Sunday, October 30, 2016

Defender of the Faith

The beginning of the English Reformation is classically placed at the moment leadership of the Church in England was assumed by a monarch who wanted a divorce and beheaded several of his six wives. However, the break in England, originally not a theological dispute, can be traced to long-standing political and economic quarrels between Church and king.

These quarrels date at least to 1165 and Henry II’s Constitutions of Clarendon, which Thomas à Becket, then archbishop of Canterbury, declined to sign. The Constitutions were a legal declaration that restricted ecclesiastical privileges and curbed the power of ecclesiastical courts and the extent of papal authority in England.

To be fair to the king, it can be argued that during general anarchy and the civil war that broke out under Henry II’s predecessor, Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror, the Church had taken on some roles of government that were properly secular. An English complaint of the time was that clergy charged with serious secular crimes were tried in ecclesiastical courts by “benefit of clergy,” then given a slap on the wrist.

On the Church’s behalf, ecclesiastical authorities assumed needed roles in England much as they had in the rest of Europe when the Roman Empire collapsed. Moreover, ecclesiastical courts were very limited as to the sentences they could mete out to a convicted felon—in particular, they could not sentence to death as royal courts could. Last, although the Constitutions were considered a restoration of the law, they actually expanded royal jurisdiction over the Church and civil law as a small step in a continued push by English kings to seize, control or tax Church land and revenue.

In the 16th century, the chasm between church and king broadened as feudalism declined while nationalism and the central authority of the monarchy rose, common law resurged, the printing press was invented and Bibles began to circulate among the upper and new urban middle classes.

Enter Henry Tudor (1491-1547), son of the first Tudor monarch, who—but for the untimely death of his older brother Arthur at the age of 15—might have become a clergyman, given his theological interests, rather than King Harry as the people called him, crowned Henry VIII in 1509.

Early in his reign, Henry was a devout and scholarly Catholic. In 1521 he wrote a theological treatise, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (“Defense of the Seven Sacraments”) contesting some of Luther’s claims after his 95 Theses. The paper, still highly regarded among the first generation of anti-Protestant polemics, earned Henry the title Fidei Defensor (“Defender of the Faith”) from Pope Leo X.

Alas, Henry inherited not only the crown, but his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, who had been Arthur’s wife for about five months. The marriage of Arthur, prince of Wales, to Catherine, the youngest child of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, had been arranged as the dynastic match of the century when Arthur was about two or three years old. Keep in mind that England was then a backwater island mired in the mind-set of the Middle Ages. Spain, meanwhile, was acquiring an empire of incalculable value—thanks to the voyage of its sponsored explorer Christopher Columbus to the continent soon to be known as America.

Indeed, Henry’s major political headache with Catherine was that her nephew was Charles I of Spain and V of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles, as monarch of Spain, Germany and the Low Countries, as well as territories in America and Asia, was the first European monarch whose domain—totaling about 1.5 million square miles—was described as “the empire on which the sun never sets.” However, rather than the politics of his marriage, it was the ecclesiastical rules around it that led to the break with Rome.

When he sought to marry his brother’s widow, by Henry’s account at the deathbed behest of his father, Henry VIII sought a papal dispensation (or special permission to overcome a canonical prohibition). This was to pose future problems for complicated canonical reasons.

Canonists agree that, since Catherine and her dueña claimed that the marriage to Arthur was never consummated, Henry should have requested to be dispensed of the impediment of “public honesty.” This prohibits the marriage of people closely linked by family, even though not related by blood; for example, marriage of a parent and stepchild, which could offend public morals even absent wrongdoing. The idea was to avoid scandal, or leading people into behavior that might be immoral.

However, Henry VIII and the Spanish ambassador went for broke and—just in case Arthur and Catherine had consummated their marriage—sought and obtained a dispensation from “affinity.” This is an impediment to matrimony mildly related to incest that was developed by the clergy to stop endless dynastic, but wholly insincere, marriages of the nobility in the Middle Ages. Affinity is a relationship arising from sexual intercourse—inside or outside of marriage—capable of yielding children, by which the man becomes related to the woman’s blood relatives and vice versa.

