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Church History


▪- A.D. 1450 to 1609

We need to define a term here – for we will refer to a couple of our characters as humanists, a term which carries a bad connotation in our day and age. As defined by the American Humanist Association

Humanism is a progressive life stance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.

However, in the sixteenth century, a humanist was a [Renaissance] Christian who focused upon the practical human actions and human-oriented arts (the "humanities") instead of the Scholastic logic of Aquinas and others.

With this understanding in mind, we will encounter Erasmus in the context of history. We have already seen Erasmus' contribution to the development of the modern Bible translations. How did Erasmus arrive at his place in history?

Julius II was pope in 1507.  He was a great general and used his army and his power to conquer. In particular, he conquered Bologna, Italy, home of Erasmus. The son of an unwed teenager, Erasmus was a student of the Brethren of Common Life and became a priest because he had no funds to attend university. He was, however, such a promising student that his bishop gave him the education he sought. Erasmus became a great Greek scholar and gave the church a New Testament biblical text in the original tongue. If Wycliffe and Hus had set the gunpowder, Erasmus provided the fuse. The fuse would be ignited in 1517.

The humanist of the Renaissance placed a great deal of emphasis on the study of Greek and classical literature, especially the Greek text of the Bible.  Literary humanists of this period included Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchton, and Erasmus, all of whom played a vital role in the Reformation.

In 1505, while traveling down a dirt road in the middle of a thunderstorm, a German Saxon lawyer was struck by lightening. Born in 1483 into a family of adequate means, The lawyer as a student was another who studied under the Brethren of Common Life. Struggling to his feet, he pledged his life to God. The man was Martin Luther. Luther was deeply aware of his own sin. He struggled with how a righteous God could love him. Luther prayed long hours in an effort to resolve this question.  His shortfall was his view of Christ as a stern judge. He joined an Augustinian monastery.

John Staupitz was professor of the Bible at Wittenberg University and vice-general of the monastery Luther joined. He thought he understood Luther's struggles and appointed Luther as his successor in 1512. Luther accepted the position even though he still struggled. The phrase that most bothered him was Romans 1:17 "the righteousness of God." Luther found his answer in Erasmus' Greek text where he discovered the shades of meaning in the Greek word we translate as "righteousness." The Greek covers not only the condition of being righteous, but also the act of declaring someone to be righteous. Paul tells us in Romans that it is by faith that one is justified and declared to be righteous before God. The year was 1517 and Luther was at peace in his soul.

Meanwhile, the pope was building St. Peter's Basilica and needed funds to complete the project.  Pope Leo X turned to Prince Albert, the archbishop and ruling prince of Mainz, Germany. Leo and Albert made a deal. Leo allowed the German prince to sell indulgences so long as one-half the profits went to Leo. The deal suited Albert well for he had purchased his archbishop position from the papacy and was heavy in debt.

We have used the term indulgence before. When first used, the idea of the indulgence was the remission of punishment that might otherwise be imposed upon a person by the Church under the Bishop of Rome (the "pope") when such person was guilty of a sin. The logic behind an indulgence was that the sinner could not do sufficient penance to expiate all of his sin. As such it was necessary for the sinner to draw upon the "treasury of merits" governed by the church. This treasury resulted from the contributions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.  It was under the power of the pope to distribute this treasure. Also, initially, one could obtain such indulgence by giving his life in the Crusades.  Later, financial payments were accepted in lieu of giving a life. Over time, the indulgence came to provide for remission of guilt before God.  Essentially, with the sale of indulgences, one could purchase forgiveness before committing the sin!

One of Albert's indulgence peddlers was a Dominican friar named Tetzel. Tetzel so misused this power of the church that he infuriated the pastor of the village church in Mainz, Martin Luther. Luther's goal was to debate Tetzel and "prove" proper theology. So, he wrote out 95 topics of debate. In English we would translate the German word for "topics" as "theses." Luther's point was to challenge Tetzel's theology on the sale of the indulgences, not to take on the pope.

