Reformation 02: The Reformation as a Late Medieval affair

No break necessary

Often it is believed that a radical new era dawned with the Reformation and that all ties with the Middle Ages must therefore be severed. It is often thought that the Medieval time opened like a shell and that the Reformation left it never to return. All that remained of the Late Medieval is an empty shell of no importance and not necessary to understand the Reformation and people like Luther. Such views turn the Reformation into an a-historical event separated from the life world in which it originated and developed. Such approaches underestimate the enormous impact of the events of 1517 as an answer to the Late Middle Ages. (cf Oberman 1992:18-21).

The Reformation did not just occur but was shaped by the social and intellectual powers of the Late Middle Ages and must therefore be understood as part of the flow of events between the years 1400 to 1600. In other words, the Reformation was embedded in the thinking of the Late Middle Ages and the events of 1517 as well as the subsequent years can best be understood in the context of late Middle Ages (Hamm 2008a:1-27).

A German church historian at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Berndt Hamm, explains this by means of the term ‘Emergenz’ derived from the Latin ’emergere’ and meaning ‘to emerge’, ‘to appear’, ‘to become visible’ (cf Oberman 2003:23. And the image he uses to explain this ‘Emergenz’ is that of a hippo that slowly rises from the water. Initially, only the ears of the animal are visible, but parts of its body become clearer as the animal rises in full glory from the water. There is continuity and coherence between the previous state in the water and the current form of the animal. It is the same hippo, but we now see new body parts that were previously invisible.

And what we see is nothing other than that what was below water. It’s just a new configuration of what was still hidden in the water and which has now appeared. In other words, there is an essential unity between the hippo underneath the water and the animal’s greater fullness after it has risen from the water (Hamm 2008a:1-5). .

This image also helps us to understand the relationship between the late-Middle Ages and the Reformation. The Late Medieval era was the living context (or ‘living water’) from which the Reformation originated. As in the case of the hippo, very little of the Reformation was visible in 1517, but over time a new theology and a new way of thinking emerged which radically changed the sixteenth century. And to understand these events the Late Medieval era remains the Reformation’s horizon of understanding.

Foucault’s episteme

French philosopher Michel Foucault emphasised the close relationship between historical space or historical context and knowledge. He linked social contexts to certain types of knowledge. He was interested in the type of knowledge shaped by a certain type of historical context. And he accomplished this by searching for the cultural or intellectual codes underlying each era in history. The word he used for this is ‘episteme’ or ‘intellectual background’ (Foucault 2009:xxiii).

Applied to the Reformation, the events of 1517 and the years following were also shaped by the intellectual codes or episteme of the late-Middle Ages and to understand the early years of the Reformation we must understand this late medieval intellectual background. And to use Hamm’s image of the hippo again: as the hippo was almost hidden and then slowly appeared, the same can also be said about the Reformation. It did not just appear but gradually grew from the late-Middle Ages into a spectacle of great importance.

To illustrate how interwoven the Reformation and the late-Middle Ages were we discuss a few examples below. The first is the theological world within which someone like Luther lived and worked.

Theological context

One way of depicting this context is to focus on the fifth Lateran Congress from 1512 to 1517. During this assembly decisions were made which reflected the state of the theological and religious thinking of that time. One resolution strengthened the Pope’s power. Before the meeting some campaigned that a pope must only be appointed or dismissed by a council, but during the gathering of the Lateran meetings this idea was rejected and the pope grew stronger and received much more powers. Also, the offices of bishops and cardinals became more important and it was said that they (and only they) could help the believers to correctly understand the Bible because only they had the appropriate knowledge to explain Scriptures.

According to another resolution it was emphasized that no salvation existed outside the church. According to medieval conviction, faith, good works, salvation, eternal life were linked to the church as an institute; the church made the believer dependent on her; the believer was also dependent for his/her spiritual welfare on the church; the church wanted to get a hold of the believer’s ‘soul’; commitment to the church, the external institution was therefore decisive because separation from the church implied exclusion from salvation (Bakhuizen van den Brink 1966:29)..

Finally, there were the sacraments and the notion that the signs really became Christ’s blood and body. Communion consoled people and enabled them to live the good life. And should one fall, our mother Mary (the ‘mater misericordiae”’ was there to help and assist. In short: faith in the late-Middle Ages was a collective thing, something that the church controlled and which was accepted by all (Adam 1968)

The above was the Late Medieval theological world in which someone like Luther would grow up, became a priest and later worked as a lecturer at the University of Wittenberg. And if we follow Foucault’s thinking for a moment, the above-mentioned resolutions form the intellectual underground or episteme which transformed the lives of ordinary believers and caused huge changes to the society of the sixteenth century.

This can also be seen in our next example: Luther was scared by lightning during a thunderstorm and interpreted the event from a Late-Medieval theological perspective.

Anxiety when lightning struck

On July 2 1505 Luther was walking near Stotternheim when a thunderstorm broke out and he was frightened by lightning, which exploded close to him. In those terrifying moments Luther uttered his famous words: ‘Saint Anna, I will become a monk’. Why did he use these specific words? The answer may be simple: it reflects the late medieval thinking and theology.

That he was terrified was quite normal, but he interpreted the event from a very peculiar theological angle. Like many in the Middle Ages, Luther was afraid of God because God was a God of judgment and in the thunderstorm he heard God’s fury.

Probably this was intensified by his experiences at home. Both parents, Hans and Margarete Luder, severely punished the children. Luther himself tells how hard his father once struck him that he wanted to leave home and for some time the relationship between them was disturbed (Oberman 1988:93). His experience with angry parents and his fear of a fierce God intensified Luther’s anxiety and therefore the words ‘Saint Anna, I will become a monk’.

Why Anna? She was the mother of Mary and was honoured in Germany long before Luther and when the lightning gave him a fright Saint Anna meant two things to Luther. First, she was the saint who would protect him in the thunderstorm, but she was also the guardian of his father’s mine and therefore worthy to be honoured.

Why did he want to become a monk? He was twenty-one, just obtained a master’s degree in law and a good legal career awaited him, but then the day in July came and the thunder scared Luther into the priesthood. Why? Because the monastery became his only hope of salvation. In the monastery he would live by the law, always confessing his sins, pray much, perform good deeds and climbing up to God.

Luther thus read and understood the July events like a typical believer of the Late Middle Ages: God spoke and this terrified him but he had faith in the protection of Anna and the monastery became the great escape.

On July 17, just over two weeks after the Stotternheim experience, he joined the Augustine monastery in Erfurt to become a monk (Oberman 1988:115).

A Late Medieval answer that did not work

Luther was a good monk: he cleaned the toilets, helped with dishes and fulfilled other humble tasks. However, something troubled him day and night: If God is an angry God how could he ever win God’s favour? What could he do to make it into heaven?

Of course, the church of the time had answers (cf. above) and Johann Von Staupitz, his spiritual father, helped him in this regard. He told him of God’s grace, Christ’s death for our sins, but something was lacking and that was Luther’s own contribution. He also had to do something and then God would meet him halfway; God endowed humans with such intellectual gifts that they could know and understand Him by means of their own spiritual powers (cf Lamberigts 2003:39-48; 2007:219-223; 2008:258-279). A proverb often used in that time was ‘facere quod in se est’, ‘doing what’s inside of you’, using your own natural talents to draw closer to God. Someone who used his natural abilities could, as a matter of fact, bring about the faith by himself (Oberman 1992:88,90).

For Luther this late medieval theology did not work and eventually came to other insights, but kept them secret until something happened in January 1517: Pope Leo X decided to issue indulgences.

 Indulgences caused reaction

Indulgences were nothing new because Clemens VI already issued indulgences in 1343. Initially it would only happen every fifty years, but each time when the pope’s coffers became empty indulgences provided lots of money. For Luther indulgences were not strange because in 1506 Julius I also issued indulgences in order to complete the church of Peter in Rome (cf Holl 1932: 544-82; Ebeling 1969:48-89; Ebeling 1971:51-54)

However, at the beginning of 1517, Leo visited the people of Fugger, the German bank dealing with the money of the church. They would finance, monitor and guide the selling of indulgences at a good commission (Bainton 1965: 56-57). Tetzel, a Dominican, would travel around, propagate and oversee the entire project. According to Tetzel and his helpers, indulgences had the ability to forgive the sins of their deceased relatives and to deliver them from purgatory.

Luther resisted against the indulgences and therefore wrote his ninety-five theses in Latin, which he nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg (cf. Bainton 1965: 60-64). This act was very typical of the time. According to the statutes of the University of Wittenberg theses about controversial matters had to be nailed to the church door, which also served as an invitation to a public debate. The theses began with an introduction saying that for the sake of truth the ‘venerable Father Martin Luther’ will defend the following theses. Everyone was welcome and those who could not attend could submit their questions in writing.

Another reason for pinning the theses to the door was that an important religious festival took place on the 31st October and many people would attend the church services and buy indulgences (Hamm 2008b:32).

It is also important to note that everything happened in Wittenberg and not in Erfurt. If Luther were still a lecturer at Erfurt in 1517 the nailing of theses against the church door on the 31st October would perhaps never have taken place. And the reason for this was that a renowned Erfurt theologian was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1479 because he severely criticised the practice of indulgences and called it a fraud. He was furthermore critical of the Pope and the councils and appealed to Scripture as the only ground for his theology. These events casted a dark shadow over the theological faculty of Erfurt and it is almost unthinkable that Luther as a lecturer of Erfurt would have nailed theses to a church door thirty-eight years later (Oberman 1988:118).

In short

The early years of the Reformation must be understood in the light of the Late Middle Ages. The 1517 events were the expression of a particular era’s thinking, the manifestation of a particular theology as well as the Reformation’s response to it. The next article will highlight how Late Medieval thinking shaped Luther.


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