The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is one of the most complex movements in European history since the fall of the Roman Empire. The Reformation truly ends the Middle Ages and begins a new era in the history of Western Civilization. The Reformation ended the religious unity of Europe and ushered in 150 years of religious warfare. By the time the conflicts had ended, the political and social geography in the west had fundamentally changed. The Reformation would have been revolutionary enough of itself, but it coincided in time with the opening of the Western Hemisphere to the Europeans and the development of firearms as effective field weapons. It coincided, too, with the spread of Renaissance ideals from Italy and the first stirrings of the Scientific Revolution. Taken together, these developments transformed Europe.
Many bishops and abbots (especially in countries where they were also territorial princes) bore themselves as secular rulers rather than as servants of the Church. Many members of cathedral chapters and other beneficed ecclesiastics were chiefly concerned with their income and how to increase it, especially by uniting several prebends (even episcopal sees) in the hands of one person, who thus enjoyed a larger income and greater power. Luxury prevailed widely among the higher clergy, while the lower clergy were often oppressed. The scientific and ascetic training of the clergy left much to be desired, the moral standard of many being very low, and the practice of celibacy not everywhere observed. Not less serious was the condition of many monasteries of men, and even of women (which were often homes for the unmarried daughters of the nobility). The former prestige of the clergy had thus suffered greatly, and its members were in many places regarded with scorn. (Birch, pg 22)
The Renaissance and Humanism partly introduced and greatly fostered these conditions. Love of luxury was soon associated with the revival of the art and literature of Greco-Roman paganism. The Christian religious ideal was to a great extent lost sight of; higher intellectual culture, previously confined in great measure to the clergy, but now common among the laity, assumed a secular character, and in only too many cases fostered actively and practically a pagan spirit, pagan morality and views. A crude materialism obtained among the higher classes of society and in the educated world, characterized by a gross love of pleasure, a desire for gain, and a voluptuousness of life diametrically opposed to Christian morality. Only a faint interest in the supernatural life survived. The new art of printing made it possible to disseminate widely the works of pagan authors and of their humanistic imitators. Immoral poems and romances, biting satires on ecclesiastical persons and institutions, revolutionary works and songs, were circulated in all directions and wrought immense harm. As Humanism grew, it waged violent war against the Scholasticism of the time. The traditional theological method had greatly degenerated owing to the finical, hair-splitting manner of treating theological questions, and a solid and thorough treatment of theology had unhappily disappeared from many schools and writings. The Humanists cultivated new methods, and based theology on the Bible and the study of the Fathers, an essentially good movement which might have renewed the study of theology, if properly developed. But the violence of the Humanists, their exaggerated attacks on Scholasticism, and the frequent obscurity of their teaching aroused strong opposition from the representative Scholastics. The new movement, however, had won the sympathy of the lay world and of the section of the clergy devoted to Humanism. The danger was only too imminent that the reform would not be confined to theological methods but would reach the content of ecclesiastical dogma, and would find widespread support in humanistic circles. (Elton, pg 41-66)
Martin Luther (1483-1546), German priest and scholar whose questioning of certain church practices led to the Protestant Reformation. He is one of the pivotal figures of Western civilization, as well as of Christianity. By his actions and writings he precipitated a movement that was to yield not only one of the three major theological units of Christianity (along with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) but was to be a seedbed for social, economic, and political thought. (Rex, pg 20-21)