|A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.
Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Chori Ecclesiae Cathodralis S. Pauli, 1658
The Protestant Reformation was a religious and cultural movement, beginning in the early sixteenth century, through which several European states threw off the authority and modified certain doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation came to England at a time when the newly introduced printing press was allowing advances in literacy and in the dissemination of ideas. As Henry VIII (who reigned 1509-1547) removed England from the pope's jurisdiction, and as reformists caused many to rethink their understanding of spiritual things, significant religious tensions arose in England. One special anxiety concerned the issue of salvation: how did Lutherans and Calvinists believe that sinners could be rescued from an eternity of damnation? How did their views differ from those of Roman Catholics? What role did advancing education play in the common person's understanding of these questions?
While calls for reform had periodically surfaced throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church, in the early-sixteenth century the former German monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) launched the movement we now call the Reformation. Regarding the issue of salvation, Luther stated that since "all have sinned and are justified without merit . . . by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in his blood," then "faith alone justifies us . . . a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law" (Smalcald Articles, Part 2, Article 1). Rooted in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Paul, Luther's view assumed that humankind's fall from grace had left it so depraved that individuals could do nothing to satisfactorily atone for their sins. Because of this, a person could only enter into God's saving grace through his or her belief in Christ's intercessory death on the cross, and not through the Roman Catholic doctrines of confession, penance, and priestly absolution.
While other thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, would contribute to the theological debate, the perspective of John Calvin (1509-1564), a Frenchman living in Switzerland, had the greatest impact in England. Calvin's systematic theology agreed with Luther's about God's total sovereignty, the individual's inability to affect their salvation through their own actions, and about salvation through faith alone in Christ's sacrificial intervention on behalf of humanity. Noting that some failed to place their faith in the gospel, Calvin decided that everyone was predestined, before the universe began and irrespective of their personal virtues or vices, either to salvation or damnation.
A central difficulty with Calvin's theology involved one's inability to know whether he or she was saved (elect) or damned (reprobate). How could a person find spiritual comfort in such a system? As Lori Anne Ferrell notes, England's conversion to Protestantism owed much to the
The social and religious changes experienced in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England forced people to consider new notions of Christian salvation, generating a significant amount of tension. At stake in the various arguments was the eternal status of one's soul; to be forced or led into error was the ultimate danger. Over the course of two turbulent centuries, anxieties over issues like this one significantly affected events in England, and the civil wars and the collapse of the established church in the 1640s only further contributed to the shaking of ideological foundations for many.
Texas A&M International University
Suggestions for further reading:
Dickens, A.G. The English Reformation. Second edition. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964; third printing 1993.
Ferrell, Lori Anne. "Transfiguring Theology: William Perkins and Calvinist Aesthetics." In John Foxe and his World, edited by Christopher Highley and John N. King, 160-179. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002.
Greene, Vivian. A New History of Christianity. Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Cloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing LTD, 1996, rev. 1998.
Luther, Martin. "The Smalcald Articles (1537): II Art. 1." Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Booksof the Ev. Lutheran Church. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.
Moynahan, Brian. The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
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