“Perhaps the most pervasive image of the Reformation,” writes Peter Matheson in The Imaginative World of the Reformation (p. 38) “is that of the liberated word of God.” He elaborates: “A thousand sermons talk of the chained, corrupted Gospel being set free. . . . The famous Cranach painting sums it all up: Luther, on the right, preaches from the open Bible, facing the congregation on the left but pointing to the crucified Christ in the center.”
Other Reformation images expound further on a similar message, writes Joseph Leo Koerner (The Reformation of the Image). He describes a 1529 woodcut by Georg Pencz that contrasts a Catholic monk and a Lutheran pastor preaching (255-6): “At the far right, a monk gestures limply from a decorated pulpit that amplifies both his girth and the lavishness of his vestments, while at the left, a gaunt Lutheran minister, exuding piety and strength, speaks from a pulpit that is plain and hard-edged like himself. . . . The Catholic flock is chiefly high-born and divided by class . . . . Artiusans and labourers dominate the evangelical congregation, yet their attitude (reflected by their postures) is assertive. Just before the pulpit, an exemplary ‘common man,’ to whom Lutheran preaching understood itself to be directed, raises his eyes to the preacher. This contrasts with the downcast glances of the Catholics who ‘pray upon beades’ . . . The Protestants instead carry books, presumably bibles, with which they follow with the Bible-based sermon. Preacher and flock both possess Scripture.”
The Reformers claimed to unleash Scripture, and to bring light into the darkness of the Papal church that kept the Bible closed. Matheson argues that the light of Scripture was not mainly doctrinal or structural: “Rather, when we read [the Reformer’s] sermons and pamphlets we find biblical personalities and images swimming up to the surface of their minds. An irruption, explosion, eruption of the biblical imagination of the patriarchs, prophets, psalmists, and apostles took place” (p. 42).
This is Protestant propaganda, of course. And like most historical generalizations, it requires qualification in various directions.
For starters, vernacular preaching was not unknown in the late middle ages. As far back as the thirteenth century, the Fourth Lateran Council declared: “Among the various things that are conducive to the salvation of the Christian people, the nourishment of God’s word is recognized to be especially necessary, since just as the body is fed with material food so the soul is fed with spiritual food. . . . We therefore decree by this general constitution that bishops are to appoint suitable men to carry out with profit this duty of sacred preaching, men who are powerful in word and deed and who will visit with care the peoples entrusted to them in the place of bishops, since these by themselves are unable to do it, and will built them up by word and example . . . . If anyone neglects to do this, let him by subject to severe punishment” (quoted in John Witvliet’s introduction to Worship in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Change and Continuity in Religious Practice, p. 3).
The order did not go unheeded. “By the fifteenth century,” writes Diarmaid MacCulloch (The Reformation, 30-1), “congregations increasingly . . . expected regular teaching to feed their faith and tell them about the Bible, which most of them would never read for themselves. For the first time, the humblest churches aspired to building a pulpit, although this was a dual-purpose piece of furniture that the clergy also used to lead informal prayer. . . . Townsfolk were more likely to have the opportunity of hearing sermons than people in remove villages, perhaps as many as eight hundred sermons during an average lifespan.” Many of the preachers were not parish clergy, but friars. Highly educated and sometimes gifted for rhetorical spectacle, the friars brought Christian teaching to many who had no other access to it. Even parish clergy were increasingly well-educated, and manuals of preaching written during the later middle ages helped them along. Preaching and teaching movements continued to the beginning of the Reformation era: Zwingli began his career in Zurich with a preachership in Zurich.
In addition to vernacular preaching and teaching, provisions were made for informal vernacular worship services. MacCulloch (p. 89) mentions Johann Ulrich Sargant, whose Manuale Curatorum (1503) “stressed the importance of sermons, and also prompted preachers to lead devotions in German as they thought fit within the framework of the Mass. This free form of service was called the prone, taking its name from the screen at the chancel entrance where the priest customarily stood to lead it. The prone could include prayers or teaching about the liturgy or forthcoming feasts. It was an important form of late medieval liturgy that has often been ignored because its very informality left few traces in the records, but it is clear that except in Italt it became common all over late medieval Europe. Not only did the prone anticipate the much more thoroughgoing use of vernacular language that Protestants made in services (and perhaps blunted the shock when that happened), but it also went on being a customary feature of Catholic worship with official approval in many areas well after the Council of Trent.”
Translation is a good index of the complexities of the pre-Reformation situation. Before Luther posted his theses, the Bible was already riding the wave of the new print technology and printers were responding to the demand for Bibles: “Between 1466 and 1522 there were twenty-two editions of the Bible in High or Low German; it reached Italian in 1471, Dutch in 1477, Spanish in 1478, Czech around the same time, and Catalan in 1492. From 1473 to 1474 French published opened up a market in abridged bibles, concentrating on the exciting stories and leaving out the more knotty doctrinal passages” (MacCulloch, 70-1). MacCulloch suggests that “the increase in Bibles created the Reformation rather than being created by it.”
In some areas, though, vernacular Bibles were forbidden. After Wycliff, the Catholic church banned translation of the Bible into English. The Reformation provoked a reaction that was particularly severe in Italy. German Catholics had access to German Bibles, the better to refute the Bible-bearing Lutherans. But there were no Protestants in Italy by the late sixteenth century, and, MacCulloch (393-4), “there were no vernacular Bibles in the houses of the [Italian] laity. Pope Paul V was perfectly serious when in 1606 he furiously confronted the Venetian ambassador with the rhetorical question, ‘Do you not know that so much reaching of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?’ One of the tasks of the of the 1564 Tridentine Index had been to keep vernacular Bibles away from the faithful; anyone wanting to read the Bible in a modern language required permission from the local bishop, and in the 1596 Roman Index the ban became complete and without exception. In Italy, the Index’s ban was enforced. Bibles were publicly and ceremonially burned, like heretics; even literary versions of scriptural stories in drama or poetry were frowned on. As a result, between 1567 and 1773, not a single edition of an Italian-language Bible was printed anywhere in the Italian peninsula.”
The novelty of the Reformation was, thus, not fundamentally in preaching, or in translation. No doubt more preaching, and preaching with a different content, arose in the Reformation churches. Protestants encouraged believers to have and read their own Bibles, as the images I started with indicate. There was a significant upgrade in the exposure of the people of God to the Word of God. But the novelty, the revolutionary novelty, was the change in the language of the liturgy. Even this was anticipated by the prone, but the prone was not a Eucharistic service. To pinpoint the specific place where the Reformers unchained the Bible, you have to look at the liturgy.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 10:11 am
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