The sixteenth century reformation did not occur in a vacuum. Much preceded Luther's nailing of 95 theses for debate on the Wittenberg chapel's door in 1517. This page reviews some of the circumstances Luther faced.
I. Contributing Factors
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europeans were questioning old values and forms. The masses reacted to priestly authority as never before. Most priests were either immoral, corrupt, or illiterate knowing just enough Latin to celebrate the mass by rote memory. Renaissance humanism influenced most of Europe. The renaissance de-emphasized "universals" placing a greater emphasis on "particulars." The attention paid the individual and his ability to think and reason independently illustrates the emphasis on particulars. Learned men accepted the twin concepts of human ability and intellect.
Even as thinkers questioned values and forms, there was an accompanying revival of religious feeling. The Brethren of the Common Life accomplished this among mainstream Catholics. They stressed mystical experience and subjectivism. Most people had grown weary of empty formalism and sought meaning, along with practical application, in their religious experience.
When the reformation began, it touched everything! It even left an indelible mark on culture. Historians insist modern Germany would not be Germany were it not for Martin Luther. The reformation affected political institutions, particularly Calvinism with its emphasis on vocation and the separation of Church and State. The reformation called medieval scholastics to task, thus shaping theology. Reformers made the Bible authoritative rather than tradition or papal fiat. Finally, it affected home life. Luther's family life became a model for all German protestant families.
On the one hand, Reformers saw themselves as saviors of Europe and Europe's religion. They removed much of Europe from papal tyranny and brought to it Christ's authority. Where Protestantism predominated, Catholic financial exploitation departed. On the other hand, Catholics believe all infidelity began with the reformation. Catholics portray Luther as a drunken monk and his home life as debauchery.
Keep one fact firmly in mind. The reformation did not reform religion. Instead, it reformed institutions. Alexander Campbell correctly wrote:
II. Early Reformation Efforts
Numerous "reform" efforts predated Luther. You can generally characterize these as "resistance movements," each with their own distinct peculiarity. Few represented biblical Christianity. Most early heresies fall into this grouping.
John Wycliffe, John Hus and Peter Waldo led the most successful reform efforts. Each tried to break with Catholicism, put the Bible into the vernacular and emphasize individual conversion.
At every point in Catholic development you can find dissent, resistance and reform efforts. The dominant church merely attempted to stamp out such efforts.
III. Immediate Backgrounds
There are seven immediate factors contributing to ripe conditions for reform.
1. The Renaissance. No one can understand the reformation's impact without it. The Renaissance refocused thinking on ancient Greek scholars. After long absence, eastern Christians fleeing Islam brought Greek literature west after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Renaissance scholars, intrigued by this literature, restudied it with the cry, "Ad Fantus"--"to the fountainhead." Renaissance scholarship made it possible for men to think for themselves.
2. The invention of moveable type. Neither the later Renaissance nor the reformation could have lasted without printing. Johann Gutenberg's invention around 1450 signaled tremendous changes. Before Gutenberg's invention the church controlled nearly all education. Few could afford books; copying was tiresome and often carelessly done. Few authors reached a wide audience. My personal library holds more books than many of the most prestigious fifteenth century European libraries. Moveable type printing changed all that. Luther's 95 theses caused little stir until an enterprising printer secured a copy, placed them in German and distributed them.
3. There was also an economic factor. Germany began to enjoy wealth. Germany found it held fantastic mineral wealth. Although spotty, Germany's growing wealth led to papal exploitation. Other economic factors can be seen in the nobility's refusal to allow peasants to hunt when unable to grow sufficient food. Then, too, craft guilds and secret societies grew. Some of these were actually disguised evangelical circles. Other guilds and societies called for societal change and communal living.
4. Changing political structures. While the Holy Roman Empire still existed, it exercised little control and was almost powerless. In Germany, princes controlled most territory and demonstrated little concern for the Emperor's wishes. Nationalistic trends continued throughout Europe. Spain expelled the Moors. France existed as an identifiable nation and England's parliament, while still subservient to the crown, continued developing. You could find strong nationalism on the campuses of Europe's great universities caused by the coalescing of homogeneous units. By that I mean, the universities saw groups forming based on common culture, language and racial characteristics. Even Germany, divided by numerous principalities, began to experience a growing sense of national identity.
5. Papal corruption. As the sixteenth century began the papacy continued reeling from the Avignon period and conciliar efforts. The fifteenth century papacy was morally corrupt and worldly. Savonarola said, "If you want to ruin your son, make him a priest." Money served as the church's major interest. Superstition abounded and became an integral part of the church's life. All in all, stagnancy characterized the church. No one preached the gospel completely. Church growth, as we know it, did not exist.
6. The invention of gunpowder. Some historians assert that nations grew up because of gunpowder. Gunpowder offered superior defense. Freedom rests on gunpowder.
7. Colonialism. Ultimately a contest developed between Protestants and Catholics over new world expansion. Remember, Columbus discovered America in 1492. Luther nailed his challenge to the Wittenberg door in 1517.
What began as a reformation of the German Roman Catholic Church spread widely. The church found it difficult to suppress German heresy because of tensions existing between the Popes and the Princes. As in all Europe, Germany had begun to grow together nationally. Luther spoke eloquently in the common man's language while the Church held to the Latin. Printing allowed the rapid dissemination of ideas. All this contributes to the success of the reformation. It was the right time and the right place for rebellion!
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