Martin Luther is venerated as the father of the Reformation and reviled as a demagogue who provoked irreparable disunity at the heart of Christianity.  Protestants believe the Reformation corrected egregious errors introduced by decadent Popes. Catholics believe the Reformation triggered an endless process of division that will ultimately result in every dissident fighting to defend his own misreading of the Gospel. Protestants and Catholics blame each other for escalating a theological dispute into a religious war that killed multitudes.


No one disagrees that the Christianity was badly in need of reform by the 16th century. In fact, the Church had gone badly awry in the 5th century. Nothing could have been further from the mind of Jesus and his apostles than that the Gospel should be imposed by military force as the One World Church of the Roman Empire.  Augustine radically altered Christianity, emphasizing original sin to justify the use of force to make Pagans convert and heretics recant.


The conquest of Augustinian Christianity coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire and Europe’s decline into 1000 years of brutality, cruelty, ignorance, superstition and poverty. The Dark Ages were dominated by war lords, prowling militia and violent oppression of defenceless peasants.      


Jan Hus (1369-1415) was a pre-Reformation reformer from Prague in the Czech lands.  Influenced by British churchman John Wycliffe who had challenged the authority of Bishops, Hus anticipated Luther and Calvin in their call for elimination of indulgences and purgatory.  He also proclaimed justification by grace through faith alone.  Hus was burned at the stake, which sparked the Hussite Wars between his pre-Protestant followers and Catholic armies of Crusaders.


Another precursor of the Reformation was the work of humanists like Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). Devout Christians as well as being scholars, humanists’ main contribution to the Reformation was to challenge the authority of tyrants, feudal lords, corporations, and traditions, including those of the Church.  Humanists reacted to the sterile, knit-picking logic of Medieval Scholastics by reviving Classical Pagan literature filled with life-affirming tales of virtue and horrifying cautionary tales about the consequences of vice. They believed that great literature should inspire the reader to lead better lives while reading Thomas Aquinas inspired nothing but the need to take a long nap. Humanists championed individual freedom and created an intellectual climate in which monks dared to question popes, noblemen refused blind submission to Emperors, and peasants demanded to be treated like human beings.  


The Reformation officially began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed 95 complaints to the door of his church. The entire diatribe was directed at the Pope for selling indulgences.  Augustine’s doctrine of Purgatory had made it possible for the Church to offer sacraments in order to reduce the purgatorial penalty.  In time, the Church offered indulgences in return for time and prayers donated to do the work of the Church, including fight Crusades. Gradually, money became an acceptable substitute for time or prayers. It was inevitable that monetizing indulgences would eventually be abused by a Pope in need of cash.


Pope Leo X was born Giovanni de Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Europe. Even in far away Germany it was well know that Pope Leo was using riches collected from indulgences to build a new mega-church in honour of St. Peter.  Leo had made it his mission to erect a dwelling for God so spectacularly opulent that it would outshine the palaces of his own magnificent Medici papa. This required vast sums of money. Leo called it God’s work. Luther called it damnable extortion.  Many of Luther’s 95 complaints directly criticised Pope Leo X.


82. Why will the pope not empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he will redeem an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?


84. What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God? Why will they free that pious and beloved soul for pure love's sake?


86. Why won’t the pope, whose wealth is greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?


This dig at Leo Medici’s family fortune was enough to cost Luther his head. Such an insignificant monk should have been quickly crushed, but German nobles, emboldened by humanist questions, had their own questions about Pope Leo’s practices and were happy to use Luther as a pretext to put the Pope on trial. During the proceedings Luther convinced Germans that his denunciation of Indulgences was more scriptural than Rome’s defence.  Had Luther restricted his comments to Indulgences he may have been acquitted, but once the trial began his hot temper and sharp tongue lacerated the integrity of the Pope, the traditions of the Church, and the authority of scripture. A guilty verdict was inevitable.


While German nobles protected Luther and refused to allow him to be punished for boldly speaking the truth, the Pope and his Bishops cleaned out their barns. If Leo hoped to quell the uproar in Germany by scapegoating the renegade pardoners, he was tragically mistaken. Dictators are always most vulnerable when they begin to admit their errors.  Each reform was an admission that Luther had been right. Emboldened by weakness at the highest levels, German nobles challenged papal and imperial authority, German monks broke their vows and married their girlfriends, and then the German peasants began to demand their rights.


 In 1524 German peasants presented a petition to the Holy Roman Emperor asking for taxes to be reduced and to be allowed to hunt and fish on common lands. Their most revolutionary claim called for serfdom to be abolished and that they be allowed to rent land as free men. All of Europe held its breath. An entire social and economic system teetered on the brink.


German peasants expected Luther to champion their cause. He agreed, at least in part, with their claims but warned that nothing would ensue from armed revolution but murder and bloodshed. It was too late for sage advice. Luther’s virulent attacks on the Pope had already loosed revolution in the land. An army of 300,000 German peasants demanded reform and were ready to fight for it. Luther risked his own life to go out among the peasants to appeal for calm. They responded with derision. Luther responded with rage and a sulfurous tract ‘Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants’ which concluded with a blood-chilling exhortation. ‘Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab (them) secretly or openly. Remember that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as one must kill a mad dog…’ The Emperor sent out an army. By the time the revolt was crushed, 100,000 peasants had been stabbed, smitten and slain like mad dogs.  


What the peasants did not understand was that Luther harboured impenetrably paradoxical ideas about freedom and authority. Luther was opposed to the abuse of authority but was conservative with respect to traditional authority and institutions. Luther demanded freedom to interpret the Bible as the spirit guided him, but was opposed to freedom of speech and freedom from oppression for peasants.  More than anything, Luther was opposed to freewill.   His most influential book, Bondage of the Will, was a diatribe attacking the humanist Erasmus who believed in freewill.  Luther considered Bondage of the Will,  his greatest work and none of his other writing reveals so clearly his hostility toward freewill and its antichrist defenders which included Erasmus and the entire Catholic Church.


‘Even Peter Lombard and the snivelling Schoolmen agree with Augustine that freewill has no power to please God. Freewill is capable only of sin. Augustine calls it a slave will rather than a free will. A stone could be said to have freewill because on its own power it can fall downward. Without God’s grace, man’s freewill can only fall downward into deeper sin!’ 


‘You fear a floodgate of iniquity will be opened by these doctrines? So be it. Ungodly men are part of the evil leprosy we must endure.  But these doctrines are for the elect who fear God. If we teach men that they are free to choose their own salvation then these broad gates, these gaping chasm and raging whirlpools, will drag us down to the very depths of hell!’


‘When I see fighting with Catholics, I rejoice from my heart and smile, knowing for sure that the Pope’s kingdom and all its allies will surely fall.  Stop your cowardly complaining! The origin and continuance of this conflict is from God and will not cease until the enemies of God’s Word are crushed underfoot like filth on the streets.’ 


‘Indeed I foresee greater upheavals with other godless powers for a future generation, compared with which these present troubles are but as the whisper of a faint breeze or the murmur of a gentle brook.’


Luther had a perfectly clear idea of where his anti-Catholic rhetoric was leading.  He relished a fight against the enemies of God’s Word. The violence of his day was a mere whisper of the wholesale slaughter that would decimate Germany in the next century.   


Luther was the bulldog of the Reformation; Calvin was the brains.


John Calvin was born in France in 1509 while Luther was a university student in Germany.  Both were raised devout Catholics, and both studied Law before switching to Theology. Calvin was a student during the Peasants’ Revolt. Revolution was in the air and the universities were full of Martin Luther’s inflammatory writings. It was obvious to all that the Catholic Church needed to be reformed. The only question was whether change would be lead calmly by conservatives or chaotically by radicals. 


While at university, Calvin first became a humanist intellectual and he was fascinated by literature and ancient cultures. However his secular writing did not attract sufficient attention to satisfy his ambition.  Calvin then claimed to experience a change of faith, abandoning humanism and joining the French Reformation. He turned his pen to the defence of his new religion. Publically rejecting Catholicism required courage because it carried severe consequences. The French parliament set up a special court for the inquisition of heretics. Thousands of Protestants, including Calvin, fled to sanctuaries in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  At first the Protestants were a feeble, persecuted minority. A century later they would be a powerful force ready for war and.


John Calvin was recognized as an exceptionally bright and articulate young man who just might play the role of theorist and propagandist for Reformers that Augustine had played for Ambrose in the war against the Pagans. Two years later, at the age of 26, Calvin published a book that would define reformed theology with such authority that ‘Calvinist’ became synonymous with ‘Protestant’ for millions of Christians. Throughout his life Calvin would revise and expand his Institutes of the Christian Religion until it rivalled the Bible in size, yet the foundational theology remained perfectly consistent.   


Calvin understood clearly, as Luther did inconsistently and Augustine reluctantly, that a God of wrath is a God of wrath. There is nothing of love or justice in original sin. It is a horrifying doctrine. This much Calvin would admit.  Rather than argue that wrath is the supreme expression of love, as Luther did, or subvert wrath to reflect human notions of love and justice, as every Catholic theologian since Augustine had done, Calvin embraced the impenetrable horror of divine wrath.


Augustine, as a newly converted Christian, had wanted to believe that humans are free to choose between good and evil. By the end of his life, Augustine had imposed the doctrine of original sin but avoided the full consequence. Augustine’s compassion prevailed over rigorous reason and he allowed that parents could save their children from wrath by having them baptised. 


Luther ignored Augustine’s early writing in defence of freewill and used the ‘falling stone’ metaphor as a weapon to attack pardoners and purgatory.  John Calvin made a complete break from Catholic theology by eliminating freewill from salvation and stripping the Pope of all authority to forgive sins. God alone granted salvation by grace alone. Priests, masses and Purgatory were irrelevant. Calvin’s reasoning was simple and irrefutable, at least to other Reformers:  all men are born sinners and all die sinners. Sin is bred in the bone. Sinlessness is as far removed from human nature as the moon from earth; the chasm between sin and perfection is infinite. Baptism does not make a man sinless. Prayers and purgatory do not make a man sinless. No power on earth has ever broken, or will ever break, the power of sin. The wrath of God remains undiminished. The apostle Paul fully understood this when he wrote, ‘What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’(Romans 7:24) 


Calvin saw clearly that the God of wrath is neither compassionate nor just in the way that depraved humans define compassion and justice. Once this cornerstone of Calvinism was firmly in place, all the contradictions of Catholicism were stripped away. The great mystery is not why entire nations and multitudes of individuals are damned but why a few are saved.  Damnation is an inevitable consequence of original sin. The only mystery is salvation. Calvin wrote that sinners do not deserve grace, but God in his mercy has provided it.  They do not deserve to be forgiven, justified and glorified in the image of Christ, yet this is God’s will for the Chosen. How could the undeserving few not be grateful?  But for the ineffable grace of God, they would have remained condemned like all the reprobates and miscreants not destined for glory.  Calvin admitted that the fate of the damned is horrible, yet adamantly denied it is unjust for sinners to receive the punishments their sins deserve.  Augustine would admit that God predestined the salvation of the elect, but would not admit that God was responsible for the condemnation of the damned.  Calvin recognized this as a cowardly paradox and doubled the ante, giving God full credit for predestining salvation and damnation.


Calvin’s his Institutes of the Christian Religion is a massive tome that very few people study. Fortunately for Calvinists, the theological system has been encapsulated into five bullet points that can be easily memorized with the help of the acrostic TULIP.  


  1. Total Depravity.  All descendants of Adam are born totally depraved and blind to God. 
  2. Unconditional Election. God alone chooses the elect without any consideration for merit, effort or desire to be saved.
  3. Limited Atonement. Jesus did not die for all mankind, just the elect.
  4. Irresistible Grace.  Those who are elected and called to salvation cannot resist the call. The controlling will is divine not human. 
  5. Perseverance of the Saints. The saved cannot subsequently reject salvation or fall from grace. Once saved, always saved.


Calvin followed Luther in vilifying the Pope as antichrist. He denied the claims of Catholics to be Christians and consigned them all to Hell.  As a strategy, this discouraged Protestants from betraying the Reformation and returning to the Babylon Church of Rome; it also ensured that a religious war was inevitable.  


Counter Reformation


After the Peasants’ Revolt, conservative princes in Spain, Italy and France preferred to tolerate questionable theology from the Catholic Church rather than revolution from Reformers. The Catholic Church proceeded, with uncharacteristic haste, to initiate the Counter Reformation in 1545, a year before Luther’s death.


The Council of Trent was dedicated to improving the discipline and administration of the Church. The worldly excesses of the secular Renaissance church, epitomized by the era of  Alexander VI (Borgia family) exploded in the Reformation under Pope Leo X (Medici family) The Catholic Church would respond to these problems with a vigorous campaign of reform. The Council, by virtue of its actions, repudiated the pluralism of the Secular Renaissance which had previously plagued the Church: the organization of religious institutions was tightened, discipline was improved, and the parish was emphasized. The appointment of Bishops for political reasons was no longer tolerated. The Council of Trent also gave Bishops greater power to supervise all aspects of religious life. 


As soon as major irritations, such as Indulgences, were reformed, disgruntled Christians could claim victory and return to Mother Church rather than fight the Emperor’s power to punish the body and the Pope’s to condemn the soul.  The devastating wars that ensued could have been avoided if Calvinists had not identified the Pope as the antichrist, eliminating all possibility of reconciliation with Catholics.


Religious Wars


The reformation left kingdoms divided and neighbours became bitter enemies. Animosity between Protestants and Catholics was mostly limited to persecution rather than slaughter from 1517, when Luther first challenged the Pope, until the Thirty Year War broke out in 1618. The Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Bohemia, Austria and Bavaria) waged war against the Protestant states (most of Germany, the Netherlands, England, Denmark, Norway and Russian Cossacks.) 


War broke out in Bohemia (present day Czech Republic) where the descendants of Jan Hus were 90% Protestant. The Catholic League’s army invaded and destroyed the Bohemian army. Many citizens welcomed the restoration of Catholicism.  An estimated five-sixths of Bohemian nobility went into exile and their properties were confiscated. Before the war about 150,000 farmsteads existed in Bohemia, while only 50,000 remained after the war. The number of inhabitants decreased from 3 million to 800,000. The Thirty Years’ War divided and devastated Europe. Casualties in Germany averaged 20% of the population, with some regions losing more than 50%.   


Peace of Westphalia


Peace was finally declared in 1648. How do nations and kingdoms divided by religious hatred make peace?  One of the main issues underlying the Reformation and the Thirty Years War was freedom of religion, and the more philosophical question of freewill.  Both Catholics and Protestants based their theology on Augustine whose Gospel of Wrath denied freedom of religion and freewill.  Augustine believed the state had the power and authority to impose the official state religion on its subjects. The Peace of Westphalia provided a perfect Augustinian solution: each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state.


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