What should one have in mind when studying the Protestant Reformation in school?

We’re soon going to be studying the Protestant Reformtation. What should one have in mind? Could the textbook companies be biased against Catholicism? I just don’t want everything to be put against the Church at that time. For example, I looked ahead and read one part that said the pope was competing for political power (how much, though, and why?).

I don’t want the discussions on the subject to be like “Luther was the hero, while the Church was corrupt.”

I had to deal with that last school year, with a very liberal textbook and an Anglican teacher who really had it in for Catholics. (At one point my family and I were so upset over something she said that we had a conference - but nothing was accomplished). Anyway, the rule I went by was to not believe anything until I could confirm it from a Catholic source, and it worked well for me.

Read Hilaire Belloc’s “How the Reformation Really Happened” as a general curative. It’s short, interesting, and not infected with the Protestant bias which persists today.

Also keep in mind that the Reformation is a popular topic with secularist/atheist teachers as they like to envision themselves in Luther’s role standing up to the “evil” Church on behalf of the “good” state.

If you don’t mind a longer reading assignment, Eamon Duffy’s “The Stripping of the Altars” is an excellent account of the human cost of the Reformation in England.

One question to have in your back pocket is, “If indulgences were so evil why does the Catholic Church still have them today, 500 years after Luther?”

One thing to keep in mind is that although there was widespread corruption in the Church, Luther wasn’t primarily protesting the corruption, but the actual doctrines.

However, the corruption in the Church had greatly weakened the faith and catechesis of the laity.

One good resource

ewtn.com/library/CHISTORY/RTREF.TXT

Karl Adam’s Roots of the Refomation

Many coursebooks are indeed biased against Catholicism. What often happens in these cases is that

a) Abuses by Catholics get overemphasized and overstated. Some priests were poorly educated or had concubines becomes “nearly all” priests were like this. The majority of good, loyal and dutiful priests get forgotten. The same goes for abuses by the upper clergy. They get generalized so that it appears everyone was corrupt, rather than a minority.

b) The protestants often get whitewashed and taken on their own account of themselves. Cranmer’s killings are virtually never mentioned, Similarly those of Calvin and Zwingli. Luther’s corruptions, calling for killing of Jews, peasants etc, approval of bigamy of powerful rulers, often get whitewashed. The killings of the English Reformation (hanging, drawing, quartering) are rarely as gruesomely described as those of the Catholic reaction.

c) Doctrinally Catholicism and protestantism often get misrepresented. The sale of Indulgences was neither Catholic doctrine, nor was it “the selling of salvation” as it is often presented. Indulgences are not about salvation at all but about reducing the duration of purgatory. The “freedom to interpret scripture” claimed for protestantism, soon became the freedom to be subject to King Henry’s, Luther, or Calvin’s interpretation of scripture. Protestantism actually introduced the concept of the Bondage of the Will - that humans had no free-will effect on their own salvation. Hardly liberating.

d) Generally the Reformation was enforced by State Power - often in return for civil rulers seizing the property of the Church. Catholic worship was forbidden and Catholic churches seized. This element of enforced conversion is often understated in Reformation courses.

It is a heresy.

Thanks for the advice!
This teacher is nice, I just hope she is not bias against the Catholic Church!

***I just know I will be extra picky in examining the words the book uses and the words my teacher says. ***

Some antidotes:

Website on Pilgrimage of grace
tudorplace.com.ar/Documents/PilgrimageofGrace.htm

Website on Prayer Book rebellion
tudorplace.com.ar/Documents/prayer_book_rebellion.htm

Cobbetts (very) Catholic 1820 English Reformation History is available to download here:
books.google.co.uk/books?id=BicQAAAAIAAJ&dq=reformation+history&pg=PP1&ots=ahCr891cJs&source=citation&sig=-QSmp5F6qXLqbO5M1U2W1sLBJu4&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=11&ct=result

Documentation on Glastonbury Abbey suppression
fordham.edu/halsall/source/h8-glastonbury.html

As a professional historian, I can tell you that it IS possible to be fair in treating the subject. It is very important to remember several things when you teach the Reformation:

  1. The legitimate abuses of the Catholic Church must be dealt with fairly. You don’t need to spend the WHOLE class simply refuting all of the exaggerated claims of Protestants. By simply addressing the situation as truthfully as possible, you allow people to draw their own conclusions.

