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What Was the Reformation and Why Did it Happen, Part 4: The Rise of Individualism

Ken Hensley
April 17, 2017 5 Comments

This is part 4 of an ongoing series on the Reformation. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

With the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation coming in October of this year, in this series of articles we’ve been asking two essential questions: First, boiled down to its essence, what was the Reformation? And then second, why did the Reformation happen at that precise moment in the history of Christianity?

In terms of the first question, we’ve seen that the Reformation was not about the creation of a new religion. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the other Reformers never saw themselves as teaching anything other than the Christianity of the Apostles and the early Church.

Nor was the Reformation merely about certain Catholic theologians coming to disagree with the Church on certain doctrinal issues, although it seems to have begun this way.

No. At its heart, the Reformation was a reaction against, and ultimately the rejection of, the very idea that Christ had established, and that there existed on earth, a united spiritual authority. It was a rejection of the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church.

Why did it happen at the time it happened?

There were a number of factors. In Part 2 we looked at the invention of the printing press and the cultural revolution it brought about in the decades leading up the Reformation.

Imagine the changes this would naturally bring about in a society. For the first time in history, printed materials became available to the masses. With this came a dramatic increase in the number of people who could read and would naturally want to interact more critically with what they were being taught. With this as well came an explosion of new theological ideas expressed in a myriad of inexpensive pamphlets and books making the case for these new ideas. Finally, with this came a dramatic increase in the number of colleges and universities and theological faculties in which these new ideas could be batted around, debated, and disseminated.

In Part 3 we looked at the simultaneous rise of a humanist educational philosophy sweeping the universities in the early 16th century.  The humanists disliked and even mocked the scholastic theology being done by the great theologians and doctors of the Church at that time (including St. Thomas Aquinas) and called for a return to the “pure” study of Scripture and the Church Fathers.

When you add these factors together, it isn’t hard to see how an atmosphere of independence from the authority of the Church might develop. But there’s more.

Individualism in Religion

In 1503, the humanist priest Erasmus published a book titled Enchiridion, or Handbook of the Christian Soldier.  The book emphasized the need for Christians to have a personal faith in Christ and to nourish that faith by the personal reading of Scripture. It also promoted the renewal of the Church through a return to the focused study of Scripture and the Fathers.

Guess what? Erasmus’ book was an instant runaway hit. It went through 23 editions in its first six years alone. It was being devoured throughout Catholic Europe.

And of course Erasmus was right in insisting that our relationship with Christ ought to be intimate and personal.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that we are called to a “vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” (paragraph 2558). When we talk about putting our trust in the living God, we’re talking about the commitment of mind, emotion, and will. Faith must be inward and personal.

And as Alister McGrath notes in his excellent biography A Life of John Calvin, these ideas were spreading everywhere at the time and weren’t in any sense considered “heretical.”

“In Italy the movement often known as ‘Catholic evangelicalism’ … with its stress on the question of personal salvation, became rmly established within the church, even penetrating deeply within its hierarchy, without being regarded as in any way heretical (page 7).”

In other words, as with the other points we’ve looked at so far, the new appreciation for the “individual” rising out of the Italian Renaissance had a positive side to it. Just think of the masterpieces of Renaissance art with its focus on the individual, the person. Take a look at the statues of Michelangelo, or the paintings of Raphael, Caravaggio, and Leonardo da Vinci.

The Rise of Nationalism

Now, this trend toward individualism in the decades leading up to the Reformation didn’t express itself merely in an emphasis on religion as something intimate and personal.  The fact is, at the time, throughout Catholic Europe, there was an increasingly strong spirit of resentment felt toward centralized authority of all kinds: the authority of the Church and the authority of the empire as well. With respect to the Church, anti-clericalism was rampant. With respect to the empire, nationalism was on the rise.

For instance, in Germany, McGrath tells us:

“Intense resentment was felt against the pope. In part, this reflected an incipient German nationalism, marked by a resentment of all things Italian. It also reflected popular irritation at the fact that ecclesiastical revenues (including the proceeds of indulgence sales) were destined for Rome, and the maintenance of the somewhat extravagant lifestyles, building programs and political adventures of the Renaissance popes … In many ways, Luther’s reforming program made an appeal to (perhaps even to the point of a crude exploitation of) German nationalism and anti-papalism, allowing the Reformation to ride on the crest of a wave of popular anti-papal sentiment.” (Calvin, page 13)


Read again that last sentence. McGrath, a world-class Protestant theologian, is suggesting that Luther’s program of “reform” in many ways exploited an atmosphere of “nationalism and anti-papalism” already in existence at the time.  The Reformation was able to “ride on the crest of a wave of popular anti-papal sentiment.”

In other words, along with all the other factors we’ve discussed so far, the very idea of centralized authority was being rejected at the time. Individualism in religion was on the rise, and so was the individualism of nations. Christendom was beginning to break apart.

And this is key: it wasn’t simply because of all the new ideas in the wind.  The resentment that was felt toward the Catholic Church was to a significant degree the fault of the Catholic leadership.

How so? Find out in Part V

Ken Hensley

Ken Hensley is a well-known Catholic teacher, speaker and author. He was a Protestant minister for eleven years before resigning his pastorate in 1996 to enter the Catholic Church. He now works with the Coming Home Network, International serving the needs of converts and those curious about the Catholic faith and is an Adjunct Professor in Old and New Testament at St. John’s Seminary for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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