The great event of the Reformation of the Church in Europe could be said to have authentically began on the eve of the All Souls Day, 31 October, 1517 the day on which Martin Luther nailed his so-called ‘Ninety-five Theses’ (Statements) on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church in the province of Saxony in Northern Germany. Luther knew it well that thousands of men and women would be visiting that church to venerate the relics of saints on that occasion thus serving an opportunity to see what Luther wrote in his theses. Luther’s intention was to invite theologians for discussions. But little did he know that what he did was to start a great upheaval in the church of his time. The Reformation of the Christian church during the 16th century was the greatest milestone in the history of Europe. It was the greatest religious movement in Christianity as a faith since after the early Church. It was a real revival of Biblical and New Testament theology. The immediate purpose of Luther was to challenge the Church on the issue of the ongoing sale of papal Indulgences for the remission of sins and freedom from the punishment of souls in what was called ‘Purgatory’. Luther did not have the idea to leave his Church. His great concern was that the church in his time had been on erroneous premises.
The reformation is a gregarious and very complex phenomenon and as such it is not possible to discuss this enough in such an article as this.
There had been great deal of attempts at reforming the church of the middle ages. None of those succeeded as they had been squelched by the authority by means, in particular, of the Inquisition. However, way back in the 13th century and onward, there had been spiritually enlightened people in Europe long wished to renew and form Christian institutions and the church as a whole. Religious groups like the Albigenses, the Waldenses, and people like John Wycliffe, John Huss, Girolamo Savonarola, William Tyndale and so on heavily spoke and wrote criticising papal abuses. They criticised the doctrines about merit, auricular confessions, purgatory, pilgrimages, veneration of relics, etc. etc. Huss, Savonarola and Tyndale all were burnt to death. It should be noted also that Rome itself made sporadic attempts to reform, but they were not good enough.
People known as ‘the Brethren of the Common Life’, recognised personalities like John of Wessel, the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus, and Thomas a Kempis did make their spiritual contribution towards reformation. But it was Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk from Germany, a university professor of the Scripture, who was the great catalyst of the reformation. His reformation was mainly on the theological aspect of the church. Luther found the church operated on wrong doctrines, which undermined God as a loving gracious God.
The leadership of the Medieval Church got corrupt morally and religiously. There had been abuse of authority, under-use of the Holy Scripture and over-use of the man-made rules in the hierarchy. Time became rife for the reformation of the Church in head and members. Several factors paved the way for this. They were religious, spiritual, economic and political. The Church was an institution in that day that had permeated her influence in every aspect of human life. The revival of classical learning or renaissance, humanism, mysticism, discovery of new lands and peoples by European navigators in all continents, rise of European nationalism, invention of the printing press by Guttenberg in Germany all adding to an wider and reasonable world view of people in general played their important part for ushering in the reformation of the Church. Everything challenged the-then corrupt Church. The reformers emphasised the teachings of the Bible, the Word of God as having authority in all matters of faith and conduct of the believers above any human authority and church traditions or dogma.
As a matter of fact the Protestant Movement or the Church Reformation can be called a schism within the Christian Church. Many new movements sprang up from that event. New church and Christian denominations received impetus to come up. After Luther John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli started their reform works in Switzerland. Radical reform movements were started: the Mennonites and the Anabaptists came up in the scenario. John Knox reformed the Church in his land, Scotland. Church of England had its peculiar history of origin. The Roman Church also launched a huge internal reformation. Great and dynamic personality like Ignatius de Loyola of Spain, the founder of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus), did their great reform activities that strengthened and equipped that Church for great missionary activities in different parts of the world. Today the greatest need of the Church is a spiritual renewal for all churches. There are many good things that the Roman Catholic Church can teach others.
Things have witnessed tremendous changes since the 16th century in the life and activities of the Church.
The writer is a Christian Theology teacher and a social worker