The Pathos of Politics (25) Renaissance & Reformation

Renaissance & Reformation

People must have righteous principals in the first, and then they will not fail to perform virtuous actions. ~ Martin Luther

The Renaissance – from the 14th into the 17th century – is considered the bridge between the Middle Ages and modern times. It began as an Italian cultural movement that spread to the rest of Europe.

The Renaissance sparked a renewed interested in the writings and values of classical antiquity, giving rise to the intellectual movement termed humanism. Secular men of letters initiated humanism, in contrast to the scholar-clerics who had dominated medieval intellectual culture with scholasticism: a method of conceptual analysis to defend Christian dogma.

Other events shaped the Renaissance: the discovery of new continents, the decline of feudalism, burgeoning trade, and potent technological innovations, including gunpowder, the mariner’s compass, and printing.

Though its inspiration was classicism, the intellectual momentum of the Renaissance ended up questioning traditional thought. This rubbed off on religious observers.

Politics in the Catholic Church created a schism in the late 14th century. Several men simultaneously claimed to be the pope after Pope Gregory XI died in 1378.

The threat of fragmentation had hung over the Catholic Church since the 5th century, with the rivalry between Rome and Constantinople. That resolved in ~1054, with the Eastern Orthodox Church splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodoxy proceeded without a pope; instead, setting up ecumenical councils to interpret the scriptures, with a patriarch as first among equals.

During the Papal Schism (1378–1417) at least 2 men claimed to be pope: one at Avignon, one in Rome, with at times a 3rd papal pretender. The Schism had a lasting effect in eroding people’s faith in the papacy. Coupled with perceived corruption in the Roman Curia and the sale of indulgences (spiritual privileges), an esurient and religiously bankrupt practice, the Catholic Church was weakened.

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into heaven springs. ~ German Catholic friar Johann Tetzel (1465–1519), Grand Commissioner for the sale of indulgences in Germany

Ineffectual attempts to reform the Catholic Church had been made by numerous men. Then one man nailed it.

On 31 October 1517 (the eve of All Saints’ Day), German friar and priest Martin Luther reputedly posted 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg Saxony. In his assault on the sale of indulgences, Luther not only attacked the ostensible corruption within the church, he also took aim at the theological root of the problem: the perversion of doctrine regarding grace and redemption (divine favor during life and salvation after it).

Luther had not intended to break with the Catholic Church, but confrontation was the papacy was not long in coming. In 1521 Luther was excommunicated, and, for good measure, declared an outlaw by the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V. What began as an internal reform movement ratcheted into a fracture of western Christendom.

I feel much freer now that I am certain the pope is the Antichrist. ~ Martin Luther

The Reformation movement in Germany quickly spread to other countries. Other reform impulses arose independently of Luther.

It was if a dam suppressing dissent had suddenly burst. The flood was furthered by the obstinacy of the Catholic Church, which turned the reform movement into a religious revolution that cascaded into politics.

Oppressed German peasants translated Lutheran ideals of Christian equality into practical terms. Their 1524–1525 rebellion was the only genuinely popular revolt in German history and would have altered the flow of German history had it succeeded in any measure.

Instead, the German Peasants’ War turned into a series of massacres. Luther himself instigated the princes to take the sternest measures against the rebel “swine” and “mad dogs.” Hence, Lutheranism evolved into a faithful ally of political absolutism. Luther typically considered the ruling princes “the greatest fools or scoundrels on Earth.” Yet he insisted on submission as a duty of subjects, as the world is wicked, and does not deserve virtuous rulers.

The lasting effect on the German people was to bolster a fatalism of nourishing ideals of freedom while obeying authority without question in practical matters.

Luther’s strong respect for state power was part and parcel with a passionate feeling of German nationalism, and even racialism. Thus, Luther became the spiritual ancestor of Prussian statism and German Nazism; the only Protestant leader to spawn such progeny.

In the peace that followed the Peasant’s War, Germany lost a vital opportunity to learn toleration.

The problem of religious division in the German states was settled by the princes determining the religion of the region. Dissidents were free to emigrate. This was a leniency from the medieval method of burning heretics at the stake.

The Protestant Reformation engendered religious factionalism. As more churches came into existence, mutual tolerance grew. In England, Holland, and North America, toleration of religious minorities preceded that of political opposition.

As long as Protestantism was largely Lutheran, it made little headway in France, even though there was a vigorous tradition of anticlericalism there since the Middle Ages.

Man is under 2 kinds of government: one spiritual, by which the conscience is formed to piety and the service of God; the other political, by which a man is instructed in the duties of humanity and civility, which are to be observed in an intercourse with mankind. ~ John Calvin

While studying law at college, John Calvin became acquainted with Renaissance humanism, in the form of a radical student movement which aimed to reform the church and society on an intertwined model of classical and Christian antiquity. It left an indelible mark and changed the course of Calvin’s life.

Calvin’s participation in the Parisian reform movement ended abruptly as the government started a crackdown. In 1534, Calvin fled France to Switzerland.

In 1536, Calvin wrote the Institutes of Christian Religion, his principle work and the foundation of Calvinist doctrine. His evangelizing included political theory, the aim of which was to safeguard the freedoms and rights of ordinary people.

Calvin came to political power, governing Geneva 1536–1538 and 1541–1564. His rule was one of ruthless terror.

Though Calvin’s theological doctrines differed little from those of Luther, his historical impact did. Calvinism spread to France, Holland, Scotland, and the English colonies in North America.

Unlike Luther, Calvin permitted resistance to tyrannical rulers, albeit only though legal channels. Calvin’s stress remained on obedience, not resistance. Yet religious persecution in Holland and France drove Calvinists there into revolt. In France, the monarchy allied itself with the papacy against the Hapsburgs.

The strong centralizing tendencies of the nascent states were opposed by Calvinist demands for local autonomy. A considerable proportion of the French aristocracy sympathized with the Calvinist cause.

The religiously-inspired political conflict led to the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), which included the Massacre of St. Bartholomew on 24–25 August 1572, in which 30,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) were killed.

Pope Gregory XIII celebrated the slaughter with a public procession and solemn mass of thanksgiving, as well as having a commemorative medal struck. The pope praised the French king, Charles IX, for suppressing Protestantism, and expressed the hope that the enterprise so auspiciously started on St. Bartholomew’s Day would be carried on to the end.

In the decade following the massacre, the Huguenots produced a mass of tracts that were the most provocative political propaganda during the Reformation. The best known was A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos) (1579), published anonymously for obvious reasons.

In the establishing of the king there are 2 covenants contracted: the 1st between God, the king, and the people; the 2nd between the king and the people. ~ A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants

Vindiciae dealt with the bases of proper political power, and justifiable resistance to abuses of power. Vindiciae posits the answers in contractual terms.

The 1st covenant is between God and the people, including the king, so “that the people might be the people of God.” The 2nd contract is between a king and the people: a promise of faithful obedience given a just rule.

Both contracts in Vindiciae are derived from the Old Testament. The Calvinists, like the Puritans a century later, leaned heavily on the Old Testament for the concept of covenant as the foundation for authority.

Another key idea in Vindiciae is of trusteeship. A sovereign supposedly acts on behalf of his subjects, to whom he is ultimately accountable.

A subtext of trusteeship emphasizes 3rd-party adjudication: that governments should decide civil disputes. This anticipates one of the chief ideas of Locke.

Vindiciae conceives of a king as a judge rather than a legislator. It also assumes a superiority of law over a monarch. The king is only an organ of the law.

Vindiciae deals with the 2 types of tyranny: either gaining rule via violence, or one lawfully vested who violates his trust by practicing tyranny. A usurper who rules justly is preferable to a legitimate monarch who does not.

Tyranny is to be resisted. A tyrant, especially an illegitimate unjust ruler, should be deposed and killed. But not by the people per se. Early Calvinists were aristocratic. Vindiciae makes clear that its liberalism does not extend to sanctioning democracy.

Vindiciae had a powerful impact, especially on Dutch and English thought. What the Huguenots wanted for France came to fruition in England with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Catholicism was politically and socially routed from its shores.

Vindiciae stressed moral conscience as the ultimate source of authority. It was a far cry from “might makes right,” which was, and remained, the common creed of polity regardless of its form – aristocratic or democratic.