The Reformation in Europe. Some
observations and comments.
When and where the Reformation began in Europe is a
conundrum that depends to some extent on the nature of the sects that
sprung up. There is evidence of evangelical Christians from the earliest
The simple faith based entirely on the Scriptures has been preserved
for centuries. The Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in
312 AD and was responsible for giving religion form and direction. He saw
that political power was to be had from unity of faith and with this in
mind he gave impetus to the consolidation of the 27 books of the New
Testament as the common foundation. Until then there were many and varied
sects and widely varying views about Jesus, his life (not death), his
divinity, the role of women and particularly Mary Magdalene. The Nag
Hammadi scrolls discovered in 1945 throw much light on earlier times and
the Gnosis. They highlights the debate that must have taken place before a
male dominated apostolic church appeared in the guise of the Church of
Rome with Peter as its first Pope. It is somewhat contradictory (given
that Peter was “the rock” upon which the Church was built) that in
discovered scraps of scrolls he refers to Jesus as not mortal and
suffering crucifixion without pain; notably he did not refer to the death
of Jesus. This of itself refutes resurrection and the principal of
salvation through the death of Jesus. The scrolls further demonstrated
that women had a much larger role as disciples and that Mary Magdalene was
the closest of all to Jesus – closer than Peter. The power brokers among
the priests must have seen the risks to themselves, their roles and their
power. We can conclude that for three centuries they contrived to form a
religion of their choice. Otherwise the first Pope could
have been a woman, and Christianity could have taken a very different form
altogether, or even fragmented into self destruction.
The discovery of artefacts at Ugarit in Syria that link
the chief Canaanite God (El or Yaweh) with a partner or spouse (Asherah), has sparked debate
that the modern Bible is incomplete or indeed deliberately skewed
(syncretism) in its presentation.
Some modern theologians hold that the Bible was written by scribes who
deliberately focussed on a single God (monotheism) and the moral
imperatives that go with recognition of just one God. The
Canaanites of 800 BC had several gods of whom Baal (the God of weather) is
but one and he was a a servant of the chief God El. Moreover,
the artifacts show El as having a consort or wife , Asherah.
From the beginning of the modern era it was a
battle involving Gnostics, Docetists, Ebionites and Marcionites, each
convinced that their Gospels were true and sacred.
claims of ca 144 AD rejected in particular the Jewishness of Jesus and
rejected the Old Testament. It was only after the consolidation of
Constantine that opinions began to be aired about the nature, form and
practices of the church. Vigilantius in the 4th Century decried the worship of
images, prayers for the dead, relic worship and celibacy to followers
among the mountain men of the Cottian Alps. These were the probable
forebears of the Waldensians in the Valleys by the 7th Century, and the
Albigensis in the French province of Dauphiny. Claude, Bishop of Turin in
817AD was a great opponent of image worship and made sweeping
changes in his diocese. Cardinal Bellmarine writing in the 16th
century makes the essential link of Claude and his work to the Reformed
“…the identical belief which was
publicly taught and professed in those valleys of Piedmonte in the year
820 was the same which is at this day professed and owned by the reformed
and the Waldensians, became more prominent
in the twelfth century. The Albigenses
or Cathars, went off at a tangent and believed in two Gods, a good one of
the New Testament and a spiritual world; and a bad God of the Old
Testament and the material world. By their own definition they never
really fitted in to the simplicity and evangelism of the Reformed faith
and its cardinal principles – salvation and justification by faith alone. The
consequences for them was a dreadful persecution from 1208 in which
hundreds of thousands perished at the hands of the Inquisition. From the
early sixteenth century the Anabaptists emerged. They believed in adult
baptism when cognitive of their action, and separation of church from
government, but were labelled Anabaptist – re- baptisers, in a derogatory
sense. At one point those who sought to free themselves from
external government control broke from Zwingli –
who propounded discussion and negotiation (1525). Following the break the
radical Anabaptist movement spread throughout German speaking Europe. With
it grew uncoordinated sects, some of whom veered into sedition and
the violent overthrow of lawful government. The Reformers themselves
were led to rejecting the Anabaptists in 1527, and the name itself became
an all embracing by-word for fanaticism and disorder. The
consequence was the precedent used against the Donatists from Roman times who
in 411 AD were subject of that awful word “extirpation”.
The Waldensians, however, foreshadowed the Protestant model of later
years, with a structured church and pastors based on parishes, preaching the Word and using the New
Testament in the common tongue. They later made contact with and took
advice of the Reformers and produced a revised Confession of Faith in 1532
which was not significantly different to their original concepts or those
of the 16th century Reformers. In my view they deserve to be included in the Reformation and thereby extends it`s
commencement to the
The Reformation was not a single, across the board,
sweeping change from one faith to the other. There was a commonality in
the opposition to the excesses of the Church of Rome but the Reformers
themselves had variable views on particular aspects. Frequently they
debated issues, sometimes they compromised, and on others agreed to
differ. As a result there are variations in beliefs and practices in the
churches they created, but they all remained `Protestant`. The common
fundamental belief was `justification by faith`, the main issues
with the Church of Rome were over the Eucharist and transubstantiation.
The principal Protestant Reformers in Europe (excluding
Jan (John) Huss ( 1374 – 1415)
Jerome of Prague ( -1416)
Ulrich Zuinglius (Zwingli) (1487-1531)
John Oecolampadius (1482-1531)
Johann Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1576)
John Calvin (1509-1564)
Theodore Beza (1519-1605)
Jacques Lefevre, Bp William Briconnet,
Martin Luther (1483-1546) ,
Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560)
Martin Bucer (1491-1551)
Peter Martyr (1500-1560)
Religious Thinker and Humanist
Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536)
The Renaissance and the Reformation.
The Reformation is often thought of as a
religious change only, but it was not exclusively so. Indeed there were
large and important social and economic changes taking place, alongside
which there were intellectual changes in the arts and philosophy
which interacted with religion. The Reformation for example brought
religious thinkers and humanists to the fore, such as Erasmus (1466-1536),
Oecolampadius (1482-1531), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Blaise Pascal (1623-62), and
Baruch Spinoza (1632-77). In the world at large exploration using new navigation techniques
saw discovery of India, Malaya, and South America and the beginning of
international trade with the Far East; developments in weaponry
and warfare; and the development of printing
with moveable type, were but three of a host of material events that
engineered change and opened new doors for commerce, movement of peoples,
and nurtured enquiring minds.
The essence of the Reformation was the
freeing of the peoples minds and consciences from the thraldom and tyranny
of the medieval church. The moral standards were raised significantly but
there was no overnight nor widespread improvement in behaviour. The
fruits of the new standards did not materialise until well after the
principal Reformers had passed on. The immediate consequence was an
undercurrent of uncertainty and frustration when these new freedoms were
denied or withheld, that boiled up into outright discontent as the dawn of `a new age` broke.
This gave rise to the Peasants` War in Germany, while there were bitter disputes
among the Protestants themselves as they evolved their particular creeds.
Much credit for the eventual success is really due to the very able
successors – Philip Melancthon (Luther) and Theodore Beza (Calvin),
who were responsible for organising the respective churches, consolidating and
maintaining the thrust of the Protestant theology.
The Protestant and Catholic systems starkly contrasted one with the other and afforded a ripe source for satire of a form the common man understood.
Hitherto much of the Gospel and criticisms had been committed to
memory and expounded by travelling troubadors who were great favourites
with the people. But the development of printing facilitated the cheap newsheet – equivalent of the comic, in which the ignorance of the clergy or priests were subject of comment. One such classic work was
Sebastian Brandt`s Narrenschiff , better known in Alexander Barclay`s translation as The Ship of Fools. The Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum (Epistles of Obscure Men) probably by Crotus Rubianus, took the form of letters between friends commenting on religion and priests. Such was the impact that Pope Leo X published a Bull against it in 1517 calling it `reckless loquacity`, ` a scandalous libel` the dissemination of `wicked calumnies`. Ironically, as one of the most dissolute of the Popes he probably knew more than most what the letters were about. This was an early example of the `power of the press`. In England such satire also appeared in work by the Poet Laureate of Henry VIII – John Skelton, who wrote Colyn Cloute. Thus curiosity and a desire to know about and understand the new world and ideas, created the desire for freedom of thought
and conscience that hitherto had been denied to the common man and woman.
