Essentials of Church History - Lesson 7

Protestantism in France

The Catholic heritage of France made it difficult for Protestant groups to thrive. The Catholic reformation spawned the beginning of several movements that still exist today. The Council of Trent clearly delineated major differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. We still struggle with some of the same political and social implications of our beliefs with which the reformers wrestled.

Gordon Isaac
Essentials of Church History
Lesson 7
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Protestantism in France

I. Protestantism in France

A. Political background

B. First Protestant church organized during the reign of Henry II

C. Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day

II. Catholic Reformation

A. Queen Isabella of Spain 1474

B. Franciscan movement

C. Polemics against Protestantism

D. Discalced Carmelite movement begun by Saint Teresa

E. Jesuits

F. Council of Trent

III. Observations about the era of the Reformation

  • Specific political and cultural events combined to form a setting when Jesus lived, which can be described as the "fullness of time." In the founding and development of the early church, Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 and the persecution of Christians were significant.

  • Because of Palestine's central location in the Middle East, it was important to other countries militarily and economically. The apostles and other Christians were able to travel to spread the gospel throughout the world. Constantine's conversion and his support of Christianity had a greatly affected its growth and development. The ecumenical councils met to discuss and articulate a biblical view of God, as well as Christ's divine and human natures.

  • Individuals like Augustine helped shape the theology of the church. Charlemagne and Gregory the Great expanded the political influence of the church. The monastic movement, rise of Islam and the Crusades were significant during this period of time.

  • The influence of Catholicism expanded in the 15th and 16th centuries because of the exploration sponsored by Spain and Portugal. A central figure in the Reformation was Martin Luther. His theological ideas initiated and shaped the Reformation movement and are still influential today.

  • Zwingli and Calvin were influential leaders in the Protestant Reformation movement. The Anabaptists and Mennonites are movements that still have an influence on theology in the church today.

  • The political events in the 16th century had a great impact on the Reformation movement in England and Scotland.

  • The Catholic heritage of France made it difficult for Protestant groups to thrive. The Catholic reformation spawned the beginning of several movements that still exist today. The Council of Trent clearly delineated major differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. We still struggle with some of the same political and social implications of our beliefs with which the reformers wrestled.

  • A prevailing attitude during this time was that religious tolerance was a better policy than emphasizing doctrinal disagreements that led to wars. Why be concerned about details of doctrine that produced nothing but quarrels and prejudice when natural reason, something all people have in common, can answer the fundamental questions regarding God and human nature? Political and religious leaders in England and Europe contributed to the debate between Reformed theology and Rationalism. Subjects addressed are the Thirty Years War, Puritan revolution in England, Reformed Orthodoxy, Westminster Confession, Deism, Rationalist option in the wake of the confessionalization of Europe, George Fox and the Spiritualist option, Pietism with Zinzendorf, the Moravians, John Wesley and the Methodists.

  • Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were well-known preachers in the Great Awakening in the American colonies in the early 18th century. Camp meetings were common in meetings during the 2nd Great Awakening. Preachers like Dwight Moody began a movement which resulted in urban revival. Mormonism and Jehovah witnesses were two religions that were founded. The fundamentalist vs. modernist controversy, as well as the geographic expansion of missions, still affect the world today.

  • Wesley's preaching and the holiness movement were major influences in beginning the modern Pentecostal movement. Charles Fox Parham was instrumental in the formation of the Pentecostal movement, sometimes referred to as the "first wave." The second and third waves of the Pentecostal movement, as well as the ecumenical movement, have had a significant impact on individuals and churches across the world during the twentieth century.

The people, events, and movements that shaped church history from the life of Jesus to the twentieth century. The class looks at the early church, Constantine, the church in the Middle Ages, the Reformation in Europe and Great Britain, and Protestantism in France. It then moves into more recent centuries and deals with the issues of doubt and dogma, and finally the Great Awakening with Edwards, Whitefield, and eventually Wesley. 


I. Protestantism in France

We turn now to our treatment of, our brief treatment of Protestantism in France. We need to understand that Protestantism in France had something of a storied career. It began rather early on with the writings of Luther becoming known in Paris. There was a circle that read his writings and was drawn to the Reformation.  France was never a particularly congenial place for Protestant adherents because France had been one of the first nation states that had really come into its own power.

