi cation for what they were doing already, which helps explain the speed at which many cities accepted them. Luther lived in a territory ruled by a noble – the Elector of Saxony – not a city, but he also worked closely with political authorities, viewing them as fully justifi ed in asserting control over the church in their territories. Indeed, in his 1520 Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation he demanded that German rulers reform the papacy and ecclesiastical institutions, and in On Secular Government he instructed all Christians to obey their secular rulers, whom he saw as divinely ordained to maintain order. In terms of the process of the Reformation, Luther’s hopes were largely fulfi lled. Individuals may have been convinced of the truth of Protestant teachings by hearing sermons, listening to hymns, or reading pamphlets, but territories became Protestant when their ruler, whether a noble or a city council, brought in a reformer or two to reeducate the territory’s clergy, sponsored public sermons, confi scated church property, and closed convents and monasteries. This happened in many of the states of the Empire during the 1520s and in Denmark-Norway under Christian III (ruled 1534–59) in the 1530s. In Sweden, Gustavus Vasa (ruled 1523–60), who came to the throne during a civil war with Denmark, also took over control of church personnel and income, and Protestant ideas spread, though the Swedish church did not offi cially accept Lutheran theology until later in the century. In every area that became Protestant, there was a slightly different balance between popular religious ideas and the aims of the political authorities. In some areas certain groups, such as clergy or journeymen, pushed for reforms, while in others the ruler or city council forced religious change on a population that lacked interest or was hostile.

 

 

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