Western Civilization 2 lesson 15

How was the English Reformation different from the German Reformation?

The German and English Reformations differ mainly in that the German Reformation began as purely theological argument with the Catholic Church while the English Reformation began from purely selfish motivations of an individual (namely King Henry VIII).

Martin Luther entered priesthood because of theological ideals. As his years in priesthood pass, he encountered more and more abuses. What really angered him was Father Tetzel, who was commissioned by the Pope himself to sell indulgences near Wittenberg, and everyone spent their hard earned money on the lousy indulgences. Martin Luther decided to challenge the Church to a theological duel and tacked his thesis onto the church door! While the indulgences were the straw that broke the camel’s back, he disagreed with a lot of things such as the non-education of priests, bishops in charge of and collecting payment for multiple diocese while serving one, and whether Christ’s body and blood was actually present in the Eucharist. But his biggest beef was with the basic theology of the Catholic Church because he believed salvation was solely on the merits of faith while the Catholic Church held that salvation was achieved through faith and good works. Other people, who already surreptitiously agreed with Luther, appreciated what he had to say; and egged on by his ideas through the mass production of pamphlets, the German Reformation took off! Martin Luther, a devout Christian, never intended this theological revolution to occur; but when it did, he agreed with it wholeheartedly.

On the other hand, King Henry VII reveled in the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic Church and was even bestowed the title “Defender of the Faith” in 1521 by Pope Leo X because of his Assertio Septem Sacramentorum. But he was one of the most egotistical and arrogant kings England had ever had. When he set his sights on the utterly charming and manipulative lady of the court Ann Boleyn, he decided he must divorce his old stodgy queen, Catherine of Aragon, who was unable to produce a male heir. He became even more desperate to make Ann his queen when she became pregnant with a potential male heir. To make his new heir legal, he secretly married Ann. The only problem was Catherine and the best solution was annulment. He went to Pope Clement VII for an annulment, but the Pope declined to grant one. Meanwhile, back in England, there were protestant sympathies high up in the court—namely Archbishop Thomas Cromwell of Canterbury (and Ann Boleyn herself). Cromwell wanted to stay on the King’s good side so they convinced parliament to create a set of laws (The Act of Supremacy in 1534 and the Act of Treason, also in 1534.) which gave Henry control over the Church of England and cut his ties forever with the Pope.

What began as a question of the Catholic Church’s existing theology for Martin Luther, and a personal issue for a king of a nation, morphed into two reformations—German and English—which hugely impacted the future Christian world! The German reformation spawned the Protestants, which created a totally different belief system while the English Reformation was less important in the long run because it was more about the power flow between the Pope and the King at the time. But in both cases, once you let the genie out of bottle, you can’t put it back in.

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