The Reformation of the 16th Century: A Lesson for Today

16thcenturymainSurrounded by powerful dignitaries of both church and state, the young Augustinian monk was asked whether he would repudiate the books gathered on a table before him. In a ringing voice he declared that he could not deny them because they contained the truth of God's Word and his conscience was captive to that Word. He continued, "To go against conscience is not safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me."

Those words uttered by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in April 1521 signaled a turning point in the Reformation that swept throughout Europe in the sixteenth century.

The Reformation followed centuries of effort by clerics and theologians to address moral and religious decline in the Western church. Demands for reform can be traced back to 1307 when the office of the Pope and its associated "city" of workers moved from Rome to France. For 70 years the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, the papacy, remained in France. During this confused era, behavior within the church and society sank to scandalous lows through the influence of many factors, including Scholastic theology, which was based solely upon human reasoning.

When the papacy finally moved back to Rome in 1378, rather than healing the scandal, the move worsened the scandal. Many church officials rejected papal authority and elected a rival pope who once again took up residence in France. Now, the presence of two popes, both of whom claimed to be legitimate and who hurled accusations and disdain at one another, scandalized the Christian world.

The root of the church's problem was wrong doctrine, and the only path to lasting reformation was the Word of God.

Before the 70 years in France, rumblings of discontent within the church had been heard, but now the situation was worse. All those who had a true heart for the church of God agreed that a reformation was needed, but what would it be and how was it to be accomplished? Different solutions were proposed, but no consensus about the cause or the remedy could be reached.

A group known as the Conciliarists argued for a general council (a special meeting) of the church. They believed the problems came from an abuse of authority. The Conciliarists were convinced the prime culprit was the pope himself, who had usurped authority that belonged exclusively to church councils. In their view, the supreme authority of the church needed to be a legitimately convened general council, not the pope.

Another group, known as the Pietists, believed the church’s problem was the low moral state of both the clergy and the laity. Sadly, this was an accurate description of the situation. But how could the moral condition of the church be improved? The Pietists were confident that the key to solving the problem was to provide living examples of dedication and self-sacrifice.

A third group, the Humanists, believed the problem was ignorance and the solution was education. As a first step, this group wanted to recover the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Roman philosophers who promoted ethics and strict moral standards of conduct. The Humanists believed the application of their insights to medieval Europe would reform the church.

However, others warned that moral reform alone would be inadequate. Clerics John Wyclif of England and Jon Hus of Bohemia called for a more radical approach. In their view, the root of the church's problem was wrong doctrine. Thus, the only path to lasting reformation was the Word of God.

[Read the rest of the article at Answers in Genesis.]