Issues in Reformation History and Doctrine

Nation States

Political Influence

Precursors

Printing

Religious Orders

 Theologians

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Authority
Arguably the central debate of the Reformation is not over any particular doctrine, but concerns who or what has the authority to determine change in doctrines.  The 15th century conciliar movement had given this role to general councils, a move which was stopped by the findings of the 5th Lateran Council.  Unfortunately, for Pope Leo X, just as he had achieved victory over conciliarism, priests (e.g., Zwingli) and theologians (e.g., Luther) around Europe were turning to the Bible as the ultimate authority in doctrinal matters.   The rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation became Luther's notion of sola scriptura (Latin:  Scripture alone), although it was left to the Reformed and Radical Reformations to pursue that to its logical conclusion.  In response, the Catholic Reformation emphasised either papal authority (as in the indulgences controversy) or the parity of Scripture and Tradition (as at the Council of Trent).
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Church
In recent centuries the doctrine of the church (or ecclesiology) has become a predominantly Catholic concern, but it was of vital interest to both Catholic and Protestant Reformations.  For Protestant Reformers the debate centres on what are the (distinguishing) marks of the true church.  If you are aware of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer's "Prayers for the Church Militant" then you will have come across the marks of the church in the prayer that clergy would "by their life and doctrine set forth thy true and lively word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy sacraments."  The marks of the true church were a way of denying the authenticity of the Catholic Church and thus justifying the establishment of separate Protestant churches.  This did not rule out having a variety of Protestant churches because the world-wide church was united in possessing the true marks, not in institutional uniformity.  The Catholic Reformation had dealt with individual points of reform that were required, but the Protestant Revolt encouraged them to address the notion of the church as a whole.  They argued that if the church was to be one, it must be one institution under one head, the Pope.  Eventually, at the Council of Trent, Robert Belleramine's notion of the Catholic Church as the perfect society (societas perfectas) gained acceptance and remained the standard Catholic viewpoint until the 1940s.
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Indulgences
  Indulgences were a means by which the pope granted dispensation from certain sins in return for certain actions. The indulgence controversy arose because Luther was incensed that pilgrims to Wittenberg Castle were granted indulgences for viewing the 19,000 relics that Elector Frederick had collected. Earlier Erasmus was deeply critical of them in his sarcastic In Praise of Folly. Both Erasmus and Luther reserved their greatest ire for the notion that indulgences could be bought, as this allowed wealth to bypass the requirement to repent.
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Justification

The doctrine about how the benefits of Jesus' death on the cross were transferred to the human believer. Reformers such as Erasmus and Luther were critical of any notion that this salvation could be claimed purely through the ritual functions of the Church (especially not through indulgences). Many Catholic Reformers followed the devotio moderna in seeing this salvation being merited through righteous actions, whereas Luther argued that it is only by faith that salvation can come to an individual.  At the Council of Trent justification was interpreted sacramentally, i.e., picking up on the notions that there is no salvation outside the (Catholic) church and that membership of the church is determined by baptism, confirmation, eucharist and absolution.

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Sacrament
 From the central middle ages onwards, Western Catholicism had developed a system of doctrine and practice that was heavily sacramental, although the influence for this development went back to the fifth century St Augustine of Hippo. Grace was mediated through the seven sacraments (baptism, eucharist, confirmation, absolution, marriage, ordination, and last rites), which were in turn channelled through the sacramental ministers (bishops and priests). At the heart of the sacramental system was the mass and the underlying doctrine of transubstantiation, in which it was believed that while the bread and wine retained their physical attributes, they became in essence the body and blood of Jesus. This doctrine was one that all Protestant Reformers dissented from, but it should not be thought that they were therefore anti-sacramental. Indeed, the early Protestant Reformation was deeply split over the doctrine of sacrament. Philip of Hesse's attempt to unite Protestantism (in the wake of the Catholic victory in the Schmalkaldic War) foundered on the diametrically opposed positions that Luther and Zwingli took on Jesus' words at the Last Supper, "This is my Body." Luther found transubstantiation too literal a doctrine, but valued the intention behind it. Consequently, he spoke of consubstantiation in which the essence of the bread and wine remained unaltered, but spiritually became Jesus' body and blood. Zwingli felt that the bread and wine at the Last Supper merely symbolised Jesus' body and blood and that this remains the case in a eucharistic service. Bucer vainly sought to reach a compromise, but Calvin eventually found a via media (middle way) by asserting that the bread and wine become the spiritual body and blood through the faith of the believing recipient, rather than in and of themselves. This debate was not one that greatly concerned the Catholic Reformation, where the central question was on of abuses that had crept into sacramental policy, rather than any problems with the doctrine as such.

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Salvation
Most of the central doctrines of Christianity were settled in the Patristic Era (1st-8th Centuries), but the doctrine  of salvation was not settled until the central middle ages, Then the three As set out the views that determined the doctrine for the Reformation Era and beyond. Anselm of Canterbury set out his substitutionary theory that only a God-man (i.e., the incarnate Christ) could save humankind, Peter Abelard argued that humankind is saved through the love that took Jesus to the cross, while Thomas Aquinas typically adopted a via media position, in claiming that Jesus took on the sins of humankind, but that his love in going to his death was so great that his merit flows superabundantly out to humanity. The Reformers largely adopted or adapted one of these three positions. The devotio moderna (modern way) popular among Catholic Reformers since the fifteenth century followed Abelard; most Protestant Reformers either adopted or (especially in Calvin's case) adapted Anselm; while the Council of Trent sided with Aquinas, whose notion of superabundance fitted in well with the sacramental system. This doctrine is about how Jesus saves humanity, it is not to be confused with justification, the doctrine of how these benefits are transferred to individual humans.

