What If There’d Been A Spanish Reformation Council?

Let us begin with a hypothetical question: if the Spanish Protestant Reformers had been able to hold a council to reform the Church in Spain, what would they have concluded regarding the appropriation of patristic and medieval doctrine and practice? The debate would have been fierce, no doubt, and there would have been some dissenting voices. But what would the general consensus have been?

What The Spanish Reformers Said

As a first step, most if not all would have embraced the early creeds and councils. Although their names may be unfamiliar to Protestants outside of Spain, influential Reformers such as Constantino de la Fuente, Juan Díaz, Casiodoro de Reina, Antonio del Corro, Cipriano de Valera, and others explicitly endorsed the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, implicitly or explicitly endorsed the first four ecumenical councils, and spoke favorably of the first five or six hundred years of Church history.[1] Thus, they explicitly affirmed Patristic belief and church life, especially its great creedal and conciliar expressions of the fourth and fifth centuries.[2]

As a second step, although many would have been critical of some (or many) of the developments of the Middle Ages, I think a significant group of Spanish Reformers would have been willing to admit that good doctrine and practice was to be found there as well. The case for this is more difficult to prove than the previous one, but I still think it can be maintained.

In the Latin edition of his Confession (1560/1), Casiodoro de Reina praised King Recaredo I (d. 601) as one who promoted true Christian worship in Spain (which would have been the precursor to the Mozarabic rite, the rite of the Latin church historically used in what are now Spain and Portugal), and at the end of the Latin edition of his Catechism (1583) he approvingly quoted an extensive passage from Cassiodorus (d. 585) on the benefits of humility.[3] In his Dos Tratados (1588), Cipriano de Valera praised Gregory the Great (d. 604) as the holiest and most gifted patriarch of Rome during the post-Constantinian era (although he did critique him for introducing superstition into the Church). In order to avoid being accused of heresy, the authors of The Arts of the Holy Inquisition (1567) —probably Reina, Corro, and Pineda— counseled those who were captured by the Inquisition to quote from the canonists and theologians cited in Peter Lombard’s Sentences (completed c. 1158), which included even late Patristic authors such as John of Damascus (d. 749). In his Summary of the Christian Religion (1546), Juan Díaz not only embraced the first four ecumenical councils, but also “others” so long as they agreed with Scripture. In 1599, Cipriano de Valera translated William Perkins’ A Reformed Catholic, in which Perkins quotes from medieval authors and assimilates important segments of their theology. At the University of Alcalá, Juan Gil (Dr. Egidio) and Francisco de Vargas were Thomist and Scotist professors, respectively, and although none of their works have survived, it would be strange to assume that they discarded their medieval education entirely as they moved from Alcalá to Seville and promoted Protestantism there (after all, they taught in Seville for several years without any suspicion of heresy). Juan Morillo was a Tridentine theologian who converted to Calvinism during the Council of Trent, and again, although none of his works have survived, it would be strange to assume that he discarded all his medieval theology upon converting. Finally, Juan de Valdés’ pietistic spirituality was inspired by fifteenth-century Spanish pietism and mysticism.

This view —a critical reception of the doctrine and practice of the medieval church— was the common Protestant spirit of the time, and the Spanish Reformers did not show signs of significantly departing from it. Thus, in addition to fully accepting the first four or five centuries of Christian doctrine and practice, they partially accepted the subsequent thousand years of medieval doctrine and practice as well.

What This Implies

In our fictitious Spanish Protestant council, the Spanish Reformers explicitly would have affirmed patristic doctrine and practice, and would have affirmed medieval doctrine and practice to the extent that it conformed to Scripture and was clarified in the Patristic era. So what does this imply?

