Study Guide

The Reformation

by Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Reformation Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In The Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch's opening chapter “The Old Church, 1490-1517” identifies its two pillars as the Mass, with its close relation to the belief in Purgatory, and papal primacy. The chantry evolved as a place where Masses could be sung to buy time off in Purgatory, a practice open to abuse in the selling of indulgences. Martin Luther ranted about indulgences as “clerical confidence tricks” and contradictions of his teachings about salvation through faith.

Such voluntary organizations as guilds and confraternities, with clergy paid by the laity, accommodated the laypeople's hunger for prayer. Pilgrimages to holy sites and the growth of a cult of Mary signified a need for devotion of another sort. Questions about the Mass led to Thomas Aquinas's explanation, derived from Aristotle, that the Communion bread and wine underwent a process of transubstantiation in which the accidents, or outward sensory properties, stayed the same, while the substance (that which stands under, unavailable to the senses) became the body and blood of Christ. Those in the “Roman obedience” generally accepted this account, “but in sixteenth-century Europe, thousands of Protestants were burned at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus Christ.”

The second pillar, papal primacy, withstood a challenge from John Wyclif (1328-1384) and his Bible-believing Lollard supporters in England, but after Jan Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, a Czech rebellion established an independent Hussite Church in Bohemia. The Hussites used Czech instead of Latin and insisted that worshipers receive wine as well as bread at the Eucharist (Communion). Many Church leaders held that the Church was better run by a collective authority than solely by the bishop of Rome, but this argument for “conciliarism,” or governance by a council of bishops, was defeated by Pope Alexander VI and Pope Julius II.

In the fifteenth century, noble families took over many Church properties, selecting powerful laymen known as commendators to run the abbeys, often with “genuine idealism.” During the rise of secular governments, or commonwealths, in the sixteenth century the Valois monarchy in France kept its distance from the pope, and England's Henry VII started a struggle for independence that his son Henry VIII later won.

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 threatened Europe until the end of the seventeenth century, with modern estimates of around one million Christian Europeans enslaved between 1530 and 1640. The Muslims were repulsed only in the Iberian kingdoms, where the Castilian Francisco Ximénes de Cisneros achieved administrative reforms for the Castilian Church but brutalized Jews during the Inquisition. At the same time, Spanish and Portuguese penetration of the New World advanced the Church across the Atlantic Ocean.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola celebrated free will, but the “bleak picture of human worthlessness” that Saint Augustine inferred from Saint Paul's epistle to the Romans smothered the genial humanist vision of Desiderius Erasmus and dominated the thought of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Their grim teachings about predestination, original sin, irresistible grace, and the elect obviously contradicted any hopes for human effort and led to desperate sophistries to dodge accusations of antinomianism. Luther argued that the body and blood of Christ were physically present in the Eucharist, but he rejected it as a good work, made the Bible central for Christians, accepted sacred art, and insisted on infant baptism. Philipp Melanchthon of Wittenberg became Luther's ardent disciple, but a group of Zurich reformers, led by Huldrych Zwingli, took an independent stand on several of these points. Zwingli organized assemblies to synods, or presbyteries, on matters of worship that antedated the English parliamentary system. After Zwingli's death, his follower Heinrich Bullinger taught Zwingli's interpretation of the Mass as symbolic and presented baptism and the Eucharist as “seals” of God's covenant with his people.

The period from 1524 to 1540 witnessed increased tensions between civil and ecclesiastical powers. It began with the Peasants’ War and was marked by the travails of the Anabaptists in Moravia, led in a separated Church by Jakob Hutter. Luther and Melanchthon met with other theologians in 1529 at Marburg, where all agreed on fourteen articles that evolved into the Augsburg Confession, the cornerstone of various Protestant faiths, especially Lutheranism. Millenarian...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)