The Protestant Reformation:
What it was,
why it happened
and why it was necessary.
The Protestant Reformation has been called the most momentous upheaval in the history of Christianity. It was a parting of the ways for two large groups of Christians who differed in their approach to the worship of Christ. At the time, the Protestant reformers saw the church- the Catholic church, or the universal church- as lacking in its ways. The church was corrupt then, all the way up to the pope, and had lost touch with the people of Europe. The leaders of the Reformation sought to reform the church and its teachings according to the Scriptures and the writings of the Apostles. They sought to simplify the church by returning to its roots, roots long lost by the Catholic church at the time, or so the reformers believed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, life in Europe declined rapidly into the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages were a time of misery and darkness. There were only two socioeconomic classes: the very rich nobility or the very poor peasants. Small kingdoms popped up everywhere, and were constantly at war with one another. Whole libraries were destroyed, and the only people who remained literate were the clergy of the Christian church. Life became such a struggle to survive that, for a period of five hundred years, very little artwork or literature was produced by the whole of Europe. Eventually, around the year 1000, the conditions in Europe began to get better. This marked the beginning of the Middle Ages. The Crusades began as an effort to revitalize the spirits of the people. However, things still weren’t very good. Plagues ravaged the land, carried by rodents and destroying whole villages. With this all around, the people began to talk of witches and devils and evil spirits. The religious stories of the time, as seen in the sculpture of every church built during this time period, was of the Last Judgement and the tortures of Hell. This was the time of tall, sweeping Gothic cathedrals adorned with gargoyles and devils. Everywhere the people looked, they saw death, and it became the sole thought in their minds- that and what came after death.
With the spreading literacy among the clergy and nobility of the times came new literature. For hundreds of ears the only literature that had existed were those books saved from the destruction of the Dark Ages by the church and the monasteries. Now, scholars began to write new books- all of it, of course, religious in nature. One of the most influential books of the time was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. The book gave clear and simple instruction for modeling a Christian spiritual life on that of Christ (The Volume Library, 1950. However, the way that it did this was to present the mind set of a sober awareness of death and a general view that life is a veil of tears (Carmody, 331). While The Imitation was not the progenitor of the mood for the next several hundred years, it certainly contributed to it. Everything in life became a form of suffering in imitation of Christ. It soon became that even the tiniest act or motion during church service became a holy symbol of part of Christ’s pain. This was also the time of the greatest pilgrimages in history. People all over Europe travelled great distances to experience even the most insignificant of relics. Soon, the possession of relics became a kind of competition between churches and monasteries, denoting their popularity and piety. With the collection of relics came an increase in the size and wealth of the church which housed them. This led to an obsession for money and materialism within the church, which grew tremendously over the next few hundred years. It went so far as the selling of indulgences, which was basically the buying off of one’s time spent in purgatory before ascending to heaven. As the Renaissance began, the clergy itself began collecting artwork and lavish decor not only for the church for their private offices.
With this trend towards materialism came an obsession with the acts performed during Mass rather than what they represented. Soon, everything in the service contained some kind of mystery which was supposedly known only to the priest but not to the common man. With the Mass still being said in Latin, which only the clergy knew, it was no wonder that this sense of mystery completely separated the church from its followers. The priests espoused complicated rituals, but did little teaching and enlightening of the general masses. As if this wasn’t bad enough, an amazing event put another spilt between the church and the people of Euope. The Great Schism, as it has been called. The long line of corrupt popes arrived at the election of Bartolomeo Prigano, of which accounts differ widely among those cardinals present at the election. Controversy surrounded this election over whether Prigano had actually been elected pope or had merely been nominated to be the new pope. The cardinals left Rome and declared that the election was void and there currently was no leader of the church. Pope Clement VII- a relative of the French king- was elected by the cardinals, and he declared Prigano the anti-christ. The new pope took up residence in Avignon on the French border, and the corruption of the church grew even worse, becoming the scandal of Europe. It was obvious that the church and its head were being manipulated by the French royalty, and all of Europe knew it. As time went on, popes came and went in both Avignon and Rome, with different parts of Europe claiming loyalties to different popes. Skirmishes broke out constantly. Finally, in 1409, the College of Cardinals met to discuss The Great Schism. Neither pope agreed to attend the meeting, just ashad happened with every other meeting of this kind, and neither side showed any signs of reconciliation. The decision of the cardinals was to elect a third pope. Pope Alexander V and his successors tried to get the other two popes to back down to, no avail. The church was in turmoil, and Europe with it.
