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The Reformation: History In An Hour Edward A Gosselin

Introduction From the time of St Peter to AD 1521, the Roman Catholic Church was the only ‘official’ Christian church in western Europe. It provided the only means through which a person could expect to have access to God and gain entry into Heaven. The Church however was not immune to corruption, and there had been several attempts to rein in Church leaders who were often distracted from their pastoral duties with more earth-bound interests such as the gathering of power and wealth. Yet, the one Church remained intact and unchanged in its teachings throughout the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and up to the Reformation. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther began his feverish quest for salvation and Church reform, and started an evangelical movement which spread beyond the borders of sixteenthcentury Germany. This movement is the first of three distinct developments of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s (and others’) evangelical revolution evolved into personal causes for rulers and monarchs, who sought to impose their religious will upon their subjects, and signified a second phase, the Reformation ‘from above’. During the Reformation’s third, confessional (religious wars) period, in which princes, territories and national churches conducted wars of belief, Protestants migrated to and colonized new settlements, and created their own methods of preserving the faith. The era of the Protestant Reformation begins in 1517 and, by 1648, becomes fully shaped in Europe as a movement embodying several new independent churches, revolutionized systems of belief and geopolitical changes that affected monarchs and their subjects throughout the region. By the mid-seventeenth century, the original one Church had become several different churches without any hope of reuniting.


Origins of the Protestant Reformation On 31 October 1517, the 34-year-old German monk, Martin Luther (pictured, c. 1520), posted his condemnation against Roman Catholic theological declarations on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther therein attacked, among other things, a system of Church-sponsored intercession in exchange for money as a means of getting into Heaven. Described by a contemporary as ‘a man of middle stature, with a voice which combined sharpness and softness’, Luther believed in a God who condemns sinful men, without exception, and was consumed by years of self-doubt as to whether he himself would ever get into Heaven.

131 Years of the Reformation The Protestant Reformation, in simple terms, caused a breaking off of many Christians from the original Roman Catholic Church. New churches were formed throughout Europe under the leadership of Luther, Huldreich [or Ulrich] Zwingli, John Calvin and others. Wars would be fought within and between states over matters of religion, and tens of thousands of Europeans would die in the ensuing conflicts. Today’s relatively harmonious coexistence among the many Protestant churches and sects as well as between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism belies the hatred that existed between and among them all throughout the sixteenth century. Luther’s simple act of nailing his writings to a cathedral door began a change in western Europe of such magnitude that it can only be compared to the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. The invention of Gutenberg’s new printing press with movable type (c. 1450) made these two revolutions possible by allowing information and new ideas to spread quickly and far.


The Sacraments, Heaven and Hell Ensuring your salvation for an eternity in Heaven so as to avoid eternity in Hell was as important to a believer in the sixteenth century (whether king or commoner) as getting a good crop or transporting your wool to market. According to the Roman Catholic Church, there could be no entrance into Heaven without the Church and its exclusive sacraments which conferred what is known as sanctifying grace. Take, for example, King Henry IV of France who on 14 May 1610 was stopped in his carriage on a street in Paris, and stabbed in the chest by an assassin. His companions, although sure he was already dead, covered his wounds as he was rushed back to the palace. Laid out on his bed, a priest put his ear to the king’s mouth in order to hear a possible last confession but no sound came from the dead monarch’s mouth. The sacrament of Last Rites could not be performed and one could assume poor King Henry never made it to Heaven. By the mid-twelfth century, seven sacraments (the outward acts which give inward, divine grace) had been defined canonically, of which five were for the laity and religious alike. All Roman Catholics were baptized soon after birth, removing the Original Sin (which Adam and Eve had committed after their unfortunate encounter with Satan in the Garden of Eden); all could receive the sacrament of confession from a priest by which their souls were cleansed of sins committed since baptism; all could then receive communion (the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper – a replication of Christ’s Last Supper with His Apostles before His crucifixion) from a priest who changed the bread and wine at the celebration of Mass into what was (and is still) believed by Catholics to be: the real Body and Blood of Jesus; all were given the sacrament of confirmation in their teenage years to become adults in and defenders of the Catholic faith; and all Christians could have their souls given a final cleansing, Eucharist, and a last anointing from a priest before death through the sacrament of Last Rites [It is known as Extreme Unction in the time to which the author refers]. One of the final two sacraments was for the laity (Marriage) and the other (Holy Orders) for those becoming priests who were then capable of performing the sacrament of transubstantiation [transubstantiation is not called a sacrament and thus that’s the wrong way of putting it– it’s rather the sacrament of Eucharist in which transubstantiation takes


place – would you say capable of conducting the Mass– changing bread and wine into the real Body and Blood of Jesus for Eucharistic communion. (After AD 1139, the Church decreed that priests could not marry, thereby circumventing inheritance disputes within the Church and its properties.) This is correct. 2nd Lateran Council. Not just about inheritance though : trying to restore evangelical values in the clerical cadre.

‘The Third Place’: Purgatory Salvation should have been accessible for all sixteenth-century Roman Catholics as long as they received these sacraments and did good works. However, as in the case of Henry IV, death might be sudden, leaving serious or, as they were called, mortal sins unconfessed. If you died with unconfessed mortal sins (for example murder or robbery), you certainly wound up in Hell for eternity. God’s judgement upon your death with unconfessed venial (lesser) sins sent you to Purgatory, the ‘Third Place,’ as Luther called it. Purgatory was not an eternal abode, but a place where your soul spent an unknown period of time, undergoing a purging of venial sins such as theft, lying or some minor moral offence. Such purgation through fire could last anywhere from a day to the end of the world, and God never gave clues as to how long a soul would stay in Purgatory. The existence of Purgatory became carefully defined through the authority of thirteenth-century Roman Catholic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. At the Council of Florence (1439), the Roman Catholic Church decreed Purgatory, and believers saw it as a densely populated place which was nearly impossible to avoid. We can now see why a real crisis of salvation existed in the early sixteenth century. Christians (and all Christians were Roman Catholics in western Europe) had to keep careful track of all their sins so that they could give an accurate accounting of them at the confessional. It seemed certain that all Christians were sentenced to Hell or Purgatory [well, this is to mix apples and pears – temporary sentencing only to Pugatory] while only Church martyrs and saints gained immediate entry into Heaven because of their sinless state. But how long were those who were going to be eventually saved going to have to stay in Purgatory? What’s notable about all of this is the notion that humans had some sort of control over the length


of time they would have to stay there.

‘Shortening a Stay in Purgatory’ The Church created the indulgence as a hedge against too long a stay in Purgatory (pictured below). You must say that indulgences took different forms: it was basically an act which would remit punishment consequent on sin. The purchase of a pardon was an abuse recognised by Church councils but it still went on. [So it’s incorrect to say that all indulgences were monetory although it could take the form of alms-giving. You can say that an abuse built up of ‘paying for a pardon’ which meant that Christians could, depending on how much money they paid for these indulgences, shorten their own souls’ or the souls of their relatives’ duration in Purgatory and hasten entry into Heaven by a year, ten years, several hundred or however much they could afford. However, if the uncertain Christian had not paid enough, the poor soul still might have another several million years to spend in Purgatory; or, conversely, he may have overpaid. Proceeds from the purchase of indulgences were used for rebuilding the ancient St Peter’s in Rome to be the present basilica we know it as today. It was a win-win solution for the Church and an uncertain one for the buyer of the indulgences.


Accounting and banking had been developing since the thirteenth century in the city-states of Florence and Venice. By the sixteenth century, several high officials and popes in the Roman Catholic Church came from banking families such as the Medici. The ideas of accounting and the monetary compensation for intercession in Purgatory transferred from traditions of commerce and banking in civil society to the Church and its mission of salvation, with the Church acting as the broker for salvation.

Early Sixteenth-Century Efforts at Reform Attempts in the early sixteenth century to reform the Roman Catholic Church were led by, among others, Desiderius Erasmus of Holland (pictured above) and Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples of France. They believed that the Church was guilty of pastoral neglect, sexual malfeasance and personal financial gain, but they had no intention of breaking with Rome or its papacy. They also believed that the laity should have more direct access to the Scripture within their own vernaculars. Bibles existed only in Latin according to Church dictate, and those who dared to publish the Bible in vernacular languages were turned over to secular authorities for punishment. However, some highly placed people felt that the Bible should be accessible to all. In 1524, for example, Lefèvre d’Étaples (pictured below) was asked by Bishop Guillaume Briçonnet to introduce vernacular bibles in the district of Meaux, north-east of Paris. Bishop Briçonnet had, as support, Marguerite d’Angoulême, the sister of the French king, Francis I.


However, political conditions changed the reforms in Meaux. Francis I sought to control areas to which he had dynastic claims and thus he invaded Italy in 1525. After his defeat in February 1525 at the Battle of Pavia in northern Italy, Francis I was taken prisoner by the Emperor Charles V and brought to Spain for a year, thereby depriving Lefèvre of his royal protection. Theological enemies forced Lefèvre and his colleagues to close down their biblical work in Meaux and flee to Navarre (of which Marguerite d’Angoulême was now queen). Desiderius Erasmus, known as the greatest scholar of his age, was a contemporary of Lefèvre and twenty-one years older than Luther. Born in Rotterdam, he joined the Augustinian Order of monks, which he eventually left, and travelled throughout Europe as a welcome guest of royalty and other court figures. Correct about the order. He didn’t formally leave the Augustinians, but was given permission to travel and became a kind of professional wanderer. See ODNB. But I suppose roughly speaking ‘left’ will do as it’s a complex position. He published many influential books, including a Greek New Testament (1516), which became the basis for the work of other scholars and religious thinkers. Erasmus was also a pacifist, arguing that since Christ was the Prince of Peace, all Christians should be peaceful as well. Such men as Lefèvre and Erasmus wanted to restore the Roman Catholic Church to its original nature in the time of the Apostles. They believed that man is saved by both faith and his own good works. This idea was in accord with that of the late medieval Church and its belief that man is saved by the Church and his participation, as a believer, in the seven sacraments. Lefèvre and Erasmus kept in close contact with the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and their work at reform was distinct from that of the Protestant reformers, although their influence is


evident in the teachings of Luther and Zwingli as well as some of the more radical reformers. Read more The Reformation: History In An Hour published by Harper Press History In An Hour


The Reformation: History In An Hour