Reformation Dialogue at Regensburg: An Attempt to Heal That Failed

Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542). Italian Reformer within the Roman Catholic Church. Contarini oversaw the Catholic delegation at the Diet of Regensburg. Aside from his influence in the Reformation, he is often remembered as one of the chief proponents of Ignatius of Loyola’s Jesuit order.

Sixteenth-century Europe was deeply divided by the fires of the Protestant Reformation, ignited by the German seminary professor, Martin Luther. In less than 25 years, the Christian West was torn asunder, Catholics versus Protestants, and even Protestants versus Protestants. The different sides were often talking past one another, and sometimes severe violence erupted. The emperor of the then Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, was desperate to find unity in his beleaguered Europe. The Islamic Turks threatened from the East, and in 1541, Charles turned to both Catholic and Protestant leaders, for a last ditch attempt to pull everyone together, to resist the outside menace.

The city of Regensburg, known to the French as “Ratisbon,” was chosen for the meeting. It would be a dialogue between the various parties, what was then known as a “colloquy” or “diet.” Charles had selected some of the brightest leaders to represent both sides. Sadly, the names of these men are often forgotten to history. As is often the case, more flamboyant or extreme figures are etched in people’s memory, like Martin Luther, King Henry VIII, and Pope Leo X. But here I want to focus on two such, less well-known individuals, and how they sought to heal the theological and spiritual rift in Europe.

The Story of Gasparo Contarini and Martin Bucer at Regensburg

Cardinal Gasparo Contarini had become a champion for evangelical renewal, within the Catholic Church, in Italy. He was greatly respected in Rome, but he also had affinity for much of the theology of Martin Luther. Like Luther, as a young man, Contarini went through a dark period of deep, spiritual doubt. He was not entirely sure that God would truly forgive him. Much like Luther, Contarini then had an extraordinary experience of spiritual insight, as he became convinced that salvation could not be achieved by any human effort. It was God’s free gift. The monastic lifestyle, in and of, itself could not save him. Only God’s intervening grace, imputed to him, could give him any hope for this salvation.

Martin Bucer (1491-1551). Forgotten, and sometimes maligned Reformer at Strasbourg.

On the other side of the dialogue, sat one of the most irenic leaders among the Swiss Reformers, Martin Bucer, of Strasbourg. Bucer had studied to become a Dominican priest, until he met Martin Luther in 1518. Bucer became convinced that Luther’s understanding of salvation by grace, through faith alone, was indeed the teaching of Scripture, and he soon left the Dominican order, and embraced the principles of the Reformation, as leader of the church in Strasbourg. However, unlike Luther, Bucer was optimistic that the church of Rome could be won over to the Reformation. Martin Bucer had also been one of key instigators, to bring Swiss and German Reformers together, to try to work through their differences within the Reformation movement, at the Colloquy of Marburg, in 1529.

Both Gasparo Contarini and Martin Bucer were cautiously optimistic that the rift between the Catholic hierarchy and more volatile voices, like that of Martin Luther, could be reconciled, when they met at the Colloquy of Regensburg. Contarini’s specific role was to advise, from behind the scenes, the Catholic debaters at the meeting, who included Martin Luther’s great nemesis, at the 1519 debate in Leipzig, Johann Eck. Martin Bucer worked side by side with Luther’s right-hand man, Philip Melanchthon, with a young John Calvin, from Geneva, listening into the discussions.

In the first few days, the discussions went remarkably well. Both sides came to full agreement on topics such as the creation of humans, in the image of God, before the fall; the nature of free will; the cause of sin; and a common understanding of original sin. Things got a bit rougher when the theologians began their discussions about the doctrine of justification, addressing the central issue of exactly how God saves a person.

Martin Bucer was well aware of Luther’s main concern, that there was nothing within a human being that could save him. God could only save a person, by declaring a person to be righteous, when in fact, they remained ungodly. Therefore, to accomplish this justification, of the human individual, God imputes, or counts, a person to be righteous, not on the basis of some intrinsic righteousness found with that person. Instead, God imputes, or counts, that person to be righteous, on the basis of an extrinsic, or “alien righteousness,” that belongs only to God.

Yet Bucer was sensitive to the Roman Catholic rebuttal, that Luther’s position would only leave a person unchanged on the inside. Only someone changed from within, by a form of intrinsic, inherent righteousness, could be truly saved.

Bucer’s answer to this difficulty, alongside his Roman Catholic counterparts, was to consider a theory of double justification. In line with Luther, God would first justify a person through this extrinsic, alien righteousness. This is the first justification. But this does not tell the whole story. A second justification is necessary, but it is built upon the requirement of the first. God also justifies a person inwardly, by a transformation through a righteousness imparted to the believer, as evidenced by good works, something that many Protestants today regard as the process of sanctification, and not the event of justification.

To put it another way, God first justifies the “ungodly” by declaring the sinner to be righteous. This corresponds to the classic, Lutheran view of righteousness being imputed to the undeserving sinner. But once this is established, God then justifies the “godly,” through an imparted righteousness. This is where the “godly” recipient of grace is then actually made righteous by God, through their zeal to do works that are pleasing to God.

This proposal of double justification appealed to Cardinal Contarini, as it reflected much of his own theology. Though both sides recognized that this understanding still needed some work, the agreement was a remarkable achievement. Even the young John Calvin, who also approved, wrote to his friend William Farel:

“You will marvel when you read the copy of the article on justification… that our adversaries have conceded so much. For they have committed themselves to the essentials of what is our true teaching. Nothing is to be found in it which does not stand out in our writings.”

