By Michael Sauter
We finished last time with Humanism and the Renaissance’s new definition of Man. This Renaissance Man was vigorous, an individual, devoted to acting publicly in a particular community. He calculated, acted, spent money freely, and let the rest take care of itself. I have already alluded to this point in other lectures, but some historians have tried to discover the modern individual in this vision of the Renaissance. This is intimately tied up with the idea of modernity that we discussed in the first lecture, and many historians have been tempted to find themselves in this past. Thus, modernity arrives with the appearance of people like us. I don’t believe any of this. In my view, the modern individual is not one thing, but is constantly evolving. Although the Renaissance is important to creating the modern individual as we know it, the desire of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century historians to find the individual in it is merely self-flattery. Nonetheless, I want to take the problem of the modern individual as our point of departure. And what I want to show is that whatever else it may have accomplished, the Renaissance did not create the modern individual; other forces made important contributions, and one of the most important was the Reformation.
As a review before continuing, let’s look back to the Renaissance. We said last time that Humanism was one of Renaissance Italy’s central contributions. It was rooted in the Middle Ages, but became clear as a movement by 1400, and was in full bloom by 1450. Let’s define most simply what it was: Renaissance Humanism was the desire to use the intellectual apparatus of the classical world for the benefit of modern secular pursuits. As we look north, however, we see that there was another Humanism, one that arose in Northern Europe during the second half of the fifteenth century. We will call this Humanism Christian Humanism.
Christian Humanism also used the classics for the benefit of modernity, but its practitioners were more interested in reforming the modern church. Moreover, unlike the Italian Humanists the Christian Humanists studied different classical texts. Whereas, the Italians read the pagan classics that had been written before the Christianization of the Roman Empire, which occurred officially in AD 395, Christian Humanists concentrated on the Patristics, early Christian texts written in Latin between the fifth and the seventh centuries, including the so-called Four Latin Church Doctors, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory the Great.
Christian Humanism’s main concern was not to improve civic life here, but to uncover the true spirit of early Christianity. This is a significant innovation in two respects. First, searching for a past injected into the Christian tradition a belief in the importance of using historical documents critically. In this way, Christian Humanists learned to question whether early Christian texts were genuine, even going so far as to question certain parts of the Bible. (This critical use of history within Christianity became extremely important in Germany, and by the eighteenth century it contributed to the creation of the modern research instinct.) Second, the desire to get back to the original spirit of early Christianity became Protestantism’s fundamental impulse, and the later Protestant movement would use Humanism’s insistence on studying the patristic writings for the purpose of overthrowing the church hierarchy.
The most significant example of this Humanist tradition was the great Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had learned Humanism from the Italians and then imported their approaches and techniques to the north. Erasmus’s key contribution to Christian Humanism was to personalize the Christian faith in a way that had been lost in the Middle Ages. He elaborated a more personal relationship to God, and this emphasis on a personal connection to the Christian creator still reverberates through Christian practice today. But, unlike his Reformation colleagues in Germany, Erasmus was not a theologian. He was a monk who also had tremendous literary gifts and was trained in classical techniques, as you will, no doubt, see when you read In Praise of Folly.
In general, Erasmus wanted to reform the church through the gentle application of reason. For him, reform had to be reasonable and gradual to succeed, and that is why he couched it in pedagogical terms. In his view, the best way to reform Christianity was to reform Christians, and he wanted to teach a new (lay) generation of Christians to approach God, though always within the church. In this vein, he cultivated a new kind of public, writing specifically for an educated laity and not for theologians. Viewed historically, however, his greatest achievements were, in fact, academic. He edited St. Jerome’s texts, for example, and his critical edition of the Greek New Testament, complete with critical footnotes put Biblical criticism on an entirely new foundation. Thus, Erasmus provided his generation with a new lay Christianity, though it was still an elite religion. Martin Luther would change all of that.
The Reformation as an historical age began with Martin Luther, an obscure German monk from Saxony, who took much of what Erasmus did and built on it, though in ways that horrified the Dutchman. Unlike Erasmus, Luther was a trained theologian, a man steeped in the traditions of late medieval theology. As I noted earlier, theology was never as dominant in the south as it became in the north. In the north, questions of logic, doctrine, and interpretation predominated. Less interested in aesthetic ideals than they were in sharp distinctions, medieval theologians argued for the purpose of excluding heterodox ideas and people.
Luther’s Reformation and those of his successors would take this emphasis on doctrine and combine it with the affective aspect of the Renaissance that Erasmus had imported to the north. That is to say that the Reformation offered another view of the individual. Rather than reaching back to the pagan past and rooting the person in the community, the Reformation rooted the individual in Christianity, emphasizing the personal journey to God and cultivating the absolute freedom of individual conscience. Or to put it in terms specific to Luther: he combined the emotive aspects of the Renaissance with the doctrinal rigor of late medieval theology, making the individual, in the process, a neurotic, fearful creature, tortured by his distance from God.
Let us begin the Reformation’s story by considering Martin Luther’s career. Born in 1486 in Saxony to a modestly prosperous miner, Luther had originally been destined for law. Thanks to his father’s money, he completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the then famous University of Erfurt in southeastern Germany. On July 17, 1505, however, the young Martin Luther gave up his law books and entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, in the wake of a conversion experience that was aided by a bolt of lightning. Luther’s conversion tormented him, as he felt alienated from God, experiencing Him as a hostile and strange force, divorced from His Creation. The entry into the monastery was an attempt, for Luther, to find his way back to the Creator.
Luther studied theology at the monastery, before entering a program in Theology at the new University of Wittenberg with professors of what is called the “Nominalist” school. Here we need some historical background. Nominalism was a late medieval response to Thomist theology. During the twelfth century, theologians imported Aristotle to Europe and created a philosophical school called Realism, which held that Universals exist and can be known by reason. What this meant practically is that human reason could think its way up to God, the greatest Universal. The Nominalist school, in contrast, which finds its origins in the teaching of the English theologian William of Occam, held that there were no universals and that reason could not reach God. We cannot ascribe reason to God; we are only subject to His will. Theologically this implied that Man played no role in his salvation; the will of God alone determined man’s destiny.
Nominalism suited well Luther’s alienation, for it allowed him to work constructively with his feelings. He earned an intermediary degree in theology from Wittenberg before returning to Erfurt to pursue the doctorate. In 1512, a newly minted PhD, he began to teaching publicly at Erfurt, commenting on various books of the Bible, including the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians. Later, he returned to Wittenberg to found a new program in theology. Luther was never quite satisfied with existing theological approaches, since he felt that they downplayed the Lord’s divine majesty. His theological breakthrough came around 1517, when he contemplated St. Paul’s notion of Justicia Dei, applying the Nominalist approach to Man’s relationship to God. In effect, Luther decided that God’s justice was so far above us that we could not comprehend it, nor could we in any way merit it.
Luther took this theological position even further when he pondered St. Paul’s vision of faith. In Romans 1:17, there is a phrase, ”The just shall live by faith.” Luther was captivated by this phrase and in thinking about it added a key word, sola or alone. The just shall live by faith alone, which is rendered in Latin as sola fide, and a new theology now began to unfold that we today called solifidianism. Luther’s belief that only faith in God can save the Christian predisposed him to criticize almost all the remnants of the medieval church, especially its doctrine of good works, which holds that human beings merit entry into Heaven through good deeds in life.
Luther was, thus, theologically opposed to many of the Catholic Church’s fundamental teachings and practices. The difference could probably have been finagled somehow, except that Luther got angry. In 1517, he became exercised over the Roman church’s practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences were a recent innovation that allowed the penitent a modicum of relief from the burden of judgment day. The Church allowed the fearful person to pay a small fee and thereby, in theory, lessened the price that would be paid in the afterlife. This legitimate attempt to soothe tormented consciences turned rapidly, however, into a get out of purgatory early card, both for the penitent and for his or her deceased relatives.
According to legend, Luther became so angry at the sale of indulgences in Germany by a certain Johannes Tetzel, a subordinate of the Pope, that he wrote his famous 95 Theses in response and nailed them on the door of Wittenberg’s cathedral. This probably did not happen. But what did happen is that Luther’s theses entered the print trade and soon thousands of copies of Luther’s manifesto circulated throughout Germany, and soon in translation across Europe.
At this point the politics of central Europe move to the center of the story, because Luther’s theological insights had political implications. We will talk more about the Holy Roman Empire in another lecture, so you will have to take the personalities that I discuss now on faith. In early-modern Europe, Luther’s rebellion was an incendiary act. First, the Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I could not accept any attacks on indulgences, because both expected to profit handsomely from their sale. Second, the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, had founded the University of Wittenberg and was loathe to allow anyone else to tell him what to do in his own territory. Although a prince of the empire, he was also a territorial prince, which meant that his authority was above everyone else’s in Saxony. And if this were not trouble enough, the then Emperor Maximilian I needed the Elector of Saxony’s support to gain the imperial succession for his son, the future Charles V. To keep the Elector’s support, the Emperor needed to indulge him on the matter of Luther, which only gave Luther’s theology time to grow roots. This is a political mess, of course, with political issues ramifying in different directions. The end result of all the maneuvering was, however, an early-modern political revolution.
