Immediate Causes of the Reformation Many modern Protestants have assumed that the Reformation was purely a religious movement. They see visions of multitudes of sincere men throughout Germany and Europe wholeheartedly seeking a return to Apostolic faith and practice.
But this is not a true picture.
It is an historical fact that there were many selfish and materialistic reasons why the Reformation took place when and how it did. Many of them were entirely divorced from a pure religious motive.
There is no doubt that political, intellectual, and financial consideration played a prominent part in bringing about the Reformation of the sixteenth century. A rising sense of nationalism caused men to feel that, as Germans, Frenchmen, or Englishmen, they had common interests against all foreigners, even the pope himself.
As the cities of Europe grew in size and influence, the increased intelligence, wealth, and political influence of the middle class prepared them to play a decisive role in the coming upheaval. They began to grow restive under the constant ecclesiastical interference in temporal affairs (Walker, p. 289).
Coupled with this national feeling, the growth of absolutism had made the various rulers feel more independent of the See of Rome, and they often attempted to secure unfettered control of ecclesiastical appointments within their realms. This was the beginning of a tendency, which later culminated in state-controlled churches in many lands.
The marked friendship between the popes and the kings of France during the Avignon period gave rise to a general suspicion of papal motives in other nations. This scandal was heightened by the increase in papal taxation during this period, when "the removal of the papacy to Avignon largely cut off the revenues from the papal estates in Italy without diminishing the luxury or expensiveness of the papal court" (Walker, p. 292, 296).
Many complaints were voiced, not only by individuals, but by the most powerful kings and by whole nations, against the imperious domination of the popes, the frauds, violence, avarice, and injustice of Rome. The insolence and tyranny of papal legates, the crimes, ignorance, and moral depravity of priests and monks, made men everywhere wish for a reformation of the church "in its head and members" (Mosheim, p. 559).
Acting in concert with all these forces was that remarkable movement known as the Renaissance, or the awakening of Europe to a new interest in science, literature, and art. It was a movement that brought the change from medieval to modern ideals, culture, and methods of thought.
If we would understand the reformation that followed, we must first examine the interplay and action of each of these factors which played such an important part in its direction and final outcome.
Political and Financial Causes for Reform As we have seen, the papal power reached its height under Hildebrand (1073-1085), who, even more than his predecessors, aimed at the complete subordination of the empire to the Roman church. The prosecution of this enterprise caused a protracted struggle for power between the papacy and the empire. In this struggle, the popes had great advantages over the emperors — whose actual dominions were far from being coextensive with the area dominated by the church. One very effective support was found in the disposition of the German princes themselves to put checks upon the power of the emperors. And in the crusades the popes had the opportunity to direct the religious enthusiasm of the common people in all nations (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 26-28).
Eventually, the papacy was triumphant in this struggle and the penitent Emperor, Henry IV, was forced to humble himself before Pope Hildebrand in order to retain the allegiance of his subjects. Thus, we behold the spectacle of the church ruling over the state, and dictating its will to the Roman emperors.
Indeed, the church had long dominated the empire to some extent, but never so completely. "In the eighteen years (1198-1216) in which Innocent III reigned, the papal institution shone forth in full splendor. The enforcement of celibacy had placed the entire body of the clergy in a closer relation to the sovereign pontiff. The Vicar of Peter had become the Vicar of God and of Christ. . . The king was to the Pope as the moon to the sun — a lower luminary shining with borrowed light" (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 29).
Thus we see that the popes were making themselves out to be God on earth. They taught Christ was setting up His millennial reign on earth through them.
However, before this papal power could long be exercised, it became evident that there were new forces rising in Europe to challenge its supremacy. In many lands, the patriotism of the people was resulting in an unwillingness to submit to foreign domination over their own national churches, and a reluctance to pay "Peter's pence" for the construction of magnificent cathedrals in Rome (Hurlbut, p. 151)
In the exercise of its political and financial power, the Catholic Church was riding for a fall. The popes seemed to have an insatiable craving for money. This wealth was not only used to further their quest of voluptuous and easy living, but to purchase friends and power. The Roman pontiffs were able to extract this money from their unwary subjects by various means concealed under the appearance of religion.
Mosheim describes this abuse of power: "Among these artifices, what were called indulgences — that is, liberty to buy off the punishments of their sins by contributing money to pious uses — held a distinguished place. And to these, recourse was had as often as the papal treasury became exhausted, to the immense injury of the public interests. Under some plausible, but for the most part false pretext, the ignorant and timorous people were beguiled with the prospect of great advantage by the hawkers of indulgences, who were in general base and profligate characters" (Eccl. History, p. 560).
These scandals provided a very adequate reason in the eyes of many German princes, for instance, to throw off the papal yoke — whether by "reform" or revolt — in order to free themselves from papal taxation and interference, and to seize the wealth of the churches and monasteries. Luther's later attack on the papal financial policy and taxation, instantly made him a champion of the German middle class and, indirectly, of all his countrymen, who had long harbored feelings of resentment toward the crafty and easy-living Italians.
In England, relatively the same situation prevailed. King Henry VIII had squandered most of the royal treasury inherited from his more astute father. At the same time, there was growing discontent among the nobles in particular with regard to excessive papal taxation, and the abundant wealth of the monastic orders would be prize pickings if the papal authority were cast off. It is significant that one of Henry's first actions after having himself recognized as the "supreme head of the Church and clergy of England" was to order the confiscation of the wealth of the church, particularly that of the monastic orders.
Through royal negligence and extravagance, there arose a class of sharers in the monastic loot whose vested interests lay in continued separation from the Church of Rome. This faction was a powerful guarantee against any later movements for reconciliation with the papacy (Walker, An Outline History of the Catholic Church, p. 56).
In view of these many temptations, and the nationalistic tendency already underway, it should have been the primary interest of the popes to reconcile the political and financial objections of the various nations. But such was not the case.
While the papacy should have been doing everything possible to avoid aggravating the peoples of Europe with its ruthless financial policy, it did just the opposite. In order to enrich their own relatives or to strengthen the states of the Church, the popes often applied the wealth they received from indulgences and the sale of church offices.
Fisher describes the wretched character of some of these popes: "Innocent VIII, besides advancing the fortunes of seven illegitimate children, and waging two wars with Naples, received an annual tribute from the Sultan for detaining his brother and rival in prison, instead of sending him to lead a force against the Turks, the enemies of Christendom. Alexander VI, whose wickedness brings to mind the dark days of the Papacy in the tenth century, occupied himself in building up a principality for his favorite son, that monster of depravity, Caesar Borgia, and in amassing treasures, by base and cruel means, for the support of the licentious Roman Court. He is said to have died of the poison which he caused to be prepared for a rich cardinal, who bribed the head cook to set it before the Pope himself" (The Reformation, p. 44-45).
Thus, it is evident that when the reformers began their pleas for a break with the papal authority, the wide response was often not so much from sincere religious motives as from the practical and natural desire of many to appropriate to themselves the political and financial rewards hitherto withheld or controlled by the Roman church.
The Renaissance Another important factor in preparing the way for the Reformation was the revival of learning, literature, and art called the Renaissance. The leaders of this movement were not usually priests or monks, but laymen. It opened as a literary movement and was not yet openly antireligious, but only skeptical and inquiring. It was greatly aided by the invention of printing in 1455, by Gutenberg. For the first time books could now be disseminated by the thousands, and it is significant that the first book printed was the Bible.
The Renaissance stimulated patriotism and served to inspire the production of a national literature. It encouraged independence in thought and national policies, and led to the development of the modern European nationalistic concepts as we know them. As strong national governments arose, this naturally tended to curb the authority of what had been regarded as the universal church. The influence of the pope and clergy became more and more limited to the religious sphere, and the diplomatic policy of each nation pursued a more independent course.
Increased interest in the pagan classics exerted a marked influence upon the educated classes, and caused them to break with medieval scholasticism, and, in many cases, with all serious concern with religion as such.
The medieval ideals had been otherworldly and encouraged self-abnegation. The Renaissance introduced humanism and the expression of the inherent tendencies in man. The attitude of ascetic seclusion gave way to the search for full enjoyment of all the world can offer.
A rational search into the history and literature of the past subjected many documents of the church to critical examination. A school of historical criticism was started by Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457), who exposed the falsity of the Donation of Constantine and denied the Apostolic origin of the Apostle's Creed. All this inquiry and revival of human interests served to undermine the authority and influence of the Catholic Church.
For about two generations before the Protestant Reformation, the popes themselves tried to enter into the spirit of the Renaissance and the popes of that time were marked by culture rather than religious faith. This naturally resulted in the papal court becoming even more worldly, and brought about an increased demand for a reformation of the church.
"One very beneficial result of the Renaissance was the revived interest in the study of Hebrew and Greek. This promoted a better understanding of the Bible on which the great reformatory work of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin was based. Without this preparation their work would not have been possible (Qualben, History of the Christian Church, p. 199).
Perhaps the most outstanding Renaissance scholar was Desiderius Erasmus, who had been accused of "laying the egg that Luther hatched." He studied in several different European nations. Although he was primarily a Roman Catholic, yet his provocative satires of the clerical abuses of his time and his appeal to return to the simplicity of original Christianity had a profound effect on the educated classes of his time, and, through them, reached the masses of people.
Erasmus was convinced that the Roman system was filled with superstition and corruption. Yet he had no wish to break with Catholicism. He looked upon it, sentimentally, as the "mother" of society and the arts. And he was too intellectual to sympathize with the Lutheran revolt, the brutal excesses of which repelled him.
"Hence neither side in the struggle that opened in the latter part of his life understood him, and his memory has been condemned by polemic writers, Protestant and Catholic. His own thought was that education, return to the sources of Christian truth, and flagellation of ignorance and immorality by merciless satire would bring the church to purity. To this end he labored" (Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 329).
Thus, we find that the humanists helped prepare the way for the Reformation. They discredited much of the Catholic theology. They encouraged men to study the Bible and early Christian writers from a new point of view. They helped release the minds of men from medieval traditionalism, and began an era of independent scholarship and thinking centered around the desires and needs of man.
With the rise of nationalism, the invention of printing and increased distribution of knowledge, this intellectual movement would have eventually brought about tremendous changes in medieval Catholicism and in the freedom of the individual, even had there been no Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin. So when the Reformation did begin, it was helped to success by forces that were purely intellectual and often irreligious in nature.
Religious Abuses Calling For Reform The details of the degenerate morals and ecclesiastical corruption in the period immediately preceding the Reformation, are so well-known that they need only brief summarization and analysis here. But one vitally important question arises which is usually overlooked or pushed aside. That is the fundamental question of whether the paganized, radically changed and corrupted religio-political machine dominating the nations of Europe, called the Roman Catholic Church, was in actual fact the rightful and legitimate successor of the original Apostolic Church — the one true Church Jesus Christ said He would build.
For, as we shall later see, the Protestant churches, as a whole, base their claim of historic unity with the Apostolic Church upon their direct descendancy from the Roman Catholic Church, their "mother" church.
Was this church the Church Jesus built? Were its leaders and its members filled with, and led by the Spirit of God? This is a vital point, for as the Apostle Paul states: "Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His" (Romans 8:9).
We can do no better than draw our conclusions from the statements of recognized historians in this field. A direct comparison is made by Plummer: "And as soon as the revival of letters caused the contents of the New Testament and the teaching of the Fathers to be known, it was seen that what passed for Christianity at the close of the fifteenth century was scarcely recognizable as such, when placed side by side with what we know of Christianity at the close of the Apostolic Age". (The Continental Reformation, p. 11).
A picturesque and comprehensive description of this state of things as it affected the daily lives of the people is given by the noted historian D'Aubigne: "Let us now see what was the state of the Church previous to the Reformation. The nations of Christendom no longer looked to a holy and living God for the free gift of eternal life. To obtain it, they were obligated to have recourse to all the means that a superstitious, fearful, and alarmed imagination could devise. Heaven was filled with saints and mediators, whose duty it was to solicit this mercy. Earth was filled with pious works, sacrifices, observances, and ceremonies, by which it was to be obtained" (History of the Reformation, p. 17).
Christ was regarded as a stern judge. He was prepared to condemn anyone who did not invoke the intercession of the saints or resort to the papal indulgences.
Many intercessors appeared in Christ's place. First was the Virgin Mary, like the Diana of paganism, and then the saints — whose numbers were continually augmented by the popes.
Religious pilgrimages were prescribed as a penance for sin. There were almost as many religious resorts for pilgrims as there were mountains, forests, and valleys. On these pilgrimages, the people brought to the priests money and anything that had any value — fowls, ducks, geese, wax, straw, butter, and cheese.
D'Aubigne continues: "The bishops no longer preached, but they consecrated priests, bells, monks, churches, chapels, images, books, and cemeteries; and all this brought in a large revenue. Bones, arms, and feet were preserved in gold and silver boxes; they were given out during mass for the faithful to kiss, and this too was a source of great profit.
"'All these people maintained that the pope, 'sitting as God in the temple of God,' could not err, and they would not suffer any contradiction.'"
It is related that in the very church where Luther preached at Wittenberg, was shown a supposed fragment of Noah's ark, a piece of wood from the cradle of Jesus, some hair from the beard of St. Christopher, and nineteen thousand other relics.
These religious relics were hawked about the countryside and sold to the faithful for the spiritual merits they were supposed to bestow. The wandering salesmen paid a percentage of their profits to the original owners of the relics. "The kingdom of heaven had disappeared, and in its place a market of abominations had been opened upon earth" (D'Abigne, p. 17).
The Debauched Clergy If the members of this professing Christendom may be partially excused, as many historians try to do, because of the prevailing ignorance and lack of right spiritual guidance, none of these excuses carries any weight when applied to the higher clergy and to the popes themselves. For these men had every advantage of education and knowledge, if they had rightly desired to take advantage of these.
The deplorable corruption of the Roman Church during the century just before the Reformation is appalling. Many of the popes were no more than "respectable" gangsters.
No trace of the Holy Spirit of God is to be found in their words or actions. Yet they headed and represented what was supposed to be the only Church of God on earth!
Regarding two of these popes, Wharey states: "Sixtus IV had sixteen illegitimate children, whom he took special care to provide for, and enrich. But of all the popes of this age, perhaps Roderic Borgia, who assumed the name of Alexander VI, excelled in wickedness. He has been called the Catiline of the popes; and the villainies, crimes, and enormities recorded of him, are so many and so great, that it must be certain that he was destitute, not only of all religion, but also of decency and shame" (Church History, p. 211-12).
It was a common practice in those times for the priests to pay the price of blackmail to their bishops for the illegal concubines with whom they shared their beds, and for each bastard child thus produced (D'Aubigne, p. 18). The Roman religion no longer contained anything that would cause it to be esteemed by those who were truly pious, and nearly the whole worship of God consisted in outward paganized ceremonies. Such sermons as were occasionally addressed to the people were not only destitute of all taste and good sense, but were stuffed with fables and nauseous fictions (Mosheim, p. 547).
Had God's True Church Become Corrupted? And yet, after themselves relating these accounts of the spiritual stench, utter depravity of morals, and total ignorance or disregard for all Christian truth and virtue that had characterized the Roman church for many generations, these very Protestant writers attempt in the next breath to label this reprobate system the "Church of Christ" — the Church Jesus said He would build, the Spirit-filled body of which He is the living Head! (Eph. 1: 22).
Notice D'Aubigne's pitiful lament: "The evil had spread through all ranks: 'a strong delusion' had been sent among men; the corruption of manners corresponded with the corruption of faith. A mystery of iniquity oppressed the enslaved Church of Christ" (History of the Reformation, p. 20).
Of the fact that a purifying and cleaning up of this society was needed, there is no doubt. But of the supposed fact that this totally paganized system was the Church of God on earth there is great doubt.
In fact, the description of the true Church as given in the New Testament is in total contradiction to the faith, practice, and life of Roman Catholicism as it has existed for hundreds of years!
The inspired command of Peter to "repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38) was replaced by the Roman injunction to "do penance" — confess and pay the priest. The Apostolic way of life of love and obedience to God's spiritual laws was replaced by a pattern of fear and a superstitious observance of special fasts, feasts, and church festivals utterly foreign to Christ and the early true Church.
In place of the inspired form of Church government instituted by Christ and carried on by the Apostles, we find a corrupt hierarchy of priestly offices, which are not so much as mentioned in the Bible. And over the whole corrupted system we find the Roman pope, "sitting as God in the temple of God" (II Thes. 2:4), often, disobedient himself to all the laws of God and man, yet holding forth with authority as the "Vicar of Christ," and permitting and encouraging men to prostrate themselves before him in a kind of worship that Peter and the other Apostles would have feared to allow (Acts 10:25-26).
Was this utterly debased religio-political system the legitimate descendant of the Church Jesus and the Apostles founded? Would a "reformation" of this foul system constitute a continuation of the true Church?
These are the really basic questions that we need to consider. And let us not hide our eyes from the inescapable fact that it was directly from the Roman Catholic system that the Protestant churches have sprung.
As we have now seen, there were political, economic, social, intellectual, and religious factors throughout the nations of Europe, which presaged a universal upheaval. And political and financial considerations played a very important part in the coming reformation. When it came, what was its true significance in the overall plan and purpose of the eternal God?
Was it a recapturing of the "faith once delivered" to the saints? We need to face this question squarely.