Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Unpublished Articles
TAGS: Adam and Eve; Apocrypha; Bible; Christianity; Gnosticism; Gospel of Thomas; Interfaith Dialogue; Interpretation; Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ, Crucifixion of; Jesus Christ, Resurrection of; Jesus Christ, Virgin birth of; Miracles; Names and titles; Persecution; Prophecies; Reformation (Christianity); Resurrection; Sin (general)
LOCATIONS: United States (documents)
> add tags

Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

previous chapter chapter 7 start page single page chapter 9 next chapter

Chapter 8

The Reformations

Crucial to the Reformation of the sixteenth century was Europe's new prosperity, the cultural developments that prosperity entailed, and the availability of printed Bibles. Reading the Bible became a new religious activity, and the truths Christians found there shaped a new Christian spirituality that was independent of the church. The wide circulation of printed pamphlets spread new understandings of Christian truths to the peasantry and nobility as well. Emphasis on the importance of reading the scripture eventually became a major force for the establishment of universal literacy.

      With the reading of the Bible came a new fascination for the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul's stress on the individual's direct relation to God and his rejection of all good works as completely irrelevant for salvation matched the interests of the merchants and artisans who wished to pursue a Christian life that was not dependent on priests with their confessions, mass, and penances.

      Exemplifying these new ideas was Martin Luther (1483-1546), a Catholic monk and scholar. As a young man, Luther sought to become a "monk's monk" among other things by confessing every sin he had ever committed, even as a small child. His spiritual obsession was relieved about 1513-15 when he meditated on Paul's statement that "the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17); it caused him to realize that penance was a human institution, not a divine one. While Eric Erikson, a leading psychologist, maintains that Luther was plagued by constipation much of his life and had his spiritual breakthrough simultaneously with a bowel movement, most historians interpret Luther's description of his spiritual transformation as occurring in a moment of great spiritual humility in the monastery's library.

      Luther's realization that penance was a human institution sharpened his opposition to indulgences, which the Pope issued to raise money for the church. Purchase of an indulgence reduced the time one had to spend in purgatory, so one could go to heaven more quickly; one could reduce one's stay in purgatory by up to thousands of years if one paid enough. In practice, much of the money supported the luxuries of the Vatican court, the Pope's construction and artistic projects, even local civic projects such as construction of bridges. In 1517 Luther nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, a list of ninety-five theses, which disputed key Catholic teachings and practices, including the Pope's power to forgive sins. This act is considered the opening shot in the Reformation.

      The Catholic Church's first response was to ignore Luther, but he proved to be the most brilliant and prolific theologian of the age. Not only did he turn out theological works justifying his beliefs, but he penned commentaries on most books of the Bible, drafted catechisms to explain his faith to laypeople and even to children, engaged in a massive correspondence, composed scores of hymns, produced hundreds of written sermons, and wrote popular works that, illustrated by woodcuts of the Pope dressed as Satan, took his ideas to ordinary people. He translated the entire Bible into German, producing a work that standardized the language. He advocated a Christian lifestyle based on marriage, child rearing, and a vocation, and demonstrated them by renouncing celibacy, marrying a former nun, and starting a family. With Luther, the ideal Christian life ceased to be that of a monk or nun. The church went from a dispenser of salvation to an institution for bringing Christians together in their efforts to live a life in Christ. Priests were replaced by preachers who expounded the word and educated the laity.

      Luther was a skilled debater who brilliantly defended his positions in a court trying him for heresy, and who had the wisdom to flee before it condemned him to death. Germany was a welter of semi-independent city-states and principalities, many of whose princes sympathized with Luther's theology. The sympathetic princes adopted Lutheranism and forcibly reformed the Catholic church in their jurisdictions; other princes (especially those bishops who were the civil leaders of their cities) persecuted Lutherans and sought Luther's head. A century of warfare descended upon Germany.

      As a reform movement gathered momentum, however, a spectrum of opinions emerged as to how the church should be reformed.

Radical Ref.     Zwingli   Calvin   Luther          Catholic Reform
Menno Simon                Melanchthon                      Erasmus

      On the "left" or extremist end of the spectrum were the Radical Reformers, especially the Anabaptists. They rejected on biblical grounds all Christian participation in war and in government, and argued that the Bible called for the baptism of believing adults only, and not of infants. By rejecting infant baptism—which was seen not only as washing the babies of original sin, but as introducing them into society as new members—the Anabaptists were seen as subversive of the social order. In Germany and Switzerland thousands of them were martyred for their beliefs. From the Anabaptists come the modern Mennonites and Amish.

      On the "right" or conservative end of the spectrum were the reformers who sought to reform the Catholic church without breaking from it. Erasmus (1469?-1536), the great Catholic scholar, was one example. These reformers sought to curb the worst abuses of the penance system, to decentralize the church structure, and to renew its spiritual life. Ignatius Loyola (c. 1491-1556) and the new monastic order that he founded—the Jesuits—were the principal agents for Catholic renewal and reinvigoration. This movement is often called the "Counter-Reformation," but because it is not simply a reaction against Protestantism, the term "Catholic Reformation" is now preferred by most scholars.