I will have more to say about the Reformation as a political phenomenon few lectures hence. For now, I want you to understand that Luther’s religious doctrines were a form of political speech. This speech not only awoke many resentments that Germans felt against the Pope in Rome, but it was also useful to German princes who wanted to assert their power against the Emperor. In addition, Luther’s declaration of independence from a venal and corrupt Papacy became attractive in to other parts of Europe, as well. As the Protestant movement spread to other areas, the simple doctrine that the just should live by faith alone became the justification for over a century of war and devastation.
I have noted that the Reformation spread to other areas, and before taking leave of this historical movement, we need to understand that it was not purely a German phenomenon. Although Luther inspired many religious reforms around Europe, other Reformations developed, and each one was rooted in a different political and social context. And now a brief survey of the two most important extensions of the Reformation, the Anglican and Calvinist:
The Reformation that had the least to do with Luther’s doctrines came in England. When he came to the throne in 1509, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was bent on increasing his kingdom’s prestige. As part of this policy, Henry initially opposed the Lutheran Reformation, even going so far as to refute Luther directly, and being rewarded for it by the Pope with the title Defender of the Faith.
By the 1520s, however, a new political situation emerged. Henry had not been able to produce a male heir, a problem for a monarchy whose stability depended on the perception of continuity through male succession, and Henry wished a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon. The only problem for Henry was that Catherine was sister to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and ally to the Pope in the matter of Martin Luther. The Pope could not grant a divorce without offending the Emperor, which meant that no divorce would be forthcoming.
In response, Henry began the process of removing England from the catholic realm. Between 1529 and 1535, he detached England from the Pope’s authority and made himself head of the Anglican Church. To do this, however, he needed Parliament’s support, which did its part by passing a law that legalized Henry’s preeminence within a new church. This was an immediate help to Henry, but it also strengthened the parliament in its role as a law-giving body. Henry then turned on England’s medieval monasteries, confiscating their land and selling it to many of England’s political leaders, a process that created a new gentry that would dominate English politics for centuries.
Although they occurred for different reasons, the German and English Reformations shared a common characteristic; they were both wrought in the name of political authority. Religious faith and loyalty to a single person were combined in both cases. In this sense, both the English and German Reformations are deeply traditional, in that no real distinction emerged between church and state. Calvinism would prove different.
The second major Reformation began with the work of John Calvin (1509-1564). It was the most dynamic and international of all the reformations, because it had the least to do with local political authority. This is ironic, since Calvin was not a theologian and his work began with Luther’s doctrines, but Calvinism rapidly became a religion of subversion. Calvin was a Frenchman and had been educated in to new Humanist tradition. He began his studies at the University of Paris, which had been the center of medieval theology, before finishing a law degree at the University of Orleans. At Paris he first encountered the Reformation’s arguments and he developed great sympathy for the idea of Reform. Calvin was no theologian, however, he was a lawyer, and although eh respected Luther’s work, his theological doctrines move beyond Luther’s into a politically subversive realm.
Calvin’s theology is based on the doctrine of predestination. Taking the logic that he learned in law school to its ultimate conclusion, Calvin held that since God already knows who is to be saved, our worldly conduct does not matter at all. Some people are already elected and some ore damned. The only way to tell the difference between the two groups is in their conduct. Those who live well and work hard are not earning their way into Heaven, but are showing that they are already there.
Calvin’s theology was subversive, because it by-passed the entire church apparatus, since the elect have no need of the church’s medieval hierarchy and ceremonies. The new doctrine appealed especially to merchants and business people in the towns, who liked to identify their frugal habits with virtue. It also appealed to peasants in France who still resisted the intrusion of the central government into their lives. As Calvin’s doctrines spread, the French King, who had cut a deal with the Pope in 1516 for local control over the French Catholic Church, promptly had Calvin ushered out of the country. In 1534, Calvin landed in Geneva, which had been undergoing its own Reformation under the influence of another Reformer, Huldrich Zwingli of Zurich. Thus, before Calvin’s arrival the Swiss already had a tradition of overthrowing the Catholic Church and setting up their own local churches. Using Swiss religious fervor, Calvin set up a theocracy in Geneva, which came to have a powerful symbolic influence across Europe as a center of Reform.
So we conclude this brief survey of the Reformation. You will wish to keep the basic outlines of both the theology and the politics that I have discussed in mind as we discuss the various national histories in the coming weeks.