Those who live in the 21st century often find it difficult to understand the obsession of the ancient Europeans with the end of the world. For an ex-monk who lived in the 16th century, however, it was hard not to believe that the Apocalypse was coming. He made this clear by commenting on the prophet’s book Daniel – one of the biblical texts that predict the end of the world.
“Everything happened and is finished”, he wrote Martin Luther around 1530. “The Roman Empire the Holy Roman-German Empire is at an end, the Turks are knocking on the door, the splendor of papism has faded and the world is cracking everywhere, as if it were going to fall apart.”
If you were still alive, it is possible that Luther be disappointed with the delay for the Apocalypse to occur. But he did not push the bar as hard as he said the end was near. Thanks to the former German monk and a generation of religious reformers, a world, at least, had already ended: one that, for more than 1100 years, had united Christians in the West.
Instead of a single monolithic church, dominated by the pope’s supremacy in Rome, half of Western Europe was being taken over by churches that considered the old Catholic tradition as an unacceptable corruption of Christian ideals.
This desire for spiritual renewal was one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation. But how did it escape becoming just another “heresy” crushed by the Church? The historical context helped. Some peasants, for example, saw in the Reformation the chance to correct injustices in the feudal system.
Meanwhile, at the top of European society, nobles felt that the cry of the reformers was a great excuse to wrest power from popes, cardinals and archbishops. The mixture of pure intentions and self-serving goals helped the Reformation go far and redefined the map of Europe.
In the early 16th century, talking about “reform” was old talk. European intellectuals and mystics had been working out the widespread mess that seemed to have taken over the Church for hundreds of years.
“In the Middle Ages, the word reformatio was on everyone’s lips, just as it is today with the word democracy. And it was characterized by the same multiplicity of meanings”, says the Dutchman Heiko Oberman, one of the great scholars of the Reformation, in the book Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (“Lutero: the man between God and the Devil”).
Critics attacked the wealthy and decadent lives of Catholic leaders and were exasperated by the way in which the high positions of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (which were often accompanied by the possession of rich feuds) became a currency of political exchange. But the habit that probably most scandalized intellectuals was the sale of indulgences.
With donations to the Holy See, the wealthier Christians could, through prayers on demand, reduce time in Purgatory and expedite their trip to Paradise – it was almost like buying a place in heaven.
All supporters of such a reformatio, however, wanted to correct Christianity from the inside out. Breaking the unity of the Church was almost unthinkable. “There were dissidents, but they were generally localized, overly diverse and uncoordinated,” says Euan Cameron, professor of Religion at Columbia University in the United States.
The one who helped to make reformism more radical was the Renaissance. With the decline of the Middle Ages in Europe, ancient philosophy and art were being rediscovered by scholars. This included early Christian thinkers and the original text of the Bible.
It was the first time in a long time that Western European scholars tried to read the Gospels in Greek or the Old Testament in Hebrew, failing to be guided only by the Latin versions preferred by the Church.
The ancient texts made their readers rethink the bases of their faith and compare the “holy” past of Christianity with its worldly present. The European university environment allowed a certain freedom to discuss these topics.
In addition to the Renaissance, profound social changes completed the favorable scenario for the Reformation. With the development of capitalism, a dynamic European market appeared, involving bankers, artisans and traders who wanted to get rid of political and religious ties to negotiate.
Especially in Germany, the birthplace of Luther, many regions were beginning to see themselves more as part of a great German nation than as members of the old Holy Empire (which extended from France to the present Czech Republic), much influenced by the papacy.
Confusion at the door
In an environment full of dissatisfaction with the Church, the first step towards serious change was a German monk with a doctorate who taught at the University of Wittenberg. Born on November 10, 1483, Martin Luther he was the son of a peasant who had grown rich by becoming a mining entrepreneur.
Contrary to the interests of the father, who wanted to make him a lawyer, Luther he decided to enter a convent when he escaped alive from a lightning storm.
The young man became an exemplary monk. Despite this, his conscience was always plagued. He feared the justice of God, believing that human beings were so sinful that they would never be able to achieve salvation.
Studying the Bible, he concluded that Christians could only be saved by faith: unable to redeem themselves by their inner strength or by their good deeds, the faithful would receive salvation through God’s free generosity.
If Luther’s reasoning was correct, the practice of indulgences was even worse than used to be believed. The Church would basically be doing deceptive propaganda, since it would have no power to alleviate sins – whose judgment would be God.
In 1517, Luther wrote a list of criticisms about indulgences, in a text that would become known as the 95 Theses. They were nailed to the door of the Wittenberg castle church in plain sight.
“The theological content of the document is not particularly important. Its importance comes from the fact that some business-minded publishers had it printed, without realizing that they were instituting a revolution in communications,” he says. Robert Kolb, professor of systematic theology at the Concórdia Seminary in the United States.
By 1520, Luther’s 95 Theses and other texts had reached an incredible circulation of 600,000 copies. No less than 20% of the pamphlets published in Germany between 1500 and 1530 were signed by the troublemaker monk.
Within weeks, most of Europe’s intellectuals learned of the controversy. Many sided with Luther. The Church, on the other hand, rejected the theological debate proposed by the religious and threatened him with excommunication in 1520.
Luther did not want to retract. The following year, he was called before the emperor Carlos v and the Diet (something like the Chamber of Deputies) of the Holy Empire. He remained unyielding. From there, although he managed to escape, he became a heretic condemned to death.
After spending a hidden season, Luther returned to teach in Wittenberg, protected by Prince Frederick III of Saxony. It said that only the Bible could be considered the word of God and that all Christians were priests. Not so far away, another voice was raised against the Church.
In the 1520s, the priest Ulrico Zwinglio had launched in Switzerland an attack on indulgences similar to that of Luther and also defended the supremacy of the Bible over ecclesiastical authorities. Zwinglio became one of the political leaders of Zurich and ended the veneration of images of saints and music in religious ceremonies. Some Swiss cantons have joined Zurich, while others declared war on “heretics”. Himself Zwinglio would end up killed in combat in 1531.
In Germany, some defenders of the ideas of Luther, like or father Thomas Müntzer, began to interpret the Reformation from a social point of view. After all, if the only true king was God, why continue to obey royalty? Peasants, commoners and even nobles joined Müntzer and took up arms.
Between 1524 and 1525, the Peasant War turned Germany upside down. The nobles managed to slaughter the rebels – and were supported by Luther, who refused the use of violence advocated by Müntzer and he considered certain practices of the rebels heretical, such as the baptism of adults who had already been baptized as babies.
The German-speaking nations were not the only ones to be influenced by the reformists. In the 1520s and 1530s, for example, Lutheranism became so influential in Scandinavia that it eventually led to a break with Rome from the region. In England, the king Henrique VIII (so Catholic that he even wrote a treaty against Luther), wanted the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
The problem is that the queen was the aunt of the leader of the Holy Empire, Carlos V, whom the pope did not want to displease. In 1533, persuaded by advisers with Protestant inclinations, Henrique VIII decided to divorce without papal authorization. There the Anglican Church was born, whose leadership fell to the British king.
“Years before, the Reformation in England seemed impossible, but it ended up being established,” says historian Christopher Haigh, from the University of Oxford, England. The new religion started out almost as a Catholic without a pope, but was increasingly influenced by the Reformation, until it was halfway between Protestantism and Catholicism.
The last blow against the old Christian unity came from France. There, a lawyer called John Calvin developed even more radical doctrines, which not only rejected the authority of the pope and the mass but considered that God predestined only certain people for salvation.
From 1536, Calvin he took refuge in Geneva, in present-day Switzerland, and, after winning several conflicts, instituted a system of government dominated by his view of Christianity. The city became a center for the formation of Protestant missionaries.
Meanwhile, in Germany’s Luther, nobles broke with the Church and took the opportunity to take their lands and wealth. To stem the tide of change, Emperor Carlos V started a civil war in the Holy Empire.
Unable to win by arms, he signed an agreement with the Lutherans: the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Thanks to it, each prince was free to determine the religion of his territory. The division of Christian Europe into two had just become law.
In the next 100 years, religious wars would still kill many people in Europe. Luther, however, would not live to see the Peace of Augsburg or the blood spilled afterwards. Married to ex-nun Katharina von Bora, he would die in Eisleben, his homeland, in 1546.
Today, years after the publication of the 95 Theses, Protestants and Catholics are already able to dialogue peacefully in debates on theology. But if they no longer go to war because of their different religious beliefs, the two sides are still antagonists in intense disputes.
In Brazil, for example, the Catholic Church struggles daily against the loss of faithful to the youngest branch of Protestantism: the neo-Pentecostal churches.
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