Evangelicals sadly misunderstand the catholic root of early Protestantism. Catholic substance within Protestant reform was identifiable in three areas: a rediscovery of Greek Fathers; an intention to redress grievances by General Council of the whole church; and the return to Byzantine church-state model until Rome amended certain affairs. Reformers like Luther, Melancthon, Bucer, and even Calvin believed they were returning the West back to ancient Orthodox roots and in no way viewed themselves as innovators. Luther and Calvin utilized many patristic and even medieval scholastic sources alongside biblical, and were hardly “the bible alone”. The Augsburg Confession (AC) reads, “there is nothing [in doctrine] that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church catholic, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers…Our churches do not dissent from any article of faith held by the Church catholic” (AC, Article XXI).
Reformers viewed a rebirth of conciliarism as an essential means toward restoring the Church to its original conciliarity. From the Leipzig Debates (1518) to the Council of Mantua (1537), or perhaps as late as Trent (1545), a church unified in both doctrine and life was held upon fast, “we may embrace and maintain the future of one pure and true religion under one Christ, doing battle under Him, living in unity and concord in the one Christian Church” (Preface, AC).
Resolving ecclesial disputes in a conciliar manner was hardly unknown to 16th century divines. During the fist millennium the Church had received all her Creeds by General Council. In fact Chalcedon canonically required periodic convocations of the “entire” church– both lay and clergy– to be held twice a year in order to settle doctrine, discipline, and peace. Numerous fourteenth century writings on Conciliarism were at hand. Late medieval scholastics like John Gerson, Marsilius of Padua, Jacques Almain, Cardinal Zabarella, William of Ockham, Nicholas of Cusa, and John Quidort left behind a sizable corpus of work that Reformers drew upon. Three works stand out– Quidort’s Royal and Papal Power (1302), Cusa’s The Catholic Concordance (1433), Biel’s Apostalicae (1462), and Jean Gerson’s For the Union of the Church (1391). Reformation authors expanded upon this line of thought, e.g., John Mair’s the Authority of a Council (1529), Cranmer’s The Judgment of Convocation (1536), Luther’s On Councils and the Church (1539), and, later, Bossuet’s Declaration of the Gallican Clergy (1682).
Not only did sixteenth century reformers have a workable theology inherited from earlier Conciliarism, but they had examples of Synods from the century prior. Pisa (1409), Constance (1415), and Basel (1433) were such councils instituted to both curb the absolutism and worldliness of Rome. The Avignon Papacy (aka, the Western Schism 1378-1417) gave western conciliarism impetus. Emperor Sigismund waith a majority of cardinals convoked the entire church to settle the scandal of three feuding Popes. The conciliar thought of Paris theologians such as Jean Gerson gave a doctrinal basis to the synod invincing a representative principle, including not only cardinals and bishops but abbots, divines, and eminent laymen. Pisa was the first expression of Western medieval Conciliarism, but it left matters unfinished and Constance arose to resolve the situation of three Popes. By deposing and electing the Pope, Constance demonstrated the Conciliar principal greater than monarchical. Constance declared that councils have power “immediately from Christ” and “everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, are bound to obey in matters pertaining to faith, schism, and general reform”. Constance reaffirmed Chalcedon’s call for frequent convocations reconvening every ten years.
Reformers were not fanatics. Papacy did have a place, but it was truncated and qualified. Rome’s primacy was not in dispute given its hierarchy was known as man-made rather than ‘divine right’. The medieval hierarchy of Bishops—i.e., Papacy, Cardinals, Archbishops, and Archdeacons– were tolerable given they served the greater peace and order of the Church. Hooker, Calvin, and Luther argued the same. Divine right meanwhile was found within the episcopate, Christ assigning his keys to the entire college of Presbyters. Though perhaps possessing more honors, Rome essentially was no different from any other Bishopric. The gradations which grew out of the presbytery were a later development and thus an innovation, and given this understanding Reformers were willing to live with medieval ecclesiology. What was more important was the same Church hierarchy was accountable to the whole and not beyond the discipline of canon or scripture.
The example of Constance—i.e, the Emperor convoking General Council– was both precedent and context for Reformation. Throughout their writings Reformers incessantly called for the secular power to convene a General Council for the address of church abuses, “We have no intention to abandon our appeal” (Preface, AC). Article 21 of the Church of England says, “General councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes” (BCP 1662). Luther’s two tracts, i.e, Appeal of Brother Luther (1518) and Appeal to the German Nobility (1520), were the earliest examples belonging to early Reformation. While Luther was strict about separation of the ‘two swords’ between kingdoms of church and state, he was within catholic tradition regarding the King’s prerogative to intervene as an ‘emergency bishop’ where cardinals, pope, and bishops neglected and absent in ministry, i.e., ratione peceati or pertinaeia. The Prince had duty to his subjects of both body and soul and therefore provisionally could act on behalf of the Christian community restoring life and morals if necessary. Philip of Hesse and John of Saxony thus followed the example of Emperor Sigismund. Their Protestio said, “a Christian magistrate will be bound to do in such a case, for the maintenance of God’s Word, and for all the souls, bodies, lives, and property of himself and his subjects, for freedom, defense and protection”.
Philip and Elector John thus stood in a long line of royal defenders– Henry IV, Philip the Fair, and Charlemagne (who often were at odds with Papacy). These earlier Monarchs’ had either confirmed or settled questions of liturgy, catechism, discipline, sacraments, and feast days. Their level of activism made German magistrates look conservative. The origin of the 1559 BCP ought not be forgotten. Queen Elizabeth forced it through parliament against the majority the Marian episcopate.
Behind the dizzying array of Protestant confessions (e.g., Torgau, Marburg, Helvitic, Augsburg, Thirteen Articles, Wittenburg) is the expectation of a ‘hearing in court’ and corresponding need for Reformed parties to unify their positions and engage the Papal prosecutors as ‘one mind’. Protestant Confessions are in fact long, summary replies to Leo X’s Bull condemning Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. While Edict of Worms (1521) ordered German princes to ban Luther’s teachings (given enforcement did inflame tumult), the final verdict against Luther awaited deliberation of General Council which Charles promised. Therefore, the confessions from 1521-1537 are essentially apologies to win Imperial sympathy or compacts between Protestant Princes for military defense (such as the Smalkald Articles). Rome herself consented to the necessity of General Council at Nuremberg (1522), but not until Mantura (1537) did she begin the actual convocation which later led to Trent, but they were heavily stacked in Italy’s favor (breaking with the five nation precedent at Constance).
Nonetheless, early Protestant confessions assume a Christendom which is both ordered and visible. There are levels of appeal, and when one court fails, others may be summoned—first the Pope, then the Curia, and if all else fails (in extremis), the secular powers—Emperor, or, in lieu, the Prince who might call upon the episcopate and emminent laymen in their territory. When reading early confessions, the lists of magisterial signatories are astonishing. Surrounded by diverse opinions, protestant princes needed a ’single voice’ for the realm. Magistrates not only protected the body but would be “judged before God” for the salvation of their subjects’ souls. In Germany (as elsewhere) the spread of varying rites for the Mass was problematic (e.g., the way we pray is the way we believe). The Protestio said, “if we allowed to hold in our provinces different opposing masses, even though the papal mass wee not contrary to God and to his holy Word…still such a state of things would bring about contention, trouble, revolt, and every misfortune among people in general, and especially among those who have a proper seal for the honor and name of God, and would not at all promote peace or unity”.
Magisterial “like-mindedness” meant the Prince punished sects outside the Confession upheld in the province. Reformation confessions therefore purposefully drew boundaries against error– namely, Papacy and Radicalism– for the sake of social order and salvation. The 39 Articles (1563) are of the same nature belonging to a line of media via documents. The concept of public vow, “as account of his conduct before God” (Protestio 1529), coupled with abject failure of Roman ecclesial authorities, gave rise to the confession as the foundation to national churches.
In order to obtain cooperation against invading Turks, Emperor Charles V had allowed (by public oath) Rhineland Princes to determine the religion of their realm, “every State shall so live, rule, and believe as it may hope and trust to answer before God and his imperial Majesty”. This dictum, “faith of the prince is the faith of the realm”, eventually gave way to national churches in Germany, Sweden, and other parts of Northern Europe. In magisterial Protestantism the provincial church was coextensive with the household of the Crown, the subjects of who were likewise the body of the national church. In England the national settlement was later termed ‘Erastianism’. The rule of Prince in the affairs of Church was hardly new. It was a Byzantine in origin, established by Constantine and Theodosius who sponsored the Church and summoned Councils. Henry VIII’s 1533 declaration of royal supremacy most likely took its cue from the continent.
