Schilling, Heinz: Confessional Europe

[Full text] From: Handbook of European History 1400-1600, ed.T.A. Brady,HA Oberman and J.D.Tracey, Leiden 1955

© Brill Academic Publishers

HEINZ SCHILLING was born in 1942 in Bergneustadt, Rhineland. After studying history, German, philosophy and sociology in Cologne and Freiburg, he gained his doctorate in 1971 with Niederlaendische Exultaten im 16. Jahrhundert. Ihre Stellung im Socialgefuege und im religioesen Leben deutscher und englischer Staedte, Gueterslosh 1972. From 1971 to 1977 he was academic assistant in the faculty of history at the University of Bielefeld, where he gained his Habilitation with Konfessionskonflict und Staatsbildung in fruehneuzeitlichen Deutschland, Guetersloh 1981. From 1977 to 1982 he was professor of early modern history at the University of Giessen, from 1982 to 1992 professor at the University of Giessen, and since 1992 he has been professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

BETWEEN 1560 and 1650, Europe’s history was shaped by what we call “confession”, the modern variant of Christianity. A confession was defined by explicit statement of doctrine (Lat., confessio ), of which the most significant were: for Lutheranism, the Confession of Augsburg (1530) and the Book of Concord (1580); for the Reformed (Calvinist) confession, the Helvetic Confessions (1536, 1566), the Zurich Consensus (1549), and the canons of Dordrecht (1619); for Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer (1549) and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563); and for Catholicism, the Council of Trent’s doctrinal canons, especially the “Tridentine Profession of Faith [professio fidei tridentina]” of 1564 and certain papal statements. Based on their respective confessions of faith, the three great confessions (four, including Anglicanism) developed into internally coherent and externally exclusive communities distinct in institutions, membership, and belief. Each in its own way, their churches entered into alliances with the early modern states, the coercive power of which enhanced the churches’ ability to manage religion, though with results that usually lagged far behind their aims. The confessions also formed a “balance-of-confessions” connected to the European balance-of-power that was forming in these same decades.

1. The Concept of Confessionalization .(1)

EUROPE housed other, non-confessional religious communities, notably the Anabaptists and other heirs of the radical reformation, and there were always counter-trends to orthodoxies within the confessional churches. Interconfessional contacts and extraconfessional movements nevertheless tended to be limited to private circles, at least until 1640 or so, when the process of deconfesionalization began to give them greater freedom. Beyond the Christian confessions vital Jewish communities existed in many European countries, though they, too, were isolated and deprived of any chance to influence the larger European societies of this era. (2)

The term “confessional Europe” for the era following the Reformation does not represent an idealist denigration of demographic, economic, political, and social factors in favor of theological or religious ones. On the contrary, the emphasis on ecclesiastical and religious structures and tendencies arises from reflections on the sociology of religion in premodern Europe in general and on the initial phase of European modernity in particular. They help us to overcome, on the one hand, the Marxists’ demotion of religion to a mask for the real driving forces of history and, on the other, the idealist approach that has long dominated the humanities and theological studies on both sides of the Atlantic. Instead, we seek a historically accurate conception of the social effects of religion and the churches.

In the social constellation we call “premodern Europe,” religion, especially in the structured form of a “confession”, was a dominant element in a complex of factors, each of which can be considered –as in a medical syndrome– both separately and in its interaction with the others. Whereas the modern understanding of religion and church holds them to be mere subordinate parts of a larger secular system, in those days they were considered central, load-bearing pillars of the entire social order. Accordingly, religious change was also social change, or, as the seventeenth-century German lawyers put it, “religion is the bond of society [religio vinculum societatis].”

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