The Reformation Context (Part 1)

I once heard church historian Timothy George describe the setting of the Reformation with the immortal words of Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

The context out of which the Reformation emerges is one of great complexity and diversity. There were major social, political, and religious factors that all played out together to create perfect soil in which the Reformations of the sixteenth century could blossom.

Socially, increasing divisions between the rich and poor were creating serious tensions. The rise of money economies created new wealth and new poverty; it came quickly into contact with old school feudal mentalities. Where traditionally, peasants were required to live off the land of the nobility, work it for them, serve them, and subjection to them, new money was providing peasants with different options. The tension this was creating between the old and new money was becoming very tight. Eventually, peasants all over Europe began to revolt. Inflation, taxation, and plague were adding to the pressure cooker that was Medieval Europe. Social unrest continued to rise. This unrest provides a unique setting into which new ideas could be granted a platform and an audience that they might not have had in previous times.

Politically, Reformation Europe saw the rise of the modern nation-state. Factions and hostility brewed hot everywhere in Europe. The authority of Emperor and Pope were constantly challenged by those within the Holy Roman Empire. Religious wars found good use for advances in metallurgy with the canon. It was first used in The Hundred Years War, a conflict that would have still been fresh in the minds of people when Luther was born in 1483. Timothy George has noted, “Why the Reformation succeeded in Germany, failed in France, and never took root in Spain can only be understood in light of the distinct political histories of these states” (Theology of the Reformers, 17). For some the Reformation became a great means to attack the powers-that-be, to exercise some form of autonomy and independence. We see this specifically in King Henry VIII and his adoption of Protestantism. The shifting political landscape provided yet another angle from which the Reformation could grab a foothold in Europe.

The religious turmoil of the age was by far the most significant. Carter Lindberg has stated that “The major crisis of the late medieval era was a crisis of values” (The European Reformations, 41). By the 1500s the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church had reached the height of its corruption. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) had been known as the “Great Warrior Pope” and those who preceded and followed him were as equally poor representations of Christ and the apostle Peter, the supposed first Pope. Critics of the church were pointing to the abuses of patronage – appointing people to religious office for financial gain, and the promiscuity of some of the clergy. Protestants would not be the only one calling for reforms. There was a general sense of distrust of the clergy of the late Medieval era. As more voices began to lend themselves to the questioning of the church, its practices, and its powers the dissatisfaction and uncertainty of the whole culture began to rise.

This is just, of course, a glimpse of the cultural context from which the Reformation sprang. Each factor could be its own study, and yet the important point is to note the diversity of contributions that the culture made to preparing the way for reform movements. It would be naive to root the reformations of the period in any one element. Not everyone who joined the various causes of reform were motivated by the same factors. There is a level fo complexity we must appreciate, then, as we seek to interpret the reformation as a whole. Nonetheless the Christian can appreciate the ways in which God orchestrated so many factors to provide for a unique soil. God is always working in the world and it was His plan to organize all these elements to coalesce at this perfect moment in history. By the time Luther comes on the scene, then, the way has been well prepared. The Reformation may have arisen from a diversity of causes, and yet we can readily say that the primary cause is ultimately God Himself. As Paul says, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). We may look to many causes and interpretations to explain the reformation, but ultimately we must look to God.

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