Tag Archives: Reformation 500

True and False Catholicism

“Swimming the Tiber” is a popular way of saying that a Protestant has defected to Roman Catholicism (the Tiber River flows through Rome).  If you’re paying attention, periodically you hear of someone “swimming the Tiber.”  Especially if it’s someone who has been extensively trained in Reformed theology, you might be left wondering if the Reformation actually got it all wrong.  You may wonder if perhaps we have misunderstood Roman Catholic doctrine.  You might doubt whether the Reformation is something to be celebrated, or whether it should be deplored as having been unnecessary.  Should we celebrate the 500th birthday of the Reformation or mourn it?

When those sorts of doubts arise, it’s good to take a careful look at exactly what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  It’s good to compare these teachings with the Word of God.  That’s what I’m going to do in this post.  I’ll take the modern standard of Roman Catholic doctrine as our guide.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in several languages in 1994 and is an excellent compendium of Roman Catholic teaching.  If you regularly have contact with Roman Catholics with an eye to evangelism, it would definitely be helpful to have this book in your library.  From our side, I’ll refer to the Reformed confessions alongside Scripture.  I do this because the Reformed confessions are faithful summaries of what Scripture teaches.   Good editions of the confessions have Scripture proof-texts accompanying and you can always look those up should you question whether a particular point is actually taught in the Bible.

The Most Important Issue

Let’s start with the most important issue.  In my experiences with educated Roman Catholics, this is where any discussion will lead you.  We tend to focus in on hot-button issues:  Mary, the Mass, purgatory, and the like.  However, when we get into some heavy discussion on these issues, appeals are made to authority.  The Reformed person appeals to Scripture.  But the Roman Catholic is not persuaded by appeals to Scripture.  In their minds, Scripture belongs with tradition and tradition stands on an equal footing with Scripture.  The two will never contradict each other.  Thus, in any discussion with Roman Catholics, things will always get bogged down over the question of authority.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) maintains that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture come from the same source:  God.  There is one common source, but two distinct ways in which God’s revelation comes to the Church:

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit…Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.”

Those statements come from article 81.  Then we read the following in article 82:

“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.  Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’”

Tradition is more tightly defined in the eighty-third article as what has been handed down from the apostles via oral transmission.  The apostles, in turn, received the tradition from the Lord Jesus.  The Roman Catholic Church also distinguishes between the great Tradition, which is unchangeable, and “various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time.”  The latter “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium [body of authoritative teachers].”  In short, the Roman Catholic view can be defined as Scripture plus tradition – but both are regarded as having a divine origin and so both are equally authoritative.

Oftentimes, the biblical or Reformed view is defined as “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “by Scripture alone.”  Unfortunately, this often degenerates into what some have called “Solo Scriptura.”  “Solo Scriptura” is the caricature of the biblical view and it is maintained by many evangelicals.  It is the reason why one writer stated, without hyperbole:   “…Evangelicalism has created far more novel doctrines than Roman Catholicism.” [1]  With this view of Scripture, the Bible stands with me all by itself.  I will come with my private interpretation of the Bible and it is valid and authoritative for me.   This “Solo Scriptura” view is not biblical.

The biblical view is that the Bible alone is the most clear and authoritative source of revelation – the only other source being “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” (Belgic Confession, article 2).  The Bible alone is where God reveals all we need to know for our salvation.  The Bible alone has been “breathed out by God” and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  Scripture must therefore be acknowledged as the only ultimate and infallible norm for Christians.  However, Scripture must always be interpreted in an ecclesiastical context – after all, it is the Church which has been entrusted with the Scriptures.  We may not have an individualistic approach to the Bible.  The Bible always has to be understood not only in its own context, but also in the context of the true Church.  This is why astute Bible students (including ministers) place great value upon commentaries.  Good commentaries (like those of John Calvin) give Bible students an excellent sense of how the Scriptures have been understood by those who have gone before us.

At the same time, it is very clear in our Belgic Confession (article 7) that we cannot consider “any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures.”  According to the same article, we may not place custom or tradition on the same level as God’s Word either.  This is a direct jab against the teaching of the Roman Catholics.  The reason given is biblical:  “for all men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath” (cf. Psalm 62:9).  So, the biblical view of the authority of Scripture acknowledges several things:  the supreme and ultimate authority of the Bible, the importance of the Church in interpreting the Bible, and the sinfulness of man has an impact on his interpretation and understanding of the Bible.

This biblical view can be truly labelled as Catholic in the good sense of the word.  This was the view held during the first three centuries of the Church.  It was the view that found acceptance by the majority of the Church through most of the Middle Ages.  Finally, this was the view that re-emerged during the Great Reformation under men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.[2]  The Roman Catholic view as it stands today actually originates around the twelfth century.  As Keith Mathison puts it, “The historical novelty [of this view] is simply not in debate among patristic and medieval scholars.”[3]  In other words, the view expressed in CCC may be Roman, but it is certainly not Catholic.

The Doctrine of Man

We spent a lot of time on that question of authority because it is so critically important.  It lies at the root of most of the other doctrinal problems in the Roman Catholic Church.   We could touch on many other issues, but let’s stay where the fire is hottest.  Let’s briefly examine what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about man.  The Roman Catholic Church holds to a position called “Semi-Pelagianism.”  Pelagius, a fifth-century British monk, taught that man is not conceived and born in sin.  Man is born essentially good and he learns evil by imitation.  Augustine of Hippo opposed Pelagius and insisted on man’s corruption.  Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that Pelagius was wrong.  They maintain a doctrine called “Original Sin” and assert that “original sin is transmitted with human nature by propagation, not by imitation.” (CCC, art.419)

Though the Roman Catholic Church holds to original sin, it is defined in a special way:

“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.  It is a deprivation of the original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted; it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’  Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”  (CCC, art.405)

Take note of the view of human nature here:  it “has not been totally corrupted,” it is wounded, inclined to sin.  This is a more pessimistic view than Pelagius, but more optimistic than the biblical view of man as dead in sins and trespasses (cf. Eph. 2:1).  For this reason, we rightly label this doctrine semi-Pelagianism.  Under this doctrine, man is given a significant role in his own salvation.  He is weakened, but once he is baptized, original sin disappears, though its effects may still be seen.  At the end of the day, man retains some good within him.  With a little push from God’s grace, man can help to save himself.

The true Catholic view is quite a bit different.  In article 15 of the Belgic Confession, the truth of Scripture is summarized like this:

“We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race.  It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb…It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”

The direction of the Belgic Confession seems clear enough.  However, in the seventeenth century, the followers of Jacob Arminius tried to weaken the interpretation of the Belgic Confession.  The Synod of Dort in 1618-19 answered with its Canons that make very clear that man is pervasively depraved.  The Canons of Dort, following Scripture, state without reservation that all men are not merely wounded, but “dead in sin, and slaves of sin.  And without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation.” (CoD, 3/4.3).  This view is the truly Catholic one, for it encapsulates the doctrine of the apostles (cf. Col. 2:13) that has been maintained by true believers around the world (including Augustine, Calvin and others) for centuries.   This view alone gives all the glory for man’s salvation to God.

Worship

The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the place of Mary, the saints, the Mass and other sacraments, and the use of images are especially objectionable to Bible-believing Christians.  All of these teachings can be lumped together under the general heading of worship.  It has often been noted that worship was one of the central issues in the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century.  It only makes sense, then, that we ask what the Roman Catholic Church believes about worship.

We can do this by looking at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the first and second commandments.  The RCC traditionally puts the first and second commandments together and calls them the first commandment.  Yet, the Catechism does divide the explanation.  What we call the first commandment is explained as forbidding the honor of other gods as well as a prohibition against superstition and irreligion.  What we call the second commandment is first explained as prohibiting the “representation of God by the hand of man.” (art. 2129).  However, the doors are quickly opened with the following articles:

2130  Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word:  so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

2131  Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints.  By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images.”

What is striking about the Roman Catholic understanding of the second commandment is that there is no recognition that this commandment originally pertained to the worship of God through graven images.  This is exactly where the Roman Catholic Church goes wrong in its understanding of worship.  In art. 2132 of CCC, it is stated plainly:

“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.  The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church worships God through these images.  Roman Catholics will say the same about their “veneration” of Mary and the other saints:  we are worshipping God through them and thus the “veneration” is no idolatry.   This is nothing less than a violation of the second commandment.

This was recognized during the Reformation.  The Heidelberg Catechism states that we may not have images “in order to worship them or to serve God through them” (QA 97).  Further, this Reformed Catechism also asserts that the second commandment gives us a basic principle for our worship:  we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” (QA 96)  The same principle is found with the Belgic Confession in article 7, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length,” and then also in article 32, “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  This is the application of Sola Scriptura to our worship.

The Roman Catholic Church follows a different route when it comes to worship:  we may add to or take away from the worship of God as we please.  Thus, the RCC has an elaborate ritual for baptism that obscures the simplicity of the sacrament as found in Scripture:  sprinkling or immersion with plain water.  Following their unscriptural worship principle, the RCC adds images and countless other innovations.  The whole procedure and doctrine of the mass, though it often uses the words of Scripture, not only twists those very words, but also adds or takes away from the teaching of our Lord Jesus.

Other Examples

Numerous books have been written documenting the differences between the teaching of the Papacy and the teaching of Scripture.  This article could quickly turn into one of those books!  Before we finish off, here are two more examples of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with the teaching of Scripture as summarized in our Confessions:

Regarding justification, Rome teaches:

“Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.  Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” (art. 1992)

But the Bible teaches:

“Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith apart from observing the law (Rom. 3:28).  Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness;  He imputes to us all his merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.”  (Belgic Confession, art.22)

Note the difference between an infused justification (“conferred in Baptism”) and an imputed justification that is by faith alone.

Regarding the extent of Christ’s atonement, Rome teaches:

“The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception:  ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”  (art.605)

But Scripture teaches us:

“For this was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect…This means:  God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and were given to Him by the Father.”  (Canons of Dort, chapter 2.8)

Here the difference is between a universal atonement, and an efficacious atonement restricted to God’s elect.  Only the latter is the teaching of Jesus, the only head of the church (e.g. John 10:15).

On these and so many other points, the Roman Catholic Church has departed from the teaching of Scripture.  We may say without hesitation that the RCC represents the spirit of Antichrist.  In fact, the Westminster Confession is not off the mark when it implies that the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan (25.5).  And certainly we may agree that the Pope is not in any sense the head of the church of Jesus Christ, “but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.” (25.6).

Through the Apostles’ Creed, we continue to confess that we believe a Catholic Church.  Through the course of our brief examination, we have seen that there is a true Catholicism and a false Catholicism.  There is a church chosen to everlasting life which experiences the unity of true faith – a true faith built upon submission to God’s Word alone.  This is the true Catholic Church.  There is also a church that “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” (BC art.29).  This is the false Catholic Church – the Roman Catholic Church.  We are the true Catholics and we should not be ashamed to say so.  Moreover, we should also be eager to bring the true gospel to those enslaved to the many soul-endangering errors of Rome.

[1]  The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison, Moscow: Canon Press, 2001, p.280.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid., p.211.


The Reformation in the Netherlands

The hanging of Guy de Brès and Peregrin de la Grange on 31st of May, 1567.

The hanging of Guy de Brès and Peregrin de la Grange on 31st of May, 1567.

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.   In today’s post, I want to look briefly at the history of the Reformation in the Low Countries (or Netherlands).  Somehow the movement Luther was instrumental in igniting also came to the Dutch dykes and polders.  But how?

When we look at the Reformation in the Netherlands, we have to realize that we’re confronted with a complicated political situation.  The Netherlands was in this time made up of seventeen distinct provinces, covering the present-day Netherlands as well as Belgium and small parts of France and Germany.  You could almost say that these seventeen provinces were countries.  Each province had its own unique history.  They saw themselves as more or less independent.  They each had distinctive forms of government.  Moreover, there were different languages:  Frisian, Dutch, and French – plus a host of dialects of Dutch and French.  Geographically, rivers made it difficult for travel between the different areas.  All this makes it difficult to treat the Netherlands as a unified region.

At the beginning of the Reformation-era, the Netherlands were under the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire.  This was not an independent region.  There was a foreign government ultimately in control and this government was fanatically committed to the faith of Rome.

Unlike in Germany and Switzerland, the Reformation in the Low Countries began with blood.  There were connections with Germany through various trade routes and along these routes, ideas travelled just as much as goods.  Already in 1519, an Augustinian monk named Jakob Propst was advocating the teachings of Luther in Antwerp.  Luther’s writings were being distributed in the Low Countries as early as 1518.  By 1525, there were more than 80 editions and translations of Luther’s works.

It did not take long for the Habsburg Empire to take note.  They quickly made efforts to suppress those promoting Luther’s ideas.  In July 1523, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch were burned at the stake in Brussels.  In the northern regions of the Netherlands, persecution was not as common.  People, especially local magistrates, were more inclined to religious tolerance, probably owing to the influence of humanists such as Erasmus.  As a result, martyrdom was quite rare in the north.  In the south, however, things were very different.  There was an inquisitor named Pieter Titelmans.  He worked in various southern regions of the Netherlands between 1545 and 1566.  Titelmans was zealous for his work.  Under his oversight, an average of one hundred heresy cases per year were prosecuted.  Government edicts often forced the fledgling Reformed movement underground.  Believers would secretly meet in houses, fields, and even local taverns in order to do Bible study, give and receive doctrinal instruction, and sit under biblical preaching.

The Reformed faith appears in the Low Countries in the 1540s.  It spread directly from Germany and also from France.  In fact, the history of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries is very much intertwined with the Huguenot churches.  In this period, borders were quite fluid and porous.  Especially since they shared their language with the southern Netherlands, the French Reformed strongly influenced the doctrine and organization of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries.

The Reformed faith took hold in both large towns and cities throughout the Netherlands.  There were two centers:  Antwerp in the south and Emden in the north.  True, Emden is technically a German town, but it is located right across the border from the Netherlands and was a strategic location for the Reformed churches.  The Reformed movement grew quickly in these areas.  It appealed to a broad cross-section of society including artisans, labourers, merchants, and men of learning.  However, as I mentioned, there was heavy persecution, especially in the south.  This persecution forced many to choose between exile and martyrdom.  Most people chose for exile.  Dutch Reformed refugees fled to several key places where they gathered in refugee congregations.  This happened in London and Sandwich, in England and Emden and Wesel in Germany.  Those who remained behind were forced into a life of always looking over the shoulder.  It should be noted that there was a debate about exile versus persecution in the churches.  Some Reformed leaders argued that the believers should stand up and take a public stance against the Spanish regime.  They argued that persecution was only facilitated by secrecy and running away.  They argued that it would be difficult (and maybe ultimately impossible) for the Spanish authorities to intervene with or restrain a Reformed church community which carried out its affairs in public.  However, others had a more pragmatic approach.  They feared for their lives, they hated the thought of persecution for themselves and their families, and they felt they had no choice but to worship secretly and, if necessary and possible, go into exile until the troubled times were past.

These were troubled times.  If there is a theme running through the Reformation in the Netherlands, it is persecution.  For much of the period between 1520 and 1570, Protestantism in the Netherlands was under attack.

