viernes, octubre 12, 2018

On the theology of the discovery of the Americas

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On the theology of the discovery of the Americas

Jonathan Morales

Contributions for a historical review.

I. Introduction

The Protestant Reformation and the Conquest of Americas are two critical junctures to understand our modern times. With some resemblance, both phenomena presented new and complex situations, as if they were trying to assess the integrity and flexibility of the system of thought of low medieval society. Deep questions, most of them unexpected, at first, give the impression that some perplexity and hesitation flooded even to the most enlightened minds of the time.

Moreover, the periodization of both events shows us how contemporary are their scenes and characters. The Brazilian theologian Jorge Luis Rodriguez helps us to illustrate these relationships by examining the lives of some of its protagonists.1 Let us do the exercise again.

So, when Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands believing that they had found the island of Cipangu, Luther with almost ten years was instructed in Latin, first at the school of the city of Mansfeld, and then under the cathedral of Magdeburg -where probably him would inherit from the Brethren of the Common Life his characteristic antimonastic zeal.

In 1517, when Bartolomé de Las Casas showed before the Spanish Court his memoirs of "denouncements and remedies", in which he informed with vehemence about crimes committed by the conquerors in the West Indies; Luther, already being a professor at the University of Wittenberg, divulged his 95 Theses questioning the power and efficacy of indulgences.

The decisive Lutheran interpretation of the passage Romans 1:17, happened the same year of 1512 in which De Las Casas interpreted the biblical text of Ecclesiastes 34:18-22 in regard to the injustices of the encomiendas.

The Diet of Worms in 1521 where the Saxon reformer was excommunicated, happened almost simultaneously with the so-called "second Lascasian conversion" of 1522, after which the reformer decided wear the Dominicans habits. It also coincides with the final phase of the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés (1519-1521), with the occupation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

When the Protestant reformer died in 1546, De Las Casas was immersed in his most important theoretical struggle yet: The Controversy of Valladolid, key process in the history of the legal organization of the American dominions.

Perhaps, among the numerous works undersigned by Bartolomé de Las Casas, the one that has arisen a greatest interest was his controversial writing: "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies", delivered to king Carlos I of Spain in 1542, is almost coeval with the influential French edition of the "Institutions of the Christian Religion" of 1541, in which the French reformer John Calvin exposed to King Francis I of France the essential doctrines of ecclesiastical reform movement. In addition, in 1541, the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro died in Lima at the hands of his detractors, after having subjugated much of the Inca Empire in just one year.

Despite these remarkable historical data, within the religious context of the European sixteenth-century - Castilla excluded - the attention paid to the new American reality was very scarce. Instead, the concern was focused, firstly, on the dangers associated with the imminent advance of the Ottoman Turks, having seized Constantinople, the ancient Eastern Christian stronghold, they were ad portas of the region of Austria-Hungary; secondly, in the secession caused by the Protestant movement, which was beginning to gain the trust of many German, Swiss, French and Anglo-Saxon nobles, and threatened the papal supremacy in the West.

II. Trento and the new continent

Regarding the Roman-Catholic church scope, the Ecumenical Council of Trent (1545-1563) had no interest in American affairs. "The Council of Trent is not proposed in no time discuss issues and to include the newly discovered lands in Americas. Neither any American bishop was present at the council" 2

Note that for the first sessions of this meeting, there were already in America not less than 3 ecclesiastical provinces, and 17 bishoprics.3

"In the council was, first of all, the Protestantism; it was the main problem that, over and above any other, concerned Fathers and theologians gathered there. (...) This disinterest in the religious themes of Spanish America can be explained, first of all, by the scarcity and imprecision of the knowledge of the Fathers and the senior officials of the Roman Curia about the Hispanic American affairs. Although they were interested in the strange and extraordinary things they were told about it, they did not have precise information on the situation in the Spanish Indies to make decisions about the special problems that had emerged from the evangelizing experience at the newly conquered territories." 4

As pointed out to us by the Spanish law historian Agustín Bermúdez, unlike Castilla, in the rest of Europe the printed circulation of the testimonies of travelers flocking to the new continent, and what is very important, the illustrations and engravings that usually accompanied these texts were shaping a whole new imaginary about the territory and its inhabitants, which is not always consistent with reality. Indeed, as noted by the author regarding pictorial representations, the archetypes of tardy medieval tradition still persist, which in turn reveals the arrogance exercised by the criteria of authority of classical models against proven experience in analyzing factual data.5

III. Castilla, the Franciscans and the advent of the Millennium

Regarding Castilla, the information provided by officials in an extensive Indian administration both in Americas and in the Peninsula, led to the Crown to the development of a prolific legal literature in order to regulate a social reality that was beyond the canons of Jus Commune.6 In the early years of the Spanish Conquest they imposed metropolitan authorities, first, the complex problem of the legitimacy of the incorporation of new territories. This was answered with the identification of certain "justo tìtulos de dominio" that per legal prevailing doctrines, serving to the Crown in its business in the new continent; and secondly, it became an urgent need to clarify the legal status of the native population. The American Hispanist, Lewis Hanke, highlights the surprising disinterest that is noticed among European thinkers of the sixteenth century, in all that relates to the complex disputes that the finding of Aboriginal not Christians - neither unbelievers Muslims - generated among Spaniards.7 The depth of the problem and the effort for its resolution, greatly determined a renaissance of Iberian scholasticism.

The truth is that there were very few exceptions among the rest of the Europeans. Thus, when the emperor of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, Maximilian I, requested the opinion of the German monk Juan de Heinderburg (1462-1516) on the soul of the American Indian, he responded by replicating the medieval doctrine of "limbo", a concept developed to solve the soteriological problem of the Old Testament patriarchs and children who died without being baptized, but it was still a popular religious teaching, had never been accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. In the same terms the response of the humanist Seyssel Claude (1450-1520) was structured, who would become Archbishop of Turin, for whom the pagans who did not know about of Christ would occupy an intermediate place between heaven and hell.8

Perhaps one of the reasons that best explain the great interest of the Spanish Crown in the foundations of its raid is due to millenarian beliefs, firmly rooted in the Spanish religiosity for the last years of the late Middle Ages. Something emerges from the same name given to the new territories, a "Mundus Novus", a clear reference to the passage in Revelation 21, 1: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth (...)" The Italian historian Adriano Prosperi is responsible for explaining the association made between the New World and the "end of the world" as it was believed to be predicted in the last book of the New Testament. According to his view, "The tendency to looking in the past for the anticipation of the unsettling novelty of the discovery was yet deeply rooted in the culture and mentality of that time."9

Without going any further, the messianic conviction with which Columbus informs to Castilian kings about the discovery of new lands (1493), accounts for this exercise in relation to the prophetic biblical literature: "the new heaven and earth that our Lord spoke through Saint Juan in Apocalypse after it was said through Isaiah, he made me a messenger and showed me that part."

Also it can be seen in the letter of the Florentine Americo Vespucci to prince Lorenzo de Medici (1500): "In those countries, we have found so many people that no one could count it, as we read in the Apocalypse."

This reinterpretation of the prophetic genre is not a new method, "the figurative reading of history is part of the culture and the exegetical method of medieval Christianity." 10 We believe to have found its source in the Franciscan eschatology of the low Middle Ages.

“At the end of the twelfth century, two movements promote the apocalyptic escalation: the various attempts to reform the Church and the emergence of a central character for the interpretation of recent times which is inserted into the reformist horizon: Joaquin of Fiore (1202 †). Visionary and prophetic, he was convicted in the famous Fourth Lateran Council for his portrayal of the Trinity".11

For Joaquin, following his books "Expositio in Apocalipsis" and "Concordia Novi et Veter Testamenti" history could be divided into various stages of progression toward spiritual fulfillment: the age of God the Father, Abraham and the Law; the Son of God, Christ and the Church; and the last of the Holy Spirit. According to the monk, each stage has the distinction of having a golden age followed for a time of crisis. For medieval people, the third stage was the most important given its imminent arrival. With this the end of the world would occur. Its Context: the crisis of the Church and the rise of the Antichrist. However, before the end of times an order of preachers would announce the Gospel to every corner of the world, as it was predicted by Christ's words: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world, to bear witness to all nations. And then the end will come." (Matthew 24:14). There was a belief that twelve patriarchs would convert all infidels, and lead humanity into spirituals things.12

It seems that the teachings of Joachim of Fiore had long echo in the nascent Order of Francis of Assisi, especially among the Minor Friars. But it is from the mid-thirteenth century that his eschatology begins to gain prestige in the highest of the Order. The same will happen with the Roman curia, especially when Clement V takes the papacy in 1294. Disputes for the papacy, and discrepancies with the more orthodox sectors of the curia, will lead the papacy to condemn the doctrine of "poverty of Christ and his apostles" in 1323, to which subsequently will join the "Babylonian" captivity of the Pope in the city of Avignon, the "cup" of the Black Death, the "witnesses" as radical eschatological preachers, the "abomination of desolation", the loss of the Holy sepulcher and Jerusalem, etc., promoting all kind of apocalyptic readings on the end of the world. These symbols will serve as prelude to the Protestant Reformation with Luther as the "antichrist" In this context, compared to old Europe where Christianity split and Protestant heresy was spreading, the discovery of Americas, a New World, it was a great hope.13

Thus we understand the zeal missionary in the early years of the New Spain. It suffices to understand the powerful influence of the Franciscans in the figure of Columbus, especially during their stay at the Monastery of La Rabida. Later, with the arrival of the "twelve apostles", in 1524, no less than twelve Franciscan monks resolved to conclude the history and hasten the return of Christ, an inflection point occurs in the process of evangelization towards more methodical and organized forms, while remaining doctrinally rudimentary. Time will eventually lead to disappointment when devotees realized that masses of natural baptized insisted on the worship of their ancient deities in privacy.

IV. Americas in the eyes of the Reformation: Items for Review

How was interpreted the discovery of Americas by the Protestant Reformation? In which way was perceived the meeting with those of who had never heard? We notice a strange silence in the reformers writings. The controversy, the dogmatic works, large confessions and major doctrinal documents of Classical Reform or Magisterial scarcely address the need of the universal mission. Rather, as stated by the American theologian and historian George Hutston Williams, "In the time of the discovery and the Reformation, the initial forces of Christian renewal were usually forces that tended to restrict rather than expand the scope World of salvation through Christ."14

The characteristics of the colonial enterprises of the Protestant nations during the sixteenth and seventeenth century were very different from the confessional model adopted by Castille, according to which the State would committed on the theological justification for their acts - an aspect that is mainly due to movement of Counter-Reformation, of "Romanist awakening" in terms of the famous work of Williston Walker - the diffusion of sound doctrine and preserving the purity of worship in the new territories.

On the other hand we cannot forget, such as J.L. Rodríguez well point out, that 1492 marks the beginning of European imperialism; This is an evidence that perhaps the reasons for the differences between the conquest of Catholic Spain and the Protestant colonization, must be tracked by means of a serious historical analysis and not reduced to mere replication of ridiculous images, in the characteristics of the Spanish society and its economic context.15 Thus, "the Unlike other European nations where the period of metal accumulation was only a period that allowed the subsequent development of industrial capitalism, mercantilism in Spain took root in the center of its own economy, impeding that followed its development."16

This is explained in the early expulsion of the population components - the Jewish in 1492, and the Moors in 1502 - they had could transform the copious amounts of precious metals in productive capital, and definitely would have allowed "extra-economic" deviations such as "concern that the conquests were carried out according to the principles of law, theology and philosophy, as well as a concern to define what the ontological nature of the Indians." 17

For its part, the historical experience of colonization undertaken by the Protestant nations in Americas, as in Asia and Africa, account for the ruthless effectiveness of its realizations, where the process of accumulation of wealth did not stop in theological and philosophical discussions in order to legitimize their actions, because they considered themselves justified because of profit and earnings provided. The Indians "were simply sacrificed to new gods: money and precious metals".18 Therefore, the absence of Protestant thought about the discovery of the new continent and its people, is no guarantee that colonial companies of Protestants nations were more human, less cruel, less arrogant or conceited. Since experience tells us that in these aspects, Catholic conquerors and Protestant settlers, were not different.19

Unfortunately, the prevailing view in many Protestant circles, of which the Latin American evangelicalism has become main representative, it has been limited to replicate typical images of a "black legend" of the Indian administration of the Castilian crown. According to this line of thought, the Protestant colonies in Americas have been founded by "home-makers", something like well constituted household builders, or "state- builders" settlers with an eminent citizen vocation in construction of formal political entities. All of them Europeans very different from figure of "gold-seekers" with which the Spanish conqueror is ridiculed, according to which those were tossed exclusively to satisfy his thirst for gold. 20 Despite its questionable historical veracity, the image has a surprising acceptance today.

This article was translated by Cecia Millán and reviewed by Alfredo Francis. The review was done under the grant “God's Evolution” awarded to the Science and Faith Centre (Spain) by the BioLogos Foundation (USA).


  1. RODRÍGUEZ, Jorge Luis. “La Biblia, la Reforma y los Indios.” [online] Revista de Interpretación Bíblica Latinoamericana (RIBLA), número 11 http://www.claiweb.org/ribla/ribla11/la biblia la reforma.htm [accessed: 19 August 2012].
  2. RODRÍGUEZ LEÓN, Mario A. Introducción En: SANTIAGO-OTERO, H., GARCÍA Y GARCÍA, A. (eds.) “Sínodo de San Juan de Puerto Rico de 1645”. Madrid – Salamanca, Centro de Estudios Históricos del CSIC – Instituto de Historia de la Teología Española de la UPS, 1986. p. XII. (Colección Tierra Nueva e Cielo Nuevo).
  3. RODRÍGUEZ LEÓN, Mario A. Ibid.
  4. TÁNACS, Erika. “El Concilio de Trento y las Iglesias de la América Española: La problemática de su falta de representación.” Fronteras de la historia. 7: 121, 2002.
  5. BERMÚDEZ, Agustín. “El Imaginario jurídico de América en el siglo XVI europeo.” En: ALEMANY BAY, C., ARACIL VARÓN, B. (eds.) “América en el imaginario europeo. Estudios sobre la idea de América a lo largo de cinco siglos.” Alicante, Publicaciones Universidad, 2009, p. 41.
  6. Doctrina jurídica desarrollada en las nacientes universidades de la Baja Edad Media, sobre la base del Derecho Romano Justinianeo, el Derecho Canónico Pontificio, y el Derecho Feudal de variante lombarda. Constituye un proyecto jurídico que busca respaldar la unificación europea bajo el Sacro Imperio, y la Iglesia Católica Romana luego de la reforma papista de Gregorio VII. Se trata de uno de los elementos formativos de la Tradición Jurídica Occidental.
  7. HANKE, Lewis. “El significado teológico del descubrimiento de América.” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos. 298: 1, 1975.
  8. HANKE, Lewis. Op. cit., p. 5.
  9. PROSPERI, Adriano. “América y Apocalipsis”. Teología y Vida. XLIV: 196, 2003.
  10. PROSPERI, Adriano. Ibid.
  11. “El descubrimiento de América en la última hora del mundo: la hermenéutica franciscana.” [online] Nuevo Mundo, Mundos Nuevos, Debates. http://nuevomundo.revues.org/63661 [accessed: 19 August 2012].
  12. “El descubrimiento de América en la última...” Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. WILLIAMS, George H. citado en HANKE, Lewis. Loc. cit.
  15. RODRÍGUEZ, Jorge Luis. “La Biblia, la Reforma y los Indios.” Op. cit.
  16. Op. cit.
  17. Op. cit.
  18. MIRES, Fernando. “En Nombre de la Cruz, discusiones teológicas y políticas frente al holocausto de los indios.” San José, DEI, 1986, p. 20.
  19. Op. cit.
  20. Los conceptos expuestos refieren a nociones comunes en la historiografía norteamericana. Han sido recogidos por el historiador POWELL, Philip W. “Árbol de Odio: La Leyenda Negra y sus consecuencias en las relaciones entre Estados Unidos y el Mundo Hispánico”. Madrid, Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas S.A., 1972.

Cite as (ISO 690:2010): MORALES, Jonathan. On the theology of the discovery of the Americas [on line]. RYPC Translations, 12 October 2018. <http://www.revista-rypc.org/2018/10/on-theology-of-discovery-of-americas.html> [accessed: ].