A Short History of the Western Church — Part 2

In my previous post, I spoke candidly about the unfortunate ignorance of Christians in America in relation to the history of the church in the West. The Roman Catholic Church (abbreviated RCC) figures prominently in that history. Below is the second part of this synopsis of history.

The Reformation Church — Luther (b. 1483)
to World War I (1914–18)

In his masterful history of Europe, Norman Davies has said, “The religious revival, clearly visible at the end of the fifteenth century, was largely driven by popular disgust at the decadence of the [RCC] clergy….Europe was full of tales about simoniac bishops [bishops who sold a church office or preferment], nepotistic popes, promiscuous priests, idle monks, and, above all, the sheer worldly wealth of the Church.”[1] This laid the foundation for a challenge to the RCC’s grip on all religious power in western Europe. It was not long in coming.

In 1517 a young monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546) was driven to fury at the appearance in Germany of a friar selling paper certificates guaranteeing relief from punishment in Purgatory, that being a supposed place of temporary suffering after death to finish paying for sins committed in life (according to RCC theology). Luther nailed a 95-point protest against them to the door of the local church. That started a fire which has not yet been quenched.

The “Protestant Reformation” effectively began in 1517 as a protest against certain corrupt practices of the RCC. This quickly expanded into a much broader re-evaluation of RCC theology in relation to the explicit teaching of the Bible. Instead of finding spiritual authority based in the RCC and its pope, the Protestant reformers believed the Bible to be the paramount source of such authority (sola Scriptura, “the Bible alone”) and also looked to the early church fathers and early councils. Contrary to the RCC view that salvation required meritorious human works and infusions of grace from Mary and the church sacraments, the reformers looked to the Bible to discover salvation by God’s grace (sola gratia, “grace alone”) through a commitment of personal faith (sola fide, “faith alone”) exclusively in Christ (solus Christus, “Christ alone”).

John Calvin

Though the Protestant Reformation began with Luther and his followers, the next towering figure to advance the cause was a scholar named John Calvin (1509–1564). Davies says, “A fugitive Frenchman, more radical than Luther, Calvin was the founder of the most widely influential branch of Protestantism.”[2] His theological summary Institutes of the Christian Religion, appearing in 6 editions from 1536 to 1559, has powerfully influenced the development of Christianity in both Europe and America.

Davies discusses one of the effects of the Protestant Reformation by saying, “Until the 1530s, Christendom had been split into two halves — Orthodox and Catholic. From the 1530s onwards, it was split into three: Orthodox, Catholic [RCC], and Protestant. And the Protestants themselves were split into ever more rival factions.”[3]

Counter-Reformation: The RCC Fights Back

The reaction of the RCC to these developments was somewhat slow in developing, but in time demonstrated its ferocity. Protestant historians call this reaction the Counter-Reformation. The RCC’s Council of Trent, from 1545 to 1563, combined both doctrinal definitions and institutional structures to meet the Protestant challenge. A brotherhood known as the Jesuits (formally the Society of Jesus) was formed in 1539, and they became the spearhead of the intellectual attack on the Reformation.

But this was not to be a peaceful clash of ideas, rather a deadly struggle. Charles V (1500–1558), Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, took stern measures against the spread of Protestantism in the Low Countries (the modern Netherlands and Belgium). Gonzalez says, “Tens of thousands died for their faith. The leaders were burned, their followers beheaded, and many women were buried alive.”[4]

On St. Bartholomew’s Eve, 1572, more than 20,000 French Calvinists (called Huguenots) were murdered in a single day in surprise attacks throughout France. The RCC Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585) and king Philip II of Spain (1527–1598) each ordered a celebratory hymn of praise to God when they separately received the news of the massacre.[5]

Lows and Highs: Widespread Wars and a Bible

These religious wars were capped by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which killed 8 million people in Germany and left the country a wasteland. But the bloodletting did not end until the civil war in England concluded with the overthrow of the monarchy by the Puritan forces under Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). One effect of the struggle in England was the emigration of thousands to the Colonies where they might worship as they chose without so much interference.

During the century of war (roughly 1550 to 1650) the King James Version of the Bible appeared in 1611. This English translation gradually became the most widely accepted and best loved of all. Along with Shakespeare’s plays, it has had a profound influence on the development of English language and literature.

Due partly to exhaustion, the religious warfare ended around 1650 and there followed a quiet period often called the “Age of Reason.” This period roughly extends from 1650 to 1789. “After the Wars of Religion, one can see that the exercise of ‘the Light of sweet reason’ was a natural and necessary antidote.”[6]

INTERLUDE: If we look at the sweep of European events, we can see that the period of RCC dominance led to a corrupt and power-hungry Church. The Protestant Reformation broke the exclusive grip of the RCC and eventually led to the Religious Wars fueled by the Counter-Reformation. Then came a quieter period of recovery in which principles of humanism and reason (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”) came to the fore. As we will see, these non-religious values yielded The Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. Human reason proved no better master than corrupt religion.

Revolutions and Visions of the End

The fuse of conflict was relit in America as the Colonies revolted in 1775 and prevailed in 1783. Just as the new United States of America was ratifying its Constitution, French revolutionaries took the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789 beginning The Terror and the reign of the guillotine. “The French Revolution plunged Europe into the most profound and protracted crisis which it had ever known. . . . For Europe as a whole, it provided an object lesson in the danger of replacing one form of tyranny with another.”[7] This was the age of Napoleon (1769–1821). It ended at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, after millions were dead.

While the madness of The Terror raged in France, God was doing something astounding in William Carey (1761–1834), an Englishman known as “the Father of Modern Missions.” Though no one in his Baptist group had expressed concern for the unsaved in other lands, Carey inspired others to form the first missionary society and then left for India as its first missionary in 1793. Within five years he had learned Bengali and translated most of the Bible. Then he set up his own press to print it. Among many accomplishments, Carey edited translations of the Bible into 36 languages.[8]

Perhaps one of the most unanticipated effects of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was the revival of interest in Bible prophecy. Ernest Sandeen states, “The violent uprooting of European political and social institutions forced many to the conclusion that the end of the world was near.”[9] This resulted in many conferences and publications among Christians in England. Among these were meetings by Christians who had taken the name Brethren and who gathered in the 1830s at Plymouth under the leadership of J.N. Darby (1800–1882). In time Darby’s views would jump the Atlantic.

This history will conclude with Part 3.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 484.

[2] Davies, 490.

[3] Davies, 495–6.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984),  2:96.

[5] Gonzalez, 2:107; also Davies, 502 (“the Pope celebrated a Te Deum and the King of Spain ‘began to laugh.’“).

[6] Davies, 577.

[7] Davies, 677.

[8] The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J.D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 192.

[9] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), 5.

 

2 thoughts on “A Short History of the Western Church — Part 2”

    1. Thanks for visiting, Ron! It is my belief that Christians today lack perspective on the history of our faith. We need to see the good things as well as roads the church should never have taken.

      I hope you will visit again soon.

      -Barry

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