6.0 Reformation Introduction

The Reformation (1517-1648 AD) started as an attempt to reform the Catholic Church from within; however, it led to a century and half of religiously motivated war between the states of Europe.

The first peaceful attempts at reforming the Church completely failed. Too many people benefitted too much from keeping things the same. Powerful families bought and sold bishoprics and the papacy. Popes and cardinals lived like princes taking mistresses and living less than Christlike lives. The Church itself taught a number of things which seemed to contradict Jesus' teachings. Thus, protestors like Martin Luther in Germany attempted to fix the problems they saw in the Church. The Church, however, refused to listen and even attempted to kill its critics to silence them. For this reason protestors felt they had no choice but to leave and form them own Protestant churches.

The Reformation had several important consequences: firstly, the religious unity of Europe was destroyed; there wasn't just one Church any longer but many. Two of the new churches were the Lutherans of Germany and Calvinists of Switzerland and France. (Note: Protestants and Catholics are both Christians; they just belong to different denominations or branches within the exact same religion.) Secondly, Protestants were set apart from Catholics, in that, Protestants read and interpreted scripture for themselves. People who read scripture for themselves came up with new religious doctrines. And lastly, with the Catholic Church greatly weakened the authority of secular rulers like kings, queens and princes increased. Secular leaders were typically more supportive of intellectual freedom. Thus, in this new intellectual environment people weren't only developing new religious doctrines; they were also developing new ideas around the notion of democracy, religious tolerance, etc. which encouraged the later development of such intellectual movements as the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason.

In the end, the Reformation (which actually took place during the Renaissance) contributed to a full-blown intellectual transformation of Europe. Yet, before democracies could were established, before religious tolerance was practiced, and before science replaced superstition, Europe would struggle through 150 years of wars over religion.

lutherIt is important to remember the word reform is in the word "reformation." When you want to reform something you're trying to fix the problems affecting whatever it is you want to fix. In this case people were trying to fix perceived problems with Church (and there were many).

Although the Protestant Reformation officially began with Martin Luther's posting the Ninety-Five Theses on the doors of the Church of Wittenberg in 1517 AD, calls for reform were nothing new. Over the centuries the Catholic Church toyed with the idea of reforming itself. Yet, in the great scheme of things there was little incentive for Church authorities to change: they held a complete monopoly on power and could make the rules everyone was obliged to follow.

In the end, powerful institutions rarely reform themselves from within. Powerful people are powerful for a reason and generally want to keep it that way; however, there are exceptions to this rule: for example, in 638 BCE the Greek city-state of Athens was struggling with stability issues because its powerful ruling families struggled selfishly with one another for power; eventually these families agreed to work together to salvage Athenian democracy by voluntarily accepting the authority of a dictator named Solon. Solon used his dictatorial powers to reform Athens through a series of new laws designed to prevent political corruption. In the case of the Catholic Church in the 16th century, there was no way they'd give someone outside of the Church power to reform it; it would take another four centuries before the Catholic Church would modernize during the Vatican II meeting in 1962. To the Church's credit it is now arguably one of the more progressive and tolerant institutions. This was not the case though in 1517 when Martin Luther stormed on to the scene...

In the early days of the Reformation, reform-minded "protestors" didn't want to create new churches; they simply wanted to reform the existing one. Since Church authorities refused to change, and because secular leaders like Frederic III protected critics like Martin Luther, new churches called "Protestant" ones formed. In the case of Martin Luther, he had the good fortune to live a time when he was both protected and to had access to the printing press. The printing press meant he could mass produce his writings. Previously ideas spread only as fast as the speaker traveled. In the age of the printing press, ideas spread rapidly from region to region to region. Thus, within a couple months of Luther posting his grievances of the Church all of Europe knew about it. The Church could kill Luther (and they tried on several occasions). They just couldn't kill his ideas though.

Martin Luther was a German theologian. Luther loved the Church but after a trip to Rome he saw that it had many problems needing immediate attention. He outlined these problems and the need for reform in a public letter called the Ninety-Five Theses. Luther was an optimist: he believed the Pope just wasn't aware of the corruption underneath him. If, Luther reasoned, he could just convince the Pope of the need for change everything would be alright. He was too optimistic. The Church suffered from corruption all the way to the top. Popes weren't holy men at this time; they were the frequuently the ambitious sons of powerful Italian families who bought the position. Suffice to say, within a few months of Luther's letter being published it became evident to Luther nothing was going to change. If he wanted to live his faith in a way that reflected his understanding of Christ's gospel, he'd have to leave. Leave he did establishing a new church in Saxony.

Luther wasn't the only one to break away. Some German princes used religious differences to justify breaking away from Rome. Secular leaders like Henry II of England resented the fact money flowed from their kingdoms to Rome. Luther provided them with a justification to their citizens to leave the faith and establish a new one. In the case of Saxony, it became the first state to change its official faith from Catholicism to Lutheranism.


