To contemporaries, the reordering of religion and the sundering of the social unity that it had once provided to European culture was the most significant development of the sixteenth century. It is impossible to understand the time without taking a look at this. Religion was not a matter of personal preference or opinion, it was the very basis of society.

The Pre-Reform

The rediscovery of the learning of the ancient world, the printing press, and all the other forces that came together to create the Renaissance also affected the Church. At the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, Christian humanists sought to apply the new style of scholarship to the study of scriptures in their original languages and to return to the first principles of their religion. In the interests of spreading religious understanding, they began to translate the Bible into the vernacular languages. The end of the fifteenth century saw a popular spiritual revival of a more mystical nature as well, characterised by such works as Thomas à Kempis' Imitatio Christi (translated and published in every major European language). The Renaissance belief in the "perfectability of man" made people less content with things as they were, and more interested in improving them in the here and now. No one could argue that the church was not corrupt: holding vast wealth, exercising enormous political power and waging war, it was administered by holders of patronage positions that had more interest in lining their pockets than in promoting the welfare of their "flocks". The Christian humanists criticized these all-too-human failings, while striving for a purer church.

The early years of the sixteenth century were graced by some great Christian humanist intellects: Erasmus, Lefèvre d'Etaples, and others. Marguerite de Navarre, François I er's sister, was a great patron, and François I er as an enlightened Renaissance prince himself, was sympathetic and once offered Erasmus the leadership of his new College de France, founded to promote classical learning. The Bishop of Meaux, Guillaume Briçonnet, gathered a circle of inquiring intellects and passionate, reform-minded preachers around him there during the early 1520s. There was no particular intention of breaking from the church at this time, merely a passion for improving it.


In 1517, a dispute about who was entitled to a cut of the revenues generated by itinerant papal indulgence sellers provoked the controversy that led the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, to nail his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg. The upshot of Luther's theses was that Christians are saved by faith, and faith alone, and that no amount of works (including the purchase of indulgences) made any difference at all. A drastic enough view, but not one that was immediately perceived as having the ultimate consequences that it eventually did. The Pope, Leo X, was a fairly easy going fellow, not inclined to vigorously prosecute this first appearance of heresy. There were plenty of heterodox views in the air at the time, and he thought it could be worked out diplomatically.

As it turns out, it could not. Luther was not immediately burnt for a heretic; he was allowed to present his case in court and had a powerful effect on the populace. He also had a powerful patron and protector in the Elector of Saxony, who shielded him from the ecclesiastical authorities. In addition, the media explosion brought on by the printing press spread his message much further than it otherwise might have gone, and made him the focus for all sorts of religious, spiritual, political, and economic discontent. The right to read and interpret scripture lead to the throwing off of the chains of papal and ecclesiastical authority; and taking this to mean political and economic freedom as well, there were widespread revolts among the German peasantry. This horrified Luther and many of the civil powers.

The deep belief that religious uniformity was essential for political and and social stability made heterodox opinions a potential act of treason. It was not the desire of the intellectual reformers to challenge civil authority, but it was a consequence. The German states were small political units: principalities, duchies, electorates, and so on, all theoretically owing loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor as overlord, but most exercising a fairly independent course a lot of the time. As the leaders of these states made their choices for or against the new opinion, their populations went with them (like it or not). For many, the attractions of "nationalizing" church property was a powerful incentive to become a reformer. Political alliances were made and remade in the name of religion throughout the rest of the century.


Catholic (Council of Trent)

Justification by faith -- Christ's sacrifice atones for all sins, and it is only necessary to believe in it to be saved. There is nothing humans can do by their own efforts to add or detract from it.

Both faith and good works (acts of devotion, charity, the sacraments, etc.) are necessary for salvation.

The priesthood of all believers -- all believers have equal access to God and no other earthly intermediaries are needed. This does not mean that the flock does not need teachers, but there are no special sacramental functions belonging to any particular class.

The Catholic priesthood is necessary as only priests can perform the sacraments necessary for spiritual health and correctly interpret the meaning of scripture.

The scriptures as the only source of true doctrine -- studying and understanding the scriptures is therefore important to all believers. Translating the Bible into the vernacular tongues and making it available to all is essential.

Scripture is only one way in which doctrine is revealed; the decisions of church councils, encyclicals from the Pope, tradition, etc. are all part of it. Only the priesthood of the church can correctly interpret the meaning of scripture -- do not try this at home.

Christ's sacrifice happened only once, and no repeat of that sacrifice is necessary. Although Calvinists and Lutherans believe God is present at the sacrament and it nourishes the faithful spiritually, the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Zwinglians take a more extreme view that the sacrament is only symbolic. Everyone takes both bread and wine.

The Eucharist is a mystery in which the sacrifice of Christ is reenacted; the bread and wine become spiritually transformed into the true body and blood of the Lord (the doctrine of transubstantiation). Only priests partake of the wine and bread, the populace only takes the bread.

No heavenly intermediaries are needed to intercede with God. Atlhough the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels are all in heaven, they should not be the objects of prayer or veneration. The making of images encourages idolatrous worship that should be directed at the more abstract concept of God.

Although the saints and angels should not be worshipped, their intercession is valuable and necessary to helping the Christian to achieve salvation. The Virgin Mary is especially honored by God, and should be also by believers. Religious images should not be worshipped, but they help to inspire devotion (these fine points were often lost on the average peasant).

God's foreknowledge and ominipotence mean that everyone is predestined to their fate: either to be or not to be one of the elect. Human action avails nothing.

God's omnipotence does not restrict human will, and each individual is still responsible for earning their own salvation.

The Bible only documents two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper (so called to distinguish the Protestant practice from the Catholic Eucharist). No priestly status is required to perform them, although ministers to the church are necessary and useful to directing and guiding it.

There are seven sacraments: baptism, Eucharist (see above), penance (confession/ absolution), confirmation, marriage, holy orders, extreme unction (last rites). Of these, baptism can be performed by anyone in an emergency, and marriage (a historical newcomer to the list) is technically bestowed by the two partners on one another -- all the rest can only be performed by a priest.

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