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 days.

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. The Marcian 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 Churches

"...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 Churches."

The Albigenses  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 twelfth century.

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 Britain) were:

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,
William Farel.

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 Protestant threat.

Protestant Europe.

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 reform.

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. There were 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 possessions) and 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 yet known."

Time Line 1303-1483.

Time Line 1487-1603

European politics (Table) 1493-1621.

Chronology of the Reformation in Europe.


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