Tag Archives: Imperial church

Moving Forward by Looking Back: the Church from the First Century to the Reformation

(copyright 2016, S.J. Munson)

AmbroseThroughout its two millennia of existence, the Christian Church has seen various definitions and taken on a wide variety of manifestations, from the humble house churches of the first century to the ecumenical councils of the imperial period, and from the great medieval monasteries to the vast social experiment of Calvin’s Geneva. Most frequently, the Church has moved forward by looking back. It is the purpose of this paper to outline the various manifestations of what has been called the Church down through the centuries, from the first Christians to the Reformation, and in particular, to determine how and why these churches developed.

The Early Church: 1st to 3rd centuries

In the beginning Jesus’ followers centered themselves in and around Jerusalem, the place of his death and resurrection. As pious Jews they continued to visit the temple and live according to the Mosaic law. Yet the Book of Acts tells us they also lived as a community, sharing meals and possessions and giving to anyone who had need (Ac 2:44). The Twelve Apostles taught and made decisions for the community, and some preference was given to Peter as chief among them, but the risen Christ was their sole Head (Ruzicka, 15).

The Greek word chosen to describe this new community made up of followers of Christ was ekklesia, a word used in the Septuagint to refer to the “assembly” or “congregation” of Israelites during their desert wandering (cf. Acts 7:38). The term reflects the nature of God’s people as “called out” (ek-kaleo) of Egypt and called together for worship. It soon began to be employed to refer to the assembled group of Christians in any particular locale. The Early Church was made up of these separate communities (the church at Philippi, the church at Galatia, etc.), often tied together through the ministry of a particular apostle who founded the community or visited there. There was as yet no formal hierarchy, and churches met in private homes (house churches), rather than in larger, public buildings (Ruzicka, 15).

The Early Church was quite a diverse movement in terms of leadership structure, as well as liturgy. Some church hierarchies were modeled on that of the synagogue, with its normally collegiate leadership (elders), while other smaller churches had only one pastor (poimen, “shepherd”) or overseer (episkopos). The terms overseer, pastor, and elder (presbyteros) in the New Testament seem often to be used interchangeably, or else are employed in a context of local usage (Latourette, 115). In addition, liturgy may also have developed along synagogue lines, or else more informally. Even in the area of doctrine, as reflected in the New Testament and other writings, we see some diversity, as with those churches under strictly Pauline influence and those more closely tied to Jerusalem.

In the writings of the apostle Paul, the church is further described as a new people created from the joining of Jew and Gentile believers, a radical concept in as much as traditional ethnic divisions and hostilities were torn down. Gentiles were “fellow citizens” with Jews in “God’s household” (Eph. 2), and as such were to live lives worthy of their calling (Ruzicka, 15). (Note the place of works in the Christian life as a response to saving faith, a distinction that will be recalled during the Reformation.)

The Early Church also assimilated aspects of both Judaism and the Roman world. Christians were at first viewed by outsiders as merely a sect of Judaism, but with the hostilities engendered on both sides by the Jewish War (AD 66-73) and the overwhelming amount of Gentile converts, this connection became strained and was eventually lost. The church was also very Roman in that it tended to be an urban movement. The merging of different people groups into one civitas communis was, fortunately for the church, also a very Roman concept. The Early Church of the second and third centuries was thus a very diverse movement, with different practices and traditions. One might even speak of “multiple Christianities,” especially when considering the many sects that developed, such as Montanists in Phrygia, Gnostics in Rome and Egypt, Ebionites in Palestine, and Marcionites in Rome (Ruzicka, 15). Along with a series of government-sponsored persecutions in the second and third centuries, these diverging expressions of Christianity, or heterodoxies, also forced the church to circle its wagons, to define what was not “apostolic” teaching, as well as to rely increasingly on a monoepiscopacy to hold their communities together. A distinction began to develop between clergy and laity, as well as a concept of a priesthood along Old Testament lines. Eventually, bishops in more important cities began to gather more authority over other local bishops (hence archiepiskopoi), confirming the election of new bishops and helping to settle disputes. The idea of apostolic succession (that bishops represent an uninterrupted line of succession from the apostles) also became vital to the authority of bishops (Latourette, 183).

The Imperial Church: 4th to 6th centuries

Following his conversion to Christianity, Constantine, along with Licinius, his co-emperor in the East, issued the Edict of Milan (313), declaring the official toleration of Christianity, as well as of all religions. In addition, all church property confiscated during previous persecutions was to be restored. This was the beginning of a new policy of favoritism toward the church. Yet, however sincere his conversion, Constantine had still inherited a pagan empire and the old imperial mindset toward religion. Among his titles was Pontifex Maximus, an honorary high priesthood that emphasized the merging of religious and secular power. Thus the new emperor quite naturally assumed an ultimate supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs (Ruzicka, 13). This attitude manifested itself in Constantine’s summoning of the ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, as well as the earlier appeals to the emperor made by Donatists (313-314). This caesaropapism was not without its limits, however, for the church still held the power of the keys and of excommunication, illustrated most famously in the conflict between Bishop Ambrose of Milan and the emperor Theodosius (390). In addition, while emperors could summon a general council and force it to settle a matter, they were still bound by the council’s decision once taken (Ruzicka, 13). Thus, during the fourth through eighth centuries eight general councils were summoned and presided over by emperors, and the decisions enforced by threat of imperial banishment.

It was at the First Council of Nicaea (325) that the sees of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome received special patriarchal designation, granting them authority outside their regions and the ability to summon local synods (Constantinople and Jerusalem were added to the list in 451). Thus, under the Imperial Church and its councils, a more complex ecclesiastical authority structure was taking shape, with bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, and the emperor at the top. A further distinction between clergy and laity was also created through special tax exemptions, elaborate vestments, and other privileges. In addition, while Constantine was largely tolerant of pagan religions (seeing himself as the Shepherd of those outside the church), under his successors pagan practices were progressively banned, until in 380, Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire (Ruzicka, 13).

The Continued Romanization of the Church:

A giant leap in the Romanization of the church began with Constantine’s conversion in 312. Before that time, church liturgy had been translated into Latin, along with the Bible, but the church was still largely that of immigrants and the poor, a Greek-speaking Eastern religion tied to various mother churches in the East (Ruzicka, 13). Constantine lost no time in beginning a building program that would reflect the glory of the church (and its imperial patron). He chose the basilica, a very Roman, civic form of architecture—a break from traditional pagan temple design—which reflected the new ties between Christianity and the seat of power. With the use of processions, incense, bells, and vestments (imported from the old pagan imperial worship), Christianity became an imperial cult, and the house churches of the early church gave way to massive buildings designed to accommodate the crowds that were streaming into the church, whether out of sincere devotion or mere pragmatism. Unable to make a truly Christian capital of the old city, where the old pagan cults were firmly entrenched and the mostly pagan Senate just as stubborn, Constantine moved his capital to the Bosporus one thousand miles away (Krautheimer, 29). There he would build his Christian city, a New Rome.

By the 5th century control of the old capital had been largely placed in the hands of the local pappas or bishop, thus beginning the long history of papal control of the city. Bishop Damasus I (366-384) had appealed to the emperor to be given authority over the other bishops in the West and to be declared a sort of court of appeal for bishops. He also helped transform the old pagan city into a Christian one (something Constantine was not able to do) by building more churches over the tombs of the martyrs and making the catacombs accessible to pilgrims. Damasus also sponsored a new standard Latin translation of the Bible to be used in the churches, thus effectively coopting for Rome what had been heretofore a Greek text (Ruzicka, 12).

The Regular Church: Monasticism

While its historical roots go back to the third century, when St. Anthony (c. 251-356) wrestled with demons in the Egyptian desert, it is no coincidence that monasticism began to develop rapidly during the fourth century. Feeling that imperial patronage had corrupted the church, many longed to return to the heroic days of the martyrs. Yet this desire for a more rigorous, ascetic form of the faith is probably more rooted in Hellenistic dualism, which tended to separate spirit and body more emphatically than Christianity ever had. The early monastic heroes were at first hermetic types, like “spiritual athletes” who lived in isolation, fasted, and prayed to gain victory over the flesh (Ruzicka, 14). St. Pachomius (c. 292-348), however, realized the need for mutual help and encouragement through community, thus giving rise to the coenobitic ideal, which became the most common monastic model. Caves thus began to be replaced by houses.

Once in community, monks realized the necessity of a written list of rules to govern daily life. Although the rule of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543) was not the first, it certainly became the most popular and influential in the West (Ruzicka, 14). Compared to the rules of other monastic groups, his seemed more all-encompassing, yet moderate (reasonable rules about everything from eating and sleeping to shared chores, prayer and worship). Such a life seemed attractive not only because of its rigor and sacrifice, its focus on living in true Christian community and selfless obedience to God, but also because every necessary aspect of life was provided for and regulated, thus freeing the individual from the basic anxieties regarding food, clothing, work, and community (Ruzicka,14). Monasteries were self-contained, self-supporting communities, providing their own food through agriculture and their own worship (a church outside the traditional church). In short, monasticism offered stability and spirituality in an age of economic uncertainty and fear following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.

By the thirteenth century the Benedictine movement had grown to 30,000 houses throughout Europe. Because of their emphasis on reading and study, Charlemagne found the Benedictines useful in his strategy to develop a literate administrative class, and he enforced adoption of the rule in other monasteries and convents across his empire, thus creating a uniform system (Ruzicka, 14).

Regional Churches: 7th to 10th centuries

With the Muslim conquests of the Near East and North Africa (622-750), Rome and Constantinople effectively became the only remaining patriarchal churches in the West and East respectively. Although Rome had more history and an apostolic past (both Peter and Paul were martyred there), Constantinople had the emperor and thus quickly rose to rival the old capital. Therefore, when threatened, Roman bishops used apostolic succession as their trump card.

Having the emperor in residence, however, could be a mixed blessing. In 730 the Byzantine emperor Leo III began promoting iconoclasm throughout the empire. When the patriarch of Constantinople objected, Leo replaced him with one who was amenable to his control. When the Roman bishops resisted the enforcement of these policies in Byzantine-controlled parts of Italy, Leo attempted to bring them to heel by cutting off papal income from southern Italy (Krautheimer, 107). Without imperial patronage and income, the Roman See lost much of its ability to extend its authority and Western Christendom became all the more divided along regional or national lines (Ruzicka, “Unit2”). Yet, with the alliance of the Roman See with the new Frankish monarchy (751), Rome gained a new imperial champion (protection from invading Lombards) as well as a new status and power as the legitimizer of kings. This new relationship, however, would later become a double-edged sword, since it created a rival for dominance in the secular sphere as the papacy began to vie for greater supremacy over civil power.

The New Imperial Church: mid-10th to mid-11th centuries

The mid-ninth to mid-tenth centuries had been a low point for the Roman See, having fallen prey to the ruthless and squabbling ruling families of Rome. The German king Otto I (962-973) stepped in and restored order, bringing Italy under his control and even deposing and replacing a pope. It was as if the church were witnessing a revival of the old Imperial Church with its caesaropapism. Yet the papacy had a growing set of apologists in the various monastic reformers, such as those of the Cluniac movement, who encouraged the papacy to take the lead in reforming the church as an abbot would inspect the monasteries in his charge. (Ruzicka, 2).

The greatest test of papal power during the Middle Ages was the Investiture Controversy of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which pitted European monarchs against the papacy over who would appoint bishops within these realms. In one of these conflicts, using the power of excommunication and interdict, Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) brought Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV under submission. Yet the next two centuries would see continued conflict between the spiritual and secular powers. The issue of how popes were chosen had also been a point of contention for centuries (Cushing, 107). From the first century the bishops of Rome were normally elected by the people. Under both empires, however, that process was sometimes circumvented by an emperor. In 1059 Pope Nicholas II issued a bull making papal elections the exclusive responsibility of the College of Cardinals (Corbettt, 29). Now ultimately free from secular control, the papacy began to pursue its ambition to dominate civil power.

The Papal Church: 11th to 13th centuries

Under Innocent III (1198-1216) the doctrine of papal supremacy reached its zenith, with Innocent aspiring, effectively, to be both Caesar and Pope. Ironically, however, this triumph comes late in the game. For just as the church was trying to centralize its power, so were the rulers of such emerging nations as France and England, as well as the Holy Roman Empire. The expansion of papal power parallels the growth of sovereign nation-states ruled by absolute monarchs, a concept viewed by the papacy of the period as a blasphemous usurpation of its imperium (Latourette, 603). From the Dark Ages and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire into petty, squabbling Germanic kingdoms, the church had served as a politically stabilizing and unifying force and the guardian of classical culture and learning. Now the world was changing.

