The Origins of the Protestant Reformation

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder portraying the pope selling indulgences, circa 1521

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder portraying the pope selling indulgences, circa 1521

Can you recall the first time you learned about the Protestant Reformation? In all likelihood, you were told a story somewhat like this. On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the door of a church that stated his complaints with Roman Catholicism. This began the splitting of Western Christianity into two primary groups: Catholics and Protestants. Regardless of where you grew up and what form of religion your family practiced, the issue was almost certainly presented in this manner.

Most people today will never progress beyond that extremely limited and largely misleading version of events, nor will they come to realize the vast ways in which their own lives have been affected by the Reformation. Nearly 500 years later, if we are to truly understand what happened on that October day, we must go back in time and consider the events leading up to that period.

There was but one form of Christianity that dominated on the continent of Europe, and that was what we now call Roman Catholicism. I say we now call it that, because at the time, most people would have simply called it “Christianity”. The only major competition, if you could call it that, for the church in Rome was the Orthodox version of Christianity embraced by the churches of the East. A divide back in the 11th century had created these two divergent branches of the Christian faith, but due to the invasions of armies that embraced the Islamic faith, the traditional homeland of Christianity to the east of the Mediterranean had long since been overwhelmed. Orthodoxy thus received a smaller share of the Christian pie, and this has continued to shrink with time, until Eastern Orthodoxy (as it is properly known) constitutes the smallest of the three modern branches of Christianity in terms of membership.

Whereas the churches of the East had to contend with a long line of Muslim empires, those in the West were simply attempting to recover from the fall of the Roman Empire. The collapse of that empire was, in this author’s opinion, the greatest geopolitical disaster to strike Europe prior to the Black Death in the 14th century. (More on that in a moment…) Under the political stability of the Pax Romana, European culture and technology had flourished. The breaking of the empire into a host of smaller states that were constantly subject to invasion forced people to focus first and foremost on survival. Industry, agriculture, medicine, literature, law, architecture, and even religion were set back by centuries. Consider that the Romans had something close to modern plumbing, a vast network of highways, widespread literature in a common language, a legal system that has been copied down to the present day, the greatest fighting force the world had ever known, and rather modern concepts of citizenship and civic participation. These would all disappear and not return in anything close to the same form for a millennium.

Ruins of the ancient Forum in Rome, Italy (Author photo)

Ruins of the ancient Forum in Rome, Italy (Author photo)

In the midst of this void, the Church was the largest and most universally respected organization. It provided a model for organizing society, which was sorely needed in that political vacuum. It also provided the best form of education available until the start of modern universities in the 12th century. Indeed, outside of the Church and the noblest of the nobility, literacy was almost nonexistent. If you could not hire a private tutor, which for most families was cost prohibitive, your only chance of a formal education was the Church. The morality promoted by the Church was also greatly appreciated in an era when you never knew who might ride over the hill to seize your kingdom, pillage your property, or rape your wife. Perhaps this is a bit overdramatic, but without powerful standing armies or even kings to defend one’s land, much of Europe was composed of smaller fiefdoms, with petty lords constantly at one another’s throats. It is easy to see how an average person might conclude that all around them was darkness, while the Church was the light.

Not only did the Church hold Europe together politically and socially, but it provided hope of a better life after death. In an age when life expectancy was rather terrible (another area in which Europe had moved backwards from the Roman Empire), talk of heaven must have been particularly appealing. The Church was the only organization that, through its vast network of bishoprics and monasteries, had representation in every kingdom, was able to get its message out to all, and had a weekly or even daily impact on the lives of individuals. It was richer and more powerful than anything else. It was, in effect, the only game in town.

Illustration of Charlemagne (standing, crowned) and his son Louis the Pious from the Grandes Chroniques de France, circa 14th/15th century

Illustration of Charlemagne (standing, crowned) and his son Louis the Pious from the Grandes Chroniques de France, circa 14th/15th century

This started to change with the establishment of stronger secular governments and larger kingdoms. One figure in particular was responsible for this shift: Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne. He created the largest kingdom since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. (The Eastern Roman Empire was still in operation, though rebranded as the Byzantine Empire. The fact that the empire never fell in the East may help explain the different role that the Roman church acquired in Western society.) The pope crowned him as the successor of the Roman emperors of old, and his kingdom was known as the Holy Roman Empire.

Soon, a handful of powerful kingdoms came to the fore. In addition to the Holy Roman Empire, which came to occupy much of modern Germany and some surrounding regions, the Kingdom of France grew in strength, as did the new Norman regime governing England. The Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors allowed the precursors of Spain to flourish. And in Italy itself, home to the Pope, powerful merchants began to long for independence.

