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Continental European Protestantism

General Essay on European Protestantism

Protestantism emerged in the 16th century as a protest against certain practices and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The early protests against the church appeared relatively insignificant since they concerned academic matters of doctrine. Martin Luther, who was among those at the forefront of the Reformation, nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church on October 31 1517 which attacked the practice of selling indulgences as a means to remit sins.
During the late Middle Ages indulgences had been sold to enable people to forego some of the temporal penalties that had to be undertaken as a part of the act of penance for sins. The sale of indulgences came to be an important source of revenue for the church. In order to increase this revenue in 1476 Pope Sixtus IV redefined the purpose of indulgences so that their purchase could be used to reduce the amount of time that the purchaser would spend in purgatory. (Purgatory is the place where souls suffer for their sins before entering into heaven.) At the beginning of the 16th century indulgences were being sold widely for the purpose of rebuilding St Peter's Cathedral in Rome.
Luther's 95 theses were forwarded to Rome in December 1517. Luther's increasingly public and vociferous criticism of the church led to his excommunication in 1521. However, supported by the Elector of Saxony, Luther was able to continue his criticisms of the Catholic Church without fear of persecution. During the 1520s Luther wrote a number of important works through which he developed and clarified his theology. The culmination of this process was the composition of the Augsburg Confession.
The Augsburg Confession is a statement of faith written by Luther and fellow reformer, Philip Melanchthon, for the imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1530 and revised in 1531 by Melanchthon. It is the earliest Protestant confession and was designed to set down the beliefs of the Protestant reformers as well as their criticisms of the abuses within the Catholic Church. The confession is in two parts: the first 21 articles consist of doctrines which are in agreement with those of Rome; articles 22 to 28 identify abuses which the reformers believed had entered into the Catholic Church.
With the support of a number of German dukes and princes, Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and into Scandinavia. These supporters of Lutheranism in Germany allied themselves in the Schmalkaldic League in order to consolidate Lutheranism. In 1552 Protestantism was legally recognised by the Treaty of Passau. It was not, however, until 1648, with the Treaty of Westphalia, that Lutheranism (and Calvinism) won equal rights with Roman Catholicism.
Historically, Lutheranism has been very closely tied to the state in which it is the dominant tradition. In Germany the church has been very closely tied to the monarchy. This came to an end with the defeat of Germany at the end of the first world war and the establishment of a republic. Following the end of the second world war the Lutheran and Reformed churches united to form the Evangelical Church in Germany.
In Scandinavia the Lutheran Church and state have been closely affiliated. When the reformation came to Scandinavia it was supported by the Swedish and Danish monarchs. (Norway was a part of Denmark at the time of the reformation.) The Lutheran church is the national church of Scandinavian countries, and nationals of these countries are born into the church.
Lutheranism has been transplanted to many different countries in the world. The most powerful Lutheran churches outside of Europe are in the United States. Lutheranism came to the United States as a result of emigration from Sweden and Germany. During the 19th century there were over 100 independent synods in America. Gradually these became amalgamated and Americanised so that their ties with their mother church and country weakened. The two principal Lutheran churches in America are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America came into being in 1987 as a result of a series of complicated mergers of smaller Lutheran churches. The Missouri synod dates back to 1847. Various groups have broken away from the Missouri over theological issues. The Missouri synod is more theologically conservative than many Lutheran traditions.
The second major branch of Protestantism is the Reformed tradition, whose theology derives from the writings and teachings of John Calvin. (The churches whose theology are based on Calvin's theology are referred to as either reformed churches or presbyterian churches.) John Calvin was a Frenchman who converted to Protestantism in around 1533. Calvin's fame derives, firstly, from his book Institutes of the Christian Religion (first published 1536), which expanded as it underwent several republications during Calvin's life, and, secondly, from his influence over the politics and religion of the city of Geneva, which became an exemplary city for many reformed Protestants.
In his work the Institutes of the Christian Faith Calvin outlined the basic principles of reformed theology. These are: the sole authority of Scripture for determining the Christian faith; the absolute sovereignty of God; the complete depravity of humanity after the fall; justification by faith alone; double predestination; the irresistibility of divine grace; the authority of the church over the state; and the two sacraments of baptism and the eucharist.
Calvin endeavoured to impose his views on the relationship between the church and state upon the city of Geneva. Having already spent a period of time in Geneva between 1536 and 1538, Calvin returned to the city in September 1541 with the purpose of securing the Protestant reformation that was establishing itself with difficulty. In Geneva Calvin established a consistory of pastors and elders who would ensure that all aspects of Genevan life conformed to biblical teaching. The consistory tightly controlled life in Geneva, tightly controlling sexual morality, taverns, dancing, gambling and forbidding the practice of Roman Catholicism.
Geneva provided an important basis for the support and spread of reformed theology throughout Europe. In France reformed theology spread only slowly in the face on considerable persecution from the French monarch and the Catholic Church. Brutal wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants (known as Huguenots) during the 16th century were brought to an end by the Edict of Nantes (1598), which secured toleration for French Protestants. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 forced thousands of French Protestants to flee abroad to the benefit of those countries which offered them exile.
As in France, Dutch reformers had to struggle against a state dominated by a monarchy supported by the Roman Catholic Church. At the time of the reformation Holland was under the control of Spain, and it was not until the region was freed from Spanish rule in 1589 that Protestants were able to practice their faith without fear of persecution. This freedom enabled Dutch Protestants to transplant their faith to parts of the world where Dutch colonies were being established. One of the more important areas was southern Africa, where the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa was established in 1652. This church has been the official church of the Afrikaaners speaking population of South Africa.
Reformed theology quickly took root in the British isles, particularly Scotland, where John Knox, who had spent time in Geneva and had come under the influence of the theology of Calvin, led the struggle for the establishment of a reformed church in Scotland.
From Scotland reformed theology was established in Ireland as a result of the Plantation of Ulster, which began in 1606, which involved the establishment of Scottish and English Protestant communities in northern Ireland with the purpose of controlling the country. In 1921 Northern Ireland was made independent of the rest of Ireland, and the Presbyterian church became the largest church in Northern Ireland. In the 1950s a splinter group broke away from the Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland to form the Free Presbyterian Church.
There are a number of major reformed traditions in North America. Immigration from the British isles and the Netherlands led to the transplantation of reformed theology onto American soil. One major religious group to emerge in 16th century England were the Puritans. These were a group within Anglicanism that sought to purify the Anglican church of all remnants of Catholicism such as vestments, altars and prayers for the dead, and bishops. Persecution of the Puritans in England led many to emigrate to America in the 17th century. The Puritans and, later, Dutch Calvinists and Scottish and Irish Presbyterians established a strong reformed presence in the United States by the end of the 18th century. Churches represented by these and other various nationalities gradually merged to form a number of large Presbyterian churches in the United States. These are the Presbyterian Church USA, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America.
Out of American Presbyterianism there emerged a group known as the Disciples of Christ which sought to restore New Testament Christianity through rejecting of all creeds and systematic theology. Two groups then came into being by breaking away from the Disciples. The first of these, the Christadelphians, was founded in 1848 when John Thomas withdrew from the Disciples over matters of doctrine. The Christadelphians hold somewhat unorthodox beliefs in that they reject the Trinity and regarded Jesus simply as a human being. The second group, the Churches of Christ, are very close doctrinally to the Disciples but disagree with the Disciples on the style of church worship. The Churches of Christ broke away from the Disciples because they disapproved of the use of instrumental music in church services. The Churches of Christ are now the larger of the two denominations.
The third tradition to emerge out of the continental European reformation is the Anabaptist tradition. The Anabaptists are sometimes referred to as radical reformers because they wanted to take the reformation of the church further than other Protestant reformers. The differed from other Protestants such as the Lutherans and the Calvinists in that they rejected the baptism of children, believed in the complete separation of church and state, and refused to take up arms. Regarded with hostility by both Protestants and Catholics, the Anabaptists were severely persecuted and driven from place to place in search of refuge. In 1530 the assembled German states at the Diet of Augsburg decreed that Anabaptism was a heresy and punishable by death. Subsequently many Anabaptists were put to death either by drowning or by fire.
One of the more important groups to come out of the radical reformation was the Hutterites, a movement founded by Jacob Hutter who was put to death by fire in 1536 because of his beliefs. The manner of Hutter's death anticipated the sustained persecution which Hutterites were to endure for the next two centuries as they fled from central Europe to Russia to the United States in search of a place where they could practice their beliefs without interference. Today the largest Hutterite communities are to be found in the United States and Canada.
A second group of this kind are the Mennonites. The movement's name comes from its founder Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest who was ordained into the Anabaptist ministry in 1537. Like the Hutterites, the Mennonites were subjected to extreme forms of persecution and many fled central Europe for Russia and ultimately the United States. The Mennonites have been more missionary oriented than other Anabaptist groups and have established communities in many parts of the world.
The Amish are a group that broke away from the Mennonites towards the end of the 17th century. The cause of the schism was the teaching of Jakob Amman that those who had been excommunicated by the church should be completely shunned by those who were still in the church. In the 18th and 19th centuries many Amish emigrated to North America, where there is now a large communities in Pennsylvania as well as smaller communities in other parts of the United States and Canada. The Amish set themselves apart from mainstream society through their traditional style of dress and their avoidance of modern forms of technology such as cars and electricity.


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