The English Reformation

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is one of the most complex movements in European history since the fall of the Roman Empire. The Reformation truly ends the Middle Ages and begins a new era in the history of Western Civilization. The Reformation ended the religious unity of Europe and ushered in 150 years of religious warfare. By the time the conflicts had ended, the political and social geography in the west had fundamentally changed.

The Reformation would have been revolutionary enough of itself, but it coincided in time with the opening of the Western Hemisphere to the Europeans and the development of firearms as effective field weapons. It coincided, too, with the spread of Renaissance ideals from Italy and the first stirrings of the Scientific Revolution. Taken together, these developments transformed Europe. Many bishops and abbots (especially in countries where they were also territorial princes) bore themselves as secular rulers rather than as servants of the Church.

Many members of cathedral chapters and other beneficed ecclesiastics were chiefly concerned with their income and how to increase it, especially by uniting several prebends (even episcopal sees) in the hands of one person, who thus enjoyed a larger income and greater power. Luxury prevailed widely among the higher clergy, while the lower clergy were often oppressed. The scientific and ascetic training of the clergy left much to be desired, the moral standard of many being very low, and the practice of celibacy not everywhere observed.

Not less serious was the condition of many monasteries of men, and even of women (which were often homes for the unmarried daughters of the nobility). The former prestige of the clergy had thus suffered greatly, and its members were in many places regarded with scorn. (Birch, pg 22) The Renaissance and Humanism partly introduced and greatly fostered these conditions. Love of luxury was soon associated with the revival of the art and literature of Greco-Roman paganism.

The Christian religious ideal was to a great extent lost sight of; higher intellectual culture, previously confined in great measure to the clergy, but now common among the laity, assumed a secular character, and in only too many cases fostered actively and practically a pagan spirit, pagan morality and views. A crude materialism obtained among the higher classes of society and in the educated world, characterized by a gross love of pleasure, a desire for gain, and a voluptuousness of life diametrically opposed to Christian morality.

Only a faint interest in the supernatural life survived. The new art of printing made it possible to disseminate widely the works of pagan authors and of their humanistic imitators. Immoral poems and romances, biting satires on ecclesiastical persons and institutions, revolutionary works and songs, were circulated in all directions and wrought immense harm. As Humanism grew, it waged violent war against the Scholasticism of the time.

The traditional theological method had greatly degenerated owing to the finical, hair-splitting manner of treating theological questions, and a solid and thorough treatment of theology had unhappily disappeared from many schools and writings. The Humanists cultivated new methods, and based theology on the Bible and the study of the Fathers, an essentially good movement which might have renewed the study of theology, if properly developed.

But the violence of the Humanists, their exaggerated attacks on Scholasticism, and the frequent obscurity of their teaching aroused strong opposition from the representative Scholastics. The new movement, however, had won the sympathy of the lay world and of the section of the clergy devoted to Humanism. The danger was only too imminent that the reform would not be confined to theological methods but would reach the content of ecclesiastical dogma, and would find widespread support in humanistic circles. Elton, pg 41-66) Martin Luther (1483-1546), German priest and scholar whose questioning of certain church practices led to the Protestant Reformation. He is one of the pivotal figures of Western civilization, as well as of Christianity. By his actions and writings he precipitated a movement that was to yield not only one of the three major theological units of Christianity (along with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) but was to be a seedbed for social, economic, and political thought. Rex, pg 20-21) John Calvin (1509-1564), perhaps even more so than Martin Luther created the patterns and thought that would dominate Western culture throughout the modern period. American culture, in particular, is thoroughly Calvinist in some form or another; at the heart of the way Americans think and act, you’ll find this fierce and imposing reformer. He was the leading French Protestant Reformer and the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation.

The institutional and social patterns he worked out for Geneva deeply influenced Protestantism elsewhere in Europe and in North America. The Calvinist form of Protestantism is widely thought to have had a major impact on the formation of the modern world. (Dickens, pg 56-79) The Reformation destroyed the unity of faith and ecclesiastical organization of the Christian peoples of Europe, cut many millions off from the true Catholic Church, and robbed them of the greatest portion of the salutary means for the cultivation and maintenance of the supernatural life.

Incalculable harm was thereby wrought from the religious standpoint. The false fundamental doctrine of justification by faith alone, taught by the Reformers, produced a lamentable shallowness in religious life. Zeal for good works disappeared, the asceticism which the Church had practiced from her foundation was despised, charitable and ecclesiastical objects were no longer properly cultivated, supernatural interests fell into the background, and naturalistic aspirations aiming at the purely mundane, became widespread.

The denial of the Divinely instituted authority of the Church, both as regards doctrine and ecclesiastical government, opened wide the door to every eccentricity, gave rise to the endless division into sects and the never-ending disputes characteristic of Protestantism, and could not but lead to the complete unbelief which necessarily arises from the Protestant principles.

Of real freedom of belief among the Reformers of the sixteenth century there was not a trace; on the contrary, the representatives of the Reformation displayed the greatest tyranny in matters of conscience. Thus arose from the very beginning the various Protestant “national Churches”, which are entirely discordant with the Christian universalism of the Catholic Church, and depend, alike for their faith and organization, on the will of the secular ruler. In this way the Reformation was a chief factor in the evolution of royal absolutism.

In every land in which it found ingress, the Reformation was the cause of indescribable suffering among the people; it occasioned civil wars which lasted decades with all their horrors and devastations; the people were oppressed and enslaved; countless treasures of art and priceless manuscripts were destroyed; between members of the same land and race the seed of discord was sown. Germany in particular, the original home of the Reformation, was reduced to a state of piteous distress by the Thirty Years’ War, and the German Empire was thereby dislodged from the leading position which it had for centuries occupied in Europe.

Only gradually, and owing to forces which did not essentially spring from the Reformation, but were conditioned by other historical factors, did the social wounds heal, but the religious corrosion still continues despite the earnest religious sentiments which have at all times characterized many individual followers of the Reformation. (Tyacke, pg 5-25) The response of the Roman Church to the reformers’ demands is the Counter-reformation. The Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola, aggressively led a campaign to support Catholic doctrine.

The members of the order acting behind the scenes within the Catholic monarchies exercised a strong influenced in political spheres; Jesuit priests often acted as confessors to major political leaders. Papal authority is considered inviolable, canonization and worship of saints is to be a cornerstone of celebratory ritual, and the visual grandeur of the church is to be encouraged to excess. Charles V strongly recommends that the papal Curia convene to resolve issues of internal dispute, and after many delays a council convenes in Trent in December of 1545.

Three basic issues are under examination; two are broad resolves to clarify doctrinal issues in order to still internal disputes, and definitively solve the problem of ecclesiastical abuses among the clergy. The third issue is the initiation of a crusade against the infidels. Paul III frankly hopes to get widespread approval to condemn the Protestant heresy, and thereby gains support for a suppression of the reformers by force.

In the end, the Council of Trent succeeds not by condoning violence, but by offering a united front against the Protestants. The Church proved itself capable of action, and reinforced its presentation of the orthodox faith. In the second half of the 16th century the theological conflict becomes a political power struggle. By the time Martin Luther dies in 1546 and John Calvin in 1564 the Reformation message is complete. The Protestant movement has split into a number of sectarian churches, and no more great Protestant reformers are to appear.

Ignatius of Loyola dies in 1556 and the Council of Trent ends in 1563, thus also bringing the Counter-reformation to a theological halt. (Scarisbrick, pg 80-113) In spite of religious controversies, the Reformation is a period of economic revolution, as mercantilism and commercial capitalism gains strength. Science and mathematics come to influence nearly every facet of life. Shakespeare’s dramas hold public attention as do Molieres, and in the arts northern realism vies with the southern baroque for attention.

In politics the Dutch and the English retain constitutional representative governments, holding fast to their civil liberties; France and Spain in spite of internal dissonances are primarily guided by the strong hands of rulers such as Philip II (1527-1598) and Henry IV (1553-1610). Twentieth century Europe bears the imprint of Reformation: Scandinavia, England Scotland, Switzerland, the north and east of Germany, and parts of Eastern Europe have largely remained Protestant. (Tyacke, pg 1-5) In my opinion, the Reformation was one of the greatest things that ever happened to both Europe and the rest of the world.

The ideas of the Reformation were the foundation of expression of free speech and democracy. The Reformation showed the world that their lives did not have to be run by a religious leader or Monarchist and that a persons life did not have to be centered on religion or the afterlife. If it were not for the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the world we live in now would be a much different place. The Protestant Reformation was a major building block of history, and some would say our country.


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