The ability to see beyond the horizon of one's own location in history is given to few. Who could have imagined, in the gently sunlit heyday of Edwardian England, that the grimmest and most devastating war ever to afflict the human race lay less than a decade away? There was little sense at the time of a gathering storm, of standing close to the edge of a cataclysmic precipice. Hindsight is invariably infallible, allowing later observers to discern the fault lines, the tensions, the shifting in the tectonic plates of history that presaged the tidal waves that would engulf nations and cultures. Yet at the time these often passed unnoticed, their significance not appreciated until after the deluge.
Could the turmoil of the Reformation have been predicted? Could it have been deferred, perhaps even deflected, by some skillful footwork on the part of the church hierarchy? What would have happened if the son of Hans and Margarette Luther had died shortly after his birth on November 10, 1483? These questions, though illuminating and not a little provocative, cannot be answered with any confidence. The historian, however, can hope to achieve at least some degree of understanding and appreciation of what actually happened, and above all to discern why a seemingly trivial protest by an unknown German academic at one of Europe's most insignificant universities proved to be the spark that ignited a conflagration that engulfed much of the Western church.
The social, cultural, and intellectual impact of the Protestant Reformation can be fully grasped only through an appreciation of the place of the church in late medieval Europe. The church was a major player in international politics and the internal affairs of regions, and it fostered a sense of identity at the level of local communities and gave individuals a sense of location and purpose within a greater scheme of things.1
The church had always played an important international role in European society. Medieval Europe bore little relation to its modern counterpart composed of individual, well-defined nation-states.2 In the Middle Ages, Europe consisted of an aggregate of generally small principalities, city-states, and regions, often defined and given a shared sense of identity more by language and historical factors than by any sense of common political identity. At the start of the fourteenth century, for example, Italy was little more than a patchwork of independent city-states and petty principalities. These were consolidated into six major political units during the fifteenth century: the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, the Papal States, and the three major city-states of Florence, Venice, and Milan. The modern nation-state of Italy was a nineteenth-century invention. In much the same way, Germany, destined to play a particularly significant role in the events of the age, consisted of a myriad of tiny territories.3 Even as late as the nineteenth century, there were still thirty-two German states and territories, which were only finally united into the German empire under Otto von Bismarck (1815-98).
The church was the only international agency to possess any significant credibility or influence throughout the Middle Ages, and into the era of the Renaissance. It played a decisive role in the settling of international disputes.4 Under Innocent III (pope from 1198 to 1216), the medieval papacy reached a hitherto unprecedented level of political authority in western Europe.5 This was given theological justification in the decree Sicut universitatis conditor, issued in October 1198, in which Innocent III set out the principle of the subordination of the state to the church. His argument? Just as God established "greater" and "lesser" lights in the heavens to rule the day and night—a reference to the sun and moon—so God ordained that the power of the pope exceeded that of any monarch. "Just as the moon derives her light from the sun, and is inferior to the sun in terms of its size and its quality, so the power of the king derives from the authority of the pope." That authority was often recognized with great reluctance; there was, however, no other institution in western Europe with anything remotely approaching its influence.
Power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton remarked. There were many within the church at the time who were troubled by the soaring power and influence of the papacy and who sought to prevent it getting out of control. The Conciliarist movement argued that ecclesiastical power should be decentralized: instead of being concentrated in the hands of a single individual, it should be dispersed within the body of the church as a whole and entrusted to a more representative and accountable group—namely, "general Councils."6 This movement reached the height of its influence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its moment seemed to have arrived when a crisis emerged in the papacy during the fourteenth century.
Those who believed that the identity of the church was safeguarded by the authority of the pope found themselves in a dilemma toward the end of the fourteenth century. Irritated by the tensions arising from the factionalism and infighting between some of the great Roman families, Clement V decided to move the papal court away from Rome to the southern French city of Avignon. From 1309 to 1378, the papacy endured this self-imposed exile from Rome—a period the great poet Petrarch referred to as the "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy.7 Yet a number of factors—including growing French political interference in papal affairs and tensions within Italy as a result of the papal absence— led Gregory XI to decide to return to Rome in 13 77.
Yet Gregory died shortly afterward. His successor, Urban VI (1378— 89), was unpopular with the French cardinals, who returned to Avignon and elected a rival pope, Clement VII. For a period of more than forty years, there were two claimants to the title of the papacy in Europe, a state of affairs that caused confusion and seriously weakened the authority of the church. England, Germany, Hungary, most of Italy, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries supported Urban VI at Rome; France, Scotland, Spain, and southern Italy supported the "anti-pope," Clement VII, at Avignon.
Many senior church figures quietly came to the conclusion that these tensions could not be sustained without doing permanent damage to the church. The schism was finally resolved by the Councils of Pisa (1409) and Constance (1414-18). Given that there were three serious candidates for the papacy and no obvious alternative means of resolving the issue, the Council of Constance elected Martin V as pope in 1417. The "Great Schism" was ended. From that point onward, there would be only one pope in Rome. Yet the Council's role in electing the new pope and ending the schism introduced new uncertainties into the medieval Catholic understanding of authority within the church. Did not this imply that Councils had authority over popes? It seemed as if the rules of the game had changed.
Yet within decades the balance of power had shifted once more toward the papacy. Conciliarism may have remained an aspiration for many in the early sixteenth century, but it was no longer seen as a serious political option.8 Although the Conciliarist debate can be interpreted as evidence of a crisis of authority—and hence a weakness—within the late medieval church, it can equally be regarded as an exploration of reforming options that tended to strengthen the church as it emerged through a difficult transitional period following the Great Schism.
At the local level, the church provided a focus of social identity and an agency for pastoral care. The local priest was often the only person of any learning in the neighborhood. Many churches were adorned with wall paintings, illustrating key episodes in the life of Christ or offering visions of heaven or judgment to remind the faithful of their ultimate accountability. The local church provided social stability, while at the same time enabling individuals to locate themselves in terms of the great narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and final judgment that lay at the heart of the Christian faith. Baptism, marriage, and funeral rites were all markers along the journey of life at which the church connected with the lives, hopes, and fears of its members.
Throughout medieval Europe, serious attention was given to ensuring that the core ideas and rites of the church connected with ordinary people. The famous York cycle of mystery plays can be seen as a deliberate instrument of religious education on the part of a proactive clerical establishment during the period 1360 to 1420.9 Sociologists of knowledge argue that in every human society there is what Peter Berger terms "a plausibility structure," that is, a structure of assumptions and practices, reinforced by institutions and their actions, that determines what beliefs are persuasive. This must not be confused with the pure idealism of a "worldview." What Berger is referring to is a socially constructed framework that is mediated and supported by social structures.10 In the Middle Ages, the most important such social reality was the church and its rites, from baptism through marriage through funerals; the church mediated and affirmed a view of reality.
The church was no abstract theological notion, no peripheral social institution; it stood at the heart of the social, spiritual, and intellectual life of western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and into the era of the Renaissance. The older view, which saw the Renaissance as a secular interlude between the medieval "age of faith" and the unruly religious passions unleashed by the Reformation, never really made much sense and is painfully difficult to sustain on the basis of the evidence.11 An individual's hope of salvation rested on her being part of the community of saints, whose visible expression was the institution of the church. The church could not be bypassed or marginalized in any account of redemption; there was, as Cyprian of Carthage had so cogently argued in the third century, no salvation outside the church. It was a point tangibly expressed and reinforced in the architecture of churches.
An excellent illustration of this point can be see in the French Benedictine priory church of St. Marcel les Sauzes, which was founded in 985 and extensively developed during the twelfth century.12 An inscription over the main door to the church reads: "You who are passing through, you who are coming to weep for your sins, pass through me, since I am the gate of life." Those who were searching for the consolation of heaven or the forgiveness of sins could not secure these benefits without the intervention and interposition of the institution of the church, and its authorized ministers.13 Salvation had been institutionalized.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the position of the church within Western society seemed to many to be a permanent fixture of a stable world. Yet this entire way of thinking about the world was about to undergo radical change. New social and intellectual forces began to destabilize its foundations and to offer alternatives. Growing pressure for reform developed. In part, this reflected abuse and corruption within the church; in part it also reflected an increased confidence on the part of clergy—and increasingly laity—to voice their complaints and expect to be heard.
