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.
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.