Reform and renewal in the christian church summary



Reform and renewal in the christian church summary


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Reform and renewal in the christian church summary





The idea of reform is as old as Christianity itself. In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Saint Paul exhorted, "Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you, but let your behavior change, reformed by your new mind. That is the only way to discover the will of God." In the early fifth century, Saint Augustine of Hippo, describing the final stage of world history, wrote, "In the sixth age of the world our reformation becomes manifest, in newness of mind, according to the image of Him who created us." In the middle of the twelfth century, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux complained about the church of his day: "There is as much difference between us and the men of the primitive Church as there is between muck and gold." The Christian humanists of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries-More, Erasmus, and Coleturged reform of the church on the pattern of the early church, primarily through educational and social change. 


The need for reform of the individual Christian and of the institutional church is central to the Christian faith. Men and women of every period believed the early Christian church represented a golden age, and critics in every period called for reform. Thus sixteenth century cries for reformation were hardly new. What was new; however, were the criticisms of educated laypeople whose religious needs were not being met. Many scholars interpret the sixteenth century Reformation against the background of reforming trends begun in the fourteenth century. Unlike any other period, the sixteenth century experienced religious changes that had profound social, political, and cultural consequences. 


*What late medieval religious developments paved the way for the adoption and spread of Protestant thought? 

*What role did political and social factors play in the several reformations?

*What were the consequences of religious division?

*Why did the theological ideas of Martin Luther trigger political, social, and economic reactions?

*What response did the Catholic church make to the movements for reform?

These are some of the questions that this chapter will explore. 




The papal conflict with the German emperor Frederick 11 in the thirteenth century, followed by the Babylonian Captivity and then the Great Schism, badly damaged the prestige of church leaders. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, leaders of the conciliar movement reflected educated public opinion when they called for the reform of the church "in head and members." The humanists of Italy and the Christian humanists of the north denounced corruption in the church. As Machiavelli put it, "We Italians are irreligious and corrupt above others, because the Church and her representatives set us the worst example."' In The Praise of Folly, Erasmus condemned the absurd superstitions of the parish clergy and the excessive rituals of the monks. The records of Episcopal visitations of parishes, civil court records, and even such literary masterpieces as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron tended to confirm the sarcasm of the humanists. 


Signs of Disorder


The religious life of most people in early- sixteenth century Europe took place at the village or local level. At this parish level, priests were peasants, and they were poor. All too frequently, the spiritual quality of their lives was not much better than that of the people to whom they ministered. The clergy identified religion with life; that is, they injected religious symbols and practices into everyday living. Some historians have therefore accused the clergy of vulgarizing religion. But even if the level of belief and practice was vulgarized, the lives of rural, isolated, and semi-pagan people were still spiritualized. 


In the early sixteenth century, critics of the church concentrated their attacks on three disorders: clerical immorality, clerical ignorance, and clerical pluralism, with the related problem of absenteeism. There was little pressure for doctrinal change; the emphasis was on moral and administrative reform. 


Since the fourth century, church law had required that candidates for the priesthood accept absolute celibacy. That requirement had always been difficult to enforce. Many priests, especially those ministering to country people, had concubines, and reports of neglect of the rule of celibacy were common. Immorality, of course, included more than sexual transgressions. Clerical drunkenness, gambling, and indulgence in fancy dress were frequent charges. There is no way of knowing how many priests were guilty of such behavior. But because such conduct was so much at odds with the church's rules and moral standards, it scandalized the educated faithful. 


The bishops only casually enforced regulations regarding the education of priests. As a result, standards for ordination were shocl6ngly low. When Saint Antonio, archbishop of Florence, conducted a visitation of his metropolitan see in the late fifteenth century, he found churches and service books in a deplorable state and many priests barely able to read and write. The evidence points consistently to the low quality of the Italian clergy, although in northern Europe-in England, for example-recent research shows an improvement in clerical educational standards in the early sixteenth century. Nevertheless, parish priests throughout Europe were not as educated as the educated laity. Predictably, Christian humanists, with their concern for learning, condemned the ignorance or low educational level of the clergy. Many priests could barely read and write and critics laughed at the illiterate priest mumbling Latin words of the Mass that he could not understand. 