It is not difficult to list the many abuses and corruptions that clouded the history of the late medieval church. There was much to criticize, from the pope down to the most menial of the clergy. The Renaissance papacy was widely criticized for its financial excesses and preoccupation with social status and political power. Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family (perhaps chiefly remembered for its lethal dinner parties), managed to bribe his way to victory in the election to the papacy in 1492 despite the awkwardness of having several mistresses and at least seven known illegitimate children.14 Niccolo Machiavelli, the great theorist of naked power, put the immorality of his age down to the appalling example set by the papacy.
It is easy to find much to criticize among the senior clergy of the age, whose appointments often rested on the influence of family, fortune, and power rather than any merit on their own part. In 1451, Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy secured the appointment of his son to the senior position of bishop of the city of Geneva, later to be noted for its association with John Calvin. The appointment was not a great success. But what could you expect from an eight-year-old? In many parts of France, the senior clergy were generally outsiders, often nobility imposed upon the diocese by royal patronage. Rarely resident within their diocese, these clergy regarded their spiritual and temporal charges as little more than sources of unearned income, useful for furthering their political ambitions elsewhere. In France, Antoine du Prat (1463-1535), Archbishop of Sens, was so preoccupied with state duties that he found time to attend only one service at his cathedral. Appropriately enough, it was his funeral.
Lower clergy were often the butt of crude criticism.15 Monasteries were regularly depicted as lice-infested dens of homosexual activity. The poor quality of the parish clergy basically reflected their low social status: in early sixteenth-century Milan, chaplains had incomes lower than those of unskilled laborers. Many resorted to horse and cattle trading to make ends meet. Illiteracy was rife among the clergy. Because many of them had learned the Latin words of the mass by heart from older colleagues, they were known to make mistakes as time passed and memories failed. As levels of lay literacy soared in the late fifteenth century, the laity became increasingly critical of their clergy. One English squire of the early sixteenth century grumbled that he had distinctly heard his local priest use the accusative case when the ablative was clearly called for. Many educated laity resented the distinction between the "sacred" and "secular" orders, which implied that the clergy enjoyed a closer relationship with God than they did.
Unsurprisingly, the hostility toward the clergy partly reflected their incompetence and partly the privileges they enjoyed. The tax breaks enjoyed by clergy were a source of particular irritation, especially in times of economic difficulty. In the French diocese of Meaux, which would become a center for reforming activists in the period 1521 to 1546, the clergy were exempted from all forms of taxation, provoking considerable local resentment. In the diocese of Rouen, there was popular outcry over the church's windfall profits made by selling grain at a period of severe shortage.
Yet it is important not to exaggerate the extent of such anticlerical-ism. While there were undoubtedly areas in which such hostility was particularly pronounced—in cities, for example—the clergy were often valued and respected. In rural areas, where levels of lay literacy were low, the clergy remained the most highly educated members of the local community. More importantly, many of the great monasteries of Europe were respected on account of their social outreach and their significant contributions to the local economy. Yet when all this is taken into account, a rumbling discontent remained, often expressed in what is known as "grievance literature."
Underlying such criticisms was a significant change taking place within the laity. Although the fifteenth century was regarded as a period of religious degeneration by an earlier generation of historians, more recent research has decisively overturned this verdict.16 Toward the end of this period, on the eve of the Reformation, religion was perhaps more firmly rooted in the experience and lives of ordinary people than at any time in the past. Earlier medieval Christianity had been primarily monastic, focused on the life, worship, and writings of Europe's monasteries and convents. Church building programs flourished in the later fifteenth century, as did pilgrimages and the vogue for collecting relics. The fifteenth century has been referred to as "the inflation-period of mystic literature," reflecting the growing popular interest in religion. The fifteenth century witnessed a widespread popular appropriation of religious beliefs and practices, not always in orthodox forms.
The phenomenon of "folk religion" often bore a tangential relationship to the more precise yet abstract statements of Christian doctrine that the church preferred—but that many found unintelligible or unattractive. In parts of Europe, something close to "fertility cults" emerged, connected and enmeshed with the patterns and concerns of everyday life.17 The agrarian activities of rural communities—such as haymaking and harvesting—were firmly associated with popular religion. Thus, in the French diocese of Meaux in the early sixteenth century, the saints were regularly invoked in order to ward off animal and infant diseases, the plague, and eye trouble, as well as to ensure that young women found appropriate husbands. The direct connection between religion and everyday life was taken for granted. The spiritual and the material were interconnected at every level.
This growing popular interest in religion led to lay criticism of the institutional church where it was felt to be falling short of its obligations. Yet this criticism reflected a new interest in religion that was reflective, whereas in the past the laity might have been somewhat uncritical. Christians became dissatisfied with approaches to their faith that stressed its purely external aspects—such as just attending church. They demanded a form of Christianity that was relevant to their personal experience and private worlds and capable of being adapted or mastered to meet their personal needs. If anything, it was adaptation, rather than reformation, that seemed to be the primary concern of the articulate laity. Not only were people more interested in their faith, but levels of lay literacy had soared, enabling laypeople to be more critical and informed about what they believed and what they expected of their clergy. Studies of inventories of personal libraries of the age show a growing appetite for spiritual reading. With the advent of printing, books became more widely available and now lay well within the reach of an economically empowered middle class. Devotional books, collections of sermons, traditional "books of hours," and New Testaments are featured prominently in these inventories.18 Laypeople were beginning to think for themselves and no longer regarded themselves as cravenly subservient to the clergy in matters of Christian education.
The importance of this point can be seen from the publishing history of one of the most important works of the early sixteenth century—Erasmus of Rotterdam's Handbook of the Christian Soldier, which first appeared in 1503.19 The work made a powerful appeal to educated lay men and women, whom Erasmus regarded as the church's most important resource. The future of the church, Erasmus argued, rested on the emergence of a biblically literate laity, whom the clergy were to respect and go to as a resource. The soaring popularity of the work, especially in the late 1510s, suggests that a radical alteration in lay self-perception was taking place. The work was translated into English in 1520 by William Tyndale during his time as tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury, Gloucestershire.20
Erasmus's success also highlighted the importance of printing as a means of disseminating radical new ideas, a point that Martin Luther could hardly fail to overlook when his turn came to propagate such ideas. Recent scholarship has stressed the critical role of the new technology of reusable type in the dissemination of new ideas across Europe, whether those ideas were Protestant or humanist.21 Without the advent of printing, there would have been no Reformation, and there might well have been no Protestantism either.
Important though these developments were, in and of themselves they do not adequately explain, still less necessarily entail, the rise of Protestantism. The root and branch "reformation" demanded by so many at that time could easily have taken the form of an internal review of the church's teachings and practices, not unlike the great Gregorian reforms of the eleventh centuries.22 The key question is why and how this group of movements working for renewal and reform within the church came to crystallize as an entity outside the church structures of the day, and how it managed to survive.
Every single one of the points of difficulty noted here could have been addressed, and possibly resolved, by a gradual process of reappraisal and reform within the church similar to the program introduced in Castille, Spain, in the 1480s by the Franciscan provincial of the kingdom, Francisco Ximenez de Cisneros (1436-1517), which so radically transformed the Spanish church during this era of transition. He is widely regarded as having laid the foundations for the predominant role of the Spanish church in the Spanish Golden Age of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.23
Most of Cisneros's reforming measures were put in place after he became archbishop of Toledo in 1495. Although nearly sixty years of age at that time, he spent the remainder of his life reforming the church, encouraging learning and a revival of religious vocations, and maintaining Spanish political unity at a time of rapid change and potential instability. The University of Alcalá and the Complutensian Polyglot (a multilingual version of the Bible) were perhaps the most tangible results of Cisneros's educational reforms. These reforms were not entirely successful and took a long time to take root. Nevertheless, they point to the capacity of the church to transform itself in response to the great challenges facing Spain at that time—most notably after the final re-Christianization of Spain following the military defeat of Islamic invaders from North Africa.24
A similar pattern can be identified elsewhere in Europe. A significant reform movement emerged in southern France about the year 1170 as a result of the activity of a wealthy Lyonnais merchant by the name of Valdes.25 Valdes embarked on a reforming ministry based upon a literal reading of the Bible, particularly injunctions to poverty and biblically based preaching in the vernacular. This ethos contrasted sharply with the somewhat loose morality of the clergy at that time and attracted considerable support in southern France and Lombardy. Though persecuted during the Middle Ages, the movement survived and allied itself with the Protestant Reformation in 1532. The Walden-sian movement represents an important historical link between early medieval reforming movements, which were predominantly moral in their agendas and biblical in their foundations, and the Reformation. Yet the fact remains that, until 1532, this movement saw itself as firmly embedded within the Catholic church, despite that church's official hostility toward its values and agendas.
