...there is always an equal and opposite reaction.
That is Newton's third law of motion as translated from the Latin of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica
, often noted by the shorthand Principia
That is the rule in Physics, so on this Reformation Day I wanted to consider the ecclesiastical reaction to the Reformation. Whether it was "equal and opposite" is left as an exercise for the reader.
The personal consequences of Martin Luther's questioning of the Roman church that is commemorated on this day are fairly well known: The papal bull, his excommunication, his stand before the Diet of Worms, the protection by political authorities who may have had motives more or less theological versus political, and the resulting split with Rome in parts of Germany have been regularly chronicled in the popular media.
But what about broader and longer-term reactions to the Protestant Reformation?
There was a reaction in the Roman church which goes by a few different names but is commonly called the Counter-Reformation. And as I began researching this I found that the Roman church laid claim to Martin Luther in this, at least to a point...
[T]he name [Counter-Reformation] suggests that the Catholic movement came after the Protestant; whereas in truth the reform originally began in the Catholic Church, and Luther was a Catholic Reformer before he became a Protestant. By becoming a Protestant Reformer, he did indeed hinder the progress of the Catholic reformation, but he did not stop it. It continued to gain headway in the Catholic South until it was strong enough to meet and roll back the movement from the North. [from Catholic Encyclopedia]
They go on to argue that it was not a reaction but continuing process, even talking about how the movement continues today since the heresies from the time of Luther still continue. (I guess they figure that there are still Lutherans running around.)
This idea is echoed in a scholarly article from The Catholic History Review
(Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 383-404 ) by Wolfgang Reinhard titled "Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Early Modern State a Reassessment." He writes:
Traditionally, German, and to a certain extent European early modern
history as well, is divided into three periods: the "Reformation" 1517-
1555, the "Counter-Reformation" 1555-1648, and the "Age of Absolutism" 1648-1789. This division has become almost indestructible
because of the simple and convincing dialectical pattern it is based
upon: a progressive movement, the "Reformation," as thesis, evokes a
reaction, the reactionary "Counter-Reformation," as antithesis; their contradiction leads to extremely destructive armed conflicts, until Europe
is saved by the strong hand of the absolutist early modern state, which because of its neutrality in the religious conflict is considered the synthesis, a synthesis which opens the way to that culmination point of
world history the modern national power state. This view of history is
wonderfully convincing, but quite incorrect. If only we were able to free
ourselves from its grip, we might easily learn from recent research that
"Counter-Reformation," if a reaction, was still not simply reactionary.
But we would also recognize that the relation between "Reformation"
and "Counter-Reformation" was not just that of action and reaction, but
much more that of slightly dislocated parallel processes.
The article goes on to talk about the modern state making this a mildly interesting article. But that is not the point today.
Returning to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, I am willing to grant that on one level these were movements in much broader developments across Europe at this point in time and that there were reform movements clearly working within the Roman church (such as the Society of Jesus
). But there are two historical developments that I am not sure would have developed as they did were it not for the Protestant Reformation, leading me to see the Counter-Reformation as truly "counter" to the Reformation.
The first event occurred on 21 July 1542 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
was founded under the original name of the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. According to that web site it has the "duty... to defend the Church from heresy." (It should be noted that Inquisitions
had existed before in local or regional settings but now it was, and its successor is still, based in Rome for the whole church.)
The second event followed a couple of years later when on 13 December 1545 the Council of Trent was opened. According to the abstract of the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia
the Council is described thus:
Its main object was the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants; a further object was the execution of a thorough reform of the inner life of the Church by removing the numerous abuses that had developed in it.
My point is not to call the Roman church to task for defending its doctrine and correcting abuses - it has every right to do that although the methods were sometimes extreme to our modern sensibilities. The point is that even if there were certain internal reform movements already in place, the unprecedented success of Martin Luther's challenge to the Roman church certainly got the church's attention and the Roman church decided that a response in the form of some major and targeted action was necessary.
Equal? Maybe or maybe not. Opposite? Not entirely as it did address some of the same internal abuses that got Luther going.
But a response to the action? From my reading of history there clearly was. But you can be the judge for yourself.
Happy Reformation Day. May we always be Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.