Why did the Protestant Reformation begin? (2023)

The Protestant Reformation began as a return to God’s Word as the final authority in the Christian faith and a proclamation that justification is by grace alone through faith alone. This necessarily also made the Reformation a response to doctrinal errors and unbiblical traditions that had developed over time into the Roman Catholic system of Medieval Europe. There are numerous factors which, in God’s providence, came together to spark this biblical movement and allow it to spread and flourish. Entire books have been written to detail all of the various strands of cultural, technological, and religious factors that contributed to the birth and success of the Reformation as a lasting movement. There is no single, simple cause one can point to as to why the men like Martin Luther succeeded in launching a thriving Reformation while men with similar insights in previous generations had, at best, accomplished only local and temporary reform movements. Still, while the big picture is large and complex, the central factors are fairly clear:

The historical context

The Reformation began in the early 16th century. The moment that has come to symbolize the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, occurred in 1517. This was a time when the whole world was changing.

The discovery of the American continents, for example, occurred just over two decades earlier in 1492. This alone was quickly leading to a wide variety of changes, from the goods people used to their grander view of the world and their place in it.1Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity – Vol. 2 (Harper Collins, 1985) 9, William Estep, The Anabaptist Story – 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 11 In Europe, life was rapidly changing for large portions of the population in unprecedented ways. Much of the continent was beginning to transition from a feudal (land-based) economy to a monetary (money and commodity-based) economy. This diminished the political power and influence of certain lords and monasteries while giving rise to a merchant class,2William Estep, The Anabaptist Story – 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 10 on the one hand, and to stronger monarchies on the other,3Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity – Vol. 2 (Harper Collins, 1985) 9 who were able to more completely consolidate their power unchecked by the weakening lords. The Feudal Lords themselves were claiming ownership of the once public streams and forests on which the peasants depended for fish, game, foraged foods, and firewood.4ibid These necessities of life, which peasants had previously gathered for free, now belonged to their lords and came at a cost that many peasants could not pay. This led some to leave for the growing cities, shifting life toward urbanization. For others, it led to unrest and increasingly frequent peasant revolts.5ibid

Centuries of massive death tolls from internal European wars, the crusades against the Muslim states, and the ravages of the black plague had not only taken their toll on the population, they had also shaped life in a wide variety of ways. The value of individual labor, the distribution of skills, and a host of other factors greatly shift when so many working-age men are dying suddenly in mass from wars and disease. Life in Europe was far from stable, which can create both an openness to new ideas and a yearning to return to old ones. When death is so common and ever-looming, it can also shape values and concerns about spiritual and eternal things.

And high mortality had not come only through plagues and battles. Death was also being dealt out by inquisitors in rapidly increasing numbers. Inquisitions had existed for some time, but the Spanish Inquisition (which began in 1480) was the first carried out under the authority of a secular state.6Francisco Bethencourt, The Inquisition: A Global History (Cambridge University Press, 1995) 35-36 It remarkably escalated the bloodshed,7William Estep, The Anabaptist Story – 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 10 and marked an increase in the corruption of the institution by expanding it to political and nationalistic agendas as well as its original religious purposes.8Cullen Murphy, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) 84 After the Reformation came into full swing, the Protestant states would swell through many who would flee from the inquisitions in Spain and Italy seeking the hope of freedom in protestant lands (and often publish their stories there).9Francisco Bethencourt, The Inquisition: A Global History (Cambridge University Press, 1995) 374 Leading up to the Reformation, the Inquisition (especially as it was wielded by secular kings for carnal purposes) put seeds of doubt in the minds of many as to whether the “church” authorities of their day really represented what Christ had commanded and intended.

A message about the true gospel and the hope of eternal life is always relevant to every person, but one can imagine it being easier to shrug such truths off in times of comfort, safety, or abundance than in days when death hangs in the air every moment. Yet, it is interesting to note that the Reformation did not dawn in a time when mortality was at its peak, but rather while it was coming into decline. Martin Luther Himself would write in 1522:

“If you read all the annals of the past, you find no century such as this since the birth of Christ. Such building and planting, such good living and dressing, such a stir in all the arts, has not been since Christ came into the world.”10Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volumes 7 (Hendrickson Publishing, 1907) 2

This certainly does not reflect the grim realities faced by the peasant class, and by modern standards mortality rates at all levels of society were still extremely high, but there is some truth to this. The high death tolls of the middle ages had completely re-shaped life and values in Europe, but the Reformation came just afterward during a time of optimism when life was being rebuilt throughout the continent.