In 1415, a national council took place between the major countries of Europe- France, Italy, Spain and Germany- called the council of Constance. The clergy from across the continent decided at this meeting, themselves being the greatest Christian authority of the time- so much that even the popes must abide by their decisions- that all three popes would be deposed and a new pope would be elected. Though not immediately effective, the Council’s edict eventually took hold and the other popes dropped out of popularity. This ended The Great Schism, but not the atmosphere created by it. Caught up in its own disputes, the church had lost touch with its people, and simply unifying its leadership without altering its practices did little to change this. At the Council of Constance, as well as cleaning up the papacy, the subject of John Wycliffe and John Huss was brought up. Wycliffe had died many years earlier in 1384, but his views still persisted. Wycliffe, who had been a professor at the University of Oxford, had argued for a church reform based on a return to the Scriptures- one of the most popular ideas of what was to become the Reformation movement. He argued for a downsized church because the Church, as the assembly of all the predestined, is invisible, and hence formal membership in the external, institutional ecclesiastical body is no guarantees of salvation (Dolan 125). He rejected the idea that the office of the pope was a divine institution, arguing that the characteristics of the person must be comparable to their originator, St. Peter, to be divine. Foremost of the needed characteristics was the love of Christ.
Wycliffe most notably differed with the rest of the Protestant reformers in his views of the eucharist. Throughout this time, the eucharist had had the importance of actually being the body of Christ during the ceremony. Wycliffe argued that it merely represented Christ symbolically and never actually changed substance at all. This idea took firm hold in the Reformation, despite Wycliffe’s mental instability which grew during the later part of life, in which he did such things as proclaim the pope the anti-christ. The more dangerous of the pair at the time of the Council was John Huss, former rector of theology at the University of Prague and the leader of the Czech reform movement. His incessant and vocal protests of the church’s immorality and simony caused him to be excommunicated, but he still continued his preaching. The Council, after intense political maneuvering, managed to have Huss brought to them under the pretense of protection. When he learned of the Council’s intentions to trap him, Huss tried to escape. He was caught and labeled heresiarch- archbishop of all heretics. As he was being escorted out of the city, surrounded by tens of thousand of marchers, he began reciting Mass in German (not Latin, as was mandatory) and was burned on the spot as a heretic. When the story was told of Huss’s refusal to recant even during his execution, the Reformation gained a great following because of his heroic martyrdom.
These are but a few examples of the troubles of the period. As time went on, the church attempted to reunited with the Greek Orthodox branch after the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims in 1453. It met with some success politically, but little movement on the part of the actual Greek clergy. The succeeding popes began handling the church more like a political power, with its basis in the Vatican, than a religious force. This tendency turned it away from the major heads of Europe and continued to plunge the papacy and the church into sinfulness, decadence and vulgar hypocrisy. The Renaissance was in full swing by the time Martin Luther entered into the limelight. Luther was not in any sense, on any subject, a systematic thinker… Luther was hot and impatient (Hearnshaw 171). It was in 1505, at the age of 22, that he entered the novitiate of the Hermits of St. Augustine in Erfurt, Germany. He stayed there longer than the prescribed year, and in 1507 received his priesthood. He was then sent to Wittenberg, where he held the professorship of moral philosophy for a year are so before returning to Efurt.
Around 1512, Luther fell into a depression. He was plagued by the feeling that he was unable to fulfill God’s wishes. But from this depression sprang illumination. Luther began to develop ideas which would eventually become the groundwork for Protestantism. He saw the theory of original sin and redemption for it as a selfish form of idolatry. He cited Paul’s Epistle to Rome as showing God to be a beneficent creator filled with love, not condemnation. The forgiveness of sin wasn’t a holy ritual which miraculously wiped away a person’s sins. He saw the rejection of sin as a spiritual and psychological miracle which took place inside of man. This kind of personal communion with the Lord would awaken confidence in God’s other promises, producing a realization of man’s dependence on God or, as Luther saw it, faith. Luther began preaching this doctrine. Following hard upon this realization in 1517, a well-known indulgence preacher named John Tetzel appeared on the scene. Pope Julius II had decided upon his election in 1503 to immediately set about recreating the ancient glory of imperial Rome (Adams 256). Part of this plan was to tear down the old St. Peter’s basilica, the center of all Christianity, and build a new one. The New St. Peter’s would eventually grow to become the largest church in history. In order to pay for all this work, the church increased the preaching and selling of indulgences across Europe. The area which Luther lived in had long since outlawed indulgences, but the news of the preachings of Tetzel on the northern border soon reached the monk.
Luther wrote to the local archbishop condemning the selling of indulgences. The idea that one could trade money for the absolution of their sins was a ridiculous notion to Luther. In the letter, he wrote These unhappy souls believe that if they buy a letter of pardon they are sure of their salvation; also that souls fly out of purgatory as soon as money is cast into the chest… (qtd. in Dolan 235). On the same day he wrote that letter, October 31, 1517, he also posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg condemning indulgences and announced a debate on the issue. One of Luther’s points was that the Pope can repeal punishment for ecclesiastical laws, but only God can give true forgiveness for sins. He also asked, in his eighty-second thesis, Why does not the Pope, if he has the power, out of Christian charity empty purgatory of the suffering souls all at once? At that heart of this issue was Luther’s idea of supreme good. He felt that devotion to God should be foremost in men’s hearts, not exemption from punishment. Life should not be lived avoiding the punishment of God, but rather fulfilling God’s Will. Luther’s ninety-five theses quickly spread over all of Europe, being either accepted or rejected with vehement passion by clergy everywhere. The church struck back at Luther with criminal charges and demands of a trial, but the German clergy stood with the monk, many acknowledging that his views coincided with their own protests of the Roman church. Unable to silence Luther that way, the pope himself brought charges against Luther. Sadly, however, the general feeling of Rome was fear of lost profits, not a change in doctrine.
