Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation

This is an oil painting depicting a historical scene set within an interior of what appears to be a church or a similar institutional building. In the foreground, on the left, a group of monks, some in white robes, others in black, is gathered. Their attention is directed toward a central figure who stands out because of his posture and position. This person seems to be addressing the crowd or initiating some significant action. In the background, a man is nailing a document onto a large wooden door; this act is the focal point around which the crowd has gathered. People of various social standings, including soldiers, clergymen, and commoners, are present. Some are engaged in discussions or gestures suggesting debate or proclamation. On the right foreground, marginalized from the main event, there is a small group of beggars, including children, one of whom is interacting with the central figures, illustrating a contrast between the political-religious action and the plight of the poor. The scene is rich in detail, with expressions of earnestness and concern on the faces of many characters, suggestive of a moment of significant import and tension. Decorative garlands suggest a time of festivity or ceremonial significance. The lighting is warm and seems to emerge from the right, casting shadows and creating a dramatic atmosphere.
A depiction of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Public domain painting by Julius Hübner.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were monumental religious processes that swept through Europe in the 16th century. They led to profound shifts in the religious, political, and cultural landscapes of the continent, and fundamentally altered the trajectory of Western history.

As a centuries-long culmination of theological discontent, the Protestant Reformation challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, sparking widespread reforms and the fragmentation of Christendom.

On the other hand, the Counter-Reformation, a direct response from the Church, sought to rectify clerical abuses and reaffirm Catholic dogmas. Together, these movements not only redefined religious practices in Europe, but also had far-reaching effects on European society, influencing everything from state formation to the rise of capitalism. Their reverberations are still felt nowadays.

Causes of the Protestant Reformation

The roots of this transformative movement lie deep in the dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church that had been simmering for centuries. There were long-standing grievances within Catholicism, many of which previously manifested as religious dissent or heresies: the contestation of the dogmas of the Church, especially during the Middle Ages. Notable among these were the Waldenses and the Albigenses, who criticized the Church’s opulence and advocated for a life of simplicity, emulating Christ’s example. Although these movements did not initially sever ties with the Church, they introduced critical debates about clerical corruption and materialism. The Church’s response was severe, leading to the establishment of the Holy Inquisition in 1215 by Pope Innocent III to suppress such dissent.

By the time of the Reformation, these heretical movements were further enriched by the teachings of John Wyclif in England and John Huss in Bohemia, modern-day Czech Republic. Wyclif, a professor at Oxford, called for the reduction of the Church’s material wealth and the simplification of its rituals, urging a return to biblical foundations and diminishing the clergy’s role. Despite his excommunication, royal protection shielded him from further reprisals. Inspired by Wyclif, Huss advocated for the use of regional languages in church services to make religious practices more accessible to the laity, pushing for a more participatory form of worship. His ideas, however, led to his execution in 1415, marking him as a martyr in the cause against ecclesiastical authority.

By 1517, this dissatisfaction had escalated into open revolt, mostly fueled by the discrepancy that existed between the Church’s teachings and the behaviors of many within the clergy. This hypocrisy did not go unnoticed and became a focal point of criticism from humanist intellectuals, including those within the clergy, and the general populace. The main reasons for this criticism were manifold:

  • The wealth accumulated by the Church promoted a laxity in the spiritual duties of the clergy. Additionally, the tax exemptions and legal privileges enjoyed by ecclesiastical properties were widely regarded as unjust.
  • Many high-ranking church officials misused Church revenues for personal benefit, engaging primarily in feudal activities rather than fulfilling their religious duties.
  • The practice of simony, or the selling of church offices and holy services, was rampant. This included the sale of ecclesiastical positions, indulgences, and even the charging of fees for administering sacraments such as baptism and confession. The corruption reached a peak around the early 16th century, particularly under the papacies of Julius II and Leo X. These Popes aggressively sold indulgences and church offices to finance ambitious projects like the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
  • While the clergy profited from their religious power, the Church’s stance on usury was quite different. The condemnation of charging interest on loans hindered the development of commerce and finance, which were burgeoning in response to the growing needs of the European bourgeoisie. This economic contention highlighted the Church’s disconnect from the evolving economic realities and the burgeoning capitalist ethos, which was increasingly at odds with the Church’s moral teachings.