The other revolution that took place was in learning. The ancient Greeks and Romans had left behind a wealth of literature concerning a vast array of subjects. These began to be rediscovered and translated, and the effect was nothing less than revolutionary. For centuries, Europeans had gazed upon the ruins that the Romans left behind, aware that their own societies could not measure up to the greatness that went before them. Now they had a chance to rediscover what had made their predecessors so successful. Cathedral schools had been around for some time, but starting in the 12th century, universities began providing something closer to a secular education, though still thoroughly Christian. The works of the Greeks and Romans were treated with almost as much reverence as scripture itself.

Scholars in a medieval school, as drawn by Laurentius de Voltolina in the latter 14th century.

Scholars in a medieval school, as drawn by Laurentius de Voltolina in the latter 14th century.

Here I must note that there was always a diversity of opinion within Christendom regarding spiritual matters. Even in the New Testament writings, we see that church members were in disagreement with one another. Such differences of opinion were no less present in the writings of the Church Fathers and continued on throughout the Middle Ages. From time to time, the Church called together councils to settle matters of theological dispute, but despite the unity that these gatherings enforced, the fact remains that they would not have been called in the first place if there was not some disagreement among Christians. In the waning days of the Western Roman Empire and into the beginning of the Middle Ages, there were entire kingdoms that subscribed to a version of Christianity known as Arianism, which was in fact not orthodox Christianity at all. (That would be orthodox with a small “o”.) These were confronted, yes, but not typically using means of violence. The more widespread crackdown on heresy and the like occurred with the persecutions of, for instance, the Cathars and Waldensians of medieval France and the conversos who were subject to the Spanish Inquisition.

Why did heretical or non-orthodox views begin to be persecuted more severely? I suppose the simplest answer – indeed, an overly simple one – is that the Roman church was feeling for the first time that it had some serious competition in Europe. The previously mentioned rise of powerful secular kingdoms meant that the Church was no longer the only game in town from a political standpoint. Kings and emperors naturally desired to oversee their own affairs and make the laws for their own subjects without interference from the Church, even though they were for the most part loyal Christians. Yet, even kings tended to treat diversity of opinion with disdain, believing it to be a kind of social cancer that would undermine authority. It was left to the state to execute or banish convicted heretics, and in most cases, the state was more than willing to do so.

The greatest test of this church/state relationship prior to the Reformation came during the Investiture Controversy of the 11th and 12th centuries. Though on paper it was a debate over who had the right to ordain bishops, it was in reality a power struggle between the rulers of three kingdoms – England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire – and the papacy. In this dispute, Rome won for the most part, maintaining much of its authority. This period also gave rise to the Gregorian Reforms and a general move to codify and enforce the dictates of the Church. Although it had been widely practiced up to that point, clerical celibacy was officially enforced, simony (the purchasing of spiritual offices) was forbidden, and a renewed emphasis on monasticism took place with the founding of several new orders. Rome’s actual power was less than it had been, but what power it did have, it reasserted with all the strength it could muster, determined to fight the rising tide brought on by the beginnings of the Renaissance.

The Danse Macabre ("Dance of Death") illustrated by Michael Wolgmut, circa 1493

The Danse Macabre (“Dance of Death”) illustrated by Michael Wolgmut, circa 1493

Then the second great geopolitical disaster in recorded European history occurred. Waves of bubonic plague swept through Europe from Asia, and it is estimated that as much as half of the population perished. Society once again went into survival mode. When a person sees death all around them, they are bound to contemplate their own mortality, and this surely drove more than a few people back into the arms of the Church. It also colored European Christian thinking, and the already present doctrines concerning Purgatory, the granting of special papal indulgences affecting the afterlife, and the saying of Masses for the dead would have seemed more important than ever.

It is around this period of history that Dante Aligheri produced his Divine Comedy, the most famous portion being the Inferno, which takes the reader on a tour of Hell as it was conceived at that time. Dante’s Hell was not only undeniably Catholic, but also heavily influenced by Greek and Roman pagan mythology. The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, written slightly earlier, is also heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, a testament to how much the rediscovery of these writings had affected all aspects of medieval life.

The prevailing educational school of thought in the Early Renaissance was known as Scholasticism. It was built on the ancient concepts of rhetoric, dialectic, the Socratic method, etc. It permeated medieval universities and defined life for many. Once the Black Death was a thing of the past and the Renaissance was able to flourish, a new method of learning known as Humanism grew in strength. (Note that this is different from modern Secular Humanism.) Humanists were also very interested in the ancient Greeks and Romans, but they doubted much of what they had received from the Middle Ages. They devoted their time to the translation of ancient texts for the modern reader, eschewed obscure theological debates in favor of a more practical social ethic, and were firm believers in the power of human progress.

