Christianity in the Reformation Era
Reformation Era and Aftermath
The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the war in 1648, ended the Holy Roman Empire as a major political force, established the basic religio-political map of modern Europe, and left France as Europe’s dominant political power.
In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia brought the war to an end and established the basic religio-political configuration of modern Europe.
The various treaties involved in the Peace of Westphalia established a framework for international relations and diplomacy in Europe that lasted into the nineteenth century.
In addition to relatively minor territorial gains and losses, the Peace of Westphalia canceled the Edict of Restitution of 1629, legalized Calvinism in the Empire, and reaffirmed the main clause of the Peace of Augsburg that permitted Lutheranism.
The Thirty Years’ War was significant for at least five reasons.
The war's last years reveal the ascendancy of secular political interests over religious motives, epitomized by Richelieu’s aid to Sweden.
Extending the trend of increasing state control of churches, rulers tended to subjugate religious concerns to the state’s interests.
Pope Innocent X’s denunciation of the Peace of Westphalia was politely ignored, epitomizing the eclipse of the papacy as a major political player in Europe by the mid-seventeenth century.
The sheer scale and horror of destruction in the Thirty Years’ War made clear in an unprecedented way the costs of religious war.
With the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, the Holy Roman Empire ceased to be a major political entity in European politics.
To a greater extent than ever, individual princes were sovereign in their respective territories after the Thirty Years’ War.
The Thirty Years’ War proved crucial to preventing any significant measures toward national unification in Germany for over two centuries.
As a result of the war, France was unquestionably the most powerful state in Europe.
Scope: The religious changes of the Reformation era had a deep, long-term influence on many aspects of early modern society and culture, including marriage and the family, religious art and architecture, and literacy and education. The Protestant and radical Protestant rejection of clerical celibacy and monasticism made marriage the only legitimate calling for men and women, even as they denied its sacramental status. Catholic authorities affirmed marriage as a sacrament but placed less emphasis on its religious significance than did Protestants, given that it remained less meritorious than celibacy. Post-Tridentine Catholicism enthusiastically embraced religious art and architecture for devotional and didactic purposes, whereas Reformed Protestantism rejected it as idolatry, and Lutheranism moderately affirmed it.
Finally, both Protestant and Catholic authorities vigorously promoted education and literacy as a means to producing self- conscious, well-behaved Christians.
The upheavals of the Reformation era had a widespread, long-term impact on many dimensions of early modern society and culture, including marriage, women, and the family; religious art and architecture; and literacy and education.
Marriage, Women, and Family life.
Protestant reformers rejected clerical celibacy, emphasized the importance of marriage while declaring it non-sacramental, and stressed mutual obligations and responsibilities of husbands, wives, and children in the family.
By eliminating clerical celibacy and monasticism, Protestantism exalted marriage as the only legitimate calling for men and women alike.
Marriage was God’s provision for human lust, mutual companionship, and the stable rearing of children. Divorce became possible under certain circumstances, although as a relatively rare last resort.
The patriarchal family was a domestic incubator of religious instruction and disciplined, moral behavior. All family members had reciprocal responsibilities and duties toward one another.
The ecclesiastical oversight of marriage before the Reformation was assumed by marriage courts under secular jurisdiction.
Anabaptists generally emphasized that commitment to Christ outweighed commitment to one’s spouse, subordinating marriage as a covenant to participation in the community of believers.
Anabaptists echoed medieval monasticism in emphasizing commitment to Christ above all else.
Anabaptists conceived marriage as a spiritual covenant, not primarily as an outlet for lust.
Anabaptists avoided the control of marriage by secular authorities.
Following St. Paul and tradition, Catholic authorities declared the superiority of celibacy to marriage, affirmed marriage as a sacrament, and eliminated clandestine marriages.
Reacting to Protestant attacks on clerical celibacy, the Council of Trent affirmed its superiority to marriage and sought to eliminate abuses in its practice. Marriage was neither the only legitimate, nor the highest, calling for either men or women.
The goodness and sacramental status of marriage was affirmed, but Catholic teaching placed less emphasis on the religious importance of marriage than did Protestants.
Like Protestants, the Council of Trent opposed traditionally valid clandestine marriages, giving parents more control over their children’s marriages.
Religious Art as Idolatry
Reformed Protestantism rejected religious art as idolatrous, early modern Catholicism embraced it with renewed vigor, and Lutheranism occupied an intermediate position between the two.
The Reformed Protestant tradition, including Zwingli, Calvin, and others, rejected religious images as idols to be eliminated from any role in Christian worship.
Religious images were rejected based on the prohibition of idols in the Ten Commandments and God’s transcendent unrepresentability.
Wherever Reformed Protestantism was adopted, church interiors were whitewashed and images were removed. Austere worship was spatially focused on the pulpit and a central communion table.
Rejecting religious images is related to the practice of iconoclasm.
The shift away from religious art for public worship may have contributed to increasing depictions of secular subjects in painting.
In general, most Anabaptists seem to have shared this negative view of religious images.
Baroque art and architecture flowered in Post-Tridentine Catholicism, which harnessed both for didactic and devotional purposes.
The Council of Trent and post-Tridentine writers affirmed the legitimacy of religious art and the veneration of images but articulated a new concern with doctrinal clarity and accuracy, as well as decorum and decency.
Continuing a venerable tradition, images were viewed not as idols but as means of instruction, inspiration, and devotion. As such, visual media were no more suspect than aural/oral media.
The spatial openness of Baroque churches reflected the desire to focus lay attention on the Eucharistic sacrifice and on preaching.
Patronage for ecclesiastical art, produced primarily for urban churches, came from the papacy and other prelates, religious orders, and the Catholic nobility.
An enormous quantity of inexpensive religious art was produced for private devotion by the laity, providing a link between high and popular art.
The Lutheran attitude toward religious art was cautious rather than hostile, which underpinned a restrained continuation of certain forms of ecclesiastical art.
Although wary of the possibility of abuse and misunderstanding, Luther himself did not regard religious images as inherently idolatrous.
Woodcuts were used on a vast scale for didactic and polemical purposes in the early evangelical movement of the 1520s. They persisted to a lesser extent in subsequent decades.
Lutheran ecclesiastical art was far less abundant than either late medieval or early modern Catholic art, which diminished opportunities for painters and sculptors.
As a result of the invention of printing, the influence of Renaissance humanism, and the growing demand for educated professionals, literacy and schooling were already on the rise in the decades before the Reformation.
“Literacy” meant a spectrum of skills ranging from deciphering texts aloud to composing complex writings in scholarly languages.
Literacy rates throughout the era were higher in cities than in rural areas, higher among men than among women, and higher among the socioeconomically privileged than among the poor.
The increase in literacy rates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would probably have happened to some extent without the Reformations.
The Protestant emphasis on the Bible and the word of God dovetailed with educational and catechetical efforts that led to increased literacy.
In both Lutheran and Reformed Protestant regions, large numbers of schools were established that taught basic reading, while academies and universities trained ministers.
The Protestant emphasis on reading the Bible coexisted with leaders’ unease about divergent individual interpretations.
In general, literacy grew slowly, making significant headway especially through the seventeenth century.
Extensive Catholic educational efforts spanned the most elementary instruction through university teaching and led to increased literacy rates as well.
The Congregation for Christian Doctrine offered elementary education and basic religious instruction. It spread widely after its foundation in Milan in 1536.
The Jesuits eventually operated hundreds of colleges throughout Europe and in Spanish and Portuguese colonies.
Catholic authorities stressed devotional reading rather than direct reading of scripture, apprehensive about wayward biblical interpretations by the laity.
Were the Reformations a Success?
Scope: Determining the success of the Reformations depends on the criteria applied. Modern criteria differ from those of early modern Protestant, Catholic, and Anabaptist leaders, those most responsible for spurring the Reformations. We find different results for the success of the Reformations depending on how broadly we cast our sights. At the broadest level of Western Christendom as a whole, the divisions in doctrine and worship were desired by no one and mark the Reformations as a great failure. In each of the three broad traditions, Protestant leaders had less success than Catholic leaders because of the former’s greater emphasis on verbally based religious knowledge, as opposed to the wider range of forms in Catholic devotion and piety. Catholic leaders could often accommodate themselves to traditional beliefs and practices, whereas Protestant leaders sought to eradicate them. In a sense, Anabaptists were the most successful, because adult commitment was a prerequisite rather than a desired product, but it came at the expense of relinquishing “Christian society.” The greatest success of the Reformations lies at the narrowest level, that of the devout minorities that each engendered.
Assessing the “success” of the Reformations in early modern Christianity depends on the criteria, including the geographical area and timespan, by which they are measured.
The Protestant and radical Reformations could be considered successful if judged by modern criteria, such as resistance to established authority and the eventual rise of individual freedom of conscience and worship, but these were neither the criteria nor the objectives of early modern reformers.
We will examine success at three levels, from broadest to narrowest: Western Christendom as a whole, each of the three main traditions, and devout individuals in each of the three traditions.
Other early modern groups (e.g., peasants, magistrates) would probably evaluate the success of the Reformations by different criteria than those of religious leaders.