The Catholic Reformation.
Catholicism required a strict obedience to a hierarchy that would guarantee salvation. Church law was held to be supreme and disobedience resulted in exclusion from the sacraments – which meant also excluded from heaven. Man`s salvation depended on his satisfying the requirements of an official class who had supernatural powers that might be acquired by base persons with base motives. In Romanism, the minister is primarily a priest who offers sacrifice and grants pardon for sins, and these powers were possessed by no one else. In Protestantism the minister is primarily a teacher who enlightens the conscience and strengthens man`s will by expounding on the word of God. The minister was able to be prophetic within the bounds of his own inspiration, but restrained by the Scriptures, which he interpreted and from which he received guidance.
On the religious front the Reformation was really an attempt to get back to primitive Christianity
– the key word was simplicity – of form, of conduct of services,
of dress and in doctrine. However, the magnitude of change required in the
totality of the Church as it then was, spread across continents, was
simply too great and too frightening for the old guard of the College of
Cardinals. A major plank in the Catholic form was the doctrine of
infallibility introduced by Gregory VII (Hildebrande) (1073-1085).
He asserted that the successors of St Peter (the Popes) could never err.
This principle was further pursued by Pope Urban II (1088-1099) who
promoted the idea of papal supremacy. These structural and doctrinal
issues had been evolving for the best part of three hundred and fifty years when the
Reformation in Europe began to take shape with John Hus and John
Wyckcliffe. These doctrines could not be changed
overnight nor were there comparable physical structures and the
organisation for a new church available to replace the old. Thus there was no attempt early on
to change the doctrine of the Church.
The reform began by trying to get
rid of abuses which were not denied, were visible, and accepted as
inappropriate or disgraceful. Despite the efforts and example of some (but
certainly not all) Popes eg
Adrian VI (1522), Clement VII (1523-34) Paul III (1534-49), Paul VI (
1555-59) – this simple objective was confounded by the frailty of man. Change to abolish corruption could lead to financial ruin for a great number of clerics, their institutions and their dependents, both high and low. Similarly it impacted the civil order who also lost revenues and would have to pick up the pieces of their society afterwards. There was therefore an immense hurdle to overcome in order to get consent to change. And there was no money in the coffers to make compensation (at the death of Leo X in 1522 the Church of Rome was effectively bankrupt).
Paul III began his reform programme by
setting up a papal reform commission in 1536 with nine senior
cardinals appointed to it. This was to recommend reforms and prepare
for a Council. The recommendations in its report were hard and to
the point – the papacy was becoming too secular and should concern itself
more with spiritual issues rather than flirting with world affairs,
bribery in high places, abuses of Papal power, evasion of church law by
clerics and lay persons, laxity in monasteries, abuses regarding
indulgences, and the number of prostitutes operating in Rome were all
highlighted. Paul III also made appointments of reform minded cardinals to
the College . As a result an honest and valiant attempt to address the
issues was made when he summoned the Council of Trent in 1545. The Council
was, however, responsible for adding several more `traditions` for which
there is no warrant in the Scriptures.
The Council met on three main occasions
– 1545-7; 1551-2, and 1562-3. Attendance was thin initially, the first
meeting having but 29 archbishops, bishops and priors, and at the second
the numbers crept up to about 55. The third meeting however, had up to 255
people at meetings and moreover there was a will to address the issues. In
the event the Council re affirmed the Church`s commitment to the medieval
orthodoxy of transubstantiation, justification by faith and works,
procedures of the mass, seven sacraments were insisted upon, celibacy of
priests, existence of purgatory and indulgences were confirmed. But
the selling of indulgences was abolished along with abuses in connection
with them. The power of the papacy was confirmed and it was confirmed that
all clerics were expected to swear loyalty to the Pope. who was also given
authority to enforce the decrees of the Council. Notably this was
accompanied by the insistence of the Emperor Charles V (also Charles I of
Spain) that the Councils were superior to the Pope.
A final act of the
Council was to create the Tridentine Index which Pope Pius IV
promulgated in 1564. This was an exhaustive list of prohibited books which
all true Christians were expected to observe. The Latin Vulgate Bible was
the only one allowed with many other books prohibited from time to time.
The list was not abolished until 1966. This prohibition was relevant
to the Reformation as the development of printing had already led to
printed Indulgences in Mainz, 1454 and several satirical books.
Acknowledgment that books represented a threat to Catholicism only meant
greater demand, and a commensurate awakening of peoples minds to the evangelists` message. What the Council achieved was to rationalise its
policies and direction for the next four hundred years and provide a base
from which the Catholic Counter Reformation could face the growing
The story of change and religious
freedom in Europe took shape early on with the Waldensians
about 1175, and Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant in Lyons who gave up
his wealth and sought a simple life and preaching in the common tongue.
They suffered the assaults of Rome from as early as 1215 under Innocent
III. By the fourteenth century the Waldensians were among the
strongest of the dissident movements spread throughout Europe and were
subject of more vicious attacks as in France and Piedmont in 1488.
They were strongest in the eastern parts of Europe and suffered some
persecution in Bohemia, Moravia, Germany, Poland and Hungary .
It is as well to state that the
sect known as the Albigensians or Cathars (ca 1100 AD especially in
southern France) were not strictly part of the Protestant Reformation. They were a
separate and distinct group who held that there were two Gods – a good one
who created the invisible spiritual world, and a bad one who created all
matter, including the human body. The bad God they associated with the Old
Testament and accepted parts of the New Testament. So far as their
relationship with Rome is concerned, they were another group of heretics
to be exterminated. In 1119 Pope Calixtus iI had issued a general
excommunication against them and those of like sentiment with a rider that
all who gave them defence ot protection should also be handed over to the
secular authority. Later formal crusades were arranged against them
including 1209 when an army of crusaders besieged the city of
Beziers. Here was a case of dreadful slaughter – having gained entry to
the city the crusaders sought orders what to do with the populace – how to
sort the Protestants from the Catholics. The Legate, the Abbot of Citeaux,
gave instruction to `Kill all ` The Lord will know his own`.
An estimated 50,000 of both religions, were then slaughtered, and
the town razed to the ground. Moving on to Carcassone, many inhabitants
escaped through a secret passage, but revenge was taken on a miscellany of
prisoners of whom 400 were burnt and 50 hanged. The `crusades` continued
until replaced by the Inquisition under the bull of Gregory IX in 1233
that allotted the task to the Dominican Friars.
Before the Reformation there were
many small princely states in Europe struggling to survive. In
these the learned men capable of government were inevitably clerics and
their influence and that of Rome was very significant. But
marriages, alliances, wars, and to a lesser degree religion, caused a
gradual aggregation of these small princedoms and the emergence of
the nation state with a developing national identity and desire for independence.
Until then, an
unwanted effect of the diversity of the towns and cities, was that each
accepted change according to the beliefs of the populace. Thus there were
variances of doctrine and practice between the Protestant Reformers
themselves, which generated lively debate and slowed the pace of unified
When it was seen that the Pope, Bishops, priests and their respective councils could not remedy the
religious issues then the break from ecclesiastical laws was seen as
the option for change. The Reformers took up this challenge and their work became a system of national reformations that was carried out partially in Germany and Switzerland, much more completely in
the Netherlands and England, and totally in Scotland. In the European countries there was a national and political stimulus for change. In the other countries where those factors were weak or non existent the religious movement
for change failed. Thus in Italy ( 10 of 14 popes in the 15thC) and Spain
( 3 of 14 popes in the 15thC) were the hard core of the
Church of Rome and were the first to suffer the revived Inquisition (
first used in the 13th and 15th centuries) determined to maintain the rule
of Mother Church. In France support was
fitful and uncertain, Religious war had gained freedom for
Protestants with the Edict of Nantes (1598) only to have it revoked by
Louis XIV in 1685. The uncertainty and bickering between France and the
Holy Roman Empire gave little of the stability needed to effect lasting change, in
consequence of which the
Protestant movement was patchy.
Germany had a three hundred year history of dissatisfaction with the worldliness of the priests. England had a similar problem that went back at least to the Middle Ages.