The French Kings had exercised their power in such a way that they had colluded with the Papacy and therefore the ties between the papacy and France were very strong. This made the growth of Protestantism in France very difficult.

A. Political Background

Francis I, who had ruled in France, during a time when John Calvin had written The Institutes of the Christian Religion faith and presented that before Francis died in 1547. Francis I was succeeded by his son Henry II who continued his father’s policies although his opposition to Protestantism was actually a bit more constant and cruel.

B. First Protestant Church Organized During the Reign of Henry II

In spite of persecution it was during Henry’s reign that the first Protestant Church was formally organized, following the pattern set forth by the exiled John Calvin. Four years later when the first national synod gathered, there were churches scattered throughout the nation. That assembly, meeting secretly near Paris, approved a confession of faith and a discipline for the new church. Shortly after that gathering Henry II died of wounds that he received in a tournament. He left four sons, three of whom would successively inherit the throne; Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, and three daughters, among them Margaret of Avalon, who would be Queen of France after her brother’s death. Their mother was Catherine de’ Medici, an ambitious woman who sought to rule through her children.

Catherine’s projects were hindered by the House of Guise, the family from Larraine, had become prominent during the reign of Francis I and later General Francis of Guise and his brother Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, and had been the main advisors of Henry II. And now, since young Francis II was not interested in matters of State, it was their two brothers who ruled in his name.

C. Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day

One of the incidents that took place within France early on was an incident called “The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day”. After prolonged wars in France the peace of 1570 offered the promise of lasting peace. Catherine de Medici seemed willing to make concessions to the Protestants hoping that they would help her in her power struggle against the Guise’s in 1571. There was a favorable impression upon the young King that the latter called him “my father”. There were also plans for a marriage between Catherine’s daughter Margaret and the Protestant prince Henry Bourbon, Antoine’s son, all bode well for the Huguenot’s, those French protestants’  who after long struggles were now able to appear freely at court. But under sweet appearances other intentions lurked.

The new Duke of Guise, Henry, was convinced that his father’s death had been ordered by Coligny and was eager for revenge. Catherine herself began to fear the growing influence of the Protestant Admiral, who had won the king’s trust and admiration, thus developed a plot to be rid of the Admiral who was one of the most upright figures of those turbulent times. The main Huguenot leaders came to Paris for the wedding of Henry Bourbon and then King of Navarre, and the French king’s sister Margaret of Valois. The ceremony took place amid great rejoicing and signs of reconciliation on August 18th. The protestant nobles were lulled into overconfidence by their friendly reception and the king’s obvious good will. Then, as Coligny was returning to his lodgings from the Louvre someone shot at him from a building owned by the Guise family. He lost a finger from his right hand and was also wounded on the left arm, but the attempt on his life had failed. The Huguenot leaders, incensed at such a breach of the King’s hospitality, demanded justice.

Charles the IX took the investigation seriously and there were indications that the shot had been fired from an ancient gun belonging to the Duke of Guise and that the assassin had fled on a horse from Catherine’s stables, some even suspected that the kings brother, Henry of Anjou, later Henry III, was part of the conspiracy. The indignant King banned the Guise’s from court while further inquiries continued. The conspirators then took drastic measures. Catherine convinced Charles that there was a vast Huguenot plot to wrest the throne from him and that its leader was Coligny. The King, who had never shown great strength of conviction, believed what he was told and thus the stage was set for the massacre of the Protestants. On the night of Saint Bartholomew’s Day August 24, 1572 with the approval of both Charles IX and Catherine de Medici, the Duke of Guise met with those in charge of keeping order in Paris and gave them detailed instructions; including what dwelling each should attack and who their victims should be. He took personal charge of the death of Coligny who was still convalescing; the Admiral was taken by surprise in his bedchamber where they inflicted several wounds on him. While he was still living he was thrown out the window to the Duke whom waited below who kicked and killed him, then his body was horribly mutilated and what was left was hanged from the gibbet in the region of Paris, meanwhile, some two thousand Huguenot’s met a similar fate, even at the royal palace the Louvre it was said that blood ran down the stairs.

