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Recounting the Reformation

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Recounting the Reformation


If we are going to look at the sixteenth century protestant reformation from an accurate and honest perspective, it is pertinent to realize that not everything that happened on the protestant side of the reformation movements was positive and productive as most Protestants have been traditional taught. We must also realize that the Roman Catholic Church was not the corrupt religious institution that many medieval historians have made it out to be. Like every situation of dissention and change, there are generally pluses and minuses on both sides that eventually brought about a much need change for both groups.

As we journey through this course we will find that there was corruption and character on both sides of the scenario. Learning about these and coming to a greater appreciation for the actual reality of this era will help us understand and appreciate both the need for certain reforms and the consistency of the Roman Catholic Church under fire.     




When examining the reformation it is always good to understand the social and cultural issues that existed and may in some way have contributed to the protestant reformation. One way to do that is to look closely at the social and cultural terrain.

During the Black Plague which took place from 1347-1350 AD, nearly 25 million of the existing 85 million people in Europe died. It took over 150 years to rebuild the population back to its original numbers. Largest city in Europe was Paris which was approximately one hundred and fifty thousand people. There were only ten cities in the Holy Roman Empire whose population exceeded 20 thousand people.

These cities had no running water, no public sewage and sanitary systems and no law enforcement agencies. It is estimated that nearly 20% of the population was homeless and or unemployed in any village town or major city in Europe.

The mortality rate in children under one year was 35%. Another 20% of the children died before reaching age 10[1]. This meant that nearly 50% of the population never lived past their 10th birthday. This was because of the obvious lack of medical care and the overwhelming public health issues that constantly plagued the people.

Economically speaking, 10% of the population controlled 65-70% of the total wealth. The people lived in an hierarchical system that rarely if ever allowed for change in its ranks. This hierarchy system was often structured from the top down like this; Kings and Rulers; Nobility (many of which were landowners or heirs of landowners); Merchants (operating mainly in cities and towns); Lawyers, university professors, clergy and civil servants; Artisans (various craftsmen that existed in trade unions and guilds); Domestic servants and other low wage earners; Peasants (which could account for anywhere from 65-90% of the population, depending on where you were).


[1] Gregory, Brad S. The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era (Chantilly, VA, Teaching Company,2001) 9




The Protestant Reformation spawned by Martin Luther in 1517 was actually not the first viable reformation attempt within the Roman Catholic Church. Since the death of St. Augustine in 430 AD there had been several reformations attempted and completed. These reforming actions were generally accomplished by the Popes or even the bishops of the Church in a more local community.  

The reformation challenged the social, religious and the traditional setting of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church had flourished relationally and financially during the period prior to the reformation that we often refer to as the European Renaissance (1300 – 1517 AD). During the Renaissance people had contributed cheerfully to both the infrastructure of the church and to the priesthood. The laity took pride in their local churches, often paying for the decorations of the elaborate church altars, and often purchasing side altars in the name of their families to make a dominant representation not only in the community, but also in the actual setting of worship. 

However, the Roman Church was very diverse in its applications, and representations. There were many variations in worship, local traditions and even in its various relationships with Papal authority in Rome. During the Renaissance the traditions of the Church often were the primary source for interpreting the Scriptures. This would be one of the main catalyst for change by the reformers during the Reformation. The Scriptures themselves would be used to interpret the traditions of the Church by those protesting the church. The reformation never rejected “tradition” completely, but it made the Bible the norm by which traditions could be interpreted.

Underneath the surface of the pseudo-contentedness of the Roman Church, there were two foundational criticisms that were generally discussed amongst the laity (non-religious) of the church. There was basically no other options when it came to church preference or religious life for the vast majority of the European population, so it was only a matter of time until an attitude of discontent would boil over in some form of desired adjustment or reform.

One of the major criticisms that came out of the laity was that of the moral behavior in the Catholic priesthood, including the bishops and the various religious orders and their leaders. Often times the priests and bishops would have a concubine living with them somewhat out of sight. Since they were supposed to be celebant this gave them the appearance of “living in sin”. In some communities it was overlooked, but in the vast majority of parishes it was often severely frowned on by the laity.

