Reformation And Confessionalization Research Paper

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1. The Reformation Or ‘Temps Des Reformes’

The term ‘Reformation’ traditionally refers to those events and changes which in sixteenth-century Europe originated in church and theology and then took hold of the social, political, and cultural order, reorienting the thinking and behavior of individuals as well as social groups. From this point of view, the originator of all these changes was the German Augustinian friar Martin Luther (1483–1546), who published his 95 theses against the system of indulgences on October 31, 1517. This date was for the first time celebrated by Protestants as a secular holiday in 1617, and has since the nineteenth century been celebrated yearly as ‘Reformation day’ in countries all over the world. This chronological, geographical, and theological restriction to Luther and 1517 corresponds neither to the historical facts nor is it confessionally or historiographically undisputed. Rather, it is the result of a double interpretation: on the one hand, the contemporary heroization of Luther by his adherents or his demonization as arch-heretic by Rome and Roman Catholic countries like Spain (the Reformation as pestis Germaniae), and on the other hand, the monopoly on interpretation by the Lesser German (kleindeutsch) Lutheran historiography, which gained worldwide acceptance, particularly in the United States. This interpretation continued to influence the so-called Luther Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

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After World War II Reformation historians became less deeply rooted in confessional traditions, and a pluralism of methods and theories gained acceptance in historiography. As a consequence, the traditional ‘Lutheran restriction’ (lutherische Engfuhrung, Bernd Moeller 1998) lost influence, and the Reformation increasingly appeared as a chronologically and geographically wide-ranging phenomenon, as a ‘temps des Reformes’ (Jean Delumeau 1997), a period of change from the medieval societas christiana to the differentiated, multi-confessional society of the early modern period. It increasingly appeared as a period of several centuries, in which the Reformations of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and all the other sixteenthcentury reformers represented an important phase which accelerated a long-term development. Under the specific historical and historiographical conditions of English history, there was recently also developed a revisionist historiography, which on the one hand proceeds from the assumption that there were a number of ‘Reformations’ in sixteenth-century England and which on the other hand stresses the continuity of late medieval conditions in church and religion, particularly in popular religion (Eamon Duffy 1992, Christopher Haigh 1993).

To describe the meaning of ‘Reformation’ in current scholarly discussions as well as from a broader cultural perspective, three main dimensions should be distinguished: first, the historical events; second, the myth of the Reformation in Protestant and ‘Western’ self-understanding and self-assurance; and third, the historiographical concepts and the main issues of current research.

2. The Historical Context

On the one hand, there were new beginnings in theology, piety, spirituality, and the social manifestations of religion in the highly urbanized zones of late medieval Europe, above all in Italy, in the Netherlands, in central Europe including Bohemia, in England, France, and Spain (the reform crisis around archbishop Cisneros, 1436–1517). In the context of the Humanism of the Devotio moderna and similar currents of thought, the laity acquired a more important role in the church, rational forms of church service (preaching) and religious behavior were strengthened, and a ‘normative centeredness’ (normative Zentrierung, Berndt Hamm) as well as an organizational and spiritual formation set in.

On the other hand, decisive changes occurred in the organization and administration of the church as well as in the relationship between state and church. The development of early modern national and territorial states led to a regionalization—but not yet to a division—of the universal church into ‘national’, territorial, or town churches, in which the secular governments gained control over the church of their respective territories either through concordats with the Pope or through a revolution (as the Hussites in Bohemia).

The Roman curia had also changed dramatically since the fourteenth century, because of the formation and bureaucratization of its administration and because of the triumph of monarchical papalism over conciliarism after the Council of Basel. Recent research on the papacy therefore considers Rome to have been more advanced on the path of modernization, and sees Luther’s Wittenberg Reformation as the result of a crisis of modernization in a remote, backward area of Christendom. Through Luther and the other reformers the religious and ecclesiastical changes received a new direction, legitimacy, and dynamism, which since the middle of the sixteenth century also took hold of the Roman Catholic church and changed it further. In particular the sola formulas—only through faith, grace, and the reading of the Bible could human beings be justified before God (sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura)—focused the different reform attempts in a new and unique way. The widespread church criticism of the late Middle Ages was put on a new foundation. Medieval, accidental anticlericalism developed into early modern fundamental anticlericalism. The popes and the clergy were no longer criticized only for the neglect of their duties, but it was claimed that the priests and the pope were superfluous as intermediaries between God and human beings: indeed, that they were harmful to the salvation of the individual, the community, and society as a whole. In this way, the pope and the Roman church were—in the eyes of their opponents—for the first time completely de-legitimized and unmasked as the Antichrist.

This also meant that the state or other secular governments (town councils, estates, etc.) gained more power over the church. When there was no longer a difference between clergy and laity, the prince could claim to be praecipuum membrum ecclesiae (privileged member of the church) and administer and govern the church as summus episcopus or ‘supreme head of the church.’ In the late Middle Ages, there existed territorial or national churches within the universal church. With the Reformation, Protestant territorial or state churches which no longer belonged to a universal church came into being.

Luther’s appearance (above all at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521), Zwingli’s appearance in Zurich, and Calvin’s appearance in Geneva in the 1540s, but also the appearance of several other reformers who had their own ideas about theology and church policy, thoroughly changed the intellectual and religious climate and opened up new perspectives in state and society. The printing press became decisive for the quick dissemination of the new teachings: not only were the writings of Luther and other reformers published in print runs of hundreds of thousands, but the mostly illustrated broadsheets constituted a new medium of mass communication. In this way, not only the intellectuals, the political elites, and the princes were seized by the new visions and ideas, but also the lower nobility, the burghers, and the peasants. In the Holy Roman Empire, the Reformation was a mass movement which climaxed in the rebellion of the imperial knights (Sickingen, Hutten), the Peasant’s War of 1525/26 and—until the 1540s—in burgher movements in the imperial and territorial towns.

Because of the close connection between religion and society in old Europe, the Reformation of the church inevitably led to a reformation of the political and social order. In this context, the idea of a communal church, decisively influenced by the laity, had a strong appeal. In the secular sphere, this corresponded with corporative (estate), communal, or republican (urban) concepts of order defended by the knights or the urban and rural communities (Gemeindereformation, communal Reformation). Later, comparable reform movements occurred in the Netherlands, France (nobility and towns, above all in the south), Poland (nobility), with considerable delay also in England (in the seventeenth century, above all in London and among the gentry). These communal movements only had a lasting success in regions with favorable social, political, and constitutional preconditions, above all in Switzerland and the northern Netherlands.

In most of the states where the Protestant Reformation took hold, including the German territories, the princes and the officials of the central state defeated these Reformation movements of the nobility and the common man ‘from below.’ They took the Reformation into their hands and utilized it for their own interests, especially the formation of the early modern state and of an early modern society of disciplined subjects (Furstenreformation, princely Reformation). As a consequence, early modern territorial churches (as in the Empire) or national churches (as in Scandinavia, England, etc.) came into being. These were increasingly staffed by a university educated and married clergy, whose area of responsibility was identical with the territory of the respective state and who in numerous ways supported early modern statebuilding.

In this context, important developments were: First, the increase in funds and property assets through secularization; second, the extension of the activities of the state upon the so-called res mixtae, i.e., education, marriage and family, poor relief, and social welfare; third, the mutual strengthening of religious and political identities among the people; fourth, the increased legitimacy of the prince who as supreme head of the church or summus episcopus had a quasisacral quality; and fifth, the instruments of the state church (church discipline, visitations, sermons, and catechesis) which aimed at influencing the behavior and thinking of the people and which effectively supplemented secular forms of disciplining.

However, the climax of this connection between religious and political change was only brought about by the process of confessionalization between ca. 1550 and ca. 1650, which was a fundamental process of society on the basis of explicitly formulated confessions of faith. On the Protestant side these were the Confessio Augustana of 1530 and especially the Book of Concord of 1580 for Lutheranism, the Hel etic Confessions of 1536 and 1566 as well as the other ‘national’ confessions, but especially the Canons of Dordrecht of 1619 for Calvinism, the Book of Common Prayer of 1549, and the Thirty-nine Articles of 1563 for Anglicanism. By committing the subjects to a fixed set of norms concerning dogma, belief, and behavior, the different confessional churches became clearly delimitated and this corresponded to a high degree of integration on the ‘inside.’ At the same time, the processes of formation in state and society became more dynamic and were given a new legitimacy.

As the Catholic church also went through such a process of confessionalization (based on the doctrinal canons of the Council of Trent, especially the Professio Fidei Tridentina), the Catholic and re-Catholicized countries of Europe (besides the German territories, e.g., Austria, Bavaria, and the prince bishoprics, above all Spain, Poland, France, and the Italian states) participated in the above-mentioned renewal of state and society in the wake of the reformation of the church. In contrast to Max Weber and the sociology of religion influenced by him, the historiography on confessionalization no longer assumes that only one of the early modern confessional churches—the Calvinist church—was the driving force of modernization, but that modernization resulted from the Calvinist, the Lutheran, and the Catholic confessionalization: in this respect, all three confessionalizations were functionally equivalent (Wolfgang Reinhard 1977).

However, in Catholic societies in particular there were often extra-confessional factors like geographical location, structure of the social elites, etc. that hampered the potential for modernization of the Catholic confessionalization. In general, the state authorities, which in the course of the Reformation and the processes of confessionalization aimed at social, political, and cultural concentration and standardization as well as at the formation of an early modern society of disciplined subjects, were again and again confronted with the opposition of these subjects. Popular religion, including the belief in magic, remained widespread as did older forms of behavior which contradicted the norms of state and church. Changes in society more often than not lagged behind the normative aims of state and church. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the differentiation of Latin Christendom had from the beginning overshot the Protestant Reformations accepted by the state. Already during the sixteenth century Baptists, Spiritualists, Anti-Trinitarians, etc. formed a big group of ‘Chretiens sans eglise’ (Kollakowski 1969) outside of the established confessional churches, and there were also some atheists. After the age of confessionalization in the second half of the seventeenth century, such trends became more and more important.

3. The ‘Reformation’ As Myth And Concept In Universal History

Just like the French Revolution, the Reformation also became a lieu de memoir and a myth: first of all for the Germans, but eventually with a universal claim. Luther was already made a hero by his contemporaries, for example as Hercules Germanicus, who fights against the clerical Hydra with a mace (woodcut by Hans Holbein, 1520). Especially, the nailing of the 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg became an icon of modern times. However, this event appears only one generation later in one of Melanchthon’s writings, and therefore probably never happened. But for generations of history teachers and the educated bourgeoisie the blows of Luther’s hammer on the church door were a signal for the beginning of the modern period.

A critical distance to the religious meaning of the Reformation notwithstanding, the Enlightenment prized Luther and his rebellion against Rome as an important steppingstone towards liberty of conscience and the emancipation of the individual from authority, an interpretation further elaborated by Hegel and the liberals of the nineteenth century. Hegel identified the Reformation with the rise of modernity and saw it as ‘die alles erklarende Sonne,’ which follows upon ‘die Morgenrote des Mittelalters.’

Leopold von Ranke’s interpretation of the Reformation was even more influential in historiography. In his Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation, which was first published in 1839, widely read and translated into several languages, Ranke interpreted the German Reformation of 1517 as a significant turning point in universal history. Hegel’s and Ranke’s interpretations of course included the Calvinists and Western European Protestants, who called themselves ‘eglises reformees’ or ‘ceux de la religion reformee.’ In a secularized form, this interpretation became one of the kernels of the concept of ‘Western civilization,’ particularly influential in the USA, as well as of the Marxist concept of human progress by revolutions (see Sect. 4, fruhburgerliche Re olution, early bourgeois revolution). In current historiography the term ‘Reformation’ remains relevant especially in the English-speaking world, where handbooks and encyclopedias are given the title ‘of the Reformation,’ even if they are equally concerned with the Renaissance and the period of confessionalization and cover much more than the history of religion and the churches.

4. Historiography And Issues Of Current Research

In the research and interpretation of the Reformation and the period of confessionalization four main currents can be identified at present: first, church history in the stricter sense of the word; second, societal history (Gesellschaftsgeschichte), which modifies the classic sociology of religion in the tradition of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch and adapts their findings to the historiography of the early modern period; third, neo-Marxist interpretations; and fourth, post-modern approaches like cultural, gender, and ethno-history.

Its commitment to modern scholarly standards notwithstanding, church historians in theological seminaries are still oriented towards the meaning of the Reformation for the history of salvation as well as the historical background of the respective scholar’s own confessional existence. In contrast to this, the other approaches emphasize the secular preconditions and consequences of the Reformation. Ranke’s interpretation of the Reformation as a turning point in universal history pointed the way and was further developed by Max Weber, who brought the potential of the modern period for rationalization, discipline, and modernization in connection with the Reformation (Die calvinistische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus).

The Marxist interpretation of the Reformation as an ‘early bourgeois revolution’ (fruhburgerliche Revolution, F. Engels, M. M. Smirin, M. Steinmetz) interpreted the role of the Reformation in universal history in a revolutionary, progressive sense. Moreover, in the historiography of the German Democratic Republic, the German nationalist perspective of the nineteenth century was retained: Reformation and ‘early bourgeois revolution’ were seen as compensations for the lack of a secular bourgeois revolution in Germany. At present these macro-historical interpretations continue to make themselves felt in two research paradigms developed by German historians: in the thesis of ‘the Revolution of 1525’ and the interpretation of the Reformation as communalism by Peter Blickle and Thomas A. Brady on the one hand, and in the paradigm of confessionalization by Wolfgang Rein- hard and Heinz Schilling on the other hand. The paradigm of confessionalization neutralizes Weber’s fixation on Calvinism and instead sees the dynamism of change in the overarching process of confessionalization be it Lutheran, Catholic, or Calvinist. In France and in other Romance countries the history of the Reformation was and is not at the center of interest.

In the countries of Eastern central Europe a consciousness for the general importance of the early modern history of church and religion is only gradually developing. English historiography follows its pragmatic traditions also in this respect, and—apart from the revisionism of the English Reformation mostly lead by Catholic historians—it is little interested in the theoretical and methodological discussions about the macro-historical role of the Reformation. By contrast, the approaches of micro-history and cultural history, which claim to supplement or replace the traditional macro-historical interpretations and which have recently become the focus of attention, have their roots especially in Anglo-American historiography. On the one hand, the advocates of these approaches stress the continuous meaning of magic and popular religion (Bob Scribner 1981), which also in Protestant countries resisted the rationalization of the interpretation of the world as well as the disciplining of belief and behavior according to the norms of the respective confessional churches. On the other hand, they stress the long-term change in the meaning of rites and images, in the concepts of order, thinking, and behavior, etc., from the late Middle Ages until the eighteenth century, and they thereby open up new sources and further knowledge to the discussion about the character of the Reformation and its historical meaning.


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