St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Corruption, Repression
and Killing:
The Reformation

There are reformers and demands for Church reform all the time. Roman Catholic Popes had often been corrupt, had fathered children whose careers were advanced, and showered gifts on preferred people. Perhaps we should not think that paedophilia is a recent problem among institutionalised celibate clergy. By the 1500s the Pope was well established as an Italian prince. Also a great deal of life was secular and superstitious at the same time; and the Mass was, among other things, becoming a magic means for salvation. Despite all that, reform rarely happens, and it happens when it gains physical and institutional support from, in particular, external forces.
Martin Luther was not the only person to nail a set of proposals for reform to his church door, and they were proposals, but he was supported by the local prince in one of the states wishing to free itself from Holy Roman Empire rule. Arguably, then, the reformers did not cause the Reformation, but were instruments through which the Reformation took place. The key figures are Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, and there were other minor figures too, like Thomas Müntzer, Faustus Socinus and Francis David.
Usually demands for reform are funnelled through monastic houses, as places of reform contained within the Church. But in the 1500s other forces were at work: the printing press, mercantilist trade between wealthier small states, and there was not the need for priests to do the money laundering that was, in effect, one of their roles.
Whereas one option, such as in France and Spain, was for monarchs to do deals with a Pope to further their ends, the break with the Pope also might enhance power. The denial of authority from the Pope to England (and Sweden) boosted those monarchs. The origins of the English Reformation was not a break from the Catholic. Protestant ideas would come later. In terms of the Reformation, England was something of a byway.
Martin Luther was arguably anti-reason (he called reason 'the devil's whore') and pro-emotion, and possibly bipolar. Nevertheless, he studied scholastic theology (like Aquinas) but focused on the Bible, St. Paul and followed Augustine of Hippo's emphasis on sin. His own emotional condition underlined his need for grace along with his own sense of being tempted. He was thus angered by indulgences, that fruit machine system of pays your money and get your salvation. He thought salvation came through the free gift of grace beyond any price.
The Roman Catholic view was this. When Jesus died on the cross, he produced a level of salvation way in excess of whatever would be the human population. This meant that there was grace in abundance, and could be sold by the Church. The poor could gain some of this excess through prayer and fasting, but those with money should pay. Albert of Brandenburg, who was Archbishop of Mainz, near to Luther's base, owed about thirty thousand florins to the banking house of Fugger because of the debt owed to the Pope by the Archbishop to get his appointment secured and to service two further bishoprics. To get this sorted out, he wanted to be a favoured papal agent and sell indulgences to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter's Cathedral in Rome and for fighting the Muslims. So he created a table of charges that related to the wealth of the donor. Payment meant the full and complete absolution of all sins. The Archbishop had a representative called John Tetzel, who went around his area in a very grand style. The Elector Frederick of Saxony had this performer banned from his area and Luther's, but Tetzel was coming so close to Wittenberg that the locals could still go along and buy their salvation. Thus in 1517 on All Saints Eve Luther nailed his Ninety five theses to the door of the castle chapel at Wittenberg as a protest.
Luther allowed for an indulgence to reverse a penalty imposed by the Church, but it could not remove guilt, divine punishment or time in purgatory. Nothing might have happened except perhaps a scrap between the Dominicans, of which Tetzel was one and the Augustinians, of which Luther was one. However, Pope Leo X summoned Luther to Rome and Luther agreed to go as far as Augsburg. He had to withdraw his comments or he would be excommunicated. Luther's emotions didn't allow compromise when he thought he was right and a month later he wrote that a pope cannot have authority over the Holy Scriptures. A new papal agent, Karl von Miltitz, was instructed to get abreast of the situation because the Pope realised the danger of independence; Miltitz would need to persuade Luther and the Elector of Saxony back within the fold. Instead Luther had a thumping debate with a Church theologian called Eck, and whereas Eck drew on Church statements, Luther fell back upon the Scriptures. There was no coming together, and Luther started pamphleteering. So on June 2nd 1520, Luther was excommunicated by Papal Bull, although it gave him 60 days to rescind on forty one of his propositions. He didn't, and as the 60 days ended the Wittenberg people had a big bonfire at which a Doctor Martin stood and threw the Papal Bull on to the fire.
Luther had the support of the Elector of Saxony. On Ash Wednesday the papal legate Girolamo Aleander signed in at the Imperial Diet to state that Luther was a heretic like John Huss, a complainant of Church abuses who had been burnt at the stake in 1415. The Imperial Diet had its own mind, however, and said it would hear Luther. Luther naturally feared for his life despite a promise of safe conduct, but his entry into Worms was triumphal because of anti papal feeling there. Luther grew in confidence in the days of making his case, again relying on Scripture, but some Spaniards booed him. Doctor Martin also spoke before an unimpressed Emperor. On April 26th Luther made some toast and drank several glasses of Malmsey wine before safely going back home, and a month later he received a ban of the Empire. This meant he had to be protected, and he was, and it was after this condemnation at Worms that Lutheranism spread and Luther himself was protected under the pseudonym of Junker Georg at the Saxon castle at Wartburg. Much popular literature between 1518 and 1525 was inspired by Lutheran ideas. John Eberlin of Gunsburg addressed his material to the 'popul;ar man' in saying how the Roman Curia had robbed Germany of 300,000 gulden a year. (Green, 1952, 144)
