Blog

Seven Historical Events that Prepared the Way for the Reformation

It is impossible to be certain about why the Reformation happened when it did. God’s providence is filled with mysterious movements. One cannot just “map” God. However, the Great Reformation of the 16th century was ripe for bringing about extraordinary reform and rediscovery of the fullness of the Gospel. Here are seven historical events which we believe facilitated the change.

1. The Christian Crusades:

From the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, the campaigns to free Jerusalem and halt Muslim expansion into the West exhausted Westerners of their hope and reliance on the Papacy to wield the sword of justice. While the first crusade carried much of the hope that Leo I brought to the West when he held off Attila the Hun, the crusades that followed gave people second thoughts about God’s hand behind the Papacy. During the crusades, the plenary indulgence was introduced by Pope Urban II as a full remission of temporary punishment for sins, if one became a crusader. This “replaced” the Gospel and the sacrifice of Christ with a definitive work that man could do.

Free Video – Session 1 from the Church History Boot Camp

2. The Black Death (Bubonic Plague)

This disease spread by fleas is considered one of the worst pandemics in human history. Between 1347 and 1351 the plague killed between one-third and one-half of Europe’s population. There were continued outbreaks of the plague for the next 120 years. Twenty-five million people died. By 1450 Europe’s population was down seventy percent. While there were some clergy who cared for those in need, especially as they were called upon to administer last rites, many members of the clergy fled; others made it very expensive to have the rite performed. This began to illustrate the frivolous nature of the leaders in the institutionalized church whose concerns were not on matters of Christ but on self-gain. People had to look outside the institution of the church to find hope in God.

3. The Papal Schism (1378-1415)

Clement V, a French pope, refused to leave France and conduct his papacy in Rome. In 1309 he moved the conclave to Avignon, France. Here the Papacy was under the powerful King of France. The popes and cardinals lived like kings. There were seven Avignon popes. Immorality became rampant. Simony (selling clerical offices) was standard. Greed, lust, and scandal became associated with the Papacy. When some attempted to correct the problem by moving the Papacy back to Rome, the result was not good. The deposed popes refused to recognize their deposition. At one time there were three popes. This served to destabilize the institution of the Church and in many ways began to bring to light the illegitimacy of the office of the Papacy. Perhaps God was not as concerned about the chair of Saint Peter after all.

4. Hundred Years’ War Between England and France (1337 to 1453)

Though this was primarily a conflict of dynasty, this war created a significant and ongoing rift between England and France. Nationalism began to replace loyalty to the Church. The Papacy, moved to France during the Papal Schism, would serve to make English reform more palatable to the people. England became less loyal to the institutionalized Church and more loyal to its own national religious heritage.

5. The Fall of Constantinople (1453)

Eastern Orthodoxy and the Byzantine emperor requested aid as the Ottoman Empire was invading. Eastern Orthodoxy was open to reuniting. However, at the Council of Florence (1438-1439), Rome required nothing less than the complete capitulation of Eastern perspectives to Rome. Eastern Orthodoxy rejected the offer. Rome sent no aid and Constantinople fell in 1453 to Islam. Byzantine Christians fled West, bringing a storehouse of ancient writing, manuscripts, and biblical text. This not only introduced many Christians who were not loyal to the Pope, but also prepared the way for the learning that was to follow.

6. The Invention of the Printing Press (1439)

The influence of the invention of the printing press cannot be overstated. Before print type, books and writings were out of the reach of the average person. With the invention of the printing press came the democratization of learning. People now had a reason to learn to read. The first book to be printed was the Bible. This facilitated the ideas of the Reformation and made the Scriptures widely available. When Martin Luther came on the scene, there were already many leaders in the church who were being ripened for change.

7. Publication of the Greek New Testament in 1516

Just one year before Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the castle doors at Wittenburg, Desiderius Erasmus, father of humanism and internal reformer, produced the first Greek New Testament in print. The standard Bible until this time was the Latin Vulgate. It badly needed to be updated. The publication of the Greek New Testament allowed reform to take place as people could now look at the original languages of the Bible. This revived the Antiochian exegetical method of Bible study which had been dead for nearly a thousand years. People began to study their Bibles at a deeper level and realized that the institutionalized Church had much of the Gospel wrong. This Erasmusan Greek New Testament is behind Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German and Tyndale’s translation into English.

25 Responses to “Seven Historical Events that Prepared the Way for the Reformation”

  1. “Maybe God was not as concerned about the chair of Saint Peter after all.”

    Abusus non tollit usum.

    Looking at the current state of the chair of Saint Peter, it appears that this was resolved. With that being the case, perhaps God is concerned with the chair of Saint Peter after all.

  2. If God is not at work in and through all these upheavals of man and history, then…or forget it…He just uses it all for His purposes.

  3. While not an event, I would put the rise of philosophical nominalism against scholasticism and Thomism as a major impetus for the Reformation. Had Luther been educated as a Thomist (as opposed to the nominalism he imbibed), the Reformation would never have happened. He simply would not have been thinking about God and scripture in the way he did. You certainly would not have gotten sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura from a scholastic viewpoint.

    As a Protestant myself, I heartily endorse the 3 solas. At the same time, I wonder if the rejection of Thomsim/scholasticism needed to have been as complete as it was. I have no idea how one would go about fusing the great insights of the Protestant Reformation while keeping some form of scholasticism (and thereby making Protestantism more Catholic), but I do look across the aisle to the Catholics with a jealous eye from time to time.

  4. Indeed thank God Martin Luther was more of an Augustinian, and then of course there is the second generation Reformation guy named John Calvin also, as too even the earlier Huldrych Zwingli. So the 16th century Protestantism was always more than only Luther, though of course he was first. Btw, we should not forget too Theodore Beza, Calvin’s hand chosen man to take over the work in Geneva. And Beza lived into the early 17th century, and died at 86. He had a long run with the Reformed Protestantism. Let me recommend Jeffrey Mallinson’s nice book: Faith, Reason, And Revelation In Theodore Beza (One of the Oxford Theological Monographs, 2002).

  5. David,

    I really think you are onto something significant. Here is a snippet of a lecture I read just this morning by Dale Alquist, about Chesterton on Aquinas.

    Martin Luther did not know what he began when he attacked Reason. Chesterton says, “It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted: it was the very life of Lutheran teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy.” When Martin Luther attacked reason, he led the way to the Epoch we now live in, the Epoch of Doubt, the Epoch of Personality, of Psychology, of Suggestion, of Advertisement.

    Irene

  6. It is worth noting that Erasmus’ edition of the Greek NT forms the basis for other editions of the textus receptus (there are upwards of 15 editions of the TR) with Beza and Stephanus editions considered by most to be “THE Textus Receptus” accepted by most scholars today.

    Elzevir Brothers edition (from which the term Textus Receptus was coined and popularized) occurred in 1633 over 100 years after Erasmus’ editions (he had 5).

    The point is that I agree with CMP regarding the 7th event and its influence on the Reformation.

    But was omitted in CMP’s article is the fact that Erasmus edition comes from the so-called Byzantine text type or otherwise known as the Majority text type.

    It is also significant that Vaticanus (“B”) and the dark ages coincide, whereas the emergence of the TR and Majority MSS are inextricably tied with the reformation.

    Martin Luther’s translation was based on the Byzantine text type and NOT the Alexandrian (Aleph, A, B, C, P75 etc)

    The connection with Erasmus version of the TR based on the Byzantine MSS with the reformation is accurate and brought light to the world.

    This connection is no more specious than the previous 6 mentioned and is actually more documented as to its connection and influence of the reformers.

  7. Looks like you left out the most important singular historical event, without which the Protestant Reformation would not have occurred: the Great Schism of (what are now called) the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

    Every major “abuse” claimed by the first Reformers was developed by the Roman Catholic church AFTER from split from the East.

    Imagine if the West had kept its theology true to the Holy Tradition of, for example, the time of Augustine in the 5th century.

  8. The Reformation.

    Big deal.

    Not much of it stuck.

    Most Protestant churches might as well be Roman. They both have that same tired old theology of ‘a lot of God and a little bit of me’.

    Totally different than what Luther argued for.

  9. Great post. If there were an eight one I might add it would be the so-called ‘Pre-Reformers’ – the many voices of reform that pre-dated and inspired the later Protestant Reformation. They included priests & scholars who recognized the decadence & corruption within the church & preached a return to purity. Wycliff sought to translate the Bible, Savonarola was a monk who preached moral reform to Renaissance Italians, Huss was promised a hearing at a major council (with safe passage). All three were burned (though only Wycliff’s remains after being exhumed). Even scholars like Erasmus & More added a little fuel to this via satire. At Worms the interrogators of Luther put before him the writings of Wycliff & Huss to see if he would agree with them (which, quite boldly, and knowing it would not help his case there, he did).

  10. @Irene:

    This is a “rabbit” trail! And Chesterton is sure not the one read here per Luther! One cannot get or understand Luther except, through Luther! Note for example his theology between or contra: “theologia crucis” and “theologia gloriae”. And Luther never attacked “reason” itself, but what he considered as the “scholastic” voice there, and what he saw in Catholicism. This is what he called the great “whore” i.e. Catholic Scholasticism! We simply must read Luther himself, as some Roman Catholic scholars have done, and are doing so today.

  11. Hi Fr. Robert,

    I quoted Dale Alquist because he had such a good way of “putting” things. If one looks at the primary sources, one sees you are certainly correct about Luther attacking scholasticism. Here are a couple quick quotes, with page and section numbers, found in the Book of Concord.

    302:3-4
    What the scholastic theologians taught concerning [sin]is therefore nothing but error and stupidity, namely, that after the fall…the natural powers of man have remained whole and uncorrupted, and that man by nature possesses a right understanding and a good will, as the philosophers [e.g., Plato and Aristotle] teach.

    599:41
    …the old witch, Dame Reason,…

    Maybe you could differentiate between what you mean by “reason itself” and the “scholastic voice”. What’s the difference? It looks to me like Chesterton was right on when he said Thomists trusted reason and Luther didn’t.