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Scripture and Tradition

Much of the impetus for the Catholic Reformation came form the work of humanists like Erasmus on the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. Just as general humanism called people back to the sources of ancient Greece and Rome, so the Christian humanists called the Church back to the ancient sources of the Old and New Testaments. Luther took this a step further by proclaiming the key principle as sola scriptura (scripture alone), but in comparison to Zwingli, Luther's theology was still largely determined by the preceding tradition. To Luther (and many Catholic Reformers) scripture challenges the received tradition, while to Zwingli scripture becomes the only authentic tradition. Under Melancthon, Lutheranism would become deeply split over the issue of adiphora, i.e., the notion that some things which are not expressly forbidden by scripture can remain unchallenged, even though nothing in scripture supports their continued use. Luther's early opponents argued against the notion that anyone but the pope could determine a new direction in scriptural interpretation, but the later Catholic Reformation (esp. the Council of Trent) reduced the importance of scripture in its effort to counter Protestant arguments.

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Historical Issues


Nation States

The first key debate concerns what type of politics dominates Reformation Europe. Traditionally, it has been held that the Protestant Reformation receives support because of the rise of the nation states in contrast to the notion of a unified Christendom. This is a problematic claim because for at least the first half of the 16th century the dominant power remains the Hapsburg dynasty in the form of Emperor Charles V, at one time ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Low Countries, Bohemia, Sicily and much of Italy. Equally problematic is the fact that nation states extend back into previous centuries. Certainly, France is re-emerging as a powerful nation state, but this is because it is reconquering lands lost in the battle of the Channel states of England and France. Equally, the notion of a nation state in Scotland could be traced back to at least Robert Bruce. If you want to make a claim that the Reformation Era is determined by the rise of the nation states, then you need to define very carefully what you mean.

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Political Influence

There was little democracy as we know it today in 16th century Europe and consequently it was difficult for any reformation to succeed without the support of the ruling class.  That is not the same as saying that the reformers were puppets in a larger political game, but that those who succeeded did so because they found favourable political situations within which to work.  This is best illustrated by the career of Thomas Cranmer, who was initially able to do little more than carry out Henry VIII's wishes,  later  able to explore more clearly Protestant ideas under Edward VI, but burnt at the stake under Mary I.  There were different types of political influence, depending on the personality (and religiosity of the ruler), the secular power struggles taking place and the personalities of the reformers.  The reformation under Henry VIII was largely driven by the monarchy, while in  both Zurich and Geneva the city governments are responding to both the reformers and the will of the people.  The Holy Roman Empire is different again, as you  have many princes becoming Protestant (a name that is political, not religious, in origin) under a Catholic Emperor, while the German Reformation was largely one in which church and state co-exist in mutual tolerance, rather than the closer relationships found in Anglican or Reformed Reformations.  There is no doubting the importance of political influence on the reformations, the debates concern what type of influence is active in a particular country and at a particular time.

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Precursors

The views of several of the pre-Reformation  agitators for reform are remarkably similar to what the Protestants proclaimed in the 16th century.  This is particularly so in the case of Wycliff and Hus, with Luther declaring "I am a Hussite."  The debate concerns whether the groups that survived from these earlier movements had any influence on the Protestant Reformers.  For example, A.G. Dickens make much of the influence of Lollards (Wycliffites) in preparing the ground for the English Reformation.  In general, there appears to be little direct evidence that the reformers came to  their views because of contact with these heretical groups, although these groups did enter into  dialogue with the Protestant Reformation.  One of the strongest arguments against any direct influence is the fact that these conversations were often unsuccessful.

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Printing

There is no doubt that printing played a large role in the spread of Protestant ideas, but the influence can be exaggerated.  To  argue for a strong importance for printing you have to establish why not all countries with strong printing industries embraced Protestantism and why Protestantism was so successful among illiterate peasants.   

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Religious Orders

The importance of religious orders is undoubted, especially because religious orders dominated Christian life until the Reformation.  The key debate would be whether the indulgences controversy was a debate between the theologians of two main orders (Augustinians and Dominicans) that was allowed to get out of hand.  Such an argument is possible, but had it been handled properly, it is likely the the Protestant Reformation would simply have been  delayed a couple of years and begun with Zwingli in Zurich.

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Theologians

On all sides the scholastic type of theology was under attack, as in Erasmus' wonderful phrase "As for the theologians, they are best passed over in silence."  The criticism was of a theological system that worked cumulatively by building on what the previous generation of theologians had concluded and taking into account recent papal pronouncements.  This went counter to the humanist focus on a return to the Biblical sources and in many ways the academic arguments in the Reformation era can be seen as a battle between the old schools of Paris and Oxford and the newer humanist-influenced institutions such as Wittenberg.  As the Reformation develops the influence of the universities weaken, with church and political  leaders taking the leading roles, but the original debates owe a lot to the ferment within Western Europe's  higher education system.

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