500 Years of the Reformation
500 years ago yesterday, according to tradition,1 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany, launching the Protestant Reformation.
I always feel a little bit ambivalent about the Reformation. On the one hand, I am a protestant with no intention of crossing the Tiber; I have great respect for Catholic theology, but I align more closely with protestant theology. On the other hand, as an academic medievalist and professional cranky person about historical ignorance, I believe it’s important to understand Luther in his context, not as the lone savior of Christianity. Luther’s successful schism with the Catholic church was a product of broad cultural and political forces; understanding these forces helps us to better appreciate what Luther launched and to consider what it means to talk about the body of Christ five hundred years after the Reformation.
Growing up protestant (of the non-denominational evangelical variety), the common narrative about the Reformation was that True Christianity™️ had somehow disappeared for at least a millennium before it was revived by the reformers. When it disappeared was a bit vague — with Constantine? The fall of Rome? But its reappearance was easy to identify: Martin Luther and the 95 Theses nailed to the door of the Wittenburg church.2 But like all narratives, this one simplifies history in order to focus on only one figure, who comes across as extraordinary. In reality, Luther was part of a much larger push towards reform, and his theology gained a significant boost from the political situation in the Holy Roman Empire (which at the time included much of modern-day Germany).
The idea that the church was essentially dead through the middle ages would be laughable if it weren’t common, and I address broad misconceptions about the middle ages, including the medieval church, here and here. But more specific to the Reformation, the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries — Luther’s time period — saw an increase in lay spiritual practices and efforts to reform corruption and theological abuse in the Roman church. Corruption was indeed rampant in the church during this period, particularly in various popes' involvement with the politics of Italian city-states and the Holy Roman Empire. Popes like Julius II used warfare to expand their lands and accumulated vast amounts of wealth in less than ethical ways.
Although open warfare led by the pope was thankfully rare, the drive to increase the papacy’s wealth lead to an increase in the sale of indulgences, which became a key point of contention for many reformers both protestant and catholic. The idea of an indulgence for sin has long precedent in Catholic theology, but in the early sixteenth century indulgences were sold to raise money for large-scale building projects and expensive art. The money to pay Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel, for example, came in large part from the sale of indulgences. Church officials living luxuriously while demanding money from their parishioners are a perennial problem, but were an especially acute one on the eve of the Reformation.
However, even as many in church leadership were more concerned with earthly power and wealth than the care of souls, the growing middle class in Europe eagerly sought opportunities for spiritual growth. More people had basic literacy and the time for devotion, leading to widespread interest in spirituality across Europe — and widespread concern about the corruption in the church. After all, reform arises most effectively from groups who genuinely care about the health of the institution they seek to reform, and the Reformation is no exception.
Moreover, renaissance humanism was spreading across Europe. This was primarily a system of education with a strong emphasis on Greek literature and an equally strong sense of distance from, and recovery of, the classical past. (This sense of rupture from the past differs from the medieval sense of continuity with the Latin past.) The shifting attitudes of renaissance humanism meant a greater willingness to question authority and a larger emphasis on the individual conscience, laying the foundation for several centuries of disruption to the old accepted orders of both religion and politics.
So in the early sixteenth century, we see the convergence of corruption in church leadership with vibrant interest in spiritual growth and with an educational program willing to question tradition. In this environment, the question of reform is not if, but when and how. And here again, Luther may be retrospectively the most dramatic reformer, but he was hardly alone in his criticisms of the church. Three years before Luther’s Theses, for example, the scholar Erasmus published (anonymously) a blistering satire about Julius II, self-explanatorily titled Julius Excluded from Heaven. Moreover, Luther’s 95 Theses weren’t meant to be a dramatic exit from the church but rather an opening salvo in a dialogue aimed at reform.
However, Luther’s theses did challenge the authority of the pope and were thus poorly received by church leaders in Germany and Rome, beginning the road towards Luther’s excommunication and the establishment of the Lutheran church. The political situation in Germany aided this process; because of the pope’s involvement with the Holy Roman Emperor, many German princes within the Holy Roman Empire were happy to find a new way to oppose their emperor and stop the flow of land and money to the church. Some German princes who became Lutheran certainly had a genuine interest in Luther’s theology, but the spread of Lutheranism owed much to its political usefulness at this particular moment in time in the German provinces of the Holy Roman Empire.
None of this undermines the importance of Luther, or of the Reformation. But as we protestants celebrate the birth of our movement, we should remember that protestants didn’t rediscover Christianity, or succeed in separating their churches from national politics and the corruption that follows. (The only Christians advocating the separation of church and state in the sixteenth century were the anabaptists, and if the Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics could agree on one thing, it was that the anabaptists were the worst.)
I think it’s also worth pausing on the title “Reformation,” because what happened wasn’t a reformation, but a schism. Those reformers who remained Catholic successfully ended many abuses of the leadership, but the damage was already done and the western church had split into factions.3 As a modern western protestant in a democratic nation that highly values individualism, I sympathize with those who form their own churches based on doctrinal convictions. But I also wonder what we lose when we choose to separate rather than do the hard work of re-learning how to live together.
In the last few years, Lutherans and Catholics have joined together to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation. These joint celebrations serve as examples of how we can work together as Christians across denomination lines, remembering that above all we are the body of Christ despite the disagreements that inevitably arise in any family.
Luther almost certainly sent his document to the Archbishop of Mainz on this date, who forwarded the theses to Rome on the suspicion of heresy. It’s less historically certain that Luther nailed them to the door of the church, although it makes for a much more dramatic start to the Reformation.↩
John Wycliffe almost succeeded in launching the Reformation more than a century before Luther, so he counted as a real Christian, but otherwise all was dark.↩
Of course, the western and eastern churches had already split in the eleventh century.↩