The beginning of the 16th century was one of the worst times in Christianity. Corruption was everywhere from the pope down. “The decline and corruption of the papacy was well-known. After its residence at Avignon, where had it had served as a tool of French interest, the papacy had further weakened by the Great Schism, which divided Western Europe in its allegiance to two – and even three – popes.”[i]
The Conciliar Movement was a movement formed by the Catholic Church itself to reform itself in the 14th and 15th centuries. But it had a basic problem with corruption itself in that a number of the bishops sitting on those councils were profiting from the corruption themselves. Oh, the conciliar movement sounded good, there were reformers rallying against the pluralism, the profiting and greed from the buying and selling of everything from bishop’s offices to indulgences all the while that many of the same bishops were the perpetrators of these misdeeds.
Even many of the parish priests had bought their positions. So even if they did have some noble aspiration to minister to the people, how could they be trusted?
Clerical celibacy was fully law in this day and time, but there were many bishops and local priests alike with mistresses, illegitimate children living in places that were far from what the vow of poverty would suggest.
This same time period also marked the end of the “dark ages”. The Byzantine Empire had collapsed. Europe at this time was in the feudal system, but that was coming to an end. The aristocracy, including church leaders (for many church leaders were huge landowners) was putting increasing burdens on the masses who served on these feudal lands. “The ostentatiousness of prelates, their power as landowners, and their support of increasing inequality were seen by many as betrayal of the poor, and eventually as a sign that the antichrist had gained possession of the church. The ferment brewing in such quarters periodically broke out in peasant revolts, apocalyptic visions, and calls for a new order.”[ii]
Look at that statement again, the church wasn’t being viewed as the representative of the Savior, but as the representative of the enemy of the Savior! And the people were fed up. There were revolts and rebellions.
The printing press was in full production. And with it information was moving faster than ever to new places. New worlds were being discovered. People were traveling from the Far East and to the Far West. And the previously sheltered community of Western Europe was being exposed to influences from the East where differences in Greek manuscripts were beginning to show against the Latin vulgate texts and questions were arising as to the veracity of church teachings.
A quick look at how the Roman Catholic Church operated in this medieval time appears to me to look more like a magic show than true Christianity. Consider this. Most of the people were illiterate and deemed incapable of understanding the intricacies of the faith. There was no Bible for people to read but in the architecture of the churches the builders cleverly placed the pantheon of statues that included the Saints, Jesus, and Mary, the theotokos, the mother of God. Those cleverly situated statues replaced the Bible as each Saint and statue had its legend and stories that were passed from mouth to mouth. There were relics of saints and the relics of the cross. It was said that there were so many relics of the cross bandying about that there was no way that one human could have lifted a cross of that size. The relics had power, or so many believed. And then there was the greatest magic of all in the center of that Catholic ritual called the “mass”, where miraculously with the words “Hoc est corpus meum”, “this is my body”, bread and wine were transformed into body and blood of the most powerful being. To many it represented unbelievable power. “Thus when parishioners heard ‘hocus-pocus’ who knows whose mistake it was?[iii] It had strong similarities to a magic show.
The mass itself was said in Latin, while even some of those celebrating mass didn’t really understand the language let alone anybody in the church. And that miracle of the Mass where the body is created out of bread was only tasted once a year by of the average parishioner while the blood from the wine never was.
But the times were certainly changing. And the hope for many was that since in the preceding centuries the church had adapted practices that were contrary to original Christian teaching that a return to the sources of Christianity these practices would be done away with.
The sources that many saw as the way to the get back to the original teachings were the bible and the patristic teachings, the writings of the fathers.
At the heart of the Reformation was a rallying cry that the church had strayed off course and that the way back required a look back. That look back was through looking at the bible and the early writings.
Just how off track the church was no one knew at this point. Martin Luther started by focusing on primarily on indulgences with the perspective that the Roman Catholic Church could be reformed, corrected back into the state of the true, original church. From there, other issues came to the forefront as reformers began comparing Medieval Christian Theology with early Christianity.
[i] THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY, Justo L Gonzalez, Harper Collins, New York, 1985, p. 6
[ii] Ibid, p. 9
[iii] The Unquenchable Flame, Discovering The Heart of the Reformation, B&H Academic, Nashville Tennessee, 2009, P. 19