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Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation | Geoffrey Saint-Clair | IgnatiusInsight.com

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Catholics trying to understand the Reformation sometimes complain about the wide range of Protestant churches, denominations and sects. "How can you keep them all straight?" they ask. The challenge is not as great as it seems at first glance because the tens of thousands of Protestant churches, denominations, and sects trace their origins back, one way or another, either to the three major founders of the Reformation or to the Radical Reformation movement known as the Anabaptists. Understand them, and you’ll go a long way toward understanding the complex reality called Protestantism.

But the various Protestant factions aren’t the only things confusing about the Reformation era. The Catholic Reformation and the various figures associated with it can also perplex. The various popes, prelates, and politicians can be hard to keep track of. For this reason, I offer this essay as a kind of introductory "who’s who" of the Reformation, Protestant and Catholic.

Three Reformers: Luther, Zwingli and Calvin

Most Catholics know the three main Protestant Reformers–Luther, Zwingli and Calvin–even if they don’t know much about them. Martin Luther (1483-1546), they usually know, was a priest who broke with Rome over indulgences. It used to be said that Luther started "the Protestant revolt" in order to run off with a nun. And he did–run off with a nun, that is, although "run off" is an inaccurate way of putting it. According the Jesuit biographer Hartman Grisar, he initially refrained from marriage precisely to avoid giving his opponents a weapon to use against him. Eventually, though, Luther did marry Catherine von Bora, an ex-nun.

However, Luther didn’t start the Reformation in order to get married. In fact, he didn’t really start a movement called "the Reformation." He objected to certain ideas and practices prevalent in the Church of his day. One of those ideas was the notion that one had to merit God’s grace through pious practices in order to be saved. Another was that indulgences could be purchased in order to benefit the dead in purgatory. Luther was right on both those points, yet contrary to popular opinion, that doesn’t make the Catholic Church wrong. At least not in the highest, official expression of her teaching. The trouble was, due to a host of problems that plagued the late medieval Church, the vast majority of Catholics were probably unsure of exactly what the Church had taught about such things. Add to that Renaissance popes and other prelates who were often greedy and power-hungry and therefore disinclined to consider the finer points of Catholic doctrine and discipline, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Martin Luther
was born of peasant stock in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, son of Hans and Margarete Luther. His father Hans, a miner, wanted to see his son pursue a career in canon law, but alas that was not to happen. As a result of a vow rashly made during a thunderstorm, Luther decided to become a monk. In 1505, he joined the Augustinians, the strictest religious house in Erfurt. There, Luther began an intense monastic life of prayer, study, and fasting. Two years later, he was ordained a priest and continued his theological studies.

Unfortunately, Luther was trained in nominalist theology, a form of decadent scholasticism that only plunged an already intense personality into despair. He came to believe that he had to earn salvation by his own efforts. But the more he tried–through prayer, fasting, and other good works–the more unacceptable to God he felt himself to be.

Luther’s study of St. Paul, through the lens of St. Augustine and his controversy with the Pelagians, changed all that. Luther came to understand that the "righteousness of God" (iustitia Dei), of which Paul wrote in Romans 1:17, referred to the righteousness by which the sinner is graciously justified by faith, not the standard of righteousness by which God would judge sinners struggling to attain justification by their own efforts. This understanding transformed the troubled monk, who now found peace with God through faith. He saw his "discovery" or "recovery" of the ancient Pauline teaching as a radical departure from the views of the medieval "doctors." And yet this was not so. Unbeknownst to Luther, the leading medieval commentators held the same view of the "righteousness of God."

Luther also came to understand faith as God’s merciful gift by which we receive the further gift of justification, in contrast to all human efforts to merit or earn God’s favor. As a way of insisting that human beings contribute nothing of their own to justification, Luther insisted that man is justified by "faith alone."

Luther’s "discovery" was more than a personal "breakthrough." He was by now a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, where he preached this understanding of the righteousness of God to students. Yet not until the question of the "sale" of indulgences arose in Luther’s diocese did the issue acquired "legs," as the journalists say.