In the introduction, it was mentioned the Church suffered from corruption: this was reflected by a lack of accountability for Church authorities faced; the fact clergy sought wealth and women instead of following Jesus; and it was also reflected in how the Church used the authority of scripture to silence critics. This last problem, the Church's repeated use of authority-based arguments, rubbed many people during the Renaissance period the wrong way. For example, the powerful Cardinal Richelieu argued that if Mother Church taught the sky was red (even though you knew it to be blue) you'd be obligated to believe it was red.
Logically speaking, arguments from authority are, more often than not, a form of logical fallacy. For this reason when people hear statements like Richelieu's they rightly question them.

If you recall, the Renaissance was a period of great intellectual transformation. Renaissance thinkers valued intellectual freedom; they also valued their faith. Thus, in an effort to be intellectually honest (and consistent) they asked questions about some Church teachings they felt didn't quite line up with what they read in the Bible. For example, the Church allowed people to exchange money for forgiveness. Catholics rightly wondered to themselves: if you could just buy forgiveness then what was the point of Jesus dying on the cross? It is worthwhile noting people didn't just start asking questions during the Renaissance. Many people like John Wycliffe and Jan Huss questioned the wisdom of certain questionable Church teachings and policies in the past. They failed because they lacked a protector, had no access to a printing press, and the intellectual climate simply wasn't ready for them. By comparison Luther had all these things going for him.

Here are some of the problems explained in detail:
1). Lack of Church Accountability:
Church authorities believed themselves infallible (or incapable of making an error); they tolerated absolutely no criticism; they also made a point of resisting challenges to their traditional authority (even if they were defending something indefensible), e.g. Doctrine of the Divine Maternity.

2). The Problem of Church Wealth: the Pope was as wealthy as any prince, king or banker. Some people had a problem with this because Christ was a poor carpenter. People believed the Church should be more like Jesus. In fact, this contradiction led to a controversy affecting the medieval Church called the Apostolic Poverty Heresy.

Some Catholics called for Church leaders to quit living like princes and redistribute their wealth among the poor (like Jesus would have likely done). The Church disagreed. Clergy kept collecting the mandatory tithes to maintain their wealth, pay for personal expenses, hire mercenaries, or build elaborate cathedrals like St. Peter's Basilica (see at left). Church wealth gave many people the overall impression the Church was corrupt and had lost its way.

3). Abuse of Scriptural Authority: important positions in the Church were sold to the highest bidder. So-called holy men (members of wealthy families like the Borgia and Medici) were actually people who bought their position. Obviously not every single leader in the Church purchased their office; nonetheless, this was a common practice and definitely affected the credibility of it in the eyes of the faithful. Many powerful Church officials used the selling of indulgences for personal gain. Interestingly, the printing press not only helped reform-minded people get their message out to the public. The printing press also enabled Church authorities to mass produce indulgences and make even bigger profits (as though they were coupons).

Priests told people they could purchase indulgences to free loved ones from the agonies of Purgatory. You could even purchase indulgences to deal with sins you hadn't even commited yet. Reform-minded Catholics argued, rightly, that doctrines like indulgences, Purgatory, and the so-called "merit of the saints" had absolutely no basis in the Gospels. The Church's abuse of its authority led to economic exploitation of believers and contributed to the development of false religious doctrines; it's no wonder reformers (especially ones who could read scripture for themselves) found problem after problem after problem with the Catholic Church as it existed in 1517 AD.

hus4). Previous Attempts at Reform Were Stamped Out: throughout the history of the Church there were several attempts to reform it; however, attempts failed because the Church was either able to destroy reformers (like Jan Hus shown at left) or absorb them; yet, the 16th century attempt at reform was different in one significant way: the printing press. The printing press enabled the ideas of reformers to spread quicker than the Church could stamp them out; moreover, while you could kill a reformer their ideas survived in the form of books and pamphlets; these publications continued to exert influence over the thinking of people for decades (even centuries) after the death of reformers who wrote them.

5). The Power of Secular Authority Increased: many secular princes and kings resented the interference of the Church in their kingdom's internal affairs. Kings, thus, jumped at the chance to weaken Rome's influence or break away entirely, e.g. North-eastern Germany embraced Luther's theological views and became "Lutheran" while the majority of Germany's southern states remained loyal to the Catholic Church.

Ultimately, the Church's refusal to act on any of the various reformers' concerns gave people no other option but to break away from Rome; the reformers (with the exception of secular leaders) were not after power but generally motivated out of a sincere desire to live out Christ's simple message of love and forgiveness. The Church's stubbornness meant a split, once the right conditions were present, was virtually inevitable.