What was significant about this magisterial approach to Church polity was the elevated role it gave laymen, “the dignity of the secular” (AC XXVI.10) and “For the Gospel does not destroy the state or the family, but rather approves them and asks us to obey them as a divine ordinance” (Apology, XVI.57). By virtue of baptism, laymen had stake in matters which affected the whole. After Henry VIII, the Privy Council governed the English Church. Hooker describes the Christian commonwealth as consisting of both “parliament and convocation”. Since the King was the ‘first among lay’, it stood to reason he might lead the church. Paul Avis comments how Erastianism elevated laity, restoring a balance against exaggerated claims of Papacy:
“(Conciliarism) vindicated the sole-legitimacy and God-given vocation of civil ruler in the purposes of God, looking to the magistrate to reform the church. In otherwords, they handed back temporal authority where it belonged and restored a complementary center of authority to that of Papacy” (p. 44, Beyond Reformation)
Byzantine dualism in Western Christendom really opened the doors to a moe democratic polity. Once ‘functionalism’ and ‘general priesthood’ prevailed against ‘divine right’ and ‘holy orders’, headship and hierarchy in the church began to intellectually disintegrate giving way to Radicalism. Any justice paid to early Protestantism, however, ought deny either extremities. For example, Thomas Cranmer opposed Papacy (treating such as convention) yet was an apologist par excellence for divine right of Henry and Edward.
In 1529 the Second Diet of Speyer attempted to annul the recess given to the Lutheran Princes. Lutheran magistrates responded by issuing the Protestio. The Protestio earned Reformers the name “Protestant”. If any document expresses ‘Original Intent’ behind Reformation it is this early one. The Protest outlines the Magisterial position and ought to be read as one of many period ‘media vias’—neither warm to Rome nor enduring of Radicals. It contains five peculiar points summed below:
- The Armistice Suspension of the Edict in territory under Protestant Princes until a free Council convened. The Armistice was made permanent in 1555 well after a free council was shuttled. Armistice was justified by Charles V’s 1526 public vow to tolerate Lutheran provinces. The Armistice applied to Lutherans not Radicals. However, a distinct family of confessions stemmed from the Augsburg (the Anglican Ten Articles and Varatia). Nonetheless, Augsburg was the term of peace, and starting point for all Protestant unionism.
- National Churches. “Who’s Realm, his Religion”. The national church was the protestant elevation of laity and temporal in matters Church life and doctrine. This restored the dignity of the temporal power, reintroducing dualism (two swords) in Western Christendom. The Prince not only punished those who harmed their neighbor but also defended true doctrine and worship in an “active” way. Thus, the national church became coextensive with the Household of the Prince.
- Supression of Fanatics: The publications and worship of Radicals were to be suppressed, “further innovations shall be prevented”. Lutheran Princes reaffirmed this particular aspect of the Edict, “All Anabaptists and rebaptized persons, male or female, of mature age, shall be judged and brought from natural life to death, by fire, or sword or otherwise, as may befit the persons, without preceding trial by spiritual judges”. Fanatics were those men who rejected infant baptism. Lutherans would later attribute the denial of real presence as crypto-radicalism.
- Uniformity in Public Prayer (or Mass): Though Augsburg said, “no rite had been changed from ancient understanding”, it adds, “it is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere” (AC VII.3). Yet Princes found uniformity in rites necessary within their own territory for the sake of peace and unity. Melanchthon distinguished between private (silent) and public (common) Mass. The later was communion, and it was given freely, frequently, in both kinds, and as spiritual food for the increase of faith. Other ceremonies, e.g., adoration, vestments, smells and bells, etc., depended on the custom of the realm but were otherwise indifferent. Each province would have its own common prayer, i.e., uniformity in worship.
- A Western Synod: Protestants wanted a similar convocation as Constance by five national churches properly apportioned votes. The Councils of Latern V , Florence, Mantura, and Trent (all after Constance) ignored the national-representative principle, packing synods with papal legates by moving the location to Italy (essentially rendering them “robber councils”). By 1543 prospects for a free Council were non-extant, but the idea of a Western church governed by national-conciliar principle was not.
We often make Reformers into “modern prophets”. They were not. First generation reformers still envisioned Corpus Christi in very corporatist and hierarchical nature. Rather than abolishing catholic ecclesiology they sought realignment and could live with a modified Papacy given an Erastian periphery. When reading the history and contents of English and Continental confessions one cannot dismiss the theocratic impulse. Early Protestant divines were either former-monks or canon lawyers (like Calvin) who enlisted both Fathers and Tradition to renew and strengthen the Reign of Christ.
Until Papacy convened a free council, “Original Intent” Protestantism awaited vindication. By 1541-48 the hopes for a Great Synod evaporated. The Regensberg and Leipzig Diets were no more welcomed by the Germans than Romans. After the early forties, most remainder of the Reformation would be played out on battlefields. The launch of the Counter-Reformaiton in 1560 marks the end of reconciliation with Rome. Protestantism still awaits her ‘free council’. But how this would be done in the time of rampant denominationalism and transprovince jurisdictions is problematic. However, reproachment would at least involve a recollection of original goals and purposes, aa stirring of memory invoked by such documents as the Protestio as beacon and future rally point.