It really began to escalate, however, in the 1550s.  Up until the 1550s, it looked like the Habsburgs had things under control in the Low Countries.  There was increasing unity, an apparatus for central government was being refined, and Protestantism was being at least contained by the Inquisition.  Things shifted dramatically beginning in 1550.  Charles V issued an edict which threatened death for promoting Protestantism.  In fact, one could be executed merely for possessing heretical books.  Despite this edict, the Reformed faith continued to gain ground.  While kings and emperors in far-off lands made their decrees, popular opinion in the Netherlands was going in a more tolerant direction.  As mentioned earlier, local magistrates were also often reluctant to enforce royal edicts.

Philip II took over the rule of the Netherlands in 1555.  Philip was the King of Spain.  The Netherlands therefore fell under Spanish control.  Unfortunately for Philip, he was out of touch with the Dutch.  The Dutch hated the Spanish and Philip even more.  He didn’t speak their languages and many Dutch perceived him to be a foreign tyrant.  Philip perceived himself to be a pillar of the church on a divine mission to eradicate heresy. Philip insisted on strict enforcement of his policy of persecution.  This led to the Dutch Revolt.  While the Revolt is not really part of church history, it is an important part of the background to the Dutch Reformation.  It’s one of these events where world history gets wrapped up together with church history.

The Dutch Revolt began with the disobedience of several local governors – they refused to cooperate with the Inquisition and Spanish persecution of Reformed believers.  Margaret of Parma was the sister of Philip II, and in 1559 she was appointed to be the governess-general of the Netherlands.  In the spring of 1566, a large group of lesser nobility approached her with a petition asking that the persecution of Reformed believers stop.  With the help of some political intrigue on the part of some territorial governors (including William of Orange), Margaret granted a reprieve and leniency towards “heretics” was authorized.

For a time the situation improved for the Reformed churches.  Exiled men and women returned to their homes, open-air preaching took place, and the Reformed could better organize their churches.  But these new freedoms also had a dark side.  There was widespread iconoclasm and other provocative behaviour.  One of the most well-known was the public singing of Psalms — in French they called them chanteries.  The singing was loud and the Psalms were selected to offend any Roman Catholics who might hear.  One of the favourites was Psalm 68, sometimes described as the war song of the Reformation.  Of course, these psalms were sung with the Genevan tunes of John Calvin.  Other provocative behaviour included coming to the huge open-air meetings bearing arms.  It looked as if these Reformed believers were heading to war.  Their songs spoke of war, and the fact that they carried weapons didn’t help matters.

All of this was bound to provoke a reaction from Margaret and soon enough it did.  She demanded a focussed and aggressive response to the crowds, but the governors refused unless she would promise freedom for preaching.  In August of 1566, she made that promise and order was restored in most places.  However, Margaret was not finished with the rebels and heretics.  The chanteries continued and these aggravated the situation.  Margaret finally had enough and she sent Spanish forces to lay siege to the city of Valenciennes.  The city fell in March of 1567 and Margaret was able again to enforce the ban on Reformed preaching everywhere in the Netherlands.  Persecution resumed in full force.  Shortly afterwards, Philip appointed the Duke of Alva (Fernando Alvarez de Toledo) to be governor of the Netherlands.  The Duke of Alva was a brutal warlord and he was passionate about the eradication of heresy.  He pursued everyone he could for their role in the Revolt, including Roman Catholic civil leaders who were soft on the question of tolerance.  He convened a meeting which he called the Council of Troubles.  The Dutch called it the Court of Blood.  Many died accused of heresy or assisting heretics.

The Dutch Revolt continued until 1581.  At the end, the southern Netherlands was lost to the Roman Catholics.   This is basically present-day Belgium.  Almost all Reformed believers from the south then fled to the north, which was free from Spanish control and where the Reformed faith enjoyed official recognition.  There is a lot more that could be said about the history of the Reformation in the Netherlands.  But the most important thing here is to recognize the heavy persecution that the Reformed churches endured right from the very beginning.  Philip II, Margaret of Parma, and the Duke of Alva hated the gospel with a passion and they were not afraid to shed blood to prevent the Reformation from gaining ground.  However, they could not stand in the way of Christ gathering, defending, and preserving his church even through this storm.


