Our interpretation of the Protestant Reformation should emerge from an understanding of the late Medieval period. Thinking carefully about the theological landscape on the eve of Reform movements will help us to better understand the exact nature of Reformation theology and of the reformers themselves. In particular, we should seek to understand the significant doctrinal emphases of the Roman Catholic Church at that time. There are two main pillars of late Medieval Roman Catholic theology that set up the context for the emergence of the Reformation.
We can focus here on Roman Catholicism because, for all intents and purposes, it was the religious world in which the people of the West lived. While we cannot speak of complete uniformity on all doctrinal matters, there were several dominant issues that held a great deal of influence and sway over the social, political, and religious landscape of the time. Even where some criticized aspects of these doctrines no one was prepared to part ways with the Church over these matters. The Church was their spiritual mother, for good or ill.
Of all the doctrines that we might explore, the two most influential in setting the stage for the Protestant Reformation were the doctrines of salvation and the church. Soteriology and ecclesiology were the major emphases of the time and specific aspects of Rome’s development of these doctrines became the focal points of the Reformers themselves. A brief exploration of each will allow us to unpack their individual influence on the scene. We will begin by exploring the first pillar.
The most important question in all of existence is still “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30). The late-medieval church had taken its cue from Peter Lombard, whose book Sentences had established a system of mediating grace to sinners in order that they might draw closer to salvation. The Church, at the time, had understood the necessity of grace and of Christ’s atoning work for the process of salvation, and yet they also believed that justification before God came via sacramental system. While no one was righteous enough to earn salvation, many theologians had argued that God bestowed grace on those who tried their hardest and was willing to make their effort sufficient, even thought it wasn’t in and of itself. Lombard, for his part, had established a system by which you could begin to calculate your effort.
According to Lombard, there were seven sacraments. Five of the seven were open to any Christian: baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, penance, and extreme unction. Two of the seven, however, were exclusive to specific classes of people: ordination and matrimony (see Gerald Bray, “Late Medieval Theology” in Reformation Theology, 68-69). Of all of these sacraments, however, it was the Mass which became the most important. The Mass, which was the communion ceremony, was vital to the life of a believer, because “in this sacrament not only is there an increase of virtue and grace, but he who is the source and origin of all grace is received entire” (Lombard, Sentences. 126.96.36.199.). While Lombard himself did not hold to transubstantiation, the doctrine was certainly in favor among the broader church – it became official church dogma in 1215 ate the Fourth Lateran Council.
Tied to the reception of Holy Communion was the act of penance. For, it was determined that a person could only receive communion if they were in a “state of grace.” To be in a “state of grace” required one to perform the necessary activities to repent of sin and achieve peace with God. From this developed a “whole sin industry, with theologians compiling lists of ‘mortal’ and ‘venial’ (forgivable) sins, each o which came with a specific act of penance attached” (Bray, 73). Gerald Bray explains:
The whole thing became a vast calculation, with sins and penances being ticked off against one another just like crimes and punishments. The sinner who had performed his penance satisfactorily would then return to the priest to seek absolution from him and proceed to receive Holy Communion.
While this use of the Mass provided some comfort to the many believers struggling in their daily obedience to Christ, its real power came in the application to the afterlife.
What happened to someone who died before they were able to perform the right acts of penance? They could not go to heaven, it was argued, for they were too sinful. It seemed to many too cruel to simply say that these people went to hell. Many were not overly wicked and evil, they had tried, but still they had fallen short. So, the doctrine of purgatory was developed as a place where those who died in sin might go to work out their sins and prepare themselves for an eventual entrance into heaven. If Mass was a means by which the living could receive grace for themselves, then could one perform a Mass for the dead by which those in purgatory might receive grace? The answer, the church decided, was yes. And so the more Masses performed for the dead the more benefit to them, with the specific goal to lessen their time in Purgatory.
Overtime this initial system of paying moral debts became more thoroughly developed. Mass was the central piece, but there were other ways for individuals to take years off their time in limbo. Thus was born the system of indulgences by which the church could regulate who received a pardon and what degree of pardon they received. Essentially a new system of salvation was being born. Diarmaid MacCulloch observes:
… the purgatory-centered faith of the north encouraged an attitude to salvation in which the sinner piled up reparations for sin: Action was added to action in order to merit years off purgatory. It was possible to do something about one’s salvation: This was precisely the doctrine Martin Luther was to make his particular target after 1517. (The Reformation, 14).
This was a major pillar which became a major focal point for the Reformation responses.
It’s important to note that purgatory was not accepted by everyone. In fact there were many who resisted adopting this particular doctrine. MacCulloch notes that it was much more dominant in Northern Europe than it was in Southern (15). As the doctrine grew in acceptance, however, it was to become a major path towards securing papal supremacy. The doctrine was intimately tied to the power and authority of the Pope and, as we shall see, this was to become the second major pillar of church doctrine on the eve of the Reformation.