What was the basis of the Reformation criticism of veneration of Saints?

Explaining the basis for the reformation criticism of the veneration seems at first to be a straight-forward task of finding out what the arguments were that the reformers used.  However, a number of contemporary historians have criticised the reliability of such an approach arguing that the reformers arguments alone fail to explain why change occurred and we must look below the surface to discover what was really going on.[1]

So in order to answer our question, we must follow a three stage approach:

  1. We will describe the arguments used by the reformers.[2]
  2. We will outline the argument for an alternative account of the reformers’ criticism
  3. We will evaluate the alternative account to determine whether it helps us to explain the historical events.

2. The Reformers’ Arguments

  1. The nature of Revelation

The reformers believed that if we are to worship God, then we need to know what he is like. [3]  We cannot know this unless God reveals the truth to us.[4]  To some extent we may have knowledge of God through General revelation but the corruption of human hearts is more likely to lead to distortion of such truth, idolatry and thus condemnation.[5]  We need special revelation in the form of Scripture which leads us to true and saving knowledge of God. [6]

The reformers argued that Saint veneration arose from traditions not found in Scripture.  Therefore it was an example of the corruption that arose from the human imagination and so led to idolatry. [7]  Traditionalists such as More defended the practises on the basis of an oral tradition outside of scripture, reasoning that it was necessary to hand over some traditions in secret to protect them from ridicule at the hands of the pagans.[8]  Tyndale provides a twofold retort to this line of argument.  First, that such forms of worship were “agreeable unto the superstition of the heathen people; so that they needed not to abstain from writing of them, for fear lest the heathen should have mocked them.”[9]  Secondly that the very things that the pagans were likely to mock such as the foolishness of the Cross were the very things written down in Scripture. [10]

  1. The Character of God

Secondly, the reformers argued that the revelation of God’s character found in Scripture differed sharply from that presented by the practice of veneration.  One reason why people prayed through the Saints was that they were seen as kind and familiar in contrast to a stern and judgmental God.  Where God was remote and distant, the saints were near at hand, associated with names, localities and trades.[11]

The reformers argued that this showed ignorance of the God revealed in Scripture.  Far from being presented as stern and remote, we discover that he is kind, providential and near to his people.[12]  God is not only our Father, but in Christ, our brother. [13]  It is, they argued, foolish to turn away from the God who is willing and able to answer prayer to dead men who cannot.[14]

  1. Christ’s work as mediator

Thirdly, veneration demonstrated a lack of faith in what Scripture says about the sufficiency of Christ’s work.  This derived from their false beliefs about God’s character because “ they supposed that Christ were insufficient or too rigorous” [15] and so depended upon “the intercession of saints”[16] which is to “dishonour Christ and rob him of his title of sole Mediator, a title which being given him by the Father as his special privilege, ought not to be transferred to any other.”[17]

  1. The Nature of the Church

Fourthly, the reformers argued that once we accept Scripture as our sole authority for revelation and so submit to what it teaches about Christ’s unique mediation, then that must affect our understanding of the nature of the Church.  So then, first of all the intercessory work of saints is redundant because “we be saints already.”  We have direct access to God through Christ.  This means that “help with her prayers as much as our lady”[18] or indeed any of the saints.  The intercessory work of saints created an unwarranted hierarchy between the believer and God in two ways, first by setting up saints as intercessors, secondly by setting the church, in the office of the Pope, as arbitrator over the validity of people’s intercessions.[19]

Secondly, the intercessory work of saints was impossible.  Firstly because the Pope was in no position to determine whose intercessions were valid.[20]  Secondly because the Saints were not in a position to communicate with believers on earth, either because their focus was on eternal matters rather than temporal[21] or because in their present state, awaiting the resurrection, they were prevented from such communication.[22]

Whilst we have identified four elements to the argument, it is clear that the reformers understanding of God’s character, the mediatory work of Christ and the nature of the church were all dependent upon their submission to Scripture.  To depart from Scripture’s teaching resulted in a dependency upon human imagination which led to idolatry.[23] Therefore the ultimate basis of their criticism of veneration was their trust in the sufficiency of Scripture.[24]

3. The Alternative account

A number of historians have argued for an alternative account based on two key assumptions.  The first assumption is that Catholic religion remained popular at the time of the reformation.  It is sometimes assumed that the reformation was successful because Catholicism had become tired and unpopular due to corruption.[25]  Duffy argues that far from this being the case, practises such as the veneration of the saints retained popular appeal.[26]  Whilst there was an element of top down encouragement from the church, the majority of saint cults were based on grassroots support.[27]

Secondly, the charges that the reformers made against Catholic religion were incorrect.  It was not the case that veneration amounted to idolatry.  This counter argument has a long pedigree, for example,  in debate with Tyndale; Thomas More argues for a distinction between the honour and worship of saints.[28]  From a contemporary perspective, Duffy uses the example of Rood Screens to demonstrate that the Reformation critique was overstated.  He argues that whilst these  screens were painted with the images of saints, this did not make them the focal point of worship.  Rather the saints were painted either side of the Rood.  It was the crucifixion scene itself which was the focal point.  The idea was that the congregation focused upon the Rood as the Eucharist was performed behind it.[29]

Therefore, if Catholic Religion remained popular, and the Protestant charges were at best overstated, why was the Reformation effective?[30]   Why would people give up their cherished pastimes for novel ideas on the basis of such a flimsy case? The answer, suggest a number of contemporary scholars, was that the Reformation critique was based on a political agenda.[31]

In the case of the English Reformation, the agenda was the support of Henry VIII’s claims of supremacy against the Pope.  Support for pre-reformation practises such as veneration symbolised support for the pope and opposition to the crown.  Therefore, those in positions of power were reluctant to speak out in support of traditional practises.  Loyalty was a strong virtue and so the English people quietly adapted to changes from above without necessarily changing their beliefs.[32]

The argument for a political basis may be set out as follows

First, the Saints themselves were political in nature, commanding loyalty and affection.   So for example, Henry VI was in the process of being canonised at the time.  He was an iconic figure within the struggle between the House of York and the House of Lancaster.  His sainthood would provide legitimacy to the House of Tudor.[33]

Secondly, The Reformers were willing to compromise their theological position providing the supremacy of the King was upheld against the Pope.  So for example, in 1534, “Cranmer reached an agreement with the staunchest conservatives among the bishops…for a ban on contentious preaching for a year.  Preachers were to set forth the supremacy and denounce the power of the Pope, but were to preach ‘neyther with nor against purgatory, honouring of saints…’.”[34] 

4. Evaluation of the Alternative Account

  1. Areas of Agreement

First, it is right to identify a political dimension to the reformation criticism of veneration.  It would have been difficult, if not impossible for the Reformers to make progress without the support of political sponsors such as Henry in England and the Lutheran princes on the continent.  This may help to explain the evolution of Cranmer’s position from a willingness to compromise to increasingly robust attacks on the cults of saints.[35]

Secondly, we acknowledge the continuing popularity of Catholic religion in England at the time of the reformation.  Therefore we must account for this when explaining the transformation in religious life.

  1. Areas of Disagreement.

The second assumption was that reformation criticism was misplaced.  Veneration of saints did not equate to idolatry.  Earlier we noted two pieces of evidence for this.  First Thomas More’s distinction between honour and worship.[36]  Secondly, Duffy’s example of Rood Screens.[37]

More’s argument was based on the scholastic distinction between dulia and latria.  There were different types of worship.  Saints were honoured channels of grace not worshipped as its source.[38]  Tyndale rejected such distinctions insisting that all worship belongs to God and that the only honour due to saints was that their example should be followed.[39]  Tyndale was right to dismiss the argument.  The problem of veneration distracting from the worship of Christ was a real one exemplified in the renaming of churches and altars previously dedicated to Christ in honour of their patron saint. [40]   The Church may have intended a distinction between dulia and latria in theory.  However in practise, it does not seem that “the faithful or the clergy” understood it.[41]

Duffy’s argument is an interesting one.  For whilst the Rood Screens may not have placed the focus on the saints, their very presence and arrangement made a very forceful statement about the nature of Church and of Christ’s mediation.  We note that they portrayed “the heavenly hierarchy”[42] and that the very function of the screens separated the laity from both the clergy and the Eucharistic Act.[43] So here we see that the very elements of Church architecture associated with veneration enforced the exact perceptions about the nature of church that the reformation was attacking. [44]

  1. Areas where we distinguish

Shagan helpful suggests that the reformation changes were enabled by “An alliance between the purist reformers from above and political factors from below.”[45]  In other words, we want to distinguish between the reasons that the reformers had for their critique and the methods and reasons for their success.