The flagrant corruption and the glaring disparity between the Church’s teachings and the actions of its clergy ignited widespread discontent. This discontent reached its zenith in the Holy Roman Empire, where Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, catalyzed the unstoppable rise of the Protestant movement. His bold actions and outstanding leadership marked the beginning of a major shift in the religious landscape of Europe, ultimately leading to the establishment of Protestantism as a major branch of Christianity.

Martin Luther and Lutheranism

The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther was deeply influenced by the material power of the Church. At the time, the Church’s revenues were bolstered by the collection of tithes, by the profits from religious festivals and by the gains from the controversial worship of relics. Such practices drew considerable ire from Catholic intellectuals who accused the higher clergy of immorality.

This general discontent was exacerbated by economic and social tensions. For instance, because the nobility was exempted from paying taxes, the tax burden fell disproportionately on the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, the majority of the population, primarily peasants, faced dual burdens. Not only were these rural landowners required to pay their taxes in hard currency, but also failure to do so risked a regression to serfdom. Additionally, they were obligated to pay ecclesiastical tithes, which contributed to increasing the resentment among the poor.

In the early 16th century, the Pope enlisted Dominican monk Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences in the Holy Roman Empire. This papal decision incited the outrage of Martin Luther. In 1517, he famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, denouncing what he perceived as a series of abuses. According to him, salvation could only be achieved through faith alone, not through the sale of indulgences.

This historical painting depicts a grand, solemn assembly in a spacious room, illuminated by daylight filtering through tall windows. At the center stands a man in dark, monastic robes, who appears to be addressing the assembly. His right hand touches his chest while he looks directly at a seated figure dressed in ornate red and golden robes, possibly a high-ranking church official. This central figure is surrounded by a densely packed group of men, each rendered with individual attention to detail in their attire and expressions. To the right, a cluster of figures is gathered around a wooden table strewn with books and papers, one of which lies discarded on the floor. Some of these figures are standing, while others sit, engrossed in conversation or contemplation. The left side of the scene is anchored by a group of clerics and monks in various poses of discussion and listening. Above them hangs a heavy, decorated curtain, and on the wall, a coat of arms is displayed prominently. The composition captures a moment of intense debate or declaration, suggestive of a significant event in religious history, possibly a trial or hearing, with a strong sense of narrative tension conveyed through the body language and facial expressions of the assembled characters.
Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. Public domain painting by Anton von Werner.

Luther’s bold proclamation was supported by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. However, the Vatican’s response was swift. In 1520, it excommunicated Luther. In a dramatic act of defiance, he publicly burned the papal bull announcing this decision. In 1521, he was declared an outlaw by the Diet of Worms, presided over by Emperor Charles V, a staunch Catholic. Nevertheless, the monk managed to find refuge at the castle of Frederick the Wise. There, he translated the Bible from Latin into German and began to mull over Christian doctrine. These activities laid the groundwork for what would become a new religious movement, bringing about the following ideas:

  • To replace Latin with the languages spoken by common people in religious services.
  • To eliminate clerical intermediaries between God and the faithful.
  • To allow personal interpretations of the Bible by laypeople.
  • To remove religious images from churches.
  • To focus the act of worshipping primarily on Scripture reading.
  • To retain the practices of baptism and the Eucharist from Catholicism.
  • To reject the hierarchy of the church.
  • To do away with the mandatory celibacy of priests.

Luther’s ideas resonated deeply, especially among the rural populations of the Holy Roman Empire. His reforms prompted peasants to challenge the feudal regime, leading to widespread social upheaval. In 1525, in response to the Peasants’ War, Luther authored “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he condemned the rebels, inadvertently providing moral justification for the princes to suppress the uprisings harshly.

The spread of Luther’s doctrines led Emperor Charles V to convene the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, where Luther’s disciple, Philip Melanchthon, presented a moderate and systematic exposition of Lutheran beliefs. Although the Diet did not officially accept the doctrine, many German princes embraced it, seeing an opportunity to expand their territories through the confiscation of Church properties.

The conflict between Lutherans and the Catholic Emperor continued until the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which formally recognized Lutheranism. This treaty allowed princes to choose the religion of their territories, effectively dividing the Holy Roman Empire between Catholics and Lutherans.