First, as a logical outworking of their acceptance of the first four ecumenical councils, the Spanish Reformers would have accepted the subsequent two ecumenical councils, which would have taken them through the seventh century. Although this was never explicitly claimed by them, it would have been logical with their position. For example, in his Dos tratados, Cipriano de Valera mentions the sixth ecumenical council, but in a vague way; however, his explicit rejection of the seventh ecumenical council implies that that is where he drew the line. As Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have pointed out, to affirm the first four ecumenical councils is to affirm the subsequent two, since the fifth and sixth councils were an outworking of the theology found in the fourth council. Except for some rare exceptions, Protestants have always claimed that the seventh ecumenical council —where icon veneration was established— was not entirely coherent with the first six, and thus the Spanish Reformers most likely would not have accepted it either (more on this below).[4] Thus, by implication, the Spanish appropriation of Christian doctrine can be extended to the seventh century.[5]

Second, and building on the previous extension, the Spanish Reformers would have implicitly accepted Christian doctrine and practice of the first millennium. Admittedly, this claim is an implication based on an implication, but I believe that the logic is sound. Allow me to explain. The Middle Ages can be divided into two different phases: the Early Middle Ages (c. 6th–11th cent.) and the High Middle Ages (c. 12–15th cent.). The Early Middle Ages, in turn, can be divided into two distinct phases: the age of the encyclopedists (c. 6th–7th cent.) and the age of the Carolingian renaissance (c. 8th–9th cent.). During the age of the encyclopedists, there were no significant developments of doctrine, and most leading theologians were simply trying to preserve and systematize what they could from the patristic era. One of the most important encyclopedists was the Spaniard Isidore of Seville (d. 636), and although the Spanish Reformers did not (to my knowledge) cite him, I think they would have assimilated much of his doctrine and practice.[6] During the Carolingian renaissance, again there was little development of doctrine, although there were important controversies over predestination (single vs. double), the Eucharist (spiritual vs. real presence), and the seventh ecumenical council (rejected by iconoclasts and the Carolingian theologians). These two ages were followed by the tenth-century saeculum obscurum (dark century) of the Church, during which the western church was theologically stagnant and morally corrupt. Again, there was no significant development of doctrine during this time. It is only in the eleventh century and beyond that, according to Protestants, that the Church began departing from Scriptural doctrine and practice–and even then, it did so slowly and on isolated issues. Some of the most important issues that developed during this time were the dogmas of the seven sacraments and transubstantiation, the doctrine of Purgatory, the increased claims of papal supremacy, and the growth of Mariology. Thus, due to the fact that so little doctrine had developed in the West during the Early Middle Ages and so much bad doctrine had developed during the High Middle Ages, I think it is fair to say that Spanish Reformers would have felt comfortable with Christian doctrine of the first millennium, so long as it is recognized that debatable issues such as the Eucharist, predestination, and the standing of the second Council of Nicaea had not yet been settled by the Church at that time, and thus would have been free to adjudicate the issues in line with their Protestant convictions.

What This Means

Returning to our original question: if the Spanish Reformers had had the time, resources, and leisure to hold a council to reform the Church in Spain, how much historic Christian doctrine and practice would they have appropriated into their reformed view of Christianity? In brief, I think they would have formed a church that would have assumed nearly all of Western doctrine and practice of the first 1,000 years, but rejected the corruptions of the subsequent 500.[7] They would not have accepted the second Council of Nicaea (but neither did most of the West until the High Middle Ages), they would have taken a mediating position on the Eucharist (as Reina’s repeated endorsement of the Wittenberg Concord illustrates), and they most likely would have taken a moderate Augustinian stance on predestination.[8] In addition, it should be remembered that the Mozarabic rite—referred to by some as the Hispanic–Visigothic–Mozarabic rite—was continuously celebrated and developed in Spain until the mid-eleventh century, which suggests that the Spanish Reformers would have been open to assimilating it as well (most likely with some Protestant-inspired modifications).

