Written by: Ted Vial
The 16th century was a pivotal time of change throughout Europe, and the convergence of a number of trends created a context receptive to the Protestant Reformation. It was a time of rapid urbanization (and the early Reformation was largely a city affair). Protestants benefitted from the invention of the moveable type printing press. It is estimated that 6 million books were printed between 1450 and 1500, more than had been produced in the previous 1,000 years. Between 1517 and 1520 about 300,000 copies of books and tracts by Martin Luther alone were printed. During this time there was a middle class growing in size and prestige between the nobility and the peasants, and the first stirrings of nationalism (some branches of Protestantism quickly take on a national character). All these changes created anxiety and opportunity for new religious movements.
Several reform movements preceded the Protestant Reformation and influenced it. The Gregorian Reform of the 11th century undertook many of the institutional and moral reforms that also concerned Luther, primarily the buying and selling of Church offices. In Luther's own day the great churchman Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) made some of the same scathing attacks on Church practices as Luther, arguing against the opulent court life at Rome and against the selling of indulgences, for example. Unlike Luther, however, Erasmus never advocated views leading to excommunication.
Luther's theology was also preceded in many ways by John Wycliffe's. In the 1380s Wycliffe, a professor at Oxford, translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. He did this because he felt that the Bible held authority over the Church, not vice versa. In particular, he argued, when one reads the Bible one sees that the early Church is poor, rather than being a grand and wealthy institutional as it had become in the Middle Ages. Wycliffe argued for a return to an early Church model. After Wycliffe died he was condemned as a heretic, his books burned, and his remains dug up, crushed, and thrown in the Swift River.
John Hus (c. 1372-1415) was influenced by Wycliffe, and instituted a reform in Bohemia on the model that Wycliffe attempted in England. He was burned at the stake as a heretic. At Luther's own trial at the Diet of Worms in 1521 he was asked if he was a Hussite and initially he denied it. But he reread some of Hus's works that night and returned the next day to say he had changed his mind, that Hus had been right and the Church wrong.
One reason that the reform movement begun by Luther and Zwingli and carried on by Calvin became a mass movement in the way that the reforms of Wycliffe and Hus did not was the influence of Renaissance humanism and late medieval nominalism. The Renaissance was a cultural and intellectual movement in the 14th to the 16th centuries in Europe that placed a high value on the classical art and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanism is a movement within the Renaissance that turned from what they saw as elaborate and detailed medieval speculation (they had people like Thomas Aquinas in mind) and focused on classical texts in their original languages as a means to educate moral people dedicated to civic virtue. The motto of humanism (in Latin) was "ad fontes"—"(back) to the sources." Zwingli and Calvin both trained as humanists. It was humanism that led Zwingli later to announce that he would preach the Gospels straight through, rather than using the assigned biblical passages from a lectionary. John Calvin also trained as a humanist; in fact his first book was on Cicero, the great Roman politician, philosopher, and orator. Renaissance humanism influenced both founders to trust the Bible as a source of renewal for the Church, and to place it above the Church as an authority.