It is important to realise just how much Lutheranism was a reformation from above. Luther asserted the rights of the German Princes and nobles as divinely given protectors of the Church, and he rejected popular uprisings. As such he affirmed much of mediaeval thinking, despite attacking Aristotle and reasoning and promoting the scriptures instead as readable by anyone not corrupted by the papacy's heresy. He still held to mystical ideas, so that in the case of the Eucharist he condemned transubstantiation but not real presence. He did not like the notion of a rate of interest and was conservative about trade. In other words, he was an inconsistent thinker.
Now Thomas Müntzer was a leader of the Peasants Revolt. In the battle at Frankenhausen, Müntzer and his farmers were defeated and he was captured, tortured and decapitated. He was regarded as a founder of the radical Reformation group the Anabaptists, although it is unclear whether he was ever rebaptised. His battle cry was all things are held in common. Unlike Luther, he believed in continued reformation and prophecy, in the Eucharist being only a memory of Christ and in banning infant Baptism. Anabaptists were religious communitarians, and were continuously harassed and persecuted by other Protestants never mind Rome.
A new Lutheran Church, one which needed protection from imperial power, fell under the dominance of the civil ruler, despite Luther also urging the primary rights of the congregation.
Charles V thought that the Church might reform its ways, if the Pope would but help, and have such Protestantism brought back within the fold, but it didn't quite happen like that. Although divided among themselves, the Emperor kept having to compromise with these Protestant princes and his struggle with them was always inconsistent. The Religious Peace of Augsburg 1555 was the end of the quest for restored religious unity: it allowed each prince to decide for Lutheranism or Catholicism, although at this time Calvinism was also being established.
For his Protestant revolution, Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) took advantage of the Swiss cantons and the need of the Pope to rely on Zurich and nearby for Catholic fighting mercenaries. Zwingli was parish priest of the Grossmünster in Zurich, and on appointment wanted to get to the literal meaning of St Matthew's Gospel rather than relying on human reason. Zwingli prevented the Franciscan preacher of indulgences, Bernadin Sampson, from coming into Zurich, although receiving the approval of the soft-pedalling Bishop of Constance. Thinking in a more rational manner than Luther, he attacked monasticism, the doctrine of purgatory and the invocation of saints. This actually was so far so good regarding his place within Roman Catholicism, but the break from Rome started with the dispute over tithes which Zwingli said had no place in divine law. After making patriotic speeches and criticising the mercenary system, he received civic support, meaning no gifts were to come from outside and in 1522 no service could be given to outsiders, and as a result Zwingli cut the link between him and Rome by stopping the pension he received from Rome. From this point on, Zwingli and supporters justified eating meat in Lent, the Bishop of Constance was asked to approve clergy marriage, the Burgomaster of Zurich told clergy to base preaching on the Scriptures, and in 1523 in the Town Hall Zwingli questioned the authority of Pope and his hierarchy, the sacrifice of the Mass (he introduced a communion liturgy), the Invocation of the saints, purgatory, fasting in Lent, and clerical celibacy. He also opposed images in worship.
Zwingli was going further faster in his critique and still the Roman reaction was quite soft. Zwingli wanted to expand his revolution, to have Zurich as the head of a confederation of Protestant cantons. Berne and Basle had become Protestant, and despite jealousies regarding Zurich they were more likely to be co-operative than not. Zwingli's Christian Civil League gave rise to a Catholic League in reaction and fighting broke out. At first there was an armistice in 1529 where the Catholic Cantons had to break with the Hapsburgs and pay a war indemnity, but Zwingli wanted to crush them with war as renewed in 1531. Zwingli wanted to fight, but much was via economic means; however, Zwingli was himself wounded, found by his enemies under a pear tree and killed off.
His son in law, Heinrich Bullinger, was his successor. It is he who had many conversations with the English Protestants, and the English thus picked up Zwinglian ideas. These included the notion that man is a liar and God is truth. Also Zwingli made no distinction between the canonical Scriptures and the Word of God, unlike Luther: they were all inspired and infallible, for Zwingli - but when there was conflict between passages, one passage could illumine another: so Luther held that the phrase 'This is my body' was meant literally whereas Zwingli held that other parts of the Bible gave such a phrase its meaning. Zwingli supported infant baptism as part of the Covenant with God, and he rejected original sin.
Zwingli also promoted the invisible Church, like Luther, of no more than a people gathered in the Spirit under the will of God. He preferred aristocracy as a governing system but more in what we would see as the specialisation of religion. Zwingli held that chief magistrates were ordained by God, but it was for the congregation to decide its own matters and only call upon magistrates to enforce its decisions. If authorities that should be under divine sanction acted against the will of God then the people could protest. His position evolved quickly so that the civic role of enforcement was called upon readily: thus after some disturbances by Anabaptists the Council of Zurich ordered in 1526 that all the Anabaptists should be drowned. What was happening here was that the Church was beginning to direct the State and thus the State was being fused into the Church.
