Five Protestant Re-formations

Visitors to cemeteries, who read on the tomb-stones the abbreviation “RiP”, know that this expresses a view and the hope that the deceased can now “Rest in Peace”.

Students of the history and legacy of the West’s Protestant Reformation over its past millennium or thousand-year period can in contrast observe that “RiP” can have another connotation, which implies and express a less peaceful changing of attitudes and chain of events. What emerges is not a single “Reformation” but at least five “Re-formations” or modifications and amendments of attitudes, belief-systems and doctrinal confessions. The prefix “re” suggests the idea of both repetition and of improvement, so the concept of “re-formation” suggests the production of something already existing, but in a different and hopefully better form.

I personally am a Protestant, who has grown up in the Lutheran tradition, which is numerically the largest of the world’s Protestant churches. I have observed during my education as a Lutheran Clergyperson that there have been at least five such re-formations in attitudes and confessions within the complex story of  Western Protestantism. These five  include (1) Reactions in relation to or in reference to the Papacy; (2) Restorations in relation to the Primitive church; (3) Rigidity in relation to the Protestantism which is adopted; (4) Reflection in relation to Proto-Modernism and (5) a Radicalism in relation to Postmodernism. In the face of inter-denominational name-calling, arguments and wars, such as the destructive “Thirty Year War’ and even intra-denominational hostility and heresy trials, none of these “RiP’s” have in reality contributed to much “Rest in Peace’ within the churches and students of Protestantism may have even more such Re-formations and Re-formulations of Protestantism to add to this above list of five.

The first “RiP” is clearly the various “Reactions in relation to the Papacy”.  The construct of “Protestantism’ was formulated in 1529 C.E. from the document labeled “Protestatio”. This was composed in reaction to a decree of the second Diet of Spires” in 1529, which required all religious disputes to be dealt with only within the Roman Catholic Church’s official Ecclesiastical Council.

However, much earlier in the 1100s, Peter Waldo and his Waldensian Group, who preached in the vernacular language and who promoted gender equality, reacted to their excommunication by Pope Alexander III by rejecting Papal control, authority and supremacy. Unfortunately for them, the later Roman Catholic Crusade against these Waldensians revealed a Papacy which was still very much in control and capable of heretic-hunting, persecution, torture and slaughter. Those who survived and lived on as the “Poor Men of Lyon and Lombardy” were finally emancipated by Victor Immanuel in 1848.

John Wycliffe (1320-84) was an English theologian at Oxford who also began to preach in the vernacular language and who possibly made the first English translation of the Bible. Wycliffe reacted strongly to the claims of Papal absolutism and not only opposed the payment of tribute to the Pope but he was also a promoter of the Bill in the Good Parliament of 1376, which aimed to correct ecclesiastical abuses.

John Huss (1370-1415) was a Bohemian theologian who influenced the later formation of the Utraquists, the Taborites and finally the Moravian Brethren, which was formed by Peter von Chelzic. These Moravian Brethren stressed an unlearned priesthood, a life-style of holiness and love and their withdrawal from the secular world. They also greatly influenced the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. The reaction of John Huss to the Papacy was clear in his bold affirmation that the Papacy was anti-Christian. Although the Emperor promised Huss that safe conduct would be provided, in order for him to attend the “Council at Constance” in 1414, the Council itself was not so generous. It first imprisoned Huss and then roasted him alive him on the stake.  This Council-participation was clearly not a good career move!

Later Reformers in the 1500s, such as John Calvin (1509-64) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) preferred biblical doctrines and statements to papal bulls and decrees. Zwingli provided a Bible in German and his desire for all to have the liberty to interpret the Bible in turn inspired groups such as the Anabaptists in Zurich and the Mennonites, who were founded by Menno Simons (1492-1559) and who stressed their inner experience over the use of reason.

Dr Martin Luther’s reaction to the Papacy was clear in his denial in 1519 of the Pope’ supremacy and in the issuing of the Papal Bull of condemnation, issued against Luther in 1520. His marriage to ex-nun Catherine von Bora in 1525 was no doubt part of Luther’s reaction to the principles behind monasticism and to the enforced practice of celibacy of the priesthood, which is still current.

A second RiP is the Reformers’ desired Restoration in relation to the Primitive sage of Christianity. It entailed a return to the pre-Medieval (or for us now in the 21st century, the pre-Modern) world of the first century C.E in the terrestrial realm of the Roman Empire and its dominating Emperors. Biblical texts, which contained statements affirming the divinely revealed and inerrant nature of the Bible, were accepted and adopted in the 1500s as the basis for the 1530 “Confession of Augsburg”, which was compiled by Philip Melanchthon and authorized by Dr Marin Luther. It was also adopted by John Calvin in his 1536 “Institutes of the Christian Religion” and some Historians of Religions have labeled this literalistic biblical approach as “bibliolatry”.

RiP as Rigidity in relation to the Professions (and also the Proclamations) of  this literalized adoption of the biblical text is clear in the Calvinist concern to limit its early hymns and spiritual songs to biblical material, particularly drawing on the wording from the psalms.  However, the confessional writings and the chorales composed or written by Lutheran theologians and hymn writers expanded on this restrictive vocabulary as they drew on similar biblical concept, imagery and doctrines. Not surprisingly, some have labeled the 1600s the “Age of Protestant Orthodoxy”.

A fourth RiP is the more recent Reflective Post-Enlightenment (and to some degree Proto-Modern) encounter with the Bible, with its  the stress on scholarly, academic methods, a humanistic intellectual framework and a respect for a wide range of literary genres and expression, including fiction. This more literary attitude replaced the previous stress on a literalistic attitude to the biblical texts and many dozens of Post-Enlightenment scholars and critics could be listed here as examples of scholarship in relation to the JEDP analysis of the Pentateuch, the historical and literary nature of the Bible, the issue of the historicity or the mythical nature of Jesus, whose name in the  Semitic language goes back to “Yehoshua” meaning “Yahweh Saves,” explorations of specific Christian doctrines and almost endless commentaries on specific biblical books. Concepts such as de-mythologization, secularization and theological non-realism are featured and many hundreds of scholarly and illustrious names can readily be called to mind here by well-read students of Christian History.

Finally, the present-day Radical Post-Modernism constitutes the final RiP, as our present world retreats from absolutist categories and hierarchical levels of values, which have in the past provided the supposedly correct intellectual understanding of an issue, the supposedly correct and right position of people in the social hierarchy and the view of whether something is good or bad in the field of the arts and literature. What emerges are contingent entities and issues, relative ethical principles and subjective evaluations of such works of art. This debate is ongoing, although there have been moves to restore some more secure ontological and affirmative dimensions in the current Post-Modern system of evaluation.  This intellectual and pragmatic field is likewise engaging the minds, attention and thinking of analysts, critics and students in general which are far too many to list, as our world and universe is explored and various issues are raised, debated and worked on for solutions.

No doubt our history books relating the History of Europe, Christian History and the History of Western Protestantism will continue to refer to “The Reformation” as it deals with the establishment of the Protestant Denominations or Churches in the 16th century and with the various challenges to the Supremacy and Practices of the Roman Catholic Papacy. However, the above five “RiPs” in my opinion demonstrate that this is a simplification of history and that the concept of “Reformation” should in fact be labeled as the “ Five Protestant Re-formations”.

John Noack, June, 2012.    Email:   johnnoack@yahoo.com.au

John Noack (BA, DipEd) has been a Lutheran clergy-person at Rainbow in Victoria, Australia. He has been a Tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Melbourne Victoria and he has been a Teacher of History and World Religions at Trinity Grammar School in Kew, Victoria. He has conducted archaeological research at the Australian Institute of Archaeology and he has produced book reviews, which have been published in its Journal “Buried History”. He is at present engaged in an academic investigation into the many enigmas in the Gospel according to St Mark.

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