Wednesday, 4 June 2008

What caused the Reformation?

I handed in my Church History assignment today. The first version I wrote was 3x the word limit, this is only 900 or so words. So if you've got the time and are interested, here's my take on the causes of the Reformation:

Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church is the most well-known event of the Reformation, and the sale of indulgences that reformers rebelled against was certainly an inspiration for their efforts; however, this essay posits that the central cause of the Reformation was the reading of the Bible by people who came to believe that it was the only infallible authority for faith and life.


During the Middle Ages, the Bible was available only as the Latin Vulgate, which only the clergy had access to. Then the humanist movement arose . Humanists sought eloquence, pursuing it through the study of the classics. They desired to persuade through rhetorical discourse rather than through the systematic logic of scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas. Humanists were fluent in Latin and scholars of ancient Greek and/or Hebrew. They took advantage of the influx of manuscripts from the East, with the motto “Ad fontes” (back to the sources), and developed the science of textual criticism.

John Wyclif (or Wycliffe, c1320-1384) was the first person to translate the Bible into English. Wyclif held various Catholic livings and also taught at Oxford University. Wyclif said that the role of those in ministry was to teach the people rather than be involved in politics and he held that if clergy misused church property, it should be taken away by the king. After Wyclif’s denial of transubstantiation he had to leave Oxford and he spent the rest of his life at Lutterworth. There, he trained lay preachers and led the translation of the Vulgate into vernacular English around 1384 . Wyclif’s rationale for translating the Vulgate was that “it helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best.”

Lollards, the persecuted followers of Wyclif, took his ideas to Bohemia where Jan Hus (John Huss 1369-1415) was influenced. Hus was rector of the University of Prague and protested when Alexander V issued a bull to destroy Wyclif’s writings so he was excommunicated. Supported by the government, he continued to preach. Hus argued against indulgences, saying that repentance is required for forgiveness. Hus taught that the Bible was the authority for faith, and argued that if he was to be condemned for his views they should be shown to be unscriptural. Hus was requested to attend the Council of Constance and despite being promised safe conduct, he was declared a heretic and burnt at the stake.

100 years later in Spain, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible was being prepared. The New Testament was printed, but publishing was delayed to include the Old Testament. A humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus (c1466-1536), heard of the delay and decided to take advantage of it. He compiled a Greek New Testament (with his own Latin translation) using four quickly acquired partial Greek manuscripts, and was granted an exclusive publishing right for four years. Erasmus’ hastily prepared critical Greek text, published in 1516 and later revised, became the standard Greek text for those who would later translate the Bible into vernacular languages, despite containing many errors. It became known as the “Textus Receptus” and was highly regarded for over three centuries . Erasmus’s Latin translation differed from Jerome’s Vulgate and his commentary throughout was quite critical of Jerome’s translation. Erasmus called for a return to reading the Bible and the translation of the Bible into common European languages, including a comment to this effect in the preface of his New Testament.

As a monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was very aware of his own sin and sought salvation through the traditional church sacraments and asceticism. Luther read some of Augustine’s works and found differences from Roman Catholic doctrine, which led him to turn to the Bible, Creeds, the Liturgy and the Councils for authority. He taught at the University of Witttenberg after receiving his doctorate of theology and lectured directly from the Bible. He was confronted with the problem of the righteousness of God as a measure for judgement, which again brought up Luther’s concern over his sinfulness. At last Luther realised that Romans 1:17 showed that God’s righteousness is imputed to His people by God’s free gift of faith. Thus began Luther’s attempts to proclaim a doctrine of salvation based on justification by faith alone, rather than through Roman Catholic sacraments. Luther then protested the sale of indulgences, and was proclaimed a heretic. He argued in response that every doctrine must be tested against Scripture. Luther debated John Eck in 1519 and discovered the teachings of Hus. He decided that the Council had made a mistake in condemning Hus, and realised that even church councils were not infallible. Luther subsequently formulated his doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”, the Bible as the single authority for faith. Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and at the Diet of Worms placed him under an imperial ban with limited safe conduct. Luther was taken to Wartburg Castle where he translated the Bible into the language of the common people of his country, German. This work placed the Bible into the hands of lay people and gave them the means to judge for themselves about the decisions of the church.

The major cause of the reformation was the work of these four men in making the Bible available to the lay people so they could judge for themselves on matters of doctrine, with the Bible as their final authority. The Reformation was subsequently taken up Zwingli, Calvin, Tyndale, Cranmer and others. Its work continues today with efforts to translate the Bible and encourage Christians to follow in Augustine’s footsteps and “take up and read”.

So there you have it!
All images courtesy Wikepedia

3 comments:

Mrs. Edwards said...

Nice work!

Sharon said...

Thanks Mrs Edwards.
~ Sharon

mom24 said...

Very concisely put for such a large topic! People seem to think that it's as simple as '95 Theses' nailed to a door and poof - there's the Lutheran church. I grew up IN a Lutheran church and didn't really know this information until a few years ago.
Thanks for the info!
Andrea