The Renaissance Reformation
It is difficult for us to imagine the quality of religious beliefs that people had in the 16th Century, so much distracts us in the modern world. Today people speak of their religious preference as if it were on par with their favorite food or sports team. Before the Renaissance Reformation, every person, every village, and every activity had a patron saint. There was St Christopher for travelers, St. Elmo for sailors, St. Germain for sick children, St. Sythe for lost keys, St. Jude for hopeless causes—just to name a few. People found comfort in knowing that their view of life—with faith in the starring role—was shared by nearly everyone they knew. No one questioned God’s existence. Prayers were said several times a day. The Devil and his demons were as real and common to the people of the 16th Century as viruses are to us today, always making promises like a campaigning politician. Catholics called upon the saints and relics for help.
The Renaissance Reformation of the Christian Church reached Basel in 1522, through the preacher and theologian, Oecolampadius. Basel was called the "Athens of Switzerland;" it was the wealthiest and most literary city in the country. Basel also served as the nation’s commercial center, as it bordered both France and Germany. Oecolampadius opposed the confessional and preached against the worship of the Virgin Mary. He only taught from the Bible, gave both the bread and the wine during communion, and instituted congregational singing.
The famous Dr. Johann Eck (1486-1543), the champion of Roman Catholicism, challenged the Reformers to a debate at Baden, Germany in 1526. Dr. Eck arrived in rich garments, glittering with jewels, and while there he ate like a king, enjoying the most costly delicacies and choicest wines. He looked down on the Reformers as little better than a company of beggars. Dr. Eck enjoyed revelry and gaiety, whilst the Reformers were engaged in study of the Bible and prayed to God.
Eck haughtily ascended a splendid pulpit while the humble Reformers, in plain clothes, were given only a stool below him. Eck argued for the authority and customs of the Roman Church, and the Reformers adhered steadfastly to the Holy Scriptures. The modest, calm, clear, gentle reasoning of the Reformers won the day.
The new Protestant churches did not pull double duty as town meeting halls, banquet halls, and theatres, as had the Catholic churches. They were neither to be a refuge during war, nor a sanctuary for criminals. Protestants had no use for relics, art, incense, crucifixes, confession, or fancy outfits for priests. Their ministers were married men with children, who did not mumble in Latin but preached sermons in a clear, everyday language that everybody could understand—sometimes for hours.
Protestants studied the Bible for themselves. The Bible (the word means book) taught history, biography, biology, geography, philosophy, political science, psychology, hygiene, sociology, cosmology, ethics, as well as theology. The Bible presents the panorama of the world and human affairs with such detail that it is hard to think of a human situation without biblical example.
Men were granted free license by the Roman Church during these times, as long as they contributed to the Church treasury. Thus, men were given the choice of the forgiveness of sins for money, or the forgiveness of sins through Christ. Rome had made sin a source of revenue.
A Catholic monk named Samson traveled around Switzerland extracting money from poor peasants and the wealthy for Indulgences. But when he reached Zurich, Switzerland, he found he could not sell a single pardon, and left there empty-handed.
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), of Zurich, challenged the doctrines and ecclesiastical organization of the Roman Catholic Church in 1522. He rejected the authority of bishops, and declared that local communities had the right to control their own religious affairs. He claimed that the Eucharist was a simple, symbolic ceremony—and rejected Transubstantiation.
Zwingli had become a preacher in 1516 at Einsiedeln. The main attraction at that church was an image of the Virgin Mary, said to perform miracles. Pilgrims came from all around to visit this shrine. Zwingli said, "Do not imagine that God is in this temple more than in any other part of creation. Whatever be the country in which you dwell, God is around you, and hears you. Can unprofitable works, pilgrimages, offerings, images, the invocation of the saints or of the Virgin, secure for you the grace of God? God looks at the heart."
To many of his listeners these teachings were bitterly disappointing, since it meant that their previous efforts had been in vain. Zwingli went on to say, "The life of Christ has been too long hidden from the people." He opened the Gospels to people in great numbers, inspiring them with the narrative of the life, teachings, and death of Christ. "It is to Christ that I desire to lead you." People from all classes listened to his words with deep interest.
Zwingli wrote, "The law in its essence is the character, will, and nature of God. The Law is a Gospel for the man who honors God."
