By Jeanie Layne
You’ve likely heard the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Those are sweet words to anyone with a busy calendar and lots of to-dos on her list. Why spend your time fixing something that doesn’t need to be fixed? However, the phrase implies the inverse as well: “If it is broken, do fix it.” If my car breaks, I’ll likely get it fixed. If my arm breaks, you better believe I’m getting it fixed. If it’s not broken, we won’t fix it. If it is broken, we will fix it. This seems logical, right?
Church history displays that sometimes, our forefathers fixed things that were not yet broken, and sometimes they failed to fix things that were in shambles. Whether the result of sentimentality or stubbornness, the Church often held to tradition, even if that tradition was broken to its core. Yet, Christ does not leave His Church broken. The Reformation occurred during a period in Church history when issues were rampant, but God provided people and circumstances that led to a renovation in the Church which still has significance for us today.
As we continue in our month of study on all things church history, let’s take this week to consider a small snippet of the background of the Church, leading up to the Protestant Reformation.
What was the state of Christianity prior to the Reformation?
Following Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the Church grew like wildfire. Believers shared their homes, food, and belief in the one true Messiah, and many were added to their numbers daily (Acts 2:42-47). Jesus proclaimed before His crucifixion that He would build and strengthen His Church (Matt. 16:17-20), and Paul confirms in his letter to the church in Ephesus that God’s household is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). As the apostles spread throughout the world, sharing the truth of the Gospel, experiencing persecution, and discipling others to carry on the work, the Church grew.
Eventually, as the Church expanded, believers needed to know exactly what they believed, and leaders of the church needed to abide by those beliefs. The Early Church Fathers, men who lived within the first two generations of the apostles, led the Church in firming up some of these beliefs and in establishing structure within the Church. The Roman Catholic Church grew from this sense of continued “apostolic succession”, where the leaders of the Catholic Church each carried a pedigree of apostolic lineage. The Pope emerged as the leading figure, and Catholicism became the primary mode of the practice of Christianity for centuries.
Unfortunately, over the years, the Catholic Church also became very corrupt. While the Church likely never intended to become corrupt, it became a political machine, exercising judgment on people, through events like the Inquisition, and condemning those who held differing political or religious views as heretics.
In addition, the Church began selling “indulgences” to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. These indulgences could be purchased to exempt someone from punishment for sin. They were often purchased for family members who had died, to secure a shortened tenure in purgatory for the beloved family member. One infamous seller of indulgences stated that an indulgence made the sinner, “cleaner than Adam before the Fall,” and, “the cross of the seller of indulgences has as much power as the cross of Christ”. The Church erroneously taught that salvation could be merited through action, diminishing the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross as the only means of salvation.
The Church was also morally corrupt. While bishops, monks, and friars were supposed to remain celibate, many had illegitimate children and carried on long-standing dalliances with a mistress. Many Church leaders purchased their positions of leadership, and some purchased positions for their illegitimate children, who often were not even regenerate! Church leaders were known for taking bribes, and often, the masses suffered at the hands of Church leaders who cared more for their own pocketbooks and pleasure than for the poor and the weak.
Finally, the Church taught from the Latin Vulgate, a translation of Scripture that few could read. At this time, Scripture was not accessible in the vernacular that most people spoke or read, and so the Word of God was accessible only to the clergy. In all, the Church desperately needed an overhaul.
What events contributed to the capacity for Reform?
While many events contributed to the Protestant Reformation, a few stand out as essential in leading up to it:
- In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented the first movable-type printing press and put it to use printing propaganda, poems, and Latin grammars. In 1455, Gutenberg printed what is known as the “Gutenberg Bible” on his printing press. This bible, an edition of the Vulgate, showed that an entire book could be printed in large quantities.
- In 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to Ottoman invasion. The city had been a center of Orthodox Christianity for centuries, and many texts and manuscripts had been stored there in universities and churches. As the city fell, these ancient texts were smuggled out by scholars and scattered throughout Western Europe. Original manuscripts in the original languages—and the scholars who understood them—were now within easy reach of those who might be able to learn from them.
- In 1516, a humanist by the name of Desiderius Erasmus used some of the rediscovered manuscripts unearthed during the Fall of Constantinople to publish the first critical Greek New Testament. This Greek New Testament paved the way for future translations in the vernacular languages. In addition, Erasmus’ translation of the Latin provided clearer understanding of certain passages. In the Vulgate, Matthew 3:2 stated a believer should “do penance”. In contrast, Erasmus translated the verse as, “be penitent,” showing that the Greek text implied an attitude of the heart rather than an action to be performed.
Ultimately, the Church was poised for a significant Reform. It had become apparent that the Church was broken and in dire need of repair. Church leadership was corrupt, many were led astray by incorrect teaching regarding salvation, and the biblical text was unavailable to the majority. Yet, God in His sovereign kindness brought about the restoration of His Church. He prepared people and world events so that His Word would be made known broadly and rightly.
Next week, we will continue through the history of the Protestant Reformation. We’ll look at the historical figures who participated in it, the key themes surrounding it, and why it matters for us today. Quite simply, it matters that we study the Protestant Reformation because our God loves the Church and because our God has a habit of fixing that which is broken. Let’s rejoice with Him in the renovation of His Church.