The Dimensions to Early Reformation Christianity

The Reformation, the movement put in motion by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), sparked many changes in Christian religiosity of Europe. Here we look at some of the dimensions to early Reformation Christianity, in particular its practical/ritual, doctrinal, ethical, narrative, experiential, institutional, and material aspects.

In the ritual or practical dimension there was a simplification in practice among the reformers. There was a major change in how sermons were communicated as these increasingly used the people’s vernacular language/s rather than the Latin of the Catholic Church. Latin was scrapped in matters of congregational communication but remained the language of theology. A further change occurred in Calvinist churches that came to discourage singing hymns; only the Psalms could be sung by the congregation. It was also illegal to sing hymns in the Church of England until 1820. The Anglican and Lutheran sects maintained a simplified version of the Holy Eucharist as their most frequent service. Presbyterians tended towards treating the Eucharist as a solemn occasion to be performed on special moments or once monthly. For Presbyterians, services consisted predominantly of sermons and preaching and their churches reflected this in their design, which we will note in the material dimension. The Anglicans and Lutherans made other changes too: they did away with pilgrimages, the use of the relics of saints, and statues of the Virgin Mary. Statues of the Virgin Mary and Catholic devotion to them were particularly frowned upon by the Reformers.

Doctrinally, God’s grace became the center of the Reformer’s Christianity, particularly as believed to have been taught by the Apostle Paul. Salvation was seen as a gift from God and often the wrathful nature of God and his holiness were emphasized. All people became seen as being especially unworthy and utterly dependent on God. A mixture of views arose concerning the role of the intellect. Calvinists were highly intellectual in their faith and there was some interest in philosophy, but there were also trends developing against using reason to find out about God. This involved stressing the centrality of revelation in and of the Bible. This trend offset the precedent set by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Catholic tradition who is remembered for arguing in favour of an alliance between reason and faith, and between revealed and natural theology. 

In the realm of ethics there was a revival of the ascetic life emphasizing temperance and self-discipline. There was also a loss of distinctions initially embraced by the Catholic Church: there was to be no distinction between the common Christian and monks and nuns; no distinction between those people in Christian history given the title of “Saint” to the ordinary members of the Christian community; no distinction between pastors and the members of their congregations. This did not entail a denial that pastors and spiritual leaders had a unique role in having been specially trained for their office.

Narratively, the Bible and its many fascinating stories and myths became widely accessible. This was in large part thanks to printing that brought the Bible to many more people: people could study and read the Bible simply by opening it themselves without needing to rely on priests or scholarly commentaries. There were also anti-Catholic narratives as some Protestants produced anti-Catholic views and resentment; for example, the Pope became seen as the anti-Christ and the Catholic Church a harlot (as opposed to the bride of Christ).

Experientially, there were a handful of Protestant mystics, notably Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), who influenced the formation of the Quakers. There was, however, a greater emphasis placed on personal devotion and family prayer. Due to the simplicity of the material dimension, especially in the simplistic designs of Protestant churches, Protestantism did not have the same high level of visual experience or appeal as did the Catholic tradition.

Institutionally, the Calvinists embraced a democratic method in electing leaders in general assemblies and local committees. Congregations had ministers, but the Lutherans and Anglicans did much less in reshaping their systems as they kept to the use of bishops, priests, and deacons. Both Catholics and Protestants engaged in the persecution of each other. In Protestant countries, Catholics often did not have civil rights or their rights were severely restricted. England for a time saw Catholicism as almost tantamount to treason largely due to the war between Spain and England. Loyalty to Queen Elisabeth meant a loyal to the religion she represented. One of the struggles facing the Reformers was the removal of a central authority that had always been strong in the Catholic Church. Without a centralized authority, there arose various new interpretations of the Bible that varied. Some groups embraced democratic means to find agreement on teachings although the crisis of authority has always plagued Protestantism as evident in its many sects and demonizations.

Materially, the Protestants chose much simpler and plainer designs. Some Catholic churches that had been taken over by them had their features removed and interiors reshaped. New buildings were made simpler, notably for Calvinists in their plain white walls, and no ornamentations and stained glass windows. Calvinist churches also included a large pulpit and a communion table. There were cases, for example in Oliver Cromwell’s English troops, of Protestants smashing a number of cathedrals. Paintings also became in less demand in Protestant countries and were replaced with other depictions, such as landscapes.

References

Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 342-344

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