The Literature of the Protestant Reformation
The Literature of the Protestant Reformation
Besides its sweeping theological changes, the Protestant Reformation had repercussions on the course of Western cultural history not only in its reaction to Catholic patronage of the arts, but also in its endorsing of universal education. The Reformation questioned the role of the Church as mediator between individual and God and instead emphasized the individual's direct relationship with the Divine through an introspective and active faith. Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German and the mass distribution of theological writings in the form of instructional pamphlets required widespread literacy and so transformed the audience, medium, and subject matter of literature in early modern Europe.
The alliance between scholasticism (the sanctioned teaching of theology in accordance with contemporary church doctrine) and the Roman Catholic Church faced the challenge of a new humanism in the Renaissance, with its celebration of individualism and fine arts. The church had appropriated many diverse functions during the period and, as a result, had became materialistic and worldly. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the church was more than a religious institution; it had political and economic ties to governments throughout Europe, exerted complete control over the universities, and commissioned most of the continent's artistic production. Frustrated by what they viewed as corruption of spirituality by these materialistic entanglements, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation attempted to return religion to its intellectual and spiritual beginnings. The abuses of power committed by the church during the Renaissance were to be countered by a "universal priesthood" in which each believer has an unmediated relationship with God. Luther demanded a moral recovery based on the active faith of the individual, thereby circumventing the authority of the church and replacing it with a more personal spirituality.
The popular appeal of these ideas initiated various movements throughout Europe, including peasant rebellions in Germany and the establishing of a multitude of Protestant denominations which overturned the power and unity of Christendom. The Reformation also met with the fear of anarchy in the wake of the fragmentation of religious and political institutions. The Protestant emphasis on the individual as the bearer of spirituality liberated theological discussions from the ritualism, traditionalism, and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The writings of Luther, John Wycliffe, and John Calvin were intended to instigate the general populace to question the basis and practice of faith, and to bring religion out of the institutional setting.
The rigorous spiritual purity of Luther and his followers transformed the cultural humanism of the Renaissance into a focus on religious education through didactic treatises and morality plays. Noting such trends, critics have traditionally claimed that the Protestant Reformation suppressed the cultural flourishing of the Renaissance by harkening back to medieval spirituality. However, the heightened attention given to each individual—of every social class—as the protector of faith required that both the will and the intellect be educated; religious texts and services were translated into the vernacular, printing presses flourished, and Luther advocated the establishment of universal public education. Many twentieth-century critics focus on these humanistic ideals and contend that the Reformation's pluralism and emphasis on education actually stimulated interest in art, music, and literature—as expressions of faith.
Karl Barth (essay date 1922)
SOURCE: "Reformation and Middle Ages," in The Theology of John Calvin, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, pp. 13-68.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in German in 1922, Barth surveys the intellectual history of the Protestant Reformation, particularly in relation to the historical period which preceded it.]
Loofs, Leitfaden, 4th ed., 601-62; Tschackert, Entstehung der lutherischen und der reformierten Kirchenlehre, 6-33; Seeberg, Dogmengeschichte, 2nd ed., IV, 1-55; Troeltsch, "Protestantisches Christentum und Kirche in der Neuzeit," in Kultur der Gegenwart, I/4, section 1; and on this Loofs, Luthers Stellung zum Mittelalter und zur Neuzeit (Halle, 1907); Troeltsch, Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, 427-512; Hermelink (in Krüger's Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte), 1-58.1 No matter what our evaluation of them, it will be seen that the works of Troeltsch had the greatest influence on early 20th-century discussion.
In the first instance Calvin's theology naturally interests us in its historical context as an outstanding record of Reformation theology that historically and at times even legally has served as a basis of proclamation in modern Protestant churches. If it is of concern to us as...
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Humanism And Scholasticism
Lewis W. Spitz (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Humanism and the Reformation," in Transition and Revolution: Problems and Issues of European Renaissance and Reformation History, edited by Robert M. Kingdon, Burgess Publishing Company, 1974, pp. 153-67.
[In the following essay, Spitz examines the historical link between humanism, a cultural movement that flourished in the Renaissance, and the Protestant Reformation.]
The intense scholarly debate over historical periodization and the concept of the Renaissance, the "most intractable child of historiography," has resulted in a better understanding of the true nature of the Renaissance and of its relation to the Middle Ages which preceded it. The relation of the Renaissance to the age of the Reformation which followed it, however, has received less careful scrutiny and is less well understood than the importance of the question warrants.
The discussion of this problem has progressed very little beyond the level of the classic exchange between the great German scholars Wilhelm Dilthey and Ernst Troeltsch in the early decades of the twentieth century. Dilthey, the intellectual historian, held the Renaissance and the Reformation to be cultural and religious expressions respectively of a generally progressive and forward looking development in western civilization. They were the twin sources and common cradle of modernity....
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The Reformation And Literature
Perez Zagorin (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Agrarian Rebellion," in Rebels and Rulers, 1500-1660, Vol. I, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 175-227.
[In the following excerpt, Zagorin argues for the importance of religious pamphlets, such as the Twelve Articles, in inciting the German peasant revolts of the sixteenth century which contributed to the social rebellion of the Protestant Reformation.]
The hundreds of articles of grievances put forward in the course of the revolt [German peasant insurrections of the sixteenth century] along with the numerous proposals that emerged looking to freedom, reform, and reconstruction, faithfully reflected the extraordinary political ferment the peasant war aroused. Brief as it was, it stimulated an outburst of ideas and aspirations, rations, a variety of programs, and a hope in new possibilities that were unparalleled in other agrarian rebellions. In its effect on the popular mind it can only be compared with some of the revolutionary civil wars of the early modern age. If unwillingness to be ruled in the old way is one of the hallmarks of a great revolution, as Lenin held, then the peasant war gave ample evidence of this characteristic.
Prominent amid the welter of demands were personal freedom for the serf and autonomy for village and urban communities. The insistence on autonomy, it has been rightly said, runs like a...
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Bainton, Roland H. Studies on the Reformation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963, 289 p.
Centers on Martin Luther and on "the radicals of the reformation."
Buck, Lawrence P., and Jonathan W. Zophy, eds. The Social History of the Reformation. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972, 397 p.
Addresses numerous aspects of the Reformation's social history, with essays on the control of morals in Calvin's Geneva, the dynamics of printing in the sixteenth century, "John Foxe and the Ladies," and other themes.
Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclifto Calvin: 1300-1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957, 1025 p.
Examines the historical background and intellectual development of the Protestant Reformation.
Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, and Derek Wilson. Reformation. New York: Bantam, 1997, 324 p.
Overview of the historical and cultural context of the Reformation and the later artistic and religious movements it made possible.
Friesen, Abraham. Reformation and Utopia: The Marxist Interpretation of the Reformation and Its Antecedents. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1974, 271 p.
(The entire section is 605 words.)