Zwingli taught that people come to Christ as individuals, not needing the mediation of any church. He began preaching his own sermons, rather than the official lectionary of Rome. Crowds flocked to hear him in huge numbers; so many that he began to give Friday sermons in the city market, which held far more people. He preached true repentance and godly living; caring for the poor, for the widow, and for the orphan. He denigrated indulgences and what he called the superstitions of the Roman Church.
Zwingli then went on to persuade the city council to strip the churches of their images, ornamentation, and organs. Services became short and simple, without hymns. There were no more priests in robes with their backs to the congregation, but instead a minister in everyday clothes who stood in the midst of the people and served the bread and wine. Monasteries were converted into centers for housing, feeding, and teaching the poor.
Zwingli was killed during a battle against Catholics in 1531. His body was then burnt and mixed with manure. The battle was sparked by a Zurich printer who dared to eat meat on Lent. He told Catholic authorities that his preacher, Zwingli, had taught that the Bible places no restrictions on food. Zwingli said, "God does not desire our decrees or doctrines if they do not originate with him." The people of Zurich, well known for their independent streak and fine army, agreed, and wrested control of the city from the Catholic bishop.
It seems that God passes by the titled and wealthy of the earth; those who are accustomed to receiving praise and showing pride in their superiority. They perhaps cannot be molded to sympathize with their fellow man enough to cooperate with Jesus of Nazareth. It was the unlearned fishermen who were humble and therefore teachable. The Reformers used as God's instruments were men of humble origins; they were free from pride of rank.
Zwingli was born in a herdsman's cottage, and he was reared amid scenes of natural grandeur, beauty, and the majesty of God in the Alps. His pious grandmother read Bible stories to him as a child. He was a gifted speaker, writer, poet, and musician.
Zwingli said, "The Scriptures come from God, not man, and even that God who enlightens will give thee to understand that the speech comes from God. The Word of God cannot fail; it is bright; it teaches itself; it discloses itself; it illumines the soul; comforts it; humbles it; so that it embraces God."
William Tyndale (1494-1536) was educated at Oxford and Cambridge. He had command of eight languages— most notable among them Greek and Hebrew—a virtually unheard of ability at the time.
After being ordained as a Catholic priest, William Tyndale requested the church's permission to translate the Bible into English; his request was denied by the Bishop of London. This denial gave Tyndale a new awareness; he came to see that the Roman Catholic Church was able to successfully maintain its control over the faithful by keeping the Bible in Latin, which only its representatives could read. He came to the understanding that the ability of laymen to read the Bible in their own language deeply threatened the Church. Tyndale said that Christ would not want His Church to prevail by fear. He then left England and joined the Reformation.
John Wycliffe had already translated the Bible from Latin to English, but it had never been printed. The cost of hand written copies was so great that only nobles or wealthy merchants possessed it. Tyndale determined to translate the Bible from Erasmus' Greek translation and have it printed so the common Englishman could read it in his own tongue.
William Tyndale settled in Antwerp, where he was hidden by sympathetic English merchants. There he translated the Greek New Testament into English, and had 3,000 copies of it printed in Germany in 1526. The Bibles were then smuggled into England, which outraged Cardinal Wolsey, who issued an arrest warrant for Tyndale. (Tyndale had also infuriated King Henry by criticizing his divorce.) In 1535, he was finally betrayed, apprehended, and burnt at the stake. The purpose of burning heretics was to reduce them to ashes, leaving no trace of them on earth.
The Tyndale Bible left a lasting legacy. It is so well done that 90 percent of his wordings were used one hundred years later in the King James Version—and 75 percent of the wordings used in 1952 when the Revised Standard Version was published, despite the evolutions of the English language. Many of Tyndale's phrasings survive to this day, such as "Salt of the Earth" "Signs of the Times" "The powers that be" "Scapegoat" "Broken-hearted" "Am I my brother's keeper?" "Fight the good fight" and "Eat, drink, and be merry."
Holy Roman Emperor Charles V called a Diet (solemn meeting) in 1529, at which he declared that all of Germany must return to the Catholic fold. Six of the princes protested, and it is from this Protestation that the Protestants were named.
The Confession of Augsburg was composed by Philip Melanchthon in 1530. This is the Protestant Manifesto. It was meant to be conciliatory, and so it purposefully ignored divisive issues such as purgatory and the papacy. The idea was still to reform the Catholic Church—not split from it.
