At the beginning of the sixteenth century, conditions resulted which rendered the Protestant Reformation both necessary and possible. Over the course of the previous century, six key elements combined together to create the perfect situation for a reformation: corruption of the Catholic Church, Renaissance humanism, political changes, printing technology, pre-Reformers, and the sovereignty of God.
The Roman Catholic Church suffered many grievous injuries during the fifteenth century. The weakness of the papacy was evident through the Avignon Papacy which placed the pope in the hands of the French king and the Great Schism which resulted in multiple popes in France and Italy. Even after the church resolved its papal issues, a long succession of Renaissance popes proved to be inept, greedy, and immoral. The most scandalous pope of the century was the infamous Borgia pope, Alexander VI. The religion of the Catholic Church was becoming mere superstition to the common people, and it dissolved into basically a salvation by works. The decision by Leo X to sell indulgences would lead one monk to question the church’s authority, a point which would spark the Reformation.
Renaissance humanism aided the birth of the Reformation as evidenced by the famous saying, “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.” The pursuit of ad fontes (“back to the sources”) spurred a return to classical literature, and many Biblical scripts were rediscovered and studied by scholars. The questioning mindset of humanist scholars led them to analyze everything in life, even religion. The humanist program called for the corruption to be cleansed from the papacy.
The political changes of Europe at the time paved the way for the Reformation. The philosophy of “one emperor, one pope” was shattered by the arrival of several powerful monarchs in Europe: Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France, Charles V of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire. These strong nation-states had equally strong kings whose personal agendas did not include obeying the pope or asking papal advice. The continuing fragmentation of Germany directly aided Lutheranism and Calvinism since the individual princes of the Germanic states decided for themselves which religion they would follow.
The technological innovation of the printing press allowed the ideas and beliefs of the Reformers to reach the literate masses of Europe. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were mass produced and read by Germanic princes who would later form the Schmalkaldic League. Wycliffe’s Bible of the previous century could only be hand-written, but Tyndale’s Bible was placed in the hands of the common plowboy.
The three pre-Reformers of the fifteen-century—Wycliffe, Huss, and Savonarola—set the groundwork for Luther. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English and resisted the papacy during his lifetime. His followers, the Lollards, continued his work although many paid with their lives. John Huss of Bohemia popularized Wycliffe’s ideas and became a martyr for his faith. Savonarola of Florence advocated moral reform. He used the state to reform the church, creating a stir in Italy.
Ultimately, the sovereignty of God caused the Reformation to occur from 1517 to 1648. God alone could set all of these events in motion so that Luther’s Ninety-five Theses would be posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The three key truths agreed on by the reformers—salvation by faith alone, authority of Scripture alone, and priesthood of believers—shed light in a previously dark part of the world. We modern evangelical Christians can trace our religious heritage back to these early reformers who gave their all to tell the good news of Christ’s payment for the sins of the world. “To God be the glory, great things He has done.”
– Hannah S. Bowers