The Demise of Christendom, 4

The Demise of Christendom, 4

“Freedom exists only in the conflict between the call to be, to be born, and to grow, and the objections to this call …. The whole notion of freedom being exercised amid conflict is … a product of Western man.”

Jacques Ellul, The Betrayal of the West, (Seabury Press, 1978), p. 56

The tottering medieval consensus of a united ‘Christendom’ was shattered by the Protestant Reformation.  Ellul’s principle of freedom, quoted above, comes sharply into focus in what ensued.

The Reformation did not explode out of a vacuum.  In the later Middle Ages almost everyone knew that the condition of the Church and its role in society required reform.  As we have seen, various efforts and proposals had been periodically made and had failed.  The Papacy and Church hierarchy were addicted to power, wealth, and politics.  Theology and Papal Bulls were used to excuse abuses and justify practices and doctrinal statements that could never be found in Scripture or the early Church Fathers, except by often far-fetched allegorization, which was the preferred method of interpretation.  Calls for reform, for Councils, and for control over very worldly activity by those supposedly charged with seeing to the eternal salvation and spiritual health of the laity abounded but faded on the wind. 

Many ordinary priests and monks were truly dedicated to serving God and their flocks and living a quiet life of devotion, but too many imitated, on a modest scale, the self-indulgence of those above them.  Many disregarded the official vow of celibacy, and parish clergy were often hardly literate enough to say Mass.  Spontaneous movements, such as those of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Domenic, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, or the Cathars and Waldensians were either anathematized or canalized into more controllable institutional forms. 

In the later 1300s, the Roman Church fell into a division stylized as ‘the Babylonian Captivity of the Church’.  First two and then as many as three rival Popes arose and established courts in Rome and Avignon.  Kings and Princes chose sides, based on which of the rivals they could best control, manipulate, exploit, or suffer least interference from.  The Conciliar Movement sought to remedy this mess and eventually resolved the ‘Babylonian Schism’ at the Council of Constance, but at the same time sullied itself by condemning Huss and Wycliffe as heretics and calling for their followers to be wiped out by the Holy Roman (German) Emperor and the King of England.  A safe-conduct issued to Huss to explain himself at the Council was ignored and Huss was burned at the stake without ever having a chance to speak.  The Movement ultimately failed to prevent the Popes from returning to their old ways.

In the 1360s, John Wycliffe, a distinguished professor of theology at Oxford University, had begun to overtly denounce the Church hierarchy as ungodly.  He declared the Pope to be fallible, said Scripture was the first and supreme authority for Christians, and strove to bring the Bible to the people by translating it into English and sending his students out to teach it to the people.  Remarkably, Wycliffe survived to die a natural death in 1384 under the sympathetic protection of Prince John of Gaunt, known to history as ‘the Black Prince’ and England’s greatest warrior of the 14thCentury.  Wycliffe’s followers became known as ‘Lollards’[i]and were later mercilessly persecuted, particularly by Henry VIII.

On the continent, John Huss of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), who had studied at Oxford, repeated Wycliffe’s claims and led the Czechs into their own pre-Reformation in the early 1400s.  After Huss was burned at the stake, his followers took control of Bohemia and defeated every Catholic attempt to retake their country.  Eventually, in the 16th Century, the‘Hussites’ would divide into a majority which reintegrated into the Roman Catholic Church and a remnant which would join the Lutherans.

Other attempted Reform movements included The Brethren of the Common Life in the Netherlands and Germany and Christian Humanism, exampled by scholars like Desiderius Erasmus (In Praise of Folly) and Thomas More (Utopia). Seeking lay community in the towns, ‘The Brethren of the Common Life’ produced one of the greatest of all Christian devotional and meditational books, TheImitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis.  Early in the 16thCentury, Erasmus’ and More’s hope for ‘organic reform’ of the Church and society from within was blasted by a German Augustinian monk. 

Martin Luther had undergone a personal conversion in 1515 (the date is uncertain, some saying as early as 1511) after years of futilely striving to win God’s favour and appease His wrath by rigorous self-discipline and flagellation. While teaching theology and Bible at Wittenberg University in Saxony, he found the key to salvation in Romans, where the Apostle Paul declares, “The just shall live by faith.”  Once he had seen this and knew it in his very soul, he was set free.  He began to see the freedom and redemption wrought by faith everywhere in the New Testament.  He concluded that the whole system and hierarchy of the Church had gone astray and was deceiving the faithful, preaching a Gospel of God’s salvation by works of merit overshadowed by pending Divine wrath. 

