Notes on the Protestant Reformation
NOTES ON THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
Prepared for the Unitarian Universalist Christian Study Group
By Curran Jeffery for 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
First act in a historical Drama
The Protestant Reformation began on Halloween. So the story goes--Luther nailed his famous “95 Thesis” to the door of the Church at Wittenberg on October 31st 1517…except the holiday of spooky goblins wasn’t celebrated in those days…at least not in public. It was the Eve of All Saints Day which was a big church deal. Most scholars don’t put too much credit in the nail-in-the-door story. Luther never mentions it. October 31st 1517 is the day he posted his thesis to the Archbishop of Mainz which set of the ecclesiastical storm that got Luther in hot water. Wittenberg was a university town and Luther was a well-respected professor of Moral Theology. It was a tradition to post topics of debate on all the church doors. He probably also handed out copies of his thoughts in pubs, rectories, the university—anywhere where monks, clergy and students would read them and debate them. Posting topics of debate was not in itself a radical act but Luther asked the question does the Pope and the Church have the authority to grant penitence for cash? The debate over indulgences, which had been simmering just below surface, was now on top of the table. And its repercussions would plunge Europe into two centuries of bloodshed and upheaval. The “Love Thy Neighbor” stuff just seemed to get lost in the dust. So sad… There are scholars who feel Luther did not fully understand the repercussions what he was doing. Events moved really fast. In some ways, it was an idea whose time had come. A year after Luther published his theses, all the copies of a refutation by Tetzel, a Dominican friar sent by the Vatican were burned by mob of angry students in Wittenberg. The Reformation was well on its way.
But what actually changed? For someone looking at the theology of Luther, Calvin and the Vatican, it is hard to see any real differences. Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. His Death and Resurrection is the salvation of our souls. That is the basic story of traditional Christianity in all its forms: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. But beneath this is a huge revolution in structure and thought that would turn everything upside down. Luther and the Protestants believed in the Priesthood of the Individual Baptized Christian—that the Roman Church and the Pope were not necessary for Salvation and even more revolutionary, people have the right to read scripture in their own language. It’s hard for us to understand how radical these ideas were to the 16th Century mind. It would be as if Soviet communism had actually took over the West. Princes and priests and people fought and killed and tortured each other for two hundred years. I don’t think Jesus would have liked this very much.
But many of the Protestant Churches became just as authoritarian and rigid as the Roman Church. i.e. The Puritans under Calvin. Human nature’s us vs. them, right vs. wrong mentality just doesn’t let go that easy. The only ones to escape this curse were the Unitarians and they remained such a small minority.
The Protestant Reformation—Act two in a Historical Drama
Luther was the first big voice in the reformation. (There were many others all over Europe. Many people were unhappy with the Vatican.) But the second big voice was John Calvin, a French theologian who found refuge in Switzerland. His impact was enormous and many historians argue that he may have made the European middle class possible. Prior to the 15th Century, there were only three classes in European society: the Nobility, the Clergy and the peasants and the peasants, which included craftsman and artisans, were not taken seriously. But of course by the 16th Century there was a large class of artisans, craftsman and bankers who were having a big impact on society. Calvin taught that every soul has a place in the divine order and spending your life as a farmer, or a baker, or a shoemaker or even a banker can be just as legitimate a path to salvation as the Nobility or the Clergy. For the first time in Western Civilization a peasant could believe that his labor is a path to salvation. This was huge.
But it took some strange twists. Luther’s theology taught that anyone could obtain salvation by faith alone. Calvin taught that only the elect would make it on Judgement Day and God knew who you were: The Doctrine of Predestination: simply one the most controversial doctrines in the Christian tradition. I remember being taught in my Methodist Sunday School as were Roman Catholics and many mainline Protestants that Calvin was wrong because he ignored free will. After the fall of Adam, all humanity was doomed by sin so the loving God randomly picked souls that he would guide to salvation: the elect. Pretty gloomy for most of us. Modern Neo-Calvinists have softened this harsh theology a bit. God does not exist in time and space. He is beyond it all and he knows the beginning from the end. He knows who will make it who won’t. But he isn’t telling. That is up to us. So we still have a choice to live by the higher call or surrender to sin. Do you see the danger here? Now the Reformed Church has the power to require strict ethical behavior to prove you are one of the elect. You can be damned for the sins of the flesh which include tobacco, wine, dancing, sex: the origins of the Puritan tradition of much (but not all) of American Evangelical Christianity. In Calvinism you live in fear not knowing if you will make it or not but the modern Calvinist faith teaches that if you live a righteous hard working life you will. God is the judge. Suddenly Europe has a hard working population that produces great wealth. The birth of the capitalist middle class.
