Reformation: Historical Context

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on a chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany. These statements quickly became infamous, but they were only one in a series of papers that would have been nailed to that and many another door of the era. Yet that moment marks the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation. Like any other movement in history, there’s “the Reformation,” but there are also streams within the broader river of reformation. No Protestant church today reflects exactly what the Reformers thought, but we are who we are because of the Reformation and the reforms that came out of it.

The Reformation took place in a setting where culture, church, and state blended so seamlessly together that there are significant political, cultural, and global effects from the Reformation within the church.

Church Influence
For 1000 years, the church had waxed and waned in the Middle Ages. From sometime around the 400-500 until the 1500’s Europe was dominated by cycles in the church and in the general culture that echoed one another. This 1000-year period saw the rapid spread of the church from the cradle of Christianity around Israel throughout much of the world. 500 years after Christ, the church was the most dominant institution in the Western world. It’s religious influence blended into total domination of every facet of life. Rulers answered to popes and bishops, and the state lay largely under the thumb of the church. From 1000 until 1300, the church enjoyed unprecedented and unrepeated supremacy—in ways both good and bad.

For 200 years before Luther, however, the church had been enduring a breakdown. It was declining and disintegrating in almost every respect imaginable. Luther’s reforms were the result of hundreds of years of growing corruption. The church had sold its soul for influence, and it must pay. Church leaders tried to use church influence to govern the secular world.

Papal Reform
A number of popes tried to exercise reforms within the church, yet these reforms were often not biblically driven. Reforms focused on tradition and on increasing the influence of the church in society.

During this period, the corruption and confusion of the church increased, even placing the pope in Avignon, France, for about 75 years. For a time, France exercised by far the strongest influence on the church. The Roman Catholic Church then endured a time of division, the Great Schism, when there were three popes—one in Avignon, one in Rome, and one in Pisa. In the aftermath of this period, the Renaissance popes arose, and these popes functioned more like princes than clergy.

Growing Corruption
Many clergy took vows of poverty and chastity that they never intended to keep. In a church that required celibacy of priests, many got married. Nepotism was common, as children of popes were put into office (these clergy were sometimes called “papal nephews”). Families of clergy became almost like royal families, as priests, bishops, and popes practiced nepotism and gave their own kids the best positions.

Simony (the purchasing of a religious office) was a common practice. Simony takes its name from Simon the magician in Acts 8—a man who tried to purchase the power of the Spirit from the Apostles. Peter’s response? “May your silver perish with you!” The parish priest was often the most powerful person in a territory. The sale of indulgences was common practice as well.

Papal reforms were driven by a desire to increase the influence of the church in general and to bring the entire church into line under the authority of the pope. Thus, the bishop of Rome must be dominant over all other church figures. These efforts also attempted to enact reforms among the monastic orders.

Yet all of these “reforms” were driven primarily by tradition and dogma, rather than Scripture. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the power of secular monarchs grew and gradually weakened the hold of the Roman Catholic Church over society. This growth in power of the secular state sets the stage for much of what followed.


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