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1523

Portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1523

The greatest of the Humanists was Erasmus of Rotterdam, also known as Desiderius Erasmus. He devoted much of his life to composing a collection of Latin sayings, translating ancient texts, and writing works of satire aimed at exposing the corruption within the Church. He was less a theologian and more what we might now call a “public intellectual”, his works influencing Christians throughout Europe. Even those who did not always agree with him respected his gift. He was the cleverest of the clever, but even he could not have foreseen how his actions would change the world.

I have mentioned the Humanist emphasis on translation and ancient languages. For a thousand years, the Western church had been using Saint Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate. By the standards of modern translation, it was highly flawed, but considering that most parishioners did not understand Latin anyway, the effect was not felt by the average Christian. Yet, Erasmus was not average, and he chose to apply his considerable skills to the most important and influential work of literature in history: the Bible.

He gained access to the best ancient Greek manuscripts available and compiled a Greek New Testament. He also created a new Latin translation with several improvements over the old one, and the two were released in a single volume with the languages side-by-side. Here we must note that Erasmus did not see this action as a violation of Church authority or a condemnation of Catholic doctrine. Reproducing the original Greek text could hardly be condemned, being the very words of God. The renewed Latin was more controversial, particularly when a few of Erasmus’ divergences from the Vulgate proved to be theologically significant, but his goal was only ever to increase scholarship and reinforce the Church’s message, not overthrow it.

The opening page of John Wycliffe's translation of the Gospel of John. Beginning with the large "I", the text reads, "In the beginning was the word and the word was at God / and God was the word..."

The opening page of John Wycliffe’s translation of the Gospel of John. Beginning with the large “I”, the text reads, “In the beginning was the word and the word was at God / and God was the word…”

But what of vernacular translations – that is, translations into the languages spoken by the common people of each land? This proved to be a much more thorny issue and was in the end a real winner for the Protestants. How could the Catholic Church oppose people being able to read the words of sacred scripture and understand them? Here it is important to stress that the Church did not always oppose vernacular translations, at least not to the degree that it did beginning in the late Middle Ages. When the vast majority of people could not read anyway, there would be little use for a vernacular translation: the scripture would still have to be read to them by the learned people of the Church. Thus, early attempts at vernacular translations were largely curiosity pieces enjoyed by academics.

What changed, of course, was the rise in education. More people were able to read and write, and while most were still illiterate, they might perchance know someone who could help them. There was a rising middle class of merchants and tradesmen, a greater number of cosmopolitan cities, and a general uptick in social mobility. True, it was nowhere near the degree of mobility we enjoy today, but it was greater than it used to be. These people were perhaps more likely to read English, German, or French than scholarly Latin. Thus, there was a heightened demand for translations.

However, it did not take long for the movement toward vernacular translations to be interpreted as subversive. This was because many of the people most interested in new translations were those who doubted the old Vulgate translation that had been used for centuries, and to doubt the Vulgate was in essence to doubt Church teaching. Early translators of the Bible into common tongues, such as the Englishman John Wycliffe, were also known supporters of doctrines that would become associated with Protestantism. For this reason, Wycliffe is often known as the “Morning Star of the Reformation”. His translation was banned and his compatriots, the Lollards, were persecuted. Yet, the Lollards did not die out completely, and there were pockets of them throughout England up to the time when Martin Luther came along.

The burning of Jan Hus as depicted in the Spiezer Chronicle, circa 1485

The burning of Jan Hus as depicted in the Spiezer Chronicle, circa 1485

Another person who is usually viewed as a precursor to the Protestant Reformation is Jan Hus. He was from the Kingdom of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic (that is, until the Czech Republic changes its name). The doctrines Hus advocated would not be considered quite so extreme today, but at a time when there was only one Church and one official doctrine, he was viewed as dangerous. From 1414-1418, the Church held the Council of Constance, the main purpose of which was to address a schism that had been going on for some time. However, the council today is best known for calling Jan Hus to explain his views under a promise of safe passage, then proceeding to condemn and execute him by burning. (Burning became the preferred method for dealing with heretics, as it carried notions of purification and would have been doubly concerning to those who believed their body needed to be in one piece in order to be properly resurrected.)

So as we have seen, the seeds of the Reformation had been planted well before Martin Luther came on the scene. Even so, there is no denying that Luther’s actions in 1517 were a watershed moment. Luther had been sent to work as a professor at the new University of Wittenberg, the brainchild of Elector Frederick of Saxony, one of the most powerful men in the Holy Roman Empire. As it so happens, Saxony had often been a source of rebellion within the empire, but not necessarily theological rebellion. The true power in Germany lay to the west, in the ancient towns upon the Rhine River. The real oddity of the Holy Roman Empire was that it had an elected emperor who wasn’t necessarily German at all. In 1517, the emperor was Charles V, the king of Spain. This did nothing to suppress the desires of some Germans for a more fundamentally German nation, free from the influence of foreign kings and foreign popes.

Thus, we have already seen the first two reasons why Luther was able to succeed: he was part of a new university that in its desire to establish an international reputation was willing to tolerate more cutting edge thinking, and he lived in a nation (if one could indeed call it that, for there was little sense of national consciousness) that was ready to assert itself on the world stage. Then there were the translations of the Humanists, particularly the Bible produced by Erasmus, which would serve as the foundation for many vernacular translations. As it turned out, this intense studying of the Humanists pushed some of them, such as Luther’s eventual right-hand man Philip Melanchthon, into a new mode of thinking when it came to theology. Luther was not himself a Humanist, but he was certainly influenced by their efforts. The main difference in Luther’s case was that he had an absolute despair about human ability before God.

Posthumous portrait of Luther as an Augustinian monk by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Posthumous portrait of Luther as an Augustinian monk by Lucas Cranach the Elder

In his years as a monk, Luther was perpetually tortured by the knowledge of his own sinfulness. He would go to confession again and again, engage in self-flagellation and other painful activities, and work himself to the bone in an attempt to make himself righteous, yet he never experienced relief. It was only when he was sent to Wittenberg and began teaching that his study of the scriptures led him to a new understanding of how man is justified before his Creator. He famously seized on Saint Paul’s quotation of an Old Testament passage saying, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17, NASB)

It is worth noting that this discovery of Luther’s did not provoke him to immediately break with the established Church. Indeed, he believed for some time that the gospel message found in scripture was in line with the doctrine proclaimed from Rome. That is to say, he continued to say Mass, obey his monastic vows, and set great store by the sacraments. He was a much happier man, having placed his trust in God’s grace rather than his own ability, but were it not for the events taking place around him, it is just conceivable that he might have lived out his life quietly in Wittenberg…at least, as quiet as he was ever capable of being, for Luther was never the type to hold back from something.

The event that did trigger Luther’s foray into the public sphere was the selling of indulgences in parts of the empire to fund the construction of a new Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This would be the very church that now sits in the Vatican – the largest church on earth that serves as a testament to the unity of the one true Church. How ironic then that it was the construction of this building that brought about the division of the Church! The indulgences were simply pieces of paper that carried a papal blessing: a promise that whoever purchased them would be delivered from a certain amount of time in Purgatory. The Church’s doctrine regarding indulgences was perhaps not well codified, but what particularly offended Luther were the corrupt methods being employed by those who sold indulgences and the outlandish claims that they made.

An picture from the Jensky Kodex depicting the devil selling indulgences, circa ~1500. This was produced in the homeland of Hus, who had criticized indulgences before Luther.

An picture from the Jensky Kodex depicting the devil selling indulgences, circa ~1500. This was produced in the homeland of Hus, who had criticized indulgences before Luther.

Luther decided to call together a debate at the university. The standard method of announcing such a debate was to post a list of the points one intended to argue. This he did, evidently nailing it to the door of the castle church, which would have served as a bulletin board of sorts for the community. The 95 Theses, as they came to be known, were written in Latin. They were not intended to be read by the common peasant, but rather by Luther’s university colleagues…so naturally someone translated them, had them printed, and distributed them far and wide. It was an overnight sensation.

But once again, I must ask, why was this the thing that caught fire? If you read the 95 Theses, you will see that Luther never questions the authority of the pope and believes him to be a true steward of the gospel. He criticizes the practices of those selling indulgences, mostly on the grounds that they are causing people to believe that there is no need for repentance and that they can simply buy their way out of punishment. Even today, this would not be particularly good Catholic doctrine – at least not as laid out in their own literature. Yet, the Church authorities were in no mood for a debate over indulgences. They saw only a troublesome monk rebelling against his superiors.

Over the next few years, Luther would debate with Church scholars and produce his own writings. He clarified his thinking on justification by faith, the authority of scripture over bishops and councils, and the need for a “theology of the cross” rather than a “theology of glory”. He met with resistance at every turn, but there were also many who flocked to his teachings, and in Wittenberg he was an academic superstar. Yet, others before Luther had raised some of the same points and irked Church authorities just as much. The odds that Luther’s movement would survive were not good when he was called to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor in the cathedral town of Worms in the years 1521. It was only a century since Jan Hus had been called to a similar meeting and did not escape with his life.

