Protestant Reformation

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The Protestant Reformation was a movement within the Christian faith that refused to recognize the authority of the Catholic Church and instead follow the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation.

One of the defining characteristics of a Protestant is they believe that the Bible alone is all that is needed to have a relationship to Christ and God, and only though a personal relationship with Christ would ensure a soul's salvation. This stripped down version of Christianity made the rituals and policies established by the Catholic Church unnecessary, a distraction, and a temptation into corruption and greed in the eyes of the Protestants.

However, the events leading up to, during and afterward and far more complex.

By the time all the smoke cleared, the Reformation was a continuation by other means of normal medieval Church-State relations. As a note, the word 'Reform' in a sixteenth century sense, think of it as re-form. As in, how can you re-form a cracked bell ; you melt it down for the bronze, and then re-cast it.

Historical Context and Events Leading up the Reformation

Rome conquered the world, and she made her Emperors gods. This meant that Christians, who could worship no other God, got on badly with the Empire, and many Christians were martyred. A good example of early Christian/Imperial relations is here ...

Eventually, the Empire and the Church came to co-exist, and Constantine made Christianity the State Religion of the Empire. In the Greek, or Eastern half of the Empire, things pretty much continued that way, at least until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. In the western half of the Empire, slowly but inexorably, the Empire changed and mutated, until there was little that was recognisably Roman at all.

One of the things that was recognisable is that cities still had Bishops - and these Bishops were one of the few sources of continuity and certainty in a world consumed by famine, plague, disorder and war. Many religious people donated land and other wealth to the Church, and many Bishoprics and so on started to get some quite impressive land holdings. Some cities in Germany, such as Mainz and Cologne, even ended up with the temporal ruler being the local Archbishop, who was also the local spiritual authority.

The Donation of Constantine, a document that had the Roman Emperor Constantine giving the Papacy "Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, Africa and Italy and the various islands." A copy of the document is here The ink was almost certainly dry on the parchment when it was first used to support Papal claims to certain lands in northern Italy in about 750 AD. Even Nineteenth Century pro-Catholic historians now admit it was a blatant forgery, but it was regarded as genuine through the entire Medieval period, although it's importance was disputed

In Rome, on Christmas Day of AD 800, a particularily successful Frankish King, Charlemange, was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III. This was widely seen as uniting temporal and spiritual power in one person - a divinely appointed Emperor. And if an Emperor is appointed by God, then surely he can appoint Bishops and so on, right? This was known as Lay Investiture - that a secular, or Lay, person could invest Bishops. The fact that the Emperor had a big army that could ... convince ... many members of the Church to see things his way too, especially if, say, an Election for the Pope was coming up.

This is what happened with the Emperor Otto III, who around 1000 AD with the help of his army managed to get his brother appointed as Pope, and then put him back after an upset Roman citizenry threw him out. He also appointed the next Pope, Sylvester II, who was rumoured to be a magician.

This was probably the peak of successful Imperial intervention in Papal affairs, although Emperor Charles V's army did do a rather solid job in sacking Rome in 1527 (in case you are reading ahead, Charles V was definitely a Catholic when his army did this. Disputes exist whether they did it with or without orders ... ) Seventy years later, around 1066 AD we saw a long, messy and involved struggle between Emperor Henry IV, and his handpicked anti-Pope Clement III, and Pope Gregory VII, and his handpicked anti-Emperor Rudolph II, in a struggle about whether the Emperor or the Pope should be able to control who gets what positions in the Church, and who can sack whom and when.

One of the key people in the war was the redoubtable Mathilde of Canossa, ruling Countess of Tuscany. If she had backed the Emperor rather than the Pope, Gregory would almost certainly have been deposed. A good web page about her is here

In the end, a compromise was established, whereby the Pope would mostly appoint Bishops, but the Emperor would confirm them. Note that this deal only applied in Germany... But those wild and crazy Germans couldnt leave good enough alone, and under Frederick they had another go at dominating Italy.

The next major interlude in Church-State relations was the conflict between the French King Charles VIII and Pope Boniface, over whether the French King could tax the Church in France. The basic idea promulgated by the Papacy was that Christendom should have one Church, with a consistent doctrine, just like it should have one secular head - the Emperor. OK, OK, those Greeks over in Constantinople should have been part of a Universal and Catholic Church too, but they wouldn't agree on certain political and doctrinal points. This meant that the church needed one Bible in one language - Latin. Imagine the problems if my translation of the Bible says 'Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live' and yours says 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'.

Now, things got complicated when you had over-powerful Emperors like Otto III who made a habit of appointing Popes, or overpowerful Popes like Innocent III (*) who made a habit of sacking Emperors, but after a long series of wars in the eleventh, tweith and thirteenth centuries where Pope tried to have Emperors sacked and vice-versa, it pretty much got sorted out that the Pope wouldn't intervene in politics if the Emperor didn't try and tell him what to do. In short, the Temporal power and the Spiritual power compromised, and didnt try to muscle in on each others territories.

This basic rule also more-or-less applied with independent kingdoms like England and France, although the issue of who should appoint people to those nice, rich Church positions kept cropping up - but no King tried to tell the Church what should or should not be doctrine. (I feel I am not paraphrasing John of Paris too badly if I say his view on it was 'Does it say France anywhere ? No ? Then Boniface can get stuffed - he has to pay taxes like every other landowner in France')

Events in the 14th Century and on

Time rolled on, and the fourteenth century saw the seat of the Pope was moved to Avignon in France. Well, more accurately, the seat of one of the three Popes moved to Avignon, with a pro-French Pope there, an anti-French Pope in Rome, and a third Pope in Pisa, and all of them exchanging insults, excommunications and interdicts. Not good for a Universal Church. Eventually, things got sorted out with the Council of Constance in 1414-18, which got things back to an even footing, with one Pope, who lived in Rome.

The wars between Pope and Emperor had a side effect; northern and central Italy became independent from both the Pope and the Emperor, and Milan, Genoa, Venice and Florence started carving out their own little Empires.

Unfortunately, the same idea occurred to a gentleman by the name of Guiliano della Rovere, better known as Pope Julius II, who was elected on his third attempt in 1503, but basically controlled the Papacy from 1484 or so. To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia "the chief task of his pontificate he saw in the firm establishment and the extension of the temporal power. For the accomplishment of this task no pope was ever better suited than Julius, whom nature and circumstances had hewn out for a soldier".

To be slightly fairer to Julius, if the Papacy is a Temporal power with it's own lands, castles and army, then it is going to be more difficult for it's potential temporal enemy (eg German Emperor, King of France, Roman people etc) to force it into, for example, selecting their preferred Papal candidate at swordpoint. Not That That Ever Happened, Of Course.

Note that temporal powers need armies, and armies need money. Temporal powers also need to cut deals with other temporal powers; it is notable that while the Papal-led League of Cambrai in 1508 was theoretically aimed at the Turks, it actually spent its time smacking the shit out of Venice. Venice was the only power that could prevent the rise of Turkish power in the Mediterranean, Constantinople having fallen to the Turks in 1453, and Turkish power continued to rise until the failed Siege of Vienna in 1529. Note that this base politicing by the Papacy did not go un-noticed by Europe at large - it is difficult to display moral leadership of Christendom as a whole when you are conspiring to rip some dependant city off another Italian power, or to prevent them doing the same to you.

A favoured method of raising money for the army and the building program was selling indulgences - a method of having sins forgiven in exchange for a cash payment. I'm sure we can all see what sort of abuses this could lead to.

The combination of the prestige of the Church being reduced by it's involvement as a Temporal power in secular wars against Christians, combined with the abuses inherent in raising large amounts of cash to pay for the above (well, that and Julius' building and art program, including things like St Pauls and the Sistine Chapel ceiling) laid the foundation for the Reformation that was about to happen.

Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

The occasion of the Reformation was Martin Luther's protest in Wittenburg in 1517 against various abuses to do with the sale of Indulgences. See for a copy. But what may have been more important was not what end the Reformation had in mind, but what it was not, and how it was to be accomplished.