In Italy the movement often known as "catholic evangelicalism," or "evangelism," with its stress on personally assimilated faith, became firmly established within the church, even penetrating deeply within its hierarchy, without being regarded as in any way heretical, schismatic, or even problematic.26 Local initiatives for reform and renewal were springing up throughout the Western church, even if they lacked the central coordination and encouragement that might have transformed the western European church.
In this section, we have noted some of the failures, shortcomings, and abuses associated with the medieval church. Others could be added without the slightest difficulty. The enterprise would be at times amusing, at others depressing, and occasionally even enlightening. Yet such failings do not amount to a portrait of an institution in crisis, meltdown, or even serious difficulty. Such shortcomings, it has to be said with sadness, are the routine headaches of most occasionally dysfunctional institutions, whether they be the medieval church, modern multinational corporations, or the presidency of the United States of America.
While the whole enterprise of seeking "causes" of Protestantism is in itself almost as problematic as defining what "Protestantism" actually was, it is clear that, to understand its emergence at this time, we need to go much deeper than cataloging the shortcomings of the church. Such a list cannot offer an adequate account of why Protestantism emerged, still less why this development took place at this specific moment in history and not some other. The roots of the new movement must lie deeper than the moral shortcomings that are arguably a perennial characteristic of any institution over an extended period of time.
While no explanation is ultimately entirely satisfactory, perhaps the most persuasive account of the origins of Protestantism points to a double shift within Western culture at this time concerning values and ideas, on the one hand, and personal and social aspirations, on the other. Hitherto static and stable tectonic plates were shifting in both academy and society, opening up faults and fissures that threatened the old ecclesiastical order at a much deeper level than anything in the previous half-millennium. The advent of printing allowed both discontentment with existing paradigms and enthusiasm for an alternative to spread with unprecedented rapidity.
In the first place, we must consider the intellectual tumult that was taking place at this time and raising fundamental difficulties for traditional Catholic beliefs. It was one thing to suggest that the church had got itself into something of a mess; it was quite another to suggest that some of its fundamental ideas might rest on misunderstandings of the
Bible and thus might need to be reviewed, and possibly rejected. To understand this velvet revolution in the world of ideas, we must consider the rise of humanism at the time of the Renaissance and its implications for the transformation of Christianity. Ideas have the power to change society; the Renaissance set in motion a change in the world of ideas that was soon to be mirrored in the greater world of social reality.
We need to consider a second factor as well: the deeper cultural changes taking place around the dawn of the sixteenth century, which led many to yearn to break with the tradition of the past and to see the medieval church as hindering such a change. Change was in the air: individuals sensed that alternative means of self-actualization might lie to hand, and communities longed for increasing autonomy and less interference from traditional sources of authority—such as the church. The paradoxes and apparent contradictions of late medieval attitudes to the church can be resolved to some extent by noting that the church and its agents were valued when they protected, encouraged, or affirmed personal and communal fulfillment, and they were disliked when they sought to impose the church's own authority or supported the authority of unpopular clients.
We may turn immediately to consider the first of these factors—the rise of the "new learning," which proved to be so formidable a catalyst for change at this time.
RENAISSANCE HUMANISM AND THE "NEW LEARNING"
Christianity is a complex, multilayered reality. As we have seen, particular criticisms were leveled at the institutional level during the late medieval period, including the questionable morals of the papacy, the absence of senior bishops from their dioceses, and the poor quality of local parish clergy. All of these could be remedied without undue difficulty by appropriate measures. Yet what if criticism was directed at a more fundamental level—that of the ideas on which the institutions of the church were ultimately based?
In the case of Christianity, the ideas in question derive from the Bible. As with any classic religious text, three fundamental questions arise concerning its application: How is the most authentic form of that text to be determined? How is it to be translated? And how is it to be interpreted?27
By the end of the twelfth century, all three of these questions appeared to have been settled.28 The question of the "canon" of the Bible had been sorted out seven centuries earlier and was not seen as particularly problematic. There was a minor debate, never regarded as particularly significant, over the status of some Old Testament books that appeared in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the "Sep-tuagint") but not in Hebrew versions. It was known that there had been some corruption in the transmission of the standard Latin translation of the Bible (discussed later here)—but it was widely believed that the thirteenth-century so-called Paris edition had eliminated most of these. The basic text of the Bible thus seemed to have been agreed upon.
The translation issue also appeared to be settled. Latin was emerging as the lingua franca of the West, in relation to both the church and the universities, and it was deemed entirely fitting that a Latin translation of the Bible should be regarded as definitive. This translation, often referred to as "the Vulgate," could be traced back to the time of the early church, particularly the great biblical scholar Jerome. Jerome's editio vulgata ("common version") of the Latin text displaced older translations and came to be regarded as an authoritative rendering of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek original texts. When Western medieval Christian writers speak about "the Bible" or "Holy Scripture," they are referring to the Vulgate translation.
The issue of how the Bible was to be interpreted proved slightly more problematic. Early medieval theologians—such as Peter Abelard—were well aware that certain passages had been interpreted in different ways in the past and that much disagreement continued in the present. The issue was partially resolved through the development of certain "rules" for the interpretation of the Bible. One of the most important was known as the "Quadriga," or the "fourfold sense of Scripture." This approach held that the Bible could be read at four different levels: literally (the most basic level), allegorically (in which a text was interpreted doctrinally), tropologically (in which a text was interpreted morally), and anagogically (in which a text was interpreted as relating to the Christian hope). With the application of this method, a degree of consensus emerged over how texts were to be interpreted.
Although the problem of biblical interpretation was not insignificant for medieval Christianity, the extent of any difficulties was limited by the emerging consensus that the church itself was the supreme interpreter of the Bible. On this view of things, God had providentially endowed the church with the capacity and authority to interpret the Bible and thus to avoid confusion in matters of doctrine and morals. There were some significant debates over precisely where this authority resided within the church: With the pope himself? Or with councils of leading cardinals and theologians? Yet the general principle of the divine guidance of the church into truth was firmly established, even if the fine detail remained occasionally fuzzy.
All of this was plunged into confusion through the new interest in the Bible resulting from the rise of humanism. The term "humanism" is easily misunderstood. In the twenty-first century, this word is often used to mean something like "atheism" or "secularism" and to identify a worldview that excludes belief in—or at least reference to—the divine. At the time of the Renaissance, the word had a very different connotation. The Renaissance was a remarkable period of cultural regeneration that began in Italy in the fourteenth century and gradually spread throughout much of Europe, reaching the peak of its influence in the 1500s. Its central theme was that today's culture could be renewed by a creative engagement with the cultural legacy of the past, above all the heritage of ancient Greece and Rome.29
Humanism can be thought of as the worldview underlying the Renaissance. It is best understood as a quest for cultural eloquence and excellence, rooted in the belief that the best models lay in the classic civilizations of Rome and Athens. Its basic method can be summed up in the Latin slogan adfontes, which can be paraphrased as "back to the sources!" A stream is at its purest at its source. Humanists argued for the bypassing of the "Middle Ages"—that telling phrase, by the way, is a humanist creation, designed to belittle this irritating historical interlude between the glories of the ancient world and their renewal in the Renaissance—in order to allow the present to be renewed and reinvigo-rated by drinking deeply at the wellspring of antiquity. The effects of this program can be seen at an astonishing variety of levels. Classical architectural styles came to be preferred over the prevailing Gothic. Cicero's elegant Latin style displaced the rather mechanical, barbarous form of Latin used by scholastic writers. Roman law and Greek philosophy were eagerly studied at universities. In every case, the same basic principle can be seen at work: the fountainhead of Western culture had the capacity to refresh and redirect it when it had become tired, spent, and directionless.
Most humanists of the era—such as the great Erasmus of Rotterdam—were Christians who were concerned for the renewal and reform of the church. So why not apply the same method of regeneration to Christianity? Why not return ad fontes, to the original sources of faith, and allow them to reinvigorate a burned-out and run-down church? Could the vitality and simplicity of the apostolic age be recaptured? It was a powerful, inspirational vision, and it captivated the imagination of many laypeople in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
But how was this to be done? What was the religious analogue of the culture of the classical world? What was the fountainhead of Christianity? Christian humanists had little doubt: the Bible, especially the New Testament. This was the ultimate source of faith. The writings of medieval theologians could be set to one side with the greatest of ease to allow a direct engagement with the ideas of the New Testament. The ecclesiastically safe and familiar interpretations of the Bible found in scholastic theology would be marginalized in favor of reading the text directly. For conservative churchmen, this was a dangerous, threatening move that had the potential to destabilize the delicately balanced theological equilibrium, achieved over many centuries.30 The humanist demand to return to the Bible turned out to be far more radical a call than many senior churchmen could stomach.