TheReformation began fairly innocently on October 31, 1517, as a hand-written public notice posted on Luther’s own parish church door in Wittendberg (Church doors were the public billboard of the day).  The document (now called The 95 Theses) focused on the issues of indulgences[ii], the forgiveness of sin, and the Pope’s and hierarchy’s fraudulent manipulation of the faithful.  Seeking a debate, Luther ended up with a revolution.  His students had his hand-written missive printed and distributed all over Germany, and within months this obscure professor at an out-of-the way university had become a household name across Germany, and soon across Europe.

The Roman Church’s hierarchy chose to attempt to silence this upstart monk, but Duke Frederick of Saxony, under whose protection Luther lived, refused to comply. Attempts to hold dialogue between Luther and the Roman authorities, sometimes even resulting in temporary ‘cease-fires’, all broke down.  Luther began publishing scathing attacks on the whole Papal system, repeating many of Wycliffe’s and Huss’s charges.  The printing press and his students’ and parishioners’ zeal spread his work, name, and ideas far and wide.  A growing number of sympathetic German nobles and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people began to regard him as both Germany’s champion against a corrupt and grasping Italian-led Church and the new voice of God’s call to repentance. 

In 1520 he was excommunicated.  Luther called on Christians to take back Christ’s church.  He called on the German nobility to defend the souls of their people and Germany from despoilment by Italian clerics.  Emperor Charles V called Luther to stand before the Imperial Council convened at Worms in 1521.  Luther expected the same fate as Huss.  Told to recant or face the consequences, Luther avowed, “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word.  I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one’s conscience is neither just nor safe. God help me, Amen.”[iii]  After, Luther’s protector, Duke Frederick of Saxony, hid him away for a year in a remote castle and Luther translated the Bible into German.

We need not recount the whole story of the Reformation.  It engulfed all of Europe in its repercussions, leading to deep religious divisions that exacerbated the already angry political rivalries.  To finish with Luther: he was never burned as a heretic but instead founded the Lutheran Church, dying peacefully in his bed in 1547. 

As Luther roused Germany, another reform movement started in Switzerland led by Ulrich Zwingli, resulting in the‘Reformed Church’.  Its greatest champion would be Jean (John) Calvin (1509-64), a Frenchman who would make Geneva his base. 

England too would separate fromRome.  King Henry VIII, who had once been named ‘Defender of the Faith’ by the Pope for writing a treatise against Lutheranism, took England out of the Roman fold in 1534, having Parliament declare him the Head of the Anglican Catholic Church rather than the Pope.[iv]  From here on, the English Church would not be able to stem the inroads of Protestant ideas and piety.

Religious wars of Roman Catholics versus Protestants would erupt in Germany and Switzerland in the late 1520s.  They would continue with ferocity and terrible effect until 1648, sweeping the continent from Sweden to Hungary and Poland to France.  Even England would have its own version of this between 1642-9, and the subsequent wars among theWestern nations would have a slightly religious tinge for the next century as well.

While the West remained nominally Christian, the unity of Christendom was gone and the seeds of its ultimate demise had been shown.

We will continue the tale in our next instalment.


[i] The term is said to have been derived from the ‘lolling’ sound of mumbled vocal prayer in English coming from the assemblies the members held in forests and remote locations.  Those hunting them would go stealthily, finding them by following the sound.

[ii] An indulgence was a promise that, in return for performing a work of spiritual merit, the performer would have his or her time in purgatory reduced.  Purgatory was a sort of ‘in-between’ place after you die, where your soul must be cleansed of sin before it could enter God’s presence.  Luther was outraged that his parishioners were being defrauded of their money by unscrupulous salesmen commissioned by the Pope or his Cardinals to finance the building of St.Peter’s in Rome by selling ‘plenary indulgences’ guaranteeing no time in purgatory to the buyer or another person the buyer wanted it applied to, even if already dead.

[iii] Quoted in Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, The Reformation to the Present Day.  (Harper, 1985), p. 28.

[iv] Henry’s break with Rome was not from any zeal for ‘reform’.  Henry wanted his more than twenty-year long marriage to Princess Catherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry a younger woman and father a male heir.  The Pope refused, fearing offending Emperor Charles, who was Catherine’s nephew.

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