The Literature of the Protestant Reformation Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.