OK, people have been screaming at me to make my lessons shorter. They hurl stones at me. They throw my own words back in my face, quoting where I say on my home page:
[Christians] crave information, but information presented in a form they can assimilate---that can become part of their mental furniture and that they can put into practice. This means information delivered in a clear and well-ordered manner. This also means (here's a key) information dished out in bite-sized portions [they] can absorb and begin to actually use as they discuss their faith in an increasingly cynical world.
In our last lesson, we saw that the Reformation was at it's heart a dispute over the issue of authority. This is what tore the Church apart in the early 16th century. And the separation that occurred at that time between Catholics and Protestants? It was a separation between those who continued to embrace the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church and those who rejected that authority to stand on the authority of Scripture alone. (Of course, I'm speaking here of those who thought about it and made a choice on spiritual and theological grounds, not those who were simply carried along.)
In this lesson (excuse me, over the next four or five lessons!) we want to ask: But why did it happen? How is it that so many at that particular point in history came to react against the authority of the Church? What were the causes of the Reformation?
Some of you may be thinking, "What do you mean, what caused the Reformation? Martin Luther caused it! He opposed the teaching of the Church and on Oct 31, 1517 he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Cathedral Church in Wittenberg and one thing led to another and..."
Here's an image for you to ponder: Martin Luther caused the Reformation like a man who lights a match in a house filled with gas causes a fire. Yes, Luther struck the match. He was the spark. But the atmosphere was already present in which such a spark would ignite a fire that would burn its way throughout Christendom. The gas was already filling the room.
Truth is, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, there were a number of historical, cultural and spiritual forces at work driving the world in the direction of what was to occur.
In fact, by the time we've finished surveying these forces, I think you'll agree that it would have taken a miracle for the Reformation not to have happened. Luther and Calvin and the other Reformers --- these men weren't the “cause” of the Reformation. They were themselves created by the historical, cultural and spiritual forces we're going to be looking at. They were caught up in these forces.
They road these forces like a man rides a horse.
So what are we talking about?
ONE: To begin, there was the explosive growth in literacy that took place in the decades leading up to the Reformation, the tremendous increase in the number of those who could read.
I remember when my pastor first told me he had something called a “modem.”
It was the early 80’s. I was still cranking out my papers at Fuller Theological Seminary on an electric typewriter. Personal computers were just beginning to magically appear on the desks of those on the cutting edge of societal evolution. “Guess what?" he said. "I’ve got this thing called a modem. It allows me to plug a phone line into the back of my computer, dial up a number and go into libraries around the world and do research." I was amazed. I thought we’d entered the Twilight Zone.
Think of revolution that has been brought about by the invention of computers and the internet. Completely changed our world. A hundred years ago if ISIS was marauding through Syria and Iraq, we wouldn’t even know it. Now the entire world watches in real time and graphic detail.
Our kids are used to these inventions and think nothing of it. In the same way, it's hard for you and me to imagine the revolution the invention of the printing press brought about in the mid-15th century.
We spend our days digging out from under a mountain of books and magazines and written materials of all kinds. We have twelve step programs to deliver us from the bondage of electronic media.
But before the invention of the printing press, written materials were scares and expensive. And because of this literacy was scarce --- and therefore the ability of individual Christians to read Scripture and books of theology and interact critically with what they were taught.
Oxford professor of theology Alister MGrath has summarized much of what I'm sharing here in his biography of John Calvin. He describes the situation:
In the early Middle Ages, the charmed circle of the literate was virtually exclusively clerical. Written material took the form of manuscripts which had to be painstakingly copied out by hand, and were generally confined to the libraries of monasteries on account of their scarcity… With the advent of printing and the development of new paper-making industries, it became possible for an educated lay person to obtain and understand works which hitherto had been the exclusive preserve of the clergy.
TWO: Not surprisingly, there was during those same decades leading up to the Reformation, an explosion of new theological ideas.
As literacy spread and the availability of written materials increased, the need for schools and universities increased as well. And everyone knows that as the great educator Mortimer Adler once said, “The halls of academia are like the halls of a madhouse at midnight.”
Again, quoting McGrath:
The rapid expansion of the university sector throughout Western Europe…led to an increased number of theology faculties, with a corresponding increase in the number of theological treatises produced. Then as now, theologians had to do something to justify their existence. These works frequently explored new ideas. But what was the status of these ideas? The…failure to draw a clear distinction between theological opinions and church teaching, between private opinion and communal doctrine, caused considerable confusion. [And now, listen to this confession coming from a world renowned Protestant scholar.] It is quite possible that Martin Luther may have confused one theological opinion with the official teaching of the church and initiated his program of reform on the basis of this misunderstanding.
We can come back to Luther another time. In the meantime, if you have interest in Luther, check out my recorded series Luther: The Rest of the Story.
But the point is: As the 16th century dawned; as Martin Luther sat at his desk at the University of Wittenberg, preparing his lectures on St Paul's Epistle to the Romans; as the young university student John Calvin walked the streets of the Latin Quarter of Paris and sat in the cafes discussing philosophy and theology, a revolution was taking place throughout Catholic Europe.
In the decades following the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, Europe had witnessed a dramatic increase in literacy and with that an explosion of books and tracts and treatises on Scripture and theology. Colleges and universities were popping up. New ideas were everywhere!
But there's more. A lot more.
To be continued...