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The Crisis of Authority in the Reformation

Kenneth J. Howell, Ph. D.
March 16, 2010 One Comment

When I was a young man, I used to hear stories of the courage of Great Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin. In my reformation heritage, the emphasis on the sole authority of the Bible generated examples of lonely figures who stood up against the tyranny of the Roman Church in the sixteenth century.

None was presented braver than Martin Luther who, confronted with the command to obey the Pope at the Diet of Worms, boldly proclaimed that he must be shown to be wrong on the basis of Scripture and not some self-appointed authority of the Pope. When asked to recant his teachings, he insisted, “Here I stand. I can do none other. God help me.” This and many other examples appealed to something in me that I did not recognize at the time. As an American, I treasured independence and freedom from tyranny. Wasn’t our country itself founded on the same self-determination of government that Luther insisted on in the sixteenth century? In both religion and politics, I valued independence and self-determination.

My theological education in the Reformed (Calvinist) heritage reinforced these childhood images of the Reformers. Details were filled in, and honest problems with the Reformation heritage were faced, but there was never a question that the alternative, Roman Catholicism, was a substitute for biblical freedom. I was convinced that the apostle who sought to save the Galatians from the slavery of legalistic teachers (cf. Gal 5:1), would also condemn, were he alive in Luther’s day, the yoke of Roman subjugation. So, even in my more sophisticated knowledge of theology, I believed that the Reformation represented a return to the biblical freedom from which the Roman Catholic Church had slipped into bondage.

Only later, when I began to investigate the history of the Reformation in greater depth, did I understand how the Protestant insistence on individual freedom in religion was both a product of and a vehicle for the crisis of authority that we have in the Western world today. Luther’s stand against the authority of Rome did not sprout up in a vacuum. The turbulent changes in thinking, which had begun already in the Renaissance of the fifteenth century, shaped not only Luther’s thinking; they also prepared an audience to receive Luther’s message. That audience, the leaders and people of various Protestant groups, became the instruments of an ever-widening independence from Church authority that still affects the world today. Out of this complicated history, I want to sketch two developments that have deeply affected Christianity in our world: the crisis of interpretation and the crisis of unity. But first, let’s explore why the Reformation happened.

The Crises That Shaped the Reformation

The early modern period from ca. 1500 to 1700 brought momentous changes in Europe, so much so that the face of Christendom in the Western world was forever altered. Few Americans today realize that much of our modern understandings and assumptions stem from this period. The changes that swept Europe began much earlier in the fifteenth century, but few had greater impact than the discovery of the new world. The voyages of discovery brought various European cultures and the Christian faith to the new world, but the discoveries of the new world also had a profound effect on Europeans as they expanded their horizons to include peoples they never knew existed. Many European Christians were fired with a new enthusiasm to preach the gospel to every creature.

What exactly is the gospel? Scholars and churchmen in early modern Europe debated this important question vigorously because it affected three essential aspects of their lives: their vision of the world, education and the Church itself. They needed to be clear on what should be preached to the newly found peoples across the seas. And with growing disagreements between Protestants and Catholics, their respective churches felt very keenly the drive to rescue the new world from the clutches of the other’s teachings. Yet, there was also widespread agreement on the need for reforming education and the Church. Changes in one area would inevitably bring transformations in the other.

In education, changes were already underway. The fifteenth century witnessed an even greater flood of ancient sources than the ninth and tenth centuries had seen. New texts revived old philosophies. Aristotle—or simply the philosopher as St. Thomas called him—was waning in influence as figures like Marsilio Ficino founded the Platonic academy in Florence. More and more scholars were learning Ancient Greek and translating Greek philosophy into the standard Latin of their day. With Platonism came a renewed emphasis on St. Augustine, whose writings would become as much a battleground between Protestants and Catholics as the Bible itself. Over the next two centuries, ancient philosophies as different as Epicureanism and Stoicism would be revived by scholars as diverse as the priest Pierre Gassendi and the Parisian scholar Jean Pena. Emerging transformations in science would also leave a permanent change on the European landscape. As scholars translated treatises of ancient science such as Ptolemy’s Geography and Greek medical texts, new assessments of old doctrines were coming into play. Nicholas Copernicus intended no astronomical revolution, but his treatise On the Heavenly Spheres, together with numerous other new scientific theories, brought about a transformed view of nature. Nor did the advocates of scientific reform fail to seize on the reforms in religion as a weapon in their armamentarium. The most famous English methodologist of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon, explicitly called for revolution in science as a fulfillment of the reformation in religion which his native England had adopted. By the time of the founding of the Royal Society during the reign of Charles II (1660s), almost every Protestant agreed with Thomas Sprat’s analogy between religion and science. Just as a great Reformation had occurred by returning directly to the Scriptures, so we needed a great reformation in science by returning directly to nature. Catholics were as prominent (though not as numerous) in the science of this period as Protestants were, but it was the Protestants who used the rhetoric of religious reform to argue for the liberation of science from the shackles of medievalism.

These new developments coincided with the Protestant Reformation which resulted from this search for new authorities. At the end of the fifteenth century, one of John Calvin’s own teachers, Jacques Lefebvre, called Europe back to the gospel which the Church had lost sight of in his opinion. The Church had grown lax, morally and doctrinally. Nor was his voice the only one calling for reform. Desiderius Erasmus, the great Catholic humanist, argued for a stringent moral reform of the clergy while condemning the departures of the Protestants. England especially was a hotbed for revolutionary ideas, as the first century of the Church of England was to demonstrate. How could the same King Henry who wrote a scathing critique of Luther (A Defense of the Seven Sacraments 1521) suddenly turn against the Pope less than fifteen  years later?  Was He simply a power hungry tyrant who wanted to ensure his offspring on England’s throne? Whatever Henry’s personal ambitions, his behavior cannot explain how the majority of the bishops in the English Church could so quickly abandon Papal and Catholic authority. It is disingenuous to suppose that the English bishops had no more backbone than what history generally records. More likely their support of Henry against Rome must be seen as a result of the crisis of authority that Luther both inherited and promoted.   

The Crisis in Interpretation

From the very beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the issue of the authority of the Scriptures stood in a central place. When Luther was asked how he knew his interpretations of the Bible were right, and how he could stand against the interpretations of the Church Fathers and the Church prior to him, he replied that the message of salvation in the Bible was so clear that even a farm boy behind the plow could understand their message as correctly as the most learned theologians in the universities. The people of God did not need some imposed authority to interpret the Bible for them.

The issue of clarity of the Scriptures was so important that it affected virtually every aspect of Christian teaching in the Reformation. One such controversy concerned free will, and took place between Erasmus, the humanist of Rotterdam, and Luther in 1524 and 1525. Erasmus the Catholic challenged Luther thus:

I believe that it is equally true that the authority of the Scriptures alone surpasses the united opinions of all men. But the controversy here does not concern the value of the Scriptures: both parties accept and venerate the same books. The conflict concerns the meaning of the Scriptures. Now I hear the objection: “What need is there for interpretation when the Scripture is entirely clear?” But if it is so clear, why have such eminent men groped so blindly and for so many centuries in such an important matter, as our adversaries claim?

Erasmus, a master of rhetorical skill, saw an implicit contradiction in the Protestant claim that previous teachers in the Church had blindly missed the doctrine of justification by faith in Scripture while at the same time claiming that the Scriptures were as clear as crystal. By what assurance could we know that the Scriptures were clear? By the gift of the Holy Spirit, said the Protestants! Erasmus considered the next question. Who possesses the Spirit so as to give us an authoritative interpretation? Everyone? Of course, in baptism every Christian is given the Holy Spirit, but that didn’t mean the Spirit had given the same gifts to everyone equally. Whom did the Spirit give the task of authoritatively interpreting the Scriptures? Since there are multiple interpretations, how do we know which ones are certain since all have the Spirit? Are there no authoritative interpretations? If not, we are left without the Spirit’s certain guidance. Does it not make more sense that God would give the authoritative interpretation of the Holy Spirit through those to whom He committed His mission of preaching the Gospel, the Apostles and their successors?

Luther’s answer to Erasmus focused mainly on the issue under debate, i.e. free will. What about the other point as to who would interpret Scripture authoritatively? Luther and later Protestants appealed to two sources of authority. Scripture would become clear by comparing one text with another, as St. Augustine had taught in De doctrina christiana. The believers could also depend on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit to lead him into all truth. This became the standard Protestant answer to the Catholic challenge, but a problem remained. How does one judge whether a particular believer is teaching what the Spirit is teaching? By comparing Scripture with Scripture. Yes, of course, but both Catholics and Protestants compared Scripture with Scripture. Who judged which comparisons were correct or acceptable? Wasn’t an authoritative interpreter still needed to decide unresolved issues? Luther never really answered Erasmus’ challenge, but only asserted that his opponent had missed the clear teaching of Scripture.

Catholics and Protestants were at an impasse. Protestants insisted on the authority of the Bible alone and depended on the internal witness of the Spirit and textual comparisons to arrive at proper interpretations. The Catholics insisted that as good as these reasons were, they still left open the question as to how to resolve doctrinal and moral disputes. God gave the hierarchical Church to resolve such issues. Catholics said that the Protestant method was a recipe for disaster because it allowed every person to follow his own lights, rather than be obedient to Scripture as interpreted by the Church.

The Crisis of Unity

Martin Luther had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church. He wanted to reform its abuses, both in morals and in doctrine. But in the 1520s, Luther and other Reformers began attacking some very central doctrines previously defined by the Church that led to some irreconcilable differences. Different interpretations of the Bible led to different churches. Still, the Protestants hoped to find some unity among their disparate movements.

On several occasions, leaders of the Reformation tried to come together to agree on some fundamental tenets, but in the end they could not agree. Only twelve years after nailing his nine-five theses to the Wittenburg church door in 1517, Luther and his cohort Philip Melanchthon met with the Reformer of Zürich, Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli had already developed a symbolist interpretation of the Eucharist under the influence of a Dutch physician, Cornelis Hoen. Hoen convinced Zwingli that Christ’s words, “This is my body” had to mean “This signifies my body.” For Luther, this was unacceptable. Luther had completely rejected the notion of transubstantiation and the sacrificial character of the Mass, but he still wanted to affirm that Christ was bodily present in the Lord’s Supper. With this growing tension between the reform movements of various cities, some civil leaders wanted to find common ground. So Philip, the Landgrave of Hesse, called a colloquy for many of the Protestant leaders in his capital of Marburg.

In the first three days of October 1529, Zwingli, Luther and several other theologians tried to reach agreement. And agreement they did reach on many doctrinal points. But they knew what anyone raised the Catholic culture of the sixteenth century knew, that the preeminent sacrament and rite of the Church was the Eucharist. It did not matter what else they agreed on. If they could not agree on the Eucharist, they could not be united. This fact is incomprehensible to present-day Protestants because the Eucharist simply does not enjoy such an exalted place in their thinking. But for Christians of early modern Europe, the Eucharist held the place of preeminence it had among the Fathers and medieval teachers of the Church.    

Luther and Zwingli tried hard to agree on the proper meaning of our Lord’s words, “This is my body.” When Zwingli argued that the is means signifies, Luther responded that Zwingli was trying to rationalize Christ’s words according to human reason and judgment. If that were true, what need would there be for faith in Christ as the Son of God. No, Luther insisted, Christ’s is means is, and he can be present on all the altars in the world because his omnipresence in heaven is communicated to his human nature. Luther and Zwingli wanted very badly to agree. Melanchthon warned Luther against agreeing too easily because agreement with Zwingli would mean no hope of reunion with the Catholics. So, on one day in early October, 1529, the Protestant movement in German speaking lands lost any hope of mounting a united front against Rome.

What happened in Marburg that October was repeated again and again in the Protestant movement. Philip Melanchthon tried several times to engage John Calvin in hopes that some unity between them might be found. Yet no united front could be established for the same reason that Zwingli and Luther could not agree. All the Reformers had been shaped and molded in an essential Christian truth inherited from the Catholic culture in which they had grown up, namely, that unity had to be founded on truth. Since they could not agree on doctrine, they all knew they could not have unity. And they could not agree on doctrine because they could not agree on how the Scriptures should be interpreted. The task of finding unity in truth plagued the relations between Protestant leaders thereafter.

It was England which manifested the greatest divisions, differences that were transferred wholesale to America. A century after King Henry’s break with Rome, the religious landscape in the British isles resembled a patchwork quilt of conflicting beliefs. Charles I, a staunch catholic in his doctrine, lost the support of his subjects, and dearly paid the price with his life. In 1649, Charles was executed by the Puritans.

England was never the same. During and after the commonwealth in the 1650s, England was home to a bewildering diversity of sects, all of which claimed to adhere to the true religion. England had High Church Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics in the Lake District, Quakers, and dozens of others that have since passed from the scene. Some still hoped for the reunion of Christendom. Many catholic-oriented clerics in the Church of England saw what these divisions had wrought. Even the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter thought the Reformation emphasis on forensic justification had divided the Church of Christ unnecessarily. But these hopes for reunion were whistling in the dark. England and Europe were religiously divided and they would never be the same.

The notion of religious freedom held up by the founders of the American Republic was not so much a well-thought out ideal as it was a reaction to the sectarianism that now plagued Europe. Two solutions to the animosity and religious conflict were possible. One would be to establish a country on a religious faith that all professed. That ideal was what had governed Europe for centuries. The other was to make the State neutral with respect to religious commitments. Some on the American continent wanted the first, i.e. to retain the ideal of unity taught by Christ and the Apostles. The early Puritans of Massachusetts hoped to create such a new world. In the end, however, the founding documents opted for the second, i.e. government neutrality. This began one of the most delicate balancing acts the world has ever seen. Could any government really be neutral? Was it possible to treat all religious groups the same? Almost all of the sects transferred from Europe found a home in America. But one Christian faith experienced the kind of severe persecution that had been in Europe, Roman Catholicism. But they too eventually found freedom of religion. Catholicism in America was always in a precarious position. The notion of individual freedom of religion permitted the practice of the Catholic Faith but their faith told them that truth was not founded on individual choice. The Protestant principle of private interpretation was transferred to the political sphere. It assured Catholics a place in the diversity of conflicting beliefs while their own beliefs in the unity of truth and the Church required them to reject the principle of private interpretation. The crisis of unity that the Reformation had planted in Europe grew into full flower in a land where Catholic unity was deemed unacceptable.

The Protestant Reformation denied the position of the Church to interpret the Scriptures with binding authority, and resulted in a religious landscape that led to as many conflicts with one another as the original Reformers had with Rome. The Protestant appeal to the clarity of Scripture failed to unify its diverse and disparate interpretations. In fact, there was no one Protestant Reformation; there were many. And the many conflicting visions of reformation resulted from an insistence on private interpretation of Scripture—a principle that the Bible itself rejects (II Peter 1:20).

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