The success of the Reformations varied significantly, even radically, at the local level.
Viewed at the scale of Christendom as a whole, and of the unity of Christian doctrine and practice, the Reformations must be seen as a huge failure in the divisions they engendered.
Given that all the religious leaders of the era sought a vigorous Christendom unified in doctrine and worship, none of them got what they wanted. The plural “Reformations” rather than the singular “Reformation” bespeaks a lack of success.
Endless doctrinal controversies and the recurrence of religious wars from the 1520s through the 1640s testify to lack of success in reforming Christendom as a whole.
Each of the broad traditions enjoyed varying, but certainly limited success, in its attempts to shape committed, conscientious Christians.
Protestant leaders, concerned to instill doctrinal knowledge and mold moral behavior among all men and women in Protestant regions, seem to have had less success than their Catholic and Anabaptist counterparts.
Visitation records show that even decades after sermons and catechetical drill, large numbers of rural men and women remained ignorant of the basics of their faith.
Protestantism was more successful in towns and cities, with their compact and more educated populations, as well as greater numbers of clergy.
Because Protestant leaders sought both to instill religious knowledge and to eradicate traditional beliefs and practices deemed superstitious, they faced a doubly difficult challenge.
The emphasis on words in Protestantism-God’s word, preaching, printed pamphlets and treatises, verbally based worship-probably hindered its success in a largely preliterate society.
Catholic leaders, while concerned to instill knowledge and to mold moral behavior, were more flexible and more accommodationist than their Protestant counterparts and, therefore, more successful, although far from entirely so.
In many remote rural areas of Catholic Europe (e.g., southern Italy, the Pyrenees, large areas of France), post-Tridentine missionary and catechetical efforts had little effect deep into the seventeenth century.
Because Catholic leaders sought to reform and redirect much traditional piety rather than to uproot it altogether, they were more successful than their Protestant counterparts.
Catholic worship remained less monodimensionally dependent on words and literacy than did Protestantism, which probably contributed to the relatively greater success of Catholic Reform.
The self-selecting nature of Anabaptism made it more successful than either the Protestant Reformation orbut without much impact on the population at large.
Anabaptists usually knew their faith and behaved in self- consciously Christian ways, because only those with the requisite knowledge and commitment received baptism to begin with.
Not all Anabaptists were equally devout. Some recanted their faith under pressure, while many joined Anabaptist groups but later left.
The greater success of Anabaptism was coupled with an enormous restriction of scope. Leaders rejected the very notion of “Christian society” as traditionally understood.
Those who best exemplified the success of Reformation objectives were the devout minorities who made faith their chief priority.
Devout minorities, such as some of the Anabaptists, English Puritans, or Catholic members of religious orders, exemplify the success of the Reformations, albeit in a restricted sphere. They were the self-conscious, active, committed Christians whom leaders sought to create.
Devout minorities, by their example and activity, exercised a vastly disproportionate influence in their respective traditions.
Reflections on Religious Change and Conflict
Scope: When we look at Christianity in the Reformation era as a whole, and endeavor to assess its character in comparison to late medieval Christianity, three broad changes are evident. First, what had been a singular (although far from homogeneous) Church became a plurality of competing churches. Second, religious doctrine became relatively more important. Third, an increasing emphasis was placed on self-conscious individual spirituality and religious awareness. Perhaps the biggest challenge to understanding early modern Christianity is simultaneously understanding each of its constituent traditions on their own terms.
Three major, long-term changes in Christianity during the Reformation era include the emergence of multiple churches, a shift in emphasis from practices to doctrines, and greater stress on individual spirituality and religious self-awareness.
An inclusive late medieval Christendom gave way to divergent Christian churches, distinguished by beliefs, practices, and membership.
It is possible to exaggerate this shift if one wrongly considers that the late medieval Church was a uniform, homogeneous whole.
The disagreements among early modern Christian groups differ from the disagreements among late medieval Church groups.
During the Reformation era, the average man or woman experienced a shift, from Christianity as primarily something one practices to Christianity as fundamentally a body of doctrines one believes.
Even in Catholicism, mere implicit faith becomes less acceptable after the Council of Trent.
Doctrinal disputes contribute to this increasing emphasis on the importance of right doctrine in Christian life.
The legacy of early modern efforts at religious instruction may be seen in the educated disdain today of those who cannot articulate what they believe and why.
In the Reformation era, an increasing emphasis is placed on the self-consciousness of the individual in relationship to God.
The foundational beliefs that divergent Christian groups shared in common, and the nature of those beliefs, is essential for understanding the nature of the divisions among the groups.
Protestants, Anabaptists, and Catholics all believed that the Bible was the word of God in a strong, incontrovertible sense.
Protestants, Anabaptists, and Catholics all believed that God disposed events according to his will through his providence, which made possible radical disjunctions between appearances and reality.
Protestants, Anabaptists, and Catholics all believed that they would be rewarded with eternal salvation or condemned to eternal damnation.
Protestants, Anabaptists, and Catholics all believed that only through God’s definitive self-revelation and incarnation in Jesus Christ had salvation become possible.
Because Christian teachings were understood as God’s teachings, they could not be taken lightly.
One could be saved only through the proper adherence to God’s teachings and the correct following of Christ.
The nature of the disputed issues meant that they were inherently explosive and divisive, touching as they did fundamental questions of truth, meaning, purpose, and destiny.
Early modern doctrinal controversies were disputes about God’s teachings, with eternal ramifications.
Early modern Christianity was so volatile, because it embedded incompatible beliefs in a wider framework of shared convictions.
Understanding early modern Christianity means understanding its constituent traditions-Protestantism, radical Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism-each on their own terms.
Seen as a whole, the essence of Christianity in the Reformation era may be described as “disagreement.”The nature of the disagreement among Christian groups in the Reformation era remains elusive until and unless the constituent parties to the disagreement are understood simultaneously on their own terms.
Christianity in all its forms in the Reformation era is also a story of spiritual experience, shared religious encouragement, and journeys of souls toward God.
Expectations and Ironies
Scope: Viewed as a whole, the Reformation era contributed to transformations in the Western world of which most early modern Christians would have disapproved: a multiplicity of churches, doctrinal pluralism, an increasingly secular political order, and the diminishing influence of religion in public life emerged. Yet Christianity was not overthrown or disproved by modern thought or institutions, but were domesticated and marginalized for the sake of social and political coexistence.
In incontestable ways, the expectations for the future of early modern Protestants, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics were profoundly mistaken.
Catholic authorities mistakenly expected that sixteenth-century Protestantism would be successfully controlled.
Protestants and radical Protestants wrongly expected that the Roman Catholic Church would soon collapse and usher in the apocalypse.
The pervasive religious disagreement and conflict in Christianity in the Reformation era produced several important, unintended consequences.
Multiple attempts to reform or reestablish the one Christian Church led to the formation of a multiplicity of mutually exclusive churches.
Virtually all early modern Christians believed, following St. Paul, that only one body of Christian faithful could and should exist.
The result of disagreements about the content of Christian truth yielded multiple Christian churches, an outcome that almost no early modern Christians sought or approved.
Doctrinal disagreement led to doctrinal pluralism, raising the prospect of doctrinal relativism and questioning the value of doctrine itself.
Virtually all early modern Christians were doctrinal absolutists, because God’s truth was neither doubtful nor negotiable.
Doctrinal pluralism, the outcome of disagreement on doctrinal absolutism, would have pleased few early modern Christians.
Doctrinal pluralism is different than doctrinal relativism and need not lead to the latter, although it can.
That the clash of commitments about God’s teachings would contribute to an eventual erosion of their significance is the last thing any devout sixteenth-century Christian would have wanted.
Religious intolerance contributed to the rise of a secular political order.
The continuing doctrinal controversy and recurrent religious wars helped to make non-religious principles the only reliable basis for the stable ordering of society.
Christians’ unwillingness to compromise on religion led to its eventual elimination from the public concerns of the secular state.
Modern “freedom of religion” for the individual, and its elimination as the basis for collective life, would have been deplored by almost all Christians in the Reformation era.
The uncompromising prioritization of religious concerns above all else helped to undermine concern for religion.
The religious conflicts of the Reformation era proved vulnerable to attack by secular ideologies in subsequent centuries.
Christian groups damaged their respective causes and contributed to long-term processes of secularization.
Intellectually and institutionally, the post-Enlightenment West did not replace or overthrow Christianity but, rather, marginalized it.
The traditional evaluation of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the modern world in comparison to the Reformation era is problematic.
Teleological condescension of modernity toward early modernity is both common and often cast in crudely dichotomous terms.
The history of the twentieth century in particular can hardly sustain any strong form of post-Enlightenment triumphalism.
Modern intellectual and institutional developments displaced Christianity and religion in general, through counter-dogmas, relativization, and privatization.
In the modern Western world, religion continues to thrive but not as the basis for collective social and political life.
The claim that the transition from religious belief to unbelief is a product of education per se is false, because highly educated religious believers continue to exist.
Modern intellectual and institutional developments have influenced the Christian traditions of the Reformation era in numerous ways.