The Context of the Reformation–Religious
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the soon to be famous Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Written in Latin, these theses were intended by Luther to stir academic debate concerning the use, or misuse, of indulgences and the doctrine of baptism. However, in a short time these ninety-five theses would serve as a spark to the tinderbox of unsettled issues that dwelt just beneath the surface in continental Europe. This event is commonly seen as the beginning of what would later be defined as the Protestant Reformation. Within a span of half of a century, the political, social, cultural and religious climate of Europe would be drastically altered. The prevailing traditionalism of Catholic Europe, which had held sway since the time of Constantine in the fourth century, would be forever changed.
In order to understand the Reformation, we must seek to understand several things. This post will attempt to lay a foundation for understanding the events that turned Europe upside down from 1517-1555 by looking at the religious, political, social and economic situation in Europe that served as the context for the Reformation. Europe as a whole had come to a tipping point. Something had to change, and most of Europe knew this. The way that things had worked for centuries was no longer able to address the needs of people. It was in this context that the ideas of purity of religion caused a complete overturning of the traditional ways of life.
Setting the Religious Context
It is commonly believed that the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 313 ad was the turning point for what would become the Medieval Catholic Church. This is, in a simplistic sense correct, but must be seen as a small, but important, step in the emergence of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. Though Constantine did make Christianity legal in 313, it was not until 380 under the Emperor Theodosius that the Christian faith of Nicaea was made to be the sole religion of the Roman Empire. For the next four centuries the growth of the Catholic Church caused the pope to become a figure of much greater authority in not just the religious realm, but also in the political realm. By the turn of the millennium, the church had become established as the most powerful institution in Europe, and would remain so until the time of the Reformation.
One must not look at the nearly twelve hundred years of the predominant Catholic influence in Europe in a wholly negative light. It is often the sin of Protestants to look at Christianity before the fourth century and after the Reformation, and view the whole of Medieval Christianity as perverse. This is not the case. For over a millennium, the Catholic Church held fast to the doctrines of the Bible, and propagated the gospel throughout Europe.
However, at the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had become too powerful. The mixture of temporal (political) and spiritual (religious) power had proved too much for the weak people who lead the church through the centuries. By the end of the fifteenth century, there were many practices that needed to be changed—and it was clear to many throughout Europe that reform was absolutely necessary. The question was not, would there be reform—the question was whether reform could take place within the Church, or whether reform could only happen upon completely breaking with the Church. Both were to happen in Europe through the sixteenth century: the Protestant reforms saw a complete break with the Church as the only viable way to bring reform, while the so-called ‘counter-reformation’ movements in the Catholic Church sought to bring reform from within the Church.
The Needs of the People
One of the malpractices of the Church in the fifteenth century was absenteeism. Absenteeism is the term used to speak of someone who is habitually absent from a duty or obligation. In the church of the middle ages this was a common practice among the clergy throughout Europe. Because of the power that was wrapped up in the Catholic Church, the highest goal of many priests and clergy was to be promoted as bishops and archbishops, then as cardinals. However, the people who did the promotion were located in Rome—which meant that a lot of priests and clergy would spend the majority of their time in Rome, seeking to impress those who had control over the hierarchy of the church.
This was closely related to another major problem in the church at the time of the Reformation: the problem of nepotism. Nepotism is the practice of giving people a position or a right based on a family relationship, not because of merit. Many of the wealthy European families sought to place their sons within the clergy, because of the possibility of power. Only the first son could inherit the estate of the father upon death, so any sons after the firstborn were left to find position elsewhere. This often led to the younger sons of the European elite appointed to clerical positions. However, many of these were not called to the ministry, and forsook their responsibilities within the perish.
As the fifteenth century went on, and these two malpractices increased, there grew a heightened sense of anti-clericalism throughout Europe—specifically in the urban areas of the German lands. The people began to long for clergy that would perform the necessary functions of a perish minister. By the late fifteenth century, many urban areas throughout Europe began to have a ‘priest of the people’ who was appointed locally, and would serve the needs of the people on a regular basis.
There was also a growing desire among the people for services to be performed in the vernacular. Throughout Europe the services of the Catholic Church were done exclusively in Latin, and many poor and illiterate were unable to understand any of the meaning of the services.
There were many areas of theology that the Catholic Church had begun to abuse at the time of the reformation. The Reformers sought to return the church of God to the sole foundation of the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures. We will look at some of the theological ideas of the Reformation in a later post, but for now, there are a few major ideas that must be introduced.
The Catholic Church had come to teach in the merit of a person necessary to enter heaven. To the medieval individual, the greatest question was that of the afterlife. Heaven, hell, angels and demons filled the thoughts and culture of the European man and women of the late Middle Ages. This caused great insecurity among the masses as to the security of one’s salvation in the hereafter. The Catholic Church taught that Jesus and the saints throughout history had stored up a surplus of merit, more than they needed to enter into heaven, and this extra storehouse of merit had been bestowed upon the Church to release upon people.
So a man who had sinned had to enter into penance to take away the effect of his sin. However, the sins of people were so great, that there was no measure of penance that could fully absolve a person from their wickedness in this life. This is where the merit of the saints was introduced. The Church began to offer believers the merits of the saints to absolve them from time in purgatory—always for a small fee, of course. The sale of the merit of the saints came to be known as indulgences, and this is one of the main ideas with which the reformers took issue.
 Carter Lindberg proposes that crisis is the “heuristic key” to understanding the context of the Reformation. See The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 24-55.
 I hope to look at some of the so-called ‘counter reformation’ movement in a later post. This was a time in which the Catholic Church sought to clearly systematize its doctrine, as well as a great time of missions (Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits) and mystical writings (John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila).
 Ulrich Zwingli is the most famous people’s priest during this time. He was appointed to be the priest for the people in Zurich.