World History 2 63 - 5.1.1 The Origins of the Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation began in 1517, but its seeds had been sown years earlier. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had grown richer, and its higher clerical offices had become dominated by people motivated more by the desire for wealth and power than by spiritual concerns. Although Europe’s peasants remained devoutly attached to their faith, critics claimed that popes acted less like Christ’s representatives on earth and more like secular princes, intervening in European political affairs and even commanding armies. Members of the clergy often lived lavishly in palatial surroundings and dressed themselves in silks and furs. Some had mistresses and illegitimate children, who were often given positions in the church. Wealthy families often purchased church offices for their members, and some men held bishoprics (areas under the authority of a bishop) in more than one place at a time by hiring other men to perform their offices. Secular rulers, kings, and princes jealous of the church’s power sometimes vied with the pope for control of the churches in their territory and welcomed opportunities to reject the church’s authority.

During the fifteenth century, in the city-states of northern Italy, an intellectual movement called humanism had taken hold. Humanism stressed the value and dignity of human beings, and its scholars believed that, through the study of the philosophy, history, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, people could improve themselves and live a “good life,” which, in turn, would improve the societies in which they lived. Italian humanists were often devout Christians, and their study of ancient authors did not lead them to reject the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In the second half of the fifteenth century, northern European scholars championed a form of humanism whose explicit goal was to make people better Christians. Northern Renaissance humanism, also called Christian humanism, stressed the study of the works of Greece and Rome together with the teachings of the early Christian fathers to improve the state of the human soul. The goal of learning was to awaken an inner sense of piety, and northern Renaissance humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus encouraged people to use Christian teachings as a guide to daily life. This inner transformation, they believed, was superior to engaging in such outer forms of religious devotion as going on pilgrimage or fasting at prescribed times of the year. By becoming better Christians, people would ultimately reform the church.

Discontent among some European Catholics and an interest in spiritual transformation in northern Europe set the stage for a German monk named Martin Luther to try to eliminate the questionable practices of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s actions began the Protestant Reformation.

In 1517, Luther, then a professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, became outraged when the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Wittenberg, authorized by Albert, archbishop of the city of Mainz. Indulgences were a way to reduce or even cancel the time after death during which people needed to suffer in purgatory to atone for their sins before reaching heaven. These rewards could be earned by performing actions of great religious merit, such as going on Crusade. However, the church also taught that the pope controlled a store of merit amassed by Jesus and the Christian saints, whose virtue was so great they had entered heaven with grace left over. The church could allot this “extra” virtue to someone else in the form of an indulgence.

Luther had long been obsessed with thoughts of achieving salvation, the goal of all Christians. He was horrified at the idea that sinners might believe they could enter heaven not through repentance or God’s mercy but by paying for an indulgence. He drafted ninety-five arguments explaining why the sale of indulgences was wrong, and according to many historians, he then nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. He also distributed printed copies throughout Germany and sent a copy to Archbishop Albert, who passed it along to Rome.

In Their Own Words

The Ninety-five Theses

Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was wrong. He believed only God could grant forgiveness and that humans could do nothing to ensure their salvation, which depended entirely upon God. This is known as the doctrine of justification by faith. Luther also said the pope had no control over purgatory and that there was no foundation in the Bible for the belief that the merit amassed by Jesus and the saints could be given to others. His intent in the Ninety-five Theses was to spark a discussion within the church that would lead to reform. Following are several of the theses.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.

35. They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.

36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.

37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

38. Nevertheless, papal remission and blessing are by no means to be disregarded, for they are, as I have said (Thesis 6), the proclamation of the divine remission.

41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

—Martin Luther, Ninety-five Theses

  • What does Luther say about the forgiveness of sin?
  • What evidence do you see that Luther had not yet completely broken with Catholic teachings?
  • Do you see evidence that Luther is trying to be conciliatory toward the pope? Do you see anything likely to anger the pope?

Although Luther had probably merely wished to reform the practices of the church, such as ending the sale of indulgences, and not to spark a rebellion against the church, his actions were not seen that way. In 1518, he was summoned by church authorities to answer questions regarding the position he expressed in the Ninety-five Theses. At a meeting in the German city of Augsburg, Luther denied that the church had the power to distribute merits amassed by Jesus and the saints. His beliefs were officially condemned by Pope Leo X, and he was ordered to recant, which he refused to do. In 1521, he was excommunicated (excluded from participating in the life of the church).

The version of Christianity that developed from Luther’s ideas, and that formed the basis for what became the Protestant faith, differed from the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in important ways. The Catholic Church taught that salvation was achieved through a combination of religious faith and good works. Buying an indulgence was regarded as a good work because the money went to the church. Luther taught that faith alone was sufficient for salvation and that humans were unable to work toward their own redemption, which depended entirely upon God (Figure 5.4). Furthermore, adherence to centuries’ worth of Catholic tradition was not necessary to be a good Christian. Luther contended that scripture alone should be the source of Christian belief and practice. His followers thus abandoned many traditional Catholic practices, including clerical celibacy. Luther, a monk, married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and began a family. Protestants also called for the abolition of religious orders of monks and nuns. A life in the clergy, which the Catholic Church had proclaimed the greatest of all callings, was considered no better than the pursuit of any other vocation in life. The printing press with movable type, developed in Europe during the Renaissance, aided Martin Luther in his efforts to spread his message, and thousands of copies of Luther’s writings circulated throughout Europe.

A painting is shown with a tree in the middle, dividing the painting in half. The top of the tree is bare on the left and leafy on the right. The left side of the painting shows lush grasses and trees. At the top a man in robes sits on a round blue orb with angels blaring horns above him. The man is surrounded by an oval array of clouds with a group of people dressed in light colored robes on each side of him. Below him on the left are a man and woman dressed only in leaves below the waist standing in front of a tree holding an apple. To their right is a city of white tents with bodies lying on the ground. A statue of a snake is erected in the city. Below the city is a skeleton who holds a spear running next to a demon. They are both chasing a naked man into fire and smoke that is in the corner of the painting. To the right of the man, four men in robes and head coverings are pointing to a stone tablet with writing on it. The right side of the painting shows a man in the sky. He wears a loincloth and a red robe and holds a pole with a red flag with a white cross on it. A yellow orb shines behind him. Toward the left of the right half, a man in a red robe holds a book and speaks with a naked man, pointing to the right corner where a man hangs on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns and a cloth around his waist. Below the cross is a lamb walking over the crumbled bodies of the demon and skeleton that lie on the ground. Behind the cross is an opening of a cave. Green and lush grasses and trees are shown and there is a city in the middle left background. A group of shepherds and their sheep are in a meadow.
Figure 5.4 The 1529 painting Allegory of Law and Grace by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder illustrates Martin Luther’s teachings. In the image on the left, the law, the Ten Commandments inscribed on a tablet, cannot save the sinner being chased by the devil into hell. On the right, John the Baptist in a red robe shows the sinner the crucified Jesus, a gift sent by God to save human beings. (credit: modification of work “Law and Gospel” by Herzogliches Museum, Gotha/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax