Preparation for Transformation
This is not the story of just one man. However, it is the history of a time, a transition in the continuing Kingdom of God.
Often, we like to imagine that our hero appears out of nowhere, a silhouette on a golden horizon, riding a great white horse. A hero raised up in the nick of time to save us. But, hero’s don’t just happen; circumstances don’t just happen; and neither do solutions. God purposes both, men and solutions, to intersect at a specific moment in time and accomplish His perfect purpose for that time. This is exactly what happened before, during and after the Reformation. The Reformation was not about Luther, specifically, but the Reformation was about God moving Luther and other men and circumstances to accomplish His purpose to bring His people out of the darkness of the Middle Ages.
The Eve of Reformation
The Protestant Reformation did not just burst into the European or Christian world suddenly. Luther’s idea’s did not appear out of nowhere, nor did they spread with such rapid momentum without the people of his era having been completely primed with the thought that the Church needed to be reformed.The Reformation developed over a long period of religious unrest, dissatisfaction and turbulence. And not only within the Church, but in the secular arena as well. This was a time of transition and not only had there been an awareness of the need, it expressed itself in every area of life, long before the Reformation formally took hold.
A) The Need to Reform
It was not uncommon for the priests of village Churches to be uneducated and not even understand the Latin of the Mass they recited everyday. From the perspective of Rome, this wasn’t a problem, as the Church’s doctrine stated that the sacraments operated entirely on the work of Christ. Therefore, the education of a priest had no influence on the effectiveness of the sacraments as long as it was performed correctly. However, this meant that basic Christian doctrines were not being taught to the people. In fact, by the priests worldly behaviour, their lust for power, wealth and prominence, the exact opposite of what Christ had commanded His disciples to teach, was being taught (Matt. 28:19-20 NIV).
Furthermore, this was not the only lack that plagued the Church. Many of the bishops were little more than political appointments. The nobility, would pay a fee so son, nephew, or grandson could acquire a position as bishop or some other level of clergy. This practice was better known as simony. The problem that followed such appointments was the shameful neglect of the diocese. Truly Jesus said, “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. (John 10:12 NIV)” The fact was the Church was rife with corruption and thus ripe for reform, born in the midst of a real world, with real people experiencing real problems.
1. The People’s World
Europe was still overwhelmingly rural. Most people made their living directly from agriculture or some other closely related pursuit. The villages were small and offered only the most basic needs for the community that surrounded them. However, in the early sixteenth century, the European economy was expanding with such unprecedented rapidity because of the discovery of the New World across the seas and of precious metals in Germany and other places. As a result, there was a significant shift of the economic center of importance from the Mediterranean city-states to the nations bordering on the Atlantic. This shift brought not only goods and trade to Europe but an increasing exchange of significant new ideas. With the changing economy emerged a new class of people, a compelling element in European society which was yet insufficiently represented in the imperial diets.
Traditionally only three classes existed in mediaeval society; nobility, clergy, and peasantry. And the only ones recognized by the law and literature at the time. But the new “middle class” were the ones which were actually building the foundations of the new Europe. Harbison quotes the great French scholar, Henri Hauser as saying, “the acceleration of economic development …was the beginning of the modern economic world.”
The century before Luther, is one in which a reform movement developed among the estates. The estates consisted of territorial princes, ecclesiastical authorities, and free cities, who wanted greater influence in the governing of the empire. Within these estates were the towns. Therefore the estates were harassed from below by social revolutionary forces, those that were building up outside the estate system, the artisans of the guilds and the commoners, who also wanted to gain greater influence with the town administration, and therefore, “urban revolutions“ were virtually the order of the day.
This added to the fearful apprehension among the common man. They had no previous precedents through which they could understand all the economic and social change. Harbison clarifies,
"Unfamiliar disturbing things were happening everyday with no apparent explanation and no moral or religious justification. The only categories through which contemporaries of Luther could understand the impact of what we call capitalism upon their society were pride and greed." (Harbison, (1955) 14)
The situation promoted a need for a leader who knew how to converse with the ecclesiastical hierarchy yet, able to understand the life of the everyday man.
2. The Political World
The era was filled with military events and political intrigue, which cradled the Reformation’s mission in an atmosphere of perpetual high tension in international politics. About the same time Luther nailed the Ninety-five Thesis, refuting indulgences, on Wittenberg’s door, the election of a new German Emperor became an acute question and a series of “world wars” began in the sixteenth century. Then, Luther died just when the military struggle between Germany and France ended and an adversary of the Reformation, Emperor Charles V, was even in a position to put the German affairs “into order.””
Such was the political clime of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, which was developing almost as rapidly as the economic and social change and at certain points were shaped and determined by the growing economic force. As a result there were tensions in Germany more serious than those in any other part of Europe as the century opened.
A particular event that held the focus of men throughout Europe was the swift and critical advance of the Turks under Sultan Suleiman II from the east to the west. The thought that the Turk might penetrate into the very heart of Germany was a serious possibility.” Germany could hardly look to the emperor for leadership, since his pretensions and responsibilities were supranational, but Germany, ready for a figure, were looking for one as the defender of an exhausted Germany against the vultures of Rome. Germany was the tinderbox of Europe as the century opened.
3. The Ecclesiastical World
The church of the waning Middle Ages offered only a picture of ruin, decay, and corruption. Where devoutness was still found, men were only paying allegiance to the crudest superstition, a cult of relics, a pilgrimage system with all sorts of questionable practices, and an external merit-piety that dulled the conscience and created a chasm between religion and morality. Strangely, none of the church’s internal reform programs proved to be effective. Yet understandably, how can a morality be forced among clergy without the support of the bishops, who themselves, liked the idea of clerical concubinage or simony or the sale of indulgences? Or convince bishops to redirect resources they were already spending just to educate priests so the peasantry could be benefited.
Although the general populace were aware of the corruption, incredibly, it did not threaten the position of the church in society, for one very simple reason. The Church’s commodity was salvation, plus there was nowhere else to go for it. People lived daily in the face of death, the worst of which was the Black Plague, so the afterlife was constantly on the minds of the people. So, no matter how corrupt the Church was, how much it was criticized or how many reform programs were dreamed up and failed, the Church itself was essentially invincible since it was the sole gatekeeper to heaven.
4. The World of Thought
The road to the Reformation was paved through the effectiveness of Renaissance thought, which courage to men to explore fresh enlightenment. Ideas which people, in previous times, would have not even thought to entertain; now were willing to explore. The Renaissance began in Italy, but it eventually involved all of Europe, who shared in its development. The Renaissance discovered man and nature, and held extraordinary significance in the development of natural and historical science. Humanism, today, has philosophical overtones, but in the Renaissance the word meant something entirely different. A humanist “was simply a student of humanities, a group of subjects that included rhetoric, moral philosophy (i.e. ethics), history and poetry.” There were two main reasons why the Renaissance thinkers moved from the liberal arts to the humanities. First, the humanities were seen as far more effective in preparing people to play a more active role in society, convincing and moving people to action. Second, was the humanist’s attitude towards the past. Believing all truth and goodness could be found in the ancient world, to examine the past was held to be the most effective way to change or understand the present, as well as look for models to emulate. The renewal of the original Christianity in the sense of a simple Jesus-religion, humanities discovered man in his dignity, his grandeur, and struck blows at medieval fear of the judgment that characterized man’s faith. A Netherlander humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, was to have a more profound effect on Church reform that anyone else in the decades prior to Luther. OxfordUniversity was a leader in the revival of the study of Augustine which grew in influence until it profoundly affected the Reformation. There were now other intellectual practices besides those of nominalistic Scholasticism in the Oxford of Wycliffe’s student days.
2010 Ulrike Grace