John Calvin and Calvinism

The Reformation resonated beyond Germany, influencing other parts of Europe and giving rise to various branches of Protestantism. In France, John Calvin, a former Catholic monk, also broke away from the Church. Facing persecution from religious authorities, he fled to Switzerland, settling in Geneva. There, he was supported by the bourgeoisie, who were in conflict with a Catholic who ruled over them.

While inspired by Lutheranism, Calvin’s theology diverged significantly, particularly on the issue of salvation. Unlike Lutherans, who believed in salvation by faith alone, Calvin introduced the doctrine of predestination. According to Calvin, individuals were predestined by God for either salvation or damnation from birth, and material wealth was seen as a sign of divine favor. This concept resonated with the bourgeoisie of Geneva, as it not only justified commerce but also financial activities, usury, and the profits associated with them.

This is a portrait of a man with the name "Ioannes Calvinus" inscribed at the top, likely indicating he is John Calvin, a prominent figure of the Protestant Reformation. The painting is in a vertical format, and the subject is depicted from the chest up. He has a solemn and contemplative expression, with dark eyes looking off to the side, giving him a pensive appearance. His dark beard is full, and his hair is partly concealed by a black cap. He wears a dark, unadorned garment with a high collar, which is offset by a small white neckband. The background is a muted, dark brown tone, which contrasts with the subject's pale complexion. The brushwork is detailed, particularly in the rendering of his facial features, suggesting an intent to capture a lifelike representation. The overall mood of the portrait is somber and introspective.
A portrait of John Calvin. Public domain painting by an unknown author.

Calvin’s moral doctrine was marked by strict codes of conduct for believers. Under his influence, Geneva transformed into a theocratic state governed by the Calvinist Church. For instance, the Calvinist rulers banned games and dances over the city.

Despite this strictness, because Calvinism legitimized profits and extolled the virtues of hard work, it quickly spread to other parts of Europe, particularly to developed regions such as England and the Netherlands.

Henry VIII and the Church of England

During the Tudor era in England, dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church was prevalent, much like in other parts of Europe. Criticisms targeted the practice of sending tithes to Rome, the inefficiencies of ecclesiastical courts, and the widespread allocation of public offices to clergy members.

In 1527, King Henry VIII requested an annulment of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, who was related to Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry VIII was dissatisfied with not having a male heir, for it could potentially lead to the English throne falling under Spanish control upon his death. Most of the population supported his desire for a divorce, but Pope Clement VII denied his request. In 1533, tensions escalated between England and the Holy See when the King separated from his wife anyway and married Anne Boleyn. The Pope decided to excommunicate Henry VIII, and, in retaliation, the latter broke away from the Catholic Church.

With the support of the English Parliament, Henry VIII imposed a hefty fine of two million pounds on the English clergy. Subsequently, the Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534, which declared the king as the supreme head of the Church of England, thereby establishing the Anglican Church. Following this develpoment, Henry VIII began to assert religious control over the country, by confiscating the Church’s lands, then selling them for a profit, and by imprisoning and executing those who remained loyal to the Pope.

However, unlike Luther and Calvin, the English King did not promote significant changes in his newly-founded church. Initially, Anglican beliefs closely resembled those of Catholicism, with only minor differences such as discouraging the veneration of saints and relics and promoting the reading of the Bible in English.

The Anglican Church was further solidified under the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth reinforced royal sovereignty over the Church and established the foundations of Anglican doctrine and worship with the Thirty-Nine Articles in 1563. This set of doctrines defined the religious, cultural, and political contours of the Anglican Church, ensuring its unique position between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

This is a colorful historical painting depicting three prominent figures from the early 16th century. On the left is Henry VIII, King of England, identifiable by his regal attire in red and gold, adorned with a prominent necklace and a hat with a feather. In the center, seated on an ornate throne, is Pope Leo X, dressed in opulent papal vestments with a red cloak and the papal tiara, holding a staff with a double cross. To the right stands Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in a blue royal robe with gold embroidery, holding a scepter and wearing a crown. Behind them, a tapestry with the name "HENRICUS" can be seen, suggesting the setting is in England. In the foreground, a fantastical green dragon with multiple heads is being slain, a symbol likely representing some form of heresy or conflict being overcome. The figures are surrounded by a number of other individuals in various ecclesiastical and courtly dress, hinting at a council or important diplomatic meeting. Each person's face is detailed, conveying a sense of gravity and the momentous nature of the event being depicted.
Henry VIII (left) with Charles V (right) and Pope Leon X (center). Public domain painting by John Closterman.

