AP European History
24 September 2012
During the Protestant Reformation, a series of freethinkers and philosophers set about to change Christianity. Branded as heretics, several of these people still managed to create new religions that thrived in Renaissance Europe. The case has been made that Luther, Zwingli, and the other reformers wanted to split from the Church from the beginning. Through analysis of several documents from The Protestant Reformation, however, it becomes increasingly clear that these “heretics” originally set about to reform the Catholic Church, not to create new religions. Despite the fact that the individual beliefs of Luther, Servetus, Calvin, Erasmus, and Starkey differed significantly from Church doctrine, each originally sought to reform the Church and only split from it when his new ideas were rejected. Perhaps the most obvious example is also the most famous: Luther. Luther was content in his life as a monk; his famous dispute against the sale of indulgences was the only disagreement he had with the Catholic Church. At the time of his 95 Theses, Luther still clearly viewed the Church as almost entirely right: “The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons” (II, 2). Later on, he goes even further: “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church” (II, 2). Lastly, despite Luther’s later argument that the Pope could err, he praises the pope and, amazingly, calls his own complaint against indulgences insignificant: “It is certainly the pope’s sentiment that if indulgences, which are a very insignificant thing, are celebrated with one bell, one procession, and one ceremony, then the gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies” (II, 2). Luther, content with his place in the Church hierarchy, was merely trying to fix what he saw as a small problem; this is reinforced by Luther’s exclusive focus on the “very insignificant” indulgences and his recurring praise of the papacy. Servetus’s On the Errors of the Trinity demonstrates a similar theme. The first example is in the first paragraph, where Servetus effectively established that he saw his philosophies as being under the umbrella of Church doctrine: “However, what and how much importance is to be attached to Christ, the Church shall decide” (III, 4). Servetus clearly views the Church as the source of religious truth (this probably contributed to the failure of Servetus’s ideas among other reformers). On a less obvious level, he later (perhaps unintentionally) references a very Catholic philosophy: “On the authority of Holy Scripture, we are taught…” (III, 4). This is a subtle reference to the Catholic belief that the Bible requires interpretation by Church officials. Servetus clearly aimed only to re-evaluate the more minor parts of Church doctrine, not to assault the primary beliefs of Catholicism. Servetus’s ideas, however, were clearly heretical, going against the Pope-approved view of the Trinity. It is possible that Servetus glorified Catholicism in an attempt to lessen the Catholics’ negative reaction to his work; this theory, ironically, is strengthened by the fact that Servetus’s attempts were ineffective: he was tried and burned at the stake for heresy by Calvin and his followers.
Calvin took a different approach towards religion, taking a logical approach that he saw as flawless, but his Ecclesiastical Ordinances prove his reliance on Church tradition. He references the “ancient Church” as a standard several times: “It will be good in this connection to follow the order of the ancient Church…” (IV, 3) in addition to “…It is good to use the [laying on] of hands, which ceremony was observed by the apostles and then in the ancient Church” (IV, 3) and