Henry and Catherine married in 1509, the groom 18 years old and the bride almost five years older. Catherine had two children, a stillborn girl and a boy who died within seven weeks, before she gave birth to a girl, Mary. Their marriage is reported as happy and it is not clear just why Henry wanted to get rid of Catherine.

One possibility was the very real worry that without a male heir, his dynasty might be challenged and removed from the throne or, worse, that civil war could break out. For several centuries the country had been subject to endless murderous plots and outbreaks of civil war (in particular the 1455-1487 War of the Roses) to a point that, politically, medieval Britain could be called a “banana monarchy.”

Maybe it was the amply documented philandering by Henry, a young man in his prime with enormous power surrounded by a court full of young women willing and able to cavort with him. His many mistresses may have included Elizabeth or Anne Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon; Catherine’s maid of honor Elizabeth Blount, the only one who bore him a son, Henry Fitzroy, made Duke of Richmond; and fatefully for Christianity in England, Mary Boleyn, Catherine’s lady in waiting.

Mary Boleyn’s sister, Anne, had served as a maid of honor in the French court. Anne, 25 when she came to Henry’s court as part of Catherine’s entourage, resisted Henry’s advances and refused to become his mistress. Her experience in France had made her a devout Christian in the new evangelical style of Renaissance humanism; she was a champion of the Bible in the vernacular but kept up devotion to the Virgin Mary. Later she would embrace the reformist position that the papacy was corrupting Christianity.

In 1527, Henry VIII became obsessed with passion for Anne, who not only had her charms but was young enough to produce an heir, and began to plot a way to get rid of Catherine. This came to be described at court as the King’s “great matter.” Playing the theologian, Henry convinced himself that in marrying Catherine, his brother's wife, he had violated Leviticus 20:21; moreover, he decided that the pope did not have the authority to dispense with such a sin.

First, Henry deployed Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and the second most important cleric in England, who also served at court as Lord Chancellor and was one of the pope’s several legates. After conferring with his ecclesiastical peer at Canterbury, Wolsey appealed to the pope for an annulment, arguing that the original dispensation was worthless since the marriage clearly went against Leviticus and that in any case the dispensation was incorrectly worded (unfortunately for Wolsey a correctly worded version was found in Spain shortly after the allegation). To ensure the desired outcome Wolsey asked that the final decision be made in England; this would allow him to closely supervise it, as papal legate. All this did was tip Henry’s hand to Catherine and the Spanish ambassador.

Next, Henry sent his secretary to Pope Clement VII to seek a declaration that his union with Catherine was invalid because the dispensation had been obtained under false pretenses. The pope was not misled by either set of claims. Moreover, as a virtual prisoner of Charles V, whose troops had overrun Rome as part of other unrelated developments, the pope was not inclined to displease Catherine’s nephew.

The last attempt was a series of parleys with another papal legate, but after less than two months of hearing evidence, Clement called the case back to Rome in July 1529, fully intending to bury it.

Three rounds of political musical chairs in England changed the landscape. First, Wolsey fell from grace, and the king stripped him of his royal positions. Sir Thomas More, a devout Catholic and opponent of the annulment, became Lord Chancellor and chief minister. Second, Catherine was banished from court, and her rooms were given to Anne. Third, Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham died, and Henry proposed Thomas Cranmer, a trustworthy supporter of the annulment, to fill the vacancy.

In the winter of 1532, Henry, now 41, and Anne, now 32, were secretly wed in Dover. In May 1532 More resigned as Lord Chancellor, leaving Thomas Cromwell as Henry's chief minister. Anne soon became pregnant and there was a second wedding service in London in 1533. Shortly after, Cranmer, sitting in judgment at a special ecclesiastical court, declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine invalid and that of Henry and Anne valid. Catherine was formally stripped of her title as queen, and Anne was crowned queen consort; she gave birth to a daughter in September, who was christened Elizabeth.

Following the marriage came something known as the Reformation Parliament, which essentially legitimized what was a fait accompli. By the Act of Succession, Catherine’s daughter, Mary, was declared illegitimate; the marriage to Anne was declared legitimate and issue from that union declared next in the line of succession.

On July 11, 1533, Pope Clement VII excommunicated Thomas Cranmer and declared Henry expelled as well unless he “put away the woman he had taken to wife and take back his Queen.” In the Act of Supremacy of 1534, Parliament declared the King head of the church in England and abolished the right of appeal to Rome.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Revolt Spreads to Zurich

Even after Luther and the pope condemned each other irreversibly, there did not immediately emerge a Protestant church. Revolt spread episodically and locally, beginning with Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) of Zurich, the only Reformer whose movement did not evolve into a particular church. By accident, his disputations gave rise to the Anabaptist movement in Zurich, another non-church wave of change.

Let’s look first, as we did with Luther, at how the revolt broke out and under which banners.

Zwingli was born in Wildhaus, in an eastern and German-speaking canton of Switzerland, to a family of farmers. His primary schooling was provided by his uncle, Bartholomew, a cleric. When he was 10 he was sent to Basel for secondary education, where he learned Latin. His education completed, he remained a short time in Bern among humanist intellectuals; the Dominicans in Bern saw promise in Zwingli, and  he may have been briefly a novice. His father and uncle interfered, however, and enrolled him in the University of Vienna in 1498. He later transferred to the University of Basel, where he received a Master of Arts in 1506.

Zwingli was ordained a priest in Constance, celebrated his first Mass in his hometown in 1506, then became pastor, successively in the towns of Glarus and Einsiedeln, where he perfected his Greek, took up Hebrew, exchanged scholarly letters with a circle of Swiss humanists and began to study the writings of Erasmus. In fact, Zwingli met Erasmus in Basel in this period, and it is believed that his turn to mild pacifism and his focus on preaching were the result of that meeting.

His big break came in 1518, when he was appointed pastor of the Grossmünster (great minister) church in Zurich. This Romanesque church was said to have been founded by Charlemagne when his horse tripped on the spot where it was erected and where the city’s patron saints were buried.

From this lofty pulpit, Zwingli began a series of sermon-lectures, first on the Gospel According to Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles, then on various epistles and finally on the entire Old Testament. He preached against clerical corruption and laziness among monks, criticized certain forms of piety he thought lacked scriptural support and challenged the idea that unbaptized children were punished in the afterlife.

He verged on the controversial and ruffled a few feathers railing against the power to excommunicate and tithing. When the campaign to raise funds for St. Peter’s Basilica by selling indulgences came to Zurich, he joined the city fathers in denying it entry. His critical witticisms amused his bishop, however, and—barely a year after Luther’s Theses—officials in Rome were loath to enter into open conflict over the same matter. At this point Zwingli’s eclectic thinking betrayed some Erasmian and Lutheran influences. In 1519, he contracted the plague and wrote a prayerful and moving poem of preparation for death, his Pestlied, which happily concluded with joyful thanksgiving for recovery.

The Reformation in Zurich broke out in a highly politicized context. Locally, Zwingli contended with the City Council, which had pledged to the bishop of Constance to keep church order. More broadly, the Swiss Confederation was made up of 13 cantons that were nearly independent; although nominally the Confederation formed a part of the Holy Roman Empire, primarily a legal protection against French claims, Zurich had to face other cantons, some of which were more Catholic and some more reformed.

The first public controversy broke out in 1522 during Lent. On the first fasting Sunday, March 9, Zwingli and about a dozen others openly broke the fasting rule by cutting and distributing two smoked sausages. He defended the act in a sermon published about a month later, titled Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods. Known as the Affair of the Sausages, it is deemed the start of the Reformation in Switzerland.

