The Reformation has typically been seen in two great contexts, the corruption and chronic institutional weakness of the late medieval church and the challenges presented by humanism. The dominating early figure has been Martin Luther, who, it has been claimed, sparked off the Reformation when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
The Reformation has also been placed in the context of earlier reforming movements, those of the Englishman John Wyclif (d. 1384) and the Czech Jan Hus (c.1369-1415). Wyclif had formulated a theology of predestination, rejected transubstantiation and advocate clerical marriage. His followers, known as Lollards, went underground but survived into the early sixteenth century. Hus advocated ‘utraquism’, the laity receiving the sacrament in both kinds, which was a fundamental attack on the privileges of the clergy. He was burned at the Council of Constance in 1415 but the Hussite church remained secure in its national setting of Bohemia and Moravia.
This traditional view fails to tackle adequately a number of fundamental problems. If the Church was so bad, why did it endure for so long? And if humanists contributed to the break-up of Christendom, why did some of the most influential, like Erasmus and More, devote their energies to preserving its unity? Why did Luther break with Rome when Erasmus did not? And how important is Luther in the story?
Can we be sure that the Church was more corrupt in the sixteenth century than in previous centuries when there are examples of scandalous popes and lax clergy throughout the Middle Ages? Historians like Eamon Duffy have used documents like churchwardens’ accounts to argue that the English Church in the fifteenth century enjoyed mass popular support. The orders of friars, in particular the Franciscans showed a remarkable capacity for reform; Cardinal Ximenes, who promoted his own order, the Observant Franciscans in the Spanish kingdoms, is just one example. Movements such as the devotio moderna in the Low Countries and the Oratory of Divine Love in Rome were growing in popularity. In France the humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples produced a commentary on the psalms in 1509 and on Romans in 1512. His Erasmian piety gained the support of the king’s sister Marguerite d’Angloulême. It was possible to criticize the Church and want it to improve without thinking of to leaving it. And even at its worst, the Church was far from moribund. In the sixteenth century, faced with the challenge of Protestantism, it showed a formidable capacity to adapt and survive.
This is not to say that all was well with the Church. There were many vested interests working against change. For example, Lefèvre d’Etaples’ patron, Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, fell foul of the Franciscans who accused him of heresy. There was also some serious corruption. When Leo X renewed the sale of indulgences in 1517 for his great project of St Peter’s, he showed formidable marketing skills that would not have been out of place in the modern world, but also a deep cynicism. The transaction by which Albrecht of Brandenburg (left) would promote the sale in alliance with the Fuggers in order to gain the archbishopric of Mainz and a cardinal’s was extremely sleazy!
However there had been plenty of sleaze in earlier centuries and plenty of hostility to reform. The Protestant Reformation succeeded (partly) because of a variety of new circumstances. These include the printing press, implications of humanist biblical scholarship, the ambitions of rulers, the politics of the cities of Germany and Switzerland and also a search for religious safeguards in an age that was especially preoccupied with the afterlife.
The popular story that the Reformation began when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 may not be true. The theses did exist and were published, but it is not certain that they were posted on the church door. Modern scholarship places less emphasis than previously on the role of Luther and instead tries to assess how far the Reformations were popular movements and how far the mass of the people were affected by them. It seems certain that there was a popular movement - though princes, cities and peasants wanted different things from Protestantism. However no amount of revisionism can hide Luther’s importance.
Luther was the son of a Thurningian miner, who became the lessee of a mine and thus a small capitalist. He went to school in Eisenach. In 1501 he went to the university of Erfurt. In 1505 he entered the Order of the Augustinian Eremites, and in 1507 he took priestly orders. In 1510-1511 he was sent to Rome on business for the Saxon Augustinian monasteries, but there is no evidence that he was especially appalled by what he saw there.
On his return to Germany in 1511 he was sent by the Vicar-General of his Order, Johann von Staupitz, to teach at the new university, founded by Friedrich ‘the Wise’, Elector of Saxony, who was determined to make his university one of the centres of humanist study in Germany.
In 1514-15 Luther lectured on the psalms. In 1515 he moved on to Romans where he read in the Vulgate text of Romans 1:17: ‘Justus autem ex fide vivit’. He read this at a time when, according to his later accounts, he was troubled by intense spiritual anxieties. These arouse out of his Augustinian concept of a righteous God justly angry at his sins and his consequent fear of damnation. His reading of Romans led him to believe that salvation was not something that could be attained by striving, but was a free gift of God, apprehended through faith. The Pauline term for this is ‘justification by faith’, sola fide.
The chronology of his spiritual experiences is contradictory and contested. Long afterwards, in 1545 he spoke of a ‘tower experience’, a spiritual breakthrough that brought him to peace of mind. Though he never gave the date of this experience, it is likely to have been after 1517. When he made his famous protest, he had not fully worked out his ‘evangelical’ theology or fought through his spiritual difficulties. It was while he was in the middle of his struggles that the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg selling indulgences, accompanied by an accountant from the Fugger banking house.
The fairly recent doctrine of indulgences had been promulgated in a papal bull of 1343 that allowed to faithful to make a financial contribution to draw upon the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints. Later in the fifteenth century it had been argued that indulgences were available to help the souls in Purgatory as well as the living. In an age of acute religious anxiety the doctrine of indulgences held a powerful appeal. But it could also be seen as a cynical exploitation of people’s fears and Luther was not the only person to protest about the system.
Luther’s aim had been the fairly narrow one of opening up a debate about indulgences. The ninety-five theses were not intended as a call to revolution. But the challenge was a public one, contained in a letter to his local archbishop – Albrecht of Brandenburg. Albrecht forwarded the theses to Rome and within a fortnight they were available in German. In March 1518 Erasmus sent a copy to Thomas More.
In the ensuing pamphlet debate among German theologians, Luther moved from his protest against indulgences to a wider consideration of the doctrine of God’s grace.
At the end of 1518 he met the great Italian scholar, Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. But there was no meeting of minds and any opportunity for compromise was lost. It is probably about this time that Luther had his ‘tower experience’. In the wake of his disillusionment with Cajetan, he began to call for a General Council to hear his case – a direct attack on papal authority.
In 1519 Luther engaged in a public disputation with Dr Johann Eck at Leipzig (the rival university to Wittenberg). Eck, a brilliant debater, forced him into the open - Luther said that the Roman supremacy was of recent date and that much that Hus had taught had been correct. This immediately defined Luther as an enemy of the Catholic Church. The controversy spurned a huge pamphlet literature between 1518 and 1523. Pro-Luther pamphlets outnumbered the anti by 20 to 1.
1520 Luther issued three pamphlets:
(a) Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. This was addressed in German and called for a programme of social and ecclesiastical reform. The pope was described as Antichrist and the German nobility had a God-given duty to overthrow him.In December 1520, following his excommunication, Luther burned the papal bull Exurge Domine which condemned his writings at the gates of Wittenberg.
(b) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was written in Latin for the clergy. Luther reduced the seven sacraments to the three he believed were explicitly mentioned in scripture (baptism, penance and the Eucharist). He attacked transubstantiation though he maintained a doctrine of real presence.
(c) The Freedom of a Christian Man was a plea for inward religion based on a right relationship with God. ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all’. Good works come naturally to those who are saved.
The Diet of Worms: In the summer of 1519 Charles V had been elected emperor. Though Luther was under the Ban of the Empire, Charles gave him a safe-conduct by Charles V to attend the Diet in April 1521. In a long speech he defended his refusal to repudiate his writings.
‘Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.’Not long after his death, the first editor of his collected works added to his speech: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’. Charles honoured the safe-conduct he had given Luther, but he also issued an edict condemning him as a heretic.
Once Luther was back in Saxony, Frederick arranged for him to be kidnapped and ‘imprisoned’ in the Wartburg. During this time he completed his translation of the New Testament based on Erasmus’s text. He also wrote hymns most notably ‘Ein feste burg ist unser Gott’.
The Swiss Reformation
Luther’s protest was not isolated. In 1519 Huldrych Zwingli’s sermons in the Great Minster at Zurich initiated the Swiss Reformation, which was to affect England much more. It is disputed among historians how much Zwingli owed to Luther and how much he arrived at his theological position independently.
Zwingli showed his radicalism by marrying (in secret in 1522) and by ordering the destruction of images. He also set out a revolutionary doctrine of the Eucharist: it was purely a symbol and a declaration of faith; there was no ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist.
The development of Lutheranism
In 1521 Luther’s brilliant young disciple Philipp Melanchthon published the Loci Communes that was to become the central text of Lutheranism.
As Lutheranism developed, the early radicalism of Luther’s pamphlets vanished. Luther believed he was confronted by two serious challenges from the ‘left’. In 1522 he returned to Wittenberg to find the scholar and nobleman Andreas von Karlstadt declaring publicly that all sacred images should be destroyed. He condemned this in a pamphlet Against the Heavenly Prophets.
In 1525 he reacted viciously to the Peasants’ Revolt and urged the nobility to ‘smite, slay and stab’. His language was that of a frightened man. He believed that he was partly responsible for the revolt.
Luther’s religious conservatism is shown at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529 where he and Zwingli clashed on the Eucharist. Luther insisted on a ‘real presence’ while Zwingli argued for a purely symbolic interpretation of Christ’s works. Their failure to agree marked a permanent division between Swiss and German Protestantism.
But Luther’s conservatism should not be exaggerated. His marriage in 1524 to the ex-nun, Katherine von Bora (left), was a revolutionary step.
In 1529 the Emperor convened the Diet of Speyer with a view to withdrawing all concessions to Lutheranism. A group of German princes who supported religious reform drew up a protest - a ‘Protestatio’. This is the origin of the term Protestant. Following this, Lutheran theology was codified in Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession (1530).