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TH 301 Week 4

4.1 The Crisis in the Catholic Church: The Reformation

Martin Luther

By the time we reach the 1500's, the insitutional church has grown to include both monasticism and the universities as part of its overall structure. Various styles of monasticism have sprung up around Europe, and they stand in various degrees of allegiance with the institutional church. The trend is often that a monastic order will arise that is critical of the excesses of the church, and many benefactors will contribute to the order to help them in their fight against the church, which causes the order to become wealthy and conservative, and no longer be critical of the excesses of the church. Sometime later a new critical order will arise, and so on. Hence there are, by the late 1400's, several different styles of monasticism at work in the catholic church.

One of these orders were the Augustinians, who followed a "monastic rule" (a set of codes to live by) established by Augustine. The most infamous of their number (at least to the established Catholic Church) has to be a man named Martin Luther.

Luther had been traied as a monk (he was ordained in 1505) and was a teacher at a small university in a region of Europe known as Saxony. Saxony is part of what would later be known as Germany, though the territories were not united into one country at that time. Luther taught Bible classes at the University of Wittenberg, and he was not very happy. He had become increasingly convinced that the sins he was burdened with were too great to be forgiven. Even if he could confess all the ones he knew, he reasoned, there would still be sins he was unaware of, and these would be sufficient to damn him. As he recounts the tale, he "hated God" and the terrible universe God had created that would cause him such misery.

As the story goes, as Luther was preparing lectures on the book of Romans in the year 1516, he read and re-read some passages that profoundly changed his life. When he read chapters 3,4 and 5, for example, Luther was confronted with Paul's claim that we are not saved through the confession of sin, nor by any act. We are justified in the eyes of God "by faith alone."

Luther made two attempts in 1517 to articulate his newfound insights to the wider church. Both times he tacked a series of statements (the 97 and 95 theses, respectively) on the door of the Wittenberg church (the equivalent of posting them on a school bulletin board). The first set met with no reaction at all. The second set (posted on All Hallowes Eve, October 31, 1517, the day before All Saints' Day)touched off a firestorm of controversey.

The main difference in the reactions to the two sets of theses was the political climate. The prince of Saxony was eager to find ways of getting out from under the power of the Pope, and the rapid spread of Luther's complaints (thanks to the newly developed movable-type printing press which reproduced the theses, as well as his subsequent tracts) helped hi to gain important political advantages. By the time the church was ready to move against Luther, he was securely under the protection of the Prince.

Luther developed several doctrines which allowed him to re-align the hold the Catholic Curch had traditionally held in the "economy of salvation." HIs first doctrine was sola scriptura (scripture alone). This doctrine normed church practice, not with chruch tradition, but with the Bible. Suddenly, it was not the church which was giving the official interpretation of the Bible, but the Bible itself which was being used to interpret (and critique) the church. This was a major change.

The second doctrine Luther ascribed to was sola fide (faith alone), which held that there was no intermediary which participated in salvation (such as a sacrament or a priest) but rather our salvation is a direct grace from God. It is in God that we place our faith for salvation, not in the power of the church.

Both of these doctrines allowed Luther to maintian the idea that the church on Earth is valid, even is it is not strictly "catholic and apostolic" (the words of the creeds). Luther's reforms were intended to help the church see its proper Biblical mandates.

The church, however, did not see things that way. In 1519 the theologian John Eck was sent to Wittenberg to debate Luther. The result was that even Luther was convinced by Eck that he was out of line with Roman Catholic dogma. Luther's response was, since his position was in line with Scripture, that the dogma itself must be incorrect, and he stood his ground. The church responded by excommunicating him (which cut him off from the catholic ecomony of salvation - but remember, Luthr now saw things differently). Later a bounty was put on his head, and Luther went into hiding.

The radical accomplishments of Luther include the German translation of the Old and New Testaments (remember up to this point all the western church's literature and liturgy were in Latin), as well as writing a great many tracts against indulgences (the sale of "grace" to help get the dead out of purgatory) and other excesses of the church.

Luther's bold stand touched off a religious and political upheaval known as the "Reformation." Across Europe, a great many territories and leaders followed the lead of Saxony and pulled away from the Catholic Church. The rearrangements of power and politics that resulted fueled centuries of religious wars, as awell as giving rise to the modern "nation-states" that now are the rule throughout the world.

  • Click here for more information on the life and thinking of Martin Luther.

    Ulrich Zwingli

    One of the areas that soon followed the steps of Luther was Zurich, Switzerland, under the direction of a man named Ulrich Zwingli. While there are many similarities to these "reformations," there are also stark differences.

    As we saw above, Luther re-worked the "salvation economy" of the church, but he still held a very high view of the sacraments and their role in the liturgy. Zwingli was far more radical in his approach, claiming that the sacraments held no salvific power wnatsoever, and that they were only "remembrances" of the last Supper and death of Christ. As remembrances, there was no "real presence" at all in the elements of the bread and fruit of the vine.

    Luther disagreed strongly with this approach, and he and Zwingli debated publicily over it on several occasions. Their differences can be traced to where they emphasized Scripture: Luther focused on "This is my body," whereas Zwingli focused on "Do this in remembrance of me."

    The Zwinglian position has been influential on many Protestant approaches to the sacraments (especially for the Baptists). Both his and Luther's approaches attempt to give an answer to the problem of the "sin economy" without giving unneccessary power to the church. As the reformation continued, other attempts were also made to solve this problem.

    Zwingli died defending Zurich against Catholic forces.

  • Click here for more information on Ulrich Zwingli.

    4.2 The Reformation (continued): Calvin, the rise of Systematic Theology; the English Reformation and the origins of the Baptists

    John Calvin

    One cannot speak of systematic theology without acknoweldging John Calvin, for it was his writings that helped to create the wholistic approach to theology that we now refer to as "systematic" or "constructive."

    Calvin was trained in Paris in theological studies at the great University there. However, his father (who was paying the bills) decided Calvin needed to pursue a more practical profession, and insisted that the young man switch to studying the law. So Calvin's formal degree was readying him to be a lawyer. While at the University, Calvin was also exposed to a great cross-section of thought, especially i/ Humanism. Both this and his legal studies would have a profound impact on his development as a religious thinker.

    In the last years of his studies, Calvin's father passed away, and the young man took his inheritance and picked up again with his religious training. He became a priest in the Catholic church and was early on very suspicious of the news from Saxony about Martin Luther and his reformation ideas. Calvin never spoke at lenght about the events that made him risk his life and become a Protestant, but we do know that at some point in the 1530's this conversion occurred. It caused Calvin to flee France in search of more hospitable regions to be found in Switzerland. He ended up settling in Geneva (not his original destination) and spent the bulk of his life there, organizing the church there into what would become the model for what is now known as the "Reformed" churches (presbyterians, congregationalists, disciples of Christ, some Baptists).

    While in Geneva, Calvin began to write a book called the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was origianlly intended to be a short guide to aide in Christian worship, and since it was for Protestants (and therefore dangerous to carry openly) it was orignally short (around 100 pages ) and small enough to slip in one's pocket.

    What was unique about the Institutes at that time is that it attempted to comprehensively explain every major Christian doctrine in its relation to every other doctrine. As a result, it is one of the first truly systematic theologies. Calvin continued to revise it throughout his life, and each subsequent edition contained more material and rearranged the order of sections as Calvin continued to see connections and results of his theological claims interacting. In the end, the final edition of the /i Institutes consists of four volumes and well over 1300 pages (much larger now than would fit in a pocket!).

    The work accomplished what was lacking in Luther and Zwingli's writings - a thorough overview of Christian doctrines and their relationship with each other. Calvin's legally-trained mind was well-suited to the task, although some have argued that his training, as well as his youthful interests in humanism, distorted some of the conclusions he reached away from "proper" Christian faith (for example, his reading of Augustine on sin led Calvin to seriously question the notions that humans have a "free" will) - though the many Reformed Christians in the world today are readily accepted into the fellowship of Christian churches.

    The English Reformation

    Though the Protestant Reformatio thinkers we have considered thus far were all living on the European continent, we should not neglect the fact that the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) have their own unique part of the Reformation as well.

    Like we have seen in other European territories, the English Reformation was fueled largely by the desire of a monarch to gain independence from the power of the Pope and Roman Church influence. In this case, it was King Henry the Eighth who was trying to assert his sovereignty against that of the Papacy. While there were many factors that led to Henry's rebellion, historically the "turning point" has been found in his request to the Pope to be granted a writ of divorce (Henry desired a male heir, and had been unable to father one with his first wife). When the Pope refused Henry's request, Henry began the process of dissolving the ties to the Roman church.

    The argument Henry (and his advisors) made was this: Great Britian had been home to a series of monasteries from early in the Christian tradition - they were missionized earler, in fact, than the split between the Eastern and Western churches. Because they had such an early version of Christianity on their soil, it was argued, they had access to the apostolic succession directly, without having to go through Rome to get it. As a result, so it was claimed, the church in England could stand independent of Roman Church authority and still be catholic (that is, a part of the universal church - a claim the Roman church still strongly denies ).

    The English Reformation gave rise to another form of Protestantism - one which identified much more closely with the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church. This style of Protestantism, known as Anglicanism (from the same root as the word "England") is the forebear of more recent denominations such as Episcopalianism, Methodism, and the Nazarene churches.

    The transition from Roman Catholicism to English Catholicism was not smooth. There were many battles fought over which church would have dominance on the British Isles (and these battles still rage in areas such as Northern Ireland). One of the results of this instability was a distrust among common people of both the Roman and English churches. In the mid 1600's, rag-tag groups of religious "seekers" roamed the countryside, looking for "true religion" and following the direct leadings of the Spirit (or at least so they claimed). These groups rejected the "liturgcal" trappings of the Anglicans and became the ancestors of the "low" or "free" church movements. Some of the key groups to arise by the year 1650 were the Quakers and the Baptists.

  • Click here for more information on the history of the Baptists.

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    TH 301 Week 5

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    Theology 301 class (American Baptist College - Nashville, TN)