The next step was a petition by Zwingli and other humanists asking the bishop to abolish celibacy for the clergy. It was not an academic exercise: Zwingli had been cohabiting with a widow, Anna Reinhard. In April 1524, he married her publicly, barely three months before the birth of their first child.

Having sated the belly and what is below, Zwingli began his reform full swing and gradually won over the council on many matters. By 1524 several feast days were no longer celebrated in Zurich and processions of robed clergy ceased. Worshippers no longer left church with palms or relics on Palm Sunday and images of saints were covered and most of the clergy rapidly married. When the bishop of Constance tried to intervene, Zwingli wrote an official response for the council, and all ties between the city and the diocese were severed. Effectively, Zwingli established the first of several Protestant theocracies.


Nonetheless, Zwingli’s changes, driven by humanism and fueled by politics, did not satisfy a group of young men for whom reform was not moving fast enough. The City Council sponsored a debate in 1523 on several matters of religious order. When the matter of worship came up, Conrad Grebel stood up to demand, “What should be done about the Mass?” Zwingli said that the council would make that decision. Then, Simon Stumpf, a radical priest from a nearby locality, called out, “The decision has already been made by the Spirit of God.” This was the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.

Grebel (1498-1526), son of a prominent Swiss merchant and councilman, was essentially a learned university dropout who joined a group led by Zwingli that studied the Greek classics and various Latin, Hebrew and Greek biblical texts. In this group he became close friends with Felix Manz and also experienced a religious conversion.

After the incident about the Mass, about 15 men broke with Zwingli and began meeting regularly with Grebel for prayer, fellowship and Bible study. Grebel wrote to Martin Luther and his associate Andreas Karlstadt and to Thomas Müntzer, a German preacher and theologian opposed to both Luther and the Catholic Church. Nothing came of the correspondence.

What severed ties completely between Zwingli and the Grebel group, regarded as youthful radicals, was infant baptism. A public debate was held in 1525 in which Zwingli argued against Grebel, Manz and George Blaurock, a Leipzig University-educated priest, all three of whom asserted that infant baptism was not scriptural, and therefore not valid. The City Council, of course, decided in favor of Zwingli and infant baptism, ordered Grebel’s group to disband, and decreed that any unbaptized infants be baptized within eight days under penalty of exile from the canton.

Grebel had an infant daughter who had not been baptized and he resolutely stood his ground, intending not to have her baptized.

The group met illegally in the home of Manz. Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him after making a profession of faith, and then Blaurock baptized the others who were present. They pledged as a group to hold the faith of the New Testament and live as fellow disciples separated from the world and left the gathering full of zeal to urge all people to follow their example.

The movement spread rapidly, reaching as far west as Holland, north into Germany and as far east as Moravia (today part of the Czech Republic), although some argue that it sprouted simultaneously elsewhere as part of an emerging evangelical consciousness in Europe.

Anabaptist means “one who baptizes again,” and it was a name given to them by their persecutors, who disapproved of the group’s practice of baptizing those who converted or declared their faith, even if they had been baptized as infants. Anabaptists argued that baptism should follow a free profession of faith of faith, which clearly infants cannot do.

Anabaptism spawned various denominations, including the Amish, Bruderhof, Hutterites, Mennonites, Schwarzenau Brethren and others. This denotes an intricate variety of beliefs, but the common beliefs and practices of 16th century Anabaptists were voluntary church membership and believers’ baptism, freedom of religion and liberty of conscience, separation of church and state, separation from or nonconformity to the world, nonresistance also interpreted as pacifism, and the priesthood of all believers.

Zwingli’s Zurich reformed theocracy persecuted the Anabaptists for at least another century. The last Anabaptist martyred for his faith in Zurich, and indeed in all of Europe, was Hans Heinrich Landes, beheaded in 1614.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

An Augustinian Friar Who Stood His Ground

The Reformation was probably bound to happen one way or another, but it actually was set in motion by a morally self-flagellating friar in the Order of St. Augustine who was offended by egregious and brazen Church corruption. This reformer was Martin Luther (1483-1546), from Eisleben, Saxony—monk, professor of moral theology and founder of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church.

