RE ATAR Unit 4: the interplay between a religion and an issue within a particular historical context

The Reformation

Religions are not static. They have been shaped, and continue to be shaped over time, by a dynamic interaction with particular places, times and people. Understanding the development of a particular religion is enhanced by a focus on the foundation and growth of the religion and how the religion has responded to changes in society.

The Reformation: Germany and Lutheranism

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an Augustinian monk and university lecturer in Wittenberg when he composed his “95 Theses,” which protested the pope’s sale of reprieves from penance, or indulgences. Although he had hoped to spur renewal from within the church, in 1521 he was summoned before the Diet of Worms and excommunicated. Sheltered by Friedrich, elector of Saxony, Luther translated the Bible into German and continued his output of vernacular pamphlets.

When German peasants, inspired in part by Luther’s empowering “priesthood of all believers,” revolted in 1524, Luther sided with Germany’s princes. By the Reformation’s end, Lutheranism had become the state religion throughout much of Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltics.

What is an Indulgance?

There are two ideas involved in Catholic teaching on indulgences:

1. Christians receive "temporal punishment" for sin, even after its guilt and eternal punishment have been forgiven by God. That temporal punishment must be paid either here on earth or in a temporary, after-death holding place called purgatory.

2. The Catholic Church has a "treasury," composed of the "superabundant merits of Christ and the saints," which the Church, through the exercise of the "power of the keys," can transfer to the benefit of those who are due temporal punishment.


The Catholic Encyclopedia points out, the word originally meant a kindness or favour.

Thus, during the Middle Ages, when pilgrimages were common and looked upon with favour, various Church authorities can be quoted as saying that indulgences were given in return for pilgrimages. In other words, the Church told people that if they went on a pilgrimage their sins would be forgiven. However, just because a Church authority said that sins could be forgiven in exchange for a pilgrimage doesn't mean that they believed in the doctrine of superabundant merits of the saints. During the Middle Ages the Church, at least in Europe, had reached such a level of superstition that all sorts of religious activities—like pilgrimages and obtaining relics—were seen as having the power to forgive sins.

That this superstition should have developed in later medieval Christianity into the sale of pieces of paper promising relief from purgatory is no surprise.  Many people do not realize that his objection to indulgences was the sole issue that led to Martin Luther's excommunication by the Catholic Church.

Indulgences, Roman Catholicism, and the Reformation

In the early 16th century, indulgences were being used by the Catholic Church to raise funds for the building of St. Peter's Basilica. Johann Tetzel, a German monk, was particularly adept at raising funds in this manner. To this day, the Catholic Church condemns some of the promises Tetzel made (mostly concerning promising forgiveness without repentance), but they defend indulgences as an appropriate reward for charitable giving, including giving to "the building of churches."

If Tetzel was guilty of unwarranted theological views, if his advocacy of indulgences was culpably imprudent, his moral character ... has been vindicated to the extent of leaving it untainted by any grave moral dereliction. ("Johann Tetzel": Catholic Encyclopedia)
Again, it is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, alms giving would naturally hold a conspicuous place, while men would be induced by the same means to contribute to some pious cause such as the building of churches, the endowment of hospitals, or the organization of a crusade. It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded. ("Indulgences"; Catholic Encyclopedia)

Martin Luther did not agree. If the Catholic Church could really remove the suffering from purgatory, he said, then they ought to do it immediately and empty purgatory for free (Thesis 82). Selling forgiveness for money seemed awful to him.

The History of Indulgences

Superabundant Merits

The idea behind superabundant merits is that Christ and the saints did so many good works that they don't need them all. The merit they have obtained with God that is beyond their need can be transferred to others.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says:

Since the satisfaction of Christ is infinite, it constitutes an inexhaustible fund which is more than sufficient to cover the indebtedness contracted by sin, Besides, there are the satisfactory works of the Blessed Virgin Mary undiminished by any penalty due to sin, and the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints vastly exceeding any temporal punishment which these servants of God might have incurred. ("Indulgences")


The Protestant Reformation was the 16th-century religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe, setting in place the structures and beliefs that would define the continent in the modern era. In northern and central Europe, reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII challenged papal authority and questioned the Catholic Church’s ability to define Christian practice. They argued for a religious and political redistribution of power into the hands of Bible- and pamphlet-reading pastors and princes. The disruption triggered wars, persecutions and the so-called Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church’s delayed but forceful response to the Protestants.

Historians usually date the start of the Protestant Reformation to the 1517 publication of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” Its ending can be placed anywhere from the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which allowed for the coexistence of Catholicism and Lutheranism in Germany, to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The key ideas of the Reformation—a call to purify the church and a belief that the Bible, not tradition, should be the sole source of spiritual authority—were not themselves novel. However, Luther and the other reformers became the first to skilfully use the power of the printing press to give their ideas a wide audience.