Luther's reforms as presented to the German Princes in his 1520 "Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation" were not a universal reform of the Christian Church but a reform specifically limited to Germany. A copy of the letter is here The reforms he proposed in this letter were for Germany alone ; they were an abandonment of the idea of a universal Christian Church.

Secondly, the mechanism for Reform is to be the temporal princes of Germany ; they are to take control of appointments to the Church in their principalities, of Church taxes, of laws over moral affairs, and so on. Luther accused Popes of wanting to become Emperors ; by allowing the Temporal power to have power over church taxes and appointments his reform permitted Emperors to become Popes. This Prince-based scheme of Reform was reinforced by the events of the Peasants War, a great German peasants rebellion in 1524-26 ; his pamphlet, 'Against the Peasants' he says that

First they have sworn to their true and gracious rulers to be submissive and obedient, in accord with God's command, 'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's,' and, 'Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.' But since they have deliberately an sacrilegiously abandoned their obedience, and in addition have dared to oppose their lords, they have thereby forfeited body an soul, as perfidious, perjured, lying, disobedient wretches and scoundrels are wont to do.

Let us compare this to what Luther, in his Open Letter, says about the duty of temporal powers to rebel against the Pope:

Therefore, when necessity demands, and the pope is an offense to Christendom, the first man who is able should, a faithful member of the whole body, do what he can to bring about a truly free council. No one can do this so well as the temporal authorities, especially since now they also are fellow-Christians, fellow-priests, "fellow-spirituals," fellow-lords over all things, and whenever it is needful or profitable, they should give free course to office and work in which God has put them above every man.

Wittenburg was part of the lands of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise and as well as the sale of Indulgences, the Germans had a couple of objections to the way the Church worked. Firstly, if the Church in general and the Monastaries in particular were immune to taxation, then this made the burden of the costs of local defence worse on everyone else. Secondly, the Church was clearly more interested in raising money to play politics in Italy than in the care and saving of souls. Thirdly, the Monasteries tend to buy little and sell much on local markets, thus depressing the prices for everyone else. Fourthly, many corrupt and incompetant church officials existed, and the Church was doing little about them. Finally, there should be a German Church for the German people.

(as a side note, recent research by Michael Wilks among others shows that Lollardry was not a peasant-based rebel movement, but rather absolutely based around the English court, and with the tacit and overt support of the English State. The kid-glove "sentences" for heresy should have been a giveaway)

(*) Note that as a good general rule, Popes called Innocent or Pius are neither pious nor innocent. Also note that popes called Victor generally lose.

Effects of the Protestant Reformation

The Thirty Years War, a religious war that took place between 1618 and 1648 pitted the Catholic supporters (Hapsburgs who ruled Spain, Austria and the Spanish Netherlands, most of Germany and Italy) against Protestant reformers (Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and later France). The peace that followed was named the Peace of Westphalia. Out of the splintering of the Catholic Church arose two major Protestant denominations: Calvinism and Lutheranism. Two major items in the Peace of Westphalia were:

  1. Each nation or princedom could determine the official demonimation (Catholic, Lutheranism or Calvinism) of their nation. Within each nation or princedom, individual practitioners were still free to worship publicly, during alotted times, and privately at will.
  2. The papal powers of the Catholic Church would no longer extend over all of Europe

In the regions and countries in which the Reformation took hold, there was a massive and sometimes violent movement to remove what was considered the corrupting influences of the Catholic Church.

The effect on art objects that had previously held an important role in liturgy and ritual were destroyed and these acts were called iconoclasm. Not only did Protestants object to the significant expense each art object signified, but there was also the thought that such objects inspired idolatry. Marian objects (those depicting the Virgin Mary) were targeted particuarly, as were images and figures of various saints. There are documented cases in which several statues of saints were brought to a court of law to defend themselves at their own trial. Since the statues "refused" to put up any kind of defence against accusations of them being idols, they were all burned at the stake.

Churches and places of worship were stripped down and white-washed. The distinguishing features of Protestant Churches and homes were their lack of luxurious religious art objects as compared to Catholic Churches and homes. In that vein, Protestants tended to adopt a more humble and simple form of dress during daily life and when attending church; Protestants also do not carry rosary beads, historically an item closely related to the Virgin Mary.

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