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Reformation success or failure

Reformation success or failure

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Published by Martin O Regan

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Published by: Martin O Regan on Mar 16, 2011
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Name: Martin O Regan Student No. 108595062 Tutor: Geraldine KiddTo what extent was the reformation successful?The success of the reformation depends on how you define it. The reformersthemselves believed that they were failing. So the reformation as the reformersconceived it was not success. The reformation was further undermined by theimpractical educational methods. The reformers high-minded educationalphilosophy didnt help the matters. Catholics were more successful because theydidnt expect people to assimilate a completely new theology. Repeated changesof religion worked against both sides and undermined the reformation aim of restoring the Christian culture. The protestant side had success in that theycompletely changed Christianity but not in the manner they intended. BothCatholics and Protestants became interested in purging out the accretions.The reformers themselves believed that the reformation had failed. JohannAurifaber an associate of Luther believed that reformation was losingmomentum. Gods word has seldom tarred in one place longer than forty yearshe claimed, for [Luthers] teachings are now every-where despised and so manymen so many men have lost interest in them that his very name is held incontempt
i
. The reformers were confirmed in their pessimism when they readthe reports of the visitations in ordinary parishes. English dioceses reported that few children could answer catechism questions. English parishioners wereregularly excluded from communion because they didnt know the catechism
ii
.English reformers believed that the world abounded with atheists, epicures,libertines, worldings, neuters that are of no religion
iii
. The reformers themselvesbelieved the reformation was a failing. The reformation in action was not livingup the ideals that the reformers were aiming for. But we must take into account the mind set of the reformers. They believed that the end of the world wasapproaching. Their theology predisposed them to be pessimistic. Any sign of moral decay confirmed their theology. At first they were too optimistic. Theyproclaimed that error was in retreat, the gospel was triumphing: It is now time[] the night is past
iv
. Taking into account the bi-polar nature of the reformerslanguage it is still apparent that the reformation in action was not living up toreformation ideals. They had been too optimistic.At the beginning of the reformation the reformers were confident that they couldspread a form of Christianity purified of the perceived accretions of Catholicism.They wanted to spread the Protestant gospel by education. At first they believedthat they had achieved this goal. [N]owadays Luther boasted  a girl or boy of fifteen knows more about Christian doctrine than did all the theologians of thegreat Universities in the old days
v
. They were trying to create a Christianity inwhich the knowledge of Gods word was not out sourced to a learned elite. Theeducational philosophy of the time held that the every person could learn thebasics of reading and writing. Believing this they translated the bible and areformed liturgy into the vernacular. Education at the time was more learning byrote less training to think. The catechisms of the time reflect this. They werewritten in a question and answer format. These were then to be learnt off byheart. The vernacular bible and the catechism were methods of spreading the
 
pure Christian doctrine. But they proved to be too idealistic. Visitations weremade on parishes in order in test in religious knowledge. The results weredisappointing. The visitation reports paint a picture of a general irreligion.People didnt appear to be able to absorb the instruction being given to them. Aswell as this they preferred to go fishing rather than go to service
vi
. The reformersover estimated the ability of the lay people to assimilate the their new theology.The Protestant had an overly optimistic view of the peoples ability to assimilatenew theology. The Catholic Church on the other hand had relative successcompared to the Protestants. In the German speaking areas Protestants wereexasperated that in the average rural parish most people were not interested inreligion. But they were interested in magic and charms. In Catholic areas thereappears to have been a better reception of the counter-reformation. In Toledothe inquisition found that the percentage of people of reciting the catechism insatisfactory manner rose from 40% in 1555 to 80% in 1575
vii
. This success forthe Catholic side can be attributed to a natural conservatism of people regardingreligion. The Catholic counter-reformation preserved the traditional practices.Popular aspects of religion success such as saints days confraternities,pilgrimages were refocused on their Christian meaning. In response toprotestant criticisms Catholic clerics tried to teach people the Christian meaningof a ritual and discouraged the superstitious understanding of the practice. Forexample the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius Loyola contained late medievalpiety but they focused on heartfelt devotion rather than cursory practice.Protestants were disadvantaged because they were introducing an entirely newreligious practice. Hence lay people were confused and exasperated by achanging religion.But the reformers were successful in that their ideals changed the course of Christianity. They wanted to restore Christianity to a purer form. They believedthat Christian culture had been corrupted. The reformers solution to the problemwas that everyone would have a heartfelt faith. Luther hoped Europeans wouldbe again a group of real Christians whereas at present we (Europeans) we arealmost pagan and only Christian in name.
viii
This intuition, that Christianitycould be practiced in a more sincere manner, was shared by the variousprotestant groups and by counter-reformation Catholicism. The theology of theEucharist illustrates this. Luther, a moderate reformer, believed that Christ wasstill present in the elements together with the substance of bread and wine.Zwingli believed, a radical reformer, believed that the Eucharist was purelysymbolic. Zwingli believed that Catholic theology was idol worship. Catholicbeliefs, such as the Mass, caused people to engage in outward practice without aheartfelt faith. Both Luther and Zwingli wanted sincere faith only differing in thestridency of their anti-Catholicism. Similarly the Catholic Church removed what it believed were corruptions and than re-educated people so they could have amore sincere faith. Tabernacles were built so that the laity could adore thepresence of Christ. Confessionals were also built signifying a new focus onorthodox morality. The reformers were successful because they identified theproblems that were answered by everyone in western Christendom albeit indifferent ways.
 
The reformation was impeded by the very fact that it was controversial. Wherethe reformation was resisted it ran into problems. But it was successful wherethe state and church were united in reforming the religion. Sweden is one of thefew examples of this. By the 17
th
century it had a level of religious education onlyfound in large cities such as Amsterdam. Religious knowledge became so goodthat those who couldnt read scripture were forbidden to marry. The reformationwas a success in Sweden because the state was continuously Protestant. Thepeople were not exasperated by many changes of religion. The Church and statewere united in their aims. Swedes were able to focus on the devotions ratherthan polemics. Most parts of Europe were focused on polemics, Episcopaliansagainst Presbyterians in Scotland or Arminism against Calvinism in England forexample. More polemics than devotionals were being published in most of Europe. Cardinal Monone summed the problem, since everyone is allowed tobelieve what he wishes, not only in areas where the princes are contaminated[where heresy] but also in those where they are Catholic, the people are soconfused that they do not know which opinion they should adhere to
ix
. TheReformation was undermined by its own novelty. Theological debates were not helpful for engendering piety.The reformation was not at first a success as the reformers defined it. They wereoverly confident that a
pure Christianity would be popular. The literate cultureneeded for a bible-based religion stripped of superstition did not exist in the first years of the reformation. Catholics were able to compromise between popularreligion and doctrinal orthodoxy in a manner that the reformers couldnt. Theconstant debates and changes to religion during the reformation only causedpeople to become disillusioned with religion in general. But the reformers didhave success in that their central idea that a more Christian culture could becreated by encouraging every person to have a more heartfelt religion. Theywere attempting to refocus Christianity on its own sources. The reformers weresuccessful insofar as they defined the debate. They were not success insofar asthey achieved their ideal Christianity.
i
Gerald Stauss, Success and failure of the German Reformation,
Past and Present 
67 (1975): 31
ii
Christopher Haigh,  Success and failure in the English Reformation,
Past and Present 
173 (2001) 41-47
iii
Ibid, 29
iv
Ibid, 29
v
Ibid, 30
vi
Ibid, 49
vii
Geoffrey Parker, Success and failure during the first century of thereformation,
Past and Present 
136 (1975): 73
viii
Scott Hendrix,  Rerooting the Faith: The Reformation as Re-Christianization,
Church History 
69 (2000): 562

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