Over the past few weeks, we examined the many errors and abuses that plagued the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. There was the Great Papal Schism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, highlighting the power plays surrounding the papacy, but also corrupt practices of church leaders on the local level. In the face of such grievances, many saw the need for reform. As scholar Justo González writes, “The religious conscience of Europe was divided within itself, torn between trust in a church that had been its spiritual mother for generations, and the patent failures of that church.” Consider that for a moment: on one hand was the legacy and beauty of the church that nurtured faith, and on the other hand were the very real failures and sins of the church. Our study of church history often brings us back to this tension. We see both the great witness and faithfulness of the church as well as the great failure. Think back through our study so far. How have you seen this tension play out in church history?
The Need for Reform
What Exactly Was the Protestant Reformation?
Although many agreed that correction was needed in the church, the question remained: how should reform take place? As we shall see in the coming weeks, there was not just one “Reformation,” but multiple reforming movements that made up what is known as the Protestant Reformation. Broadly speaking, the Protestant Reformation refers to a series of reforming movements in Europe between 1517 and 1648.These movements led to the development of various Protestant groups. These groups sought to correct both the moral failures of the church and what was deemed to be the false teachings of the church. In this way, with an emphasis on the return to Scripture, the Reformers who led the way in the Protestant Reformation saw themselves as proclaiming the true gospel.
Ready for Reformation
In the sixteenth century, conditions in Europe were “ripe for reformation. “Remember, the story of God’s church, the movement of His people, plays out in the midst of very real social, political, economic, and cultural factors and influences. This was true for the early church as they lived and ministered with the backdrop of the Roman Empire. This is true for us today, and this was certainly true for the church during the Reformation. Leading up to the Protestant Reformation, Europe was in the midst of significant changes. “An old world was passing away, and a new one was being born in its place. “As we saw last week, the Renaissance led to an explosion of new ideas and studies. The Renaissance also highlighted the need for renewal in the church. Other factors were at play at well. For example, the invention of the printing press enabled the Reformers to more readily share their teaching. It was now possible for new ideas to spread rapidly. Additionally, the changing political landscape in Europe saw the decline of papal power and the rise of national identities. With a growing national identity in many areas, people increasingly resisted the reach of Rome. These factors and more led to the spread of reform movements throughout Europe.
The Rise of Denominations
Have you ever wondered where denominations came from? The Reformation brought about the beginning of a new era that eventually led to the rise of denominations. The Catholic Church was no longer the “one” church. (Although, of course, there were technically two churches already after the schism with the Eastern Church.) While some key tenets of theology were shared among the Reformation leaders and the movements they spearheaded, there were also clear differences. These differences kept the movements from uniting. Scholar Mark Noll observes, “On almost every major issue of Christian doctrine or practical church life, Protestants divided among themselves.” This led, in part, to the beginning of denominations. We will study the rise of denominations more in the coming weeks.
As you consider both the beauty and the brokenness of the church, what have been some of your own reflections? What has surprised you? What has disappointed you? What has encouraged you?
How might our study of church history lead you to both a deeper of love for the church as well as more honest confession of the church’s sin through the centuries and even today?
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