Posted on 17 March 2021
Led by the german monk Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the Protestant Reformation sought to reform the 16th-century Catholic church.
The word Protestant comes from the german word ‘Protestierende’ meaning protester. The movement began in 1517 when Martin Luther protested against the Catholic Church and his followers became known as Protestants.
Criticism of The Catholic Church
At the start of the 16th century, many events led to the Protestant reformation. Clergy abuse caused people to begin criticizing the Catholic Church. The greed and scandalous lives of the clergy had created a split between them and the peasants. Furthermore, the clergy did not respond to the population’s needs, often because they did not speak the local language, or live in their own diocese.
However, the split was more over doctrine than corruption. The four main points of criticism were:
1. The Bible was only printed in Latin, and not in the local language. And printing was controlled by the church by a system of censorship.
2. Catholic Mass, the Church’s chief religious service, was also in Latin. This meant the people could not check whether what the priest said was actually correct.
3. The church sold tickets of indulgences (forgiveness) from sins for money. This suggested that the rich could buy their way into Heaven while the poor could not – quite the opposite of what the Bible says. (See Gospel of Matthew 19:24)
4. Religious posts were often sold to whoever was willing to pay the most money for them, see Simony. This meant many priests did not know enough about Christianity. So they told the people many different things. Some of the things had little to do with what was written in the Bible.
The 95 Theses
In 1515, the Pope started a new indulgence campaign to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, a church in Rome. Preachers came to Germany to sell the indulgences, promising that money could release souls from purgatory.
Luther, who was ordained a Catholic monk in 1507 thought this went too far. On October 31, 1517, he wrote and sent 95 theses to the local archbishop in protest. It is said he nailed a copy to the door of a church in Wittenberg. These theses, written in Latin, were points that Luther wanted to debate.
Most of them related to the problems caused by the sale of indulgences. Luther said that the idea the money could buy forgiveness prevented people from turning away from sins. He said that it also made people give less money to the poor.
Luther did not attack the Pope. He blamed the abuses on others. Nevertheless, his ideas implied that the pope was corrupt also. Without Luther’s permission, the 95 Theses were translated into German and sent to many places. Many people agreed with Luther.
The Catholic Church tried to stop these new ideas, but without much result. Luther was considered an enemy of the Pope, and when he refused to change his ideas he was excommunicated (put out of the church). In the beginning, Luther had not planned to separate from the Catholic Church or to create a new religion; he wanted to reform the church.
The Reformation in Europe led to revolution, war and persecution. In many western countries, Christians put the needed reforms listed by Luther into practice.
People began to read the Bible in their own language – Luther himself translated the bible into German. Many could see for themselves how the Catholic Church had let the Christian faith become corrupted. Several of those who stayed in the Catholic Church adopted some of Luther’s ideas.
The Pope reestablished the Inquisition to combat this supposed heresy, but this did little to stop the movement spreading across Europe like wildfire.
In addition to the conflict in the churches, there were political consequences. Common people were made more open to questioning their leaders. In 1524-1525, millions of peasants rebelled against the nobles in the name of equality of humanity in front of God. Many countries in Europe choose Protestantism as the state religion and so Europe was divided by religion.
The Catholic Church had been truly split open and the Protestant faith created.