Europe during the medieval period has been referred to as the empire of Christendom. However the growing power of European states during the late medieval period and the beginnings of nationalist sentiment changed the balance of power between Pope and secular ruler. This was evident in the early 14th century when the French decisively defeated the Papacy in battle, and practically imprisoned the Pope in Avignon. In the same century Dante published his savage criticism of the Church, arguing that the Holy Roman Emperor was the supreme power in Christendom, and Marsilius of Padua made the equally damaging case that government by consent should apply to the Church, and that the Pope was little better than a tyrant. But despite these challenges meaningful Church reform did not happen, leading to the split in Christendom in the 16th century known as the Reformation.
The principle cause of the Reformation was political rather than theological; the desire of secular rulers to increase their power and wealth. The most obvious example is Henry VIII, who wanted the wealth of the monasteries and the power to divorce and re-marriage as he wished. The consequence was Protestantism, and the belief that reading the Bible is sufficient for Christian practice. It put a premium on literacy and thinking for oneself, and undermined the very need for large scale organised religion. The Reformation was started by Luther when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. They denounced the sale of indulgences (money paid to the church to absolve people of their sins), on the basis that no earthly power including the Pope could absolve us of sin. Augustine had been the first to say this, but the principle had been watered down since. Luther could have been burned as a heretic, but he already had local popularity, and was protected by the local secular Lord who wished to keep the people on side. He was also greatly assisted by the recently invented printing press, which made is impossible for the Church to prevent the spread of his ideas.
Lutheranism & Calvinism
Luther believed there was only one sword, and this was wielded by the secular ruler. In other words, the Church was subordinate to the state. This meant a return to Augustine’s view that no one had the right to rebel against their God given ruler, and passive disobedience was the most that was permitted. This changed however when it became clear that the Holy Roman Empire planned to stamp out Protestantism by force. Luther used the traditional Christian view that a ruler only has divine absolute power if his rule is consistent with Christian morality. Since Luther also believed that secular rulers had no right to impose a religious belief on their subjects, to do so with military force was an abdication of their divine right to rule. They could then be resisted. Luther still remained terrified of the anarchy that could ensue if anyone had the right to judge when a ruler could be resisted, so he said that only a Lord or recognised body could make that judgement. The journey towards constitutional monarchy had begun. Later thinkers like Locke would take this further, believed that anyone had the right to decide when to resist their ruler.
Calvin was a 2nd generation Protestant who went further than Luther in providing a theory for resistance. He developed Luther’s view by formalising a society where it is the business of a middle layer of constituted authorities to ensure that the ruler did not become tyrannical. This discussion has a classical feel. However Calvin’s society is not one full of politicised citizens, but rather a common people who have no business debating the form of government that is divinely bestowed on them. Short of tyrannical behaviour, it remained the lot of the people to endure their rulers.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: