The Reformation (1500–1600) for AP European History
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Summary: In the sixteenth century, an attempt to reform the Christian Church developed into a Protestant movement that shattered the religious unity of Europe.
- In the second decade of the sixteenth century, a German cleric, Martin Luther, created a rival theology based on the belief that salvation was achieved by faith alone.
- As Luther's theology spread, it was transformed into a Protestant movement with social and political dimensions.
- In England, Henry VIII used the Protestant movement as an excuse to break with the papacy in Rome and to create an English national church, known as the Church of England or the Anglican Church.
- The Catholic Church responded to the Protestant movement with both reforms and aggressive countermeasures.
The Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe began as an effort to reform the Christian Church, which many believed had become too concerned with worldly matters. Soon, however, the Church found itself facing a serious challenge from a brilliant German theologian, Martin Luther, and his followers. What began as a protest evolved into a revolution with social and political overtones. By the end of the century, a Europe that had been united by a single Church was deeply divided, as the Catholic and Protestant faiths vied for the minds and hearts of the people.
The Need for a Religious Reformation
By the onset of the sixteenth century, the Christian Church of Europe was facing a serious set of interconnected problems. Concern was growing that the Church had become too worldly and corrupt in its practices. The Church, and particularly the papacy in Rome, was widely seen to be more concerned with building and retaining worldly power and wealth than in guiding souls to salvation. The pope was not only the head of a powerful Church hierarchy but also the ruler of the Papal States, a kingdom that encompassed much of the central portion of the Italian peninsula. He collected taxes, kept an army, and used his religious power to influence politics in every kingdom in Europe.
The selling of indulgences (which allowed people to be absolved from their sins, sometimes even before they committed them, by making a monetary contribution to the Church) was just one way in which the Church seemed more concerned with amassing power and wealth than with guiding the faithful to salvation. To many common people who yearned for a powerful, personal, and emotional connection with God, the Church not only failed to provide it but worked actively to discourage it by:
- protecting the power of the priesthood
- saying the mass in Latin, a language understood by only the educated elite
- refusing to allow the printing of the Bible in the vernacular
The Lutheran Revolt
Martin Luther was an unlikely candidate to lead a revolt against the Church. The son of a mine manager in eastern Germany, Luther received a humanistic education, studying law before being drawn to the Church and being ordained as a priest in 1507. Continuing his education, Luther received a doctorate of theology from the University of Wittenberg and was appointed to the faculty there in 1512.
The revolutionary ideas that would come to define Lutheran theology were a product of Luther's personal search. Luther believed that he was living in the last days of the world and that God's final judgment would soon be upon the world. This view, now referred to as millenarianism and widespread in sixteenth-century Europe, led Luther to be obsessed with the question of how any human being could be good enough to deserve salvation. He found his answer through the rigorous study of scripture, and he formulated three interconnected theological assertions:
- salvation by faith alone, which stated that salvation came only to those who had true faith
- scripture alone, which stated that scripture was the only source of true knowledge of God's will
- the priesthood of all believers, which argued that all true believers received God's grace and were, therefore, priests in God's eyes
Each of Luther's assertions put him in direct opposition to the Church's orthodox theology:
- Salvation by faith alone contradicted the Church's assertion that salvation was gained both by having faith and by performing works of piety and charity.
- Scripture alone contradicted the Church's assertion that there were two sources of true knowledge of God: scripture and the traditions of the Church.
- The priesthood of all believers contradicted the Church's assertion that only ordained priests could read and correctly interpret scripture.