The Reformation was a wild and tumultuous time in European history. It was a time when many different groups of people pulled away from the power and control of the Roman Catholic Church. Previously in the year 1054, the Church (then called the Holy Catholic Church–Catholic meaning “universal”) split off into two main groups, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Protestant Reformation, taking place in the early 1500s, represents another major split in the Roman Catholic branch of the Church, this time splintering into many different subgroups roughly called “Protestant” meaning those that were “protesting” against the Roman Catholic Church.
The ideas and changes brought about during that time have made a lasting impact on the world. However, like the War in Afghanistan or the Civil Rights movement, the Reformation was not a monolithic period of history with easily defined borders and ideas. In fact, there were many different themes and societal forces at work that collectively produced many of the changes attributed to the Reformation. In order to speak meaningfully about the Reformation and due to the scope of this topic, I will have to limit our discussion of the Reformation to a few main points.
The Rumblings of Change
There are a few important focal points that can be used in order to begin to trace a broad outline of the Reformation. To start, one of the most important background issues is the socio-economic change across Europe in the late Middle Ages. During this period, Europe began to see a huge burst in population. This population explosion gave rise to new forms of society, government, business and trade. The economy of Europe during this time saw an unprecedented explosion in growth as well as rising rates of inflation. In addition, a new “money economy” was created in place of the more labor-based economy of the past. This meant that bankers were now lending large sums of money and also outsourcing labor which created a separation between money and labor. And because the economy was rising so fast in scale and scope, almost everyone began charging payments, rents and fees. Indeed, everyone got in on the game as the Roman Catholic Church, landholders, nobility, kings and nation-states began charging heavier fees, collecting taxes and progressively overburdening the population.
Adding to the rise of population and a new economy undergirded by money lending and haunted by inflation, the political situation was changing as well. For centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire in late antiquity, the Roman Catholic Church had operated more or less like a monarchy with the Pope in control of not only the spiritual realm, but also the temporal political realm. And while all along there had been different territorial governments and parliaments, the Church and the Pope for the most part exercised control over much of Europe. This began to slowly change sometime around the 1200s and leading up to the threshold of the Reformation in the early 1500s.
During this time, many nation-states began to develop and pull away from the power and influence of the Pope, challenging the authority of the Church on a more frequent basis. Even as this happened, the Church appeared to be ever-more vital in it’s religion and it’s grip on the everyday lives of the people. As the socio-economic situation developed into less of a blend of Church and state, and different “states” began to untangle themselves from the Church, there were also a host of technological developments that greatly aided the Reformation. The two most important developments were Gutenberg’s printing press and the newfound ability to manufacture cheap paper. In fact, some scholars wonder whether the Reformation would have been possible without the invention of the printing press and it’s cheap paper counterpart. Nevertheless, as these technologies began to spread across Europe, they were received by an increasingly educated lay audience. During the 13th and 14th centuries many universities were founded and the education of the general populous was on the rise.
The teaching of the Church created a sense that one was always in spiritual danger, and without the constant application of the sacraments one was in danger of being lost forever into eternal suffering.
It must be noted here as well that the Reformation initially spread the quickest in the urban centers across Europe as these were the places where the young, educated and wealthy tended to live. It has been said by some scholars that the uneducated rural locations around Europe were slower to adopt the reforms set out by the Reformation.
Doctrine that birthed the Reformation
We now come to the key question; what were the reforms about? Was it just about getting rid of the Pope and all of the flashiness of the Roman Catholic Church, or was there something more profound happening here? The truth is that it’s difficult to easily discuss all of the doctrinal issues that were at stake during the Reformation, however, we can highlight the most important problems that needed addressing. Probably one of the most important issues at stake was the system of sacraments that was slowly developed and refined by the Church over the centuries. Indeed, probably the most important “sacrament” or operation of the Church which touched the lives of regular people frequently was the sacrament of “penance.” This is sometimes referred to as the “penitential system.” It’s important to see here that the penitential system, in other words, the confession of sins to the priest and the “satisfaction” (some form of giving alms, prayers and/or other acts of “humility”) that the priest prescribed to the sinner, became more complex but at the same time failed to address the inner anxiety experienced by everyday believers in the Church.
The religious climate of the Middle Ages was highly superstitious and in many ways focused on the supernatural. As well, the teaching of the Church created a sense that one was always in spiritual danger, and without the constant application of the sacraments one was in danger of being lost forever into eternal suffering. The general feeling of the people during that time was that the world was fundamentally supernatural and filled with all manner of demons, fairies, spirits and angels. In addition, the Church was seen as the only source of salvation and to be excommunicated was the ultimate form of punishment because it left the victim open to the wiles of the devil and his demons and ultimately the eternal fires of hell.
Enter Martin Luther
One of the best ways of getting a glimpse of the inner life of a believer during the Middle Ages is to understand that no one truly had a strong assurance of salvation. The phrase “assurance of salvation” is important theologically as this was a point of reference going into the Reformation and beyond. Enter Martin Luther. In Luther we find a former “monk’s monk” who had tried his hardest to find perfection in his religious duties as a monk, even to the point of being told by the headmaster of his monastery that he basically needed to take it easy on himself. Eventually Luther had an epiphany as he read the writings of St. Paul one day in the “cloaca” or on the toilet and he emerged to declare that righteousness was through faith alone and that the righteousness of Christ could be transferred to the account of the sinner solely on the basis of faith and not by any works done by the sinner. Indeed, this is the core of Martin Luther’s objections to the system of his time and really the core of his entire life’s work.
So it can be said with a good amount of confidence that the real issue in the Church in the Middle Ages, and what set the stage for the Reformation is the two-pronged problem of power abuses by the Church and also a failure of the whole system to bring about a real sense of assurance for the believer. This situation, coupled with the socio-economic situation and the new ability to quickly and cheaply disseminate information in the form of tracts, pamphlets and books across Europe all came together to create the explosion in change that we call the Reformation.
Of course, there were many other names involved in the Reformation and indeed many “reformations” in different regions. In fact, many scholars refer to “Luther’s Reformation” the “Swiss Reformation,” “English Reformation” and so on. Many others were involved in the general dissent against the abuses and ineffectual system of the Roman Catholic Church. Once the Reformation was underway, one of the most important uses of the printing press was not only to print tracts and pamphlets, but “vernacular” versions of the Bible, which means translations of the Bible from Greek and Latin into basic languages like German, English and French, such that the common people could read with ease.
The printing of vernacular Bibles became a huge source of inspiration, fanning the flames of the Reformation as the Word of God was taken out of the hands of the elite and put into the hands of everyday people. And, while Martin Luther and others such as someone named Erasmus produced their own translations of the Bible, a man named John Wyclif helped to launch the whole Bible translation endeavor a couple hundred years earlier. Both Wyclif and a priest named John Huss had a major impact on the people in the area of Bohemia in the 1300s. They helped to spark a pre-cursor movement to the Reformation spearheaded by a group called the “Lollards.” It’s important to see that some of these pre-Reformation movements closely resembled much of what the later reformers such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli taught.
Teachings of the Reformers
While a discussion of the finer points of the reformer’s teaching is not possible here, we can at least skim the surface. Basically, in keeping with the growing unrest among the people due to both the inability of the Church to provide relief for a gnawing sense of anxiety among believers as well as a continual abuse of power and overburdening of the people at almost every turn, the thrust of the Reformation was focused on the “priesthood of believers.” This refers to the notion in 1 Peter 2:9 that all believers were able to come to God on their own accord without the aid of some medium like a priest or clergy member. Christ was the mediator between God and people according to the scriptures and the reformers felt that it was time to press this against the ineffectual and alienating system of the Church. Many times there is a misconception that the Roman Catholic Church had become lax about sin with all of the indulgences and special privileges given to clergy, but the opposite was actually true. The sacraments and the system of penance had become such a burden to the people that they were ravenous for a Christianity that could be practiced by the individual, and one that brought forth a sense of being satisfied or assured that one’s personal salvation was secure.
As the Reformation rolled on, spurred by the soon-to-be famous “Ninety-Five Theses” of Luther and his three other most important essays “The Freedom of a Christian,” “To The Christian Nobility Of The German Nation” and “The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church,” the people of Europe found that they were liberated by a new sense of individual freedom. And, while it may not have assisted in the the healthiest formation of community, the new individual freedom brought about a certain sense of empowerment as households began to feel that they could teach their own children straight from the Bible without the instruction of a priest or interference from the Church. This idea of the “Bible alone” became important later as the reformers did away with much of the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church. In place of the traditional sacraments, the new Protestants affirmed both preaching and the Word of God as their main sacraments.
Later in the Reformation, figures such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli would go on to challenge many of the former teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually set out the new Protestant beliefs in great works such as Calvin’s “Institutes” which helped to bring the teachings of the Reformation into sharp focus. As well, much of Luther’s writings were later brought into focus by people such as Philip Melancthon and used on a regular basis by believers (in this case German believers) in the form of the Augsburg Confession and later the Book of Concord (among other works).
In conclusion, some of the most important things to remember about the Reformation are the complementary ideas of the assurance of salvation, along with the notion of righteousness by faith alone. These ideas sum up much of what the Reformation was about. Of course, there were all of the preceding socio-economic factors leading up to the Reformation, as well as the rising tide of Church abuses along with heavier government control of the people. But, even given all of the socio-economic forces, what really fueled the Reformation at the core was a desire to connect with God in an intimate and individual way. During that period in history there was a collective yearning for a sense of peace that could only be found in the Gospel message. The problem was that the powerful were attempting to hold captive the Gospel. We know from God’s Word however, that “the Word of God is not bound…” [2 Tim. LEB] Indeed, as in other times and places in history, the Gospel message and the work of the Holy Spirit brought about profound and deep changes in the lives of many, many people. This is the power of the Word of God at work on a broad scale. But the beauty of the Gospel and the power of God is that it’s like the sun, it can warm the entire earth while also warming an individual blade of grass.