What John Calvin (1509-1564) did regarding the Reformation was add a logical philosophy to the movement and the consistent organisation of government and authority. His base became Geneva, and he was its virtual ruler between 1541 and his death. It is this combination of Protestant logic and authority that was to have appeal across Europe, particularly from his most influential book Institutes of the Christian Religion which began with six chapters in 1536 and added eighteen more chapters in the next twenty three years.
John Calvin was French by birth. His father at Noyon was a notoy apostolic and procurator fiscal who forever argued with the cathedral chapter, and his older brother was prosecuted for hitting a priest. It seems though that his theological education and his reading of moderate Catholic humanist reformer Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 or 1469 - 1536) simply convinced him one day that so much that he had been taught was 'an abyss of errors' and a 'profoundity of filth' (Green, 1952, 171). For Calvin settling at Basle from later in 1534, the Roman Catholic Church had moved far from what he read in his Greek New Testament, and Luther's ideas convinced him that the guilty man could only stand sinfully to be saved by God's mercy.
Patriotism and Protestantism came to Geneva in 1535 with many statues and other images being smashed. Catholic clergy ran away and the Mass was replaced by evangelical services. The revolution was extreme, and its chief mastermind Guillaume Ferral met much opposition. He thus called upon Calvin, with already a growing reputation, although between 1538 and 1541 they both left due to a short-lived Catholic restoration.
Calvin was a cold, legalistic intellectual, and became a remote figure at the head of this spreading movement. He created a regime which was far reaching in its judgements, and it is this that darkened his reputation as time went on, a figure both loved and hated.
For him the inspired Word of God is the foundation of all things including worldly authority and the State. There might be error, but via the Holy Spirit nothing necessary is left out and nothing is taught that isn't advantageous (see Green, 1952, 174). With his reading of St. Paul and Augustine of Hippo, Calvin believed that humans cannot act to save themselves and so God saves by his freely given grace, and God knows everyone who will appear and so knows beforehand who is and isn't saved. The people of the invisible Church are predestined towards salvation, which is unrelated to human merit. Those who are damned receive condemnation that is just and blameless. The visible Church should be as close to the perfect invisible Church as possible, like the Geneva Church being ruled according to Scripture and aiming to fulfil the Word of God.
The Church is needed to give protection and guidance, beyond which there cannot be forgiveness of sins or salvation. The Church looks after the soul or inner person; the State has divine given authority for civil and external justice of morals - but, in Geneva, Calvin dominated both and so they tended to fuse into a theocracy proper, despite the continued existence of the Great Council of the heads of families and the executive Smaller Council, with a further Council of Sixty for further matters. The Church itself had the Venerable Ministry (for choosing pastors and dealing with scriptural and doctrinal matters) and the Consistory, the latter passing harsh sentences on all sorts of behavioural activities that had any moral bearing. Guilt of adultery, for example, meant the beheading of men and the drowning of women. The Consistery was highly sabbatarian. Calvin dealt ruthlessly with people who opposed him, including most notoriously the slow burning of the anti-trinitarian Michael Servetus, starting with his effigy in his absence, but later the actual man. The Geneva regime was totalitarian, and it inspired many Protestants across Europe, particularly into Scotland, Holland and France. In non-Protestant regimes, when the Protestant conscience was overidden, Calvinism gave subjects the moral right to oppose the State, and thus John Knox (1510 - 1572), another Catholic priest who turned Protestant, helped turn Scotland into a Protestant State using the nobility, the English and the sudden death of Mary of Guise in 1560 (and friction with Mary Queen of Scots).
These then were the big three, to be somewhat subsequently checked in expansion by the Counter-Reformation (which did involve some significant internal house-cleaning with Roman Catholicism) as at the Council of Trent meeting 1545-49, 1551-52 and 1562-63.
So we had the Lutherans who asserted the right of the Princes to rule, where Christians were obedient subjects, and Luther approved of the lords keeping the peasants in place; and there were the Zwingliites, who more promoted more a speciality of religious self-government; and then there was Calvinism, that produced Godly government and was totalitarian in morals. This was some reversal from the more humanist emphasis of the Renaissance, with its encouragement of discussion and criticism. It was back from reason to Augustine of Hippo again, humbling oneself before God in a condition of incapability. Yet breaking the Roman Catholic monolith was an advance towards institutional plurality, and, it should be said, that all the Protestant approved violence caused some Christians to wonder at what had been unleashed and to espouse the principle of tolerance.
Furthermore, these were not the only Protestant ideas. The Anabaptists were radicals of the Reformation with private judgement tortured by both Calvinists and Lutherans: today on the steeple of Saint Lamberts Church in Münster you can still see the cages in which Anabaptists were starved to death after they had once lived and preached in their town.
Then to the east were the Unitarians and Socinians forming a bloc of toleration from Transylvania, through Poland and to Lithuania. These combined the Renaissance and Reformation. Yet the Polish Socinians were to suffer complete ethnic cleansing.
Faustus Socinus went to a Poland that already had a diversity of Protestant groups growing and some of these were Arian and Unitarian. He was Arian, and later was unable to persuade Bishop Francis David in Transylvania to adopt his more moderate Reformation-Arian views. One Pole wrote as Socinianism grew in 1555: "The abominable locusts of Arians, and company, increase and spread over all Poland, through the supineness of our magistrates." It was during this period that the Jesuits influenced the Government to order all foreigners who disbelieved in the Trinity to leave the country; and this order was enforced. Socinus's skill was thus in organising the natives into a community that was in agreement with itself and was to centre upon the Minor Reformed Church otherwise known as the Polish Brethren from 1563. The Anabaptists of Pinczow had adopted Unitarian views, and thus made a creed, and Socinus engaged with them, changing his own stance to get agreements. Because people with Unitarian views were often noblemen, gentlemen and scholars, they were not long inside prisons, and so Racow in particular grew as a place of education and printing. Notably, in 1568 in Transylvania the Edict of Torda under the Unitarian King John Sigismund Zapolya gave freedom of religion to the four recognised churches (Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarian). However, John Sigismund of Transylvania died in 1571 and also King Sigismund Augustus of Poland and Lithuania died in 1572. In Poland Rakow had been founded as a utopian community by anti-trinitarians and in 1573 a Warsaw Convention gave legal safeguards for freedom of religion in Poland, including the new Polish Brethren. Furthermore, in 1574 the Racovian Catachism wrote down Arian/ Unitarian views that would prove to have European-wide influence. However, there were only 86 further years of existence for this left wing of the Reformation in Poland.  Jesuit power was increasing again, but at first these Catholics called on other Protestants to assist them in their attack on the radicals.
When two boys destroyed a wooden cross at Rakow, the Catholics retaliated, and using the magistrates in 1638, destroyed the church, the school, and the printing office of the Socinians. From that time onwards no Unitarian was safe in the town, but it was to get worse. In 1648 Socinians lost all rights as citizens. In 1656 some Roman Catholic priests led 300 peasants to attack many Unitarian villages, burning their houses and farmsteads, and murdered and injured some inhabitants. By 1660, whereas even Jews and Muslims were tolerated, all Socinians had either to convert to Rome or leave the country. They were forced to leave their lands, their property was sold at a pittance, and when taking routes out they were attacked and robbed. Some went to Transylvania to form their own Church alongside the Unitarian Church there, and some ended up at the Netherlands. Thus it was that the Racovian Catechism was reprinted in the Netherlands in 1680 and these ideas crossed the North Sea to influence both Anglicans and English Presbyterians.
The Socinians did believe in revelation. They were not biblical critics but literalists. However, they saw no conflict with reasoning, and their method was 'ordinary comprehension'. In other words, although there was a Church and its discipline, they focused upon the reader of the text plain and straight.
These and Anabaptists, then, were the radicals of the Reformation. The Anabaptists moved towards a fairly conventional theology with a radical social (communitarian) attitude, whereas the once socially idealistic Racovians moved towards a fairly conventional social attitude with a more radical theology.
In England, the Calvinists and other varieties of Protestants, found themselves running the national show after the Civil War was won. Their radicalism descended into authoritarian government of an unhappy kind for the people, unable to enjoy their pagan-like pleasures, and eventually this form of Protestant rule ran out of steam. But at the Restoration marked by the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662, some 2000 Puritan ministers were ejected from the Church of England as they would not accept in full this liturgical book with its hints of Romanism. Because of repression, until 1689, they could not set up, and then did not want to set up, Presbyteries. Unlike the Independents, they relied upon the Bible alone, and over time became Arminian and in some cases in the next century went Arian, although others went straight to Unitarian views as the Enlightenment and a new capitalist liberalism became significant. Only later did they discover that they had evolved into the beliefs of others held in Transylvania and Poland significantly earlier.
Old Dissent, then, consisted of Presbyterians, Independents and the Baptists, and we should not forget the spiritual movement of the Quakers.
The Methodists were New Dissent. They emerged from a Eucharistic disciplined club in Oxford, and changed towards a lower Protestantism via Moravian influence and the impact of their own class system. They were their own form of Arminianism, choosing to be saved and not backsliding. They somewhat completed the nature of dissent in Britain, although the Scots exported a trinitarian Presbyterianism back into England.
Most evangelical attitudes today can be traced back to this formation of Old and New Dissent. Arguments and disputes centred around various strains of theological authority, interpretation and relationship with the State as set up in the 1500s and 1600s. From a beginning of repression, various levels of practical toleration have been effected as Church and State gradually separated and relationships first established in Poland and Transylvania have developed in the West through a plurality of institutions. If we talk about the 'New Calvinists' today, it is because we can see a theological link back; but we should beware: many an evangelical today would be regarded as considerably less stringent than their forebears, and culturally compromised, and perhaps far more into patterns of secular entertainment and so-called movements of the Spirit in their worship than their predecessors, thanks to cultural, individualistic and charismatic influences. In 1962 the Roman Catholic Church accepted religious freedom as a principle, and now Western States including to the Russian border accept all manner of religious groups. There are legacies of relationships between Church and State, but arguably, in a setting of increasing indifference, the most vigorous Protestant groups are those which are free from a Church-State connection.