  2. To that end, you must also make sure that the Catholic Reformation (the Counter-Reformation) is dealt with fairly. Emphasize that there WERE good Catholics at this time, such as St. Francis. Also, point out the good work that Catholics like Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolome de las Casas did in protecting Native Americans in the New World.

  3. Address Protestant points of view as honestly and fairly as possible. Discuss, from their point of view, what they sought to change and why, and make sure that the students know the theological flip-side as well.

  4. Make sure that the role of politics on ALL sides is addressed. Don’t forget that one reason that the Reformation happened was that Charles V of Spain, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor, was so busy with the newly discovered Americas that, by and large, he allowed Luther to run around unchecked until it was too late. Emphasize the role of politics in Germany and Switzerland in the Reformation. Protestants were JUST as politically influenced as Catholics at that time. Finally, make sure that punishment and torture is addressed fairly. Calvin had people burned at the stake. There were terrible executions and tortures of Catholics in England. Luther failed to support the German Peasant’s Revolt, which led to 100,000 deaths. The Salem Witch Trials occurred shortly thereafter in America. The numbers of Catholic Inquisition deaths are often exaggerated. Tell people to keep in mind that it was a different time, and NO group was innocent of using torture and execution when it suited them.

Ultimately, if I’ve done my job right, my students will not be able to tell my religious affiliation from my lectures, and YET, both Catholics and Protestants will tell me that they thought their positions were treated honestly. Get the facts right, and then let them speak for themselves. I think that’s the most fair thing to do.

Definitely check out a copy of Hilaire Belloc’s How The Reformation Happened and also his book Characters of the Reformation.

You can probably get them through inter-library loan at the public library, or order them from a bookstore if you want to buy them.

What should one have in mind when studying the Protestant Reformation in school?

Only 2 things.

  1. Preserve your faith. Don’t let them brain wash you with protestant propaganda and revisionist history that is likely to be blatantly present in the texts they give you or orally conveyed with more intensity by an anti-Catholic or pure secular instructor.
  2. Keep focused on just getting through the course with a passing grade and not rocking the boat. Don’t get baited into inflammatory discussions with Catholic-baiting tactics. These are leading questions cleverly designed as “discussion topics”. If the instructor succeeds in identifying you as pro-Catholic and you start to put her on the ropes with facts she will retaliate by appealing to the secular sentiments and prejudices of the other students to alienate you and isolate you.

Been there done that…

James

Go in armed not just with the realities of the Reformers but also those of the pagan Europeans and of the main atheist movements of modern times, so that no one can use the class as a soapbox against Christianity in general. Bring hard-copy texts if possible. When you Google asubject, there are three stages to it: find a few sites addressing what you want to know, then find what people have to say about your sources, then find what other people have to say about those sources. Oh, of course then print and bring the copy to class. That way you can prove you didn’t make it up or get it from a worthless source.

You might read “A Popular History of the Reformation,” by Phillip Hughes. It dates from the '50s but is pretty good. You can buy a used copy on Amazon for less than $10 including postage.

Something to keep in mind: the Reformers crossed swords with
another type of reformer, Sir Thomas More et al. who took them
on with great vigor while the papacy was too busily engrosed in politics to take effective action against them. The English Reformation was probably the most political of all, because there was very little support for Lutheran ideas among the people, not even the people of London where they had a following among the merchatile class. Reform was simply something imposed by the Crown, with little respect for popular opinion, and if Henry had not himself been popular, a widespread revolt might have occured against his reforming ministers.

For one thing, the Pope was the temporal ruler of a sizeable strip of land stretching across central and northeastern Italy. Italy was politically turbulent, and the Popes often needed to engage in military operations and make alliances with other regional powers in order to maintain this “patrimony of St. Peter.”

The military and political actions engaged in by the Renaissance Popes made them subject to a lot of satire and ridicule at the time. Many Christians thought that there was something really incongruous about the successor of St. Peter leading armies. (There’s a famous satire called “Julius Exclusus” which depicts Pope Julius II being shut out of heaven by St. Peter because of his military adventures and other corrupt activities.) The Popes, however, would have argued that this was part of their responsibility, and that an independent territory was necessary to keep the See of Peter from coming under the power of secular rulers (this argument retains some force today, which is why Vatican City is an independent country, although of course it’s a very different situation politically, since the Vatican is not a viable entity economically or militarily in the way that the Papal States were).

I don’t want the discussions on the subject to be like “Luther was the hero, while the Church was corrupt.”

Well, any professor who put it that crudely would be not doing a very good job. However, that might be the general impression given. I think it’s important for you to distinguish three things that might give you offense:

  1. Obvious facts that any fair-minded historian is going to present, such as the fact that the Popes were temporal rulers and waged wars (as mentioned above), or the fact that the proceeds from indulgences were used in part to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica.

  2. Matters of interpretation, selection, and legitimate oversimplification. This is where it gets tricky. Everyone has a bias. You can’t expect that all your teachers in a secular context will have a pro-Catholic bias. You can’t even expect that all your Catholic teachers will interpret the facts the way you might like them to. You can rightly point out nuances that complicate the simple picture your teacher presents, or facts that your teacher has left out. But you need to be careful to do this in a fair-minded and respectful way, and to avoid whiny “politically correct” rhetoric that simply shuts down discussion of things that might make the Church look bad. (In other words, it’s legitimate to say: “it’s not correct to say that the Church sold salvation, because eternal salvation wasn’t at stake–indulgences dealt with temporal punishment in Purgatory for people who had already repented and been forgiven of their sins and were going to wind up in heaven eventually anyway; and technically they weren’t being sold–the giving of money was one of several penitential acts that could lead to a person obtaining an indulgence.” Note that there are two points here–the first one is really important and should be uncontroversial. A professor who speaks of indulgences giving “salvation” is not completely contradicting the truth, since obviously Purgatory is something people wanted to be “saved” from and plenary indulgences did usher people directly into heaven, and in that sense “saved” them. When you consider how horrible most people of that era believed Purgatory was, and how long they thought it lasted, and how afraid of it they were, you can see why a secular professor or even a Protestant might think that “indulgences gave salvation” is a legitimate simplification. But from a Catholic point of view it’s absolutely unacceptable, because the distinction between purgatory and hell is crucial. And you should be able to get any fair-minded non-Catholic to see this with a little effort. The second issue–whether indulgences were “sold”–is trickier. If you make too much fuss over it, you can come across as engaging in special pleading and thus weaken your whole case, because after all in practice people were giving money and receiving indulgences. If you have time, it’s perfectly fair to nuance the picture in the way I’ve suggested above–you could also point out that poorer people didn’t have to pay as much as rich people, by the way. But you want to be careful not to tackle too much. You may want to take on the more obvious distortions and let the fine points go. And you need to consider the fact that even the most fair-minded teacher is making similar calculations–how much to simplify, how many nuances to present. And obviously if the teacher is not Catholic, or is a Catholic trying very hard to be fair about the dark side of Catholic history, the teacher may make different decisions than you would.