The two Protestant Princes, Louis de Condit and Henry Bourbon, the latter King of Navarre and now Charles brother-in-law were now dragged before the French King where they saved their lives by denying their faith. The massacre in Paris was the signal calling to similar events in the provinces. The Duke of Guise had given orders that the massacre should spread to every corner of the kingdom. A few upright magistrates refused to obey declaring that they were neither executioners nor murderers. But most did obey and the number of victims reached the tens of thousands. The news spread throughout Europe, as has been said William of Orange who was marching on Brussels with an army he had raised with French support, felt compelled to disband his troops and abandon the campaign. In England Elizabeth dressed in mourning, Emperor Maximilian II although a faithful Catholic expressed horror at the news, but in Rome and Madrid there were different reactions.
Pope Gregory XIII while declaring that he deplored the bloodshed, ordered that a Te Deum be sung in celebration of the night of Saint Bartholomew and that the same should be done every year in memoriam of such deeds. Spanish chroniclers affirm that Phillip II smiled in public for the first time when he received the news of the massacre and that he too ordered the singing of a Te Deum and other celebrations.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre really marks the atmosphere in France with respect to Protestantism and the Catholic domination of that country has almost been complete. So the Reformation in some ways never really did take full hold in France, so this is an interesting but troubling chapter in church history.

II. Catholic Reformation

We turn our attention now to the Catholic Reformation. On the heels of the protestant reformation, the Catholics realized that there was real need for reformation. There were many very pious individuals within the Roman Catholic Church who agreed that the Roman Catholic Church needed to see a time of purification and of renovation and so many put their hands to that.

A. Queen Isabella of Spain 1474

In Spain, Isabella inherited the crown of Castile in 1474. The church in her land was in urgent need of reformation. As in the rest of Europe many prelates were also great lords, more given to war and intrigue than to the spiritual welfare of the faithful, most of the lower clergy were insufficiently trained to the point that many were able to do no more than recite the mass. As in other parts of Europe, monasticism was at a low ebb, and some of the larger convents and monasteries had become fashionable places for retreat for the illegitimate children of royalty and nobility. Isabella was determined to reform the church and to that end began by securing from the Papacy the right to name those who were to fill high ecclesiastical posts. Her husband Ferdinand the King of neighboring Aragon, obtained similar rights for his territories. But their motivations were very different. Isabella was interested in having the authority to reform the church, whereas Ferdinand saw in the naming of prelates an important political prerogative that would strengthen the crown.

B. Franciscan Movement

Thus while Isabella was energetically seeking the best candidates to fill vacant posts, Ferdinand filled the vacant Archbishopric of Saragossa, his capitol, by naming to that post his illegitimate son, who was then six years old. If Isabella found no support for her program of reformation in her husband Ferdinand the same was not true of her confessor Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros. He was an austere Franciscan who had spent ten years in prison for refusing to participate in the corrupt practices of his time. While in prison he would study Hebrew, for he was imbued in the scholarly interests of the Humanists. Finally, through the recommendation of the reformist Bishop of Toledo, who had been chosen by Isabella, he was made confessor to the Queen. When the Archbishop died, Isabella took the steps necessary to have Jimenez named to the vacant see, the most important in the kingdom. Jimenez refused, and the Queen obtained from Pope Alexander VI, who was anything but a reformer, a papal bull ordering the reluctant friar to accept. The Queen and the Archbishop set about the reformation of convents and monasteries; they personally visited the most important monastic houses and those best known for their laxity calling all to renew obedience to their monastic vows, reproving those who showed little improvement and in some cases severally punishing those who resisted their entreaties.

C. Polemics Against Protestantism

Protests were sent to Rome, but the Pope, while not a reformer was a politician who understood the need to humor the reformist Queen. As a result, her hand was further strengthened and even the most corrupt amongst the prelates of her kingdom had to take steps to reform the church. Isabella’s program of reform had a powerful effect on her church and her kingdom and so Spain really does become the center of a great interest and rededication to Roman Catholic ideals.We find also that the Catholic renewal took place in other ways as well. The catholic reformation also found expression in polemics against Protestantism. Protestantism was framed in various different kinds of ways by catholic leaders in attempt to reclaim and consolidate catholic opposition to Protestantism.

