47 Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Modern Period

G. Reformation and Counter Reformation

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Reformers of different kinds—including John WycliffeJohn Huss (Jan Hus), and Girolamo Savonarola—denounced the moral laxity and financial corruption that had infected the church “in its members and in its head” and called for radical change. Profound social and political changes were taking place in the West, with the awakening of national consciousness and the increasing strength of the cities in which a new merchant class came into its own. The Protestant Reformation may be seen as the convergence of such forces as the call for reform in the church, the growth of nationalism, and the emergence of the “spirit of capitalism.”

Martin Luther was the catalyst that precipitated the new movement. His personal struggle for religious certainty led him, against his will, to question the medieval system of salvation and the very authority of the church, and his excommunication by Pope Leo X proved to be an irreversible step toward the division of Western Christendom. Nor was the movement confined to Luther’s Germany. Native reform movements in Switzerland found leadership in Huldreich Zwingli and especially in John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion became the most influential summary of the new theology. The English Reformation, provoked by the troubles of King Henry VIII, reflected the influence of the Lutheran and then of the Calvinistic reforms, but went its own “middle way,” retaining Catholic elements such as the historic episcopate alongside Protestant elements such as the sole authority of the Bible. The thought of Calvin helped in his native France to create the Huguenot party (see Huguenots), which was fiercely opposed by both church and state, but finally achieved recognition with the Edict of Nantes in 1598 (ultimately revoked in 1685). The more radical Reformation groups, notably the Anabaptists, set themselves against other Protestants as well as against Rome, rejecting such long-established practices as infant baptism and sometimes even such dogmas as the Trinity and denouncing the alliance of church and state. See also CalvinismLutheranismPresbyterianism.

That alliance helped to determine the outcome of the Reformation, which succeeded where it gained the support of the new national states. As a consequence of these ties to the rising national spirit, the Reformation helped to created the literary monuments—especially translations of the Bible—that decisively shaped the language and the spirit of the peoples. It also gave fresh stimulus to biblical preaching and to worship in the vernacular, for which a new hymnody came into being. Because of its emphasis on the participation of all believers in worship and confession, the Reformation developed systems for instruction in doctrine and ethics, especially in the form of catechisms, and an ethic of service in the world.

The Protestant Reformation did not exhaust the spirit of reform within the Roman Catholic church. In response both to the Protestant challenge and to its own needs, the church summoned the Council of Trent (see Trent, Council of), which continued over the years 1545-63, giving definitive formulation to doctrines at issue and legislating practical reforms in liturgy, church administration, and education. Responsibility for carrying out the actions of the council fell in considerable measure on the Society of Jesus, formed by St. Ignatius of Loyola (see Jesuits). The chronological coincidence of the discovery of the New World and the Reformation was seen as a providential opportunity to evangelize those who had never heard the gospel. Trent on the Roman Catholic side and the several confessions of faith on the Protestant side had the effect of making the divisions permanent. See also Confession.

In one respect the divisions were not permanent, for new divisions continued to appear. Historically, the most noteworthy of these were probably the ones that arose in the Church of England. The Puritans objected to the “remnants of popery” in the liturgical and institutional life of Anglicanism and pressed for a further reformation. Because of the Anglican union of throne and altar, this agitation had direct—and, as it turned out, violent—political consequences, climaxing in the English Revolution and the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Puritanism found its most complete expression, both politically and theologically, in North America. The Pietists of the Lutheran and Calvinist churches of Europe usually managed to remain within the establishment as a party instead of forming a separate church, but Pietism shaped the outlook of many among the Continental groups who came to North America. European Pietism also found an echo in England, where it was a significant force in the life and thought of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement (see Methodism).

See also Counter ReformationReformation.

H. The Modern Period

Already during the Renaissance and Reformation, but even more in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was evident that Christianity would be obliged to define and to defend itself in response to the rise of modern science and philosophy. That problem made its presence known in all the churches, albeit in different ways. The condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy was eventually to find its Protestant equivalent in the controversies over the implications of the theory of evolution for the biblical account of creation. Against other modern movements, too, Christianity frequently found itself on the defensive. The critical-historical method of studying the Bible, which began in the 17th century, seemed to threaten the authority of Scripture, and the rationalism of the Enlightenment was condemned as a source of religious indifference and anticlericalism (see Biblical ScholarshipEnlightenment, Age of). Because of its emphasis on the human capacity to determine human destiny, even democracy could fall under condemnation. The increasing secularization of society removed the control of the church from areas of life, especially education, over which it had once been dominant.

Partly a cause and partly a result of this situation was the fundamental redefinition of the relation between Christianity and the civil order. The granting of religious toleration to minority faiths and then the gradual separation of church and state represented a departure from the system that had, with many variations, held sway since the conversion of Constantine the Great and is, in the opinion of many scholars, the most far-reaching change in the modern history of Christianity. Carried to its logical conclusion, it seemed to many to imply both a reconsideration of how the various groups and traditions calling themselves Christian were related to one another and a reexamination of how all of them taken together were related to other religious traditions. Both of these implications have played an even larger role in the 19th and 20th centuries. See Church and State.

The ecumenical movement has been a major force for bringing together, at least toward better understanding and sometimes even toward reunion, Christian denominations that had long been separated. At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic church took important steps toward reconciliation both with the East and with Protestantism. That same council likewise expressed, for the first time in an official forum, a positive appreciation of the genuine spiritual power present in the world religions. A special case is the relation between Christianity and its parent, Judaism; after many centuries of hostility and even persecution, the two faiths have moved toward a closer degree of mutual understanding than at any time since the 1st century. See Vatican Council, Second.

The reactions of the churches to their changed situation in the modern period have also included an unprecedented increase in theological interest. Such Protestant theologians as Jonathan Edwards and Friedrich Schleiermacher and such Roman Catholic thinkers as Blaise Pascal and John Henry Newman took up the reorientation of the traditional apologias for the faith, drawing upon religious experience as a validation of the reality of the divine. The 19th century was preeminently the time of historical research into the development of Christian ideas and institutions. This research indicated to many that no particular form of doctrine or church structure could claim to be absolute and final, but it also provided other theologians with new resources for reinterpreting the Christian message. Literary investigation of the biblical books, although regarded with suspicion by many conservatives, led to new insights into how the Bible had been composed and assembled. And the study of the liturgy, combined with a recognition that ancient forms did not always make sense to the modern era, stimulated the reform of worship.

The ambivalent relation of the Christian faith to modern culture, evident in all these trends, is discernible also in the role it has played in social and political history. Christians were found on both sides of the 19th-century debates over slavery, and both used biblical arguments. Much of the inspiration for revolutions, from the French to the Russian, was explicitly anti-Christian. Particularly under 20th-century Marxist regimes, Christians have been oppressed for their faith, and their traditional beliefs have been denounced as reactionary. Nevertheless, the revolutionary faith has frequently drawn from Christian sources. Mohandas K. Gandhi maintained that he was acting in the spirit of Jesus Christ, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the martyred leader of the world movement for civil rights, was a Protestant preacher who strove to make the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount the basis of his political program.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, the missionary movements of the church had carried the Christian faith throughout the world. A characteristic of modern times, however, has been the change in leadership of the “daughter” or mission churches. Since World War II national leaders have increasingly taken over from Westerners in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches in the Third World. The adaptations of native customs pose problems of theology and tradition, as, for example, African polygamists attempt to live Christian family lives. The merger of denominations in churches such as the United Church of Canada may alter the nature of some of the component groups. Thus, change continues to challenge Christianity.

For additional information, see articles on individual Christian denominations and biographies of those persons whose names are not followed by dates.


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