So by the end of the 16th Century, we have three conflicting Christian Traditions: Salvation by Faith, Salvation by Righteousness and Roman Catholic Salvation. And people were willing to kill each other over it. Welcome to the Wars of Religion.
The Wars of Religion: Tragedy in the name of Jesus
The Wars of Religion were triggered by Luther’s Reformation and devastated Europe for nearly 150 years with untold suffering and death. It is said that in The Sack of Magdeburg in 1631, of the 25,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived. The population of German states reportedly fell by 30%. If Luther had realized what his ideas would unleash, he probably would have reconsidered his actions but once the lid was off, there was no stopping it. These wars were as much about politics and economics as they were about religion. By the end you had Catholics in alliances with Protestants against other Catholics and vice a versa. It was a mess from which Europe has never fully recovered. There are historians who consider our World Wars merely a reply of the Thirty Years War. It started with the Peasants Revolt in 1524. Peasants wanted to see the same ideas applied to the Church to apply to their feudal overlords. It turned violent and Luther condemned “The Murdering Hoards of Peasants” and called for their execution. What happened to the Sermon on the Mount? Then Princes saw opportunities to use Lutheran anti-Catholic feeling as a way to promote their ambitions as well as their faith. The next century saw about a dozen different Wars of Religion which ended in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The Religion of a realm was the Religion of the prince. The faith of the individual still didn’t really matter. We were still along way from the Modern World. What we needed was an Enlightenment and it is interesting that what we call the Enlightenment was centered in those areas where the Reformation had secured some level of intellectual inquiry: France, England and the Netherlands. Men like Sir Francis Bacon and Descartes paved the way in the early 1600’s but it wasn’t till Newton started publishing in the 1680’s that the Age of Reason and the scientific revolution took off. But it was all about the scholarly and the elites. Everyday people lived and died pretty much as the always had. It was another 100 years before the ideas of individual rights and toleration would begin to have an effect on everyday life. The idea of religious toleration didn’t come into full play in the European mind till around 1800.
So Wench Commeth The Unitarians…?
Modern Unitarians emerged in three distinct regions and three distinct varieties: Eastern Europe, England and the United States.
In Eastern Europe it centered over the debate about the Trinity with the Unitarians denying that Jesus was both God and human but was a divinely ordained Savior and prophet. In England, Unitarians centered on the use of reason, logic and love to make humanity and the world better. In New England, Unitarians were a reaction to the Calvinist God of sin and damnation while further to the South the Universalists preached the Universal salvation of a loving God.
Keep in mind, that the first Jesus communities would have been somewhat “Unitarian.” They would not have believed Jesus was the incarnation of the Father God. Such an idea would be pure blasphemy to First Century Jews. Jesus was a Rabbi, a healer, a messiah, a servant of God, maybe even a Son of God but not the same as. The idea of the “god-man” is very pagan and found its way into the Jesus movement as more and more pagans converted. It wasn’t until the visions of Paul that it found a permanent home in what would become Christianity. So the debate over the unity of god vs. the trinity goes back to the very beginning.
These ideas never completely died out but went quiet for centuries only to emerge again during the Reformation. By the 1580’s, there were Unitarian Congregations in Rumania, Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania. The debate about the Trinity was being waged throughout Europe. Many anti-Trinitarians were burned at the stake. The word “Unitarian” was first used in Rumania about 1600.
The first English Unitarian Congregation was established in London in 1774. It was not just a product of theological debate over the Trinity but more of a product of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason, logic and a Deistic God.
During the 1700’s, Enlightenment ideas found their way across the Atlantic and increasing numbers of New Englanders found themselves questioning the ideas of their Calvinist ancestors. In the middle colonies and the South, Universalist preachers were finding larger audiences. The Universalist Church in America was founded in 1793. The American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825. During the 19th and 20th Centuries humanist ideas greatly influenced both denominations. In 1961 they merged into something unique in human history: a faith community organized not by creeds or beliefs but values based on the individual’s right to their own spiritual journey rather it be Christian, Jewish, Humanist, Pagan…all paths are part of the journey as long as they honor and practice the shared values of respect, love, compassion, dignity, integrity, honesty and commitment. Oh, maybe this is the real reformation.