Renaissance and Reformation

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What social and religious factors led to the Reformation?

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The religious factors that led to the Reformation included a strong sense, as articulated by Martin Luther and others, that the Roman Catholic Church had strayed too far theologically from the Bible. A lightening rod was the sale of Indulgences. This was premised on the idea that by paying money to the Church, an individual could cancel sins—and even pay ahead to cancel sins that had not yet been committed. This was considered a form of "works," a bargain in which good behavior (including doing good to the Church by buying indulgences) would earn or buy one a place in heaven. Reformers argued that only God's grace could grant salvation.

Politically, certain nation-states and principalities were chafing under the rule of the papacy. A prime example was England; Henry VIII simply broke his church away and made himself the head, thereby rejecting papal authority. Socially, people were tired of the corruption of the clergy classes, who often lived very well while common people suffered. Breaking up the wealthy monasteries and distributing their wealth worked well both for rulers and people, and the Reformation allowed this to happen. Likewise, not being strong-armed into buying papal indulgences, which many people knew were being used for things like the lavish restoration of papal palaces, was a popular idea for both rulers and common people.

In sum, the Reformation was made possible by the perception that, religiously, the Church had strayed too far from the Bible. Socially, the Reformation was made possible by widespread aversion to Church corruption.

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There were many social and religious factors that were responsible for this transition.  Among them were:

  • The Northern Renaissance.  This brought ideas like those of Erasmus which took hold and were precursors to Luther's ideas.
  • The invention of the Gutenberg printing press.  This allowed ideas such as those of Luther to be spread more widely and easily.
  • The fact that the Church was becoming even more caught up in temporal affairs.  The Great Schism and the Babylonian Captivity had occurred not long before the Reformation.  Popes and cardinals were people from powerful families who were using their positions to help their families get more power and wealth.  
  • The fact that Germany was split into many little states.  This gave Luther the political cover needed to allow him to survive going against the Catholic Church.  The presence of rulers who valued ways to resist the Church and the Holy Roman Emperor was key to Luther's success.

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