Main Points

  • Lutheranism was a critique of Rome and arguably a moderate breakaway (for example regarding retaining a form of 'real presence'.
  • Calvinism was an idealised Church and State with predestination of salvation.
  • Anabaptists were constantly persecuted for their radicalism.
  • Models of toleration were established in the centre and east of Europe.
  • Britain has Old Dissent and New Dissent, forming the basis for evangelicalism.
  • Today's evangelicalism is arguably affected by the entertainment culture, charismatic tendencies, individualism and capitalism.

Further Questions

  1. Did the institutional diversity of Protestantism dig its own grave in terms of power and authority: was toleration thrust upon it when some Protestant traditions never embraced toleration?
  2. What relationship might there be between Christ as God Incarnate (or some derived ethical principle), the Bible and an imposition of authority?


Beard, C., Intro: Barker, E. (1883, revised 1927), The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century and its Relation to Modern Thought and Knowledge, Hibbert Lecture, London: Constable

Chadwick, O. (1972), The Reformation, London: Penguin Books.

Green, V. H. H. (1952), Renaissance and Reformation: A Survey of European History Between 1450 and 1660, London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 111-29, 139-150.

Perry, M. (author), Bock, G. W. (editorial associate) (1993), An Intellectual History of Modern Europe, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 55-58.

Unitarian Information Department of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (ed.) (1989), Faustus Socinus (1539-1604): Materials to Assist in Marking 450 Years Since The Birth of Faustus Socinus on 5 December 1539, London: General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL:, via Adrian Worsfold [Accessed: Saturday March 20 2010, 22:43].

Wilbur, E. M. (1952), A History of Unitarianism: in Transylvania, England, and America, Volume 2, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful