Monday, April 17, 2017

Did the Reformation Really Begin in 1517? Pre-Conditions of the Protestant Movement

Later this year, the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Don't worry, if you forget there will be plenty of reminders in late October.

That's all well and good. But it's not my focus here. Instead, with this post I want to highlight some of the historical factors that represent pre-conditions of Luther's posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in the fall of 1517.

From the sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, almost all interpreters agreed that the Protestant Reformation had its start with Martin Luther’s acts of “heroic individualism." As historian Bernd Moeller has described it, this now-outdated story of the origins of the Reformation pictured Luther as “a great sage, a kind of spiritual colossus, who attains his Reformation breakthrough, draws the broad consequences, and then drags people with him as he strides through history handing out his truths right and left.”[1] But sometime during the mid-1900s, scholars began to conclude that “Luther as sage and Wittenberg as Jerusalem” was an incomplete story. Other people and places—like Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich, John Calvin in Geneva, and a number of lesser-known leaders and locations—were vital to the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.[2]

What historians sometimes call the “Luther affair”—specifically, events from the life of Martin Luther beginning in 1517 and continuing into the early 1520s—was directly related to and grew out of the long crisis of late medieval Christendom.[3] This crisis can be described as a struggle between competing ideas about the recovery of apostolic Christianity, the quest for the true church. As many interpreters have noted, the late middle ages were characterized by a perceived absence of meaning in life, accompanied by deep anxiety over personal guilt and destiny. The consequences of sin were a deserved death and an uncertain eternal future.[4]

A common report about the young Martin Luther is that he experienced torturous dread and despair over matters of the spirit and his unanswered questions about relationship with a sovereign God. But we should add that Luther was not alone. It appears that what he called his Anfechtungen, his “afflictions” or “tribulations,” were not unique. They were typical, if not always so intense in other people.[5] However, the medieval combination of spiritual malaise and psychological disturbance were not the only preoccupations of the time. There was also in the pre-Reformation age something that Lucien Febvre called “an intense appetite for the divine.”[6]

Because the character of the true church was a focal question of the time, much of the contemporary discussion included words like renovatio and reformatio. Such terms pointed to a solution in the renewal of genuine Christianity, and especially in the rehabilitation of the apostolic church.[7] So towards that end, what kinds of proposals emerged during the decades leading up to the Luther affair?


One prominent and lingering vision of the apostolic church centered on the pope and the Curia Romana, the papal court. The essence of this view, commonly known as Curialism, was unmistakably expressed in a papal bull issued by Boniface VIII in 1302 titled Unam sanctum; that is, The One Holy (Church). In it, Boniface makes a comparison: in the same way that there was only one ark of safety, constructed under the leadership of only one man, so there is only one apostolic and universal church, safeguarded by a single power and presided over by only one leader. The conclusion of the document epitomizes the claims of Curialism: “We declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”[8]

But the papal crises of the fourteenth and early-fifteenth centuries did much to undermine all such pronouncements. After the death of Boniface, the so-called Babylonian Captivity (1309-1377), during which the papacy was exiled in Avignon, was followed by the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), when the loyalty of the Church was divided between two and sometimes three different popes. In short, no sooner did Boniface insist on the Curialist vision than unfortunate events practically renounced it.[9] Still, papal claims to authority did not die.


Historians have given the name Conciliarism to a competing vision for the true church. Significantly, this alternative view, which asserted that ecumenical church councils were superior to papal authority, developed directly out of the crisis of Curialism. Its claim to authority grew from the conviction that in addition to Peter and his successors, the biblical witness also provides for the authority of councils, the first of these being the so-called “Jerusalem Council” recorded Acts chapter 15.

In response to the struggles over authority that had begun over a hundred years earlier, the Council of Constance (1414-1418) deposed all three of the current popes and elected Martin V as the new pope. It also provided for future ecumenical councils and, most tellingly, decreed that the decisions of these gatherings should serve as checks to papal authority. After all, in keeping with a phrase enshrined in canon law--“unless he deviates from the faith”--the decision of a pope was not above the judgment of the church. Conciliarism did not deny the authority of the pope. It did deny that his authority was absolute and unqualified. At any rate, although the Council of Constance succeeded in its goal to rescue the papacy, it failed to establish councils as an effective alternative to the model of absolute papal supremacy.[10]

Popular Heretics and Dissenters

In addition to Curialism and Conciliarism, the late medieval period saw the rise and lingering effects of any number of dissenters and heretics. The presence of these groups—Lollards, Hussites, Waldensians, and Spiritual Franciscans, to name a few—underscored the pressing desire and need for reform. Here, space provides for the discussion of only one prominent heresy.

Lollardy (sometimes spelled Lollardie) was the name given to an English heretical movement that began near the end of the fourteenth century. Its origins can be traced back to the teaching, the personal network and, above all, the writings of John Wyclif (c. 1324-1384). [11] In his early writings, Wyclif made a compelling argument for the disendowment of clerics who were not in grace but in mortal sin. In that state, he asserted, they had no divine right to position or power. This, of course, made him popular with the devout clergy who agreed with him. Most of all, it made him popular with the English Crown, eager to profit from prospective disendowments. Early on, Wyclif had a benefactor in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It was primarily Gaunt’s influence that led to his entry into royal service as a sort of schooled advocate who could help to undermine church privilege and the authority of the pope. During those years, Wyclif stayed busy writing and preaching.

On May 22, 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five papal bulls condemning the views of Wyclif. Detained for a time at Oxford, he was soon released due to popular support there. By the late 1370s, however, Wyclif was doing more than simply attacking the abuses of the church. Most significantly, he dismissed the traditional understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the doctrine of transubstantiation. Thus, in May of 1381, William Barton, chancellor of Oxford, presided over a committee that condemned such heresy, though without specifically naming Wyclif. Then, on June 13, 1381, Corpus Christi day, peasant rebels, angry over an attempt to freeze wages, came to the outskirts of London and entered the city.[12] During three days of mayhem, they killed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his De blasphemia, Wyclif mentioned the revolt. Although he never acknowledged even an indirect contribution to the catastrophe, at least some chroniclers of the day disagreed. They saw a connection between Wyclif's influence and popular sentiment. By then, Wyclif was no longer regarded as an interesting and useful radical, but more as a dangerous and loathsome heretic. He could no longer count on the critical support of some of the clergy and aristocracy, and by October 1381 he had retreated to his out-of-the-way parish in Lutterworth where he died at Mass on the last day of 1384. The period in which Wyclif wrote his more-popular works and led a public life had lasted hardly more than a decade. But he left behind many books and treatises, in English as well as in Latin, and not a few personal associates who were still at Oxford or who had since gone out from there, providing leadership for the group now known as the Lollards. Indirectly, this heresy was the source and inspiration for the later Hussite movement in Bohemia, which is where most of the surviving Wyclifite texts have been recovered.

Renaissance Humanism

One critical pre-condition to the rise of the Reformation was Humanism. Consistent with the goals of the Renaissance, Humanism was “the movement to recover, interpret and assimilate the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome.”[13] According to Charles Nauert, humanist culture began and grew from the time of Petrarch forward. As Nauert explains, it developed initially from a practical concern. In Italy, those who bore the responsibilities of civic leadership were searching for greater access to useful knowledge. In the Greek and Roman classics, they found what they believed was a superior wisdom, moral philosophy, and rhetorical theory.[14]

As most surveys relate, during the fifteenth century, humanism crossed the Alps and entered northern Europe. There, it took on a decidedly Christian form. In Italy, humanist scholars had searched for ancient wisdom, insight that could inform leaders amid changing economic times and political challenges. But north of the Alps, Christian Humanists sought ancient wisdom that was distinctively theological in content.[15] However, this distinction should not be taken too far. As R. N. Swanson points out, although Christian Humanism has been associated with the Renaissance once it had traversed the Alps, in fact virtually all Humanists, including those in Italy, were Christians. It is true, to take a prime example, that Lorenzo Valla used his skill in order to discredit the Donation of Constantine. Yet we should not conclude that Valla rejected Christianity. In fact, he “overtly accepted Christianity’s spiritual demands, producing a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer and asserting that philosophy and reason were insufficient tools for dealing with theology.”[16] And, according to the vision put forward by Marsilio Ficino around 1476, humans should achieve their potential by exercising individual will, thus becoming co-creators with God “in a re-ordering of the world, and in order to attain salvation after death.”[17]

There can be no doubt that Humanism was highly significant to every branch of the Reformation. Luther, for example, developed his views of Pauline theology while using a Greek New Testament edited by Erasmus, a signal achievement of the period. Zwingli and Calvin were likewise trained in humanistic studies before they emerged as reformers. A specific example of the connection can be identified in Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Decades earlier, Valla had shown that the Greek word metanoia did not mean “do penance,” but rather “repent.” That is, in its imperative form the word did not call for participation in the ritual of penance; instead, metanoia expected an about face, a change in heart that would lead to a change in life. According to this distinction, Luther identified a meaning, rooted in the original Greek text of the New Testament, that effectively undermined the sale of indulgences. It is no accident that the very first of Luther’s theses reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In this and in other ways, Renaissance Humanism served as part of the intellectual scaffolding that made the Reformation project a possibility.

The Printing Press and Movable Type

Any discussion of the Reformation must consider the invention of the printing press and the advent of movable type in the fifteenth century. In her ground-breaking 1979 work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein linked this invention to three movements that unfolded in early modern Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.[18] Eisenstein argued that complaints and protests like those issued by Luther were hardly new. Therefore, we should regard the novelty of the printing press and not the theology of the reformers as the critical difference. Luther himself seems to have acknowledged as much when he wrote that printing was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.”[19] For example, the Ninety-Five Theses were composed in October 1517. By December, just a few short weeks later, three separate editions were printed almost simultaneously by printers located in three separate towns.[20] Along this line, Margaret Aston remarked:
The theses . . . were said to be known throughout Germany in a fortnight and throughout Europe in a month . . . Printing was recognized as a new power and publicity came into its own. In doing for Luther what the copyists had done for Wycliffe, the printing presses transformed the field of communications and fathered an international revolt. It was a revolution.[21]
Due to the printing press, the Reformation world featured much greater access to and knowledge of the biblical text in its original languages than ever before.[22] This, combined with consumers’ appetites for printed works fed by the lucrative publishing business, means that even if Luther and Zwingli had never been born, something on the order of the Reformation we know would have occurred.

The Political and Religious Context of Germany

Coming into the sixteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was, in the words of Peter G. Wallace, “a fragmented federation with over 500 semi-autonomous jurisdictions that extended over northern Italy and much of Central Europe under the theoretical suzerainty of an elected Emperor.”[23] Among the entities claiming both autonomy and authority were seven electors, dozens of lay and ecclesiastical princes, more than sixty Imperial free cities, and hundreds of Imperial knights. Within this context, in 1514 Albert of Brandenburg, already the bishop of both Magdeburg and Halberstadt, became the new cardinal-bishop of Mainz. But in exchange for his position, Albert had made big promises to the papal Curia. Along with his pledge to pay the annates, the first year’s income from his benefice, Albert promised to contribute to construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To finance these obligations, he incurred huge debts. This was the very reason why Johannes Tetzel, the now infamous seller of indulgences, was hawking his wares just beyond the boundaries of Saxony. Frederick the Wise, Luther’s prince and the founder of the University of Wittenberg, had not allowed Tetzel and others like him to enter his territory. When Saxons crossed the border to purchase indulgences, Luther became incensed and vehemently preached against all such dubious exchanges. This episode, inherent to the politics of the day, is precisely what triggered the Luther affair.[24]

To summarize then, the late-middle ages were characterized by calls for religious reform and by renewal movements. During the many decades leading up to the Reformation, the Catholic Church resisted calls to restore to Western Christendom the security and satisfaction that people desire from religion. The development of Renaissance Humanism, combined with the printing press and the advent of movable type, created the matrix out of which a long-awaited Reformation quickly grew.


[1] Bernd Moeller, Imperial Cities and the Reformation, trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1982), 13, as quoted by C. Scott Dixon, Contesting the Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 1-2.

[2] Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 3.

[3] The expression “Luther Affair” is a favorite of C. Scott Dixon’s. See his Contesting the Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 3, 9, 14, 25, etc. Before Dixon, Peter G. Wallace used the term “Luther affair” in his work The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 75-81.

[4] For the late medieval period as “An Age of Anxiety,” see Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 22-30.

[5] Roland H. Bainton provides a portrait of young Luther’s turmoil and desperation in Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950) ch. 2, esp. page 31, where Bainton states that Anfechtung is a word “for which there is no English equivalent. It may be a trial sent by God to test man, or an assault by the Devil to destroy man. It is all doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man.” A fuller description can be found in David P. Scaer, “The Concept of Anfectung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 41, no. 1 (January 1983): 15-30.

[6] Lucien Febvre’s expression is reported in George, Theology of the Reformers, 30, n. 23.

[7] The Latin term reformatio and its cognates were commonly used during the late medieval period to speak of reform impulses or movements in any number of different areas: the law, politics, and the academy, for example. Thus, when Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli preached a message of reform, they were using language that was familiar. Yet, by the end of the sixteenth century the Reformation had come to mean, specifically, the well-known movement most closely associated with Luther. See Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 8-9. John W. O’Malley relates that the idea of the need and even requirement of church reformation emerged as early as the eleventh century. As the two terms were used, reformatio meant “implementation of legal norms,” whereas renovatio referred to a much wider range of meaning. See O’Malley, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 16-20.

[8] George, Theology of the Reformers, 31-32. Carter Lindberg’s discussion of this episode implies that the strong assertion of Boniface VIII was a reaction to the growing strength of secular powers and the decline of the pope’s authority. See Lindberg, The European Reformations (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 42-43.

[9] George, Theology of the Reformers, 33. On the people and events surrounding this chapter of church history, see also Patrick Collinson, The Reformation: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 23-27.

[10] Fuller accounts are provided by, for example, George, Theology of the Reformers, 33-35; Lindberg, The European Reformations, 46-51; and Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 49-51.

[11] Here I depend heavily upon Anne Hudson and Anthony Kenny, “Wyclif [Wycliffe], John,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 60: 616-30.

[12] Norman F. Cantor, The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 253-54.

[13] Peter Burke, “The Spread of Italian Humanism,” 2, as quoted in R. N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215—c. 1515 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 175.

[14] Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 8-51.

[15] See, for example, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 138-43; C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes, Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1988), 15.

[16] Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, 176.

[17] Ibid., 176-77.

[18] Here, I will refer not to the Eisenstein’s massive original work of 1979, but to the late edition of her abridgment: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[19] Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 165. For this quote, Eisenstein credits M. H. Black, “The Printed Bible,” in Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 3:432.

[20] Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 169.

[21] Ibid., 171. Here, Elizabeth Eisenstein cites Margaret Aston, The Fifteenth Century: The Prospect of Europe (London: Thames & Hudson, 1968), 76.

[22] Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 179.

[23] Wallace, The Long European Reformation, 77.

[24] Wallace, The Long European Reformation, 75-77. See also Richard L. DeMolen, “The Age of Renaissance and Reformation,” in The Meaning of the Renaissance and Reformation, ed. Richard L. DeMolen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1-25.

Works Cited

Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon, 1950.

Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Cantor, Norman. The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Collinson, Patrick. The Reformation: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

Dixon, C. Scott. Contesting the Reformation. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Hudson, Anne. The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Hudson, Anne, and Anthony Kenny, “Wyclif [Wycliffe], John,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 60: 616-30. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Nauert, Charles G., Jr. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

O’Malley, John W. Trent And All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Scaer, David P. “The Concept of Anfectung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 41, no. 1 (January 1983): 15-30.

Swanson, R. N. Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215—c. 1515. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wallace, Peter G. The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.