The Counter-Reformation

Caught off guard by the rapid spread of the Reformation across Europe, the Catholic Church initially responded with repression rather than doctrinal changes. However, the advance of Protestantism continued unabated.

In 1534, Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish monk and former soldier, met fellow monks in a crypt beneath the church of Saint Denis, in the outskirts of Paris. There, they pronounced vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and called themselves “Company of Jesus”, as a reference to the military-like discipline of their endeavours. Then, in 1540, Loyola and his fellows founded the Society of Jesus, a religious order with the blessing of Pope Paul III. The Jesuits, as the members of this organization came to be known, acted to counter the spread of the Reformation and represented the Church’s first step in its counteroffensive against Protestantism.

As part of this reaction, in 1543, the Holy See established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum — a catalog of books forbidden to the faithful because they were deemed harmful to faith. In addition, another change occurred in 1545, when Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent in 1545. This council, which concluded its sessions in 1563, organized the Catholic Counter-Reformation and reaffirmed key tenets of the Church:

  • The Council affirmed that only traditional interpretations of the Scriptures, made by clergymen, were the foundations of faith. For instance, it declared the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible by St. Jerome in the fourth century, as the only authentic text of the Bible. This ran counter to the Protestant view that the personal interpretation of the Sciptures was the sole authority on matters of faith.
  • The Council reaffirmed the Catholic dogmas and rituals. For instance, the veneration of saints, the salvation through both faith and works, and the seven sacraments. This was against the Protestant notion that certain dogmas had to be repealed and certain rituals had to be abandoned.
  • The Council reinforced the hierarchy and unity of the Church by reaffirming the Pope’s supremacy as the shepherd of all shepherds.
  • The Council reformed the Inquisition, a religious court in charge of persecuting heretics.

Yet the Council was acutely aware of clerical abuses and their role in triggering the Reformation. To combat them, it decided to improve the training of the clergy, to enforce the prohibition of clerical marriage, and to attract young men to the priesthood.

The directives from the Council of Trent guided Catholics worldwide for four centuries. While the approach was more about repression than renewal, the Catholic Church prepared itself to confront the challenges posed by a world being reshaped by Protestantism.

Conclusion: Christianity after the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was ignited by a complex blend of socio-economic changes, corruption within the Church, and intellectual movements that challenged the Church’s authority. It was not merely a religious event but a revolution that reflected deeper shifts within European society. While Lutheranism was supported by German princes, Calvinism found its stronghold among the bourgeoisie and the Church of England emerged as another source of power for the English monarchy.

One of the significant outcomes of the Reformation was the use of religion as a political instrument. This was evident in the resistance against the supranational power of the popes and the economic drain of resources to the Holy See through tithes. By adopting Protestantism, many regions could assert greater control over their economic resources and political destinies. This contributed to the rise of nationalistic sentiments.

In turn, not only did the Counter-Reformation reaffirm the core tenets of Catholicism, but it also sought to renew ecclesiastical customs. It wasn’t until 1959 that more significant changes would begin to take place within the Catholic Church, under the authority of Pope John XXIII. He would call for the Second Vatican Council, aimed at redefining Catholic dogmas so as to adapt them to the reality of the contemporary world.

During the era of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the most drastic consequence of these events were the frequent and often violent confrontations between followers of different Christian denominations. Many of these conflicts were skillfully exploited by monarchs, who profited from them in order to seek hegemonic control over Europe. For instance, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) started as a battle among rival Christian factions but evolved into a broader conflict that involved multiple European powers and resulted in significant geopolitical shifts.

The legacy of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation extends beyond the religious doctrines they propagated. They facilitated the rise of the modern European state system, influenced the development of capitalism, and reshaped the political boundaries and cultural identities of Europe. The religious freedom and diversity that emerged also set the stage for the Enlightenment and the subsequent evolution of democratic and secular governance in many parts of the world.




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