Saxony did not allow the sale of indulgences. Wittenburg was within Saxony, which is why Luther chose this chapel, viewing it as "neutral" ground.  Luther was not out to start a revolution.

On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg chapel door. The printing press allowed copies of Luther's Theses to be spread far and wide. Luther even provided Albert with a copy. While popular support for Luther grew, the church ignored Luther and treated him as a drunk. Luther sent an explanation of his Theses to Leo X. After three years of waiting, Luther still maintained his position and the pope took action. Leo X issued a bull directed at the "wild pig." Everyone understood the wild pig was Luther.

The Latin word for an imperial meeting is "diet." A couple of months after the papal bull, the Holy Roman Emperor sent Luther an invitation to the Diet of Worms, Germany (1521). The last time such a command / promise was issued, John Hus died. Luther probably expected the same result. 

When faced with a pile of his books and an offer to "repent," Luther followed his Christian conscience. It is reasonably certain that the church would have killed Luther, but the ruler of Saxony kidnapped the priest and placed him in safekeeping for several months. During this period, Luther translated the New Testament into idiomatic German. The Reformation has started and Martin Luther caused the explosion.

Luther was not the only would-be reformer. It should be noted that the initial goal of all the early reformers was to change the actions of the church. At least until 1520, none wanted to separate from the church. There was only one church of Christ and everyone who believed belonged to it. Neither Luther nor others around him wanted to form a "new" church.

In Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich [Hulbreich] Zwingli would become another reformer. He, too, studied Erasmus' Greek New Testament to arrive at his theological position.  During a Lenten study this church leader also defied the teachings of the bishop of Rome. He married and almost single-handedly is responsible for Switzerland becoming Protestant.  Zwingli and Luther would meet in an effort to unite their two groups. After discussions, it became clear the two disagreed upon the meaning of the Lord's Supper. Both disagreed with the transubstantiation position of the Roman Church, but they did not agree with each other. Luther agreed with Zwingli that the bread and wine did not change, but Luther maintained that Christ's body was present with the elements and conveyed grace to those partaking who were at peace with God ("consubstantiation"). Zwingli taught that the elements merely symbolize the body of Christ, a "rememberance." 

After five days of debate, the two separated by mutual, "friendly" agreement. In 1530, Luther's followers would publish their statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession.

During this period, the Diet of Speyer (1529) outlawed Lutheranism. A group of Lutheran's protested so adamantly that they were given the name "Protestants." This title was soon applied to describe both the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinistic) churches, eventually coming to represent all who were not Catholic. The Protestant princes united in the Schmalkald League. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V would grant this group religious freedom in 1532.

There is yet another reformer helping to fan the flames of the period. A French lawyer, John Calvin, fled France. Another humanist, Calvin had helped to write a speech containing many quotes from Luther and Erasmus. The French government was not amused. Calvin became a Protestant Christian in 1533, fled to his hometown in Noyon, France and then onto Switzerland. He wrote the first systematic summary of Protestant theology, his Institutes of Christian Religion (1536). The Institutes were revised several times. The last edition in 1559 was four times the size of the original.

Once the Institutes had been published, Calvin moved onto to Geneva, intending to continue to Strasbourg, a clearly Protestant city. Calvin was convinced to remain in Geneva and started preaching. Within two years, Geneva was a Calvinistic Reformation city. 

Along with being one of the great thinker/writers of his age, Calvin encountered one experience in his early career in Geneva that presents a lesson for all of us. About two years after Calvin's arrival, the Geneva city council forced him to leave. At issue were a series of political / religious quarrels. Calvin founded a refuge in Strasbourg to care for French Huguenots (next week's lesson). However, in 1539, Geneva's Protestants discovered they needed someone to debate a Roman Catholic thinker who had come to town. Calvin returned to his pulpit where he would remain until his death.

The lesson? This was Calvin's great opportunity to "get back" at the citizens of Geneva.  Calvin issued no rebuke. In fact, he merely commenced preaching where he had left off two years before as though there had been no break. Calvin offered complete forgiveness to his enemies without spite or an "I told you so." Do you do the same?

Calvin's theology was the formation of the Reformed Churches. Much can be debated in today's church over his doctrine normally represented by the acronym "Tulip."  (TULIP is discussed in the next lesson in more detail.) This is not the course to be debating this, but it should be noted that along with conveying an improper concept of man's depravity and God's predestination, Calvin had some practical faults as well. As indicated above, none of the reformers wanted to form new churches. As a result, much of their doctrine and application contained threads of the teachings of Aquinas and the Church at the time of the Reformation. 

Calvin's practical fault lay in the existing Roman bishop concept that church and government could be commingled. Geneva became a city governed by Calvin's theology.  In fact, in 1536, the Geneva council burned Michael Servetus because he denied the Trinity. This is clearly an Old Testament approach to enforcing proper theology.

Zwingli's Zurich church moved the opposite direction.  Their position was that government had no right to enforce theology. The issue came to light when Felix Manz, one of Zwingli's students started offering the Lord's Supper in the people's language rather than Latin.  They viewed this as a submission to the Scriptures. Manz and his followers, the "Swiss Brothers," started a weekly Bible study. In the process they came to the conclusion that the Scriptures did not authorize the baptism of infants. They not only publicly criticized but they moved a step farther.

In January 1525, the Swiss Brothers received believer's baptism, notwithstanding the fact that the Church had previously baptized each one. This earned them the name of "Again-Baptizers" or "Anabaptists." The night of the rebaptism, the city council of Zurich banished the Anabaptists. It must be remembered that within the church of this time, people believed that it was through the church's baptism that people became members of Christian society.  The action of the Anabaptists had the effect of separating the community of faith from the community of the civil society.

Manz would become the first non-Catholic to be martyred by a Protestant. In 1526 the Zurich city council would condemn Manz to death. He was drowned in the icy river. The persecution of the Anabaptists would be wide spread. Much of the persecution was caused because the group developed into incorrect heresies without the firm leadership of Manz.  In 1535, a Waco-type siege would occur against an Anabaptist compound in Westphalia, Germany. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders would persecute the Anabaptists. Even Calvin would promote their death.  Erasmus was the only early Reformer to defend them. By 1600 10,000 Anabaptists would be killed.

Menno Simons was a self-centered Dutch priest. After spending the first couple of years of his priesthood at the local bar, Simons commenced studying the Bible in an effort to impress his fellow pastors.  The truth of Scripture crept into his soul and ten years later (prox 1536) Simons became an Anabaptist.  Simons took two beliefs out of the mixed up Anabaptist heresies. First, only believers should be baptized. Second, no government should enforce religious beliefs. Menno Simons strictly attempted to observe the New Testament teachings, even performing foot washings.

Simons became the Empire's "most wanted criminal" in 1542. Simons would never be caught, dying a natural death in 1561, but in the process of remaining free, his wife and two of their children would die, while Menno would be crippled. The effects of Menno Simons upon the Anabaptist movement was so profound that the followers soon became known as Menno's people or "Mennonites."

In the 1700s Jakob Ammann would lead a group of conservative Mennonites to separate from their fellow Anabaptists. This group became popular in Germany, becaming known as the Amish. When they migrated to America they became known as the Pennsylvania Deutsch or Pennsylvania Germans.

We have considered a great deal about the place of William Tyndale in the development of the English Bible. However, it was not only the Bible that would cost Tyndale his life, but rather his relationship to the wives of Henry.

The Roman church leaders were against private translations of the Scripture because they feared personal prejudices creeping into the translations.  The leaders felt that only "authorized" groups should make translations. Yet, Luther created a German translation and Calvin translated the Scriptures as well.  In fact, throughout history, many individuals have created their own, good, translations. At the same time, many group translations contain theological slants. One must ask for great spiritual discernment in considering how to view various modern versions of the Scriptures.

Both from the perspective of the Reformation and the history of the American church, England becomes important. However, the introduction of the Reformation comes not for theological reasons but from an ego driven king. Henry VIII wanted a son!

England was a church of the Roman pope. In 1520, a tract bearing the name of Henry VIII, but probably written by Thomas More, attacked Luther. Leo X awarded Henry's zealousness by naming the King the "Defender of the Church." The Defender was more interested in his throne than he was in the church. 

A little non-church history:

Henry's current wife was Catherine of Aragon, his former sister-in-law. She had not produced a son.

Henry was enchanted with Anne Boleyn. 

Henry asked pope Clement VII to annul his marriage on the basis of Lev 20:21. It is 1529.

Clement was controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles V was Catherine's nephew. He refused to annul the marriage.

Thomas Cranmer suggested the lawyers of Europe overturn the pope's decision not to annual the marriage.

Cranmer became Archbishop of England in 1533. He immediately annulled Henry's marriage to Catherine and married the King to Anne Boleyn.

Henry declared himself as head of the Church of England (Supremacy Act of 1534).  Henry's theology was Catholic, not Protestant.

Henry's Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, refused to recognize Henry's declaration.

More resigned his position, to be beheaded at the direction of Thomas Cranmer.

William Tyndale issued a tract (1530) denouncing the annulment of Catherine's marriage. This led to his death as much as his Bible.  His last prayer is reported to be a plea to have Henry's eyes opened by God. The prayer was answered, for Henry would approve the Matthew's Bible in 1538.  This was a completed edition of Tyndale's Bible. It was revised as the Great Bible and Henry placed a copy of this edition in every English church, under an order that declared they must be chained to the pulpit so as not to be stolen! England became Protestant so the king could marry. It was not over yet.

Henry finally had a son in 1541 by Jane Seymour, his third queen. During this time, Thomas Cranmer edited and published the Book of Common Prayer, a blend of Lutheranism and Calvinism. This liturgy replaced the Latin of the Roman church and moved England away from Roman Catholicism. In 1543 Parliament approved reading the Scriptures in English and Scots rather than Latin.

Henry's son died as teenager and Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine, would take the throne. She moved England back to Roman Catholicism, earning her nickname of Bloody Mary by executing more than 300 Protestants for their faith.  Among those killed were Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishop Hugh Latimer. 

Elizabeth, Henry's daughter by Anne Boleyn, would move England on a middle ground course. She refused the title "Supreme Head of the Church" while rejecting the pope's power. She had the Book of Common Prayer revised. Elizabeth's approach is still found in the Church of England (the Anglican Church) today. Elizabeth liked the ornate and this shows in the style of the liturgy of the Church.  Her influence on the Church probably arises because of her long reign as Queen – 45 years from 1558 to 1603.

There was a political side-benefit from Henry's fight with the pope and Elizabeth's reforms of the church. Both asked Parliament for support and approval of the changes. These requests helped to strengthen the position of Parliament and assisted in the ultimate creation of the new governing structure where the monarchy was without power.

Tyndale's efforts and New Testament also started the reformation movement of Scotland. His translation influenced John Knox. Knox moved the Scottish parliament to deny the pope's power in Scotland. Thereafter, elders, ("Presbyters") directed the Scottish church. Scottish Protestants became known as Presbyterians.  Over time, they adopted the theology of Calvin.

Finally, we have noted above that the original intent of Luther was to reform the Roman driven church.  It appears that Catholic leaders had been moving toward reformation for several years before Luther nailed the Theses to the Wittenberg Chapel. Following the split, groups still attempted a reuniting of the groups. In 1541, many Protestants meant with Catholic leaders to create such a reunion. One member of this group was Philip Melanchton, Luther's number one aide. 

The breaking point of the meeting was the issue of the power of the pope and the interpretation of the Lord's Supper. The movement for reunion dissolved and the Roman Catholic Church was truly born.  The church sought its own version of reformation. 

Melanchton was the organizer of Luther's church. He established primary and secondary schools, trained the Lutheran clergy, prepared a manual for the operation of the Lutheran church, wrote a systematic theology, commentaries on the New Testament, and helped to issue several statements of faith.

One of the leaders of this Catholic reform was a former soldier, Ignatius Loyola. Wounded in 1521, Loyola read Thomas A'Kempis' Imitation of Christ while he recovered. A'Kempis' teaching on a direct knowledge of Christ moved Loyola and six of his friends to take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the pope.  In 1540, Pope Paul III approved Loyola's Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

The Jesuits would become the Roman Church's greatest missionary force. For example, Francis Xavier would evangelize India and Japan 150 years before any Protestant group sent a missionary. 

In 1538 Pope Paul III would call a council at Trent, Austria to reform the church. Meeting between 1545 and 1563 this council would reform the church. The marketing of indulgences and the selling of church offices ended. Priestly celibacy was enforced. The Apocrypha books were added as part of the biblical canon.  This council also decided that only the bread would be given to the laity during the Lord's Supper.

Of equal, or more importance, this council also adopted the position that Scripture and church tradition were of equal importance. Faith and works have been united in Roman Catholic theology ever since. They define Roman Catholicism. 

Europe ends the sixteenth century in a collection of fragmented groups.  In Germany, the Peace of Augsburg would help the Lutherans and Catholics live together, but the same is not true of the other regions.  Europe became fragmented.

The other item of interest is to understand that the root of denominations is not theology. The root is geographical based upon the various leaders of the Reformation period. 

The position of the Reformation:

Sola fide – justification by faith alone

Sola gratia – salvation by grace alone

Sola scriptura – Scriptures alone as authority

Did Luther go far enough?

Luther promoted:

Justification by faith alone

Salvation by grace alone

The Bible alone as authority for doctrine and practice

The priesthood of believers

Congregational singing – Luther wrote a hymnal

But he kept the crucifix, candles, parts of the Lord's Supper, and the basic format of the Mass as his order of service.

Lutheranism spread to Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, England, and ultimately, the New World.

Calvinism would spread to Switzerland, Germany, Holland, England, France, Scotland, Hungry, and the New World. Calvin was probably the most influential of the early reformers. His teachings became the framework for the Protestants of France, the Reformed Church of Germany, the Church of Scotland, the Reformed Church of Holland, the Reformed Church of Hungry, and the Puritans of England and New England.

Sixteenth Century Events

• The printing of books begun in the fifteenth century now develops swiftly, propelling the spread of the Reformation.

• Michelangelo, Albrecht Durer, Raphael, and Lucius Cranach create art with Biblical themes.

• 1517 Martin Luther posts his 95 theses at Wittenburg, which stir Germany and Europe in a matter of months.

• The Scriptures become more available for the common person as Luther translates into German and Tyndale into English in the 1520&s.

• The Protestant Reformation spreads throughout Europe with Zwingli in Switzerland, the Anabaptists in central Europe, and John Knox in Scotland. Henry VIII&s quest for dynastic security causes him to separate from Rome and establish himself as head of the Church of England. John Calvin&s ministry in Geneva and his Institutes begin a Scriptural reexamination of theology and society.

• The Counter-Reformation defends traditional Catholicism against Reformation ideas. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) reaffirms Catholic doctrine. The Jesuit order becomes the defender of the Catholic faith and begins sending missionaries abroad.

• Religious convictions produce martyrs among both Catholics and Protestants -- Sir Thomas More, William Tyndale, and Thomas Cranmer among the many executed. Huguenots in France begin to be persecuted. Foxe&s Book of Martyrs (actually titled Actes and Monuments) records the persecution believers in Christ have endured through the centuries.

• In England, Puritans begin to fashion a church more closely based upon the Scriptures.


Source: David Barrett.




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