Just for background purposes, the 16th century in Europe was a great century of change on many fronts. The humanists and artists of the Renaissance would help characterize the age as one of individualism and self-creativity. Humanists such as Petrarch helped restore the dignity of mankind while men like Machiavelli injected humanism into politics. When all is said and done, the Renaissance helped to secularize European society. Man was now the creator of his own destiny -- in a word, the Renaissance unleashed the very powerful notion that man makes his own history.
But the 16th century was more than just the story of the Renaissance. The century witnessed the growth of royal power, the appearance of centralized monarchies and the discovery of new lands. During the great age of exploration, massive quantities of gold and silver flood Europe, an event which turned people, especially the British, Dutch, Italians and Germans, money-mad.
Despite these things, and there is more to be considered, especially in the area of literature and the arts, the greatest event of the 16th century -- indeed, the most revolutionary event -- was in fact the Protestant Reformation. It was the Reformation that forced people to make a choice -- to be Catholic or Protestant. This was an important choice, and a choice had to be made. There was no real alternative. In the context of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, one could live or die based on such a choice.
The Reformation was a movement begun by Martin Luther (1483-1546) that ended up fragmenting the Christian church. Originally, Luther did not have in mind a move to create his own church. He was a devout priest who wanted to reform the church from within. His famous Ninety-Five Theses, which he nailed upon the door of the Cathedral at Wittenburg, Germany, in 1517, were actually a single argument against the sale of indulgences or pardons (the absolution of sins in return for good works or money).
Luther's arguments against indulgences were only a small part of the complaints that were being levied against the church. Its efforts to maintain papal lands and the propensity to get mixed up in politics on the Italian peninsula had turned the Papacy into a political rather than religious organization. This worldliness was a problem not only in Italy but all over Europe where so many devout people had given large estates to the church. As much as one-third of all cultivated lands was in the hands of the church. The church in many ways was becoming a business, administering its properties rather than pursuing its stated purpose, which was to be the shepherd of souls. Unfortunately, a certain amount of corruption and cynicism had found its way into the church hierarchy.
One of the problems with all of the lands owned by the church was that it brought it in direct conflict with the state. Posts within the church were coveted because they were lucrative positions. Kings wished to make the appointment of bishops in order to reward their followers and have some control of the revenues of the attached lands. Kings also wished to tax the holdings of the church. The Papacy, naturally, was loathe to give up its rights and revenues.
Meanwhile there were religious currents swirling among the people. Erudite and fiery preachers who had problems with the doctrines put forth by the church wanted to go back to a more literal interpretation of the Bible. Esoteric arguments arose over such issues as trans-substantiation and whether priests could marry. People wished to have control of their own destiny, separating their salvation from dependence on what was seen by many as a corrupt church. Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses was only the fuse to a powder keg just waiting for a match.
Luther had challenged the income the church received through the sale of indulgences. The doctrine he preached of humans being saved by "faith alone" challenged the role of the clergy as the means of communication between the people and God. The Papacy went after Luther. Many of the German princes, whether from conviction or the desire to get their hands on the accumulated wealth of the church within their regions, decided to support him. When Luther was attacked by the church, certain German nobles insisted that their states had the right to choose a religion. When the Pope denied this right, the German nobles wrote a formal letter of protest. This was how the movement got the name "Protestant". The sheltering of Luther allowed his movement to incubate and grow, and so the Lutheran church was founded, closely allied with particular German states.
After this, Huldreich Zwingli converted much of Switzerland to his Reformed Church. The Calvinists, under a dynamic preacher named John Calvin, later arose in Geneva (which for a time became a theocratic state run largely by Calvin himself). It is interesting to note that the places where the new churches succeeded they also had powerful state support. At the time, state and church were intimately tied together. It was felt that for a state to be powerful the people had to be homogeneous. To allow different belief systems within the state would be divisive and create internal problems. The Calvinist state served as a teaching ground for preachers who would create religions all across northern Europe including John Knox who founded Presbyterianism in Scotland.
We have to ask why something like the Reformation took place when it did. In general, dissatisfaction with the Church could be found at all levels of European society. First, it can be said that many devout Christians were finding the Church's growing emphasis on rituals unhelpful in their quest for personal salvation. Indeed, what we are witnessing is the shift from salvation of whole groups of people, to something more personal and individual. The sacraments had become forms of ritualized behavior that no longer "spoke" to the people of Europe. They had become devoid of meaning. And since more people were congregating in towns and cities, they could observe for themselves and more important, discuss their concerns with others.
|Replica of Luther's theses|
Second, the papacy had lost much of its spiritual influence over its people because of the increasing tendency toward secularization. In other words, popes and bishops were acting more like kings and princes than they were the spiritual guides of European men and women. And again, because so many people were now crowding into cities, the lavish homes and palaces of the Church were noticed by more and more people from all walks of life. The poor resented the wealth of the papacy and the very rich were jealous of that wealth. At the same time, the popes bought and sold high offices, and also sold indulgences. All of this led to the increasing wealth of the Church -- and this created new paths for abuses of every sort.
Finally, at the local level of the town and village, the abuses continued. Some Church officials held several offices at once and lived off their income. The clergy had become lax, corrupt and immoral and the people began to take notice that the sacraments were shrouded in complacency and indifference. Something was dreadfully wrong.
These abuses called for two major responses. On the one hand, there was a general tendency toward anti-clericalism, that is, a general but distinct distrust and dislike of the clergy. Some people began to argue that the layperson was just as good as the priest, an argument already advanced by the Waldensians of the 12th century. On the other hand, there were calls for reform. These two responses created fertile ground for conflict of all kinds, and that conflict would be both personal and social.
The deepest source of conflict was personal and spiritual. The Church had grown more formal in its organization, which is hardly unsurprising since it was now sixteen centuries old. The Church had its own elaborate canon law as well as a dogmatic theology. All of this had been created at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. That Council also established the importance of the sacraments as well as the role of the priest in administering the sacraments. 1215 also marks the year that the Church further elaborated its position on Purgatory (see Purgatory: Fact or Fantasy). Above all, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 established the important doctrine that salvation could only be won through good works -- fasting, chastity, abstinence and asceticism.
The common people, meanwhile, sought a more personal, spiritual and immediate kind of religion -- something that would touch them directly, in the heart. The rituals of the Church now meant very little to them -- they needed some kind of guarantee that they were doing the right thing – that they would indeed be saved.
The Church gave little thought to reforming itself. People yearned for something more while the Church seemed to promise less. What seemed to be needed was a general reform of Christianity itself. Only such a major transformation would effect the changes reflected in the spiritual desires of the people.
The goals of the 16th century Reformation reflect the principles that Christian churches continue to advocate and attempt to live out to this day, i.e. to bring into the polity (governance) teaching and preaching of the church; to bring a sense of vocation (calling) into secular life and to give lay ministry more authority and leadership in order to maintain a balance of power within the church. Singing as a form of prayer and worship can also be traced to early Reformation.
We who stand in Reformation churches today are survivors. But to continue surviving we need to recover the potential for unity that has eluded our grasp. We should therefore long for and pray for, our ability to remember the Reformation – not as a celebratory moment, not as a blow for freedom, but as the sin of the church.
Pray for a healing of our disunity, not the disunity simply between Protestant and Catholic, but the disunity in our midst between classes, between races, between nations. We should be asking our Heavenly creator to make us a new people joined together in one mighty prayer that the world may be saved from its divisions.
Could it be that we need another world church reformation?...A reformation that allows our rather insular and stand-pat churches to catch up with a society that has constantly changed from generation to generation over the course of the last four centuries.