Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Things that surprised me about the Protestant Reformation

Have ya'll heard of the Regensburg Agreement? Where Catholics and Protestants came to an agreement about justification? Yeah, I hadn't either. Read on.

I hadn't until last week, when I was doing some research to dust up my understanding of the underlying causes/reasons for the Protestant Reformation.

Because of all of this discussion about purgatory, authority, Marian veneration, etc., I went back to remind myself of what Luther and Calvin and the rest of them were actually objecting to within the Catholic church. I know that initially most of them were calling for reform and not at all trying to start a new church - they knew only one Church, and that was Rome, and they were loyal to her. Most of them separated only when forced - when they were excommunicated.

I'm still doing some reading on it, but here's a couple of thoughts I had:

- The popes before Luther's time were indeed pretty contemptible. They had mistresses, they appointed illegitimate children to high positions (even that of a cardinal!) while they were still in their teens. They gave away church land for personal gain. They conducted wars for purely political and family reasons. They bribed their way into office. In general... very, very corrupt. pretty much indistinguishable from the renaissance political leaders around them.

- Luther's 95 Thesis that we use to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is really just a theological piece protesting the abuses in the practice of selling indulgences. Ironically this document that is so lauded by Protestants assumes the existence of purgatory, reinforces the authority of the Pope, and does not want to do away with indulgences, only reform their use and practice.

- Luther's development of theology from the point of the Thesis changes quickly and dramatically over the course of 20 years. I was struck by how MUCH changed. He didn't just come down hard on justification, he came down hard on everything. No wonder he was excommunicated. He was not a man to compromise. There is so much I like about Luther, but I have a distinct feeling that if I had lived at the time, I would have found him entirely annoying for being so stubborn.

- I was struck when looking at the RCC at the time at how political its leadership was. It was like there was a renewal (and reform) movement brewing, but the hierarchy was swept into such political intrigues. However, it didn't even take one generation for Protestantism to fall to the same misfortune. Luther pretty much immediately had to begin decrying those around him who were using this new theology as grounds to fight wars that Luther disagreed with. Religion used in politics = bad news on all sides.

- The Regenesberg Agreement, as mentioned above, was a great attempt to reconcile Protestants and Rome. Read a Westminster Seminary article about it here. A lot of big shot Protestants and Catholics were there, and they were able to easily come to agreement on original sin, free will, and Pelagianism. What absolutely fascinates me is that they actually, after much debate, came to an agreement on justification. What?? How have I never heard this before? In any case, they couldn't agree on the sacraments and church authority and hierarchy, so the Agreement stumbled and representatives went back to Rome to report to the Pope. The Pope turned down what had been agreed, saying a Church council was needed to make such a decision. Luther also flat disagreed with the entire thing. The Church changed their tone and their definition of justification just a few years later at Trent, to the chagrin of Cardinal Contarini (who led the representatives from Rome at Regenesberg).

- Luther's statement at the Diet of Worms (after which he was proclaimed a heretic) really struck me. Always before I have seen it as an emphasis on scripture alone.

"Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen"

Note the words I've put in italics. This man is absolutely influenced deeply by humanism.

- If only Pope Leo X had understood the gravity of the initial rumblings of the reformation. If only the church had been open to reformation a little bit earlier, instead of waiting until Trent and later Councils. If only the Pope had been less preoccupied with the politics in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire and taken more care for theology. If only Clement VII had more carefully handled Henry VII, and Henry hadn't been so ridiculously power and sex hungry. If only... then maybe this Protestant - Catholic split would not have been so final and divisive.


CM said...

Very interesting! Some of those I knew, some I didn't. Thanks for sharing what you found!

That Married Couple said...

Wow, fascinating stuff. There really is plenty of blame to go around for all sides, isn't there?

Jaimie said...

This feels like a cheap and easy thing to say, but here goes. That reminds me somewhat of some Christians and Republicans. Not as bad, though... just the same sort of stuff to a lesser degree.