Rather than belabor the copious biographical material on Luther, let me just say that he grew up the son of a copper mining industrialist, was intended by his father to become a lawyer but drifted to philosophy and finally theology. There are several largely legendary stories of his development and more of his life once he became a public figure.

The first of these is that he chose to become a monk in 1505 while still a law student, when he was caught in a thunderstorm on his way to visit his parents, was thrown to the ground and at that moment called to Saint Anne, “I will become a monk!”

Other sources say that he suffered from depression, had been affected by the accidental death of close friends and after a going-away party with friends, he went away to a monastery, very much against his father’s will. In the monastery he became known as overly self-critical and was said to experience long bouts of bowel maladies during which he believed he had visions of the devil.

The second legend was until very recently regarded as fact. On the basis of testimony of Luther associate Philip Melanchton (1497-1560), the first Protestant systematic theologian, the story goes that as an ordained priest and a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church on October 31, 1517, a date widely commemorated as Reformation Day.

The actual story—uncovered in 1961 by Luther researcher Erwin Iserloh, who proved that Melanchton was not at Wittenberg at the time—began with the 1516 arrival in Germany of one Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar commissioned by the pope to sell indulgences in order to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A saying attributed to Tetzel was that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” which was in no way representative of Catholic teaching on indulgences at the time (or ever); if Tetzel said such a thing it was a case of marketing gone wild.

Luther, who had visited Rome in 1511 on business related to his order and been thoroughly shocked at the moral decay of the metropolis, on October 31, 1517, wrote a letter to his bishop protesting the sale of indulgences. With the letter, he enclosed a copy of a paper titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document included a series of statements that came to be known as the 95 theses or holdings. Although there was no Internet at the time, the Latin version was printed in several places in Germany in 1517, then translated by friends in January 1518 into German. Within weeks, copies were circulating in Germany and soon after throughout Europe.

Cardinal Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg, to whom the letter was addressed, did not reply to Luther. He was an interested party, as he needed the revenue from the indulgences to pay off the pope for a dispensation that allowed him to be bishop of two sees at the same time. This allowed Luther to charge later that not only had the fundraising been questionable but not all the money was for the purpose claimed. Thus, Albrecht passed the matter on to Pope Leo X, who ordered an investigation of Luther on charges of heresy.

Two attempts at reconciliation were made that could have prevented Luther from causing the Reformation.

First, the local Holy Roman Empire elector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, persuaded the pope to have Luther examined at Augsburg, where an Imperial Diet was being held. Unfortunately, the three-day questioning of Luther in October 1518, by papal legate Cardinal Cajetan, degenerated into a shouting match. Cajetan had been instructed to arrest Luther if he failed to recant, but the legate failed to do so and Luther slipped out of the city at night.

Next, in January 1519, the papal nuncio Karl von Miltitz, a relative of the elector, adopted a more conciliatory approach. He managed to extract from Luther some concessions and the promise to remain silent if his opponents did.

Unfortunately, as always happens in these cases, Luther’s opponents did not go with the program. Theologian Johann Eck staged a disputation in June and July 1519 with Luther’s colleague Andreas Karlstadt at Leipzig and invited Luther to speak. There, Luther asserted that Matthew 16:18 does not confer on popes the exclusive right to interpret scripture and that neither popes nor church councils were infallible. In response, Eck branded Luther a new Jan Hus.

In June 1520, the pope himself warned Luther in a papal bull (or edict) that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the Ninety-five Theses, within 60 days. Von Miltitz once again attempted to broker a solution but Luther, who had sent the pope a copy of new writings the previous October, publicly set fire to the bull and decrees in Wittenberg in December 1520 and distributed a written explanation for his act. In response, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X on January 3, 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem. The die was cast.