Finally, the recent invention of the printing press made it possible for ideas to spread and literacy to swell in a manner never before possible. It was relatively easy to stamp out reform movements of the past. Mass printing, however, made it much harder to stop the spread of an idea than it had ever been before. At the dawn of the 16th century, Western Europe was a pile of spiritual kindling ready for a new reformer to strike a match.

The Churches and the need for reform

There is a myth that “Christianity” in Europe had always been a united body until Luther and Calvin broke it up. This is pure nonsense. The idea that the Reformation introduced schism into an otherwise unified church is a laughable claim. Leading up to the reformation, there was a lengthy period of papal division and turmoil. The churches and nations of Europe were divided between two and sometimes even three rival popes, each declaring that the followers of the others were excommunicated and under the anathema.11William Estep, The Anabaptist Story – 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 10 On occasion they even called crusades on territories loyal to their rivals and financed their wars with the sale of indulgences (papal promises of forgiveness of sins and release from purgatory).12Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity – Vol. 1 (Harper Collins, 1985) 350 Cardinals conspired to establish their own authority above the papacy through church councils, and the nation of Bohemia (modern Czech Republic) had broken away from all the Popes entirely and kept repelling the Crusades launched against them.13ibid Groups throughout Europe like the Fraticelli14”Little brethren,” a general name used for various radical off-shoots of the Franciscan Order. While different Fraticelli groups held differing views, they all put great emphasis on voluntary poverty and simplicity of life and thus decried the opulence in the formal church, leading them to question the validity of the papacy itself and any other wealthy or corrupt person in church leadership. All such groups were long decried by the formal church and officially declared heretical in the 13th century. renounced the Pope and the formal church and in some cases set up their own rival hierarchy.15Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volumes 6 (Hendrickson Publishing, 1907) 500-501 Though often hunted by the Inquisition, they persisted into the 16th century.16Ibid, 501-502 The Waldensians17Primarily found in France, Austria, and northern Italy, they were accused of denying the real presence of Christ in the communion elements and rejecting purgatory, prayers for the dead, oaths, and infant baptism had lived as a distinct religious movement since the 12th century,18ibid, 512-514 and the Lollards19a movement inspired by the work of John Wycliffe. They were devoted to the supremacy of Scripture that rejected a number of Roman Catholic traditions were thriving in England apart from papal churches. Many more examples could be given, but this should be enough to demonstrate that while the unity of all Christendom under the Pope was a theory in which many in Western Europe believed, it was far from a description of the late-Medieval reality.

Roman Catholic leadership was also plagued by corruption, manifesting itself in practices like:20Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity – Vol. 2 (Harper Collins, 1985) 7

  • Absenteeism – holding an ecclesiastical post in a church (like priest or bishop) to receive the income but not actually living there or performing any active function in the church from which one is extracting pay
  • Pluralism – holding ecclesiastical posts in more than one church at the same time, thus again, receiving income from the tithes of a church without actually serving them
  • Simony – buying and selling ecclesiastical posts
  • Nepotism – appointing one’s own family members to ecclesiastical posts to increase the wealth and influence of one’s own house

And while clerical celibacy was officially the rule, priests and bishops had numerous illegitimate children without shame.21ibid Most of Europe, even among devoted Roman Catholics, recognized that there was a need for reform.22Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volumes 7 (Hendrickson Publishing, 1907) 8 Many of them sought only a moral reform23Ibid, 10-11 that would bring the Roman Catholic reality in line with a theoretical Roman Catholic ideal (with various ideas of what that ideal was). Still, it was obvious that what was calling itself the “one true church of Jesus Christ” was not exemplifying oneness, truthfulness, nor Jesus Christ.

The Renaissance in literary scholarship presented a deeper challenge. As new research began into ancient writings, a number of important documents that had long been used to uphold the supremacy of the Pope and other Medieval dogmas were exposed as frauds.24William Estep, The Anabaptist Story – 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 10 Additionally, Greek manuscripts of the Bible made their way from the east to the Latin west, leading many scholars to note the flaws in the Vulgate and to study the Bible in general with a more critical eye, apart from the artificial lens of official Roman Catholic positions.25Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity – Vol. 2 (Harper Collins, 1985) 8 Many began to realize that at least some of the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic church were actually late developments found nowhere in the Bible or the early church fathers.26ibid, 10 When a scholar named Erasmus published an edition of the Greek New Testament (paired with a fresh Latin translation) based on the Greek Manuscripts, this provided a crucial resource for those asking these questions. Some of the Reformers themselves came to their positions because they had access to a Greek New Testament thanks to Erasmus and the printing press.27William Estep, The Anabaptist Story – 3rd Edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 11 Erasmus’s text would later be a key resource for the reformers in producing their common-language translations of the Bible in various lands.

In short, centuries of schism and moral corruption testified to the need for reformation. The study of the Bible and other ancient writings showed that it was not enough to call people back to the traditions of the church because many of the so-called “traditions” were themselves late fabrications. For any reformation to matter, it couldn’t be a mere moral tweaking of things. It needed to be a return to the actual teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. It needed to be a return to the word of God.

Luther, the Gospel, and the dawn of reformation

For all this, the Protestant Movement was not started by a man who set out to change the world. The nations were groaning for a reformation, but ironically, Martin Luther was not originally set out to provide one. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk in Germany who believed in all the Roman Catholic traditions of his day but, keenly aware of his own sinfulness, could find no peace in them. It was not that Luther had done anything especially immoral. He hadn’t. But Luther, in his zealous pursuit of peace with God, was keenly aware that any immorality whatsoever in his thoughts, words, and deeds condemned him in the presence of a Holy God. The harder Luther tried to be a righteous man, the more clear to him his sinfulness became, and all the confessions, pilgrimages, indulgences, and other rites and rituals he could perform were never enough. Luther knew he was sinful. He knew God was Holy and Just. This haunted him.

Eventually, Luther was sent to serve as a professor at the newly established University in Wittenberg. There, while preparing for a series of lectures on the Book of Romans, the monk discovered the answer he was looking for right in the pages of Scripture: Justification before God was by grace alone through faith alone in the merits of Christ alone and in His finished sacrifice.28Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity – Vol. 2 (Harper Collins, 1985) 19 While Luther probably did teach his biblical gospel insights from that point forward, this was not meant as a protest at the time. Indeed, Luther does not appear to have fully realized the chasm between what he had found in the Scriptures and the formal teaching of Rome until some time later.29Ibid, 20

Over time, Luther began to see biblical and theological problems with certain practices in the church, such as the veneration of relics and the sale of indulgences. As Luther embraced the biblical gospel of grace and studied the Scriptures, such things appeared inconsistent with the revealed word of God. This led Luther to post 95 theses on the church door to invite academic debate on the subject. Unknown to Luther at that time, a deal was going on between Pope Leo X (who desired to complete the construction of decadent new Basilica) and a German noble seeking to increase his own position and influence. The deal involved financing both plans through the sale of indulgences in Germany.30ibid, 20-21 When Luther chose that particular time to post his 95 theses challenging the theology behind the sale of indulgences, he was unwittingly walking into a political firestorm. The printing press fueled the fire, as printers distributed copies of the 95 theses widely, both in the original Latin and in a German translation.31Ibid, 22 Just a little earlier in history, these theses would have been debated locally by a few scholars or completely ignored. The timing, however, was just right for the message Luther posted, even if Luther himself had not realized it. This would launch the series of events that would ultimately produce the Protestant Reformation.

So, while many factors made it possible for the Protestant Reformation to take hold and flourish, in a very real sense, what caused the Protestant Reformation was simply the reading of the Bible, seeking peace with God by His grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ, sharing that truth with others, and then being willing to be logically consistent with that truth when confronted by unbiblical traditions. The Reformation did not begin as a refutation of something. It led to that, but it didn’t start there. The Reformation began as an affirmation of something. It began as a simple but profound return to the truth that we are dreadfully sinful, God is perfectly holy, and thus our works can contribute nothing to our salvation. Jesus lived a perfect life and offers us His own merit and righteousness. Jesus died the death we deserve to serve our sentence and take our punishment. Thus, it is all of Him and nothing of us. We come to God, not through pious effort and personal righteousness, but in helpless trust that Jesus is enough. This is why the Reformation began, and this is what defines it still.

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