In short, if the council had occurred, I imagine that the result would have been a national church similar to Anglicanism or Lutheranism.[9] In fact, this is what so many exiled Spanish Protestants did: Casiodoro de Reina, Antonio del Corro, and others joined Anglican and Lutheran churches, and even became clergymen. They would not have seen themselves as “the Church”, but rather as the Spanish expression of the Church, which had rediscovered some of Scripture’s key teachings (i.e., the Reformation solas), reaffirmed patristic teaching and doctrine, and purified the Church’s medieval corruptions.

Would anything have set them apart from Protestants in other nations? I will suggest two things. First, they would have been much more ecumenical than was usual among their sixteenth century coreligionists: they would have sought to end the schism between the Reformed and Lutheran traditions (probably via the Wittenberg Concord), and would have sought to incorporate Anabaptist insights as well (for the “fourth way” of Spanish Protestantism, see here). Second, they would have been more pietistic and evangelical than was usual for sixteenth century Protestantism: they would have placed great importance on brotherly love, personal piety, and “living faith”.

Spanish Protestants would have been truly “catholic” in the sense that they never saw themselves as departing from the Church, but rather as returning to its scriptural and patristic teachings, and truly “reformed” in the sense that they allowed Scripture to prophetically speak against the corruptions of the High Middle Ages.

Sadly, this does all remain a hypothetical. The reason that most readers have not heard of the Spanish Reformers mentioned above is because they were persecuted into exile and their churches withered away. And yet their vision, and their approach to the heritage of the historic Church, is by no means one that we need to leave in the past. After all, the medieval era was full of reformist moments and movements which seemed to fade away, but actually proved to pave the way for the Reformation centuries later in ways only visible to hindsight. Thus, perhaps in a similar manner, the Spanish Reformation, although stillborn in its 16th century setting, could be revived in our contemporary Church’s pursuit for a version of Reformed Catholicism that will take us securely into the Church’s next epoch of existence. Perhaps I could even suggest that, wherever the Church will be found to thrive in its third millennium of existence, it will not look very much different from the ideals of Spanish Protestantism: historical, orthodox, unitive, and loving.

Andrew Messmer (PhD, Evangelische Theologische Faculteit) is Academic Dean of Seville Theological Seminary (Spain); Associated Professor at the International Faculty of Theology IBSTE (Spain); Affiliated Researcher at Evangelical Theological Faculty (Belgium); and editor of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Spanish journal Revista Evangélica de Teología. He has written and edited books and articles in Spanish and English. His Spanish page is www.casareinayvalera.com, where he writes about all things related to Christianity. He is married and has five children.

  1. For a collection of their comments on the matter, see here.

  2. Speaking in the early 17th cent., Juan de Nicolás y Sacharles bases his criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church on the first five or six hundred years of Church doctrine (The Reformed Spaniard); speaking in the late 17th cent., Jaime Salgado appealed to Vincent of Lérins’ first canon regarding orthodoxy: what the Church has believed “always, everywhere, and by all” (The Romish Priest Turn’d Protestant).

  3. Based on their name’s sake, I have always thought it would be a provocative study to compare and contrast the theologies of Cassiodorus and Casiodoro de Reina.

  4. For a critique of the seventh ecumenical council based in the council’s “Acts”, see here.

  5. Since the icon controversy was still and open question in the eighth and ninth centuries, one could argue that they were able to accept the first eight or nine centuries.

  6. Remember: Reina praised Recaredo’s theological and liturgical reform of the early 7th cent., which is what Isidore would have inherited.

  7. This is a generalized comment, and some practices of the first millennium, such as prayers to the saints and tariff penance, would have been rejected.

  8. The Eucharist and predestination would have been, I think, the most contentious issues discussed. I think Pineda, and perhaps Valera, would have had the hardest time with anything like a mediating position, and would have preferred a more Calvinistic articulation of these doctrines.

  9. In his Freedom of a Christian, Luther complained about the last three hundred years of Church history, i.e., c. 1100-1200. This overlaps essentially with what I am proposing here for the Spanish Reformers.


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