The 16th Century Reformation of Religion (Part I - The Background)

Next month, on 31 October 2017, we celebrate 500 years of Luther's 95 Theses that formed his "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences". This was allegedly affixed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It certainly was seismic, although it would not have seemed so at the time. Luther, a German monk and university teacher, was simply questioning some relics of medieval Catholic dogma that were being manipulated by the current Pope for financial gain. However, a spark was being lit that turned into a mighty spiritual and political fire. So what were the real problems? You can cite various factors, but as well as Christian theology, also involved were politics, money, power and sex.

Church and State Too Identified

Politically the Church was too identified with the State through the power and position of the Pope (the bishop of Rome). There are always problems regarding how far the Church as such should be involved in the State. Christians are to be salt and light in society (Matt 5.13-14). If they are totally withdrawn from public life and remain in their own little ghettos, obviously they can neither preserve (as salt) or enlighten (as light) the wider world and the State. But if the Church is totally identified with the State, one of whose tasks is the restraining of human sin, Christians can lose their savour and their shine. Yes, Jesus had taught that we are to "render to Caesar [the State] the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12.17). Then Paul taught that the political authorities, in his case the Roman Emperor (a pagan), had divine authority, amazingly from Christ (Rom 13.1; Matt 28.18; 1 Cor 15.24-25). But when the State commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, you must obey God rather than the State according to Peter (Acts 5.29). And John in the book of Revelation (Rev 13.1-10) made it clear that sometimes the State can be quite demonic. Then Peter's teaching has to be put into practice and, as he was to learn himself, at the cost even of your life. That teaching on Church and State in those earliest of times was relatively clear and simple, although for some terrifying. But when in the 4th century the emperor Constantine endorsed, as a Christian, the Christian faith, Christians were often asked (and have been since) to exercise power and advise on policy; and things became more complicated.

So what followed the 4th century onwards has been a series of "ups and downs" between the Church and the State both in and beyond Europe. It has been likened to a "less-than-ideal-marriage". You can say the first three centuries were like "going out". Then from the "conversion" of Constantine to the end of the 8th century, you have the engagement period. The next and complicated period of actual marriage began on Christmas Day AD 800 when the Pope "crowned" Charlemagne as emperor, in fact, of Europe. But eventually a great crisis came with the ending of the 15th century. For in the 16th century you have the Reformation of Religion when real explosions occurred in the relationship.

Money and Power

The papacy was a, if not the, great problem. Popes were often political figures with vast power and men who could amass fortunes. Sometimes they had questionable morals. Erasmus, who stayed a loyal Roman Catholic and opposed Luther, responded to this papal problem by writing a savage epitaph for Pope Julius II (1503-13), entitled "Julius Exclusus". This was a dialogue in which the deceased Pope is pictured approaching heaven. It then goes like this:

"Julius: What the devil is up? The gates not open? Some one has monkeyed with the lock.
Spirit: Maybe you have the wrong key. You've got the key of power.
Julius: It's the only one I ever had …
Peter: Who are you?
Julius: Can't you see the key, the triple crown, and the pallium sparkling with gems?
Peter: It doesn't look like the key Christ gave me. How should I know the crown which no barbarian tyrant dared to wear? As for the gems and the jewels, I trample them under my feet …. Tell me again, what have you done for the Church?
Julius: I found the Church poor. I made her splendid with regal palaces, splendid horses and mules, troops of servants, armies, and officers.
Spirit: And glamorous prostitutes and obsequious pimps.
Peter: But how now? The Church was not like this when founded by Christ … Paul did not speak of the cities he had stormed, the princes he had slaughtered, the kings he had incited to war. He spoke of shipwrecks, chains, dangers plots. These are the glories of the Christian General. I beseech you, the chief pastor of the Church, have you never thought how the Church began, increased and was established? Was it by wars, was it by wealth, was it by horses? No indeed. It was by patience, the blood of the martyrs including mine, by prisons and by stripes. You say the Church is increased when the priests have thrown the world into tumult. You consider it flourishing when drunk with debauchery, tranquil when enjoying vices without reproof, and when the grand robberies and furious conflicts are justified by the princes and doctors as the 'defence of the Church.'"

Money and Sex

Julius was then followed by Leo X (1513-21), the Pope at the time of Luther's posting of his 95 Theses. Mark Noll, the church historian, says this about him:

"[He] was more pious than his predecessors but no less convinced that the measure of papal greatness was an increase in papal lands and a sponsorship of the arts. Leo, who had become a cardinal while still in his teens and who rose to power via his family connections as a Medici, was a great patron of theatre, arts, and music, as well as a great hunter, a great promoter of his many Medici relatives, and a great spender of money. In fact, Leo's profligacy as patron and builder, which kept him perpetually strapped for cash, lay behind his authorization of the sale of indulgences in Germany against which Luther's Ninety-Five Theses was such a forceful protest."

So there was corruption at the top of the Church in the corridors of Roman power and in Germany. But what was it like generally in Britain? This is how one contemporary, Thomas Becon, described the situation in 16th century England. Writing in mid-century (1547) it was quite shocking. For Becon reported:

"Although there want not, good Christian people, great swarms of vices worthy to be rebuked (unto such decay is true godliness and virtuous living now come), yet, above other vices, the outrageous sea of adultery (or breaking of wedlock), whoredom, fornication and uncleanness have not only burst in, but also overflowed almost the whole world, unto the great dishonour of God, the exceeding infamy of the name of Christ, the notable decay of true religion and the utter destruction of the public wealth; and that so abundantly that, through the customable use thereof, this vice is grown to such an height, that in a manner among many it is counted no sin at all, but rather a pastime, a dalliance and but a touch of youth, not rebuked but winked at, not punished but laughed at."

As well, therefore, as corruption at the top, among the general population there was also corruption. But change was on its way across Europe. In England Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was the leader of the Reform movement. And we can still learn from him today as we face our problems in the Church and the State. Of course, Luther, Cranmer and the other reformers with their essential correctives, were not all right while Rome all wrong. But reading the Homilies that Cranmer edited is still a very valuable exercise. These are referred to in Article 35 of the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles. There the Homilies are described as containing "a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times". As well as being spiritually helpful, they are also a good introduction to the Reformation issues themselves. They are simple but profound. Uniquely for a Reformation Church, the Church of England had among its foundation documents these sermons (for such they are, and by different people). They were in place of a lengthy and systematic Confessional statement. So the Church of England has the Bible first but then those Thirty-nine Articles (which were 39 separate points of doctrine that needed to be highlighted), its classic Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies (or sermons) at its foundation, and as its foundation.

So in Part II of this look at the Reformation, I shall try to outline those Homilies by Cranmer himself which give you as good a statement of Reformation fundamentals as any. He wrote four of the first six homilies. They were on 1) Scripture, 3) Salvation (Justification by faith), 4) Faith, and 5) Faith and good works (homily 2 was on "Sin and the Fall" by John Harpsfield and 6 was on "Love" by Edmund Bonner. That excerpt on adultery was a quote from homily number 11).

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