In regard to absenteeism and pluralism, many clerics, especially higher ecclesiastics, held several benefices (or offices) simultaneously but seldom visited their benefices, let alone performed the spiritual responsibilities those offices entailed. Instead, they collected revenues from all of them and hired a poor priest, paying him just a fraction of the income to fulfill the spiritual duties of a particular local church. King Henry VIII's chancellor Thomas Wolsey was archbishop of York for fifteen years before he set foot in his diocese. The French king Louis XII's famous diplomat Antoine du Prat was perhaps the most notorious example of absenteeism: as archbishop of Sens, the first time he entered his cathedral was in his own funeral procession. 


Many Italian officials in the papal curia held benefices in England, Spain, and Germany. Revenues from those countries paid the Italian priests' salaries, provoking not only charges of absenteeism but also nationalistic resentment. Critics condemned pluralism, absenteeism, and the way money seemed to change hands when a bishop entered into his office. 


Although royal governments strengthened their positions and consolidated their territories in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, rulers lacked sufficient revenues to pay and reward able civil servants. The Christian church, with its dioceses and abbeys, possessed a large proportion of the wealth of the countries of Europe. 


What better way to reward government officials, who were usually clerics in any case, than with high church offices? After all, the practice was sanctioned by centuries of tradition. Thus in Spain, France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire-in fact, all over Europe-because church officials served their monarchs, those officials were allowed to govern the church. Churchmen served as royal councilors, diplomats, treasury officials, chancellors, viceroys, and judges. These positions had nothing whatsoever to do with spiritual matters. Bishops worked for their respective states as well as for the church, and they were paid by the church for their services to the state. It is astonishing that so many conscientiously tried to carry out their religious duties on top of their public burdens. 


In most countries except England, members of the nobility occupied the highest church positions. The sixteenth century was definitely not a democratic age. The spectacle of proud, aristocratic prelates living in magnificent splendor contrasted very unfavorably with the simple fishermen who had been Christ's disciples. 


Nor did the popes of the period 1450 to 1550 set much of an example. They lived like secular Renaissance princes. Pius 11 (1458-1464), although deeply learned and a tireless worker, enjoyed a reputation as a clever writer of love stories and Latin poetry. Sixtus IV (1471-1484) beautified the city of Rome, built the famous Sistine Chapel, and generously supported several artists. Innocent VIII (1484-1492) made the papal court a model of luxury and scandal. All three popes used papal power and wealth to advance the material interests of their own families. The court of the Spanish pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) (1492-1503), who publicly acknowledged his mistress and children, reached new heights of impropriety. Because of the prevalence of intrigue, sexual promiscuity, and supposed poisonings, the name Borgia became a synonym for moral corruption. Julius 11 (1503-1513), the nephew of Sixtus IV, donned military armor and personally led papal troops against the French invaders of Italy in 1506. After him, Giovanni de' Medici, the son of Lorenzo de' Medici, carried on as Pope Leo X (1513-1521) the Medicean tradition of being a great patron of the arts. 


Signs of Vitality


Calls for reform testify to the spiritual vitality of the church as well as to its numerous problems. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, both individuals and groups within the church were working actively for reform. In Spain, for example, Cardinal Francisco Jim6nez (1436-1517) visited religious houses, encouraged the monks and friars to uphold their rules and constitutions, and set high standards for the training of the diocesan clergy. 


In Holland beginning in the late fourteenth century, a group of pious laypeople called the "Brethren of the Common Life" lived in stark simplicity while daily carrying out the Gospel teaching of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick. The Brethren also taught in local schools with the goal of preparing devout candidates for the priesthood and the monastic life. Through prayer, meditation, and careful study of the Scriptures, the Brethren sought to make religion a personal, inner experience. The spirituality of the Brethren of the Common Life found its finest expression in the classic The Imitation of Christ by Thomas ~ Kempis. Though written in Latin for monks and nuns, The Imitation gained wide appeal among laypeople. It urges Christians to take Christ as their model and seek perfection in a simple way of life. Like the Protestants who came later, the Brethren stressed the centrality of the Scriptures in spiritual life.' In the mid-fifteenth century, the movement had founded houses in the Netherlands, in central Germany, and in the Rhineland; it was a true religious revival. 


If external religious observances are a measure of depth of heartfelt conviction, Europeans in the early sixteenth century remained deeply pious and loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. Villagers participated in processions honoring the local saints. Middle-class people made pilgrimages to the great shrines, such as Saint Peter's in Rome. The upper classes continued to remember the church in their wills. In England, for example, between 1480 and 1490 almost 30,000 pounds, a prodigious sum in those days, was bequeathed to religious foundations. People of all social classes devoted an enormous amount of their time and income to religious causes and foundations. 


