The Reformation in Germany began in a doctrinal dispute but ultimately came to address matters of Church authority. The dispute officially began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg. However, Luther's struggle with doctrine had begun several years earlier. Although Martin Luther had been awarded a doctorate in Sacred Theology, Luther's theological studies had not been particularly thorough.2 At the outset of his tenure at the University of Wittenberg (from 1513 to 1516), Luther began to develop what would eventually become the doctrine of the church he was to found.3 The basic propositions of sola fide (or "faith alone") and extrinsic justification appeared in his 1517 Commentary on Romans,4 in which he also presented the germ for his later dispute with Erasmus in Bondage of the Will concerning the concept of free will.
As heretical as these points were, the issue that sparked the posting of his 95 Theses was a legitimate dispute-the sale of indulgences. Pope Leo X responded to Luther's charges by clarifying the doctrine of indulgences in his papal bull of November 9, 1518.5 Following a whole year after the initial posting of the theses, this document came too late to stem more of Luther's attacks on doctrine. By this time, the German monk had disclaimed the Papal authority to loose and bind, the inerrancy of the papacy and councils, and the scriptural basis for the sacrament of penance.6 These and additional heresies would result in another papal bull on June 15, 1520, Exsurge Domine, which condemned many of Luther's teachings. His refusal to recant and to submit to the authority of the Pope confirmed him in his heresy, and his excommunication followed in 1521.
For the average German of the early 1500s, Luther's confrontation of the Church was grist for the mill. Disaffection with the clergy and with the Church was nothing new to the German populace. Luther's struggle and the development of his doctrine coincided with popular unrest, first in the form of the Bundschuh movement (which was anticlerical but not anti-Rome)7 and later with the Peasants' War.8 The economic climate of Germany in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries contributed greatly to this disaffection. Because of economic conditions, peasants occasionally broke out into open rebellion. In some cases, even minor nobility joined the side of the protestors. Clergy were caught in between as they benefited from rents and revenues from Church lands but paid no taxes. Added to these factors was the general dismal state of the clergy at the time. Although some good priests certainly existed, far too many ignored their vows and lived disreputable lives. With the addition of corruption and scandal in the episcopacy and the Papal Curia, the tinder was ready for someone to strike a flame. Luther's protest against the selling of indulgences was the perfect catalyst for religious upheaval.
Although the peasants were ready and willing to embrace Lutheranism in their own revolution, Luther did not fully reciprocate the feelings. He certainly gave the wrong impression to some reformers (such as Andreas Carlstadt).9 Indeed, some of Luther's early polemics would seem to support violent uprising but for the fact that a single quote of his had been lifted and used repeatedly as evidence against him.10 As Roland Bainton notes, many on the Catholic side chose unfairly to saddle Luther with responsibility for this popular movement:
- The Catholic princes never ceased to hold Luther responsible for the uprising, and the Catholic historian Janssen has in modern times endeavored to prove that Luther was actually the author of the movement which he so violently repudiated. Such an explanation hardly takes into account the century of agrarian unrest by which the Reformation had been preceded.11
In reality, Luther was horrified by the violence of his fellow countrymen, and when asked to be an arbiter of the dispute between the peasants and the ruling class, Luther, according to Bainton, "disparaged most of their demands."12 Despite Luther's intentions, the religious reformation he sparked was bound to a larger social and national cause.
The nationalist flavor of the Peasants' War, as well as the compelling interests of the people, would prove to have a lasting effect on the form of the church organization. Instead of the traditional ecclesial organization, Luther proposed that the new church submit to the secular authority in each state. Instead of bishops, this new church had appointed superintendents. The former powers granted to bishops fell to the head of state.13 In addition to these organizational changes, Luther also contributed to the development of a new liturgy. The sacrificial aspects of the Liturgy of the Eucharist were eliminated, leaving only what the Lutherans referred to as the Lord's Supper. Roland Bainton explained the change more in terms of reclamation:
- The canon of the mass disappeared because this was the portion in which reference to sacrifice occurred. Luther restored the emphasis of the early Church upon the Lord's Supper as an act of thanksgiving to God and of fellowship through Christ with God and each other. This first Lutheran mass was solely an act of worship in which true Christians engaged in praise and prayer, and were strengthened in the inner man.14
If one tried to summarize the difference between the German and English reformations, one might say that the English reformation was a negative image of the German. While the German reformation began with a doctrinal dispute, the reformation in England began with matters of Papal authority. Doctrinal differences between the Church of England and the Church of Rome only came to the forefront following Henry VIII's death. Prior to the matter of his request for an annulment, Pope Leo X had dubbed the king Fidei Defensor for his defense of the sacraments against Luther's attack.16 However, the king's desire for a male heir, not to mention his desire for Anne Boleyn, would lead him into direct conflict with the authority of the Pope. King Henry's case hinged upon a dispensation that his father, Henry VII, and the Spanish King and Queen requested following the death of the elder Tudor heir, Arthur. His father had forestalled using the dispensation seeking some other possible advantage.17 At the time, this delay suited Henry the younger, 14 years of age at the time: he had lodged a formal complaint against the match claiming that it had been arranged without his consent.18 Nonetheless, nine weeks after his father's death and following his own ascension, Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon.
