Religious ideas have developed from every society known since the Sumerians, with theological ideas evolving as communities progressed and changed. Throughout recorded history there have been dissenters and revolt to every religious institution. However, the Reformation of the sixteenth century religious institutions led to changes in social, political and cultural life that have profoundly effected Western Civilization (McKay, Hill, Buckler, A History of Western Society, page 451).
By the early sixteenth century, church and state had become inextricably intertwined. Both factions were removed from the greatest percentage of the population by wide margins in education, nutrition, mobility, and income. Europeans of all social classes were devoted to the Catholic church and bequeathed enormous amounts of time, energy and money to the church (page 453).
The spiritual yearnings of the people, combined with a worsening economic situation, and an increasingly popular resentment of church officials as immoral and corrupt, paved the way for sweeping changes. A theocracy requires a strong hierarchy of political power to succeed. Political fragmentation within the church “destroyed the unity of Europe as an organic Christian society” (page 481).
Martin Luther himself was a member of the Catholic church, a trained priest. Luther was literate, educated, trained by the Church, but also, the son of a lower-class miner who empathized with and was respected by peasants. The theological issues questioned by the “Protestants” were primary to the faith and power held by the Church. First, is salvation attained by faith and good works, as the Catholic Church maintained (and profited from by selling “indulgences” as good works), or by faith alone as Luther asserted. Second, does authority over the people rest with the Church or on the Word of God (the Bible) alone, as interpreted by the individual. This idea
THE REFORMATION WAS A GREAT MILESTONE ON THE ROAD TO PROGRESS
directly questioned the authority of the Church. Third, does the Church consist of the hierarchical clergy of the Church or the community of Christian believers. Fourth, is the monastic life superior to secular life, or do all vocations have equal merit, as Luther argued. Theology was adapting from one dictatorial faith ruling the masses to different sects empowered by their individual faith and better suited to their society. As a leader of peoples yearning for salvation, Luther’s revolt, which led to the secularization of Christianity, is more of a progression of Christianity, than a “protest.”
By 1521 Luther had a vast number of followers. His appeal to the masses is easily understood, even from a twentieth-century perspective; he offered an understandable theology espousing independence from the Church. Invention of the printing press, made Luther’s German interpretation of the Bible widely available, and his prompting of individuals to read and interpret the Bible for themselves is an appeal to their intelligence. His doctrine of salvation by faith “protected their pocketbooks” (page 461). Moreover, Luther’s enlightened view on marriage and sexuality elevated women to a more equal status, allowing for the exaltation of the family home, strengthening communities.
Both Catholicism and Lutheran faiths were shaped and altered by the Reformation. Factions of Christianity spawned by the Reformation opened the door of literacy to women and peasants, beginning with the Anabaptists, who allowed women to enter their church as priests. Separation of church and state allowed Absolutism to flourish. Under Louie XIV’s reign, France found economic stability and an effective government free from Church interference. Absolutism evolved into constitutionalism, a few steps closer to democracy. Following this was the significant break from the Church of England made by the Puritans, who pioneered the brutal landscape of the North American continent, founding our current home, where freedom of religion, expression and lifestyle are legally protected.
McKay, Hill, Buckler, A History of Western Society, Sixth Edition, Houghton Miffler Company, Massachusetts