Robert Bellarmine was one of the main systematizes of Catholic theological arguments against protestant claims. For twelve years beginning in 1576 he held in Rome the newly founded Chair of Polemics and toward the end of his tenure there he began publishing his great work On the Controversies of the Christian Faith which he completed in 1593. This became the classical source of arguments against Protestantism. In fact most of the arguments used to this day are already included in Bellarmine’s work. Bellarmine was also one of the participants in the trial of Galileo which concluded that the notion of the earth moves around the sun is heretical. Cesare Baronius on the other hand was the great catholic historian; a group of scholars at the University of Magdeburg had begun publishing a vast history of the church in which they sought to show how Roman Catholicism had deviated from original Christianity. Since this work, never completed, devoted a volume to each century, it became generally known as The Centuries of Magdeburg. In answer to them, Baronius wrote his ecclesiastical annals. These works marked the birth of church history as a modern discipline.

D. Discalced Carmelite Movement Begun by Saint Teresa

There were also new orders that were established as a part of the Catholic Renewal Movement.  One of the most important of those orders was the Discalced Carmelites. The Discalced Carmelites were founded by Saint Theresa. The Jesuits, under the leadership of Ignatius Loyola were foremost amongst the orders that hoped to respond to the new times with a solutions and opposition to Protestantism. Theresa spent most of her youth in Avila, an ancient walled city, her grandfather was a converted Jew and she joined a Carmelite convent just outside of Avila. She was dismayed when The Inquisition published a list of forbidden books which included most of her favorites. She had a vision in which Jesus told her “fear not for I shall be with you like an open book”. From then on such visions became increasingly frequent. This led her to a prolonged inner struggle, for she had no way of determining if the visions were genuine or not.

E. Jesuits

Her confessors whom she changed repeatedly were of little help. She eventually allowed her visions to express her particular form of spirituality and her writings, she began to do some writings, many of her visions were written down, and she became important within the movement. She was joined in her efforts by Saint John of the Cross a man so short that when she met him Saint Theresa is said to have quipped ‘Lord, I asked you for a monk and you sent me half of one. ”Through his work, Theresa’s reform, resulted in the male branch of the Discalced Carmelites. Thus Theresa is the only woman in history of the church to have founded a monastic order for both men and women. One of the other important movements was the Jesuit’s. They were formed by Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius Loyola was a military man, but he received a wound in the year 1521 and he was laid up and had to recuperate. His recuperation took some time, and while he was recuperating he had a conversion experience. And he, it is said, lying awake one night he clearly saw the image of our Lady with the Holy Child Jesus, and with that vision he received remarkable consolation for a long time and was left with such repugnance for his former life and especially for things of the flesh that it seemed like all the images that had been painted on his soul were erased. He then went on pilgrimage to the hermitage Montserrat, where in a rite reminiscent of the ancient orders of chivalry he devoted himself to the service of his lady the virgin and confessed all his sins. Then he withdrew to where he intended to live as a hermit to Manresa. But this did not suffice to calm his spirit. Tormented, as Luther’s had been earlier, by a profound sense of his own sin, he dedicates his entire life to service in the church and he approaches the Pope who eventually approves of the founding of the Jesuit Order.

F. Council of Trent

The Jesuits are one of the most interesting Orders because they have an oath directly to the Pope and thus as a teaching order have a very different relationship than the other monastic orders. One of the other ways in which the Catholic Reformation is marked out is through The Council of Trent. The Council of Trent was called during the reign of Paul III when the breach between Protestants and Catholics was permanent, that serious consideration was given by the Pope in Rome of the possibility to call a universal council. The universal council had been promised during Luther’s lifetime but it had been put off and put off. Finally in December of 1545 there was a meeting of The Council of Trent. Charles V had insisted that the council must meet in his territories and that was the reason for the selection of Trent, an imperial city in Northern Italy, even so it was attended by few prelates, thirty-one in the first session and two hundred and thirteen in the last. The Council of Trent lasted from December of 1545 to 1563 and there are a number of sessions that were convened and in those sessions Roman Catholic theologians hammered out responses to the Protestant Reformation and unfortunately the character of The Council of Trent is very oppositional so that anathemas are attached to most all of the basic protestant principles. For example; in the doctrine of justification by faith, in The Council of Trent it says “if anyone believes that he can know in this lifetime that he has salvation, let him be anathema”.

