Why did the Reformation Succeed?

Despite significant opposition, Protestant churches survived the era of their tumultuous birth and grew large to provide spiritual shade and sustenance for countless men, women and children. But how?

Luther preached about a direct encounter with the Lord, and preached in a way that expected listeners to experience the Lord directly. At the heart of the success of the Protestant Reformation was its bold and clear proclamation of Christ.

 

It’s not just in Wittenberg, Geneva or Cambridge that you can find one. In the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, in the Kenyan Rift Valley, amidst the hyper-urbanism of Seoul, or in rural America you can find a Protestant church. By any measure, the theological and ecclesiastical reforms released in the sixteenth century have demonstrated enormous capacity to take deep root in vastly different areas of the world. Indeed, one of the preeminent Anglican historians of our own day, Diarmaid MacCulloch, argues that adaptability is one of the greatest hallmarks of the Christian church. Despite significant opposition, Protestant churches survived the era of their tumultuous birth and grew large to provide spiritual shade and sustenance for countless men, women and children. But how?

Providentially, the sixteenth century was a perfect storm, both outside and inside the church. Feudal social relationships were in decline, being replaced by an economy in which goods and services were traded for money. The old face-to-face way of engaging with the world was being replaced with a more decentralised and impersonal economy. We speak fondly of the invention of the printing press, because it enabled the production of cheaper books, but it also expedited the development of early modern capitalism by enabling the mass printing of money and contracts on paper. Hierarchical relations of deference had lost their mystique, and a more dynamic society of burghers, guilds and an educated laity took their place. The Protestant movement benefited.

Ripe for Reform

Inside the church, everyone realised that corruption was great and reform was needed. It had only been a matter of a hundred years since the church had experienced leadership by three popes simultaneously. The early sixteenth century papacy was dominated by Renaissance princes, whose artistic or architectural vision outstripped their spiritual responsibilities. Luther’s visit to Rome in 1511 horrified him when he witnessed first hand the moral decrepitude of the clergy. The church had effectively become a stock exchange for trading merits, exemplified in the practice of selling indulgences, building on assumptions about relics, pilgrimages, purgatory, and priestly authority. This was by all accounts one of the lowest points in the history of the Western church, so the deep desire for moral renewal, even by non-Protestants like Erasmus, was evident.

It was not that there was no vibrancy or signs of life in the parishes of the late medieval church. Lay leaders were very active in their community, and church attendance was by and large healthy. Recent scholarship has made clear that churches around Europe were receiving great gifts of adornment for the fabric of the buildings, and the feast of Corpus Christi for example was a much loved event, with its intersection of community and parish interests as Eamon Duffy has attested. The problem was not the church’s liveliness, but the lucidity of its central message, which had been obscured in the midst of enormous social transformation, and theological and moral confusion. What did the church really stand for? In this context, the Protestant Reformers, Luther chief amongst them, were able to refocus the mission of the church by distilling a clear message about grace in a way that was understood in the vernacular and received in the heart. He preached about a direct encounter with the Lord, and preached in a way that expected listeners to experience the Lord directly. At the heart of the success of the Protestant Reformation was its bold and clear proclamation of Christ.

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