THE  REFORMATION  BEGINS


From the late 11th century onward, the power and wealth of the Catholic Church continued to grow. Not only was the Church in every nation a large landholder and an ally of princes, but the papacy itself was an armed state; and many men whose concerns and motives were anything but spiritual aspired to the papal crown. The 15 th and 16th centuries were marred by several corrupt pontificates, and even the most pious Catholics could hardly be unaware that their Church was often in the hands of deplorable men. By the late 15th century there was a strong desire among many of the faithful for reform.


The call for reform was, in fact, first issued more than a century before the Protestant Reformation began. In England, John Wycliffe (c. 1330—84) argued that the Church should surrender its riches, serve rather than profit from the poor and acknowledge scripture as its sole source of doctrinal authority. His theology, moreover, was cast in the mould of that of the late Augustine: he believed firmly in predestination and in the impotence of human works to earn any merit before God. The latter position especially seemed to derogate certain of the Church's penitential disciplines, as well as a practice increasingly common after the 11th century: the granting of indulgences. These were 'certificates' of remission of the 'temporal punishment' (the penance) due for sin, given in return for meritorious service or gifts made to the Church in a sincere spirit of contrition. The Bohemian theologian Jan Hus (c. 1370—1415), a leader of the Czech reform movement, was sentenced to the stake by the Council of Constance for propounding similar ideas, and for attacking the sale of indulgences in Bohemia in 1412.


A century later, however, circumstances were more propitious for the cause of reform. The steady growth of the middle class had produced a greater number of educated, financially independent and politically enfranchised Catholics. More importantly, the early modern period was the age of the full emergence of the nation state in Europe; monarchs began to claim 'absolute' power for themselves, and an inviolable sovereignty for their nations. Older, 'feudal' notions of overlapping spheres of authority, with reciprocal responsibilities, and subject to a higher authority in spiritual matters, had become rather passe; and the princes of Europe had begun to resent the two transnational authorities that still presumed to interfere in their affairs: the Holy Roman Empire and the Church.


The French crown - the most absolutist of all European monarchies - effectively subdued the Church in its territories by forcing Rome to consent in 1438 and



[Luther's protest against the abuses and (as he saw it) theological deviations of the Roman Church precipitated the first large schism within Western European Christianity. A painting by the Belgian artist Eugene Siberdt (1851— 1931) shows Luther in 1521, translating the Bible]


1516 to concordats that, among other things, gave the king authority over ecclesial appointments in France and restricted papal jurisdiction over French bishops. In Spain, too, from 1486 on, the power of the crown over the Spanish Catholic Church was all but total. And much the same was true in Portugal. In lands, however, where the Catholic Church could not so easily be subdued — as in England or the German states — the idea of a Church establishment directly subordinate to the monarch exercised a very definite appeal; and in those lands, the cause of Reformation often thrived.


Martin Luther


The one man who can be called the father of the Protestant Reformation — at least, in its German variant — is the monk, priest and theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther came from a moderately comfortable bourgeois background, received sound schooling, took his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the University of Erfurt, and in 1505 (supposedly to keep a vow he made when caught in a terrifying thunderstorm) joined the Order of Augustinian Hermits. In 1508, the Order sent him to the University of Wittenberg, where he encountered a number of scholars who were openly hostile to much of the metaphysics (and in particular the Aristotelianism) of Medieval scholasticism. In 1510, moreover, he visited Rome on behalf of his Order, and was deeply disturbed by the licentiousness of the superior hierarchy, the irreverence of the Roman clergy and the sheer worldliness of Italian Renaissance culture.


[In an age when only a minority of the population was literate, Luther understood the benefits of the sermon as an instrument of reform. In an illustration he is depicted preaching, with one hand pointing to popes, monks and cardinals being swallowed by the mouth of Hell, and with the other to the Crucifix]


In 1512, he took his doctorate and assumed the chair in biblical theology, but his professional eminence apparently brought him no great satisfaction. By his own account, he was haunted by an unendurable feeling of unworthiness and guilt, a sense of his own impurities of thought and will and a deep fear of God's displeasure. He was delivered from his anxieties only when his readings of Paul led him to the conclusion that divine justice - unlike human justice - is a power that gratuitously makes the sinner just, and that it is not by works, but by faith, that one is justified. Here, he believed, he had discovered the true joyous tidings of the gospel: that human beings are not saved by their efforts to make themselves good in the eyes of God (an impossibility in any event), but by God's free gift of forgiveness.