Charles V was determined to crush the Protestant movement. He was afraid that liberty of conscience would lead to civil disorder. Charles issued a decree that forbade any new reforms, outlawed the teachings of Martin Luther, and prohibited conversion to Lutheranism. He demanded submission.
Protestants issued this statement: "We protest by these present, before God, our only Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, and Savior, and who will one day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we, for us and for our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in anything that is contrary to God, to His Holy Word, to our right conscience, to the salvation of our souls. There is no sure doctrine but such as is conformable to the Word of God. The Holy Book is, in all things necessary for the Christian, easy of understanding, and calculated to scatter the darkness. We are resolved, with the grace of God, to maintain the pure and exclusive preaching of His only Word, such as is contained in the biblical books of the Old and New Testaments, without adding anything thereto that may be contrary to it. This Word is the only Truth; it is the sure rule of all doctrine and of all life, and can never fail or deceive us. He who builds on this foundation shall stand against the powers of Hell, while all human vanities that are set up against it shall fall before the face of God. For this reason we reject the yoke that is imposed on us. At the same time we are in expectation that his imperial majesty will behave toward us like a Christian prince who loves God above all things; and we declare ourselves ready to pay unto him, all the affection and obedience that are our just and legitimate duty."
People were amazed at the boldness of the protestors. Bloodshed seemed inevitable. Protestants had set the Word of God above the visible Church. They were determined to obey God above man; the crown of Jesus above that of Charles V. Human teachings were subordinated to the teachings of God. All evangelicals adopted this protest as the expression of their faith. Satan went to work to oppose God's Word, as he always does.
That same year, a death sentence was decreed in Antwerp for anyone not an official Catholic theologian who discussed any article of faith. Antwerp was one of the busiest, richest, and most cosmopolitan cities in Europe because its port had made it the center for international trade and finance for Europe. The region around Antwerp was known as Flanders, and that region provided half of the Holy Roman Empire’s income. The emperor, Charles V, was himself a native of Flanders. Luther's books had been brought there in the 1520’s, and then translated into Dutch. During the 16th Century, six hundred Protestant churches were burned down and thousands of Protestants became martyrs. This persecution was successful, as today only 30% of the Christians in Belgium are Protestants.
In 1530, Christianity split into three main branches: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. This split is the cause of the demise of the word Christendom—replaced by the word Europe. Protestantism made a major impact in Europe with regard to rising literacy, education; and the establishment of free enterprise and capitalism. Protestants stressed literature and education while Catholics stressed art and architecture.
The problem for Protestants was that since only the Bible had the final say over their beliefs, they began to split apart as differences in opinion arose as to what the Bible said. Thus the Protestant movement fragmented, first into two camps: the Lutherans of Germany and the Reformed of Switzerland. Today, there are over 300 recognized denominations.
The first two divisions of Protestantism agreed that the Bible was their sole authority, as the inspired Word of God. But the Reformed felt that Luther had not moved far enough away from Catholicism.
The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. While Catholics maintain that the bread and wine used in Eucharist are transformed into real blood and the body of Christ, to the Reformed Protestant the bread and wine are merely symbolic, used to memorialize the Last Supper and give thanks for the forgiveness of sins. John Calvin said that Christ was always everywhere, including at the Eucharist.
The Swiss Reformers admired Martin Luther and felt themselves to be in common cause with him, but they nonetheless felt Luther had been far too friendly to the ideas of Papists, what with his hopes of reforming them. The Reformers thought transubstantiation to be a fantastic invention of Pope Innocent III. Jesus was only present in communion spiritually, not physically.
Martin Luther defied the authority of the popes, all of whom could and did err. But Luther kept the doctrines of infant baptism and transubstantiation, which later Reformers rejected.
It can be said that Renaissance Christian Humanism produced the Reformation; the most influential catalyst being the Greek Bible of Erasmus. The Catholic Church was concerned that Erasmus had "corrected" the Latin translation by the use of the Greek. The Protestants exalted the Word, will, and commandments of God over all human words, including those of the Catholic Church with its traditions.
SOURCES AND OTHER READING
My sources used to prepare this article include: Reformation of Church and Dogma by Jaroslav Pelikan; The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White; The One Year Book of Christian History by E. Michael & Sharon Rusten; and A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins.