Friday, May 17, 2019

Free Sects

In every territory and kingdom in Europe, political authorities had to decide for or against the Reformation – including in overwhelmingly Catholic regions such as Spain, where the Reformation was harshly, and violently, suppressed.

City magistrates in Geneva would work with John Calvin; Charles V of Spain helped to foster what has come to be known as the Catholic Reformation or Counter-Reformation; throughout Christendom religion became a diving force instead of a uniting force. 

Whether Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed, clergy inject new life into their sermons and catechisms – there is nothing like competition to awake one from complacency.  However, it is the political impact that is my concern here:

…the net result in the early modern period is that European countries forge the dominant, state-supported religious identities of their subjects and carry them into the modern world.

You don’t need me to tell you that my focus is on the “state-supported” part of the sentence.  Church and king were separate prior to this; after this, there was not church and state.  There was only the state.  Lutheranism took hold in Denmark, Sweden and much of Germany; Reformed Protestantism in Scotland, England (in some respects), the Netherlands, and parts of Germany and Switzerland; Catholicism remained in Spain, Portugal, and the remaining parts of Germany and Switzerland.

Instead of the Bible interpreted by Rome, the Bible was now to be interpreted according to the political leader – be it prince, king, or civil magistrate.  It was the political leadership that gave cover to the sect – and he who has the gold makes the rules, so to speak.

This state-supported religion was desired by Luther: the laity will listen to pastors and support political authority, and political authority will ensure the proper understanding of the Bible.  Luther accepted Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 13; in my opinion, not a valid interpretation. 

Sure, there were dozens of other Protestant sects.  Other than Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism, none would receive state sanction in any sense; most would receive harsh treatment at the hands of political authorities and to the cheers of the Magisterial Protestant religious authorities.

What was once the cohesive force of Europe now became the dividing force.  Christendom became Christianity.  Disagreements between Luther and the Church soon became disagreements between Luther and other Protestant leaders and eventually became disagreements of all against all – even within what was institutional Lutheranism. 

Given the binding role that the Christian religion played in society, these were divisions that would rip society apart.  And it didn’t help that many princes, kings, and civil magistrates were happy to take advantage of the situation.

In the new arrangement, political authorities will exercise all public power and political sovereignty while the Church will exercise none. …the clergy, who depend on the princes for political support, are also their subjects, required to submit to their political control.

Would you complain if you found a way to not share authority? 

These divisions led to war, but to call these “wars of religion” would be a mistake.  Prior to the Reformation, civil society was religion, and religion governed civil society.  Further, as noted above, there was no longer the condition of separate powers of Church and king; religion was now state-supported, state-enforced, and state-controlled. 

In other words, to consider these wars as anything other than wars of state is a mistake.  Keep in mind who had the power during these wars – the monopoly power; it most certainly was not the Church or any of the new Protestant sects.  This should disabuse us from the notion that these were wars of religion.

The result to religious life was, perhaps, counter-intuitive:

Religious life is simplified and streamlined, with less of it left to individual choice than in the late Middle Ages.  Wherever the Reformation is established, the range of permissible religious options contracts in people’s day-to-day lives.

Read that again once or twice.  My recollection of the Middle Ages was one of relative tolerance: few, if any, witch burnings…things like that – even though there were plenty of what could be considered “opportunities” if one was so inclined.  Much of what we hear of witch-burnings and the like come post-Reformation.  Ask the Anabaptists, for example.

This doctrinal harshness is somewhat reflected via this passage regarding Calvinism:

…living under Calvinism is one thing when people who consider themselves among God’s elect embrace it willingly; it’s another thing to endure Calvinist rule if you regard the “godly” as insufferably self-righteous oppressors worse than lackadaisical papists ever were.


…scripture interpreted through the Spirit, as Luther emphasized, could come to mean almost anything.

And in such a situation – whatever one believes of proper interpretation – the benefits of a Church unified enough to stand in the way of monopoly-state-creation is lost.


Some of these new sects took individual Biblical interpretation to places previously unimagined:

…Ranters, like Ebiezer Copp, allegedly take Christian freedom and rejection of the Old Testament law to mean complete sexual permissiveness – for, as scripture says, “To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15).  If you don’t think something is sinful, it’s not sinful for you.

“Complete sexual permissiveness.”  I guess these would be known as Homophonic Protestant sects.


  1. The first question that I have comes from your quote of Gregory below:

    "In the new arrangement, political authorities will exercise all public power and political sovereignty while the Church will exercise none. …the clergy, who depend on the princes for political support, are also their subjects, required to submit to their political control."

    My question is, should the church hold public power and political sovereignty? During the times will the Bible was written, the same quotation would be true. Of course it wouldn't be the "new arrangement" but the original arrangement.

    I am not saying this is an arrangement that leads to the most political liberty, of which we all want to maximize. However, my question is what is the proper relation of the church to power and force? Does it distort the purpose and mission of the church to wield political power and force?

    I think the church should have abundant influence on society. It should have a demonstrable goo effect on society, but I am not sure about power and force.

    That doesn't excuse the excesses of the state aligned churches of the Reformation. There the church is still wielding power and force but through the state. That sounds like a worse set up than previously. I have read the accounts of horrendous violence against Anabaptists and the like. Cromwell's violence was also motivated from Calvinist zeal in the Glorious Rebellion. At least that is how I have heard him portrayed. There were clearly some negative consequences.

    On a bit of a different topic, the other quote that I wanted to comment on:

    "…scripture interpreted through the Spirit, as Luther emphasized, could come to mean almost anything."

    I'm trying not to be redundant. But as you wrote in this article, the Catholic church did allow a level of variability on doctrine. From my reading Latourette's church history years ago, that level was quite wide, as long as you knew how to persuade, pacify, schmooze, or avoid the Cardinals and Pope.

    That meant then and now that an individual can say or think the Bible means any number of things, but that doesn't mean the Bible really means whatever an individual says. The Bible means what it means singularly (2 Peter 1:20-21) regardless of how illusive the true interpretation for humans. That means the best course of action is to interpret and apply the Bible with humility. I think that is the biggest sin of the Reformers, of course it could have been the kings enforcing Reformed doctrine without humility too.

    Anyway, this blog series is super interesting.

    1. RMB,

      To your first question, it seems to me that the power the Church (or, today, Christianity) should hold is a moral one. For this to be effective, it means that this moral power shapes the behavior of those who exercise power (whether political or other).

      It is not clear to me that this was meaningfully different in the medieval period: when the Pope called for a Crusade (setting aside any views about the good or bad for this), he had to rely on the kings and princes for providing the military; he had none of his own. When the Church wanted to get its hands on Luther, it had to rely on Frederick to deliver him, which he did not.

      A Church with both moral authority AND the power to punish? Might as well call it a state, and there was no state in this sense in the medieval period. Not to say that there weren’t exceptions driven by either the Church or the king; just that the two institutions checked each other reasonably effectively.

      I have nothing to ad to your second comment.

      “Anyway, this blog series is super interesting.”

      Thank you; it is certainly true for me as well. I may have previously mentioned that I thought I would work through this book in only two or three posts. Even avoiding the doctrinal sections of the book, it has obviously captured far more of my attention than this.

    2. BM, you responded to me with "It is not clear to me that this was meaningfully different in the medieval period."

      I understand what you are saying, but I am trying to reconcile your statement to Gregory's statement "In the new arrangement, political authorities will exercise all public power and political sovereignty while the Church will exercise none."

      Did I misunderstand what Gregory was talking about because it sounds contradictory to yours? Are you saying you disagree with Gregory on this point? Just trying to understand.

    3. RMB,

      Regarding the line in question from Gregory, as follows: “In the new arrangement, political authorities will exercise all public power and political sovereignty while the Church will exercise none.”

      Gregory begins this paragraph in the book this way: “As in medieval Christendom, Luther envisions political and ecclesiastical authorities cooperating rather than competing with each other. But he wants them to do a much better job than their medieval forbears.”

      The political authorities should tend to “external affairs,” and the religious authorities should tend to “the inner domain of faith.” I cannot understand fully what difference was on Luther’s mind when compared to the medieval period other than he wanted a more perfect population of humans, perhaps? The set-up seems quite similar both before and after Reformation, it just seems Luther expected people to behave more appropriately?

      In the medieval period, both Church and king would work to take authority from the other – this seems a normal human characteristic and a characteristic common to all institutions of authority. If it is the case that Luther felt this would be purged in the future, then he was sorely mistaken.

      To clarify my view on your question – I am not sure it can be said that I am in disagreement with Gregory: in the medieval period, neither side held political sovereignty. The king could not make law, adjudicate, and punish all on his own authority or without ramification that was certain to come by either excommunication, a rising up by the nobles, or both. The Church could not do these either. The concept of sovereignty was “God” and if anything was sovereign for man’s day to day lives it was the old and good law, custom, tradition and man’s oath.

      The Church did not have “power and force,” as you put it in your first comment, if by this you mean guns and prisons and armies. The Church had power and force in terms of moral authority and excommunication, etc. So when Gregory says “public power,” it is in this context that I take him as it regards the Church – the Church did have public power in this way.

      To summarize: before the Reformation, the Church and the king each had public power, albeit exercised differently and in different spheres – yet overlapping and decentralized. Neither Church nor king had political sovereignty – if anything was sovereign, it was the law.

      In other words, after the Reformation the king had 100% of public power and 100% of political sovereignty; before the Reformation, he shared public power with the Church (in their different ways), and neither had political sovereignty.

      I hope this is clarifying and on point to your question.

  2. While King James was writing essays promoting "divine right" of kings to rule, the committee of translators of "the Holy Bible" were faithfully reflecting the word of God, which to open eyes clearly undermines the idea. God setteth up one and putteth down another, but he'd rather be your king. We have no king but Jesus.

    The Pope has no divine right either, and his word is not equivalent to God's word. Gods word says so.

    The Reformation resulted in some Protestants demanding total subserviencet to clerical-political partnerships, same as in the state-church understandings.

    One intercessor between God and man. God gave apostles, prophets, teachers, and so on. The Pharisees said the same things about authority as the papacy apologists.

    Bionic, you skip over a lot of the breakdown in this state and church symbiosis that led to Protestantism. You also write about previous sects as if you believe the victors' writing. Same as today's ruling class media and new religious movements.

    1. It pains me that you find my writing unsatisfactory. Truly.

      Yours, on the other hand, is clear as a bell.

  3. My timeline of religion and government.

    Creation to Pre-Fall: God walked among His creation.

    Post-Fall to Flood: Men were free to follow their conscience with regards to belief.

    Post-Flood to Pre-Tabernacle: A prophet is God's government for Israel, a real prophet with plenty bona fides to stake the claim of prophet. Still the same for others, the king's religion is the kingdom's.

    Tabernacle to Israel (united or divided): A prophet is God's government for Israel unless Israel asks God for an Earthly king. Elsewhere, the king's religion is the kingdom's.

    Post-Israel Kingdom to dependent Israel: Israel demands a king and gets it. The King was to learn the Law of Moses and to transcribe it in his own hand but the worship/theology was for the Levites. The people were to be taught The Law and the people to follow The Law in their heart. Still, in Israel and elsewhere, the king's religion is the kingdom's. A prophet is around as God's freelancer

    Dependent Israel to Pre-Christ: Significant change in prophet's message; last prophet. Still, more of the same that a king's religion is the kingdom's.

    Christ: Belief and worship are not government's; a challenge that a king's religion is the kingdom's. Still, a king's religion is the kingdom's. Conflict.

    Christ to Acts of the Apostles Chp.2: No prophets like in the Old Testament. A king's religion is the kingdom's but the people are called to belief not subject to government. More conflict.

    Post Acts of the Apostles Chp.2: A king's religion is the kingdom's but The Called are to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in season and out of season and to teach the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Continued conflict.

    Post Acts of the Apostles Chp.2: A king's religion is the kingdom's and the Church continues to teach and preach and to be persecuted, even by those who claimed to be of the Church. The conflict will continue until Jesus' return.

    Return soon Lord Jesus.