The Invention Of Protestantism Early Attempts To Unify The Reformation

In the 1520s, city after city in Germany and Switzerland went over to the Reformation, often as a result of public disputations followed by a vote on the part of the city council. In Germany, more than fifty of the sixty-five imperial free cities responded positively to the Reformation, with only five choosing to ignore it altogether. In Switzerland, the Reformation originated in an urban context (Zurich) and spread through a process of public debate within confederate cities such as Berne and Basel and within other centers, such as Geneva and St. Gallen, that were linked to these cities by treaty obligations.

Yet it was realized that a purely political basis for the emerging religious movement was inadequate. Political alliances would shift, the balance of power would change, princes would be subject to pressure. If the new movement was to survive, it could not be grounded merely on the contingencies and provisionalities of politics. A deeper mooring was essential. And what firmer grounding could there be than in theology? Alongside the move to build political alliances between emerging centers of reform, the movement's visionaries realized that it was essential to ground it in the firm, unchangeable realities of the will of God as revealed in the Bible.

So why did so many of Europe's great cities switch their support from traditional Catholicism to the new religion? The answer is not entirely clear, although some of the factors involved are reasonably well understood. The historian Berndt Moeller has argued that the urban sense of community was disrupted in the fifteenth century through growing social tension in the cities and an increasing reliance upon external political bodies, such as the imperial government and the papal curia. By adopting the Lutheran Reformation, Moeller suggests, these cities were able to restore a sense of communal identity, including the critically important notion of a community whose inhabitants are bound together in a shared religious life. Moeller draws particular attention to the social implications of Luther's doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which broke down certain traditional distinctions within urban society and encouraged a sense of communal unity.23 Other explanations could easily be added to this, some specific to local situations. Whatever the ultimate explanation may be, there was a clear perception that accepting the Reformation would lead to greater autonomy within the cities, allowing them increased control over their own affairs.

The Reformation also led, perhaps without anyone realizing it, to diversification. The emerging Protestant movement simply included too many variables to remain tightly defined. The motives of city councils for accepting the Reformation varied considerably, as did their understandings of what they were actually doing and the local situations they sought to address. Furthermore, each city had its own resident re-former—in several cases, groups of reformers—and each possessed a somewhat different vision of the nature of the gospel and its implications for individual and corporate life. With the interaction of so many factors, it is not in the least surprising that each city developed its own distinctive reformation.24

Some case studies illustrate the diversity of these local reformations. The great imperial free city of Strasbourg became home to one of the most politically and intellectually significant reforming movements of the 1520s. Its leading proponents included the Hebrew scholar Wolfgang Capito; Matthew Zell, the first person to preach Protestant ideas in the city; the humanist scholar Caspar Hedio; and Martin Bucer, who rapidly established a Europe-wide reputation as a scholar, theologian, and skilled ecclesiastical diplomat.25 While they gladly followed Luther's lead in returning to scripture, their vision of reform owed more to Erasmus's concern for institutional simplicity and moral renewal than to Luther's emphasis on justification by faith.26 While aware of Luther's emphasis on this doctrine, Bucer modified it, subtly but significantly, in order to stress the importance of moral regeneration after acceptance by God.

Zwingli's reformation at Zurich attracted much attention in his native Switzerland. After public disputations, the great cities of Berne and Basel decided to adopt the Reformation, tending to follow Zwingli's distinctive theological positions, without realizing that they were far from characteristic of the emerging movement in Wittenberg. Although Johann Oecolampadius, the reformer of Basel, was generally supportive of Zwingli, there were differences between them.27 After Zwingli's death in battle in 1531, the religious direction of the city passed to Heinrich Bullinger.

As other cities emerged as centers of reforming action and reflection, they not only contributed to the expansion and partial consolidation of the reforming movement but also demonstrated its diversity and fundamental lack of coherent identity. At times, it seemed as if there were as many reformations as there were cities. In some cities, councils issued their own "declarations of faith," as in the Zurich "introduction" of 1523 or the Berne "theses" of 1528. These were binding locally. But what of the wider picture? What authority did these local declarations have elsewhere?

The many reforming movements began to coalesce after 1530—not without some difficulties and divergences—around two rival visions of what it meant to be Protestant. A major factor was the disagreement between Luther and Zwingli over the nature of the real presence, which drove a wedge between the German and Swiss reformations. An attempt to mediate between their rival views took place at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529), convened by Philip of Hesse and attended by such Protestant luminaries as Bucer, Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, and Zwingli.

By this time, the Reformation was in trouble. It had enjoyed a period of relative tranquillity, during which it had been able to expand significantly. Yet the reason for this perhaps surprising lack of opposition was primarily that Charles V had been distracted by other, more pressing concerns from settling affairs with the Protestants. He had other crises on his hands, most notably long-standing disputes with Francis I of France, on the one hand, and Pope Clement VII, on the other. Yet suddenly, even dramatically, in 1529 these disputes were resolved within weeks of each other. Charles V was now free to give the rising threat of Protestantism his undivided attention. Suddenly, the two wings of the Reformation faced a powerful political and military threat—a threat for which they were largely unprepared.

The most obvious course of action was to settle their differences—a course of action urged by Bucer, who suggested that differences should be tolerated among Protestants, provided they agreed to recognize the Bible alone as the normative source of faith. Yet Luther and Zwingli failed to resolve their disagreements. Philip of Hesse's hope of a united evangelical front against the newly regrouped Catholic forces was dashed, and the political credibility of the Reformation seriously compromised. While some partial alignments of vision and policy were achieved, in practice these were insufficient to hold the movement together.

In early 1530, Charles V began to reassert his authority over the German Reformation. Advised by the traditionalist Lorenzo Campeggio, and imbued with a sense of destiny following his coronation by the pope at Bologna earlier that year, Charles decided the time had come to defend Catholicism against those arguing for reform. He convened the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, determined to reestablish the unity of the church. To his irritation, he found himself confronted with three quite different proposals for restoring unity.

The first was the famous Lutheran "Augsburg Confession," which Melanchthon presented to Charles V on June 25. This surprisingly conservative document gave every indication of having been designed to cause as little offense as possible to the Catholic emperor's religious sensitivities. The document made little reference to Luther's central doctrine of justification by faith alone, presumably as it was deemed too contentious for traditional Catholics. Melanchthon clearly hoped that it might provide a basis for the reunification of Christendom in Germany rather than merely as a summary of the Wittenberg reforming faction's beliefs.28 It was a brave but ultimately forlorn hope. When the emperor summarily refused to accept it as the former, it became the latter by default.

Precisely because it was intended as an instrument of mediation, the Augsburg Confession was seen by the southern German and Swiss reformers as being far too conservative. Many began to see Luther and Melanchthon as part of the problem rather than as its solution. Zwingli presented an alternative confession to the emperor on July 8, distancing himself significantly from Melanchthon's modest proposals. Finally, on July 11, four imperial southern German cities—Strasbourg, Lindau, Memmingen, and Constance—that had declined to accept Luther's views on the "real presence" as set out in the Augsburg Confession presented a third alternative. The "Tetrapolitan Confession," written by Bucer, set out a more reformed position, particularly in relation to sacramental theology.

Charles V's refusal to take any of these confessions as the basis for reunification of the German church did more than place clear blue water between Catholics and Protestants: it also exposed the emerging differences among the latter. It was clear that at least two separate groups were crystallizing their territorial and theological boundaries. Within a decade, the Reformation had split into two. The wounds would never heal; indeed, within decades they would become even worse, when Lutherans discovered to their horror that their rivals were gaining a foothold in the German territories.

Yet the tensions within the Reformation were actually rather worse than this brief analysis suggests. The tensions that Luther experienced at Wittenberg with his more radical colleagues Karlstadt and Müntzer were being replicated throughout the reforming movement. An emerging "third way" was threatening to destabilize western European society. The name of the movement? Anabaptism.

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