Therefore, it may well be the case that reluctant Englishmen accepted reform solely out of loyalty for the King and that the reformers built pragmatic alliances with the opponents of papal supremacy, compromising at times where necessary. [46]   However, that does not invalidate the reality of the principled basis behind their attack on the cult of saints.

In summary, then, the assumptions behind the alternative account fail on two counts.  First, the reformers’ critique of veneration is demonstrated to hold up.  Secondly, we are able to provide an account for why people may have accepted reform that gives a central place to their critique.

5. Conclusion

It is true that the political conditions of the 16th Century were favourable to change and they help to explain why the reformation critique was successful.  However, as we have seen, a revisionist approach that sees the basis of the critique purely in political terms fails to do it full justice.  Whilst the reformers and their political sponsors in some sense may have needed each other, this does not take away from the genuine validity of their arguments.  Therefore we may conclude that the primary basis for their criticism of veneration was their commitment to Sola Scripture which meant that they saw veneration as idolatry, [47] a rejection of the Bible’s teaching about God’s character[48] and Christ’s sole mediation.[49]

[1] See e.g  Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. (London: Yale University Press, 1992),4.

[2] In particular we will focus on the writings of John Calvin, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer.  Calvin is of extreme importance as one of the central figures of the Reformation across Europe.  Tyndale and Cranmer provide a particularly English focus.

[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion. Trans. by Henry Beveridge; 2 vols.; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1989), I.ii.1 (1:40).

[4] John Calvin, Institutes, I.vi.1 (1:65).

[5] John Calvin, Institutes, I.iv.1 (1:46).

[6] John Calvin, Institutes, I.vi.1 (1:64).  See also, Cranmer, Writings and Letters, 21-67.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes, I.iv.1 (1:46).

[8] William Tyndale, An answer to Sir Thomas More’s dialogue (Ed. Henry Walter; Cambridge: The University Press, ****), 28.

[9] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 29.

[10] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 28.

[11] Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 16-162.

[12] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.21 (2:169).

[13] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.21 (2:169).

[14] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.21 (2:168).

[15] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.21 (2:169).

[16] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.21 (2:169).

[17] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.21 (2:169).

[18] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 184.

[19] I.e. By determining who was in purgatory and who was in heaven bearing the status of Saint.  See Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 121.

[20] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 121.

[21] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.24 (2:172).

[22] See Tyndale, 118, There is a distinction between the state of the dead in Christ in heaven and their state as it will be post resurrection.  In Tyndale’s eye this appears to limit any ability on their part to intervene on our behalf.

[23] See e.g. John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.22 (2:169).

[24] C.f. Cranmer, Writings and Letters, 21.

[25] Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 479.

[26] Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 4.

[27] Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 156.

[28] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 57.

[29] Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 157-158.

[30] See Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, 5.

[31] RN Swanson, Church and Society, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989),351.

[32] See Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 379. (italics mine)

[33] Swanson, Church and Society, 99.

[34] Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 381. 

[35] Cranmer was prepared to tolerate some prayers to saints providing “no invocation” was made. See Cranmer, Writings and Letters (Ed. by John Edmund Cox; Cambridge: The University Press, ****).102.

[36] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 57.

[37] Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 157-158.

[38] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 57.

[39] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 56-58.

[40] Consider for example the case of St Stidwell.  A statue of him was placed on the Jesus Altar in Exeter.  “By the mid-1530s the altar on which she stood was no longer referred to as Jesus’ altar but St Stidwell’s altar.” Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 168.

[41] Stephen Wilson, “ Introduction.” Pages 1-54 in Saints and their Cults.  (Ed. by Stephen Wilson; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,****), 4.

[42] Duffy,  The Stripping of the Altars, 158.

[43] Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi. The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).293.

[44] See also, Rubin, Corpus Christi, 1.

[45] Ethan H Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 6.

[46] Which may explain why pragmatically at times, Cranmer seems willing to make compromises and varies from the strident tone of other Reformers.  As the one responsible for implementing change in England working with monarchs who varied in their support for the Reformation cause pragmatic politics may have dictated a different path to his principles.

[47] Tyndale,  An answer to Thomas More, 81.

[48] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.21 (2:168).

[49] John Calvin, Institutes, III.xx.21 (2:168).

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