Increasingly, the Church wielded power through the sacraments (and fear), since any disobedience or attack on it could result in an interdict or excommunication, which denied to the impenitent the sacraments necessary for salvation. In his bull Unam Sanctam (1302) Boniface VIII (1294-1303) went further by declaring that not only is there “no salvation outside the church,” but it was “absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff” (plenitudo potestatis) and that the papacy had been given by God the swords of both spiritual and temporal power (“Unam Sanctam”). In doing so, Boniface was merely building upon the doctrine of the primacy of papal authority maintained by earlier popes, like Gregory VII (1073-1085) who employed it in the Investiture Controversy.

In the medieval church the average worshiper would have lived every moment of the day in the midst of a kind of mystery play, a biblical drama that unfolded daily and appealed to all the senses. In the mass the believer witnessed the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice, but also participated in a holy mystery or miracle in the transformation of bread into the very body of Christ. In the liturgical calendar, the Temporale (Advent to Pentecost) celebrated events in the life of Christ, while the Sanctorale were the feasts of the Virgin and saints. As for the Daily Office, the whole day functioned around prayers, scriptures, and psalms (Muir, 171-78). This is not to say that the average believer would have been completely absorbed in all of these acts of devotion, like monks, but it was enough to know that this spiritual drama was being played out around you, that daily community life ticked with the rhythms of the church. In addition, with the lectionary, worshipers would have heard the complete Bible (albeit in Latin) over the span of a few years.

Church buildings, in particular the larger cathedrals and abbeys, usually had floor plans based on the old Roman basilica, with its semi-circular apse and long central nave (ideal for episcopal processions which showed the splendor and power of the church). A transept gave the church its cross shape; thus, even the shape of the building spoke of this fundamental symbol of the Christian faith. Stained glass windows, as well as column capitals told cycles of stories from the Old and New Testaments. Thus the entire edifice was a visual Bible for a largely illiterate people. During the Middle Ages architectural innovations brought cathedrals to soaring heights, drawing the thoughts of the worshiper upward. High barrel or rib-vaulted ceilings resembled heaven and were designed to inspire awe, while with the clerestory, shafts of bright sunlight would fall from above in a dramatic fashion. Exterior decoration, too, was like a sermon in stone.

Rise of the Mendicant Orders:

The thirteenth century also saw the rise of the mendicant orders, specifically those of SS. Francis (1181-1226) and Dominic (1170-1221). At this time, the increasing wealth and worldliness of the church, both secular and regular, had alienated many and given rise to the Cathar and Waldensian movements. By looking back to the Gospels to imitate the poverty of Jesus and the Apostles, Francis and Dominic founded monastic movements that spoke to these concerns, and challenged the church from within. Yet in addition to being mendicants, both the Franciscans and the Dominicans were primarily itinerant preachers. Thus the papacy found them useful in combatting the heresy of the Cathars and Waldensians, as well as in creating a kind of spiritual reawakening throughout the church. For, in the eyes of the average churchgoer, these men and women lived humbly like Christ, as shepherds who loved the poor and who laid down their lives to search after the lost sheep—unlike some clergy who lorded it over the flock or who were consumed with power and avarice. Many, like the Observant Franciscan Pierre Jean Olivi (1248-1298), strongly influenced by the prophetic writings of Joachim of Fiore, saw in the emergence of Francis and his movement a new spiritual order, a kind of millenarian heaven on earth that would usher in the second coming of Christ (Latourette, 435).

Avignon Papacy, Western Schism, and the Conciliar Church: 14th to early 15th centuries

Ideally, the Church of the High Middle Ages saw itself as a vast theocracy stretching across Europe from Spain and the British Isles in the West, to Poland and Hungary in the East. God was its Head and the Pope his vicar, with a hierarchy of lower clergy (cardinals, archbishops, and bishops) often wielding much political power. The church’s relationship with secular authority tended to vary according to the particular ruler. In many contexts national identities seemed to take a backseat to membership in a wider Christendom, while in others, the church made itself extremely odious because of its claims to supremacy (“Christendom”).

