Reformation is a term used to describe changes in the Christian Church in the 14th to 17th century usually focusing on the 16th century. These changes began as protests against the Roman Catholic Church. Among the things being protested were:
- The church was levying massive taxes on the people
- the church had begun to involve itself in politics
- the church was selling indulgences which meant paying for forgiveness of sins
- The rigid hierarchy of the Church
- Some of the doctrines of the Church, including
- The church was teaching salvation by works.
- Priests were required to be celibate
- Monastic vows
We usually think of Martin Luther as the name associated with the Reformation, but he was not the first. The Lollards and the Hutterites had protested against the church in the early 1400s. Even before that, John Wycliffe (c. 1330–1384) protested against the papacy in England. Around the same time the power and the riches of the church were beginning to be criticized. In both England and France, the monarchies began to challenge the power from the national churches. Some of the events during this period included the English statutes of Provisors and Praemunire and the French Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (1438), efforts of those monarchies to exert their own influence over their national Churches; and the disruptions of the ‘Babylonish Captivity’ at Avignon and the Great Schism. After these disruptions, the Popes regained sufficient authority to ride out these storms, though the final collapse of the Council of Basle in 1449 left critics dissatisfied with aspects of the Papal monarchy, revealing cracks in the supreme authority of the Catholic Church, and laying the found work for what was to come.
All of this led up to the appearance of Martin Luther. As a beginning theology student, Luther learned the prevailing orthodoxy, and some of his early lectures as a professor show he believed it.
His teachers, following the Bible, taught that God demanded absolute righteousness, as in the passage “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” People needed to love God absolutely and their neighbors as themselves. They should have the unshakable faith of Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son.
Furthermore, when they fell short, people were to repent in a fully and contritely, not for the selfish purpose of saving themselves. When the individual couldn’t be absolutely righteous, the church would step in with the grace of the sacraments.
Luther later remarked, “I was so drunk, nay, submerged in the doctrines of the pope that I could have happily killed (or cooperated with anyone who killed) whoever took but a syllable of obedience away from him.”
Luther, however, was plagued by one problem, and it eventually drove him to challenge the church. Human beings were incapable of the selfless acts and states of mind the Scriptures required. Most distressing to Luther was the perfectly scriptural obligation to be contrite, to repent.
In the late Middle Ages, repentance most commonly occurred in the course of sacramental confession and penance. The sinner confessed, was forgiven, and then performed acts of penitence that completed the process. But Luther knew that in the acts of penitence he was being selfish. He was going through the process out of the intensely human instinct to save his own skin. And because of the human inclination toward sin, one could never confess enough.
This critical issue haunted Luther. He commented later, “If one were to confess his sins in a timely manner, he would have [had] to carry a confessor in his pocket!” As his teachers knew, this fact could lead the Christian to despair (or as it was believed then, the sin against the Holy Spirit). In Luther’s case it often did.
On a hot July 2, 1505, when Luther was a 21-year-old law student, he got caught in a fierce lightning storm. In his fear he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne! I’ll become a monk!” Luther probably called on St. Anne because she was the patron saint for his father’s occupation, mining. In any event, Martin kept his vow and soon entered a strict monastery. this would be the first of several critical moments that formed Martin Luther’s destiny.
The next critical moment in Luther’s life resulted from a decision by his superiors. They, and Staupitz in particular, assigned him and his doctorate to become a professor of the Bible at Wittenberg University. In hindsight, this would turn out to be one of the bigger mistakes in the church history.
Luther began to change his thinking during the years from 1513 to 1519. It was mostly focused on reinterpreting the righteousness of God and then understanding how that ne understanding applied to the central issues in Christian theology.
About late 1513 or early 1514, when he was discussing Psalm 72, he explained to his students, “This is what is called the judgment of God: like the righteousness or strength or wisdom of God, it is that with which we are wise, just, and humble, or by which we are judged.”
This is a remarkable sentence. The last clause is what Luther had been taught; it was the prevailing orthodoxy: God judges by his righteousness. But the preamble—God gives us righteousness—was part of his newer insight, and he would begin teaching it increasingly. In fact, shortly later during that same period, he would flatly reject the prevailing doctrine and assert instead that all the attributes of God— “truth, wisdom, salvation, justice”—were “the things with which he makes us strong, saved, just, wise.”
Other changes would soon follow. Some examples:
- The church was no longer the institution that boasted apostolic succession; instead it was the community of those who had been given faith.
- Salvation came not by the sacraments themselves, but by their role in nurturing faith.
- The idea that human beings had a spark of goodness (enough to seek out God) was not a foundation of theology but was taught only by “fools” and “pig theologians.”
- Humility was no longer a virtue that earned grace but a necessary response to the gift of grace.
- Faith no longer consisted of simply assenting to the church’s teachings but of trusting the promises of God and the merits of Christ.
Luther’s revised teachings were a revolution that contradicted everything he had been taught. This began the chain of events that culminated on October 31,1517. It was then that Luther approached the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed to it a piece of paper containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation. The Church would respond swiftly, but the wheels were in motion. The Reformation had begun.