Monday, 22 December 2008

William Tyndale: pioneer of the information age

The last issue of the Economist for 2008 has this article in praise of William Tyndale.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

John Calvin (1509-64)

This post owes a great deal to Diarmid MacCulloch's Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 (Allen Lane 2003) a work as witty (in parts) as it is magisterial (always).

Calvin was born in Noyen in Picardy, the son of a lawyer. He taught theology at the Sorbonne and Roman law at Orléans and Bourges. Through his studies he came into contact with French humanism and had contacts with two influential Erasmian groups: that around the king’s sister Marguerite d’Angoulême (1492-1549) and the similar group at the court of Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux and the theologian Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples.

In October 1534 posters (placards) appeared at Paris street corners attacking the Mass, leading to considerable disorder as outraged Parisians rioted against the ‘foreigners’ who were said to have perpetrated the outrage. François called a halt to reform and Calvin and Lefèvre fled France. During 1535 and 1536 Calvin was in Basel, devoting his time to writing. In August 1536 he arrived at Geneva by accident when, because of the wars between the king and the emperor, he failed to reach the Protestant stronghold of Strassburg. There he found the fiery Guillaume Farel, another French exile, attempting to reform the city. At his insistence, Calvin became ‘Reader in Holy Scripture’ in the city. This opened an important new phase in the history of Protestantism.

Geneva was situated on the crossroads of routes between northern and southern Europe and had a large immigrant population. It was in the hands of a small governing elite that never wholly supported Calvin. He was expelled in 1538 and spent three years in Strassburg (where he married the widow of an Anabaptist), but following a change in the composition of the city council he was invited back in 1541, and it was after this period that Geneva assumed its distinctive identity.

Calvin’s theology
In March 1536 during his exile in Basel Calvin published (anonymously) the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion and dedicated it to François I. The final edition was published in 1559. The Institutes was a systematic exposition of the Reformed faith – something Luther could never have written. His exposition was based – of course – on the Bible, but also on St Augustine. Calvin’s fundamental doctrine was that of the sovereignty of God and it is from this concept that he derived his doctrine of ‘double predestination’ which he developed in his re-workings of the text.
As Scripture then clearly shows we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those who he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. We assert that with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgement, he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation.
This went much further than Lutheranism as developed by the moderate Melanchthon.

Calvin’s predestination was not an invitation to religious passivity but to striving. The saved need constantly to demonstrate that they are saved, both to themselves and to the world, and this means a life of continual struggle against sin. It also means a quest to set up a better society. This leads to an ambivalence in Calvin: if God’s kingdom can be set up on earth, what is the Christian’s relationship to the secular ruler. Should he obey him, as Paul had insisted, or were there occasions when it was right to resist?

In common with other magisterial reformers, Calvin rejected Anabaptism. He saw the Church as the community of the elect, but also a visible body containing a mixture of saints and sinners just like Israel.

Calvin’s Geneva
Calvin’s Geneva was ‘the reformed answer to Mûnster’. MacCulloch, 237. Its government was laid out in the Ordinances of 1541. Following the Strassburg model, there was a fourfold structure of church government: pastors were to preach the word, doctors to teach at all levels, elders to be elected by the council and to hold general disciplinary responsibilities deacons to look after charitable giving, either practical or administrative. Together the pastors and the senior doctors (including Calvin himself) formed a Company of Pastors. Pastors and elders combined in a committee known as the Consistory, which policed the morals of the citizens. There was to be compulsory testing and examination of faith. Certain Christian names (such as Claude, the name of the former patron saint of Geneva) were banned on the grounds that they were ‘absurd’ and ‘stupid’. There were vigorous laws against swearing, and scripts of plays were submitted to Calvin for his approval.

The governmental structure of Geneva was dualistic: at the head of the civil government was a small elite of the native-born Genevan patriciate; at the head of the Church’s government was a small exiled elite of mainly Frenchmen. This was copied over Europe.

Geneva became an international centre. There were more than thirty printing houses in the city, run by Germans, French, Italians and other Swiss. Religious refugees poured into the city from England and France. The Scotsman John Knox described Geneva as
the maist perfyt schoole of Chryst that ever was in the earth since the dayis of the Apostillis.
'To the modern eye, it would appear that by the late 1550s, the Calvinist International was preparing for the Revolution of the saints.’ Richard Mackenney, Sixteenth Century Eruope: Expansion and Conflict (Macmillan, 1993) 165.

Calvin challenged
Calvin’s autocratic theology was challenged by some radical Protestants. The Savoyard Sébastien Châteillon (now more usually called Sebastian Castellio) quarrelled with him on the canonicity of the Song of Solomon, which forced Calvin into a rather inconsistent defence of Church tradition. Castellio was forced to retreat to Basel
where the city and Church authorities were rapidly developing the principle that no one who hated Calvin could be all bad. MacCulloch, 242.
Calvin’s greatest challenge came from a maverick physician from Navarre, Miguel Serveto (Michael Servetus). In 1553 he published his anti-Trinitarian Christianismi Restitutio in Lyon. When he was condemned by the Inquisition in Lyon, he fled to Geneva where he was arrested and ordered by the civic authorities to be burned. Calvin wanted a more merciful execution but he did not oppose the burning, which took place on 27 October. Most of his fellow Protestant leaders approved the sentence. It established Calvin as a serious defender of the Reformation. In 1559 the Council appointed him to head a new institution of higher education, the Academy, which soon recruited students from all over Europe.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The English evangelicals

Note: The term 'Protestant' is not appropriate for the early stage of the Reformation in England and historians prefer to use the contemporary term 'evangelicals', usually written with a lower-case 'e' to distinguish the from the Evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

One of those present at Worms was the Englishman, Cuthbert, Tunstall, bishop of London. He wrote warning that the Babylonian Captivity must be kept out of England at all costs. Yet he was too late. In 1518 Luther was sent two letters telling him that his books were being exported to England. At the end of 1519 Erasmus informed him that certain people in England were admirers of his writings. Further evidence comes from the ledger of the Oxford bookseller, John Dorne, who sold a dozen books by Luther between January and December 1520.

On 12 May 1521 in a spectacular ceremony in London, the papal anathema was pronounced against Luther and the bull was posted on the door of St Paul’s. But on the same night a mocking rhyme was scribbled on the bull. In July 1521 the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum was published. Henry told Luther that it was his, though he later denied it. He commissioned Thomas More and John Fisher to write against Luther.

Luther’s works reached England through contacts between the English and German merchant communities, especially in London. Lutheran works were not translated into English until later, but they were read in Latin by the educated. Bishop Longland feared ‘the corruption of youth’ at Cardinal College.

At Cambridge, reformers met at the White Horse Tavern. The group was so Lutheran in outlook that it was nicknamed ‘Little Germany’. The usual chairman was Robert Barnes, then prior of the Augustinians. Another associate was Thomas Bilney, who was won over by reading St Paul in Erasmus’s translation. The Master of Queen’s College, Cambridge, Dr Forman, masterminded a contraband book trade between London and Oxford. Soon these early English reformers were questioning transubstantiation. Among the first enthusiasts for the new teaching were the Lollards, and the movement spread among the old Lollard communities in East Anglia and the South-East.

On 26 and 17 January 1526 Wolsey, acting as papal legate, and accompanied by Sir Thomas More, made a raid on the German community in London and seized five Germans. On 11 February he presided over a ceremony at St Paul’s, the bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, preached a sermon, and five Germans and the English ‘evangelical’, Robert Barnes, abjured their heresy, carrying their faggots which they then threw on a fire, followed by heretical books. In the following month, Tyndale’s New Testament began arriving clandestinely into England.

William Tyndale (c. 1490-1536)
Tyndale was the most noted of the university evangelicals and England’s earliest Reformation publicist. Like Wolsey he was an MA of Magdalen College, Oxford. He became a tutor in the West Country, where he came to despise the ignorance of the local clergy. In 1523 he attempted to get a place in Tunstall’s household. When he refused, he went to work in the house of a rich London cloth merchant named Humphrey Monmouth and became associated with the ‘brethren’.

In 1524 he left England for Germany. In 1525 he began printing his New Testament in Cologne, using Erasmus’s and Luther’s New Testaments. He was forced to flee by a local magistrate, and completed the translation at Worms. 90% of the New Testament in the Authorized Version is derived from it and Tyndale’s phrases have seeped into the language: ‘eat, drink and be merry’; ‘the salt of the earth’; ‘the powers that be’ ‘death, where is thy sting’. Tyndale’s translation was tendentious, and he used it to undermine church doctrines and ceremonies.

From March 1526 it was secretly sold in England. From 1527 until1534 (when Tyndale issued a revised edition) it was printed five times in Antwerp in pirate editions for sale in England.
In 1530 he translated the Pentateuch and engaged in his controversy with More, who railed against the heretics in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529) and Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532-3).

One of Tyndale’s most important books was the Obedience of a Christian Man in which he developed the theory of the godly king who could rescue the church from corruption. However in his Practice of Prelates (1530) he denounced the king’s divorce.

Tyndale was kidnapped in Antwerp in 1535 and executed in Brussels 1536.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Man bites dog: Boris isn't Tory enough

I thought you might be interested in this post from the Guardian criticising Boris Johnson's fascinating programme After Rome: Holy War and Conquest, for anti-Christian bias and (by implication) political correctness.


Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The German Reformation

The Reformation has typically been seen in two great contexts, the corruption and chronic institutional weakness of the late medieval church and the challenges presented by humanism. The dominating early figure has been Martin Luther, who, it has been claimed, sparked off the Reformation when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

The Reformation has also been placed in the context of earlier reforming movements, those of the Englishman John Wyclif (d. 1384) and the Czech Jan Hus (c.1369-1415). Wyclif had formulated a theology of predestination, rejected transubstantiation and advocate clerical marriage. His followers, known as Lollards, went underground but survived into the early sixteenth century. Hus advocated ‘utraquism’, the laity receiving the sacrament in both kinds, which was a fundamental attack on the privileges of the clergy. He was burned at the Council of Constance in 1415 but the Hussite church remained secure in its national setting of Bohemia and Moravia.

This traditional view fails to tackle adequately a number of fundamental problems. If the Church was so bad, why did it endure for so long? And if humanists contributed to the break-up of Christendom, why did some of the most influential, like Erasmus and More, devote their energies to preserving its unity? Why did Luther break with Rome when Erasmus did not? And how important is Luther in the story?

Can we be sure that the Church was more corrupt in the sixteenth century than in previous centuries when there are examples of scandalous popes and lax clergy throughout the Middle Ages? Historians like Eamon Duffy have used documents like churchwardens’ accounts to argue that the English Church in the fifteenth century enjoyed mass popular support. The orders of friars, in particular the Franciscans showed a remarkable capacity for reform; Cardinal Ximenes, who promoted his own order, the Observant Franciscans in the Spanish kingdoms, is just one example. Movements such as the devotio moderna in the Low Countries and the Oratory of Divine Love in Rome were growing in popularity. In France the humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples produced a commentary on the psalms in 1509 and on Romans in 1512. His Erasmian piety gained the support of the king’s sister Marguerite d’Angloulême. It was possible to criticize the Church and want it to improve without thinking of to leaving it. And even at its worst, the Church was far from moribund. In the sixteenth century, faced with the challenge of Protestantism, it showed a formidable capacity to adapt and survive.

This is not to say that all was well with the Church. There were many vested interests working against change. For example, Lefèvre d’Etaples’ patron, Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, fell foul of the Franciscans who accused him of heresy. There was also some serious corruption. When Leo X renewed the sale of indulgences in 1517 for his great project of St Peter’s, he showed formidable marketing skills that would not have been out of place in the modern world, but also a deep cynicism. The transaction by which Albrecht of Brandenburg (left) would promote the sale in alliance with the Fuggers in order to gain the archbishopric of Mainz and a cardinal’s was extremely sleazy!

However there had been plenty of sleaze in earlier centuries and plenty of hostility to reform. The Protestant Reformation succeeded (partly) because of a variety of new circumstances. These include the printing press, implications of humanist biblical scholarship, the ambitions of rulers, the politics of the cities of Germany and Switzerland and also a search for religious safeguards in an age that was especially preoccupied with the afterlife.

Luther (1483-1546)
The popular story that the Reformation began when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 may not be true. The theses did exist and were published, but it is not certain that they were posted on the church door. Modern scholarship places less emphasis than previously on the role of Luther and instead tries to assess how far the Reformations were popular movements and how far the mass of the people were affected by them. It seems certain that there was a popular movement - though princes, cities and peasants wanted different things from Protestantism. However no amount of revisionism can hide Luther’s importance.

Luther was the son of a Thurningian miner, who became the lessee of a mine and thus a small capitalist. He went to school in Eisenach. In 1501 he went to the university of Erfurt. In 1505 he entered the Order of the Augustinian Eremites, and in 1507 he took priestly orders. In 1510-1511 he was sent to Rome on business for the Saxon Augustinian monasteries, but there is no evidence that he was especially appalled by what he saw there.

On his return to Germany in 1511 he was sent by the Vicar-General of his Order, Johann von Staupitz, to teach at the new university, founded by Friedrich ‘the Wise’, Elector of Saxony, who was determined to make his university one of the centres of humanist study in Germany.

In 1514-15 Luther lectured on the psalms. In 1515 he moved on to Romans where he read in the Vulgate text of Romans 1:17: ‘Justus autem ex fide vivit’. He read this at a time when, according to his later accounts, he was troubled by intense spiritual anxieties. These arouse out of his Augustinian concept of a righteous God justly angry at his sins and his consequent fear of damnation. His reading of Romans led him to believe that salvation was not something that could be attained by striving, but was a free gift of God, apprehended through faith. The Pauline term for this is ‘justification by faith’, sola fide.

The chronology of his spiritual experiences is contradictory and contested. Long afterwards, in 1545 he spoke of a ‘tower experience’, a spiritual breakthrough that brought him to peace of mind. Though he never gave the date of this experience, it is likely to have been after 1517. When he made his famous protest, he had not fully worked out his ‘evangelical’ theology or fought through his spiritual difficulties. It was while he was in the middle of his struggles that the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg selling indulgences, accompanied by an accountant from the Fugger banking house.

The fairly recent doctrine of indulgences had been promulgated in a papal bull of 1343 that allowed to faithful to make a financial contribution to draw upon the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints. Later in the fifteenth century it had been argued that indulgences were available to help the souls in Purgatory as well as the living. In an age of acute religious anxiety the doctrine of indulgences held a powerful appeal. But it could also be seen as a cynical exploitation of people’s fears and Luther was not the only person to protest about the system.

Luther’s aim had been the fairly narrow one of opening up a debate about indulgences. The ninety-five theses were not intended as a call to revolution. But the challenge was a public one, contained in a letter to his local archbishop – Albrecht of Brandenburg. Albrecht forwarded the theses to Rome and within a fortnight they were available in German. In March 1518 Erasmus sent a copy to Thomas More.

In the ensuing pamphlet debate among German theologians, Luther moved from his protest against indulgences to a wider consideration of the doctrine of God’s grace.

At the end of 1518 he met the great Italian scholar, Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. But there was no meeting of minds and any opportunity for compromise was lost. It is probably about this time that Luther had his ‘tower experience’. In the wake of his disillusionment with Cajetan, he began to call for a General Council to hear his case – a direct attack on papal authority.

In 1519 Luther engaged in a public disputation with Dr Johann Eck at Leipzig (the rival university to Wittenberg). Eck, a brilliant debater, forced him into the open - Luther said that the Roman supremacy was of recent date and that much that Hus had taught had been correct. This immediately defined Luther as an enemy of the Catholic Church. The controversy spurned a huge pamphlet literature between 1518 and 1523. Pro-Luther pamphlets outnumbered the anti by 20 to 1.

1520 Luther issued three pamphlets:
(a) Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. This was addressed in German and called for a programme of social and ecclesiastical reform. The pope was described as Antichrist and the German nobility had a God-given duty to overthrow him.
(b) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was written in Latin for the clergy. Luther reduced the seven sacraments to the three he believed were explicitly mentioned in scripture (baptism, penance and the Eucharist). He attacked transubstantiation though he maintained a doctrine of real presence.
(c) The Freedom of a Christian Man was a plea for inward religion based on a right relationship with God. ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all’. Good works come naturally to those who are saved.
In December 1520, following his excommunication, Luther burned the papal bull Exurge Domine which condemned his writings at the gates of Wittenberg.

The Diet of Worms: In the summer of 1519 Charles V had been elected emperor. Though Luther was under the Ban of the Empire, Charles gave him a safe-conduct by Charles V to attend the Diet in April 1521. In a long speech he defended his refusal to repudiate his writings.
‘Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.’
Not long after his death, the first editor of his collected works added to his speech: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’. Charles honoured the safe-conduct he had given Luther, but he also issued an edict condemning him as a heretic.

Once Luther was back in Saxony, Frederick arranged for him to be kidnapped and ‘imprisoned’ in the Wartburg. During this time he completed his translation of the New Testament based on Erasmus’s text. He also wrote hymns most notably Ein feste burg ist unser Gott’.

The Swiss Reformation
Luther’s protest was not isolated. In 1519 Huldrych Zwingli’s sermons in the Great Minster at Zurich initiated the Swiss Reformation, which was to affect England much more. It is disputed among historians how much Zwingli owed to Luther and how much he arrived at his theological position independently.
Zwingli showed his radicalism by marrying (in secret in 1522) and by ordering the destruction of images. He also set out a revolutionary doctrine of the Eucharist: it was purely a symbol and a declaration of faith; there was no ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist.

The development of Lutheranism
In 1521 Luther’s brilliant young disciple Philipp Melanchthon published the Loci Communes that was to become the central text of Lutheranism.

As Lutheranism developed, the early radicalism of Luther’s pamphlets vanished. Luther believed he was confronted by two serious challenges from the ‘left’. In 1522 he returned to Wittenberg to find the scholar and nobleman Andreas von Karlstadt declaring publicly that all sacred images should be destroyed. He condemned this in a pamphlet Against the Heavenly Prophets.

In 1525 he reacted viciously to the Peasants’ Revolt and urged the nobility to ‘smite, slay and stab’. His language was that of a frightened man. He believed that he was partly responsible for the revolt.

Luther’s religious conservatism is shown at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529 where he and Zwingli clashed on the Eucharist. Luther insisted on a ‘real presence’ while Zwingli argued for a purely symbolic interpretation of Christ’s works. Their failure to agree marked a permanent division between Swiss and German Protestantism.

But Luther’s conservatism should not be exaggerated. His marriage in 1524 to the ex-nun, Katherine von Bora (left), was a revolutionary step.

In 1529 the Emperor convened the Diet of Speyer with a view to withdrawing all concessions to Lutheranism. A group of German princes who supported religious reform drew up a protest - a ‘Protestatio’. This is the origin of the term Protestant. Following this, Lutheran theology was codified in Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession (1530).