A term covering a number of changes in Western Christianity
(Europe) between the 14th and 17th centuries, resulting in the
split in Christianity between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Reformation, widely conceived, was a reaction against the
hierarchical and legalistic structures of the Papacy and the Roman
Catholic Church. Reformers rallied against the Roman Catholic
Church's dogmatic theology, economic and religious exploitation
of the common masses, and colonialization and conquest of indigenous
peoples. Most fundamentally, the Reformation challenged the Papacy's
claims of divine authorization and infallibility.
One particularly well-known Catholic method of exploitation in
the Middle Ages was the practice of selling indulgences, a monetary
payment of penalty which, supposedly, absolved one of past sins
and/or released one from purgatory after death. It was the selling
of indulgences that led the Reformer Martin Luther to post his
famous 95 Theses - a document challenging Roman Catholic authority
in theological matters, including indulgences and many others.
Luther's opposition to the selling of indulgences was not new,
however. In most of the Reformation movements stress lay not upon
new understandings or doctrines, but on a return to the more authentic
and original excellence of tradition.
Luther, one of the main Protestant Reformers, eventually arrived
at the conclusion that divine relationship and salvation come
by grace through faith, not by good works, belief in dogma, or
economic propitiation. One's relationship to the divine is initiated
by God, and one can only participate in this relationship by remaining
open to it. Therefore, Luther's theology placed him in square
opposition to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences.
The Roman Catholic emphasis on the acceptance and adherence to
its dogma exemplifies its legalistic bent, while for the Protestant
Reformers it is just this legalism which cuts one off from the
Good News of the Gospel. Therefore, Protestant Reformers tended
to give primacy to the New Testament and Scripture.
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