NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.
So Christendom emerges from the period of the Crusades in horrible shape: completely beaten up, completely broken. Having spent everything they had on war and conquest, they now turn their sights toward rebuilding. In order to do this, they need to find a way to get resources.
Well, in a world that is largely illiterate, where the educated are priests and leadership, studying the Text that is written in an archaic, foreign language is difficult. It becomes simple to manipulate the truth that the masses depend on you to communicate. With a little shaping here and a little gloss there, the narrative of God quickly becomes something that can enslave people in a system of fear, guilt, and control. At its best, you had priests and Church leadership who were maintaining a commitment to sound doctrine, modeling a self-sacrificial life, and instilling a message of hope into people who needed the gospel so badly.
At its worst, we saw the rise of the Age of Indulgences. While the entire conversation is incredibly complex and usually oversimplified (as even I am about to do for the sake of brevity), the general understanding of the problem is relatively accurate. As parishioners came for their typical interaction with the sacraments, the Church leveraged this need to help control the general populace.
To understand this conversation, one needs a basic understanding of sacraments. To the orthodox faith of the Middle Ages, people believed you would interact with the many different practices of the Church in order to experience the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God. You might remember the liturgy and order we spoke of when we talked about the contribution of Gregory the Great. The Church had identified seven sacraments to serve as corporate practices for experiencing the dispensation of grace. For these early thinkers, there is nothing magical about the sacrament itself, other than its service as a conduit to receive the grace of God into your life. Things like baptism, the Eucharist, confession, marriage — these all allow the grace of God to flow into your life.
You can imagine, as people come to engage these sacraments and anticipate the reception of God’s grace in their lives, it is a short leap for the Church to start manipulating this system for their ends. At some of its worst moments, the Church was even offering forgiveness at a monetary price. Come to confession and absolve your sins by going through the appropriate motions — and offering the appropriate gift.
In short, we are seeing a rabid abuse of Church leadership and priesthood.
Not all the educated were prepared to turn a blind eye to these abuses. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are littered with names of those who stood up against this corruption and fought to reveal the gospel as it ought to be seen. Two popular names in the world of scholasticism are Wycliffe and Hus.
John Wycliffe — Wycliffe was known for consistently attacking the imperial privilege of the Church at large. He hated the separation between the clergy and the laypeople and thought the gap should be dissolved. While he railed against the pomp of the high Church system, he also argued that the Text should not be held captive in an ancient language. He wanted the Scriptures to be accessible for all and thought they should be translated into the common vernacular for people to understand in services. In a lot of ways, Wycliffe paved the way for the Reformation.
John Hus — Sometimes referred to as the true father of the Reformation, it’s hard to see Hus apart from the work of Wycliffe. Hus led an informal resistance to the papacy and was eventually executed for leading what history knows as the Bohemian Revolt. There were two successful regional Crusades against the reigning papacy. While his methods may be subject, his thinking deeply shaped the thought process in western Europe and definitely laid the groundwork for what we know as the Protestant Reformation.
Part of the issue in this period of Catholic history was the geopolitical context. With a new sense of what I call “medieval nationalism,” the power structures in the world were shifting entirely. No longer was the world ruled by one giant papacy; as Christendom tried to figure out how to hold onto their outdated systems of governance, the world changed around them. People were seeing their allegiance aligned more with the powers of the state and country than they were with a foreign church. People associated with being French or German as a more immediate identification than they did with being “Catholic.”
This made it easier and easier to reject foreign papacy and rule. The papacy of Avignon actually shifted the seat of power away from Rome and into France for a period of seven popes, leading to what would later be called the “Western Schism” — when the Western Church was spilt between western and eastern Europe.
The Church continued to suffer from divisions and schisms.
In light of the many abuses of religious power, the Protestant Reformation was simply waiting for good leaders. How “good” these leaders were is left to historical debate. I will leave my personal opinions out of it; so much material has been written about the Reformation and I encourage you to do your own study. Needless to say, people like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin led reformations away from the Catholic Church in their respective lands, each with their own nuances to their understanding of theology.
At this point, we begin to split over the smallest of nuances. No longer held together by a common hierarchy or papal leadership, we were free to disagree over the smallest details, often fueled by our nationalistic identifications. However, each national identity will get a denominational affiliation: Germans would be Lutheran, the French might be Calvinistic Reformers, and the Swiss would follow Zwingli.
Their many opinions splintered the faith of Christendom, and we don’t have time for that full conversation. However, as far as the good this movement did, it is hard to overstate. The invention of the printing press allowed the widespread distribution of the Text in the language of the common person. The Reformation changed the face of education and cinched up the gap between the educated and the uneducated, especially in reference to theology — both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
And while this might seem like an unbelievable amount of change for the world to endure, the change is only beginning.