The Protestant Reformation was caused by the opposition between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant reformers. It spread to most of the European countries, including Germany, England, and Italy, and shaped the future development of the Church, giving rise to new religious movements and schools. Four main factors influenced the start of the Reformation, both short- and long-term.
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Short-Term Causes: Indulgencies and the Leipzig Debate
Indulgences became a common practice during the Middle Ages and caused a lot of controversy in society. Whereas the believers saw it as a way to avoid the punishment for their sins or to reduce their time in Purgatory, the Church officials saw it as a promising way of commercializing their practice. Indulgences were sold to the people who were willing to pay and denied to those who could not afford them, thus causing an uproar among the masses. The Roman Catholic Church was unable to respond to these incidences of corruption, which gave power to the Protestant theologians such as Martin Luther to address the issue using a reformation.
The Leipzig Debate, on the other hand, occurred in 1519 between John Eck, Martin Luther, and Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. Eck was defending the Catholic doctrine after the writings of Martin Luther on the indulgences were released. Karlstadt, on the other hand, was a Christian theologian who wrote a repudiation of Eck’s treatise and collaborated with Luther to oppose Eck in an official debate. The debate was crucial to the development of the Reformation thought, as it was during this debate that Luther for the first time argued that the Pope had no official power since the Bible alone (sola scriptura) was the basis of the Christian faith, and the Bible did not establish the existence of the Pope.
Long-Term Causes: The Corruption of the Church and the Development of Humanism
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was becoming more and more political, which did not go unnoticed by the theologians. Church officials occupied high positions in the hierarchy and had the power to influence certain political activities, such as the initiation of the Crusades. Many theologians, including Luther, felt that the role of the Church has changed and it was no longer there for the benefit of the people. One of their primary aims was to stop the corruption and the division of the Church into many political units, thus ending the engagement of the Church with political matters and ensuring its care for people and God instead.
The development of Humanist thought during the Early Renaissance period was also associated with an investigation into the values and role of the Church. Many humanists wrote on the need to reform the Church and on the obsoletism of the exercised faith in general. For instance, Erasmus of Rotterdam offered a revised edition of the New Testament, which was later used by Martin Luther as a basis for his German translation, thus influencing his later thoughts on the subject.
Overall, some of the causes of the Reformation can be traced back to the Middle Ages, whereas others led to an immediate development of religious reformation movements. A combination of both the long-term and short-term factors ensured the people’s insistence on reforming the Church, thus strengthening the impact of the entire reformation process.