At Worms, Luther stood by his writings (after one day’s hesitation) and demanded that if the Church was to brand him a heretic, they must prove it from scripture. By this point, Luther had already been targeted by a papal bull excommunicating him. His image of the papacy as an institution chiefly concerned with the gospel had been shattered. He had made the intellectual journey to the point where he was ready to break from the established Roman Church. He may or may not have declared, “Here I stand. I can do no other,” and with that the proceedings were essentially brought to a close, with Luther having renounced none of his allegedly heretical works.

Portrait of a somewhat unhappy looking Martin Luther by his good friend, Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1528

Portrait of a somewhat unhappy looking Martin Luther by his good friend, Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1528

This was the point at which the emperor and the Church authorities might have moved to have Luther executed, as he had already been declared a heretic. Yet, Luther had been given a promise of safe conduct, and between that and the mysterious workings of a local political group known as the Bundeschuh that set everyone on edge, he was able to depart the town. Riding back to Wittenberg, Luther must have known that he was likely to be killed on the way. As it so happened, he was “kidnapped” by men working for Elector Frederick of Saxony, who whisked him into hiding before anyone else could get to him. Thus, Luther survived, and the Reformation began to be implemented in Wittenberg and beyond. After this period of hiding, in which Luther worked to translate the Bible into German, he eventually emerged to lead the growing movement in Saxony and beyond.

On many occasions, the Church hoped to arrest and execute Luther. Yet, Elector Frederick continually found ways to delay, obfuscate, and generally prevent such an action. He never forsook Rome, but he did little to prevent the Reformation. He was a consummate politician who seemed to work according to the theory “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. How much of a true evangelical he was in his heart, we cannot say, but Elector Frederick’s protection of Luther and his followers provided a safe space in which Protestant ideology could take root. This was the major difference that allowed Luther to succeed where others had failed: he had the support of a powerful political figure. For a variety of practical reasons, the Holy Roman Emperor did not seek to confront Elector Frederick or take an army into Saxony. Perhaps he underestimated the importance of the movement and thought it would die out naturally. Perhaps he was more worried about invading Turks or other political concerns.

Soon, Christians in the Swiss Confederation started their own Reformation, and within a few decades, practically all of northern Europe was Protestant. The death of Luther in 1546 led to a crackdown in Germany, but by that time King Henry VIII of England had broken with Rome and there was reason to believe that even France might go the way of reform. Also by that time, divisions within Protestantism had emerged between four main groups: Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, and Anabaptists.

Map showing Protestantism (in blue) at its greatest extent, along with Catholicism (dark gray) and Islam (red), by Wikipedia user PHGCOM

Map showing Protestantism (in blue) at its greatest extent, along with Catholicism (dark gray) and Islam (red), by Wikipedia user PHGCOM

One of the other great ironies of the Protestant Reformation was that it led the Catholic Church to implement a series of reforms that, had they been in place a century or two prior, might have helped to head off some of the rebellion. But as they say, the cat was already out of the bag, and in the end the Catholic Church would never be able to meet the Protestants on the one issue that mattered most: that of justification. I think it is fair to say that Protestantism made Catholicism better. They codified doctrines, rooted out corruption, experienced an awakening of missionary activity under the Jesuits, and generally created a greater sense of self. The Catholic Church today would not be what it is without Protestantism.

When they reached a political impasse in Europe, both groups looked to the New World to expand their reach. The Catholics evangelized all of Central and South America, while the colder lands to the north were settled mostly by Protestants, with the French immigrants to Canada being an important exception. The Protestant Reformation led to the creation of new national identities, a move toward greater individual rights, an expansion of education and literacy, and a focus on things like hard work and production that are sometimes called the “Protestant ethic”. The Catholics were correct when they predicted that allowing every person to interpret scripture on their own would lead to an endless splintering of the Church. Yet, given the advances that had begun with the Renaissance and continued on through the Enlightenment down to the present age, this change was destined to happen. Indeed, it may have happened even sooner were it not for the Black Death, which caused the Renaissance to stall a bit before making a recovery.

To sum up, Martin Luther was an essential figure in the Reformation, but he was not the first man to trumpet such ideas. His success was largely based on political conditions at the time. Men like Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin, who wrote great works of systematic theology that expressed Protestant doctrine, have had as much of a lasting effect upon the Church today as Luther did, in this author’s opinion. The coming centuries would bring forth a long line of men and even a few women who impacted the direction of Western Christianity. Therefore, we must conclude that it is the great forces of history – you might even say the hand of God – that decide when and where movements begin and end.