The 16th Century was a tumultuous period of great religious consternation. There were calls to reform the Church, both from within and without, and there were serious attempts to bring the Church back to its original convictions within the Vatican. Yet the true extent of moral corruption and hypocritical overtures proved too much for the Church to bear, and at last the eventual split that resulted in the Reformation was realized.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the issue of the Indulgence, which raised Martin Luther’s ire such that he dared make his stand against the might of the Catholic Church, of which he was still a part. This single act by a lone monk was viewed with utmost severity, and promptly brought the indignation and wrath of the Church out into the open against those who questioned its supremacy and dared challenge its spiritual and moral authority. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire episode is the fact that this period witnessed the tremendous groundswell that was built, and the potential that was unleashed by an innovation that was known as the printing press. Of course, the fact that the Church was challenged, and by a lone monk tacking his theses on doorposts made it all the more dramatic.
It is appropriate then, to consider the conflict that was embellished in Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and attempt an understanding of the real issues at hand. The catalyst that unleashed the Reformation was the sale of Indulgences, and Luther disputed with the Church that not only does the money not effect any real salvation, it only served to enrich the entire hierarchy of greedy moneygrubbers who act on the behalf of the Church to collect them. To reach his conclusion that Indulgences were no better than a panacea, in fact, worse, he laid the jurisdiction of the Pope squarely at his feet. At one stroke, Luther reduced the Papal authority, limiting him to just being able to absolve guilt on a very limited basis, that imposed and reserved at his own discretion (95 Theses, p.1). Sin, and the attendant guilt, then, could not be removed by the Pope, no matter how much Indulgence was paid. Simply put, only God had the supreme authority, with the attendant right and authority, to remove sin and absolve guilt.
Interestingly enough, the Council of Trent later addressed this issue of Indulgences. This revealed the Church and the Papacy scrambling over themselves to raise up a standard to meet their most serious challenge yet, at once both spiritual and financial. The implications of not being able to negotiate this tricky thorn in the flesh properly could very well jeopardize the entire institution of the Church and her coffers, notwithstanding the political and social implications. To wit, the Church had little choice but to acknowledge that there were abuses and exploitations in the system, particularly that of the collection of indulgences. In the meeting of the Council, there was a decree made concerning Indulgences, and another exhortation that “Cardinals and all prelates of the churches shall be content with modest furniture and a frugal table: they shall not enrich their relatives or domestics out of the property of the church” (Council of Trent, p.
3). Remarkably, the Church killed two birds with one stone, retaining both the practice of Indulgences and keeping all the monies collected within the Church. It skirted Luther’s charge that the Pope had no authority or mandate to either remove sin or absolve guilt, and leveled a scathing rebuke against him and others who dared question that in the first place. It was a masterful stroke, and as the Church “condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them,” it trumpeted its own desire that “the abuses which have crept therein, and by occasion of which this honourable name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, be amended and corrected…” (Council of Trent, p. 3). It is almost perceptible that the motivation of the Church at this time was to perform damage control, and it certainly lacked no skill and resolve in doing so. It appeared that the Church still retained the upper hand, or did it really? The wave of Reformation had surely begun, and even as the Church sought to reassert its ground and authority, the cracks were already evident.
Questions once regarded as libelous and heretical had been asked, and they had been posited not by mere commoners, but by one of the more learned theologians within the fold. These same questions had also been posed to the highest authority of the Church, and no matter what recourse the Church took, the real damage had been done. These same questions would cause people to think more critically of their faith, and to exhibit more vested interest by seeking the truth rather than just by appeasing their souls by following blindly the dictates and practices of the Church.
The other aspects of the Reformation rode on the crest of this wave, and could be considered blessed in that the hardest part of the process was already over. Luther’s actions, whether he comprehended it or not, was most assuredly the most difficult of the entire Reformation process, as that marked the beginning of all that was to follow. Following in the wake of David’s victory over Goliath, other Reformers such as John Calvin took the opportunity to leverage on the willing susceptibility of the people to introduce organizational structures of faith that encouraged the direct interaction and intervention in peoples’ lives. The platform which Luther built was now the launching pad for the other Reformers to build on, with the consequence that the Catholic Church now faced not just the issue of Indulgences or the limitations of what the Pope could do spiritually.
The Church was now up against an entire order of Protestants who are building their lives around another institution, indeed, another faith. A glance at the Ecclesiastical Ordinances would reveal that the duties of Teachers, Deacons and Elders are set down on paper and in practice, and that holy living was as much a belief as it was to be realized in daily living. This was not just restricted to monks and priests, but to the common people who believed.
Even the frequency, place, and time of preaching were set down in exact detail so that everyone knew what to expect. In this respect, the Church had failed to fathom just what a gargantuan monster had been unleashed right at their doorstep. In like manner, the Schleitheim Confession made by the Anabaptists was in direct conflict with the Church. It had its own statutes and pronouncements, and every bit as strict. It also made direct references in opposition to the Church and in particular, the Pope. Consider this: “This excludes all infant baptism, the highest and chief abomination of the pope (Schleitheim Confession, p. 131).
” Surely it could not be made any clearer who the Anabaptists were against. What then did this all mean? This period was a very vocal one, with different groups on either side of the Reformation actively promulgating its own sets of values, belief systems, and exhortations. The one thread running through it all was that there was a hunger, and a search for what was genuine.
Within the Church, St. Ignatius Loyola laid down the “Rules for Thinking with the Church”, and attempted to create an order that would attempt to right the excesses of the Catholic Church. His movement, the Jesuits, were a force to be reckoned with, and he too, could be seen as wanting true disciples of Christ to follow the divine path within the confines of the Catholic faith. The path of the Reformation was necessarily a long and arduous one, and one that was not easily navigated by any of the factions involved, much less by the common people. The pronouncements, ordinances, and theses that were laid down by these factions served to announce to their respective audiences the basis for their existence, and the realities of their faith, as they perceived them to be.
Each of them promoted its own theology, and articles of faith, and exhorted their faithful to subscribe to their own interpretation of the Scriptures. That said, of course, this falls largely into two camps, that of the Catholic Church and that of the Protestant movement. Suffice to say that they, as represented by their individual heads, made an indelible mark on the spiritual and material conscience of the people, and that through the means of a newly-founded technology, managed to accomplish much more than what the previous decade had been able to do.
They not only reached a far wider audience, they were able to set down the principles of their movement in a more pronounced and effective way than had been done before in the history of humanity. This then is one of the greatest achievements of the Reformation period, apart from the spiritual debate that lie at the heart of the Reformation itself. The ability to transcend national borders and to trumpet a cause in so efficient a manner was no small victory in the annals of history. And in turn, it helped clarify for the millions directly involved and for future generations, the deepest and most important aspects of their faith and being, whichever way they leaned.REFERENCES