Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism

Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism

by Philip Benedict

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This sweeping and eminently readable book is the first synthetic history of Calvinism in almost fifty years. It tells the story of the Reformed tradition from its birth in the cities of Switzerland to the unraveling of orthodoxy amid the new intellectual currents of the seventeenth century.
As befits a pan-European movement, Benedict’s canvas stretches from the British Isles to Eastern Europe. The course and causes of Calvinism’s remarkable expansion, the inner workings of the diverse national churches, and the theological debates that shaped Reformed doctrine all receive ample attention. The English Reformation is situated within the history of continental Protestantism in a way that reveals the international significance of English developments. A fresh examination of Calvinist worship, piety, and discipline permits an up-to-date assessment of the classic theories linking Calvinism to capitalism and democracy. Benedict not only paints a vivid picture of the greatest early spokesmen of the cause, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, but also restores many lesser-known figures to their rightful place. Ambitious in conception, attentive to detail, this book offers a model of how to think about the history and significance of religious change across the long Reformation era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300127225
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Philip Benedict is William Prescott and Annie McClelland Smith Professor of History and Religion at Brown University.

Read an Excerpt


A Social History of Calvinism

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08812-4

Chapter One


As a child, Calvin accompanied his mother to kiss a fragment of the body of Saint Anne treasured by a local abbey and saw statues of Saint Stephen bedecked with jewels to honor the saint on his feast day. Calvin's predecessor in reforming Geneva, Guillaume Farel, recalled going on his first pilgrimage as a boy to a mountain shrine near Tallard famed for restoring sight to the blind. There, the priest in charge of the simple cross believed to be made of wood from Christ's own cross awed the pilgrims by explaining that whenever a severe storm occurred, the cross trembled violently and shot off sparks, preserving the land from devastation. These actions of their childhood that the two reformers recollected in later years with a mixture of scorn and dismay were fundamental elements of Christian religious life at the dawn of the sixteenth century. The faithful believed that material objects were laden with supernatural power, prostrated themselves before such objects, and adorned them. Paraliturgical rituals proliferated to organize their worship and petitioning. No holy object came to be surrounded by more ornate rituals than the wafers used to celebrate the holy Eucharist that were transformed during the mass into the body of the living Christ and then were displayed in ornate golden monstrances or carried through tapestry-bedecked streets in grand processions. So intense was the attachment to such objects that when the call to cleanse and spiritualize Christianity by returning to the pure word of God convinced many that they were not holy and that their cult was groundless, those who had previously venerated them often turned angrily against them, desecrating or smashing them.

The flamboyant diversity of late medieval religious life, however, resists characterization by a single theme or preoccupation. Alongside the profusion of collective paraliturgical rituals and the tendency to attribute supernatural power to material objects, powerful devotional movements encouraged individual believers to develop a direct spiritual relationship with God. The invention of printing promoted the circulation of devotional books in the vernacular that spread techniques of self-monitoring intended to help believers make their lives a continual imitation of Christ's virtues. The majority of theologians emphasized that the fate of each human soul hung in the balance until the very moment of death; that the traditions sanctioned over the centuries by the Holy Mother Church had no less force for Christians than those initially revealed in the Bible; and that, in the final balance sheet to be drawn up at the moment of death, people's sins could be counterbalanced not only by their good works, but also by the withdrawals made on their behalf from the storehouse of merit vouchsafed to the Church. But minority voices within the church upheld a doctrine of predestination, denied that the sanction of church tradition extended beyond those doctrines whose kernel could be found within the Bible, and expressed an Augustinian pessimism about the power of the will to contribute to salvation. The Lollard and Hussite heretics of the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in England and Bohemia had challenged the doctrine of transubstantiation and the sanctity of the visible church. As the fifteenth century gave way to the sixteenth, textual scholars inspired by Renaissance humanism also called into question the monopoly that scholastically trained theologians had previously exercised over biblical interpretation. Their program of reading Holy Writ in its original languages and reexamining its most ancient manuscript versions to purify the text of errors introduced by copyists promised to renew its study. The Reformation would not be simply a reaction against central features of late medieval religiosity. It would also be the continuation and intensification of trends in religious life that had gained strength during the waning Middle Ages. It is no accident that later Reformed histories began the story of the Reformation not with Luther's protest against indulgences, but with the humanist recovery of the Gospel, and included Girolamo Savonarola and Jan Hus among the prophets of the true faith.

In the eyes of the devout, abuses riddled the late medieval church. The wealth and territorial ambition of the popes were proverbial. The leading bishops were often great noblemen who accumulated church livings in reward for their services to the crown yet rarely visited their sees. The vast real estate portfolios of ecclesiastical institutions included bathhouses that everybody knew were brothels. Despite the proliferation of universities in the last centuries of the Middle Ages, most parish priests lacked university training and rarely dared to preach. Even though they received payment each time they administered certain sacraments, many had to supplement their livings with second jobs because the upper clergy diverted so much tithe revenue into its own coffers. Clerical concubinage was so widespread in parts of Germany and Switzerland that bishops profited from the practice by selling pardons for the offense. The nominal dedication of the mendicant orders to a life of poverty did not prevent certain Franciscan and Dominican convents from waiting until bad harvests drove up prices to sell their ample stores of wheat for maximum profit. Anticlericalism was rife.

As always in the history of Christianity, however, the observation of shortcomings was accompanied by the call for reform. The reform of strict observance -requiring the members of religious orders to live according to the letter of their rule-advanced in many religious orders in the opening decades of the sixteenth century. Pastoral reformers among the episcopate convoked synods to remind parish clergymen of their obligations and ordered them to buy and read such books as Jean Gerson's Three-part Work or Instruction for Curates in How They May Instruct the Simple Folk. Some Spanish dioceses promoted teaching laymen the Ten Commandments and basic prayers of the church by means of printed cartillas read aloud every week. A few bishops shocked their colleagues by abandoning powerful positions at the papal curia or a royal court to return to their sees to preach and tend their flock. Exemplary clergymen inspired awe, gratitude, and worship.

So powerfully contradictory were the various tendencies within Latin Christendom around 1500 that when a relatively obscure theology professor at the University of Wittenberg proposed for debate ninety-five theses that challenged key elements of established doctrine, an earthquake shook the established church to its foundations. Within three years, the critical, anti-Roman thrust of Luther's ideas had been sharpened through public debate, he had clearly enunciated the two fundamental Reformation principles of sola fide (justification by faith alone) and sola scriptura (the Bible as the sole source of religious authority), the pope had excommunicated him, and the so-called Luther affair was on the lips of people throughout Germany and beyond, forcing them to ask if they could remain loyal to the Church of Rome. Awareness of the issues was fostered by an avalanche of occasional publications in small, easily accessible formats addressed to laymen as well as clerics. Fewer than 100 such publications have come down to us from any year up to and including 1517; the corresponding number for 1520 is roughly 1,050 and for 1524, 2,400. Preachers took up their message and spread it among still wider strata of the population. Soon mass petitions and crowd actions sought concrete changes in worship and in social practices deemed un-Christian. The agitation had touched localities from the Baltic to the Alps even before the largest organized movements for change, the vast peasant bands of 1525, rose across south and central Germany with their demands for the abolition of servile dues, the communal election and payment of parish priests, and a broader renewal of society along Christian principles. Often, but not always, as a result of pressure from below, territorial rulers and city magistrates favorably inclined toward church reform then began to establish new church orders, whose precise features varied.

A major concern of recent Reformation scholarship has been to determine the reasons for the evangelical cause's remarkable appeal. Surviving volumes of sermons and sermon outlines from the period 1522-29 suggest that evangelical preachers most consistently articulated a cluster of interrelated themes: justification by faith alone; the need to return to the Bible, the one true source of authority in matters of religion; the ability of ordinary folk as well as the learned to understand Scripture; the corruption of the clergy; the abusive character of the numerous practices of the late medieval church, including pilgrimages, commissioned masses, and monastic prayer, whose logic exalted the performance of ritual actions over the inward experience of faith and whose biblical basis was uncertain; and the need for faith to manifest itself in works of love and charity. Many of these themes coalesced logically to produce a recharged anticlericalism. This was not the anticlericalism already widespread prior to 1517, bred by resentment against the wealth, privileges, and frequent immorality of the clergy. To this already existing resentment it added the explosive new accusation of fraudulence: once one grew convinced that indulgences, anniversary masses for souls in purgatory, or the prayers of cloistered religious were all worthless and nonscriptural, the most obvious explanation for the origin of these practices was that the pope and his monks had invented them to make money and increase their power. Broadsides and propaganda pieces flayed clergymen as merchants who swindled the simple with their false wares and Totenfressers who feasted on the wealth of the dead. The pamphlets written by laymen demonstrated a concern to apply the call for social renewal through Christian love and charity to concrete contemporary situations, but they rarely echoed Luther's central theological message of justification by faith alone. Crowd actions in the early Reformation years most often included iconoclastic attacks on formerly sacred objects and shrines, anticlerical violence directed especially at monastic houses, and demands for stronger measures against poverty, drunkenness, and prostitution.

The spread of evangelical sentiment recharged anticlericalism and appealed to the wisdom of the laity, but-in less of a paradox than it might first appear-it also enabled individual clergymen to gain extraordinary political influence. The overriding appeal to Scripture bestowed vast persuasive possibilities on trained experts in biblical interpretation. With the established principles of worship, morality, and social organization all under intense scrutiny, preachers who convinced their audience that they spoke from Scripture to the issues of the day were eagerly listened to. Their charisma was most intense in small to midsized cities in which a high proportion of the population could hear them preach directly; but those whose reputation for wisdom or courage extended beyond the confines of a single city could exercise wider influence, for small cities often modeled their church orders on those of nearby larger ones, and rulers sought out the advice of prominent theologians when they had a church position to fill or needed advice on ecclesiastical matters.

As the implementation of the broad principles of the evangelical cause gave rise to different understandings of the proper form of Christian worship and belief, the charisma of the leading reformers proved critical in shaping the nascent Protestant movement into two larger blocs. The splintering of the evangelical movement into rival interpretations of the demands of the Gospel began under the impress of immediate events between 1521 and 1525. By the end of the decade, the dissimilarities were starting to be codified in formal confessions of faith. Although the process of confessional elaboration and differentiation would continue for several generations thereafter, the antagonism that had developed between Zurich and Wittenberg by Zwingli's death was so bitter that subsequent attempts to overcome it would prove vain.

Forty years ago, in his vastly influential Imperial Cities and the Reformation, Bernd Moeller offered what remains the most ambitious explanation of why a Reformed reformation emerged and gained at least temporary ascendancy in the cities of south Germany and Switzerland, while Lutheranism carried everything before it from Franconia northward. Moeller explained this division as the outcome of the encounter in south Germany and Switzerland between a distinctive set of intellectual traditions and a distinctive sociopolitical environment. On the one hand, this was the region of the most intense intellectual development in pre-Reformation Germany. Humanism was stronger here than elsewhere in the empire, and this fostered an engagement with practical ventures of moral and social improvement in the civic arena that predisposed the region's reformers, all of whom emerged from a humanist background, to develop a theology that stressed personal sanctification and the amelioration of the community in ways that Luther's did not. On the other hand, guild representation in city government was prevalent here and urban politics consequently less oligarchic, with the result that the "corporate communalism" characteristic of the medieval commune survived more strongly. This envisaged the city as a sacred community collectively responsible for its residents' salvation. Such an environment at once helped to generate and proved highly receptive to the "distinctively urban" theology of the Swiss and south German reformers.

Four decades of research on the theme of the Reformation and the cities have not invalidated certain elements of Moeller's structural explanation. The great early prophets of the Reformed tradition were almost all humanists before they were reformers, and this intellectual formation left a clear stamp on the theology of many of them. Features of the Reformed message also appear to have resonated more with ordinary townsfolk than their Lutheran alternatives once the rivalry between the two traditions emerged, and the fact that the Reformed cause first triumphed in self-governing cities rather than in a territory subject to a prince meant that the reform priorities of the urban laity had more influence over its initial codification. The language of sacred community was particularly strong in the Swiss cities prior to the Reformation and infused Reformed rhetoric in its wake.


Excerpted from CHRIST'S CHURCHES PURELY REFORMED by PHILIP BENEDICT Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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