What Caused the Reformation?

presswork

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  This “birthday” places the birth of the Reformation on October 31st, 1517 — the date Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  One might quibble about the dating.  The Reformation can’t really be compared to a baby being born.  There were a string of events and historical processes that contributed to the movement, and some of these predated 1517.  But, for the sake of convenience, we can run with the 1517 date and celebrate God’s goodness in bringing his Church back to the gospel.  Over the coming months, I hope to have a number of Reformation-related posts.

I want to begin today with considering the question:  what caused the Reformation?  Someone might say, “It’s obvious:  God caused the Reformation.”  As true as that is, it is not a very helpful answer.  We know that God uses various means to accomplish his purposes.  So, what means did God use to bring about the Reformation?

When it comes to such questions, historians sometimes refer to sufficient and necessary causes (or conditions).  Sufficient causes produce the event.  They inevitably cause the event to occur.  Necessary causes are things that had to be present in order for the event to occur, but by themselves don’t produce the event.  The illustration often used is of matches and fire.  What caused the fire?  The necessary causes would be the presence of the match and the presence of a surface on which to strike the match.  The sufficient cause would be a person taking the match and actually striking it.  I want to focus on three necessary causes of the Reformation.  These were things that had to be present before the Reformation could really ignite and set Europe aflame with gospel renewal.

The first is printing technology.  The movable-type printing press appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century, but it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that this technology came into its own.  Printers finally became proficient at producing mass quantities of books.  Moreover, on the eve of the Reformation, a process for manufacturing paper in a cost-effective way is perfected.  Potential for mass quantity plus cheaper paper equals the possibility of literature available to a wider scope of the population.  Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers produced literature that took advantage of this technology.  Their writings went far and wide, spreading the gospel hope.  Without advances in printing technology, the Reformation would not have occurred.

But these advances would have meant nothing if people continued producing literature in Latin.  The second necessary cause is the proliferation of literature in the native tongues of Europe.  Even outside of theology, writers started putting out books written in German, French, English, Dutch, and so on.  Works were still written in Latin (even into the eighteenth century), but these were specialist writings geared to academics.  Right before the Reformation, however, books were being written in the vernacular for non-academics.  The Reformation became a populist movement by capitalizing on this development.  For example, the 95 Theses were originally written in Latin — after all, Luther desired an academic debate.  However, they were soon translated into German.  Eventually, many of Luther’s writings were first written solely in German.  The Reformation took off because of people like Luther writing in German, Calvin writing in French, and so on.  Of course, of all writings appearing in the vernacular, the most powerful of all was the Word of God.  Finally, people could read for themselves what Scripture says in their own language — and that was gospel dynamite.

However, that assumes that people can read.  That brings me to the last necessary cause:  the rise of education and literacy in Europe.  Prior to the 1500s, literacy was reserved for a select few.  Stories are told of royalty that did not know how to read.  There were parish priests who were functionally illiterate — they would have memorized just enough Latin to carry out their duties.  But coming into the 1500s, this begins changing.  By 1517, literacy was still not what it is today, but it had improved and it continued improving.  In fact, because of the Reformation emphasis on the importance of reading the Scriptures, wherever the Reformation took hold, educational improvements followed.  Schools were established and literacy was expected to be the norm rather than the exception.  Without improvements in literacy, however, we would not even be talking about the Reformation as one of the great events in history.

I have described three necessary causes for the Reformation:  printing technology, vernacular literature, and literacy.  Yes, there are more necessary causes that could be mentioned, but those three are among the most important.  Without them, there would have been no return to the Scriptures, no return to the gospel.  In his providence, at just the right time, our sovereign God brought these developments into being and thus prepared the way for a recovery of his saving truth.  We see his hand in it all and praise him for it!