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We are the cultural descendants of the Reformation era, says Professor Brad S. Gregory in these 36 lectures on one of the most tumultuous and consequential periods in all of European history. Regardless of whether we ourselves are religious, says Professor Gregory, our modern preference for belief bolstered by doctrine is “a long-term legacy of the efforts to educate, to catechize, to indoctrinate, that began in a widespread way during the 16th century.”

Understanding the Martyrs

But despite these ties, it still takes a major effort of historical imagination to enter the minds of those who were willing to suffer martyrdom or martyr others for what we would regard as minor doctrinal differences.

This course is designed to take you inside the minds of those who supported the Reformation and those who resisted it. It treats the three broad religious traditions that endured or arose during these years:

  • Roman Catholicism, both as it existed on the cusp of the Reformation and as it changed to meet the Protestant challenge.
  • Protestantism, meaning the forms approved by political authorities, such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism.
  • “Radical” Protestantism, meaning the forms often at odds with political authorities, such as Anabaptism.

The goal is to understand historically the theological and devotional aspects of each of these three broad traditions on its own terms and to grasp the overall ramifications of religious conflict for the subsequent course of modern Western history.

Central Characters

The Reformation era produced many influential figures, including:

Erasmus (c. 1466-1536): The leading Christian humanist of the early 16th century, whose “philosophy of Christ” sought the gradual moral improvement of Christendom.

Martin Luther (1483-1546): An obscure monk and professor in 1517, but by the spring of 1521 he had defied both the pope and Holy Roman Emperor on behalf of his understanding of Christian faith and life. The reaction of the Church drove him to more and more radical positions.

Charles V (1500-1558): Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 until 1556, and staunch defender of Catholicism and opponent of Protestantism. In 1521, he issued the Edict of Worms condemning Luther.

Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531): The reformer whose influence was responsible for the abolition of Catholicism and the adoption of Protestantism in the Swiss city of Zurich. His sharp disagreement with Luther over the nature of the Lord’s Supper found dramatic expression in the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, preventing a political alliance between Zwinglian and Lutheran cities and setting the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions on divergent paths.

Thomas Müntzer (c. 1490-1525): An apocalyptic reformer who preached violent revolution during the Peasants’ War of 1525. Originally sympathetic to Luther, Müntzer progressively moved away from and ridiculed him as a panderer to princes. In 1525, he led several thousand underarmed peasants into battle at Frankenhausen, where they were slaughtered. Shortly thereafter, Müntzer was captured and executed.

Henry VIII (1491-1547): The English king at whose behest the country severed its longstanding institutional links to the Roman Catholic Church and created a separate national church under royal control.

Ignatius Loyola (1491?-1556): The founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), the most important Catholic religious order of the Reformation era.

Jan van Leiden (1509-1536): The self-proclaimed prophet-king and ruler of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster in 1534-1535. Under van Leiden, the “New Jerusalem” practiced communal ownership of goods and polygamy. A siege finally broke the regime in 1535, and Jan was executed.

John Calvin (1509-1564): The leading reformer and theologian in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is the single most important Protestant theological work of the Reformation era. Calvinism became the most dynamic, influential form of Protestantism in Europe in the second half of the 16th century.

John Knox (c. 1514-1572): An impassioned, uncompromising Calvinist reformer who played a leading role in the Scottish Reformation.

Menno Simons (c. 1496-1561): The most influential Dutch Anabaptist leader in the wake of the ill-fated Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster.

Henry IV (de Navarre) (1553-1610): The French king whose conversion from Calvinism to Catholicism in 1593 helped bring an end to the French Wars of Religion with the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

Questions to Ponder

Throughout, Professor Gregory raises questions that any student of the period must ponder. Here are a few:

  • Was the late medieval Church vigorous or, as Martin Luther and others came to insist, horribly corrupt?
  • How did Renaissance humanism shape such towering figures of the age as Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Ignatius Loyola?
  • What factors caused Protestantism to take hold in some places but not in others?
  • How did the Reformation produce not only Protestantism but also modern Catholicism?
  • How do the events of the Reformation reveal the shifting balance between religious and secular authorities?
  • Does it make sense to speak of a single Reformation, or were there several?
  • Did the Reformation(s) succeed or fail?

A Rewarding Scholar and Teacher

Professor Gregory received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He is currently the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Notre Dame. He has also taught at Stanford University, where, in 1998, he received the prestigious Walter J. Gores Award, Stanford’s highest teaching honor. At Stanford he also received the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2000.

His award-winning book, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press, 1999), reflects many of the themes introduced in this course. In a review, The Times Literary Supplement (U.K.) wrote: “Salvation at Stake is a book which nobody working in the field of Reformation and early modern history can afford to pass over. And it is not just required reading; it is rewarding, too.”

Thoughts on the Reformation

“This is an extraordinarily important period for understanding the modern world and its characteristic assumptions,” says Professor Gregory. “Part of my goal is to show the ways in which this distant world has impinged on our own.

“The lectures will consider the three broad traditions of the Reformation—Catholicism, Protestantism, and ‘radical’ Protestantism. Until recent decades, the dominant way of approaching this period was through confessional or Church history, which in America and much of Europe tended to be written from a Protestant standpoint.

“In this course, by contrast, I will examine all three of these traditions equally and evenhandedly under the inclusive rubric of ‘early modern Christianity.’

“The approach in this course, then, will be deliberately cross-confessional and comparative, attempting to understand the men and women in these traditions on their own terms, and in relationship and conflict with each other. This will enable us to grasp the significance of early modern Christianity as a whole in ways that I do not think are possible if we focus primarily one tradition, or if we favor one of the three traditions over the other two.

“The long-term payoff will be a better understanding of the relationship between the world of early modern Europe and our world, to which it gave rise.”

Visit History of Christianity in the Reformation Era (The Great Courses) to read more...

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