The Protestant Reformation, often referred to simply as the Reformation, was a schism from the Roman Catholic Church initiated by Martin Luther and continued by other early Protestant reformers in Europe in the 16th century.
Although there had been significant earlier attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church before Luther—such as those of Jan Hus, Geert Groote, Thomas A Kempis, Peter Waldo, and John Wycliffe—Martin Luther is widely acknowledged to have started the Reformation with his 1517 work The Ninety-Five Theses.
Luther began by criticizing the selling of indulgences, insisting that the pope had no authority over purgatory and that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the gospel. The Protestant position, however, would come to incorporate doctrinal changes such as sola scriptura(by the scripture alone) and sola fide (by faith alone). The core motivation behind these changes was theological, though many other factors played a part, including the rise of nationalism, the Western Schism that eroded faith in the papacy, the perceived corruption of the Roman Curia, the impact of humanism, and the new learning of the Renaissance that questioned much traditional thought.
Following the breakdown of monastic institutions and scholasticism in late medieval Europe, accentuated by the Avignon Papacy, the Papal Schism, and the failure of the Conciliar movement, the 16th century saw a great cultural debate about religious reforms and later fundamental religious values. These issues initiated wars between princes, uprisings among peasants, and widespread concern over corruption in the Church, which sparked many reform movement within the church.
These reformist movements occurred 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 major individualistic reform movements that revolted against medieval scholasticism and the institutions that underpinned it were humanism, devotionalism, and the observantine 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 could not be limited. God was now a 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 humanistsin its reinforcement of the traditional use of Latin as the great unifying language of European culture. 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 great rise of the burghers (merchant class) and their 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.
The first of a series of disruptive and new perspectives came from John Wycliffe at Oxford University, one of the earliest opponents of papal authority influencing secular power and an early advocate for translation of the Bible into the common language. Jan Hus at the University of Prague was a follower of Wycliffe and similarly objected to some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Hus wanted liturgy in the language of the people (i.e. Czech), married priests, and to eliminate indulgences and the idea of purgatory.
Hus spoke out against indulgences in 1412 when he delivered an address entitled Quaestio magistri Johannis Hus de indulgentiis. It was taken literally from the last chapter of Wycliffe’s book, De ecclesia, and his treatise, De absolutione a pena et culpa. Hus asserted that no pope or bishop had the right to take up the sword in the name of the Church; he should pray for his enemies and bless those that curse him; man obtains forgiveness of sins by true repentance, not money. The doctors of the theological faculty replied, but without success. A few days afterward, some of Hus’s followers burnt the papal bulls. Hus, they said, should be obeyed rather than the Church, which they considered a fraudulent mob of adulterers and Simonists.
In response, three men from the lower classes who openly called the indulgences a fraud were beheaded. They were later considered the first martyrs of the Hussite Church. In the meantime, the faculty had condemned the forty-five articles and added several other theses, deemed heretical, that had originated with Hus. The king forbade the teaching of these articles, but neither Hus nor the university complied with the ruling, requesting that the articles should first be proven to be un-scriptural. The tumults at Prague had stirred up a sensation; papal legates and Archbishop Albik tried to persuade Hus to give up his opposition to the papal bulls, and the king made an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the two parties.
Hus was later condemned and burned at the stake despite promise of safe-conduct when he voiced his views to church leaders at the Council of Constance (1414–1418). Wycliffe, who died in 1384, was also declared a heretic by the Council of Constance, and his corpse was exhumed and burned.
Jan Hus burned at the stake
Execution of Jan Hus at the Council of Constance in 1415. His death led to a radicalization of the Bohemian Reformation and to the Hussite Wars in the Crown of Bohemia.
An image of John Hus being burned at the stake, surrounded by both clergy and lay people.
The Reformation led to the creation of new national Protestant churches. The largest of the new church’s groupings were the Lutherans (mostly in Germany, the Baltics, and Scandinavia) and the Reformed churches (mostly in Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scotland).
The Roman Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent and spearheaded by the new order of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), specifically organized to counter the Protestant movement. In general, Northern Europe, with the exception of most of Ireland, turned Protestant. Southern Europe remained Roman Catholic, while Central Europe was a site of fierce conflict escalating to full-scale war.
Council of Trent by Pasquale Cati
Painting representing the artist’s depiction of The Council of Trent. It met for twenty-five sessions between December 13, 1545, and December 4, 1563, in Trento (then the capital of the Prince-Bishopric of Trent in the Holy Roman Empire), apart from the ninth to eleventh sessions held in Bologna during 1547.