The Protestant Reformation: the Split in the Religious and Political Solidarity of Europe

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After centuries of political and economic dissension, Europe arrived in the sixteenth century with relatively new aspirations for prosperity. In the decades preceding, the European economy was burgeoning as colonial expansion was being exploited to validate and solidify the authority of European monarchies and the papacy. Likewise, the religious unity in Europe sustained a frail unity and the culture flourished from the innovations. Despite the overall welfare of Western civilization, Europe ascended into a duration of opposition and division from 1500 to 1564. The turmoil of this fascinating period was facilitated by the Protestant Reformation as a convergence of forces fanned the flames of animosity across Europe. The Protestant Reformation is an alluring period because it irreparably splintered Europe’s religious and political solidarity, effectively altering the course of Western Civilization.

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For the purpose of comprehending why Europe accelerated into an age of division, it is imperative to explore the advancements that took place in the early sixteenth century. Certainly, the most significant component that promoted the turbulence was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. The apparatus rapidly conveyed revolutionary ideas throughout Europe via pamphlets, posters, and cartoons that could be seen and read aloud to millions. By 1500, the printing press had made it increasingly difficult for authority to censor dissenting opinions, adequately arranging for the new doctrines of the era to challenge the existing social, political, religious institutions. The premise of these subversive doctrines came from the new intellectual development known as Christian Humanism. This intellectual advancement developed in Northern Europe during the Renaissance movement and fixated on inward piety and scholarly inquiry. Christian Humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, translated the works of early Christian authors and the Bible to produce a study of Christianity that differed from the teachings of the Catholic Church. Their work and criticisms initiated a push for a program of reforms that provided a foundation for the Protestant Reformation.

Over centuries the Catholic Church had cultivated a monolithic concept of Christianity with traditions not of questioning and rebellion but of doctrine and obedience. Through this it had garnered and maintained a substantial influence in European life, allowing it to essentially transcend political boundaries. However, by the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church had stimulated widespread public resentment with abuse of spiritual power and the corruption of the papacy. Clergy openly disparaged from doctrine and engaged in the scandalous sale of indulgences, in which people believed acted as an insurance for the afterlife. The papacy had become flagrantly corrupt with bribery and decadence primarily with Pope Alexander VI through Leo X. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation in 1521, the Catholic Church would have its integrity safeguarded by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who utilized Catholicism to unite his diverse kingdom. Now that the once omnipotent Catholic Church was ruled by decadent popes, the printing press could rapidly spread ideas, and a new method of learning had emerged, Europe had virtually been transformed into a powder keg.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted a scholarly debate against the Catholic Church with his Ninety-Five Theses. His act inadvertently fractured Europe and triggered the Reformation, splitting Christianity into two major denominations, Catholic and Protestant. Prior to his actions in Wittenberg, Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who was acutely concerned with his sinfulness. Luther scrupulously followed the teachings of the Catholic Church, but continuously gnawing away at him was a sense of unworthiness. Obsessive with his search for personal purity, Luther pondered over his relationship with God, developing his doctrine of justification by faith. Luther had “concluded that God’s justice does not demand endless good works and religious rituals for salvation because humans can never attain salvation through their own weak efforts” (Cole 427). The central theme of Luther’s revelation was revolutionary because it promoted the belief that one does not need the traditions of the Church, but only need a powerful individual relationship with God. This radical perception dramatically undermined the hierarchy and influence of the Catholic Church. The breaking point for Luther was the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. This spectacle made Luther fear for the souls of people who believed their fate in the afterlife could be bought, ultimately, he was convinced that the Catholic Church had strayed too far off.    

24 May 2022

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