The Partial Success of the Protestant Reformation

This following is a paper I wrote this spring for my History of Christianity class.

The Protestant Reformation is largely understood today as the work of theologians and priests. These religious actos rethought the tenets of Christianity, and envisioned a new way of being the Church, and the process, radically reshaped religious thought and practice in Europe. These theologians and priests weren’t the only leaders of change, however. Kings, queens, emperor, and courtiers also played a large role in the Reformation, and their contributions drove the Reformation to also be movement of political change in Europe. The various wings of the Reformation were all generally successful in forming new ideas on theological and ecclesial matters, and even in forcing the Catholic church to examine itself and make significant changes. However, across Europe, all of the major Reformation movements were eventually co-opted by political interests, and put to work in service of the ongoing wranglings of monarchs and nations. Thus, the Reformation should be viewed as only partly successful: it certainly forced religious reform across Europe, but it failed to make life appreciably, materially better for millions of regular people.

The Late Middle Ages, the time in which the Reformation began, was a time of crisis and struggle for Europe. Ward Holder writes, “These crises were not all religious, but the minds of the people at that time tended to see things religiously.” The Black Death was the primary driver of angst through the 13th and 14th centuries, although drought, plagues, severe winters, and the threat of Islamic invasion also plunged people into insecurity and fear. All these threats challenged what Holder calls the “medieval imagination,” causing people to attribute the troubles to God’s wrath, and more importantly, bringing questions of eternity and salvation to the forefront of people’s minds. “Death seems never to have been more realistically considered than in this era and hardly ever so anxiously feared.”

The idea of purgatory sprung up at this time. Purgatory, in Catholic theology, “was a place reserved for those Christian believers who had failed to make full satisfaction for their sinning during the span of their lives.” People began looking for ways to limit the purgatorial work their souls would have to do after death, and also to lessen the burden of their own loved ones in Purgatory. One way the church proposed to address this was via the selling of indulgences. Indulgences served purportedly to release souls from purgatory, but more temporally, they filled the coffers of the Catholic church, and of its clerics. Indulgences were merely one form of corruption people perceived among their clergy, along with simony, adultery, and absenteeism.

The leading edge of the Reformation was in Germany, led by the monk Martin Luther. Luther, in response to the growing indulgence trade, began to question vital church doctrine. His 95 Theses addressed a variety of theological claims, including his assertion that salvation occurred through faith, not works. Denounced by the pope, Luther refused to recant and eventually become more strident in his denunciations of ecclesial hierarchy and corruption.

In Geneva, John Calvin was the other major figure of the Protestant Reformation. Drawing on humanism and the works of Luther, Calvin issued his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which critiqued traditional theology and ecclesiology in a variety of ways. In Geneva, Calvin was pressured to lead the city as a center of the Reformation. Initially reluctant, Calvin eventually accepted the role, and despite a brief exile, he transformed the city into his image of a Christian city-state, ruled by his firm theological and ethical standards.

Two other major movements characterized the Reformation. In England, King Henry VIII initiated a break with Rome due to his desire for an annulment in his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After the pope refused (due as much to political considerations as theological), Henry declared himself the head of the church in England. Religious reformers, led by Lord Chancellor Thomas More, seized the opportunity to bring Reformation ideas to England. Although Henry never officially broke with Catholic theology (his Six Articles largely maintained the historical positions of the Church), after his death, the Reformers successfully pushed the child-king Edward VI to embrace Protestantism. Edward died after a short stint as king, and Mary Tudor tried to return England to Catholicism, before her sister Elizabeth I took the throne and reasserted a preference for Protestantism. However, Elizabeth understood the international political implications of the tensions between Catholics and Protestants, and took a policy of appeasement towards English Catholics.

The final major section of the Reformation were the Anabaptists. Arising variously from Bohemia, Moravia, the Swiss cantons, and the Netherlands, Anabaptists clashed theologically with both Catholics and Protestants, and suffered persecution at the hands of both. Anabaptist embraced a theology and ecclesiology far more radical even than the Protestants, proclaiming absolute pacifism, adult baptism, and a separation from worldly affairs. Christians on all sides saw these ideas as dangerous to church and state political arrangements, and consequently suppressed Anabaptists. When Anabaptist reformers finally gained a measure of power, in Munster, they subsequently sank the city into chaos and carnage, causing later Anabaptists to shrink away from the affairs of the state.