The pope had his own court, or curia, consisting of cardinals (bishops of important churches in and around Rome) who advised and also elected the pope. Beneath these in rank were the archbishops, who oversaw a number of bishops or dioceses; then bishops, who were the overseers of a number of parishes within a diocese. At the bottom of the pyramid were the local parish priests. There were four large administrative offices within the papal court: the Camera (a treasury), Chancery (which handled all correspondence), Tribunals (the courts), and the Apostolic Penitentiary (which oversaw the assignment of penance). In order to run such a massive political and ecclesiastical machine, the Church collected revenue from its vast land holdings, as well as tithes (a 10% tax on income) and annates (a percentage of the first few years’ income for a new bishop or ecclesiastical office [Ruzicka, 8]).

As claims of papal supremacy increased from the 11th to 14th centuries, so did the need for a more organized and centralized administration. The gradual codification of canon law (based on the Holy Scriptures, the Church Fathers, old Roman law, and papal decrees through the ages) allowed this to occur, giving the church a body of law superior to and more civilized than that of most kingdoms (Pennington). The church also wielded a certain moral authority, as the people tended to look up to church hierarchy as spiritual and learned men who lived in celibacy and were devoted to God. This view, however, was changing, due to the increasing corruption that wealth and absolute power bring.

With the establishment of a new papal court at Avignon (1309-1377), the papacy was ever in need of ready cash to finance its building projects as well as to maintain a growing administration and the lifestyle of monarchy (Ruzicka, 8). With the Western Schism (1378-1417) the church sunk to new lows in the eyes of average Christians across Europe. Thus the continued pretensions to papal supremacy not only rang hollow but also made the church appear even more ridiculous, with two, then eventually three popes, each attempting to levy taxes on the faithful. The church’s hierarchy had long been immune from prosecution in secular courts, but this, too, was being challenged by secular authorities.

The Conciliar Church:

The conciliar movement was born out of crisis. The Western Schism had exposed the basic vulnerability inherent in the doctrine of papal supremacy: If the papacy regulates Christendom, who regulates the papacy, particularly when it is effectively incapacitated? In addition, there were ongoing abuses within the church which, like open sores, had gone unaddressed for centuries. Seeking a solution, many looked back to the Imperial Age, during which great ecumenical councils served to resolve questions that divided the church. In order to establish the authority of a general council and its ongoing role in the fifteenth century, however, the conciliarists found precedents (1) in Scripture (even the apostle Paul brought his gospel for the gentiles before the Council of Jerusalem), (2) in church history (the early church had solved its doctrinal disputes through a series of ecumenical councils), and (3) in civil government (even sovereigns share power with representative bodies [parliaments, diets, etc.] in important public matters, such as war or taxation). In addition, there was the precedent of the College of Cardinals, which selects the pope, but it would take a larger body than this to decide between the two rivals, since most of the cardinals themselves were in one camp or another (“The Great Schism”). While under canon law it was the pope’s prerogative to convene a general council, in this case neither pope was qualified since both disputed the other’s right to the title. Thus it was up to the cardinals to act, for the health and unity of the church, in summoning a general council to end the schism. The crisis itself illustrated not only the need for a general council to solve the dilemma, but also the inherent, de facto superiority of such councils over a monarchical papacy. A general council was deemed as representative of all of the church, from which the papacy derived its power, in trust, for the welfare of the church. The papacy was therefore not an absolute monarchy, but a more limited or constitutional one (“The Council of Pisa”).

The conciliarism imposed by the Council of Constance (1414-1418) was moderate in comparison to that envisaged by others, such as Marsilius of Padua (c.1275-c.1342), who called for a papacy subject to secular authority and shorn of its power to tax and appoint bishops. Instead, the Council maintained that the role of a general council was not to encroach upon the daily functions of the papacy or its power. Rather, as the papacy was meant to serve the good of the whole church, a council served as a watchdog to prevent the abuse of papal power (Oakley). A council was to have not only an extraordinary role in times of crisis, such as papal heresy or a schism (in such emergencies a council could judge, correct, or even depose a pope), but also an ongoing function, convening at least every ten years, under normal circumstances, to address matters central to the welfare of the church (“Council of Constance: Frequens, 1417”). The pope was obligated to address abuses indicated but not addressed by the council (Oakley).

This effort to bring accountability and limits to papal power was short-lived, however, for once the schism was resolved, most European monarchs began to lose interest, since their immediate concern was order and stability. The new pope Martin V (1417-1431), once in office, lost no time in reasserting papal supremacy. A century later the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517), under the direction of Julius II, condemned conciliarism, declaring once for all the pope’s supremacy over church councils, and thus making the office all the more impervious to reform (Oakley).