  12. Stepping back to David’s good point in #4……I think nowdays we (myself included) tend to mistake technological advancement for intelligence and open-mindedness for wisdom. In reality, most of us are unaware of even the philosophical stance from which we interpret the world and make judgements. It’s like we have this really great telescope, but we only have a vague idea of the direction in which it is aimed, and no idea on what our feet are standing.

    Languages and philosophy need to be a mainstay of education again.

  13. @Irene: Indeed Luther defined reason based more on just general logic and the “humanism”, for that day as Erasmus did, note conceptualism, and yes too essentialism here. And yes too later Nominalism. Nominalism was suggested by Boethius, and too one of the most important elements in the philosophy of Ockham. It simply later became the general approach of John Locke, and the British empiricism, etc. But the “reason” that Luther rejected was of course the scholasticism that had become the philosophical logic of or from Aristotle, baptized by Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and many other Roman schools. Of course we see something too of Plato’s themes, pressed into this system, also. So “scholasticism” in itself is not really the issue, but what Luther believed the scholasticism of the Roman Church had become. The issue is seen still today in Roman Catholic theology, in many of the Augustinians, against or toward the strict Thomists, etc. Though of course without the harsh attitudes, though there is real theological disagreement here, certainly! But strict old school Roman Scholastcism is really no longer the centre of Catholic theology. But, it is still there somewhat, and used to degree. I have a Roman Catholic B.A. in Philosophy (my first degree many years ago now).

  14. Note the much earlier debate between Augustine and Pelagius, Augustine’s work of the “causa gratiae” simply hammered Pelagianism! And was perhaps some of the best philosophical thinking the Church has seen! And it is here that both Luther and Calvin are simply closer!

  15. And we should note too, that some Roman Catholic scholars are doing fresh and really good work on both the theology of Luther and Calvin! And too it is here that we should see the debate on Natural Theology, noting the great debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. This is being renewed today, and actually is being drawn more to the centre of the discovery of Natural Law and theological ethics in the Reformed. Calvin has a doctrine of the moral law of God, himself. And of itself, it does not “save”, but it does press one toward Law & Gospel!

  16. Fr. Robert,

    ” But strict old school Roman Scholastcism is really no longer the centre of Catholic theology.”
    You can say THAT again! However, there is a small but growing movement to restore classical Catholic education from the elementary through the seminary levels.

  17. @Irene: Yes, I know its still out there in places of Catholicism! I run into a few of them quite often. Funny, the RCC has so many different historical levels. But there are so many Catholic liberals these days! We all cannot escape postmodernity! One but cannot wonder where Rome will land when Ratzinger/Benedict is gone? The next pope could make or break Roman Catholicism don’t ya think?

  18. @Fr Robert. “One but cannot wonder where Rome will land when Ratzinger/Benedict is gone? The next pope could make or break Roman Catholicism don’t ya think?” Well, one might think so….Catholicism does seem to be teetering in many respects…..if I am correct, though, Pope Benedict has been “stacking the deck” of cardinals who will elect his successor. And hey, if Luther and the Protestant Reformation couldn’t “break” us, I guess Catholicism will be ok. Besides, we’ve got Jesus’ promise of protection against the gates of hell, right? (;

  19. David mentioned in comment #4 that if Luther had been taught Aquinas, the reformation may have never happened.

    I read an article, by David Steinmetz, that proposes Luther did indeed learn Aquinas, but only the Pelagian Aquinas of Biel, who was an Occamist. (Most of Luther’s important teachers were Occamists.) There were also 2 more ways of reading Aquinas in the 16th century. The Aristotelian interpretation of Cajetan and the Augustinian interpretation of Capreolus.
    We’ve already mentioned Luther rejecting scholasticism, so Cajetan’s interpretation was out of the question for Luther anyway. If Luther had been educated in Capreolus’ Augustinian interpretation of Aquinas, maybe history would have turned out differently.

  20. @Irene: David Steinmetz is always well worth reading! I have many of his books. Perhaps one of my favorites is his: Luther and Staupitz, An Essay in the Intellectual Origins of the Protestant Reformation, (Duke University Press, 1980). But his book: Calvin in Context, (Oxford 2010, Second Edition), is simply one the the best modern (so-called) books on Calvin’s theology, etc.

    And btw, since GOD is Sovereign, Martin Luther’s life and works still stand, HE is simply the first Reformer who lived! Here I think of the great loss of Hus!

    Indeed the Reformation continues! ;) And here btw, is the essence of Vatican II!

  21. Vatican II will always “haunt” the RCC, until they fully define it, but in reality they never will in my opinion, for as a “pastoral” Council, it simply stands on its own. Now here is an historic piece, that even Roman Catholics cannot agree on! I see this almost daily with both lay and clerical Roman Catholic theolog’s!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. thumb licks [12.05.12] | spreading the fame - December 5, 2012

    […] 7 important event in history that paved the way for the Reformation. […]

  2. The Rise of the Papacy | Pastor Passing Through! - August 14, 2013

    […] Ministries: Seven Historical Events that Prepared the way for the Reformation. November 26, 2012. http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2012/11/why-the-reformation-happened-when-it-did/ (accessed June 14, […]

Leave a Reply