The humanists were primarily scholars—men of letters who insisted that this systematic return to the Bible should be done on the basis of the best possible scholarship. The actual content of the Bible would have to be established by the most reliable textual methods, and it would have to be read in its original languages. Immediately, the authority of the Latin Vulgate translation came under threat. As humanist scholars began to examine the history of the text in detail, problems began to emerge. Probing questions were pressed with increasing vigor concerning its textual integrity and philological reliability. As the Vulgate text was painstakingly compared with the best Greek manuscripts, errors began to be noticed. Variant readings were identified. In 1516 Erasmus himself produced an edition of the Greek text of the New Testament that caused something of a storm. Though it had many faults, it caused a sea change in attitudes by challenging the actual Vulgate text of the Bible at several points. To put the issue as bluntly as possible: if Erasmus was right, certain statements that earlier generations had accepted as "biblical" might not be part of the original text of the New Testament at all. So what, many wondered, did this mean for those church doctrines based on such statements?
One text often used by medieval theologians to defend the doctrine of the Trinity is of particular interest: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree as one" (1 John 5:7-8). Erasmus pointed out that the words "the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth" are not found in any Greek manuscript. They were added later to the Latin Vulgate, probably after 800, despite not being known in any ancient Greek version. The most likely explanation is that these words were initially added as a "gloss" (a brief comment set alongside or above the text) and that a later scribe assumed them to be part of the text itself and thus included them in later Latin texts, unaware that they were not part of the original Greek text of the New Testament.31 If this passage were to be declared "unbiblical," this most difficult of Christian doctrines might become dangerously vulnerable.
The demand that the Bible be read in its original languages found wide acceptance throughout western Europe. Those wanting to advance the ideals of the Renaissance aimed to be trium linguarum gnarus—that is, competent in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. This led to the founding of trilingual colleges or, in some cases, of a chair in three languages at, for example, the Universities of Alcalá in Spain (1499), Wittenberg in Germany (1502), Oxford in England (Corpus Christi College, 1517), Louvain in modern-day Belgium (1517), and the royal Collège de France in Paris (1530).32
It was not long before the possibly serious translation errors uncovered in the Vulgate threatened to force revision of existing church teachings. Erasmus pointed out some of these in 1516. An excellent example is found in the Vulgate translation of the opening words of Jesus's ministry in Galilee (Matthew 4:17) as: "do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." This translation creates a direct link between the coming of God's kingdom and the sacrament of penance. Erasmus pointed out that the original Greek text should be translated as: "repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand." Where the Vulgate seemed to refer to an outward practice (the sacrament of penance), Erasmus insisted that the reference was to an inward psychological attitude—that of "being repentant."
Yet there proved to be more to the humanist vision of biblical scholarship than the need for better translations. The rise of the "new learning" promoted an alternative vision of interpretative authority in the 1510s—that of the scholarly community rather than the church. The academy already held the key to the reconstruction of the biblical text and its translation into the vernacular. It would be only a small step to claim the right to interpret that text, using the new hermeneutical techniques of the Renaissance that were then emerging.33
"Without humanism, there would have been no Reformation." This oft-repeated slogan makes the critical point that the rise of humanism forced a more radical program of reform on the church than any had anticipated. While many believed that there was an urgent need to eliminate abuse, simplify structures, and increase levels of education within the church, others now began to suggest that another layer of review was necessary. At least some teachings of the church might rest upon less than adequate biblical foundations. People were well used to complaints about the many moral and spiritual failings of the church; this was something new, however, and it threatened to spark off deeply disturbing debates and developments that were without precedent in western Christendom.
When this call for reform of the church is linked with the new understanding of humanity to emerge around this time, an explosive mixture resulted.
CHRISTIANITY S DANGEROUS IDEA
THE POWER TO CHANGE THINGS: A NEW CONCEPTION OF HUMANITY
As we have seen, the Renaissance encouraged a new level of engagement with the foundational resources of culture, urging social and intellectual renewal on the basis of classical models—including the New Testament. Yet the Renaissance also witnessed the rise of a new conception of humanity with a radically altered understanding of its place within the cosmos. To explore this, we shall consider the famous "Manifesto of the Renaissance" (1486), which resonated throughout much of Europe.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), one of the leading voices of the Italian Renaissance, delivered his precocious "oration on the dignity of humanity" in 1486 at the age of twenty-four. This "Manifesto," written in highly polished and elegant Latin, depicted humanity as a creature with the capacity to determine its own identity rather than be compelled to receive this in any given fixed form. The human creature possesses no determinate image and is urged by its creator to pursue its own perfection. God, the creator of humanity, is portrayed as mandating it to shape its own destiny: "You are constrained by no limits, and shall determine the limits of your nature for yourself, in accordance with your own free will, in whose hand we have placed you."
The ideas of this oration proved to be enormously influential in the late Renaissance, and in the longer term they can be seen as setting the scene for the Enlightenment assertion of human autonomy in the eighteenth century.34 In the short term, however, it galvanized a new understanding of human nature and capacities. There was no "fixed" order of things; everything could be changed. Humanity was mandated by God to change the social and physical world.35 This new vision of humanity as God's agent for changing the world empowered many who felt called to transform society.
Yet the medieval church was seen to be strongly conservative, lending theological support to the existing social order. The physical and social orders were held to be fixed and permanent, sanctioned by divine command. The traditional authority of influential families, monarchs, and principalities was not to be challenged. It was a source of frustration for the entrepreneurial middle classes, who were held back by the stifling force of tradition. A religious ideology that legitimated, or perhaps even encouraged, change would undermine such a static worldview and open the way to a dynamic alternative.
The rise of Protestantism is widely held to be linked with the transition between a medieval notion of worldly order, founded upon an order imagined to be natural and eternal, and a modern order founded upon the acceptance, even encouragement, of change as a means of pursuing the good.36 The medieval worldview was static: one was allocated a position within society on the basis of birth and tradition, and it was not possible to alter this situation. By the end of the fifteenth century, an ideology of transition had developed; it held that individuals could determine their social position and status by their own efforts; they were not trapped by their social origins or circumstances, but could better themselves. To an emerging entrepreneurial social class, hitherto frustrated by an inability to make significant headway in a society dominated by tradition and familial ties, the doctrine of the fundamental changeability of existing social orders opened up exciting new possibilities.
Demands for social change began to build up apace around 1500, especially in the cities. The rise of a mercantile class in cities such as Zurich posed a challenge to the power and influence of traditional aristocratic families. In the closing decade of the fifteenth century, Zurich replaced the old patrician government with a Great Council of some two hundred city fathers, chosen for life by the merchant guilds, and a Small Council of fifty, selected by the Great Council and the guilds. An expectation of change and improvement arose as a similar pattern emerged in other cities around this time.
Yet there was little in the way of a religious motivation for laypeople to become actively involved in worldly affairs, business, or social action. The church had been slow to adapt to the new economic realities of the cities and had little encouragement to offer entrepreneurial individu-als.37 Yet Protestantism would offer a theological framework that radically altered the self-perception of such individuals. Luther's cardinal doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" marked a decisive break with the medieval idea of vocation as a calling to a monastic life; Christians were called to serve God actively in the world and its affairs. The Protestant work ethic, which emerged definitively in the 1530s, gave a new religious motivation to active lay engagement in politics, business, finance, and other professional and artistic spheres. This theology of lay empowerment resonated strongly with the aspirations of a newly emerged and increasingly confident middle class.
Protestantism thus came to be linked with the longing for social progress and reform. It is not correct to say that Protestantism caused this change, which was already under way at the time of its emergence. Nor was Protestantism caused by this shifting perception of human possibilities. The evidence points to a synergy, a confluence of Protestant religious ideas and a new set of expectations and aspirations. Many believed, not without good reason, that Protestantism was the religious counterpart of social advancement and change.38 The scene was set for a powerful alliance of religious motivation and professional lay competency.
Erasmus's text of the Greek New Testament was published in 1516. It is perhaps no accident that the event that is traditionally regarded as sparking the birth of Protestantism took place only a year later when Martin Luther nailed a document to a church door. We must now tell the story of the origins of this spark and of how it came to ignite such a conflagration.
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