Not only that, Luther’s nemesis, Johann Eck, would endorse the article, at least at the time. What was regarded as one of the main hurdles to healing, if not the main issue, appeared to uphold a healthy consensus, and much of the rest of the discussion continued with cautious enthusiasm.

However, the talks hit a roadblock when the subject of the authority of the Church and the authority of Scripture came up for discussion. The Roman Catholics insisted that the teaching office of the papacy, along with decisions made by church councils, could be trusted to allow for the proper, infallible interpretation of the Bible. The Reformers, on the other hand, held their ground to the principle of sola scriptura, that the Bible alone was the authority. The representatives from Rome concluded that the Church could not err. Their counterparts declared that the Church could indeed err, and has done so many times before.

The tension in the discussion could not be broken. So, the debaters agreed to hold off on the topic until the end of the meeting.

So by the time the topic of the Lord’s Supper came up for debate, the stage was set for a stalemate. Cardinal Contarini would not budge an inch on the traditional understanding of the eucharist. Transubstantiation was the correct, infallible teaching of the Bible. None of the Reformers, despite the differences among themselves, could agree with this. Therefore, after a month of deliberations, the Colloquy of Regensberg concluded. Much had been accomplished, but there were still some major obstacles before real unity could be had, and the Reformation split mended.

A Chance for Reconciliation? (At Least it was a Start)

The participants at Regensburg went back to their respective communities, to see if what had been drafted and agreed upon thus far, might be a stepping stone towards full resolution, and a reunification of the Holy Roman Empire. On the contrary, the ecumenical spirit was not to be received well by either side. Martin Luther rejected the irenic statement at Regensburg on justification as being too ambiguous: “The Holy Scriptures and God’s commandment are by nature not ambiguous.”

Likewise, the papal office in Rome rejected the same statement as well. Too much water had passed under the bridge already. The parties of Luther and Rome inherently mistrusted the other. Instead of seeking to make the effort to move past their differences, the opposing sides sought to dig in their heals.

This put men like Gasparo Contarini and Martin Bucer in a terrible bind. Contarini maintained his allegiance to Rome, but his efforts to try to promote reconciliation had been rebuffed by a Roman hierarchy prone to reaction. Contarini found himself increasingly isolated, even within his own church. Retreating back to Venice, and placed under house arrest, the discouraged Contarini was broken, and he died the following year in 1542.

But it was probably just as well that Contarini did not live much longer, as he would have been terribly distressed by what followed. He might have been even censured, by his own church. The Council of Trent convened first in 1545, and by the end of the Catholic Counter Reformation period, through the development of the Council of Trent, the authors at the Council had effectively made Martin Luther into a heretic. They utterly rejected any notion of imputed righteousness, as a cause for justification, explicitly denying any form of “double justification,” thus enshrining these views into “infallible” Catholic dogma.

Bucer’s fate was not as quick, but not much better overall than Contarini’s. In 1547, Charles V, having finally given up the efforts towards reconciliation, took sides with and now fully supported Rome, and soon captured Strasbourg with his army. Charles ordered Bucer to accept Roman Catholic rule in Strasbourg. At first, Bucer refused, but Charles threw him in jail, until Bucer under duress finally conceded to the emperor. Martin Bucer was effectively exiled from his city, in 1549, and found refuge in England. For a couple of years, Bucer gladly worked with Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in drafting together changes to the liturgy for the Church of England, that eventually made their way into the Book of Common Prayer. But Bucer was frustrated by further resistances in England to his reforming efforts, and he soon died in 1551.

Regensburg, in the 16th century.

Forgotten Moderate Voices of the Reformation

I am unfamiliar with Contarini’s perceived legacy. You hear relatively little about him, though the lack of comment from the Papal side itself is quite telling.

With Bucer, his legacy remains tarnished, in my view, by those historians who have portrayed him as being more interested in the cause of promoting unity, at the expense of seeking truth. This seems to me to be a charge unworthy of the man, considering how much he worked to ground the movement of the Reformation on the teaching of the Bible.

We can evidently witness the results of the failure of this ecumenical movement in the sixteenth century. Within a hundred years, roughly a quarter of Europe’s population had been decimated by the subsequent religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, after the Diet of Regensburg. Protestants even fought other Protestants, too (remember England’s Civil War, in the 1640s??). Many of the Anabaptists were slaughtered, and almost wiped out.

The inter-religious strife continued much even into the modern era, with the rise of nationalism, that unsuccessfully attempted to transcend the limitations of theological disputations, that preciptated the terrible fate of the First World War. By the end of the Second World War, the failure of the Christian movement to unite Europe eventually led to the disillusionment with that faith. Europe became increasingly secular, as many Europeans perceived the Christian faith as being too closely allied with ideologies that promote war.

Though Western Europe was spared the disaster of being taken over by Islamic Turks in the sixteenth century, the situation that Emperor Charles V so greatly feared at the eve of the Colloquy of Regensburg, there is a certain irony that many observers today see in Europe. A Christian Europe turned in upon itself, over the centuries since the Catholic/Protestant divide, has opened the door for the growing presence of Islam.

As philosopher Richard Weaver famously remarked, “ideas have consequences.” Whether it be the 16th or 21st century, efforts at ecumenism, rightly or wrongly, are often perceived as being compromising, and are therefore prone to failure. But in the process of protecting against compromise, I wonder if the Christians of Europe back in those days missed an opportunity to build a united front, that would have more effectively promoted the cause of the Gospel.

Just something to think about.

The conclusions to this essay are completely my own, but much of content of this blog essay owe much to the research of Alister McGrath in his excellent and thorough Reformation Thought, the insights drawn from Peter Leithart’s essay in First Things, and this article by Chris Castaldo at The Gospel Coalition.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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