Tag Archives: history

Reformation Day: How To Distract A Holy Roman Emperor

So it’s been 499 years since a crazy German monk allegedly nailed a debating document of 95 theses to the door of a castle church and started a movement that continues today.

There is no question that Dr. Luther’s efforts bore tremendous fruit, including in ways he did not imagine. But in many aspects he was, you could argue providentially, aided by a significant set of circumstances present at the time of his attempts to reform the Roman system. Where others had suffered for their attempts to challenge doctrine – like Jan Hus before Luther, or his contemporaries William Tyndale, Heinrich Moller, and Patrick Hamilton – Luther found safer ground for his thoughts. The prince ruling his region, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, got him safe passage and provided him protection from those who sought to arrest and punish him. And it should be noted that the invention of the printing press with moveable type significantly help Luther get his message distributed quickly and widely to be read by a broader audience, thus making it harder for authorities to silence him. And certainly Luther’s force of personality in writing and speaking was a considerable advantage as well. (You can check out the Lutheran Insulter web site if you want a taste of that.)

But today I want to take a moment to look a little bit higher and consider the top political power in that part of the world at that time – the Holy Roman Emperor.

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Charles V (from Wikimedia https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Charles_V_in_Armour_-_WGA20378.jpg)

That would be Charles V. He was a native of Spain, He was a native of Flanders from the house of Hapsburg and assumed the leadership of the house of Burgundy upon his father’s death in 1506. He ascended to the Spanish throne through his mother’s line in 1516 and was elected the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 upon the death of his grandfather. So he was not a ruler over the German states when this whole thing with Martin started, but as it progressed he became involved. He was present at the Diet of Worms and hearing Luther’s defense and possibly the famous “Here I stand” speech, rendered the verdict. He issued the formal verdict on May 8, 1521.

[Correction: Thanks for the email pointing out I got his early life wrong in my interest in focusing on 1517 and following. I think I have it corrected now and regret the error.]

But in an interesting historical coincidence it was on that same date that an offensive alliance against France was signed by representatives of Charles and the pope. This protracted conflict became the major concern for the emperor and certainly diverted his attention away from that monk in Saxony. His edict was never enforced.

The online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that Charles considered the matter more of an ecclesiastical one and settled by the papal bull of 1520. In addition, in spite of the alliance against France, the Encyclopedia also tells us that Charles was not particularly fond of the pope and had his eyes on consolidating some of his holdings in Italy. In light of that, it is not surprising that France and the pope were the major parties objecting to him becoming the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. Both the French conflict and the Italian/papal conflict were settled by treaties in the summer of 1529 on terms generally favorable to Charles. So now the coast is clear to return to the German states? Not quite…

On the eastern and southern sides of the empire the Turks were advancing and having conquered much of Hungary they reached as far as Vienna in 1529. While trying to juggle the Lutherans in Germany, Pope Clement VII in Italy and the Turks in the eastern corner, Charles made some preliminary attempts to reunify the Germans around religion at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Little progress was made and soon Charles was occupied with a new advance by the Turks the next year.

At this point I will not try to narrate a play-by-play of shifting European political alliances – have a look at the Encyclopedia entry if you are interested – but the bottom line is that between these shifting powers and the threats from the Turks religious unity in Germany was not a pressing concern for him. He finally had the opportunity in 1546 and 1547 to return to Germany with military power, but while taking back some measure of political control the religious situation had progressed to a point where Charles let the status quo remain and Lutheranism had established it’s foundation.

Charles died in 1558, having placed other family members to administer the parts of the empire. The shifting political alliances continued throughout his life and beyond making political solutions impossible without strong military backing. And the hoped for reforms from the Council of Trent were slow in coming and received throughout the western churches with a variety of reactions.

I readily admit that this is a cursory treatment of the wider political situation at the time, but the bottom line is that in a complex world the need to contain this particular religious rebellion was not perceived as a top priority for the emperor. He was distracted with other conquests and maybe a bit ambivalent about getting political power involved in an ecclesiastical dispute. The catch on the latter point is that in a world of established churches the ecclesiastical is political. (Consider Calvin and Geneva for more on that.)

But it gave Dr. Luther and his followers the space they needed and, unlike other reformers who were not as fortunate to have that slight buffer around them, in Saxony the Reformation had the elements it needed to establish itself and spread from there to large sections of Western Europe.

So on this Reformation Day, we remember not just the hard work of Martin Luther and the risk he took to challenge the established church’s doctrine, but also the favorable ground his thoughts landed on to be able to take root. And if distracting the Holy Roman Emperor is part of that, so be it.

Happy Reformation Day. And I am not sure whether to encourage you to enjoy, or possibly cringe, at the build-up in the coming year to the 500th.

luther_kleine

 

The Long View Of Presbyterianism

ContinuingChurchSo this book was officially released yesterday. Through the efficiency of a shipper I received my copy a few days early and so far I have only had time to skim through it. It looks good, from what I have seen, and I hope to carve out a bit of time later in the month to more carefully read it.

But what I have found interesting in the lead up to this has been a certain amount of push-back I have gotten from several different quarters as I have unapologetically indicated my interest in, and anticipation of the book before its release. My overall interest in Presbyterianism and Presbyterian history is enough to justify my anticipation of this book. But it was further heightened earlier in the year when the author, Sean Michael Lucas, was featured in a documentary produced by Union Presbyterian Seminary called Division and Reunion.

The push-back I have received, both in general over my years of blogging and specifically regarding this book, usually can be boiled down to the statement of either “But they ordain (fill in the blank)” or “But they do not ordain (fill in the blank).”

So here is a response and why this book matters in either case.

First, it is easy to just view this as an academic exercise. I am interested in global Presbyterianism, history and polity. That alone is enough for me to be interested in this book.

But let me dig in a little deeper. Please note the subtitle of the book, “The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.” (emphasis added) What are those roots? It is predominantly the PCUS, one of the predecessor denominations of the current PC(USA). Hate to break it to some of the mainline folks but this is a book that is mostly about your roots too. The book has 12 chapters and is about 328 pages of narrative text. Of those, only two chapters and about 48 pages deal specifically with the actual formation and subsequent development of the PCA. Yes, most of the book deals with our shared heritage.

I am aware that a few objections can be raised about considering our shared heritage through this one book, one that it is written from a PCA perspective. Fair enough, and if I find it too heavily biased I will report that back to you when I write my final review. But based on the contributions by Professor Lucas to the documentary mentioned above I expect an academically honest and nuanced, if not neutral approach.

Another objection is that the PCUS was only part of the reunion and the PC(USA) has a lot of history from the northern side as well. (The PCUSA + UPCNA => UPCUSA line.) Again, a valid argument and again, I will find out more when I read it. But some of the more complex characters in the PC(USA) family tree, such as Robert Lewis Dabney and James Henry Thornwell, were part of the southern branch and it can be argued that their influence continues to the present day in both current branches. But to be fair, the book appears to start near the beginning of the twentieth century and neither Dabney’s nor Thornwell’s name appears in the index.

Finally, there is that doctrine and polity question about ordinations and a number of other differences. On this count let me remind you that the PCUSA began ordaining women as teaching elders in 1956, making that not quite six decades out of a history that spans over three centuries. Furthermore, ordination is evolving in other branches as well with women’s ordination becoming much more widely accepted in the EPC and questions being raised about deaconesses in the PCA. In the long view of American Presbyterianism there are a number of issues like this which have changed over the years with varying speed in different branches.

It will also be interesting to see what parallels and differences there might be between the PCA exodus from the PCUS and the current ECO exodus from the PC(USA). The Forward talks about the interest of the founders of the PCA to have a mainline denomination that was “characterized by biblical authority, doctrinal orthodoxy, experiential piety, and missionary zeal.” That sounds a lot like some of the core values of ECO.

I will acknowledge that there is another reason for some of the push-back. There is still concern and skepticism on the part of a few people I have spoken with about the way that the PCA/PCUS split played out that was very hurtful to them. In a few cases this is not just a continuing sore point but is still an open wound. I am curious to see how the book deals with that aspect of the formation of the PCA.

There is a final reason for taking an interest in this book and it gets down to something that is being talked about a lot in the PC(USA) right at the moment – Presbyterian Identity. The Epilogue to this book is titled Presbyterian Identity and the Presbyterian Church in America: 1973-2013. Again, the PCA identity and the PC(USA) identity developed out of some shared roots if not exactly the same roots. In his Forward, Ligon Duncan talks about the vision and legacy of the PCA concluding “Unwittingly, [the founders of the PCA] forged a body that has played a significant role in the resurgence of Calvinism at the end of the twentieth century and in the beginning of the twenty-first.” But his next line is “Yes from the onset of its history, the PCA has struggled with its identity.”

In some regards the PC(USA) and the PCA may be more alike than they want to admit. One of the manifestations of their shared roots is the fact that both are currently struggling to come to terms with their past regarding racial ethnic ministries and social justice work and figure out how to move beyond that to become a more inclusive and diverse churches for the future.

I found it interesting in the Twitter chat on PC(USA) Identity a couple days ago that one person commented “while history is important we need to forget ‘the way things used to be.'” If I correctly understand what he had in mind I might rather say that we need to move beyond the “seven last words of the church” – we’ve never done it that way before – but we need to realize how much of our present identity is shaped by our roots and how much we need to understand those to move beyond them in the future.

That is to say, I think we really do need the long view of American Presbyterianism because if we focus only on the last couple decades we miss a lot of the struggles, the high points and low points that shape our identity as American Presbyterians today. Looking forward to seeing if this book will help inform our knowledge of that history.

Note: Thanks to the reader who pointed out that I was not as precise as I had intended. The PCUSA began ordaining women at teaching elders in 1956 but it was a progressive move with ordination as deacons and ruling elders in the 1930’s. The above text has been modified to be more precise.

Division and Reunion: a Reflection on American Presbyterianism – A New Documentary

Union Presbyterian Seminary has produced and released a new documentary, Division and Reunion: a Reflection on American Presbyterianism. It can be viewed online or a DVD ordered through that page.

The brief description on the page talks about the documentary like this:

We are pleased to present Division and Reunion: a Reflection on American Presbyterianism, a documentary narrated by lifelong Presbyterian Dr. Condoleezza Rice. We at Union Presbyterian Seminary hope this film will be a learning tool and a way to build faith, showing how God works through reconciliation. Special thanks to the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the Anne Carter Robins and Walter R. Robins, Jr. Foundation for their support.

There are a couple of points in this description that struck me as I watched the video. The first is the use of the term reflection in the title. This is not a comprehensive documentary on American Presbyterianism, far from it. But it is a reflection on history of division and reunion in the mainstream branch. And since that is the focus you can understand why another word in that description – reconciliation – is emphasized throughout the piece.

An additional important point to be aware of at the onset is that between filming and the final title and description a bit of the focus seems to have shifted. While the title refers to American Presbyterianism, In their concluding comments both Dr. Rice and Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, refer to this as a look at the Southern Presbyterian Church. Watching the documentary again, it clearly is that with an emphasis on events and groups related to the old southern church. For example, when the Second Great Awakening and the Restoration Movement is discussed the focus is on Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge movement in Kentucky but no mention is made of the Campbells of Pennsylvania. Similarly, of the groups that split off from the mainstream in the 20th Century only the split in the southern church forming the PCA is mentioned, and northern divisions forming the OPC, BPC and EPC are not mentioned and the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy is only alluded to.

But with that context and recognizing the focus I will say that I very much enjoyed watching this almost 45 minute reflection. For much of the first half it struck me as an enlightening history lesson by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas with thoughtful commentary by a variety of informed and diverse voices adding their historical perspective to the narrative. But, as I said above, it was not a history lesson per se but a collection of reflections around a few important moments. The second half picks up with the formation of the PCUS, or more precisely the PCCSA which would become the PCUS, and that branch remains the primary focus for the rest of the video. In that half we see much less of Dr. Lucas and the story is told more through the collective individual remembrances and the commentary. It is a story that is cast in such a way that the arc of the narrative necessarily brings you to the PCUS/UPCUSA reunion in Atlanta in 1983.

Within the tight focus I have already mentioned, I will say that I appreciated how Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival was included. The origins of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Presbyterians is frequently overlooked in these historical pieces and charts. On the other hand, mention is also made of the split of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in that same era, it is held on the running branch diagram for a bit and then disappears. Since this is about division and reunion I am surprised that the reunion with the CPC in 1906 was not included. Was it because it was a reunion with the northern church or because there was a minority who still have a continuing Cumberland church? Maybe even more intriguing is the history of the Cumberland Church and the closely associated African American branch, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, with the two branches currently on track for their own reunion shortly.

Finally, if this is about Southern Presbyterianism, it is worth noting that the Covenanter and Secession branch is not mentioned at all in the video. While its American expression began in the northern states this branch now finds it’s main concentration in the southern states with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church headquartered in South Carolina.

In conclusion, let me confirm what many of you probably suspect and that is the fact that throughout the video there are subtle, and some not so subtle, references to where the PC(USA) finds itself today. If anything, this is a piece that looks at where the church has been and the fact that in many ways the present does not look too different from the past.

If you are looking for a comprehensive history of American Presbyterianism, this is not the video you are looking for. If you are interested in a thoughtful, interesting and at some points very honest reflection on a few pivotal points in the history of southern Presbyterians, you will probably find this time well spent.

Reformation Day Thoughts On A Reforming Pope

On this Reformation Day I would like to spend a few minutes talking about a pope that is not of the traditional nationality for popes, is an outsider to the Holy See and upon taking office sets his sights on reforming the church starting at the top with the Curia and the administration in Rome and thereby raising resistance and concern from the traditional insiders. Current history? Hardly.

Some of the Reformation era popes are fairly well known. Leo X is remembered as the pope that authorized selling indulgences to finance St. Peter’s and then excommunicated Martin Luther when he complained about it (and some other stuff). Clement VII, who happened to be a cousin of Leo’s, is known for his disagreements with Henry VIII and getting Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But until I started doing the research for this post I am not sure I was ever aware of Adrian VI whose short papacy lies between those two.

Adriaan Floriszoon Boeyens was a native of Utrecht, now in the Netherlands, and was the last pontefice barbaro, that being a non-Italian pope, until – wait for it – John Paul II. He is also one of only two modern popes to keep his given name upon becoming pope. While highly regarded for his loyalty, intellect and administrative abilities much of his higher church duties were in Spain, which is where he was in January 1522 when the other cardinals elected him. They had reached the conclusion that no one in the room in Rome would receive enough votes and upon considering others Adrian was overwhelmingly elected. When he arrived in Rome to be installed it was the first time he had ever been in Italy.

Adrian had no illusions about the state of the church and immediately set about trying to reform it. One biography describes his efforts and the response like this:

History presents no more pathetic figure than that of this noble pontiff, struggling single-handed against insurmountable difficulties. Through the reckless extravagances of his predecessor, the papal finances were in a sad tangle. Adrian’s efforts to retrench expenses only gained for him from his needy courtiers the epithet of miser.

Another says:

Adrian VI. lost no time in adopting measures designed to put an end to the religious troubles agitating Europe. He rightly began with the Roman Curia, but made slow progress, because the evils which he sought to eradicate were deep seated and of long standing.

One of his immediate challenges was the Diet in Nuremberg where the German princes were gathering and the duty of trying to keep them loyal to Rome fell to the pope’s legate Francesco
Chieregati, Bishop of Teramo. Adrian prepared for him Instructions to be read to the Diet which one source says is a document “unique in the history of the Papacy” and “is of exceptional importance to an understanding of Adrian’s plans of reform, and his opinion of the state of things.” Here is the Instruction delivered to the Diet on 3 January 1523 quoted in an essay written for the 400th anniversary of the Reformation:

“You are also to say,” wrote Adrian to Chieregati, “that we frankly acknowledge that God permits this persecution of His Church on account of the sins of men, and especially of prelates and clergy: of a surety the Lord’s arm is not shortened that He cannot save us, but our sins separate us from Him, so that He does not hear. Holy Scripture declares aloud that the sins of the people are the outcome of the sins of the priesthood; therefore, as Chrysostom declares, when our Saviour wished to cleanse the city of Jerusalem of its sickness, He went first to the Temple to punish the sins of the priests before those of others, like a good physician who heals a disease at its roots. We know well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have gathered round the Holy See; sacred things have been misused, ordinances transgressed, so that in everything there has been a change for the worse. Thus it is not surprising that the malady has crept down from the head to the members, from the Popes to the hierarchy.

“We all, prelates and clergy, have gone astray from the right way, and for long there is none that has done good; no, not one. To God, therefore, we must give all the glory and humble ourselves before Him; each one of us must consider how he has fallen and be more ready to judge himself than to be judged by God in the day of His wrath. Therefore, in our name, give promises that we shall use all diligence to reform before all things the Roman Curia, whence, perhaps, all these evils have had their origin; thus healing will begin at the source of the sickness. We deem this to be all the more our duty, as the whole world is longing for such reform. The papal dignity was not the object of our ambition, and we would rather have closed our days in the solitude of private life; willingly would we have put aside the tiara; the fear of God alone, the validity of our election. and the dread of schism, decided us to assume the position of Chief Shepherd. We desire to wield our power not as seeking dominion or means for enriching our kindred, but in order to restore to Christ’s bride, the Church, her former beauty, to give help to the oppressed, to uplift men of virtue and learning; above all, to do all that beseems a good shepherd and a successor of blessed Peter.

“Yet let no man wonder if we do not remove all abuses at one blow, for the malady is deeply rooted and takes many forms. We must advance, therefore, step to step, first applying the proper remedies to the most difficult and dangerous evils, so as not by a hurried reform to throw all things into greater confusion than before. Aristotle well says: ‘All sudden changes are dangerous to states.”’

Amazingly frank words about the state of the church coming from the very top. And apparently an admission resulting from the pressure generated by Martin Luther’s calls for change.

A few historical points should be noted about all this. First, the Instruction acknowledges the corruption in the system but the church stood by the doctrinal standards that were also at issue with Martin Luther. In fact, part of the message of the legate to the Diet was for them to stand by and enforce the decision of the Diet of Worms against Luther.

Second, the Instruction was an acknowledgement that Luther and other reformers were correct on certain points and it should come as no surprise that Adrian’s acknowledgement of the need for reform of the system was seized upon by them as validation of those claims that reform was needed.

Third, the work and stress of reforming the church took a heavy and rapid toll on Adrian and from his installation on 31 August 1522 he served barely a year until his death on 14 September 1523. The essay says of his successor, Clement VII, “Although he had given evidence of efficiency and was free from extravagance, yet he lacked decision.”

Yet the need for reform was acknowledged and while the path was not straight and the wheels turned slowly, Adrian’s naming the problems helped pave the way for Clement’s successor, Paul III, to convene the Council of Trent.

Finally, an editorial note: Lest you think that I was being selective in my sources to prove my argument and show the medieval church in a particularly bad light, I would point out that every quote, source and link in this post is from a document from the Roman church. In particular, I was excited to find that collection of essays titled The Reformation: A Series of Articles Published in The Tidings which collected in one volume 24 articles published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in their weekly The Tidings from November 1916 to May 1917 in their  recognition of the 400th anniversary of The Reformation. I may not agree with their doctrinal interpretation of the Reformation, but I have found it a rich source of historical information from the Roman perspective. [And for my friends on Twitter and Facebook – this was the unnamed “rabbit hole” that excited me last weekend when I found it and discovered a rich source of information for my Reformation Day post.]

And so with that I wish all my Protestant and Reformed friends a very good Reformation Day. May you always be reforming according to the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.