One more event was needed to turn the theological dispute into a political matter that set off conflict in Europe for a century and a half, and more. The enforcement of the ban fell to the secular authorities, and in April 1521 Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in Worms, a town on the Rhine, with Emperor Charles V (who was also king of Spain) presiding and Eck, now assistant to the archbishop of Trier, playing the role of effective prosecutor. 

It was at this event, before the Diet, that reputedly, Luther exclaimed the epochal response to Eck’s demand for a recantation: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!” New research shows these actual words were not in witness accounts of the proceedings and were probably no more than a negative, followed by the recorded “May God help me.”

Over the next five days, private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. The emperor presented the final draft of the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Luther an outlaw, banning his writings and ordering his arrest and punishment as a “notorious heretic.” The ruling also made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter and permitted anyone to kill him without legal consequence.

Luther was protected by the elector and hidden in Wartburg castle. However, while Luther translated the New Testament and wrote other works, his followers embarked on radical reforms that led to disturbances, including revolts in monasteries, the smashing of church statues and images and public protests, as well as the German Peasant War. The tide began to turn in Luther’s favor with the recruitment of princes and merchants; then began Lutheranism, which we will discuss later.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Protestant Reformation: an Overview

The most decisive, profound and still unresolved major doctrinal and ecclesiastical splintering within Western Christianity began as a 16th- and 17th-century process known as the Protestant Reformation. The break between Catholicism and Protestantism went beyond a schism—a split over matters other than major doctrine—to a division in which each party regarded the other as holding fast to error, or heresy.

The Reformation started as a protest in 1517 by German Augustinian monk Martin Luther against perceived corruption in the Catholic Church. It snowballed, through the obduracy of reformers and popes alike, into an open-ended doctrinal quarrel about the very nature and practice of the Christian faith in its most essential elements.

The sparks set off by Luther’s protest ignited a conflagration in Europe spread by French polemicist Jean Calvin and Swiss cleric Ulrich Zwingli. Their fiery words, in turn, spawned the even more radical ideas of Dutch priest Menno Simons and Scottish clergyman John Knox and dragged into its vortex the accidental monarch of England, Henry VIII, a man who originally aimed to be a churchman.

For its part, the Catholic Church and the popes in Rome did not take the challengers sitting down. Princes and monarchs were mobilized, bulls and decrees (including excommunications by the bushel) were issued. A general council of the Church was called to respond to the charges and protestations, and entire new orders were founded to combat what was seen as rampant error.

Unfortunately, the medieval marriage of church and principalities transformed a war of words into judicial persecutions and caused splits within nations and outright war. The Protestant Reformation did not reach a point of settlement until the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which effectively put an end to the devastating Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe.

Five hundred years later, Protestantism has split like a cell undergoing mitosis, to the point that 1980s United Nations statistics counted over 23,000 competing and often contradictory denominations, predominantly in Northern Europe and North America and former British and Dutch colonies elsewhere. For its part, Catholicism effectively froze into a monolithic fortress in Southern Europe, South America and former Spanish, Portuguese, French and Belgian colonies in Asia and Africa, a stance that held fast for roughly 400 years, until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s dared embrace the challenge to heal the rifts, a quest that after nearly half a century of largely symbolic gestures remains to be completed.

What Was It All About?

Before we go into the the bloody details—they will involve bloodshed—it might be well to understand some of the basic differences of opinion that arose, why they arose and, briefly, the chief issues of contention.

At heart, the divide between Catholic and Protestant Christianity is a matter of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies whether and how truth can be grasped, if at all. All Christians agree that God has revealed certain truths necessary for believers to live according to the divine will and mercy. Where they disagree is how the Christian comes to receive God’s revelation.

Before Luther, almost all Christians had agreed or submitted to the idea that God spoke to holy men in biblical times all the way to Jesus the Christ, who then delegated the task of telling the world the “good news” (or gospel) of divine mercy and love to his most trusted followers, the apostles. Even after the 1054 schism between Catholics in the West and Orthodox in the East, all Christians believed that truth comes from God to Christ to his apostles and their successors, the Bible being the Church’s anthology of holy writings, collected and passed on along with extrabiblical traditions to help transmit the true faith to all people.

