The Heterogeneity Of Early Protestantism

The Reformation is best conceived as a series of initially independent reforming movements with quite distinct agendas and understandings of the nature of theology and its role in the life of the church. Through the complex networks of the interchange of people, correspondence, and publications that were characteristic of this age, these originally independent movements came to achieve at least a partial degree of alignment over the following decade. Yet this identity was not determined by the movement's origins, as if this could be frozen in time and declared to be permanently normative. In a tangled and not fully understood process of reappraisal, reorientation, and reappropriation, it would emerge over time.2

The concept of "Protestantism" arose from an attempt to link a series of events in the early sixteenth century to form a common narrative of transformation. For the historian, there has never been a thing called "Protestantism"; rather, there were a number of movements, each with its own distinctive regional, theological, and cultural agendas. To speak of "the rise of Protestantism" is to offer a controlling narrative that links these potentially disparate events as part of a greater, more significant movement. So persuasive was this emerging narrative that many of the reforming groups scattered across Europe realigned their sense of identity and purpose to conform to it. As these movements began to locate themselves on a historical and conceptual map, each came increasingly to identify itself in terms of what was perceived as a greater overarching movement. A subtle process of realignment led to a growing sense of institutional and intellectual identity. Yet that identity was initially conceived primarily in terms of two movements—the Lutheran Reformation in northeastern Germany and the Zwinglian Reformation in eastern Switzerland. The idea that these two movements were as the two sides of the same Protestant coin represents a later retrojection by historians and Protestant apologists.

The suggestion that there exists a universal notion called "Protestantism" must therefore be viewed with considerable caution, as must the traditional idea that Luther's personal religious views somehow define the essence of this putative "Protestantism." As will become clear, Protestantism designates a family of religious movements that share certain historical roots and theological resources. Luther—admired and respected in some quarters, less so in others—is certainly one of those resources. As we shall see, Protestantism developed into a coherent entity through a complicated history of negotiations and compromises in the late 1520s and 1530s, during which time it was often unclear who was "in" and who was "out," let alone what the final outcome might be. Everything was in a state of flux, and the various reforming movements of the era shared no clear sense of a common set of beliefs, values, or ways of interpreting the Bible.

In a highly insightful study on the unity of the Reformation, Dorothea Wendebourg argues that the "unity" of the Reformation emerged retrospectively, primarily in response to later Catholic criticisms of the movement.3 Protestantism developed its sense of identity primarily in response to external threats and criticisms rather than as a result of shared beliefs. In one sense, the idea of "Protestantism" can be seen as the creation of its opponents rather than of its supporters. The history of Protestantism repeatedly demonstrates that a shared sense of identity that transcends denominational and confessional boundaries depends on there being a credible common enemy—a role that has been played, until very recently, by Catholicism.

In this chapter, we explore some of the early alternatives to Luther that sprang up throughout western Europe during the 1520s and early 1530s and the negotiations that ensued to define the characteristics of the movement and maximize the potential for collaboration in the face of shared threats and foes. We begin by noting the tensions and disagreements within the original reforming faction at Wittenberg.

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