When Catherine failed to provide a suitable heir for the king, he began to claim a scrupulous conscience concerning the validity of the dispensation. As Herbert Thurston notes, when King Henry finally disputed the dispensation, he revealed the depth of his scrupulosity:
- Henry also petitioned, in the event of his becoming free, a dispensation to contract a new marriage with any woman even in the first degree of affinity, whether the affinity was contracted by lawful or unlawful connexion. This clearly had reference to Anne Boleyn, and the fictitious nature of Henry's conscientious scruples about his marriage is betrayed by the fact that he himself was now applying for a dispensation of precisely the same nature as that which he scrupled about, a dispensation which he later on maintained the pope had no power to grant.19
Social conditions in England could not have been more different than on the continent. While the German peasant class experienced the oppressiveness of Church taxes and the unremitting demands of Church law, the average English villager found the rhythm of life in the celebration of the various Catholic feasts and fasts. Eamon Duffy notes the stark difference between the Catholic faith as practiced on the continent versus the Catholic faith in England during the Reformation:
- [M]edieval English Catholicism was, up to the very moment of its dissolution, a highly successful enterprise, the achievement by the official church of a quite remarkable degree of lay involvement and investment, and of a corresponding degree of doctrinal orthodoxy.21
Unlike Luther's Germany, government policy drove the reformation in England against the popular will. The Crown preserved the basic ecclesial structure inherited from the Roman Catholic Church, even while dissolving monasteries and convents. The essential structure of the church hierarchy persisted. However, the liturgy, plus or minus some external aspects such as vestments and altars, appears to have been heavily influenced by the Lutheran liturgy.25
While the conditions leading to each reformation movement differed greatly, the end result for these two churches was remarkably similar, particularly when compared to the Calvinist and Zwinglian churches. Both maintained many of the external trappings of the Catholic Church, while dispensing with many of the sacramental and devotional aspects. As the common Catholic epigram "Lex orandi, Lex credendi" suggests, this change in the sacramental and devotional character of worship would have a tremendous impact on the futures of both churches. In hindsight, one might ask whether the reformation would be more suitably called a deformation.
Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950.
Duffy, Eamon. Stripping the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Luther, Martin. Commentary on Romans. Trans. J. Theodore Mueller. Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1976.
MacCaffrey, James. History of the Catholic Church from the Renaissance to the French Revolution. Vol. 1. http://www.web-books.com/Classics/Nonfiction/History/
Catholic_History1/home.htm. July 19, 2006.
O'Connell, Marvin. "Lecture 4: Luther and the Reformation." Two Critical Moments in Catholic History. http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00904.htm. July 17, 2006.
----. "Lecture 5: Tudor Dynasty and Reformation in England." Two Critical Moments in Catholic History. http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00905.htm. July 17, 2006.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Scannell, T.B. "The Book of Common Prayer." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Online Edition. K. Knight, 2006. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/
02678c.htm. July 19, 2006.
Thurston, Herbert. "Clement VII." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Online Edition. K. Knight, 2006. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/
04024a.htm. July 18, 2006.
----. "Henry VIII." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Online Edition. K. Knight, 2006. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07222a.htm. July 18, 2006.
1Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) 127. Also, Herbert Thurston, "Henry VIII," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online Edition, K. Knight, 2006, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07222a.htm.
2Marvin O'Connell, "Lecture 4: Luther and the Reformation," Two Critical Moments in Catholic History, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00904.htm.
3Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther, (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950) 68.
4Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, Trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1976) 77.
13James MacCaffrey, History of the Catholic Church from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Vol. 1. http://www.web-books.com/Classics/Nonfiction/History/Catholic_History1/
Catholic_History1C3P8.htm. July 19, 2006.
17Marvin O'Connell, "Lecture 5: Tudor Dynasty and Reformation in England," Two Critical Moments in Catholic History, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00905.htm.
20Herbert Thurston, "Clement VII," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online Edition, K. Knight, 2006, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04024a.htm.
21Eamon Duffy, Stripping the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, 2nd ed, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) xviii.
25T.B. Scannell, "The Book of Common Prayer," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online Edition, K. Knight, 2006, ">http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02678c.htm, July 19, 2006.