|By the early 1500s, many people in Western Europe were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Christian Church. Many found the Pope too involved with secular (worldly) matters, rather than with his flocks spiritual well-being. Lower church officials were poorly educated and broke vows by living richly and keeping mistresses. Some officials practiced simony, or passing down their title as priest or bishop to their illegitimate sons. In keeping with the many social changes of the Renaissance, people began to boldly challenge the authority of the Christian Church.
Early Calls for Church Reforms There were some early calls for church reform in that last part of the fifteenth century. Jan Hus (1372-1415) a Bohemian scholar was burned at the stake for his criticisms of The Church. Englishman John Wycliffe (1328-1384), a professor at Oxford, attacked the Eucharist, the Christian ceremony of taking bread and wine, calling it a source of superstition. Wycliffe claimed the bible to be final authority, superseding even that of the Pope. Both Hus and Wycliffe attracted a small following, but any major opposition to the Christian Church was still a century away.
Martin Luther and his 95 Theses A German monk by the name of Martin Luther was particularly bothered by the selling of indulgences. An indulgence, a religious pardon that released a sinner from performing specific penalties, could be bought from a church official for various fees. Martin Luther was especially troubled because some church officials gave people the impression that they could buy their way into heaven. To express his growing concern of church corruption, Martin Luther wrote his famous 95 Theses, which called for a full reform of the Christian Church. In it, he stressed the following points:
People could only win salvation by faith in God's forgiveness. The Church taught that faith, along with good works was needed for salvation. The Pope is a false authority. The bible was the one true authority. All people with faith in Christ were equal. People did not need priest and bishops to interpret the bible for them. They could read it themselves and make up their own minds. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, in Saxony, Germany. Luther invited other scholars to debate him on the matter church policies.
Martin Luther in Exile Thanks to the printing press, Luther’s 95 Theses was reprinted throughout Germany, and soon he attracted many followers. And many enemies. In 1520, the Pope excommunicated Martin Luther. Luther responded by burning the papal decree in front of his students. In 1521, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V put Luther on trial, and had him declared an outlaw. Luther went into exile, living at Wartburg Castle, home to Prince Frederick the Wise, of Saxony. During his time at Wartburg, Luther translated the bible into German. When Luther emerged from his exile ten months later, he found many of his theories had been put into practice. Priests now wore regular clothing, and called themselves ministers. Religious services were held in German rather than Latin. And many of the clergy had begun to marry. Martin Luther himself married a former nun in 1524. Instead pushing for reforms, the protesting Christians had begun their own religion. Styling themselves after their founder, they called themselves Lutherans.
Martin Luther’s message held great appeal for various groups, some of whom had less than spiritual concerns. Many Western European rulers resented the political power held by the Pope. In addition, many northern merchants did not like paying heavy taxes to the Church, which was situated far away, in Rome. They welcomed a chance to break with Rome once and for all.
Protestantism In 1529 several German princes banded together, and signed a decree at the Diet of Speyer, publicly declaring their support for Luther and his teachings. They became known as the protesting princes. Hence the word Protestant.
In the years following Martin Luther’s radical break with the church, much warfare occurred in and around Western Europe. Despite their best efforts, Catholic (as they were now referred to) rulers often could not bring their subjects back to the Church. In 1555, at the Peace of Augsburg, all German princes agreed that the religion of each German state was to be decided by its ruler. Elsewhere in Europe, the Wars of Religion were not so easily solved.
At some point between 1528 and 1533 he experienced a "sudden conversion" and grasped Protestantism. "God subdued my soul to docility by a sudden conversion" was how Calvin described this experience.
Many historians look on the time from 1531 to 1533 as being the key time as this was the first time that he had been free from his father’s ‘shackles’. Calvin was highly critical of the abuses in the French Catholic church but he never doubted that he was God’s chosen instrument in the spiritual regeneration of the world.
In 1541, added by the city council, Calvin drew up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances. He rejected the organisation of the Medieval Church as contrary to the New Testament. He wanted a church modelled on the church in Apostolic times. There were to be no bishops. All ministers were equal. They had to preach, administer the sacraments and look after the spiritual welfare of the people. Moral discipline was also upheld by the ministers - but they were helped by the elders.
The elders were civilian (laymen) who lived within the congregation and who were elected by the city council. Calvin was not keen on this but it provided a link between the Church and state. The elders and deacons (also laymen who looked after the relief of the poor were subject to popular appointment and in that respect they introduced an important element of democracy into the church. All officers in the church belonged to the consistory and if there was a power struggle between the ministers and the laymen the outcome of that power struggle determined whether the church became Erastian (i.e. followed the way Erasmus wished a church to go) or the state would become theocratic i.e. the church controlled all aspects of life. Eventually Geneva became theocratic.
Calvin was a strong believer in behaving as God wished. Immorality was severely condemned but to begin with the consistory was not an effective body. It only started to be so when the number of appointed ministers was greater than the elders. Also in 1555, the city council gave the consistory the right to excommunicate offenders. Only after this date was a strict moral code imposed and every sin was made a crime e.g. no work or pleasure on a Sunday; no extravagance in dress. If you were excommunicated you were banished from the city. Blasphemy could be punished by death; lewd singing could be punished by your tongue being pierced.
Calvin believed that the church and state should be separate but the consistory tried moral and religious offenders. Two members of the consistory, accompanied by a minister, visited every parish to see that all was well and that people could see that they were being checked on. The state had to obey the teachings of the church, according to Calvin, and once he had managed to ensure this power, he felt confident enough to shut down taverns -though this was actually done by magistrates - and replace them with "evangelical refreshment places" where you could drink alcohol but this was accompanied by Bible readings. Meals (in public) were preceded by the saying of grace. Not surprisingly these were far from popular and even Calvin recognised that he had gone too far and the taverns were re-opened with due speed!!
The first Huguenot (Calvinist) ministers arrived in France in 1553. By 1563, there were nearly 90 Huguenots in France and the speed of its spread surprised even Calvin.
Henry II of France was a strong catholic and he had established a body called the Chambre Ardente in 1547 to monitor and hunt out‘heresy’ in France. It was not a success and was disbanded in 1550. Whereas his father (Francis I) had used Protestantism to help advance his power against the Parlement de Paris, Henry had no wish to have any association with Protestants whatsoever.
Calvinism was based around the absolute power and supremacy of God.
The world was created so that Mankind might get to know Him. Calvin believed that Man was sinful and could only approach God through faith in Christ - not through Mass and pilgrimages.
Calvin believed that the New Testament and baptism and the Eucharist had been created to provide Man with continual divine guidance when seeking faith.
In Calvin’s view, Man, who is corrupt, is confronted by the omnipotent (all powerful) and omnipresent (present everywhere) God who before the world began predestined some for eternal salvation (the Elect) while the others would suffer everlasting damnation (the Reprobates).
The chosen few were saved by the operation of divine grace which cannot be challenged and cannot be earned by Man’s merits. You might have lead what you might have considered a perfectly good life that was true to God but if you were a reprobate you remained one because for all your qualities you were inherently corrupt and God would know this even if you did not. However, a reprobate by behaving decently could achieve an inner conviction of salvation. An Elect could never fall from grace.