Theological Differences


Over the next few years, Luther's hostility to scholastic method increased, his preference for Augustine's theology became more pronounced and his theology of justification by grace alone became more emphatic. But none of this would necessarily have led to a rupture within the Church had it not been for the 'indulgences controversy'. In 1476, the pope had allowed the merit vouchsafed by an indulgence to be applied to the soul of a person enduring 'temporal punishment' in Purgatory. The idea of Purgatory — that the soul undergoes a period of purgation after death for undischarged venial sins — had deep roots in Western Catholic tradition, and had been given clear definition at the Councils of Lyon and Florence. But the proclamation that one might secure remission from such punishment in exchange for financial contributions was obviously little more than a cynical scheme for generating revenue. Reacting to the especially shameless methods of one seller of indulgences, Luther in 1517 wrote his 'Ninety-Five Theses', a series of academic propositions for debate that suggested, rather cautiously, that such indulgences reflected a defective theology of grace.


The dispute that followed was unexpectedly fierce, in part because some of Luther's colleagues and allies were somewhat less circumspect than he was. Luther enjoyed the favour and protection of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick III (1463— 1525), but even so was obliged to go into hiding when it seemed he might be extradited from Augsburg - to which he had been summoned to defend his theses - to Rome. But the debate he had sparked could not now be extinguished, in large part because the new technology of the printing press had made his views known well beyond the close confines of the world of academic theology. In 1520, Rome issued a papal bull condemning a number of Luther's teachings. Luther responded by writing three especially provocative treatises — one calling on the secular princes of Germany to convene a council of reform, one denouncing a variety of Catholic teachings regarding the number of sacraments, the power of the pope and the authority of scripture, and one proclaiming the freedom of the Christian conscience — and by burning the bull in public. In January 1521, Rome promulgated a second bull, excommunicating Luther. Frederick III, however, convinced the Holy Roman emperor to allow Luther to defend himself before the Imperial Diet in Worms before recognizing the bull; and Luther - despite the apprehension of many of his friends — obeyed the emperor's summons.



FREEDOM AND FREEDOM AND HUMAN FREEDOM 



Thomas Muntzer (1490-1525) - a contemporary and, briefly, an admirer of Luther - was a priest and scholar who had himself begun agitating for reform as early as 1519, but who believed that the reformation of which Luther spoke could be complete only if it included a programme of social amelioration. Luther, after all, wrote movingly of the freedom of the Christian from the burden of the law; but such freedom surely involved more than mere spiritual consolation.


Muntzer soon became convinced that his pastoral vocation obliged him to act as an advocate for the poor against the abuses of the rich; and increasingly he came to believe that the highest authority for the Christian was not the Church, or even simply scripture, but the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to the individual conscience. And by 1522 he became convinced that it was the will of God that a holy war should be waged by the poor against the social and political order. Ultimately, when a large peasant revolt broke out in Thuringia in 1525 - one that briefly established a fairly large alliance of 'commoners' and even took control of certain towns - Muntzer was among its leaders.


Luther was deeply shaken by the teachings of Muntzer and other of the 'radical reformers'. In 1523, he wrote a short treatise entitled 'Of Worldly Governance', in which he firmly asserted that civil authority is instituted by God, and rebellion against that authority a grave sin. He was not by any means unsympathetic to the complaints of the rebels, even if his own social views were not particularly egalitarian; over many years, the peasants of Germany had been deprived of many of the common rights that had been theirs since the early Middle Ages, and had consequently been left at the mercy of usurers and landlords. But when the revolt began, Luther nevertheless exhorted the peasants to desist from rebellion; and when they did not, he wrote a scorching tract - 'Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants' - in which he  encouraged the legal authorities to slaughter the rebels without pity. \


On 15 May 1525, at the Battle of Frankenhacscn, the revolt was decisively defeated. Muntzer was captured, tortured, tried and executed. He did not recant his teachings, however; and Luther did not mourn his passing.


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WE  SEE  A  SIDE  OF  MARTIN  LUTHER  NOT  WELL  KNOWN,  HE  COULD  BE  AT  TIMES,  BRUTAL  IN  WORD  AND  THOUGHT;  AS  WE  SEE  HERE,  EVEN  ENCOURAGING  LEGAL  AUTHORITIES  TO  SLAUGHTER  ONES  HE  CONSIDERED  "REBELS"  -  AND  THAT  WITHOUT  PITY.


I  HAVE  A  SET  OF  DVDs  BY  A  PROFESSOR  FROM  "THE  TEACHING  COMPANY"  [GREAT  COURSES]  ON  MARTIN  LUTHER;  MOST  REVEALING  INDEED,  SHOCKING  IN  PARTS.  LUTHER  WAS  NOT  A  MAN  CHOSEN  BY  GOD.  LUTHER  CHOSE  HIMSELF,  AND  WITH  THE  HELP  OF  DARK  UNSEEN  FORCES,  STARTED  THE  MOVEMENT  WHEREBY  THE  ROMAN  CATHOLIC  CHURCH,  GAVE  BIRTH  TO  MANY  DAUGHTER  CHURCHES.  ALL  OF  THEM  RETAINING  IN  ONE  WAY  OR  ANOTHER,  TEACHINGS  AND  CUSTOMS  OF  THE  MOTHER  CHURCH.


Keith Hunt