The success of Protestant Reformers in seizing the public imagination and providing people with visions of a better society was seen with political leaders as an opportunity to advance their own goals. Consequently, in the years after the initial Reformation movement, the theological and ecclesial goals of the Reformers were subsumed under the political goals of various monarchs and emperors. For the vast majority of common people, this meant that their subsistence form of living was never transformed in any meaningful way, but was instead transferred from one liege to another.

Lutheran shortcomings became evident during the life of Luther himself. Luther himself advocated a strict separation between political and church leadership, but advocated for positive political reform, including “efforts to improve education, social welfare, and the political process.” However, during the Peasants’ War, in 1525, Luther took the side of German princes against peasants who called for political reform to give them more rights and privileges. Luther called on princes to meet the demands of the peasants, but when they failed to do so and the peasants rebelled, Luther called for a violent crackdown on the peasants in his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

In Geneva, Calvin also took part in political repression. Driven by his dogmatic belief in church discipline, Calvin used the Consistory, which at times under Calvin became a “moral reign of terror.” Calvin viewed violations of his city rules severely, liberally employing exile and execution against those who stepped out of line.

The English Reformation was tied up in political affairs and monarchical politics from the beginning, with the marriage wishes of Henry VIII being the original precipitating event of reform. As power swung between Protestants and Catholics under his various children’s’ reins, people on both sides of the divide suffered. Most crucially, unlike Luther and Calvin, no form of social reform became a part of the English Reformation. Aside from various changes within church practice and structure, in fact, many English peasants and commoners surely would never have seen much difference in their lives no matter which faction controlled the throne. Whether Protestant or Catholic, the monarchy still ruled and life was still largely bleak and precarious. Social justice of any type was never considered.

Finally, the debacle at Munster showed the limits of social reform in the name of Christianity. Anabaptist leaders instituted radical social change in Munster:

“The property of the expelled citizens was confiscated; food was made public property; real property was declared to be common, although people could continue using what was theirs, with the stipulation that all house doors had to be kept open day and night; the use of money was outlawed; and twelve elders were appointed to oversee the stockpiling of goods and their distribution to the needy.”

Despite all this, political repression was used against Munster citizens who objected to the rule of the Anabaptist leaders, including exile and execution. The Munster experiment was unable to sustain itself against attack by Protestant and Catholic armies, the city eventually fell. Later Anabaptist reformers rejected the attempt to spread their radical view of society very wide, instead choosing separation and distance from the dominant culture.

Overall, Protestantism became an arm of monarchical intrigue at large in Europe. Nations began aligning along Catholic and Protestant lines, creating vast tensions between states representing each faction. Catholic nations like France, Spain, and Portugal, along with the Papal States and the Holy Roman Emperor, clashed with England, German princes, the Dutch and the Swiss. Wars of religion, such the Thirty Years War, killed thousands. Repression and disregard for the masses of people flourished just as much among Protestant leaders as Catholic ones.

Through all four of these loci of Reformation, the good of theological and ecclesial reforms never translated to social reform for the vast majority of people. Consequently, the result of the Protestant Reformation can be viewed only as a partial success. It certainly succeeded in reforming theological and ecclesial thought, especially around the role of the clergy, the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the approach to various forms of corruption, and the relation of the church and the state. However, it failed to embody the justice and mercy of Christ any better than Catholics had done. Crucially, other than in a few Anabaptist outposts, the identification of Christianity with the state continued unabated as it had since the time of Constantine. The focus and emphasis remained on obedience to authority, rather than the bettering of the lives of human beings. In this sense, the Reformation was a failure.

Certainly, none of this was ever a stated goal of reform, and actors who lived hundreds of years before the era of human rights cannot be held to the same moral standard as modernity. But the precepts of Christianity, as laid out in Scripture, are regard for human life, a desire for justice, and a preference for mercy and forgiveness over obedience and punishment. Surely, the failure of Protestant reformers to seize on any of these themes, rather than merely the nature of the Host or the debate between faith and works, is glaring and damning. The Protestant Reformation, then, can fairly be called a partial success for the advancement of human civilization.

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