  3. Matters of outright falsehood or obvious distortion. The statement that “salvation” was sold could be seen as coming into this category–I’ve suggested above why I don’t quite think it does, since release from Purgatory could legitimately be called “salvation” in some sense. But at any rate it’s borderline, so if the professor uses that kind of language you want to be respectful and non-accusatory in how you challenge it. You won’t gain anything by saying “how can you lie about the Church” rather than “well, that’s not quite correct–here’s how it is.” However, if the teacher were to say “People thought that they were going to go to hell if they didn’t buy indulgences, and so they bankrupted themselves in order to do so, and still many people were too poor and the Church didn’t care because all it was interested in was getting money,” well, that contains several outright falsehoods in one sentence and (within the limits of propriety) you are absolutely justified in calling the teacher on it and complaining about the outrageous misrepresentation of your religion that is going on.

I hope you see my point (I’m very long-winded, precisely because I try not to oversimplify things!). You need to consider which category a given statement falls in and respond accordingly, and you need to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt in the many cases that fall somewhere on the borderline.

Edwin

It’s not borderline at all. Those in Purgatory are already saved. One does not go to Purgatory only to be damned in the end. Therefore, the notion that “selling indulgences” = “selling salvation” is false on its face.

We don’t need to be equivocal regarding outright falsehoods such as this. Luther was full of them, and shouldn’t be given a pass for his dishonesty in this regard.

Whatever standard is applied must be applied to all parties. If you want to criticize the Church for corruption, Luther’s corruption ought to be fair game as well, however inconvenient that may prove for propagandists on his side.

No one’s asking for Catholics to fight lies with more palliable lies. Since the topic likely won’t be given months and months for “on the one hand…on the other hand…”, the best way to handle it is as the historian noted above: put each side’s perspective as they would put it and leave it at that.

We’re simply asking that the Catholic side be put forward, disturbing as that will no doubt be for some.

To the OP,

My master’s degree prof. also has mentioned Belloc as a good resource. Essentially, a crux of the Reformation is the failure to understand the Incarnation…i.e. where the eternal & finite meet, the natural and supernatural.

See, Jesus is a bridge, both natural and divine. After the Fall, there was an insurmountable chasm between man and God. Nothing man ever did could bring him to life with God. The sacrifices were only types of what was to come. God then came Incarnate, and everything changed forever. Works done in Him are indeed effective. Just as an event that occurred on earth (crucifixion) had consequences in another world (heaven), so too do our works in Him have worldly and eternally efficacious effects. Now, Jesus is perpetuated in sacraments, which, like Jesus, have natural and supernatural dimensions. Luther & co. failed to see that anything natural could be “good” and thus reject sacraments. It is also why he taught that grace just “covered” our sins, and not purified us ontologically.

If by “saved” you mean “assured of the eventual enjoyment of the Beatific Vision,” then yes. If you mean “actually enjoying the Beatific Vision,” then no. Am I not correct?

I’m not going to be drawn into an argument on the merits of a phrase that the OP’s teacher may or may not use. I agree that it’s a bad description. My point is simply that a person might use such a description as a good-faith shortcut, and that a respectful and specific restatement is preferable to an angry accusation of bias or falsehood.

Nor am I going to get into a discussion of Luther’s failings, which are not the point (unless the teacher should try to present Luther as a spotless hero, which is unlikely).

Edwin

I mean the former, which is the plain interpretation of “salvation”. “Eventual” has little context, since eternal life is eternal. An indulgence, as you no doubt know, remits temporal punishment. It does not affect whether or not one is saved; therefore, any instructor claiming that the selling of indulgences = selling of salvation is factually and theologically wrong, no ifs, ands, or buts.

I’m not going to be drawn into an argument on the merits of a phrase that the OP’s teacher may or may not use. I agree that it’s a bad description. My point is simply that a person might use such a description as a good-faith shortcut, and that a respectful and specific restatement is preferable to an angry accusation of bias or falsehood.

Bias and falsehood are two different things. If they resort to incorrect formulations, even as a shortcut, they ought to be called on it. Presumably they are not being paid to peddle untruths.

They have a right to their own opinions, not their own facts. A good instructor will not present the former as the latter.

Nor am I going to get into a discussion of Luther’s failings, which are not the point (unless the teacher should try to present Luther as a spotless hero, which is unlikely).

Edwin

Actually, it’s quite likely. That is what I was taught about Luther during my primary education, and I grew up in the most Catholic state in the union.

Luther’s failings are fair game if one is going to talk about the practices of Catholic clergymen and laity. After all, the whole point of the Reformation was the “reform” of these practices. A fair discussion will note Luther’s less-than-wonderful example, as with Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer et al. This is particularly important if one is to have any context at all for the Thirty Years War and why it was so brutal.

One must present both sides. A student of military history would get nowhere looking at only one side of a conflict, as battles are waged between opponents. The Reformation was a battle against the Church, and one must understand something of it in order to understand it at all.

Well, I will defer to you on this. I never went to public school. I was homeschooled and did get an overly rosy picture of the Reformation that way. But when I attended college (a Protestant college, by the way, though one associated with the “Restoration” movement and thus not too prone to hero-worship of the Reformers–but more to the point an institution characterized by fairness and intellectual rigor) my naive ideas were effectively challenged. Generally I found that secular textbooks pointed out the flaws of the Protestants quite freely. (In fact, I remember reading one secular textbook to which my parents objected because they thought it “pro-Catholic” in its rather nostalgic and tragic portrayal of the destructive side of the Reformation) But obviously that was not your experience (and it may be that we come at this from different angles because I grew up with such a heroic view of the Reformation that the secular portrayal appeared almost a hatchet job by comparison).

After all, the whole point of the Reformation was the “reform” of these practices.

No. It wasn’t. That is a view projected back onto the Reformation by modern people who can’t believe that anyone would make such a fuss over theology (and happily accepted by many well-meaning Catholics because it allows both sides to save face without actually tackling the question of theological truth). The Reformers were happy to appeal to corruption as evidence that something was very wrong in the Catholic Church, but this was an incidental argument–they did not claim that moral reform was the “point” of the Reformation at all. Luther in particular repeatedly said the exact opposite–that he was different from previous reformers because they had attacked morals while he got to the doctrinal root of the matter.

Edwin

You were very fortunate and I commend your parents on having blazed a trail. We may wind up homeschooling my son.

But when I attended college (a Protestant college, by the way, though one associated with the “Restoration” movement and thus not too prone to hero-worship of the Reformers–but more to the point an institution characterized by fairness and intellectual rigor) my naive ideas were effectively challenged. Generally I found that secular textbooks pointed out the flaws of the Protestants quite freely. (In fact, I remember reading one secular textbook to which my parents objected because they thought it “pro-Catholic” in its rather nostalgic and tragic portrayal of the destructive side of the Reformation)

That may be true of textbooks prepared prior to the 60s, when mainline Protestant churches held sway and could be relied upon to pound on the Puritans and such. I’d suspect that the rise of secularism has made Luther more of a hero in textbooks today as his anti-clerical stance would have more appeal to those generally anti-religion. Just my suspicion; haven’t picked up one of those textbooks since 1988 or so.

But obviously that was not your experience (and it may be that we come at this from different angles because I grew up with such a heroic view of the Reformation that the secular portrayal appeared almost a hatchet job by comparison).

Oh, my experience was quite similar. About all I knew of the Reformation from my primary education was Luther’s heroic nailing of the 95 theses to the church door, his “Here I stand” speech, and ensuing bloodshed.

No. It wasn’t. That is a view projected back onto the Reformation by modern people who can’t believe that anyone would make such a fuss over theology (and happily accepted by many well-meaning Catholics because it allows both sides to save face without actually tackling the question of theological truth). The Reformers were happy to appeal to corruption as evidence that something was very wrong in the Catholic Church, but this was an incidental argument–they did not claim that moral reform was the “point” of the Reformation at all. Luther in particular repeatedly said the exact opposite–that he was different from previous reformers because they had attacked morals while he got to the doctrinal root of the matter.

Edwin

I agree. The corruption argument has become a meme much like George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and refusing to lie about it has.

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