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Historical background of the Protestant Reformation: The threats that Catholicism faced at the end of the Middle Ages

Historical background of the Protestant Reformation: The threats that Catholicism faced at the end of the Middle Ages

October 31, 151 Open with Logos Bible Software (if available) 7 Open with Logos Bible Software (if available), an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, nailed 95 theses to the main door of the castle church of Wittenberg on the value of indulgences, for the purpose of being discussed by theologians. Although Luther did not know it, at that time an extraordinary movement was being initiated that would later be known as The Protestant Reformation. However, as we have seen in previous articles, this movement did not arise in a vacuum. Several factors were combined, in the sovereignty of God, so that a document like this had the impact it had throughout Europe. These are the factors we want to consider in this article.



The decline of feudalism:

Feudalism was the social and political system characteristic of Europe, which reached its peak in the West between the ninth and eleventh centuries: A landowner, or feudal lord, granted his vassals a plot of land or fief that he must work in exchange for protection. The vassal owes the feudal lord service and fidelity and is obliged to pay him an income. The feudal lord in turn, apart from defending his vassals, exercises over them all or part of the royal powers.

This system worked under the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church, sanctioning with grave penalties those who violated this scheme of established authority. The people were taught that “everyone occupies in the world a post wanted by God”, to fulfill one of three functions: pray, fight or work.

In simple words, we can say that in this system the world was divided into two large groups: the privileged and the unprivileged. The privileged were the lords, the ecclesiastics and the knights, having at the top the king and the high clergy composed of the archbishops, bishops and abbots. The non-privileged were the bourgeoisie, the artisans, the servants and the peasants.

This system reached its climax in the thirteenth century, but thereafter began to decline due, in part, to the improvement of agricultural techniques, which led to an increase in trade that favored the bourgeoisie. That process of decay was further accelerated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries due to a number of factors that we can not list here.

Now, the point that we want to highlight is that feudalism fitted very well with the dominion that the Catholic Church exercised over medieval society; but the development of this new bourgeoisie that arose from the flourishing of trade, would bring with it some changes in European society that would profoundly affect the church that sustained the feudal system.



The developing monarchies:

On the other hand, the various European monarchies began to develop and to resent more and more the domination of the Church. The kings did not see with good eyes how the Catholic Church formed a state apart from the State, not recognizing another authority than that of the Pope. In the same way they began to insist on the right to appoint ecclesiastical positions. A typical case is that of Spain, where Ferdinand and Isabella ignored the objections of the Pope and filled many ecclesiastical vacancies.



Intellectual and philosophical changes:

But these changes not only happened in the political and social world, but also in the intellectual and philosophical sphere. The blind faith of the Middle Ages was being strongly threatened by a great intellectual awakening and a growing religious doubt that spread throughout Europe from the fourteenth century.

The failure of the Crusades, at the end of the thirteenth century, and the capture of Constantinople (May 29, 145) Open with Logos Bible Software (if available) 3 Open with Logos Bible Software (if available), led many to wonder about what the God of the Christians had allowed the victory of Islam. Likewise, the discovery of America in 1492 showed Europeans that hundreds of nations ignored or rejected Jesus Christ with apparent impunity, and in some cases their morals seemed to be higher than that of many “Christian” nations. On the other hand, some thinkers like Guillermo de Occam (1280 – 1349) and Marsillo de Padua (1275 – 1343), denied the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope, at the same time as they questioned the interference of the Church in the affairs of the State.

Another important personage of this period was the Italian poet and humanist Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374). Petrarch was one of the greatest scholars of classical literature. He came to be convinced that history consisted basically of two periods: the glorious period of classical civilization and the dark age of ignorance and barbarism that had begun with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and had continued to its days.

But Petrarch foresaw the arrival of a third period in which there would be a rebirth of classical civilization. Encouraged by the hope of that rebirth of ancient glory, Petrarch and his followers (known as “humanists”), believed that the era of obscurantism in which they lived could be concluded if ignorance was cleared up using literature and culture as weapons. the classic civilization. His war cry was: “Let’s go back to the sources.”

That direct study of the sources was a real threat to a Church that had benefited greatly from the ignorance of the people. For example, one of the most important documents of the medieval church was a supposed letter that Emperor Constantine had sent to the Pope in the fourth century, known precisely as The Donation of Constantine. When this emperor founded the city of Constantinople in the eastern part of the Empire, according to this document he bequeathed to the Pope authority and lordship over the Western part. It was on this basis that the popes claimed to be above all political authority in Europe. The popes were superior to the kings.

But when the humanist Lorenzo Valla, an expert in Latin, examined the document, he proved without a doubt that it was false. Its language did not correspond to the Latin of the IV century, but of the VIII century. Valla published his conclusions in 1440, which not only ruled out the papal pretensions of authority, but questioned all the other claims of the popes.

But Valla’s greatest contribution was his Annotations to the New Testament, a collection of notes that was published after his death. In these notes, Valla uses his knowledge of the Greek language to prove that La Vulgata Latina, the version of the Latin Bible on which the church was based, had many translation errors.


A few years later, Erasmus of Rotterdam published the notes of Valla, while using them to publish in 1516 one of the most powerful weapons against medieval Catholicism: a Greek edition of the New Testament, with its own translation into Latin at side of the Greek text. Erasmus did not intend to attack the Catholic Church, but to help produce a moral reform in it. In fact, the book was dedicated to Pope Leo X, who in turn wrote a letter of gratitude and recommended the work. But this edition of the Greek NT was to have its consequences, especially in making the translation errors of the Latin Vulgate more noticeable and the theological consequences of those errors. For example, in Mt. 4: 17 Open with Bible Software Logos (if available) the Vulgate put in the mouth of Jesus the expression: “Do penance”, while Erasmus translated it as “thirsty penitents”, and then as “change your minds “(the Greek text contains the word metanoeo). If Erasmus’s translation was correct, then Jesus is not talking about practicing the sacrament of penance, but about the internal change of the sinner who turns from his sins to God. Now, if Rome had made a mistake in reading and interpreting this text, how many other similar mistakes would it have made?

All these controversies raised by the humanists would not have had the impact they had if they had remained among the scholars and theologians. But a few decades earlier, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press, making literature available to everyone.

And to all this was added a general disenchantment, especially among educated people, for the moral decadence of the church.



The moral decadence of the church:

Although Catholicism was very powerful during the Middle Ages, many had the perception that the Church of Rome needed moral reform. Already by the beginning of the fourteenth century in the Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri placed in the eighth circle of hell the popes Boniface VIII and Nicholas III.

Some four years before Luther had set his sights on Open Bible Software (if available), Machiavelli said that there can be no greater proof of the decline of Christianity “than the fact that the closer people are to the Roman Church , the head of their religion, the less religious it is. And whoever examines the principles on which that religion was founded, and sees how different from such principles are its current practice and application, will judge that its ruin or punishment is coming. ”

According to the humanist priest and theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (a contemporary of Luther), the rape and immorality of the clergy had reached a level such that calling a person “cleric” was an insult. “Thousands of priests had concubines; in Germany almost everyone. ”

To this we must add the general discontent of the nations for the extraordinary accumulation of wealth on the part of the Church. Not only did they receive large amounts of money for taxes and tributes, but also for the sale of ecclesiastical offices. When the charges were not enough then others were created, as was the case of Alejandro VI, who created 89 new positions and received 760 ducats (about 20,000 dollars) from each of the appointees.




In this brief introduction we have been able to see some human causes that finally led to the Reformation. But we can not forget that God is the owner of History, that He is sovereign and, therefore, that we should not see the reformatory movement as the result of a series of casual events. Our Lord Jesus Christ promised that the doors of hell would not prevail against His Church; The Reformation is a visible milestone in the fulfillment of that divine promise.