A few reflections concerning the Reformation.
Historians have long debated the reasons for the success of Martin Luther, Zwingli, and the other Reformers versus the failures of other per-Reform movements. Why did Luther succeed in 1517, but Hus fail in 1415?
The parallels between Hus and Luther are striking. Through Richard II's (1371-99) marriage to Anne of Bohemia, Wycliffe's writings were able to make their way into Prague. Hus had already been somewhat stirred by study of the Scripture, and Wycliffe's ideas helped stimulate others and led to the beginnings of this attempt at reform. Hus was a priest like Luther and a teacher. He was protesting the abuses of the day and had a ready audience as many of the common people were frustrated with the social order and many of the nobles were resentful of the power south of the Alps. A very similar scenario to what happened a hundred years later a little to the northwest at Wittenberg.
The Prague movement was destabilizing and Hus was ordered to appear at Constance, where a council was meeting trying to resolve the Great Schism. Sigismund the Holy Roman Emperor had promised safe passage but he reneged, Hus was tried and burnt at the stake. The Hussites as they began to be called rebelled, leading to almost twenty years of war until the battle of Lipany in 1434. Armies and Crusades had been sent against them in vain, but in the end it was the two Hussite factions fighting each other which ended the conflict. The radical and violent Taborites having lost their captains, Zizka and then Prokop fell to the more compromising Utraquists.
Chelcicky and others rejected the semi-Roman Utraquist position but also rejected the violence and war of the Taborites, a harbinger of later Protestant Sacralism. The Taborites were zealously devoted to the Scriptures as a rule of faith, but departed from them in their violent nationalism. The lessons of the Taborites would not be learned.
The political ambitions of the Hussite movement failed, and the Underground groups enjoying a temporary liberty went back underground, in some cases with greater numbers. Waldensians flooded into Bohemia bringing their ideas and also encountering the various Hussite theologies. These interactions would bear fruit in the following century. Though as a result of this uprising as well as the massive growth of the Underground, the 15th century would be an age of bloodletting and martyrdom.
Why did Luther succeed a hundred years later?
All historians will point to a variety of factors, but the main emphasis among traditional Protestant historians is the Lutheran discovery of Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide). The Reformation is viewed as a Revival. This is a theological concept, a recurring theme in the older Protestant histories. While absent in the New Testament, it is rooted in the history of Israel and it is there the Protestant historians and theologians looked for precedent. The revivals of Hezekiah and Josiah are looked to for inspiration, but a whole theology grew up around this concept especially in the British Isles.
I am often frustrated when reading Church Histories because they usually have a tendency to downplay certain aspects of the story and emphasize the Revivalistic aspect of the Reformation. Secular historians not able to grasp religious motivation often point to socio-economic or political factors and downplay the effect of Gospel preaching. Admittedly it is hard to measure and document for many reasons, one of them being the politicization of the whole matter.
The popular mode of Christian worldview teaching would have us ignore or severely downplay the secular considerations. Their bias invalidates secular historical methodology and conclusions. On one level this is true, but I would say the same for many of the Church historians. It would seem the preferred historical narratives have more of a devotional character to them rather than an attempt at objective examination and interpretation.
I think we can learn something from both camps and with wisdom have a better understanding that helps us to avoid errors in interpreting history. We can avoid relegating everything to mere socio-economic concerns, but we can also avoid a romanticized and almost mythical quality to the reporting and interpretation.
Regarding Revival, it would seem the term itself assumes the revitalization of something that once indeed had vitality. In other words, the old Roman Church was revitalized and this new life bred reform. I argue the Roman Church had not been a Biblical Church for at least five centuries. The Papacy of Gregory VII Hildebrand in the 11th century, was a turning point for the Roman entity, for it finally moved toward achieving the monolithic unity it had approached in the Merovingian and Carolingian ages. That is to say, during the 5th through early 9th century the Papacy was growing and developing Western Christendom. By the end of the 9th century Europe was again in chaos with Viking, Saracen, and Magyar raids and invasions. The Papacy was reduced in power, and the Holy Roman Empire initiated in 800AD had become irrelevant. These are dark chapters for the Papacy, ones they would not willingly revisit as the catalog of Popes during this era reads more like the chronicles of Sodom and Gomorrah or the Mafia, than what one would expect of an ecclesiastical leadership claiming to be the proxy of Christ.
In the mid-10th century, the Empire was revived under German leaders like Otto who defeated the Magyars (Hungarians) and rescued the Papacy. But by the 11th century the Papacy was ascendant and for the next several centuries Popes and Kings would strive for the mastery, the Popes often victorious. They scored great victories at Canossa and with the humiliations of the Plantagenet kings, Henry II and John.
