1.2: Secular Concerns Become Spiritual: The Reformation

A word of caution: The Reformation and the Renaissance occurred during the same time frame. Martin Luther (1483-1546), as you can see from his dates, is both a Northern Renaissance and Reformation figure.

Martin Luther’s criticism of the Catholic Church was nothing revolutionary. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church responded to many such attacks* in regards to Christian theology (how best to practice Christ’s message on Earth).

The difference with Martin Luther was that the economic and political changes of the Renaissance had taken place. The Church and the secular rulers did not always see eye to eye, and now the spiritual authority was no longer seen to dominate the secular. Martin found himself at the right place and the right time: like Italy, Germany was composed of warring city-states and he could hop from one to another like Leonardo when he ticked people off. However, unlike Italy, Germany was nowhere near the center of the Church in Rome. Perhaps biggest of all, Luther came from the same region that developed the printing press. As texts were so quickly copied, the Church could no longer easily destroy or limit books, especially writings that would have spread throughout Northern Europe before they arrived on the pope’s doorstep.

*The Cathar movement in the 12th-13th centuries was probably the most radical, but still was very characteristic of the “Dark Ages” philosophy. The Cathars suggested that the entire physical world was an illusion and that our souls were all that we were and (most shockingly) that those souls had no gender. Therefore, there were no differences between the two genders in their idea of “soul reality.” This did obviously not go over well with any authority, either religious or secular: the strict gender roles of the time were seen as the microcosm of social order. In response to the Cathars, the “Albigensian Crusade” was launched by both spiritual and secular authorities. These leaders persecuted and in many cases slaughtered groups of Cathars until the movement ended.

Regardless of what time period or what country he would have lived in, someone like Martin Luther was bound to cause some sort of trouble. Argumentative, bold, and with a self-righteous temper, Luther entered the Church instead of pursuing law, as his parents had wished. He proceeded to attack what he saw as the flaws and the damnable sins of his colleagues in the Church. Luther sought to reform the Church from the inside; only later did he consider re-forming a new church apart from the Catholic Church in what is seen today as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. (Pay attention to capitalization: (lower case-c “church” is different from upper case-C “Church.”)

The topic that set Luther off and in effect began the Reformation was indulgences. A local friar named Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences as a “Church fund-raiser,” in effect. Luther saw that this action focused on secular wealth and redeeming sins through what one does as opposed to what one believes. He felt that indulgences were a symbol of how the Church had become corrupted away from Christ’s true message. For Luther, faith in Christ was everything: Regardless of how many good works one does for the Church or others, belief was the only essential qualification to earn salvation and enter Heaven.


According to Luther, if you read the Bible and went to Mass without believing in it, then salvation was not a possibility for you. Luther’s beliefs were in line with the Renaissance focus on individual interpretation and individual literacy: he believed that priests should not be the only people to read and interpret the Bible, but that this was an individual Christian’s duty and best way to ensure salvation. Luther’s protests were made public, in line with his bold style. He did not write about his beliefs in Latin (like Church critic and ardent Catholic Thomas More). He also did not discuss the issue of indulgences privately with Tetzel or other officials. Instead, Luther acted on his temper: on Halloween in the year 1517, Luther nailed his 95 written complaints to the front door of the church in Wittenberg, where he and Tetzel lived. These 95 statements of belief are now called the “95 Theses.”


This action ignited incredible controversy, especially after the Theses were published and spread throughout the German states. Some princes agreed with Luther’s criticism, and some disagreed and defended the Church, adding conflict to the city-states already at war. Church officials and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a powerful leader in Germany, demanded that Luther take back or alter his attacks. True to form, Luther refused. He was then excommunicated by the Church and declared an outlaw by Charles. Rebelling against Charles V and the Church, Prince Frederick the Wise of the German region of Saxony protected Luther in his own castle. It was at this point that Luther’s ideas were thought of as a new type of Christianity separate from Catholicism, called “Lutheranism” today in his honor.

The peasants throughout Germany saw this as an opportunity to claim freedom for themselves from Charles and other princes. However, Luther publicly distanced himself from the peasants and sided with the princes and, by 1524, the short-lived “Peasants’ Revolt” was crushed.

However, that did not stop the Catholic princes and Protestant princes from fighting with each other. The “wars of religion” in Europe had only begun, and would continue to rage for the next hundred years. A temporary peace was settled in the German regions, however, with the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555. By signing the treaty, the princes agreed that whichever religion the prince of a territory followed, his people would follow the same. This caused chaos and massive migrations between city-states, but at least stopped the German religious wars for a time.

The treaty for the German states did not prevent the battle lines from spreading throughout Europe. More Protestant churches emerged in different countries after Luther’s original call for reform. For the first time in a thousand years, Western Europe was not united under a single church. The Catholics still had strongholds in Spain, parts of France, several German states, and, of course, Italy. However, Lutheranism spread throughout the German states into Scandinavia (present-day Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) and into Eastern Europe as well.

In Switzerland, a new form of Protestantism was created by John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvinism originally taught that what we do and what we believe are not essential to enter Heaven. Instead, God had selected in advance, or “pre-destined,” who would be saved and who would not. This predestination required, therefore, absolute faith in God’s ultimate plan for us. As no one on Earth knows his/her final destination, we might as well enjoy our time on Earth in addition to believing that our souls have been pre-selected.

Like Humpty-Dumpty after he fell from the wall, all the pope’s princes and all the pope’s power could not bring back together the separate faiths of Europe. A Counter-Reformation throughout the 17th century addressed some of the original criticisms of Luther and others and actually accomplished their original goal of reforming the Church from the inside. However, by that time it was too late, as the new denominations of Christianity could not agree on even the most basic interpretations of Christ’s message, like the concept of the Trinity.

The princes and people of Europe had re-interpreted the traditional connection between the state and the Church. Chaos followed for the common people in many nations, as religious and secular authority clashed. Perhaps this chaos is most revealed in a small and (at the time) not-so-powerful island-nation in Northern Europe [England, the king of which developed to his own Anglican Church around this time– see 2.2 for the connection to Sir Isaac Newton].

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