According to official Roman Catholic dogma, the Council of Trent is still official, Roman Catholic dogma, one cannot know whether or not one has salvation in this lifetime, it is something which one has to leave in the hands of God. The decrees of course from the Council of Trent are too numerous to list here. As measures of reformation it ordered bishops to reside in their see’s , condemned pluralism, that is the holding of several ecclesiastical offices, it listed and defined the obligations of the clergy , it regulated the use of such things as relics, and indulgences, and it as I say continues to be official Roman Catholic dogma.

III. Observations about the Era of the Reformation

Now as we end our consideration of the Reformation I want to list just a few items which characterize this convulsed age which was a very difficult time period.

One of the things that we need to be reminded of is that confessionals were one of the most obvious consequences of the Reformation. There was a division of the medieval Catholic Church into a number of churches. The process by which these various communities established their own identities is known as confessionalization. There were the Lutherans, there were the Calvinists or the Reformed Church, and of course the Anabaptists, although in many ways they were still marginalized at this time and didn’t participate so much in the matter of confessionalization. The decisions of The Council of Trent on justification, scripture and sacraments made so definitive the divisions that had arisen in the reformation; that hopes of a reunited Christian Church would not begin flickering again until the ecumenical movement of the 20th century.

One of the second things that we need to recognize is politics. The reformations included or introduced into western culture the problem of pluralism, religious, social and cultural. Since the modern world is still struggling with this legacy and its classrooms and courtrooms and on streets and battlefields. It should not be surprising that the people of the 16th century found it exceedingly difficult to live with alternative and competing commitments. This was compounded by a universal fear of anarchy and social disorder. The first response by all parties was to compel conformity, but religious commitments are not easily swayed by laws and force. In some cases Protestant triumphalism contributed to the development of a chosen nation syndrome.

England’s overcoming of the threats of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the failure of the recusant rejection of the Anglican Church conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the King were interpreted in terms of God’s election and blessing of the nation; and in the United States, the notion that we are a city set on a hill were characteristics which continued to exert political influence. So this matter of political pluralism was very difficult, of course in the early stages only Catholicism and Lutheranism were recognized. Only with the treaty of Westphalia, which took place in 1648 were Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and the Reformed Faith recognized, even then Anabaptists were not recognized.

Another outcome of the Reformation is that culture was touched in every aspect of work economics, art, literature and music. The doctrine of justification by grace alone, released energy for the world that had hitherto been devoted to achieving the next world. With their new ethos of vocational calling the reformers undercut the medieval dualism of the sacred and the secular. In the medieval world only the religious; priests, monks, nuns had a sacred vocation or calling from God. Those who worked in the secular world were understood to be a lower class. In contrast, the Reformers emphasized that whatever did in the world that served the neighbor and helped build up the human community was pleasing to God. As Luther once explained his own ministry “A cow does not get to heaven by giving milk, but that is what she is made for.” In other words, for Luther, faith was to be directed toward God and works were to be directed to the neighbor, not the other way around.

There is a manner in which woman began to get a greater attention, although in the 16th century, it is not by any means made complete. There are also the beginnings of toleration in the other. Among the convictions of the age and of its law and the belief that death by execution in its more horrible forms was a proper reward for those who denied there was ultimate and basic loyalties stood firmly entrenched, of course one may hold various views of the truth of Christ’s Church on earth, and people did. But one needs to recognize that all the representatives of those various views agreed upon the need for an ultimate sanction. The exceptions to prove the rule such as Castillo and a few French advocates for religious freedom as well as those spiritualists like Sebastian Frank. But toleration was certainly not something which was the long suit of The Reformation. Those matters of conviction were still very much more important, but, there is the beginning of a recognition that there needs to be a place for the other. So there are a number of ways in which the legacy of The Reformation was very very important, clearly, the return to Scripture, the commitment to justification sola fide, it is not a matter of works but it is a matter of God’s proclaiming his righteousness to his people . It is a matter of the breakdown of the dualism of sacred and secular, recognizing that our work, no matter what it happens to be, can be sanctified unto God and is for the benefit of the neighbor. That that is what we are made for is also to be recognized as one of the great legacies of the reformation.

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