      In the middle of the spectrum were the "Magisterial Reformers," a band of reformers who, with the help of princes and city councils, broke from the Catholic church and created new Christian sects along the lines of their new theology. Luther was only the most prominent of these men. Equally important to the creation of Lutheranism was Philip Melanchthon, a colleague of Luther and an excellent theologian. Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and Scandinavia, in each case becoming a national church; thus a Swedish Lutheran church organized that was separate from a German Lutheran church. Christian sects thus formed along national lines. Because the culture of each country was a bit different, the theology of the churches came to differ slightly also. Other Protestant Reformers were Huldreich Zwingli in Zurich, Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, and John Oecolampadius in Basel.


      John Calvin (1509 - 64) was the man who gave the Protestant Reformation one of its classic expressions. A French Protestant who fled to Geneva, Switzerland, he came to dominate that city's Christianity and made it into an international center of Protestantism. Like Luther, Calvin was incredibly prolific, writing commentaries on biblical books and producing dozens of treatises. But his greatness lay in the magnificent book that he wrote and re-wrote most of his life, Institutes of the Christian Religion, his summary of Christian theology. Before his conversion, Calvin had been a lawyer and had learned how to present an argument clearly and cogently. Institutes is one of the great classics in Protestant theology; it was printed in Latin and French and was widely read, even in Italy and Spain where it was banned. The individuals who agreed with Calvin usually did not have the power to take over their national churches—the exceptions were Netherlands and Scotland—and thus had to form Calvinist minority sects, usually referred to as "Reformed" Churches. These sects based their beliefs on Calvin, but over time their beliefs inevitably took on distinctive aspects not elaborated by Calvin in his writings. The Puritans who founded New England were Calvinists.

      The basic teachings of Calvinism were succinctly formulated in 1618 at the Synod of Dort. A synod is a meeting of church ecclesiastics; Dort is a town in the Netherlands. Calvin himself did not always hold all of these points—they represent an extreme position—nor did many Calvinists, but the New England Puritans initially did. This radical or "pure" Calvinism had five points:

      Total Depravity — As a result of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, humanity became totally corrupted. Not even the faculty of reason is an adequate and reliable means for finding God; all our faculties are unreliable.

      Unconditioned Election — God chooses, or "elects" those whom He will save, freely and unconditionally of any outside influence, there is absolutely nothing one can do to become elect. One can do good deeds every day of one's life, and make a mighty effort not to sin; one can, in short, live like a saint; but if God decides you will go to hell, you will, and there is nothing anyone can do to change His mind.

      Limited Atonement — Christ died to save humanity from sin, but the power of that act was not absolute; it does not tie the hands of God and guarantee that all can be saved. Thus His atonement for sin was limited in its efficacy.

      Irresistible grace — If God has chosen to save you, you cannot resist His power. His grace will transform you even against your will.

      Perseverance of the Saints — Once God has saved you, you cannot backslide; you are saved eternally.

      These five might be thought of as the "basic principles" of Calvinism. They may be abbreviated "TULIP," from the first letter of the first word of each principle. They stress the absolute sovereignty of God and His grace, a rather Islamic notion that only God is powerful in this world and we must submit our wills to Him. The power of the individual to work on his or her salvation and the importance of good works are totally denied. Rather, the Calvinist assumes that good works will follow from the grace, and that a saint will do good works because he is saved; thus good works may be evidence of election, but cannot bring about election in the first place. Such an approach to human beings strikes most modern people as unnecessarily pessimistic and oppressive, but five hundred years ago, when life was short and most humans were confined in rigidly hierarchical societies that gave them few rights and options, it seemed more plausible and natural.

      The English Reformation

      Both Calvinism and Lutheranism were brought to England, and both had an effect on thinking there. The English Reformation began in 1529, just twelve years after Luther's efforts, when Pope Clement VII refused to grant King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) a divorce; his wife had failed to bear him a son, he blamed the failure on her, and argued that for the good of his country he had to father a male heir. Henry also asserted that as King of England he should have control over the Church in England, an idea that in the twentieth century seems strange, but which had considerable precedent in the Middle Ages. Henry took over the church from the Pope by an act of Parliament and was excommunicated as a result. But he made only a few changes in the church at first. He appointed new bishops loyal to himself and closed the monasteries, confiscating all their land for the crown. He opposed Protestant reforms and actually wrote a law forbidding women, peasants, and others from reading the Bible. Only toward the end of his life did he allow changes to be made in the Church of England's theology.

      When Henry died in 1547 his son, Edward VI, was only ten years old, consequently the kingdom was placed in the hands of a regent. He was a Protestant; Lutheran and Calvinist ideas poured in. But when Edward VI died in 1553 he was succeeded by his stepsister, Mary, who was Catholic. She converted the Church of England back to Catholicism and persecuted the Protestants. She died in 1558 and was succeeded by Elizabeth I, who re-established Protestantism.

      The English Reformation had no central figure, like Luther, but did have a spectrum of opinions with a radical left, a conservative right, and middle, like the Reformation on the Continent:

Ranters     Quakers        Puritans      Moderate Angl.    AngloCatholics

      The more radical Protestants became disillusioned that the Church of England could ever be correctly and completely reformed and separated themselves from it. On the far "left" or radical end of the spectrum were those who went beyond the scriptures to claim direct revelation or inspiration from God. Most of these sects either died out or were exterminated; the Quakers, with their stress on the "light within," were among the more moderate of the radicals. On the other hand, the Church of England retained a lot of conservatives who sought reunification with Rome; to this day the Church of England (or Anglican church, as it is also called) contains an "Anglo-Catholic" party.

      Closer to the middle of the reformation spectrum were the Calvinists, who fell into several camps depending on the way they organized their churches. Many read the letters of the Apostle Paul closely and advocated a "presbyterian" governmental system for the church: individual churches would have a minister and a council of elders; local churches would be grouped into "presbyteries," which would oversee ordination and discipline of ministers; presbyteries would be grouped together into "synods"; and synods would be members of the general assembly, the single supreme legislative body of a presbyterian church. In Scotland the Calvinists won control of the national church and reformed it along these lines; to this day most Scots are members of the Church of Scotland, which is a presbyterian church. When Scots came to the United States they became the main founders of the Presbyterian church.

      Other Calvinists advocated a purely local organization of churches, where each local church was independent and the local congregation owned the church building, chose the minister, paid him, and fired him if they didn't like him. These Calvinists were called "Separatists" and were persecuted because they were seen as subversive of the church; they fled England for the Netherlands, and in 1620 some of them sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts, becoming what Americans call the pilgrims. Other Calvinists remained within the Church of England and sought to reform it from within. Some of them eventually withdrew from the Church of England, to form Congregational, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches; others remained within it to this day, and represent a Calvinist "low-church" tendency within Anglicanism.

      The entire range of English Protestant sects eventually came to British North America. The lack of established political and ecclesiastical structures in North America made control of the various sects almost impossible. Many took advantage of the opportunities that a frontier offered to create their own sectarian villages and towns, where religious principles dominated local social life and culture. As a result the tendencies unloosened by the Reformation took unexpected turns, and produced many unexpected developments.

      Many scholars believe that Protestantism, by reshaping the culture and society of northern Europe, made possible both capitalism and modern individualism. Its rejection of the Pope and much of church tradition in favor of reliance on the Bible opened the door for thousands of variant interpretations of the gospel. Reliance on the Bible also had the consequence that Protestants stressed literacy so that everyone could read the scriptures themselves. This set the stage for mass education in northern Europe and North America. Protestant's distrust of ecclesiastical authority also helped undermine aristocratic authority somewhat. The religious diversity that resulted caused the old assumptions about the need for a society to have religious uniformity to collapse and opened discussion about separation of church and state and religious rights. Congregational forms of church organization put the decision-making in the hands of all male members and set the stage for new concepts of democracy. Thus Protestantism set the stage for many ideals in the modern world.

      The Bahá'í authoritative writings say relatively little about the Reformation, but Shoghi Effendi did approve of the following text written on his behalf:

What contribution the Reformation did really make was to seriously challenge, and partly undermine, the edifice which the Fathers of the Church had themselves reared, and to discard and demonstrate the purely human origin of the elaborate doctrines, ceremonies and institutions which they had devised. The Reformation was a right challenge to the man-made organization of the Church, and as such was a step in advance. In it origins, it was a reflection of the new spirit which Islam had released, and a God-sent punishment to those who had refused to embrace its truth (letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, January 14, 1938, published in Lights of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1653).

The Reformation particularly focused on the Papacy and the numerous powers it had accumulated, powers, the Bahá'í writings note, that were not implied in the biblical text that Jesus would build His church on the "rock" of the Apostle Peter. Islam unquestionably did exert an influence on late medieval Catholic theology via such Aristotelians as Avicenna and Averrhoes, although the text above suggests a spiritual influence that is hard to trace in a specific way. Possibly the Islamic insistence on the absolute transcendence and authority of God reinforced Saint Paul's own voice, thereby easing the way for Protestantism to stress justification by faith and reject the Pope's claim to the keys to the gate of heaven. But Protestantism did have a side to it that may explain Shoghi Effendi's description of it as a "God-sent punishment," for it further split the unity of Christendom and opened the door to a vast multiplication of Christian sects.

previous chapter chapter 7 start page single page chapter 9 next chapter
Back to:   Unpublished Articles
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .