In celebrating Reformation Day this past week (10/31), here is a five-minute explanation of the factors that led to the Protestant Reformation...and why you should care.
The beginning of the Reformation in 5 minutes:
Though the Protestant Reformation was ultimately a product of divine sovereignty, it is nevertheless rightfully described as the result of a confluence of political events and reactions against ecclesiastical corruption on multiple fronts. This environment could be summarized by considering the moral and doctrinal failures of the Catholic Church, the rise of monarchical systems, and the influence of groups such as the humanist reformers.
The papacy of the two centuries leading up to the Reformation could be described on the whole as controlled by men in the pursuit of power from the top-down. The Great Schism resulted in rival popes in Western Europe and even the councils, who convened to assist in unifying the Church, had likewise split into rivaling parties. In the wake of the Renaissance, a desire to engage in war, a general sense of licentiousness, and a desire for conquest marked the careers of the popes of this period. One example of this can be found in the person of Pope Julius II who convened a council under the guise of church reformation in order to recapture the papacy’s waning political power.
When biblical theology is abandoned either in favor of licentiousness or in favor of extremist regulation, it is the layperson that must pay for the failure of the clergy.
Not only did average laypersons find themselves under the spiritual guidance of morally bankrupt men, they also lived in a time when Western Europe desperately needed a return to Scripture. Since the fall of Constantinople, the West was introduced to new philosophical ideas and a resurgence of interest in studying the Bible in the original Greek rather than in Latin. Confirming the needs seen in the appeals by John Wycliffe and John Huss, the West’s scholars now saw that much of the integrity of the Latin texts had been lost as a result of copying and interpolations. So, it was understandable that many would not only be discontented with the condition of the Church, but would also call for a reevaluation of the Church’s doctrinal beliefs.
The second contributing factor to the birth of the Reformation was the rise of monarchical systems in Europe. Rulers such as King Ferdinand of Spain brought many feudal lords and prelates under one unified authority. Areas such as the Netherlands and Germany, on the other hand, sought a similar unification. Due to this type of political unification and a gradual discontinuance of Latin by the average person, the use of regional languages became commonplace and produced a spirit of nationalism. Certainly, this contributed to the popularity of Martin Luther’s publications in German and explains why his “95 Theses” were published in Latin, the language used, at that point, primarily by scholars.
One particular result of this new political dynamic, as well as the blending of church and state, was the atrocious abuses seen in the Inquisition, especially in Spain. Although the Inquisition was not a new practice, in the period just prior to the Reformation the papacy relinquished control of the Inquisition to Ferdinand and Isabella. In a misguided attempt to safeguard orthodox beliefs, inquisitors such as Tomas de Torquemada attempted to purify the church from “Judaizers,” Jews in the kingdom who were later forced into exile, through torture. These actions were further taken by people such as Jimenez, Inquisitor General, against Muslims in Spain who would not convert or assimilate.
Church history reminds us of the sovereignty of God in the history of His Church, a reminder that is needed daily.
Along with these various abuses, the scholars of this period were introduced to various new ideas by means of the invention of the printing press. Not only was information about science made available, but ideas of reformation were made accessible throughout Europe. Certainly this invention only reinforced the desire for a return to the authority of original Christian sources. The mantle of this effort was picked up by a group called the humanist reformers, of which Erasmus was the most prominent. Having been profoundly influenced by Platonic thought, Erasmus suggested that inward righteousness was the primary concern of the Christian, even more foundational than orthodoxy. In his writings, he prompted the believer to a life of meditation, decency, and discipline, following not necessarily the example of monks but instead the commands of Christ for all disciples. Erasmus’ popularity was such that both Catholic and Protestant forces sought his support during the Reformation.
Why does it matter?
As has been shown, Europe by the fifteenth century was ripe for reformation; it was busting at the seams with political and religious tensions. The average Christian during this time had to sift through opposing propositions of their authorities and endure war, abuse, and doctrinal confusion. For this reason, church history must be studied. When biblical theology is abandoned either in favor of licentiousness or in favor of extremist regulation, it is the layperson that must pay for the failure of the clergy. This is the lesson that the minister must learn!
It is the failures and heroism of those that have come before us that should both enlighten our minds to the pitfalls of ministry and invigorate us to have courage in the face of great trials. For instance, Ferdinand and Isabella likely had great intentions in trying to reform the church through the Inquisition, but they were not guided by biblical principles. Also, many in the papacy of this time had placed a premium on the power that comes with ministerial responsibility, a pitfall that every minister must actively avoid. Still, shining examples of believers like Huss and Wycliffe, and later Luther, provide role models for “courage in the line of fire.” Church history reminds us of the sovereignty of God in the history of His Church, a reminder that is needed daily.
Information in this article includes a summation of Gonzalez's chapter on the subject. Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to Present Day. (Vol. 2). Rev. ed. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.