The Renaissance Church: 15th to early 16th centuries


The aftermath of the Avignon Papacy and the Western Schism provided a new opportunity for the Roman church to redefine itself. In the absence of the papal court, Rome had become a ramshackle city, with the old Lateran complex (the seat of the papacy for 1000 years) in disrepair. The decision to move the papacy across the river to the Vatican and St. Peter’s was not only practical, it was also part of a new strategy of emphasizing the association of papal power with the keys of St. Peter. Lacking the secular power it had acquired in the eleventh century, the papacy also projected an image of imperial splendor (a longing rather than a reality) through its monumental building programs (Ruzicka, 12).


As archbishop of a wealthy mercantile city controlled by the ruthless and iron-fisted Medici, St. Antoninus of Florence (1389-1459) engaged in a dangerous balancing act between powerful money-making interests and the demands of the church and of his own order (Weinstein, 50). Although he had the tact not to call out the powerful moneyed interests by name, in his sermons and writings he had the courage consistently to target the sin of avarice on the one hand, as well as to find some biblical justification for all this wealth. He believed that each person, whether rich or poor, banker or laborer, existed not for himself but for the good of the community; each had been given skills by which to contribute, not only to his own needs, but also to those of others. Profit was acceptable in moderation, but greed and overconsumption were condemned as threats not only to the salvation of the sinner but also to the welfare of the community as a whole. Instead, he urged his hearers to a life of modest “contentment,” in order that there be enough for all, especially the weakest (“St. Antoninus of Florence and Christian Community”). For him a society was only as great as its ability to take care of the needs of all its members.

Antoninus also believed that a Christian leader should lead by example, and thus he saw himself as a servant of the servants of God. Even as an archbishop he lived in humility under the strict observance of the Dominican rule. His habit and furnishings were plain and functional; his transportation a mule (on loan). He even had the ornamental gardens surrounding his archiepiscopal palace torn out and replanted with wheat, which when harvested, was given to the poor. From St. Francis he borrowed the idea that to be loved one must be humble: so he made himself accessible to everyone, listening with great patience, and punishing only when absolutely necessary and for the reformation of the offender—all this in an age when many ecclesiastics lived in luxury like pagan princes, thundering excommunication against any who dared defy them (“St. Antoninus of Florence : a Theologian for Our Times”).

Although also a Dominican, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was less tactful than Antoninus. Yet, like his forerunner, he was also a reformer who believed that individual interests must serve the greater good. Upon the flight of the Medici, he became a kind of de facto dictator in Florence. Immediately, he began removing the marks of tyranny of his predecessors by feeding the starving, providing employment, lowering taxes, pardoning political offenders, and enforcing justice. It was the weight of his influence that helped pass a constitution for the new Florentine republic, one with a Grand Council based on the Venetian model, sans doge (Girolamo Savonarola). Caught up in this massive religious revival, in their enthusiasm many Florentines sold possessions to provide for the poor (like the first Christians), while others burned luxury items in the bonfires.

Savonarola made himself particularly odious to the papacy by preaching that the principal mark of the true church was obedience to God (rather than to Rome) and by directly attacking the venality of perhaps the most ruthless pope in history, Alexander VI, of the infamous Borgia family (1492-1503). Savonarola’s zeal here secured his downfall, and he was betrayed by the Florentines, most of whom had grown weary of the monk’s exacting form of Christianity. In his short rule he tried to reestablish New Testament simplicity in both the private and religious realms, a quality strongly at odds with the quattrocento tendency for luxury and splendor (Armstrong).

The Reformation: 16th century

Martin Luther’s Reforms:

One might ask why, after so many centuries of successfully resisting various reform movements, the Roman Church was unable to stop one German monk from turning its world upside down. Part of the answer lies in the rise of German nationalism. German states within the Holy Roman Empire deeply resented the Church’s heavy taxation. Martin Luther (1483-1546) thus received protection from German princes who saw in his reforms a means of exerting some independence both from Rome and from the empire. Luther was also a prolific writer of books and pamphlets, which were fodder for the new printing press. This new technology enabled Luther’s reforming ideas to spread rapidly and gave the Reformation lift. The new humanism was also a factor. While, in Italy, humanists occupied themselves with the study of ancient Greek and Roman authors, in the Northern countries, Erasmus had sent shock waves through the intellectual and ecclesiastical worlds with his ground-breaking publication of the Greek New Testament and a new Latin translation based on the same. This return to the original text exposed many errors that had crept into the Latin translation, in particular the concept of penance, which was considered the “second plank of salvation” for the medieval Catholic Church, but was an idea foreign to the New Testament (Latourette, 528).

The main points of Luther’s reforms were his rediscovery of the Pauline doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone (sola fides) and the assertion that scripture alone is the final authority on matters of faith and practice (sola scriptura). Luther was both radical and conservative. While he championed the New Testament concept of the priesthood of all believers, he also saw the need for church leadership and hierarchy, in particular after the harrowing experience of the Peasants’ War (1525). Yet the difference between pastor and laity was merely one of function. He also restored the emphasis on preaching, and the role of pastor in the churches, and established a system of regular visitation to see that the people’s needs were being cared for by the clergy. He rejected the Roman conception of the Mass as a sacrifice, all but two sacraments (baptism and Lord’s Supper), and the doctrine of transubstantiation, (preferring consubstantiation, in which the real presence of Christ is “in, on, and upon” the elements). He called for the dismantling of monasticism, which he considered unbiblical. The church he defined not as a hierarchical organization, but as the “community” (Gemeinde) of those saved by grace through faith (Althaus, 288). Considering himself a true churchman, Luther did not originally set out to found a new church. Rather, he thought the church would reform itself once presented with the true gospel. Yet Rome’s recalcitrance to his reforms and its personal attacks against him made secession inevitable.

Zwinglian Reforms :

In Zurich, Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) built upon the reforms of his German contemporary, although he claimed to have arrived at them independently. Following Matthew 23:8-9, he underscored the equality of all believers, who belong to Christ and to one another, and who have one heavenly Father. Thus he rejected any special class of believers (such as the priesthood or monastic orders). Using the Pauline metaphor, he defined the church first of all as the “body of Christ,” with Christ as its head. All believers connected to Christ through faith were part of this body. As his body, the church was thus the earthly manifestation or representation of Christ (e.g., his hands and feet). As the body can do nothing without being connected to the head, so the church can do nothing on its own without Christ, who nourishes and directs it. Here Zwingli perhaps refers to the various medieval “doctrines and decrees” that had corrupted the church, causing her to become mad and ineffective, losing connection with Christ (Zwingli).

In keeping with the Great Commission, Zwingli considered it the duty of all believers to spread the gospel in all places, and to do so with “their best diligence,” i.e., making it a priority, making an effort, persevering. He also redefined the rite of excommunication, which responsibility is not the prerogative of any one individual (as it was in the medieval Roman church), but of the local corporate church acting together under pastoral leadership. It is significant that he called the pastor a “watchman,” emphasizing the shepherding function, protecting the flock and individual sheep. The church also owed obedience to the secular authority (in accordance with Rom 13), provided that they were not commanded to do anything contrary to Scripture, in which case they must obey God rather than the government. Here, he rejected the teachings of various radicals or Anabaptists who claimed exemption from such obedience (Zwingli).

Zwingli rejected the tradition and office of the papacy or high priesthood, among whose titles was the old Roman imperial Pontifex Maximus, for Christ alone is the Great High Priest. He considered the priesthood an office alien to the New Testament, although he maintained that preachers and pastors should have their basic needs provided for. Like Luther he opposed the idea of the Mass as a continual sacrifice, but unlike Luther he viewed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. Prayer was to be made in Jesus’ name alone, without any other mediator (saints), and dietary restrictions (feast or fast days) were man’s decree, not God’s and need not be followed. Likewise, absolution was from God alone; thus the act of confession was merely a seeking of counsel, and the sacrament of penance was abolished, since it detracted from the finished work of Christ (Zwingli).

In addition, all things were to be done with simplicity, thus banning the accumulation of clerical wealth and property and the rich trappings and vestments of the church (Zwingli). Under Zwingli churches and church worship were stripped of all ornamentation, including music, pipe organs, and other decoration. (Luther had no problem with religious art if it aided faith.) In the spirit of reform, as inspired by the humanist cry “ad fontes,” all of the above reforms were meant to bring the church back into agreement with the New Testament and its norms, as Zwingli saw them. Thus a practice or doctrine was only valid if found in Scripture.

Calvin and Geneva:

Active in both Strasbourg and Geneva, John Calvin (1509-1564) agreed with Luther and Zwingli on most points of faith, but disagreed with both in regard to the real presence in the Lord’s Supper, which he regarded as a spiritual act, with Christ present by the Holy Spirit. He also emphasized the role of civil authority, with strict laws regarding behavior. In terms of church leadership, he admitted only pastors and teachers, although he conceded the appearance, from time to time in history, of apostles and prophets (possibly, he considered himself one of these [Calvin, v.2, 1058]).

In his “Prefatory Address to King Francis I,” Calvin argues that, in opposition to the Roman conception of the church as visible within the form of the Holy See and its hierarchy, ‘‘the church can exist without any visible appearance,’’ and that its distinguishing marks are merely the “pure preaching of the gospel and the lawful administration of the sacraments” (Calvin, v.1, 24). Elsewhere, he defines the church as that body ‘”into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ” (Calvin, v.2, 1021).

Calvin’s definition of the church’s function forms part of his theology of divine accommodation (accommodatio), in which God stoops to aid us in our weakness (Calvin, v.2, 1011). He describes the church as a “Mother,” who gives birth to, nourishes, cares for, and governs her children that they may grow up into maturity. The church is thus one of the external means of grace “by which God invites us into the society of Christ and holds us therein.” Other “aids” are pastors and teachers, church discipline, and the “signs” or sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

As Pauck reminds us, Book III of Calvin’s Institutes is entitled, “The way in which we receive the grace of Christ: what benefits come to us from it, and what effects follow” (17). Like Luther, Calvin made a distinction between justification (which is by faith and which pertains to our legal standing before God) and sanctification or regeneration (which involves the renewing of our minds and the changing of our conduct after the image of Christ, all under the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit [Calvin, v.1, 732]). Although sin no longer reigns in the life of the believer, Calvin believed it continues to exist until our death. It must therefore be our goal to surrender ourselves so completely to the Spirit, so that, in the words of Paul, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us (Calvin, v.1, 543). Calvin acknowledged that such perfection would never be achieved in this life; yet that should not prevent us from keeping such total obedience as our constant goal (Calvin, v.1, 542). Thus it was essential for the Christian to cooperate diligently with the Holy Spirit in this process of regeneration. It is significant that Calvin put so much emphasis on this process, for he, like Zwingli, was engaged in building an ideal, godly society, laying down strict laws for conduct, including severe punishments for public acts of impiety. In this respect, Geneva was a kind of civic monastic experiment governed by a rule.


It is no accident that, generally speaking, the Reformation took hold most strongly in those countries which had originally been on the fringes of the old Roman empire or had been minimally Romanized, both geographically and culturally (e.g., modern day Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Hungary, England, Scotland). A devout Catholic, Henry VIII allowed Protestant reforms to take place in England only after his failure to secure a divorce from the Holy See (thus threatening the Tudor succession), whereupon he declared himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England. While he permitted some major reforms, such as the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and the dissolution of monasteries, for the rest of his reign, he continued to keep an uncomfortable tension between Catholics and Protestants. The old church hierarchy of archbishops, bishops, and priests was maintained (sans pope) within the new structure of a national church, with the sovereign as its head. It was under his heir Edward VI that the English church began finally to reform itself along Continental lines, yet for reasons of stability, Elizabeth I found it expedient to keep something of the former tension between radical Calvinists and Anglo-Catholics, creating a kind of via media between the two (Latourette, 800-10).


In a 2009 address entitled “A Changeless Faith for a Changing World,” the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, noted that the Christian faith has always been both progressive and conservative. “True progress,” he said, “is a balance between preserving the essence of a certain way of life and changing what is not essential” (Bartholomew I). In this study we have seen this tension lived out in the history of the church. In their desire for reform, the key players in this drama frequently looked back to an earlier age in order to reclaim what they thought was original or essential. Often, the Early Church with its simplicity, poverty, and suffering was seen as the model to be imitated. Yet, to others in power, the Apostles, despite their poverty, became a symbol of supreme authority and unity. Still others wished to return to the splendor and protection of the Imperial Church, even though the relationship between crown and miter was ever a contentious one. Despite the actual diversity of the Early Church, later generations ever sought to find in it some justification and authority for their particular ideal of what the Church should be (Latourette, 115).



Works Cited

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