The Roots of the Reformation

As late as the close of the Fifth Lateran Council in 1517, when churchmen talked of reform, Owen Chadwick shrewdly remarks, they were thinking not of doctrine but of administration, law or morals. Since the death of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) when the Papacy had jurisdiction over the Byzantine Empire, its power had declined in favour of secular states in such matters as the administration of justice and, crucially, the appointment of bishops. Abuses might be condemned but they were practiced by the monarchs who condemned them. Everything in the church was for sale but the Popes got very little. So when church reform was urged on the Pope he was being asked to perform the impossible.

When people talked of reform this was a mediaeval idea stretching as far back as the Cluniac Reform; they were looking backwards, seeing the primitive church (as we do today) through rose coloured glass. From the time of the papal Schism (1378-1417), the clamour for reform grew, imprecise, muddled, multi-faceted and, as Chadwick remarks: "Widespread, popular, and unsatisfied demands for reform are usually, in the end, revolutionary."

As the calls for reform and credit-based corruption increased, the gap widened between popular devotion and an intellectualism fuelled by the printing press (more than 100 editions of the bible were published between 1457 and 1500).

This was all part of the 'New learning' of an expanding mercantile and professional class. More people were reading more books and were able to make comparisons between texts and critics; but whatever the Renaissance did for texts, its essence was to change the terms of scholarship from 'proof texts' to diversified sources, and a lighter rhetorical tone, exemplified by Erasmus (c 1466-1536) who combined new scholarship with a gently ironic critique of the church which commanded respect throughout Northern Europe.

For 200 years nominalism (the rejection of generalised syllogisms in favour of personal experience) had been gaining ground over classical Thomism and this fused with the new critical tone, the disposal of personal wealth, increased education and travel. Again, nominalists did not deny Catholic doctrine, they simply asserted it could not be known through the reason-based superstructure of Aquinas but only by Biblical revelation and the Holy Spirit acting in the Church (e.g. they believed in transubstantiation but not the Thomist reason-based substance/accidents dichotomy). A wedge was driven between faith and reason; philosophy offered meagre food for the soul.

It was said in the 16th Century that Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched. Had he known what was to come, Erasmus said he would have written differently.

Partly taken from:

KC x/06

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