Tracing the Origins of the Reformation

In his “The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation” (Malden, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, ©1987, 2004), Alister McGrath writes, “the intellectual origins of the Reformation are such that it cannot be thought of as a single coherent movement, whatever consolidation may have arisen through developments in its second phase. The two major streams of the Reformation – Lutheran and Reformed – have quite distinct and independent intellectual provenances” (pg vii, from the Preface).

My hope, over the coming year, will be to try to fulfill the promise of this blog – to discuss the Reformation, from the point of view of the need for Reformation. In the past, when I thought of the history of the church, there were certain “black holes” in my knowledge that I tried to fill. Like many people, I had a kind of skeletal knowledge of church history. But I wasn’t really aware of the details – the people and the ideas and the political currents of those years, that first of all, helped to pile on the powder of that powder keg, and then the unified sparks that set them off.

In reality, the Middle Ages, and particularly the Medieval years, were a period of particular growth and understanding. But in the process, there were also forces of poison and rot. And most importantly, the slow pace of the time in that era enabled these combining forces almost literally to explode at a time when the spark was applied.

McGrath does a very fine job in tracing the history of some of these movements and understandings. So as the Lord provides the means and the time, I’ll walk through some of the things that he outlines, and I’ll be able to bring to bear things that other writers have said in some of those same contexts. In the end, my hope will be to show both the context of and the need for “the Reformation”, at the time that it finally occurred.

It’s no secret that I’m a firm believer that the Reformation needed to occur. Rome, the official Rome of the papacy, in the era of the Middle Ages, and particularly its boastfulness, had grown to immense proportions. It needed to be challenged. It was challenged. It responded like an arrogant teenager.

I’m going to use McGrath’s work as a kind of rough framework for working through some of these “micro-Reformations”, as he works to discuss the beginnings of what he calls the “macro Reformation”.

This book is primarily concerned with one crucial question: how may the religious ideas of the first generation of mainline reformers – especially Luther and Zwingli – be accounted for? What factors – intellectual as well as social – brought them into being? The quest for the intellectual origins of the Reformation involves the detailed analysis of the continuities and discontinuities between two eras in the history of thought, raising questions of fundamental importance for the historian of ideas and the theologian. It is hoped that this book will go some way toward identifying those questions, and providing provisional answers to them (pg viii).

And as I said, I’ll bring other resources to bear, both upon these questions as he describes them and his answers as well. And in the process, I’ll hope to put some meat onto the bones of the skeletal history of the Reformation.

As I write this, we’re approximately one year away from the time when Martin Luther applied the spark that set off the powder keg of the Reformation. It is my hope that this new series will shed light for both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.