Noll, Ch. 9: The Founding of the Jesuits (1540 CE)

Founding of Jesuits

Chapter 9 complements chapters 7 and 8 in a couple of important ways. First, as Noll says, his Protestant background and commitments lead him to emphasize the Reformation above other events in church history; as a fellow Protestant, I fully agree with that emphasis. As a result, more information and thought on that time period is helpful in understanding it better. Second, and contrastingly, one can’t tell the entire story of the Reformation without including the Catholic(/Counter-) Reformation that went alongside it. Chapter 9 does not focus on the Protestants themselves but rather on their Catholic brothers and sisters who were also recognizing the need for reform in their ranks.

Given the specific focus on the Jesuits, it is fully appropriate that Noll begins the chapter with Ignatius Loyola the group’s renowned founder. Some of you may belong to the group of readers who know almost nothing about the Jesuits or Loyola, but who know about or have experiences with his Spiritual Exercises via an “Ignatian retreat.” For Protestants, the Exercises are probably Ignatius’s most important contribution to church history, in that they have provided a way for many people to deepen their spiritual lives and to connect more closely with the life of Jesus.

Noll also discusses several important parts of this part of our history. He describes the various contributions that the Jesuits made to Christian history, most importantly their work in missions and education. He explains how the Jesuits were not the only new “order” that arose at this time but rather were part of a whole movement of new groups. He discusses the importance of Franciscan ideals for many of these groups (compare the importance of the Benedictine tradition, as discussed in chapter 4). Finally, he discusses the landmark meeting called the “Council of Trent,” at which there were both “conservative” and “progressive” voices (compare the discussion of the Vatican II in chapter 13), but in which the conservative voices ultimately prevailed in massive ways. As a result of the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic church preserved many of its medieval characteristics all the way into the 20th century!

If you’d like a little more on the Spiritual Exercises, see the beginning of the text at  (Note: you can explore more of the text at this site as well. The attitude toward sin sounds rather “medieval,” which is not surprising, but the prayer of confession is one that most Christians can resonate with.)

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. Catholic missions of the 1500’s led to a more ethnically and culturally diverse Christianity. The New Testament emphasizes a need for ethnic and cultural diversity in the church (i.e., Matt. 28:18-20; Gal. 3:28; Rev. 7:9.) To what extent does your own faith community reflect this value of New Testament Christianity? Where could it improve? What could your local faith community learn about ethnic diversity from Catholic missions of the 1500s?
  2. In the 1500’s, the Catholic church combined its interest in correctly defining doctrine with passionate world mission (which far exceeded the efforts of the Protestant churches at the time.) In the tension between Christians’ having correct action and correct belief, which do you tend to see as primary? Why do you think you lean that direction?
  3. The “Chinese Rites” crisis was concerned with whether traditional Chinese cultural practices, which were often grounded in non-Christian religions, could be appropriately practiced by Chinese Christians. Which side of the debate did you find yourself supporting? Why? Are there examples in our world of a “native” belief or practice that is controversial for Christians to hold?
  4. There has been a shift in Protestant historiography from referring to the efforts of the Catholic church in the 1500’s as “the Counter-Reformation” to “the Catholic Reformation.” What value, if any, is there in using terminology which does not offend outsiders?
  5. Noll admires the fervor of Ignatius Loyola, even though in the religious struggles of the Western church at that time, he favors the Protestant cause. How do you make sense of admiring the religious virtues of people from traditions with which you don’t agree?   Do you find a tension there or not?
  6. If the Catholic and the historically Protestant churches can agree that salvation is completely the work of God and that Christians should carry out good works, what reason would you give to explain the still-remaining divisions between these two families of Christianity?

Image credit of Jan Kryštof Handke’s fresco Approving of bylaw of the Society of Jesus (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 10

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