The Protestant Reformation resulted from the failure of the Catholic Church to reform itself in time.
The dark side of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries witnessed the errant Fourth Crusade to Constantinople in 1204, the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathari in 1209, and the beginning of the Inquisition which became severely punitive. The Papacy suffered a great loss of respect during the Avignon Papacy (1305-1378) and especially during the Papal Schism (1378-1417), when two and at one point three men declared themselves Pope and opposed each other. The Papal Schism had to be resolved by Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg and the Council of Constance 1414-1417, which finally deposed all three Popes and chose Martin V to continue the Papacy. However, the Council also condemned John Hus, the Prague reformer who believed in the priesthood of all believers and the reception of Communion through bread and wine; he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. Another victim of the Inquisition was St. Joan of Arc, who saved France during the Hundred Years War with England. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 in Rouen, France. The Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century was particularly ruthless.
The lack of Church funds led to even further corruption, including simony and the selling of indulgences. For example, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz had to pay Rome ten thousand ducats for the right to hold three dioceses at once, and agreed to a three-way split with the Roman Curia and the Fugger Banking firm from the proceeds of the selling of indulgences.
These events led many to question the compassion and integrity of the Church. The unity of Tradition and Scripture went unchallenged through the Patristic Age and thirteenth century scholasticists such as St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas. But the unity of Scripture and Tradition began to be questioned with the decline of the Church. The Belgian Henry of Ghent believed that one should first have the duty to follow Scripture rather than a Church that became one in name only. The English Franciscan William of Ockham (or Occam) was known for the principle of Occam’s Razor, that one needs to reduce everything to its simplest cause. Ockham (1288-1348) theorized on three possibilities of the relation of Scripture and the Church. First there was Sola Scriptura, that one could obtain salvation by following Scripture alone; second, that God does reveal truths to the universal Church, an ecclesiastical revelation supplemental to apostolic revelation; and third, the concept of orally transmitted apostolic revelation parallel to written Scripture. Ockham believed that one could reach God only through faith and not by reason. He wrote that universals, such as truth, beauty, and goodness, were concepts of the mind and did not exist, a philosophy known as Nominalism. Thus began the division of the realm of faith from the secular world of reason.
The rise of Nationalism led to the end of Christendom, for countries resented any effort to support Rome, especially in its dismal state. Dissemination of new ideas followed the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany; his very first printing was the Latin Vulgate Bible in 1456.
The stage was set for the reform-minded Martin Luther (1483-1546), the Augustinian monk of Wittenberg, Germany. He received his doctorate in theology in 1512, and then taught biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg. His study of Scripture, particularly St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, led him to believe that salvation was obtained through justification by faith alone. At first, his only interest was one of reform when he posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church October 31, 1517.
But the intransigence of the Church and poor handling of the situation by the Pope and Curia only worsened matters, such that a break was inevitable. In a July 1519 debate with the Catholic theologian Johann Eck, Luther stated that Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – was the supreme authority in religion. He could no longer accept the authority of the Pope or the Councils, such as Constance. In 1520 Luther published three documents which laid down the fundamental principles of the Reformation. In Address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther attacked the corruptions of the Church and the abuses of its authority, and asserted the right of the layman to spiritual independence. In the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he defended the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance, but criticized the sacramental system of Rome, and set up the Scriptures as the supreme authority in religion. In The Freedom of the Christian Man, he expounded the doctrine of salvation through justification by faith alone. The Augsburg Confession of 1530, written by Philip Melanchthon and approved by Martin Luther, was the most widely accepted Lutheran confession of faith.
Once Sola Scriptura became the norm, it became a matter of personal interpretation. Huldrich Zwingli of Zurich, Switzerland was next, and he broke with Luther over the Eucharist, but his sect died out. The Anabaptists separated from Zwingli as they denied the validity of infant baptism; they survived as the Mennonites. Jean Calvin published his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, and influenced John Knox and the Presbyterians of Scotland; the Huguenots of France; the Dutch Reformed; and the Pilgrims and Puritans. While he agreed with Luther on the basic Protestant tenets of sola scriptura, salvation by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers, he went even further on such issues as predestination and the sacraments. George Fox, the son of Puritan parents, founded the Quakers in England in 1647.
King Henry VIII wrote a defense of the seven sacraments, but when refused an annulment from Catherine of Aragon, he had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1533. The new Archbishop Thomas Cranmer married Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn that same year. St. Thomas More refused to attend the wedding, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and later beheaded in 1535. Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, and then destroyed the Shrine of the martyr St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170) at Canterbury Cathedral in 1538. The Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549 and the Anglican Church of England was established. Two major sects that split off from the Anglicans were the Baptists, founded by John Smyth in 1607, and later the Methodists, founded by John Wesley and his brother Charles.