Luther was eventually brought to trial and excommunicated from the church. However, no further action could be taken against Luther in Germany because of his popularity with the people and the size of his movement had taken on. The church ordered all of Luther’s works burned, but few carried out this command with any enthusiasm. In 1520, he wrote a series of pamphlets entitled An Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and On Christian Liberty, which together set forth a plan for reforming the church. These contained ideas so radical that it would be impossible, as Desiderius Erasmus the great humanist and historian said, to make peace with the papacy. The pamphlets called for a return to the Scriptures and Epistles as the sole belief system of the church, for a priesthood for the common man instead of an exclusive clergy, and a doctrine of justification by faith alone. It must be asserted, though, that Luther and his followers still had no intention of removing themselves from the Catholic church. They wanted reform, not separation.
But this reformation never happened. The leaders of different European countries swore allegiance to either one side or the other. Some governments followed the Protestant doctrine out of faith, others because it was a useful political tool in explaining their actions. In the Netherlands, for example, the Protestant Reform not only took the form of a religious upheaval but also of a political rebellion against the Spanish rulers. Everywhere, Europe was split along religious lines. Luther was tossed from one place to another by this maelstrom, brought before councils and protected by supportive monarchs. Luther eventually died in 1546. In his final days, he had become a bitter and often disappointed man. The Reformers who came to take his place seemed to him too fanatic and too proud. They had held back when he alone had faced the fury of the Pope, and now they had burst forth triumphantly now that the papacy had been broken. The Reformation continued outside of Germany, occurring mostly in the north and outside of England. Following Luther came Martin Bucer to lead the German Reform movement, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and John Calvin in Geneva. These men were keen observers of the winds of political change that ranged about them. They were more sophisticated than Luther and his earliest followers, and they planted the Reformation movement in large population centers and identified it with civic and social responsibilities. Holiness of life, not membership in a world-wide organizational design, was their criterion of the true Christian (Dolan 269). Each of them changed Luther’s original doctrine to suit their needs- mostly dealing with the Eucharist- but they kept the flame of the revolt alive.
Following the lead of the Protestant Reformers on the continent, King Henry VIII of England rejected the authority of the pope and declared himself head of the Church of England in 1534. This rebellion was not, however, honest and sincere like that of the Protestant Reformers. Henry broke with the church because he wanted a male heir to the throne, and he could not convince the pope to annul his marriage to Cathrine of Aragon- the first of his six wives. Following Henry, King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth continued to mold this new church after the Protestant example. Elizabeth deliberately tried to keep the church a faith midway between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Having lost much of its former glory, the Catholic church finally called together a council to take action against the Reformation which had so violently broken the church. It had been over twenty years since any such council had met. The Council of Trent was convened at Trento in northern Italy from 1546 to 1564. The policies developed at the Council made up what was called the Counter- Reformation. In response to the humanistic views of the Reformation, the Catholic church zealously strengthened its own religious views. The council’s first action was, of course, to denounce Protestantism and reaffirm the Catholic doctrine. It set into motion the improvement of the education of priests and reasserted the power and authority of the Pope across Europe. It also, to assure the pope’s power and to prevent future harm by rebels such as Luther, established the Inquisition whose duty it was to hunt out any threat to the church and remove it. So while the Reformation led to political dissension and increased rebellion, the Counter- Reformation resulted in intolerance, moralizing and a taste for exaggerated religiosity (Adams, 281).
The final battle of the Protestant Reformation was fought nearly fifty years later: the Thirty Years’ War. An actual military war between the German princes which had banded together to form the Protestant Union and the Catholic League in the south and west. The war began with revolt in Bohemia, homeland of John Huss, and soon encompasses Denmark, Sweden and France as well. The war finally ended in Germany in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, but Europe would never again be the same. France and Spain continued to fight, and the Protestants and the Catholics continued to glare at each other from their respective sidelines. The explosion that had split the Catholic church had died away, but the fire it left behind continued to burn. Seen in perspective with the history of the times, the Reformation was inevitable. It not only spoke out against the atrocities, selfishness and hypocrisy that the people of northern Europe protested against, but it also provided a form of religious expression that let men and women worship God in their own fashion. The lifestyles of northern and southern Europe were and still are vastly different. Italy at the time was far more crowded and urban than Germany and its neighbors. The people of the south were also of a different heritage. The Catholic church centered itself around the ruins of the Roman Empire and was made up of the descends of the Romans and Jews. The people of the north came from the Germanic tribes like the Goths, tribes which had been instrumental in the fall of the Empire. The south was decadent, the north rural. It is hardly surprising that these two regions would eventually develop their own form of religious expression. Thus, Protestantism and its offshoots- Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist and such- are still popular in the world today, very often with people who have roots where the faiths originated. Roman Catholicism still thrives as well, but in a less corrupt state than during the Reformation. It now dominates much of Europe, while the Protestant religions have taken over America.