So, prior to the 11th century Western Latin Christendom was not united. I argue there were still various strains within the West and a certain amount of freedom for dissenters. Remember Claude of Turin in the 9th century? If he had been around in the 11th or 12th century his story would have ended differently, probably at the stake. But during the 'Dark Ages' from approximately 500AD to 900 or 1000AD, there was a disunity which allowed for dissent. The Ecclesiastical structure was weak and the political structure weak or chaotic, or in some cases unwilling to prosecute heresy. The Roman programme of cultural assimilation was still in the works. There were still plenty of heathen practices about not yet fully assimilated into the Roman system.
So in one sense we can date the Roman Catholic Church from say the time of Leo or Gregory in the 5th and 6th centuries, but it did not take on its form that we often think of until just after the turn of the millennium. Perhaps we could say the Church had turned Roman in the fifth century but did not become fully Roman Catholic until the 11th.
At this point, I would argue the apostasy which had begun in earnest around the time of Constantine was complete. The Church, defined Biblically was now without a doubt underground. And this is where conventional Protestant historians and I part ranks. I do not view the Crusaders, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Dominic and Francis, Innocent III, Boniface VIII, William of Ockham, or any of these people as brethren. I argue Rome was and is a false church. Men like Wycliffe and Hus, make the history books largely because they were functioning within this entity and their rightful schism expose not some remnant of truth within it (though there may have been) but rather its false nature, unable to tolerate gospel adherents within its midst. The visible Church was underground.
My point is, I have a hard time viewing the Reformation as a Revival when to me, there was nothing to revive. Secular historians rightly I think, identify the Reformation as not really a reform, but a revolution.
This troubles Protestant historians who wish to maintain a certain visible and institutional continuity. This baffles and frustrates me not a little, but I've discussed this elsewhere. Aside from buildings, codices, and the often idolatrous arts, I'm not sure what they see? The mantle of Civilization it would seem is what drives their insistence upon the outward continuity. The gospel had been lost for centuries. We should hardly care about the outward trappings which in any event usually just reveal the severity of the Roman error. But Rome preserved the Scriptures as the Word of God, they argue. I would argue the Underground preserved the Bible and translated it and propagated it in the vernacular….and actually bothered to read it and elevated it as the supreme authority. Rome maintained orthodox Trinitarianism. Is there reason to doubt the Waldensians or Lollards didn't? They're accused of Arianism by Inquisitors, but that's been shown to be spurious. Were they as versed in the metaphysical and often speculative subtleties? No. Was there consensus on all the doctrinal minutiae? No.
But God always has a church on earth, is a common argument. Indeed. Sometimes the church was a remnant, sometimes in exile. Think of the picture of David in Ziklag or Adullam. Was that not the remnant being persecuted? And yet David was the anointed, the true king of Israel and yet without a throne and on the run. Think of the Sons of the Prophets in the northern kingdom during the time of Elisha and after. Living in the midst of apostasy, they remained faithful and in the northern kingdom they were the visible church remnant.
What's the difference between identifying the post -1517 events as a Revolution vs. Reformation? To understand this I think we have to return to the question of why was Luther successful?
Rightly many historians point to Guttenberg's printing press developed in the mid 15th century as a huge contributing social factor. The Reformation was able to make great use of this modern media and disseminate their ideas and arguments in a way Huss or other proto-protestants could not. We'll return to that in a moment.
Another consideration often neglected by Protestant historians is the politics of the day. By the 16th century, nation-states as we know them today were beginning to develop. We're talking about unified states with organized agendas, central power, and a national consciousness. Prior to this, under feudalism, rather than states it was more a case of aristocratic families and dynasties, overlapping feudal obligations, and de-centralized power. This is not say dynastic considerations did not continue, but certain countries, particularly England, France, to some degree Spain, and the Scandinavian realms were becoming more self-identified and less part of the mass of Christendom. They were nations first, and part of a united nations (Christendom), second.
The Holy Roman Empire including the lands we would today call Germany, parts of Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia (Czech Republic) and northern Italy were not united even though they were part of this larger entity. It wasn't much of an empire. The throne was not hereditary, the emperor being selected by the seven, sometimes eleven, Electors, who wielded considerable power and were often rivals. He was more a head of state rather than a true head of government. The power was symbolic but nebulous and un-defined. Everyone liked the idea, but no one really wanted a Caesar with true imperial power….especially the man wearing the Triple-Crown in the city on the Tiber. The Popes always claimed that for themselves.