The papacy also expressed concern for reform. Pope Julius 11 summoned an ecumenical (universal) council, which met in the church of Saint John Lateran in Rome from 1512 to 1517. Since most of the bishops were Italian and did not represent a broad cross section of international opinion, the term ecumenical is not really appropriate to describe their meetings. Nevertheless, the bishops and theologians present strove earnestly to reform the church. The council recommended higher standards for education of the clergy and instruction of the common people. The bishops placed the responsibility for eliminating bureaucratic corruption squarely on the papacy and suggested significant doctrinal reforms. But many obstacles stood in the way of ecclesiastical change. Meantime, difficulties were brewing in Germany. 





Demands for reform of the Christian church is a continuing theme in European history. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, movements such as the Brethren of the Common Life, Lollardy, the Oratories of Divine Love, and the efforts of the Roman papacy itself paved the way for institutional reform. Martin Luther's strictly religious call for reform, rapidly spread by preaching, hymns, and the printing press, soon became enmeshed in social, economic, and political issues. The German peasants interpreted Luther's ideas in an economic sense: Christian liberty for them meant the end of harsh manorial burdens. Princes used the cloak of the new religious ideas both to acquire the material wealth of the church and to thwart the centralizing goals of the emperor. In England the political issue of the royal succession triggered that country's break with Rome, and in Switzerland and France the political and social ethos of Calvinism attracted many people. The Protestant doctrine that all callings have equal merit in God's sight and its stress on the home as the special domain of women drew women to Protestantism. The reformulation of Roman Catholic doctrine at the Council of Trent and the new religious orders such as the Jesuits and the Ursulines represented the Catholic response to the demands for reform. 


The age of the Reformation presents very real paradoxes. The break with Rome and the rise of Lutheran, Anglican, Calvinist, and other faiths destroyed the unity of Europe as an organic Christian society. Saint Paul's exhortation, "There should be no schism in the body [of the church].... You are all one in Christ, 1134 was widely ignored. Yet religious belief remained tremendously strong. In fact, the strength of religious convictions caused political fragmentation. In the later sixteenth century and through most of the seventeenth, religion and religious issues continued to play a major role in the lives of individuals and in the policies and actions of governments. Religion, whether Protestant or Catholic, decisively influenced the growth of national states. 


Scholars have maintained that the sixteenth century witnessed the beginnings of the modern world. They are both right and wrong. Although most of the church reformers rejected the idea of religious toleration, they helped pave the way for it. They also paved the way for the eighteenth-century revolt against the Christian God, one of the strongest supports of life in Western culture. In this respect, the Reformation marked the beginning of the modern world, with its secularism and rootlessness. At the same time, it can equally be argued that the sixteenth century represented the culmination of the Middle Ages. Martin Luther's anxieties about salvation showed him to be very much a medieval man. His concerns had deeply troubled serious individuals since the time of Saint Augustine. In modern times, such concerns have tended to take different forms. 



Calvin's Vision for Christian Renewal

            John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the many reformers who challenged the tradition and doctrine of the Christian church in the sixteenth century. As part of his reform efforts, Calvin established a community in Geneva, Switzerland. The members of his community were to live according to his social and moral ideas. The first excerpt below derives from his writings on this community and, in particular, on its posture toward its members who erred. 

            In the second excerpt, Calvin tries to clarify one version of his teachings for Geneva's youth. This piece concerns the Eucharist. Like other reformers, Calvin departed from Catholics on their interpretation of the Eucharist, for he rejected the notion of transubstantiation, that is, the idea that the bread and wine of the Last Supper become the body and blood of Christ during the church service. 

            Our Lord established excommunication as a means of correction and discipline, by which those who led a disordered life unworthy of a Christian, and who despised to mend their ways and return to the strait way after they had been admonished, should be expelled from the body of the church and cut off as rotten members until they come to themselves and acknowledge their fault.... We have an example given by St. Paul (I Tim. I and I Cor. v), in a solemn warning that we should not keep company with one who is called a Christian but who is, none the less, a fornicator, covetous, an idolater, a railer, a drunkard, or an extortioner. So if there be in us any fear of God, this ordinance should be enforced in our Church. 

            To accomplish this we have determined to petition you [i.e., the town council] to establish and choose, according to your good pleasure, certain persons [namely, the elders] of upright life and good repute among all the faithful, likewise constant and not easy to corrupt, who shall be assigned and distributed in all parts of the town and have an eye on the life and conduct of every individual. If one of these see any obvious vice which is to be reprehended, he shall bring this to the attention of some one of the ministers, who shall admonish whoever it may be who is at fault and exhort him in a brotherly way to correct his ways. If it is apparent that such remonstrances do no good, he shall be warned that his obstinacy will be reported to the church. Then if he repents, there is in that alone excellent fruit of this form of discipline. If he will not listen to warnings, it shall be time for the minister, being informed by those who have the matter in charge, to declare publicly to the congregation the efforts which have been made to bring the sinner to amend, and how all has been in vain. 

            Should it appear that he proposes to persevere in his hardness of heart, it shall be time to excommunicate him; that is to say, that the offender shall be regarded as cast out from the companionship of Christians and left in the power of the devil for his temporal confusion, until he shall give good proofs of penitence and amendment. In sign of his casting out he shall be excluded from the communion, and the faithful shall be forbidden to hold familiar converse with him. Nevertheless he shall not omit to attend the sermons in order to receive instruction, so that it may be seen whether it shall please the Lord to turn his heart to the right way. 

            The offenses to be corrected in this manner are those named by St. Paul above, and others like them. When others than the said deputies-for example, neighbors or relatives-shall first have knowledge of such offenses, they may make the necessary remonstrances themselves. If they accomplish nothing, then they shall notify the deputies to do their duty. 

            This then is the manner in which it would seem expedient to us to introduce excommunication into our Church and maintain it in its full force; for beyond this form of correction the Church does not go. But should there be insolent persons, . . . who only laugh when they are excommunicated and do not mind living and dying in that condition of rejection, it shall be your affair to determine whether you should long suffer such contempt and mocking of God to pass unpunished....  if those who agree with us in faith should be punished by excommunication for their offenses, how much more should the Church refuse to tolerate those who oppose us in religion? The remedy that we have thought of is to petition you to require all the inhabitants of your city to make a confession and give an account of their faith, so that you may know who agree with the gospel and who, on the contrary, would prefer the kingdom of the pope to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. 

            In the passage on the Eucharist that follows, Calvin adopts a different tone. He imagines a conversation between a minister and a child who responds to his minister's questions. But what follows not only illuminates Calvin's position on a key doctrinal issue; it also reveals his belief that social reform is an integral part of spiritual renewal. Here he goes beyond the prescription in the previous passage to teach children, who represent the future of the community, the fundamental principles of his religion. 


Concerning the Lord's Supper

            The minister Have we in the supper simply a signification of the things above mentioned, or are they given to us in reality? 

            The child. Since Jesus Christ is truth itself there can be no doubt that the promises he has made regarding the supper are accomplished, and that what is figured there is verified there also. Wherefore according as he promises and represents I have no doubt that he makes us partakers of his own substance, in order that he may unite us with him in one life. 

            The minister But how may this be, when the body of Jesus Christ is in heaven, and we are on this earthly pilgrimage? 

            The child. It comes about through the incomprehensible power of his spirit, which may indeed unite things widely separated in space. 

            The minister You do not understand then that the body is enclosed in the bread, or the blood in the cup? 

            The child. No. On the contrary, in order that the reality of the sacrament be achieved our hearts must be raised to heaven, where Jesus Christ dwells in the glory of the Father, whence we await him for our redemption; and we are not to seek him in these corruptible elements. 

            The minister You understand then that there are two things in this sacrament: the natural bread and wine, which we see with the eye, touch with the hand and perceive with the taste; and Jesus Christ, through whom our souls are inwardly nourished? 

            The child. I do. In such a way moreover that we have there the very witness and so say a pledge of the resurrection of our bodies; since they are made partakers in the symbol of life. 

Questions for Analysis 

1. What happened in Calvin's community if one of its members sinned? 

2. Does it seem fair to you that the state-in this case, the leaders of Calvin's community-legislate morality? 

3. How does this picture of community differ from that of Martin Luther? How does it differ from the community envisioned by the post Reform Catholic church? 

4. Why did Calvin consider the topic of the Eucharist so critical? 

5. Do you think the passage on the Eucharist would have effectively persuaded young Protestants to espouse Calvin's position



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