The Reformation Context (Part 6)

The Roman Catholic Church had two major theological pillars that influenced the shape of the Reformation. We’ve seen already, how their soteriology influenced the theological response of the reformers, but their ecclesiology was equally important. In particular, the Church’s view of Papal Primacy became a significant touchstone of reformation theologies.

The authority of the Pope over the whole of the Western church had been growing since the eleventh century. Some scholars have called that period the “First Reformation.” The Bishop of Rome, given his already significant respected role within the church, along with his contributions to various councils, began to see himself as the “Vicar of Christ” on earth and the head of the church. Slowly this view began to work itself out across the rest of the church as the Pope exercised his “God-given authority.”

The spread of this authority began with the drawing of a distinction between professional clergy and lay Christians. Clergy were to be distinct and separate in marked ways. Celibacy became the mandated lifestyle of those in ministry, something that previously had been reserved only for “specialists,” like monks. It became official church policy in 1139.

In addition, the development of Canon Law gave administrative order and authority to the church. Of Canon Law, Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

Canon Law increasingly embraced all western Christendom, all the more successfully because it usefully got things done for people and acted as an external authority to help them sort out major conflicts and personal problems. It was a universal code at a time when other legal systems in Europe were generally fragmented and underdeveloped; it dealt with the intimate details of people’s lives, habits, and moral conduct, which were not the concern of secular judges. No wonder Protestant Reformers came to see it as the chief cornerstone of the pope’s power, and a necessary first point for Martin Luther to attack as his clash with traditional Church structures veered into open rebellion. (The Reformation, 28)

The centralization of church power and its structural organization made the Church a strong force throughout Europe. This was further strengthened by the church’s wealth, including significant land ownership.

For all of the Church’s growing temporal authority, it was the Pope’s authority over matters related to salvation that struck fear even into the hearts of Emperors. The Pope, for example, had sole authority to deliver souls from purgatory. In addition, he could withhold the bread and the cup from others, or excommunicate them from the church all together. A few rulers were threatened with just such consequence.

Not even the Scriptures were safe from the Pope’s growing authority. Traditionally it had been understood that the church received its authority from the Scriptures, but on the Eve of the Reformation the relationship between Pontiff of Rome and the Bible itself was already being altered. Gabriel Biel had argued that the Scriptures could only be rightly interpreted by the Pope himself, and, in addition, not all divine truth was revealed in Scripture. Church tradition, as instituted by the Papal office, was its own distinct authority in the life of the church. In fact, Luther would be named a heretic for challenging this principle. Dominican theologian, Sylvester Prierias wrote:

He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic. (Dialogue Concerning the Power of the Pope)

All authority was given to the Pope. His jurisdiction was not merely over all of life in all of Europe, but over the afterlife too. He could also free people from Purgatory, transfer them into heaven, manufacture new doctrines apart from any Scriptural support, and maintain control over even the merits of Christ, His mother, His apostles, and the saints. As much as the Mass and Purgatory remained central features of the religious life of the average Christian, the Pope himself was at the center of their lives.

Luther’s initial challenges to the Papacy were not intended to overthrow it or dismantle it. Rather, he wished to challenge the breadth of such authority, to question the jurisdiction of the Pope. He wished to see it appropriately limited. The issue of indulgences would bring it to a head. When your spiritual state could be altered through a monetary donation (the purchase of indulgences) it seemed that corruption was at play. How could the Pope charge someone for entrance into heaven? Furthermore, and more to the point, where did such authority and power come from? Papal primacy was to become a major target for the Reformers

Papal authority was not declared official church dogma until 1870, but the roots of it were already deep. It was, indeed, a pillar of the church on the eve of the Reformation. The question of the Pope’s jurisdiction was a matter of serious question at the time, even before Luther. Next week we will explore that reality in more detail.

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