As the Papacy tried to assert power, and gain revenue, the more powerful unified states were able to show some resistance in avoiding taxes and levies, and control of politics. Disunited central Europe, the Empire, was not. Consequently there had long been a growing resentment largely north of the Alps toward the Papacy and the Italians who dominated it. Germans grew tired of their taxes going south, flying over the Alps as they said. There were cultural divides and in general a growing anti-clerical resentment due to corruption. A sense of nationality was beginning to develop, a sense of otherness.
It gets more complicated, because you have in 1519 Charles V becoming the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, but he's also King of Spain, Burgundy, and the Netherlands (not exactly the same as today). He has lands within and without the Empire, not to mention the Spanish New World; remember in 1519 Cortez was in Mexico and the Conquistador project was in full swing.
In Germany, among certain members of the aristocracy there was a growing discontent and resentment toward the Papacy and the ever waxing Habsburg power. Some of these men were religiously motivated to be sure, while others were more properly said to be politically motivated. Luther was quite useful to the latter. His actions were weakening the Papacy and strengthening their hand.
Among the people, I think we find the same. Undoubtedly many took a new comfort in the sudden clarity of the Gospel, but for many others this was an opportunity to express anger and resentment at the ruling order. The Peasant Revolt resulted, not based in Luther's teachings, but definitely a result of the social tumult in which Luther had been the catalyst. It indicates a social frustration, a rising pressure which was unleashed by the societal situation Luther created. People were stirred up, but it wasn't all a result of Luther's teachings. Rather Luther's teachings provided an opportunity, a rallying point. We see this over and over throughout history. People rally around an ideology for the sake of coming together, a means not an end.
The pamphlets played a large role in this, especially with accompanying woodcuts. The pamphlets were read aloud as many were yet illiterate. The woodcuts made famous by men like Durer spoke powerfully to the peasants and common people. What's very interesting is you find virtually no reference in this popular media to Justification by Faith Alone. It's not about theology, it's largely about anti-Papal sentiment. It's anger and frustration. Indignation regarding the corruption of God's Word? Maybe sometimes, but more often than not it's German anger against the Papacy. You can't escape this, even in Luther's own writings. He was at his core a German and this was never left behind in his thinking.
So was there a revivalistic element to Luther's project? Yes, but let's be careful to acknowledge that for many of the common folk as well as the aristocracy, this was a Social Revolt…a Revolution. The door was being slammed on the Middle Ages.
This is why we often call them the Magisterial Reformers. Luther was defended by the Elector of Saxony and others. There were political elements to the Zwinglian movement in independent minded Switzerland, where there had long been revolt and resentment toward the Empire and the Habsburgs in particular. The Reformation was tied in with and dependent upon the actions of the state. This was yet another Constantinian move and would prove not only disastrous for Europe over the next 150 years, but in the end would sow the seeds for skepticism and secularization of the Enlightenment period. In the end, Protestant Sacralism would dig its own grave.
Protestant historians acknowledge most of these social aspects in some form, but they tend to downplay these elements. It sounds too much like regular history and loses some of its own devotional quality. And this is where I argue the Reformation was good, and yet a disaster of the first order. It mainstreamed the gospel in Northern Europe, but also set the stage for terrible wars and the erection of a new Sacral order, in the end just as detrimental to the cause of Christ as the Old Order. God willing in time we will explore more of the post-Reformation legacy. Some of these issues have been looked at in earlier posts.
So can we say Hus failed because he didn't explicitly teach Sola Fide, or did he fail because he didn't have someone like the Elector of Saxony to back him up? I've written elsewhere on the issue of Sola Fide and the Underground, but I feel pretty confident in saying the Reformation was more than the Lutheran formulation of Justification by Faith Alone.
The Reformation swallowed up the Underground and subsumed them under a new Sacralism. Groups like the Waldensians and Lollards all but disappeared with a few exceptions*. The theological implications were all tied up with the social and political issues of the day. The Protestant princes of northern Europe would over the course of the 16th century establish a new Holy Empire, just a Protestant one. Not united politically it was a parallel Christendom concept that was also brought to the new world and later re-cast in a specifically American framework. Even as late as the arrival of potato-famine Irish and the candidacy of John F. Kennedy this mode of thought was still pervasive in American Protestantism. It still lingers in Ulster, though it appears perhaps for the first time since the early 17th century to be settling down.
The Anabaptists of the 16th century took up the anti-Constantinian mantle, and no doubt some of them were descended from Underground movements. While there were Baptistic proto-protestant movements, the Waldensians and the Bohemian movements were mostly not. Sadly, the Waldensians and even the Unitas Fratrum/Moravians were eventually brought under the Sacralist umbrella.
