Protestant Reformation

From Academic Kids

The Protestant Reformation was a movement which emerged in the 16th century as a series of attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe. The main front of the reformation was started by Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. The reformation ended in division and the establishment of new institutions, most importantly Lutheranism, Reformed churches, and Anabaptists. It also led to the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church.


Roots of the Reformation

Reformation begins

Underlying Demographic and Economic Factors

Historical upheaval usually yields a lot of new thinking as to how society should be organized. This was the case leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Following the breakdown of monastic institutions and scholasticism in late medieval Europe, accentuated by the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Avignon Papacy, the Great Schism, and the failure of conciliar reform, the sixteenth century saw the fermenting of a great cultural debate about religious reforms and later fundamental religious values. Historians would generally assume that the failure to reform (too many vested interests, lack of coordination in the reforming coalition) would eventually lead to a greater upheaval or even revolution, since the system must eventually be adjusted or disintegrate, and the failure of the Conciliar movement led to the Protestant Reformation in the European West. These frustrated reformist movements ranged from nominalism, modern devotion, to humanism occurring in conjunction with economic, political and demographic forces that contributed to a growing disaffection with the wealth and power of the elite clergy, sensitizing the population to the financial and moral corruption of the secular Renaissance church.

The outcome of the Black Death encouraged a radical reorganization of the economy and eventually European society. In the emerging urban centers, however, the calamities of the fourteenth and early fifteenth century, and the resultant labor shortages, provided a strong impetus for economic diversification and technological innovations. Following the Black Death, the initial loss of life due to famine, plague, and pestilence, contributed to an intensification of capital accumulation in the urban areas, and thus a stimulus to trade, industry, and burgeoning urban growth in fields as diverse as banking (the Fugger banking family in Augsburg being the most prominent), textiles, armaments, especially stimulated by the Hundred Years War, and mining of iron ore due, in large part, to the booming armaments industry. Accumulation of surplus, competitive overproduction, and heightened competition to maximize economic advantage, contributed to civil war, aggressive militarism, and thus centralization. As a direct result of the move toward centralization, leaders like Louis XI of France (1461-1483), the “spider king,” sought to remove all constitutional restrictions on the exercise of their authority. In England, France, and Spain the move toward centralization begun in the thirteenth century was carried to a successful conclusion.

But as recovery and prosperity progressed, enabling the population to reach its former levels in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the combination of both a newly abundant labor supply as well as improved productivity, were mixed blessings for many segments of Western European society. Despite tradition, landlords started the move to exclude peasants from common lands. With trade stimulated, landowners increasingly moved away from the manorial economy. Woolen manufacturing greatly expanded in France, Germany, and the Netherlands and new textile industries began to develop.

Humanism to Protestantism

The frustrated reformism of the humanists, ushered in by the Renaissance, contributed to a growing impatience among reformers. Erasmus and later figures like Luther and Zwingli would emerge from this debate and eventually contribute to the second major schism of Christendom. Unfortunately for the church, the crisis of theology beginning with William of Ockham in the fourteenth century was occurring in conjunction with the new burgher discontent. Since the breakdown of the philosophical foundations of scholasticism, the new nominalism did not bode well for an institutional church legitimized as an intermediary between man and God. New thinking favored the notion that no religious doctrine can be supported by philosophical arguments, eroding the old alliance between reason and faith of the medieval period laid out by Thomas Aquinas.

The major individualistic reform movements that revolted against medieval scholasticism and the institutions that underpinned it were: humanism, devotionalism, and the observatine tradition. In Germany, “the modern way” or devotionalism caught on in the universities, requiring a redefinition of God, who was no longer a rational governing principle but an arbitrary, unknowable will that cannot be limited. God was now an unknowable absolute ruler, and religion would be more fervent and emotional. Thus, the ensuing revival of Augustinian theology, stating that man cannot be saved by his own efforts but only by the grace of God, would erode the legitimacy of the rigid institutions of the church meant to provide a channel for man to do good works and get into heaven. Humanism, however, was more of an educational reform movement with origins in the Renaissance's revival of classical learning and thought. A revolt against Aristotelian logic, it placed great emphasis on reforming individuals through eloquence as opposed to reason. The European Renaissance laid the foundation for the Northern humanists in its reinforcement of the traditional use of Latin as the great unifying cultural language.

The polarization of the scholarly community in Germany over the Reuchlin (1455-1522) affair, attacked by the elite clergy for his study of Hebrew and Jewish texts, brought Luther fully in line with the humanist educational reforms who favored academic freedom. At the same time, the impact of the Renaissance would soon backfire against Southern Europe, also ushering in an age of reform and a repudiation of much of medieval Latin tradition. Led by Erasmus, the humanists condemned various forms of corruption within the Church, forms of corruption that might not have been any more prevalent than during the medieval zenith of the church. Erasmus held that true religion was a matter of inward devotion rather than an outward symbol of ceremony and ritual. Going back to ancient texts, scriptures, from this viewpoint the greatest culmination of the ancient tradition, are the guides to life. Favoring moral reforms and de-emphasizing didactic ritual, Erasmus laid the groundwork for Luther.

Humanism's intellectual anticlericalism would profoundly influence Luther. The increasingly well-educated middle sectors of Northern Germany, namely the educated community and city dwellers, would turn to Luther's rethinking of religion to conceptualize their discontent according to the cultural medium of the era. The great rise of the burghers, the desire to run their new businesses free of institutional barriers or outmoded cultural practices, contributed to the appeal of humanist individualism. To many, papal institutions were rigid, especially regarding their views on just price and usury. In the North burghers and monarchs were united in their frustration for not paying any taxes to the nation, but collecting taxes from subjects and sending the revenues disproportionately to the Pope in Italy.

These trends heightened demands for significant reform and revitalization along with anticlericalism. New thinkers began noticing the divide between the priests and the flock. The clergy, for instance, were not always well-educated. Parish priests often did not know Latin and rural parishes often did not have great opportunities for theological education for many at the time. Due to its large landholdings and institutional rigidity, a rigidity to which the excessively large ranks of the clergy contributed, many bishops studied law, not theology, being relegated to the role of property managers trained in administration. While priests emphasized works of religiosity, the respectability of the church began diminishing, especially among well educated urbanites, and especially considering the recent strings of political humiliation, such as the apprehension of Pope Boniface VIII by Philip IV of France, the “Babylonian Captivity,” the Great Schism, and the failure of Conciliar reformism. In a sense, the campaign by Pope Leo X to raise funds to rebuild the St. Peter's Basilica was too much of an excess by the secular Renaissance church, prompting the high-pressure sale of indulgences that rendered the clerical establishments even more disliked in the cities.

Luther, taking the revival of the Augustinian notion of salvation by faith alone to new levels, borrowed from the humanists the sense of individualism, that each man can be his own priest (an attitude likely to find popular support considering the rapid rise of an educated urban middle class in the North), and that the only true authority is the Bible, echoing the reformist zeal of the Conciliar movement and opening up the debate once again on limiting the authority of the Pope. While his ideas called for the sharp redefinition of the dividing lines between the laity and the clergy, his ideas were still, by this point, reformist in nature. Luther's contention that the human will was incapable of following good, however, resulted in his rift with Erasmus finally distinguishing Lutheran reformism from humanism.

Religious Influences for the Reformation

While there were some parallels between certain movements within humanism and teachings later common among the Reformers, the main influence was the Bible itself