The Reformation [I am going to use the term “Reformation” to refer to the European Reformations and the Roman Catholic counter-Reformation] is a period of extreme importance for those who seek to understand Christian theology. Many of the debates that are happening now can trace their roots to this period of history.
One of the most important aspects to understanding the Reformation–and, by extension, much of the development of theology after the Reformation–involves looking into the origins of the movements. How is it that the Reformation started? What brought about the notion that it was necessary to reform the Church?
In his Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Alister McGrath notes a number of aspects that are important for understanding Reformation thought. First, and perhaps most importantly, one must not limit reflection on the origins of the Reformation to any one cause. There were a diversity of social and theological causes which spurred the Reformation.
Social Factors in the Reformation
The organization of cities was one factor that led to the success of the reformation. McGrath notes that individual cities during this period had come to regard itself as a kind of individual state. However, due to the failures of many of these cities to provide for their citizens and their growth over time, there were calls for a broader and representative government (McGrath, 16, cited below).
Cities had become centers of power and experienced “remarkable growth” due to the various agrarian crises and plagues that had taken place in earlier years (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 24ff, cited below).
Furthermore, the control of the city council over the general practices and laws of the cities often led to a “symbiotic relationship” between a reformer and the city council. “The reformer, by presenting a coherent vision of the Christian gospel and its implications for the religious, social, and political structures and practices of a city, was able to prevent a potentially revolutionary situation from degenerating into chaos” (McGrath, 19).
Some reformers were very tied to the social aspects of the reformation. For these reformers, “the Reformation involved the identification of ‘citizen’ with ‘Christian’… Thus Zwingli laid great emphasis upon the need to reform and redeem a community, whereas Luther tended to concentrate upon the need to reform and redeem the individual” (McGrath, 20).
Doctrinal and Moral Concerns and the Reformation
One of the primary concerns of the reformers was that the Church could “best be reformed and renewed by returning to the beliefs and practices of the early church” (McGrath, 20). The reformers observed many problems with the Church of their time and felt that it was important to return to the “golden age” of Christianity, which they interpreted largely as the patristic period.
There had been a growth in popular religion which was largely disconnected from that of the Church. “Folk religion” focused upon the “needs of rural communities–such as haymaking and harvesting” (McGrath, 24). A lack of confidence in the pope and the clerical system contributed to the need for reform. Furthermore, the laity was becoming more educated, which led to a problem for the Church. Due to the Roman Catholic church’s system at the time in which positions of authority would be given often to the highest bidder, there were many in the Church who never visited their parishes or had little interest in or understanding of that which they were supposed to preach. The educated laity became increasingly aware of the many errors even parish preachers would make in their renditions of the Latin in the Mass (some of these priests had merely memorized the service without understanding it themselves!) (24ff).
Furthermore, throughout the Scholastic era, the Church had tolerated a kind of doctrinal pluralism. The Church recognized the need for allowing the academics to debate various issues, but this led to a serious question: “[W]hich of these schools of thought [theological schools of thought like Thomism or Scotists] was right?” (McGrath, 28). Yet the Church had suffered from a kind of schizophrenia about centralized authority. Was the authority in the Church found in Councils or in the Pope (Lindberg, 44ff)? Questions like these led to the need for reform. The reformers focused on who had the right to decide doctrine and the need for God’s word in the vernacular of the populace.
Two Primary Movers
There were two primary focuses for the individual reformers: the moral sphere and the doctrinal sphere. While it is necessary to avoid drawing a false either-or dichotomy between these, it is equally important to note that the various reformers focused largely one way or the other. Broadly speaking, several reformers in the Wittenburg/Swiss tradition focused upon the need to reform the very teachings and doctrines of the church, while those in the humanist (not to be confused with modern notions of humanism as atheism, but rather as a system of thought and practice) tradition focused upon the need to reform the moral practice of the church.
Again, neither of these should be seen as exclusive of the other. Moral reform often involved doctrinal reform and vice versa. What must be emphasized, however, is that the reformers differed at points on whether it was more important to have right belief or right practice. Surely both thought both were necessary, but the question was how to integrate these into the Church and furthermore which should come first as important. Such differing emphases can be observed, for example, in the doctrine of Scripture. The humanistic reformers tended to see the Bible as a guide for morals, while the Wittenberg and Swiss reformers tended to see it as a “record of God’s gracious promises of salvation to those who believed” (see discussion in McGrath, 55-57).
More to Come!
Thus, the stage was set for reform of the church. Societal and doctrinal pressures were in place that would lead to the need for reflection on the spheres of belief and practice. The debates that raged through the reformation continue to rage today.
Throughout October and into the next few months (and perhaps beyond, depending on the feedback/readership I get here), I will be exploring various aspects of the Reformation. I will look at some important thinkers of the Reformation period and will also focus on some modern theology which can trace its roots back to the reformation. Why October [and beyond]? Well, Reformation Day is October 31st! Be ready to learn with me, and please ask questions and leave some comments!
Alister McGrath’s book was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!
The Church Universal: Reformation Review- What makes a church part of the Church Universal? What makes a church part of the true church? I write on these topics (and more!) and their origins in the Reformation.
Who Interprets Scripture? Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and the modern era: Reformation Review- I investigate the notion of “sola scriptura” and its different applications in interpreting Scripture. I particularly emphasize the problem of doctrinal unity and the various ways church bodies have dealt with these difficulties from the Reformation into today.
Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010).
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