After Luther, Protestant Christians began to believe that God speaks directly to the heart of each believer, who is entrusted with the responsibility of studying the Bible and drawing from it the divine truth necessary for salvation. The apostles’ successors—i.e., members of the Church hierarchy—were unceremoniously cut out of the process. Once that momentous change of thinking was formulated, no teaching of the faith was ever quite the same.

To begin with, Protestantism rejected the idea of papal or even episcopal supremacy over the Church, including also the whole ecclesiastical structure as it existed. In its place, the Reformers spoke of a priesthood of all believers, subject only to the authority of the Bible, or as Luther put it, sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). Given this approach of individual biblical interpretation, Luther and other Reformers concluded that Christians are saved by faith alone (sola fide), not by their deeds. Moreover, salvation from punishment due as a result of the human fall into sin is only a gift (sola gratia) of God, totally unearned.

As a corollary, Protestants add two more solas. Solus Christus (only Christ) teaches that Christ is the only mediator between God and man; there is no need for priests or sacraments or rituals. Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) eliminates all veneration or “cult” of Mary the mother of Jesus, the saints or angels.

Over time, of course, each Reformer, and even Luther himself, developed these kernels of Protestantism with emphases and variants that eventually led to dissent and doctrinal splits between Protestants.

The Protestant Reformation was also a child of its era, the Renaissance, which opposed the theocratic and top-down notions of the Middle Ages with the more horizontal idea of humanism. The age featured also the introduction of the printing press, which made possible the affordable distribution of Bibles and other books. Modern banking launched in the Italian city-states brought about the accumulation of and trade in capital as a commodity of value in itself, which spurred urban commerce and eventually capitalism.

All of these developments in some way shaped Protestantism. This is most noticeable if one compares the fiery zealotry of Reformers to the Protestant churches of today, which have clerical bureaucracies, rituals of some sort and churches and statements of faith and in some ways became the handmaidens of the prevailing economic system. This is similar to the way the Catholic Church of 1517 reflected the political and socioeconomic realities of the Middle Ages.

In an age of ecumenism, when Western Christianity is attempting to heal itself, it is also important to note that many of the most serious disputes of the Reformation era were in some ways semantic and cultural misunderstandings that we are just beginning to recognize.

None is more notable than the very name “Protestant,” which evokes images of people holding signs and chanting slogans against some potentate; actually, the term comes from the Latin pro (“for”) and testari (“witness”) and protestatio (“declare”). The first people ever to be called “Protestants” were six princes of the Holy Roman Empire who, together with the rulers of 14 Imperial Free Cities, in 1529 issued a protest or dissent against an anti-Reformation measure by the Diet of Speyer. They were bearing witness to their beliefs and declaring the folly of the imperial assembly.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Humanist Bridge

Undergirding the revolt in the 16th century was a single figure in the background, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), who himself remained a loyal son of the Catholic Church except possibly in his lifestyle, despite the refrain in his day that he “laid the egg” that reformers hatched. This Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, theologian and biblical translator and scholar is very much a man who speaks to our own troubled contemporary Christianity, just as he spoke to his.

From the beginning Erasmus, whose actual name was Geert Gerritszoon, was a misfit. He was born out of wedlock, the son of Gerard, a Catholic priest and curate in Gouda, and Margaretha Rutgers, who may have been Gerard’s housekeeper. He was baptized Erasmus after Saint Erasmus of Formiae, a favorite of Erasmus’ father; Desiderius (Latin for longing) was a self-adopted additional name he began using at the age of 30.

Despite his then-scandalous origins, his parents made sure he got the best education possible in monastic schools, in particular a school in Deventer where he was lucky enough to be among the first European students to study Greek well before university. His education there ended with the plague that broke out in 1483, which also took his mother, who had moved there to be with her son. In 1492, he took vows as a canon regular, meaning under a monastic rule, and was ordained a Catholic priest in Stein, Holland.