Many of the monks and nuns residing in the local monasteries were considered to be lazy, irresponsible simply living off of the supportive donations of the laity, and not accomplishing the necessary responsibilities thought to be pertinent to their obligations in spiritual growth and life in the Church. Some contemplative orders were especially criticized because of the very nature of their existence. These contemplative groups live most of their lives sequestered in the monastery or convent, dedicated to meditation and prayer.              

The laity also issued a typical criticism of the sacramental system. The early dissenters and reformers (William Tyndale and Jan Hus) of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had sown the seeds of such thinking regarding the practicality of a two-sacramental system (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as more Biblically enforceable then were the typically accepted seven sacraments.  

There was also the doctrinal issue of sin, and its relationship to eternal life and destiny. There were three basic ways in which the mortal soul experienced the transition into eternity. To die “in grace” meant the baptized Christian go directly to heaven. To be “in grace” meant that one was in a state of complete repentance and right relationship with God through Christ.

If a person would die harboring unconfessed mortal sin, a sin which requires the sinner to cognitively choose to reject the Biblical moral laws of the Bible, they would go directly to hell, without entering purgatory first. If a person would die in venial sin, a more personal and attitudinally focused unconfessed wrong, they would go to purgatory, where their sins would be purged from them so as to make them enter eternal bliss in heaven with God. Since the doctrine of purgatory cannot be articulately discerned from Scripture, it caused the people of the Church rely solely on the Church’s tradition to sustain this doctrinal.  

Another irritant that contributed to the Protestant Reformation was that of the selling of indulgences. This is probably the most notable cause rendered for the initiation of the Reformation of the 16th century. Indulgences were sold and often given to those who produced monetary offerings and/or good works for the benefit of the Roman Church. When this was done, an official certificate of sorts was issued to the recipient, which in some measure and to effect gave them “time off for good behavior” in purgatory.

Indulgences were not new to the Renaissance. Many of the crusades were initiated by the issuance of indulgences to the military participants. Others who gave of their resources, talents and skills in the building of the massive cathedrals and churches across Europe for several centuries received indulgences as partial or complete compensation for their contribution.

Indulgences were not sold in the marketplace like a loaf of bread, as commonly taught by many contemporary fundamentalist evangelical Protestants. They were often petitioned for by the desiring laity, and sometimes the Church refused to issue them. Were there abuses when it came to the selling of indulgences. No doubt there definitely were abuses throughout the Holy Roman Empire. But, what we must realize is that the problem was not the central issue or the massive syndrome that it has been made out to be over the last five hundred years.          

Finally the last major issue was that of Canon (Church) Law. These are the traditions by which the church ruled and ordered the society it was directly connected to. The Roman Church was deeply engrained in local and regional politics, both monetarily and governmentally since the crowning of King Charlemagne as King of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day of the year 800 AD by Pope Leo II. The issues that entangled “Church and State” were complex and deep and often pulled on each other for support and power. These were the concerns that were first and foremost on the minds of concerned parishioners throughout the European continent and the British Isles.         

But one of the most vital catalyst’s for the initiation came from the hand of a Christian humanist/philosopher named Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus translated the Vulgate Latin Bible back into Greek for scholarly use. It became the tool that Martin Luther, William Tyndale and Thomas Bilney all used to draw their theological and ecclesiastical interpretations of Scripture from. It has been said that Erasmus laid the egg of reformation by translating the New Testament into Greek for scholastic use.[1] Luther hatched it by using the Erasmus text to define his 95 Theses in 1517.

Luther’s act of nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany was not an act of rebellion, but a simple invitation for scholarly and theological debate that had been done by many others, many times before over various issues that needed to be addressed. Luther’s timing and content    


[1] Connolly,Ken The Indestructible Book (Bridgestone Multimedia) DVD

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