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  • Matthew Castro

The Need for Reformation

By Matthew Castro

At Redeemer Fellowship Church, we stand on the shoulders of giants, who came before us. Every year, we celebrate the Reformation at the end of October. In preparation of our worship service on November 1st 2020, we are writing a series of articles about the events that led to the Reformation and the results that followed. We begin with the rise of the papacy and canon law.

While October 31, 1517 is viewed as the beginning of the Reformation, the rise for the need of the Reformation and Martin Luther started centuries before. The High Medieval or Middle Ages (900-1300) gave birth to the great universities of Europe. In the year AD 1000, universities, which met in Gothic cathedrals, were created to understand and explore God’s revealed truth. This time period of Christian thought was called “Scholasticism.” The purpose of scholasticism was to reconcile Christian doctrine and human reason, and to arrange the teachings of the church in an orderly system.

The curriculum at the time in universities was limited to grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. There were only a few scholarly texts available in the early Middle Ages. These texts included Augustine, Pope Gregory the Great, and a few other church fathers.

In the latter half of the tenth century, a teacher of the cathedral school at Rheims named Gerbert, who eventually became Pope Sylvester II (999-1003), was sent to Spain to study mathematics. He was exposed to the culture of the ruling Muslims. When he returned to Rheims, he believed the church fathers were insufficient, and he began to teach Roman classics in their original Latin forms. Gerbert collected manuscripts and built a library of original sources. Scholasticism was known as a time of returning to the original sources.

With the rise of teachers and libraries, universities became centers, where masters and students debated texts and conclusions of Christian doctrine were being investigated. Many of the great universities like Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and Bologna were founded at this time. The papacy saw scholasticism and universities as tools to craft logical frameworks that supported papal authority. The universities were then used to that end.

The University of Bologna in Italy in the twelfth century became the center of the study of Roman civil law and canon or church law. Canon law defined the rights, duties, and powers of all people and priests within the church. St. Felix of Bologna published a Harmony of Discordant Canons, which served to form later the Body of Canon Law. This collection of laws were used by the Catholic Church to control and direct the lives of every men. This included laws on baptisms, communion, excommunication, births, sex, marriage, and all others on life in and outside the church.

Canon law gave the papacy a rational legal basis to control the lives of every men. As a result, the papacy rose to preeminent power in the public life of Europe, and became the sole hegemony over the continent.

Pope Innocent III initiated this new found authority in canon law by claiming himself the “Vicar of Christ.” He applied Jeremiah 1:10 to himself, saying, “I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build, and to plant.” Canon Law bestowed on him universal power over nations and kingdoms.

Universities and scholasticism not only gave the papacy rationalize power within canon law. This time period of scholarship presented the pope with an unshakable, rational theological construction of Christian society. In the thirteenth century, several writings of Aristotle had been discovered and re-introduced to Europe in the universities. Aristotelian philosophy presented a new worldview, which the popes used to expand their power.

For most of church history, the philosophical framework used by theologians and church fathers was Plato. The Platonic system separated the basic material of the world and the intellectual realm, called the Forms. The intellectual realm is perfect and eternal. The concrete world of basic materials are imperfect, temporal, and corruptible. God and his ideas are in the intellectual realm, where the physical world is in the other realm. However, Aristotle believed that the ideas or forms were present in the concrete physical world. The forms can be discovered through investigation and reason. Reason can be used independent of faith and revelation.

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas began to use Aristotelian thought to create a new framework for the church. Aquinas saw the value of reason as a valuable partner to God’s Word in the search of truth. Reason is based upon the visible creation, and while the scriptures are superior to reason, reason independent of revelation can prove God’s existence. Aristotle’s principle was every effect has a cause, every cause a prior cause, and so on back to the first cause, which is the Creator God. Therefore, there are elements within the world that can lead people to God and His grace.

Aquinas taught that Christ won grace, but the church must impart that grace to people. Therefore, Christians need a constant infusion of “cooperating grace.” By this cooperating grace, Christians can please God and gain special merit in God’s sight. This saving grace by Christ comes to people exclusively through the channel of created, concrete, and appointed sacraments placed under the authority of the church led by the pope. These material elements, called the sacraments, are divinely appointed to lead people to God and His grace.

Grace is applied through the oversight of the pope in the sacraments, which are baptism, confirmation, the Lord’s Supper, penance, extreme unction, marriage, and ordination. These concrete and visible elements are the entities by which Christ’s grace passes to humans, and the canon law and the papal monarch organize the structure by which these elements are bestowed.

Another practice that was codified by Thomas’ work is indulgences. The church has access to a “treasury of merit,” which is a great spiritual reservoir. Priest are then given authority to give out this merit to Christians, who are insufficient in merit. This practice with the prayers to dead saints was used to aid dead Christians, who followed Christ inadequately, in purgatory. These indulgences were given on behalf of these Christians to relieve the pains of souls in purgatory.

The pope and his priest mediate the grace of God in Christ to sinners on earth and beyond the grave to suffering souls in purgatory. These teachings which were practiced in the church before Aquinas had now been placed within a rational, philosophical framework and codified law. Now everything was under the oversight of papal authority, and the pope had a theological system by which to justify his actions.

As Innocent III proclaimed, the pope is God’s judge in the world, “set in the midst between God and man, below God and above man.” This claim and new found authority did not go unchallenged. Some knew the Bible said, “There is one God and one Mediator.” That mediator is Jesus Christ alone. The Scholastic theology had gone too far, and had given the church and the pope far too much power. The canon law became the new written authority over the church and her beliefs and practices. The church needed reforming.

Article two will be about the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Papal Schism.


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