There he fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus. He wrote passionate letters in which he called the man “half my soul,” but his writings suggest that Servatius did not share his infatuation. Erasmus wrote, “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly.” There are also highly disputed claims of a possible affair a few years later with a young English nobleman whom he tutored; however, aside from that brief period there is no strong evidence he acted on his inclinations.

Erasmus left the canonry and was released from monastic vows when he was offered the job of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, thanks to his reputation as a man of letters skilled in Latin. In 1495, Bishop Henry allowed him to go study at the University of Paris, which had been the seat of scholasticism since Aquinas’ tenure there but was rapidly shifting toward Renaissance humanism.

From Paris, Erasmus gravitated toward various academic circles throughout his career, at the universities of Leuven, Cambridge and Basel, with a foray into Italy, where in 1506 he graduated as Doctor of Divinity at Turin University. Throughout his life, however, Erasmus sought to remain an independent scholar and made extensive efforts to avoid formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression.

The influence of Erasmus is mostly due to published works and his vast correspondence with a veritable who’s who of the Renaissance and Reformation, which was posthumously published. Scratch any of the reformers, and almost all of their principal opponents, and you will find his letters and writings smack in the middle, attempting to bridge differences with humor as peasants rose, popes fulminated and reformers raged.

The body of Erasmus’s work is vast and covered nine volumes when first published posthumously in 1540. Added to that is the equally hefty collection of his correspondence, published later.

The Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier, also rendered as Handbook of the Christian Knight), published in 1503, outlines a view of the Christian life. The spirit of his ideas is found in a quote that refers to his title: “We must forge a handy weapon, an enchiridion, a dagger, that you can always carry with you […] if you diligently train yourself in it, our sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ, will transfer you, rejoicing and victorious, from this garrison to the city of Jerusalem, where there is neither tumult nor war at all, but everlasting peace and perfect tranquility.”

The work I have personally read in its entirety is The Praise of Folly (in the original Moriae encomium), dedicated to Sir Thomas More, whose name the title puns. It is a satirical attack on overwrought piety in Europe and the clergy of the Western Church in particular, published in 1511. It could have been written in our time.

He also wrote Education of a Christian Prince in 1516, as advice to the then-young king Charles of Spain, who would become Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. It was written three years after Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici. Erasmus advised the prince to seek to be loved and obtain a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming an oppressor.

His major contribution at the time was a new Greek New Testament, first published in 1516, which he compared with the Latin version currently in use, correcting both. Luther was later to use Erasmus’ translation for his Bible.

At the time free will was a crucial question. Erasmus dealt with it in Of free will: Discourses or Comparisons, lampooning the Lutheran view and sharply criticizing tendencies toward predestination.

In later, less-well-known works, Erasmus criticized the clergy and advanced the idea that the Church is made up of all Christians, not just the clergy, who are merely servants of the Church. He criticized the Church’s riches and repeatedly argued that its purpose is to help people lead Christian lives and that priests should be pure and focus on the gospel, from the pope on down. Erasmus did remain loyal to the pope’s authority. He stressed and indeed invented a term that emphasized a middle way (Via Media) and held fast to traditional faith, piety and grace.

Erasmus kept some distance from Martin Luther and Henry VIII, although he corresponded with both in Latin, while also reaching popes and nurturing a lifelong friendship with Thomas More, the Catholic Englishman who notably opposed the establishment of the Church of England.

He criticized the clergy’s abuses and saw in them good cause for reform. He made a point of emphasizing that he was not attacking the Church itself or its doctrines, but was also not shy about cautioning the reformers about both the style and substance of their arguments. He favored satire written in scholarly Greek and Latin, just as popular knowledge of classical languages was declining. Thus he only reached a rarified top-rung readership, not regular people, and did not acquire followers.

This did not prevent him from becoming a key shadow figure who influenced more than a few leaders in the key developments of his time.