Posts Tagged ‘Wittenberg’

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Reformation – Europe’s House Divided

November 2, 2017

Warning: a post about religion. I do not set out to offend anyone, but recognise that my opinions may offend some. If in doubt, avoid.

The writer makes it clear from the beginning that the mediaeval Church was not in a state of terminal decay and decline. However, poor leadership, numerous scandals and much internal squabbling did seriously undermine its authority in the years leading up to 1517. He manages, despite the complexity of the task, to give a clear picture of the differing theological positions of the leading actors in the various reformations in different parts of Europe at different times.

Much centres around the issue of predestination, a topic that it is very difficult to get one’s head around: the idea that people can be damned or saved from the moment of their birth, and be unable to do anything about this, suggests that some of the reformers invented a really cruel God for their new churches. I got just a little lost trying to follow how Augustine of Hippo, echoing Paul, and his doctrine of original sin, seemed to lead reformers inevitably to predestination, but it did… along with the baggage that came along with the labelling of original sin as a sexual sin, too. To me, predestination reads like a human attempt to limit the power of God, as it were, and I’m with whoever it was – Ludwig Feuerbach, I think – who basically said that man creates God in his own image… It all does seem astonishingly arrogant, if one wants to believe in a God, to then tell him (for it is a He!) how to run his creation. There was also an astonishing amount of hair-splitting about the nature of the Eucharist, and the arguments read like a re-run of the attempts a thousand years earlier to out-manoeuvre various early heresies.

The history of the early years of the Reformation, in Wittenberg, Strasbourg, Zurich and Geneva, shows how quickly very real differences emerged between those challenging the authority and teaching of Rome; this has been a facet of Protestantism ever since. Chaos ensued and everything flew apart very rapidly. Not only did Protestant oppose Catholic, but Lutheran opposed Calvinist, and so on… until you reach the Thirty Years War, a hundred years after the start of the Reformation, and an utter cataclysm for large parts of Europe.

MacCulloch’s scope and knowledge astonishes, and I learned many new things on this, my second reading of the book. Luther approved of images, which is why so many German churches retain their glorious mediaeval painting, sculpture and carving, which was so comprehensively trashed by Henry VIII’s hooligans in this country. I learned that there were different attitudes to Purgatory in northern and southern Europe, crucial as it was the issue of indulgences – designed to allow the dead to escape Purgatory – which initially fired Luther’s anger in 1517. And then there was the issue of the difference between reading and writing, which I deal with in an earlier post (here).

There were apparently lengthy and repeated attempts over a considerable number of years to effect reconciliation between the Reformers and Rome, but eventually the Roman hard-liners defeated the conciliators in the 1540s, and then followed the Council of Trent and the entrenchment of the Counter-Reformation. The picture of Protestantism is fragmented, that of the Catholic Church monolithic, and elsewhere I read recently that what the Catholic Church offers are rigid, inviolable beliefs, pronounced with authority, to be accepted and obeyed, no questions asked, but along with that, a recognition that its stance is an ideal and recognising that humans are necessarily imperfect and fallible; nevertheless, the Church gives its believers something to aspire to, even if they don’t achieve it. Somehow – although it’s not for me – that is rather more humane than the hellfire and damnation of Protestant fundamentalism.

When he deals with the Reformation in England, MacCulloch pulls no punches, labelling it as one of the most violent in Europe, and laying out much evidence which contradicts the feeling that we like to have about ourselves and our country, that we are such a tolerant place.

MacCulloch manages to offer clear explanations to non-believers, and without patronising believers, and those who are familiar with the events and issues; there are copious helpful notes and references and an excellent bibliography. His scope is very wide, and justifiably so. This is the book on the subject, I think.

On 31 October, 1517

October 13, 2017

All sorts of things have been reminding me of October 31 being the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther‘s 95 theses, whether or not these were actually nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. Having a Catholic school education in England in the 1960s was an interesting experience, as there was still some of the feeling of being a member of a persecuted minority in the air; we were presented with a sketchy outline of the split in the Church as part of history lessons at primary school. Moving to a secondary school where the Anglican Church was the norm and saw itself as continuous with the church brought to England by Augustine at the end of the sixth century, I was offered an account of events from an opposite perspective, together with no small amount of mockery of Catholic beliefs and practices. Then I moved to a Catholic secondary school and got everything in more detail from the ‘right’ perspective again…

I suppose those experiences were useful in terms of teaching me about different viewpoints; they certainly got me interested in what could have caused such major ructions at the heart of Christianity. I’m still learning, and there’s an excellent explanation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in this week’s edition of The Tablet.

My travels have taught me how different the Reformation was in Germany compared with England; in Germany there seems to have been much more of a continuation than a violent rupture; no mass iconoclasm such as destroyed so many cultural riches in England. I continue to be appalled by the vandalism and wanton destruction of Henry VIII’s reign.

There are three writers who I’ve found very helpful in developing knowledge and understanding of the religious issues and historical events. One is a Catholic priest who wrote in the 1950s, Philip Hughes, who wrote a short volume on the Reformation in general, and a second, monumental tome, The Reformation in England, which details the demolition of Catholic England.

Then there is Eamon Duffy, who has written works of socio-religious history which trace the actual effects of the English Reformation on its people in two detailed and astonishingly well-researched books, The Stripping of the Altars, and The Voices of Morebath. This second volume looks at the changes as they affected on small rural community over the years between the first breach with Rome and the Elizabethan settlement.

Finally there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose hefty tome Reformation came out in 2003, and which I have decided to revisit as we come up to that symbolic 500th anniversary. I’ll write more about his book when I’ve finished it.

And then, I cannot forget some of the literature which uses the Reformation as its starting-point. Kingsley Amis‘ novel The Alteration posits the Reformation never having happened in England and focuses on the moral horror of a young boy who is due to be castrated to preserve his voice for use by the Church. And Keith RobertsPavane, a far better novel for my money, is set in a world where the Reformation also didn’t happen, along with various other events consequent upon it…

A curious novel – Q – was published a decade or so, apparently written by an Italian collective who presented themselves as one Luther Blissett. It focuses on the social upheavals in Europe during the early years of the Reformation particularly the Anabaptists and the events in Munster, along with the early efforts of Rome to thwart what was going on.

Finally, I can’t overlook the astonishing religious poetry of my favourite poet, John Donne, a man genuinely torn by the religious strife in England and the theological controversies – although he ultimately knew which side his bread was buttered on. He brings to his Holy Sonnets and other poems the same ardour he brought to his sexual conquests and fantasies in his love lyrics, before he ‘saw the light’, took holy orders in the Church of England and went on to become Dean of St Paul’s and a man whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Not much likelihood of similar fervour nowadays.

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