So the Reformation largely succeeded, humanly speaking, due to social and political reasons coupled with the power of the Lutheran formulation of the Gospel. But it was these very social and political reasons which led to the Reformation becoming a re-cast Sacralism. Better perhaps than the Roman model, but immediately setting out on the wrong path with a corrupted view of Christ's Kingdom. Much had been gained, but much had been lost. It's reminiscent of the Constantinian Shift in the 4th century. The persecutions had ceased but the price was perhaps too great. It's like stopping a bleeding wound by staunching it with poison.
Another huge factor at play was the Ottoman Turks. After the Balkan victories and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans turned east, cleaned up Anatolia, dealt with Egypt etc… But with the advent of Suleiman a few years after Luther's actions at Wittenberg, everything changed. The Ottomans turned back toward Europe and crushed Hungary at Mohacs in 1526. A few years later they would be at the gates of Vienna. For the next century and a half the Turks would lurk in the background of all European geo-politics. But during the genesis of the Reformation, it was literally a Godsend. Charles V could not turn his energies to dealing with the bombastic beer drinking monk from Germany, nor could he take on his aristocratic rivals. And in the coming decades the situation would only become more complicated leading to the strange events in 1683 when we find Transylvanian Calvinists fighting alongside the Turks against Habsburg Vienna.
All of this must be understood in light of Providence, but interpreting Providence gets a little sticky and some of the older histories are a little audacious in their attempts. In the end, we can soberly conclude the Reformation was the result of numerous factors with good and bad results.
If one looks into the histories of wars, take for example the American Revolution, you will find people fought for different motives and reasons. Those on the defense are often a bit more unified in motive, but the American Revolution or Rebellion was not defensive. Thus it becomes complex. Some viewed it as defensive. Some viewed it as progressive. Some viewed it in religious and moral terms. Some were pragmatic in their concerns. We could go on.
So with a complex movement like the Reformation we find the same diversity. For some it was religious, for others social, for others especially with something to gain, it was political. For some it was a combination of these motives. The success was Providential but we cannot with confidence say it was all good. The success was brought about by Providence through various means; religious elements, social and cultural issues, political and geo-political motivations.
Rather than view our heritage through rosy coloured spectacles, we ought to soberly and honestly investigate and reflect on what has happened. Only then can we deal with the subsequent history and how all these matters apply today.
When one considers the Magisterial element to the Reformation it seriously wounds the Revivalistic argument, or at least weakens it. The sudden transformation of England, Sweden and other states to Protestantism by royal decree is akin to the Franks converting under Clovis in the 5th century. It was politics, not religious conviction. These are not Biblical categories and ought to be treated with this in mind. Such conversions create a Sacral state, but only harm the mission and identity of the Church. Rather than viewing someone like Gustavus Vasa the king of Sweden as a hero, we ought to condemn him as a latter day Constantine and a corrupter of the Church. They Swedes might hail him as a national hero, but as Christians we need to look at these things differently. Do I doubt the motives of some of these kings and rulers? Yes I do, and yet I will acknowledge some were probably sincere. They were still wrong but meant well.
Putting them in context, yes, we can read them in light of their times. But we also must consider Biblical doctrine and make certain their historical context doesn’t outweigh the Biblical teaching. Let's avoid hero worship a creating a Protestant cult of the saints. We can forgive them in one sense for embracing or advancing the errors of the day, but that doesn't mean we have to justify their actions and certainly not emulate them.
As you consider these things perhaps you will see why I have a hard time recommending Church Histories? There are many wonderful historical books regarding the Christian Church, but don't read them alone. In many cases the secular historians are asking better questions. Sad but true.
*The Waldensians of the Cottian Alps maintained their identity as Waldensians but in the 1530's became consciously Reformed-Calvinist. They entered the mainstream of the Reformation and lost many of the earlier distinctives, both good and bad. So long had they lived in the isolated valleys west of Turin, they had become an ethnic sub-grouping. This label they maintained, otherwise they were subsumed by the Reformation.
The Unitas Fratrum survived but when forced into exile during the Thirty Years War they fled to Poland and then across the frontier into Saxony. By the 18th century they too had lost much of their earlier flavour as they became somewhat enmeshed with Lutheran pietism.
As mentioned, almost alone, the Anabaptists maintained the earlier rejection of Sacralism-Constantinianism. But they too in part represented a deviation from the Medieval Underground. Only in part though, as it must be admitted there were groups like the Petrobrussians and some Waldensians who also argued for credobaptism on specific theological grounds. The Paulicians or some of them in the Byzantine realm may have held similar convictions. Their history has been so confused it is difficult to re-create and interpret. More on the Paulicians at a later time.