Even William the Conqueror had plainly told the pope that he would not
make his crown dependent on any person living. Thus English kings had long recognised the need for separation from the jurisdiction of Rome
but not many had the will to push such a change through; in many cases the
political issues and alliances between kingdoms frustrated the
intent. Edward III (r 1327-1377) had declared his independence by the Statute of Provisors and the Statutes of Praemunire which severely restricted the incursions of Rome. It was only when the changes to doctrine came from the continent did the English reformers such as Wyckcliffe,
start to press their case. By the time of Henry VIII England had already
freed itself from much of the restraints of Rome, and the Church under a
free monarchy could do whatever its rulers desired. Importantly, because
there was an existing infrastructure for the English church, the changes
could be made relatively quickly.
On the Continent the process was the reverse. The doctrine, ritual and discipline changes came first with obstruction and opposition all the way, before finally a rejection of Rome. Neither did the Reformers there have a pre existing infrastructure to
turn to – all was Rome`s; thus Luther had to
organise and build his own church before the reform of the Protestant discipline and doctrine were complete. Inevitably without total agreement among themselves.
important issues between Luther, Zwingli and Calvin that added complications and delay to the completion of the common prime objective – the return of primitive Christianity. With no one to turn to, the determining guidance in matters of dispute was that of the Scriptures – of itself not always clear, and this gave rise to various claims that the Scripture was on their side. It also delayed the reform process giving opportunity for parties to regroup and exert influence through political alliances, including marriages, that impacted the individual national reforms.
Although starting their reformations from different standpoints, there was an overall similarity in that both the Continent and England probably went further than either at first intended.
Paramount in the process of change for both England and the European
countries was the
production of the Bible in the common tongue. Wyckcliffe had produced his
translation into English; likewise Luther produced his translation from
the Greek into German. In Sweden Olaf Paterson translated first the New
Testament and soon the complete Bible; In France Jacques Lefevre, a
monk and professor at the Sorbonne, produced the New Testament in French
in 1522 and a full Bible in 1541. There were already some eighteen German Bibles, all
from the Vulgate, and Luther`s version took the general public by storm. Luther
had agitated for change, especially about indulgences, and had not intended a break with Rome as demonstrated by his submission to his own Bishop. Henry VIII had no intention to break on grounds of doctrine, and contributed to the ongoing persecution against alleged heresy and change with the Six Articles of 1539
also known as `The Whip with Six Strings`. The tri part kingdom of
Denmark, Sweden and Norway were the beneficiaries of reform by laymen;
despite his gross reputation Christopher II did initiate some change and
prepared the ground for the wholesale change under King Gustavus Vasa. Of all the countries of Europe,
Scotland had the cleanest reform, in that the desire for change, the
presence of a catalyst in John Knox, and the power vacuum created by the
death of the Regent Mary of Guise in June1560, combined to give a moment
of supreme opportunism that broke the yoke of the Church of Rome. Quite
literally this was completed and confirmed by the Parliament in the space of a few days in July / August 1560 – before
the papist Mary
Queen of Scots, widow of Frances II, returned from France to take up her throne.
Possibly the biggest ally the Reformation had was the
inability of the Catholic states to consistently agree among themselves on
a course of action. There was a common opposition to the Protestant
Reformation by the Church of Rome, by the Emperor (the Holy Roman Empire
included Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, and some Italian
by the King of France. Had these political heavyweights worked together their joint force and
authority may well have squashed the Reformation movement. But their
dynastic ambitions, fomented largely by personal piques and crafty
and ambitious projects of the men around them, kept them in almost
perpetual feud. These rivalries were an undoubted defensive wall cast
about the Reformation and its Divine principles.
In itself the Reformation was more than the return to
primitive Christianity. It quickened and evolved the social
instincts of men and women, and regenerated society both by religion and
providing a vehicle for national education. it gave us corporate
bodies and gave them the idea of social rights with organisation to
acquire and exercise such rights.
“The reformation thus erected a
platform on which it was possible to develop a higher civilisation,
and achieve a a more perfect liberty , than the human race had
Time Line 1487-1603
Chronology of the Reformation in Europe.