The "selling" of indulgences occurred in the neighboring diocese of Mainz; it was the spill-over into the Luther’s diocese and into his confessional that brought the issue to his attention. The twenty-three year-old archbishop of Mainz had allowed indulgences to be preached in his diocese in exchange for a "cut" in the revenue raised. The money was supposed to go to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In fact, the archbishop needed the money to pay a fee to the Roman Curia for a dispensation allowing him to hold three dioceses at once.

How did something spiritual–an indulgence is after all a remittance of temporal punishment due to sin–come to be "sold"? The theory was that monetary offerings could count as a form of penance, when the donor truly gave sacrificially from his heart, with the proper motive. Unfortunately, the practice easily degenerated into "buying" remittance of punishment for sin. Worst yet, "selling" of indulgences got linked to a misapplication of the principle of praying for the dead in purgatory. Catholic teaching was that one could offer one’s penitential acts to God through Christ as a sort of "petition" on behalf of those who had died and were being purified in purgatory. Such a "petition" was supposed to be understood as efficacious per modem suffragi–to the extent God hears the prayer of the Church. There was, in other words, nothing automatic about it. Since "donating" to obtain an indulgence could be penitential, it was concluded that one could "donate" to obtain an indulgence on behalf of a soul in purgatory. In the popular mind, though, you "bought" an indulgence to get a soul or souls out of purgatory, plain and simple. Johann Tetzel, the Dominican who preached indulgences throughout the diocese of Mainz, had this "advertising jiggle": "As soon as a coin in the coffer clinks, a soul from purgatory springs."

Luther rightly protested this abuse. In late 1517, he published ninety-five theses to dispute various things he regarded as abuses of the day. This was standard academic practice at the time. But other factors–such as politics (civil and ecclesiastical) and human egos (including Luther’s)–enter into the calculus. Soon things were out of hand. Luther quickly went well beyond the issues raised in his Ninety-Five Theses.

Rome initially ignored what Pope Leo X dismissed as a "monk’s squabble." Some of Luther’s opponents argued that it was all or nothing when it came to indulgences. You either accepted them as they were–including the practice of trafficking in indulgences–or you rejected them altogether. Luther wasted no time in jettisoning indulgences and a host of other beliefs. His justifiable objections to abuses quickly mixed with unjustified doctrinal innovations, not to mention his bullheadedness, to make compromise impossible. Initially, Luther thought the pope merely uninformed and misguided about the situation in Germany. But very quickly he was attacking the papacy itself as the Antichrist and envisioning himself as raised up by God to restore the Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Luther’s opponents also dug in their heels. General confusion about what the Church officially taught made things worse. Many of the German princes saw a chance to strike at the Catholic Emperor and the Italian-dominated papacy, and so they transformed an essentially religious debate into a political and economic struggle. Luther didn’t agree with this but he had little choice but to support those who supported him. The dividing of Christendom into warring theological and political factions had begun.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531),
the Swiss Reformer, was quite different from Luther. Luther had been a monk and a priest; Zwingli, a mercenary solider and political activist. Luther was a biblical theologian by training; Zwingli was a Christian humanist. Luther stressed justification by grace through faith and the persistence of sin in the believer’s life, even after justification; Zwingli, though never denying justification by grace through faith, stressed moral and social transformation. Luther was pessimistic about Christianizing the state; Zwingli sought to fuse Church and State in Zurich.






The major dividing line between Luther and Zwingli, however, concerned the sacraments. Zwingli drew from his military experience to explain the sacraments. He argued that the Latin term sacramentum meant "oath." From this he concluded that the sacraments (he counted only Baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments) are signs or pledges–oaths–of God’s faithfulness to his people. Later, Zwingli began explaining the oath-nature of the sacraments in terms of God’s people’s pledge of fidelity to the community of the Church. In neither case, though, did Zwingli understand the sacraments as efficacious signs or as really communicating what they signify. They were at best signs of our association and identification with the Church. It was the Word of God proclaimed that was the source of the Christian life; the sacraments merely provided an opportunity publicly to demonstrate one’s faith.

Nowhere is the difference between Luther and Zwingli regarding the sacraments clearer than in their views of the Eucharist. While Luther denied transubstantiation, he nevertheless affirmed a form of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Zwingli rejected such a notion. For him, the Eucharist was a mere memorial of Jesus’ death, a ritual sign Jesus left his Church by which to remember his act of self-surrender. The bread and wine of the Eucharist did not change in their being; at best, they changed in their significance because of the context in which they were received.

Luther and Zwingli disagreed vehemently regarding Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Luther understood "This is my body" to refer to the Real Presence. For Luther, "is" meant "is," so that when Christ had said "This is my body," he meant to affirm that something had happened to the Eucharistic elements. Zwingli, on the other hand, understood "This is my body" to mean "This signifies my body." He didn’t believe anything happened, other than a change of meaning in the minds of the congregants.

The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli represented a first major division among the various wings of the Reformation. Calvin would later disagree with both Luther and Zwingli on the nature of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. But for Luther, it meant backing away somewhat from his idea that the Bible was perspicuous to the average reader. Scripture, it seemed, was plain to every man–provided he was a trained exegete and agreed with Luther.

Disagreement over the Eucharist posed a major problem for the Reformers, so much so that notables such as Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius met at Marburg in 1529 to iron out their differences. But the factions could not reach final agreement and the division among them resulted in substantial political setbacks, as the Catholic Emperor Charles V was able to exploit the differences among the Reformers.

In the end, Zwingli’s contribution to the Reformation was cut short, as was his life. He was killed at the Battle of Kappel (1531), with the army of Zurich’s defeat due in large measure to German Lutheranism’s refusal to support it. And that, partly the result of the disagreement between Luther and Zwingli at Marburg.

In many respects, John Calvin (1509-1564) was the founder of world Protestantism. He was the real brain-power of the Reformation, the synthesizer and, to a certain extent, its theological systematizer, despite the fact that he was a quarter-century the junior of Luther and Zwingli and of the second generation of the Reformation.

Calvin was a French layman, who had studied theology in Paris with the intention of the priesthood before changing to law. He also studied classical languages and received a thorough humanist education.

About two years after Zwingli died (1533), Calvin publicly embraced the cause of the Reformation. I say "publicly embraced" because no doubt for some time before he had been privately ruminating over Reformation ideas–though he wrote little about the process by which his religious views developed. In a sense, Calvin had grown up on Reformation ideas–he was eleven years old when Luther was excommunicated.

France was hostile to the Reformation, so Calvin fled to Basel. There he made his first major contribution to Protestantism with his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the initial edition of which appeared in Latin in 1536 and which made Calvin famous. He would later translate it into French and revise it many times. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion isn’t a work of systematic theology as much as an introduction to the Christian faith as Calvin understood it. It became something of a theological compendium for later generations of Reformed Protestants, with far reaching effects on the shape of Western culture.

Calvin’s contribution to the Reformation was practical as well as theoretical. As Zwingli had had Zurich, so Calvin had his base of operation–Geneva. Invited by his friend Farel to help promote the Reform there, Calvin made the city his home and sought to establish it as an authentic, model Christian community, as the pattern to be followed throughout the Protestant world.

Calvin has been criticized for establishing a theocracy in Geneva, but that puts it too strongly. The civil and ecclesiastical orders were, in his mind, not identical, but parallel. Each had its immediate jurisdiction and ordinarily would carry out its own business. On the other hand, it would be wrong to say Geneva had a strict separation of Church and State. Calvin’s view was at best one of interdependence, with the Church ultimately calling the shots and the civil authority serving the community of the Church. Where Luther had essentially given over the Church to the dominance of the State (provided the State was controlled by those who shared his theological convictions), Calvin sought to maintain the medieval institutional distinction between Church and State, while essentially allowing the Church to dominate the State indirectly by insisting it operate according to highly specific Christian legislation and norms.

As the Institutes of the Christian Religion greatly influenced the theology of the Reformation, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances greatly affected the structure of many Reformed churches and their relation to the community. One major element of the Ecclesiastical Ordinances was the Consistory, the central church governing apparatus, composed of ministers and elders. Its purpose was to maintain ecclesiastical discipline and theological orthodoxy, but when the social community of the city is identical to the church community, the result is that ecclesiastical discipline and religious heterodoxy have social implications. Very quickly church offenses become civil offenses or at least offenses with civil consequences, as the medieval Church came to see.

The Consistory oversaw the conduct of the believers-citizens of Geneva down to the minutest detail, intervening with disciplinary measures such as public rebuke and excommunication. But because the civil and the ecclesiastical authority were so closely intertwined, condemnation by the Consistory could lead to civil punishments such as public fines and even exile and execution. People were brought before the Consistory for every sort of offense, including petty ones such as singing jingles critical of Calvin, card playing, dancing, and laughing during a sermon. The Consistory also sent out members to each parish to look for transgressors, who, if discovered, were tried by the Consistory. Every household was visited annually, before Easter, to ascertain the status of prospective communicants. If Geneva was the "Rome of the Reformation," the Consistory was its Inquisition and Calvin its Pope. Geneva under Calvin’s influence controlled its citizens’ lives, including their private lives, well beyond what the medieval Church did. The individual Christian in the Church of Geneva was "free" to interpret the Bible for himself, provided he interpreted it exactly as Calvin did.

Was Calvin a "dictator"? Surely not in the conventional sense. He held no elected office, nor did he exercise direct political power in Geneva. He was mainly a pastor, not a politician. And yet we mustn’t go as far as some of Calvin’s supporters, who say he was "simply" a pastor. He possessed tremendous influence in the political community, well beyond that of a mere civic leader. And that influence translated directly into civil law strictures and punishments. Geneva was not an absolute State, in the modern sense, but neither was it a free state, except perhaps for those who already accepted its rigid norms of conduct.

A prime example of Calvin’s influence in Geneva is the case of Pierre Ameaux, a member of the city council, who had criticized Calvin as a preacher of false doctrine. The council told Ameaux to retract his statement, but Calvin wanted a harsher punishment. Ameaux was forced to go through town dressed only in a shirt, with a torch in hand.

Ameaux’ fate was a mere embarrassment; the embryonic freethinker Jacques Gruet was executed for criticizing Calvin, for blasphemy and for protesting the stringent demands of Calvin’s Geneva. He was torture and beheaded. Calvin also got Jerome Bolsec banished for the Frenchman’s disagreement with Calvin regarding predestination, thus proving that, while Geneva was a haven for Protestants throughout Europe who agreed with Calvin, it could be oppressive for those who did not.

But the most celebrated case is that of Michael Sevetus, who didn’t get off as lightly as Bolsec. The Spanish physician-writer took it upon himself to reformulate the doctrine of the Trinity in what were essentially Gnostic categories. But Sevetus made the mistake of sending Calvin an advance copy, which led, by a rather Byzantine route, to Calvin tipping off the Catholic magistrates in Vienna that the heretical Sevetus was practicing medicine in their city. That brought the apparatus of the Inquisition down on him. Sevetus managed to escape and wound up, in all places, Geneva, en route to Naples. Calvin had him arrested, tried and sentence to death. As an act of mercy, Calvin requested that Sevetus be beheaded, instead of burned, but in this case Calvin’s request was not honor.

Theologically speaking, Calvin took over Luther’s twin principles of justification by faith and the supreme authority of the Bible, but he added distinctive twists, especially to the former. Calvin made a systematic distinction between justification and sanctification. Both were the work of grace through faith, according to Calvin, and inseparable from one another. Justification involved the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, which meant that God related to him differently but didn’t change him. Sanctification, on the other hand, was the work of the Holy Spirit within man to change him according to the pattern of Christ. In effect, what Catholics considered justification, Calvin divided into justification and sanctification.

Predestination is often erroneously thought to have been Calvin’s central theme, but in fact the glory and absolute sovereignty of God are at the center of his theology. Nevertheless, predestination is closely related to these ideas and consequently important to Calvin’s thinking, even if less so than subsequent Calvinist theologians made it out to be. The issue concerns God’s sovereignty and his graciousness. God’s sovereignty will not allow anyone to compel God to save him and his graciousness saves people without regard for their deeds. Similarly, God’s sovereignty requires that he decide in advance the fate of all, even of the wicked, consigning them to damnation.



Part 2 of "Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation"








   




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