The Issue

The Catholic Church was slow to respond systematically to the theological and publicity innovations of Luther and the other reformers. The Council of Trent, which met off and on from 1545 through 1563, articulated the Church’s answer to the problems that triggered the Reformation and to the reformers themselves.

The Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation era grew more spiritual, more literate and more educated. New religious orders, notably the Jesuits, combined rigorous spirituality with a globally minded intellectualism, while mystics such as Teresa of Avila injected new passion into the older orders. Inquisitions, both in Spain and in Rome, were reorganized to fight the threat of Protestant heresy.

Martin Luther - Documentary

Christianity: A History - The Reformation

The Catholic Church

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, many Bishops and leaders were calling for reform of Church life and order but sadly it was not until after the Protestant Reformation that the Council of Trent was called and the Catholic Church itself undertook a thorough reform, including a reform of the Mass.

A new Missal was prepared which set out the ritual for Mass and purified it of many of the accretions and additions of the medieval period. This Missal replaced the great profusion of local customs with a clearly set out rite that looked back, not yet to the earliest celebrations of the Mass in the first centuries, but to the original Roman rite.This reform of the Mass was influenced not only by the acknowledged abuses that had gradually crept in but also by the need to affirm key understandings about the Mass against the challenges raised by the Protestant reformers.

These challenges principally concerned the denial of Mass as a sacrifice and the denial of the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Efforts were concentrated on restoring the Mass in such a way that its meaning and effect were clear, stripping away the many additions, mandating the ancient rite enshrined in the Roman Missal.
No particular attention was paid to the relationship between Priest and people in the offering of Mass, nor to the role of the congregation apart from their prayerful presence.

However, it was recommended that the people receive Holy Communion each time they attended Mass which was a radical idea at that time. The possibility of celebrating Mass in the vernacular was discussed but was not introduced. The reforms were widely accepted throughout the Church (though provision was made for rites that had been in use for 200 years or more to continue) and firmly enforced.

A key to this wide and effective reform was the Council’s effort to educate and prepare Priests for their tasks. Seminaries were erected all over the Catholic world for the training of Priests.

These measures, plus the zeal of new orders such as the Jesuits, were highly successful in re-establishing and re-inspiring Catholic Europe. This version of the Mass remained substantially the same for 500 years.
Uniformity and adherence to the rules and rubrics contained in the Missal meant that Catholics could attend Mass anywhere in the world and recognise the same ritual and language. However, the role of the people was still simply to pray along silently at Mass either with a rosary or a prayer book or as best they could. The great abuses disappeared and the Mass was restored, sublime, especially when augmented by the music of Palestrina and other musical masters of the 16th and 17th century, but a Mass in which only the Priest, his assistant ministers and the choir had an active part.

Together At One Altar | Council of Trent (retrieved 22 Aug 2017)


Library Books

The Reformation: England and The "Middle Way"

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In England, the Reformation began with Henry VIII’s quest for a male heir. When Pope Clement VII refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could remarry, the English king declared in 1534 that he alone should be the final authority in matters relating to the English church. Henry dissolved England’s monasteries to confiscate their wealth and worked to place the Bible in the hands of the people. Beginning in 1536, every parish was required to have a copy.

After Henry’s death, England tilted toward Calvinist-infused Protestantism during Edward VI’s six-year reign and then endured five years of reactionary Catholicism under Mary I. In 1559 Elizabeth I took the throne and, during her 44-year reign, cast the Church of England as a “middle way” between Calvinism and Catholicism, with vernacular worship and a revised Book of Common Prayer.

The Reformation: Switzerland and Calvinism

The Swiss Reformation began in 1519 with the sermons of Ulrich Zwingli, whose teachings largely paralleled Luther’s. In 1541 John Calvin, a French Protestant who had spent the previous decade in exile writing his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” was invited to settle in Geneva and put his Reformed doctrine—which stressed God’s power and humanity’s predestined fate—into practice. The result was a theocratic regime of enforced, austere morality.

Calvin’s Geneva became a hotbed for Protestant exiles, and his doctrines quickly spread to Scotland, France, Transylvania and the Low Countries, where Dutch Calvinism became a religious and economic force for the next 400 years.

The Cause and Results of the Reformations

The Reformation's Legacy

Along with the religious consequences of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation came deep and lasting political changes. Northern Europe’s new religious and political freedoms came at a great cost, with decades of rebellions, wars and bloody persecutions. The Thirty Years’ War alone may have cost Germany 40 percent of its population.

But the Reformation’s positive repercussions can be seen in the intellectual and cultural flourishing it inspired on all sides of the schism—in the strengthened universities of Europe, the Lutheran church music of J.S. Bach, the baroque altarpieces of Pieter Paul Rubens and even the capitalism of Dutch Calvinist merchants.


The Reformation - Facts & Summary