Discovery and Reformation

Reformation: The Northern Renaissance


Indulgences

   The Reformation is an odd chapter in European history. The history of the Catholic church throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance is a history filled with spiritual, artistic, and intellectual triumphs as well as a history of tremendous abuses and doctrinal stupidities. From the very formation of the Christian church, there has been no such thing as a unified church. All through the Middle Ages, there are strong, passionate, and often powerful reactions to Catholic doctrine or to church practices. It's not unfair to say that the history of the medieval church is, by and large, one long history of heresies.

   But the granddaddy of all heresies, the one that permanently changed the face of Christianity and European culture, was perpetrated by an Augustinian monk sheltered in the recesses of the Holy Roman Emperor. Martin Luther's call for reformation of corrupt church practices would eventually erupt into the greatest spiritual and political challenge medieval Catholicism ever faced. The doctrines and churches of Christianity would fragment into a million separate pieces; thousands of gallons of blood would be spilled by Christians killing other Christians in European wars over religion; the European state itself would be rocked to its foundations by the political implications of Luther's newly reformed church.

   We do not have world enough and time to catalog the abuses of the medieval and Renaissance church; however, Luther's initial call for reform centered around a single practice: the sale of indulgences. We will start, then, with indulgences.

   The logic of indulgences is hard for moderns to understand and the practice is easy to condemn in hindsight, but in reality they make a great deal of sense. The whole concept of an indulgence is based on the medieval Catholic doctrine that sinners must not only repent of sins that they've committed, they must also confess these sins and pay some sort of retribution. You see, the problem with repentance and confession is that the only evidence you have of repentance is the sinner's claim to be repentant. Repentance is, after all, an internal state rather than an external action; foundational Christianity is, after all, heavily oriented towards the interior life of individuals rather than their exterior life. However, just because a sinner claims to be repentant doesn't actually mean that he is actually repentant.

   Therefore, in a grossly oversimplified way of putting it, the history of medieval Catholic doctrine is in many ways an attempt to find ways to give exterior signs for the interior state of the individual believer. Repentance was no exception to this. So in order for an individual to demonstrate that he or she is truly repentant and not just saying it, the concept of "temporal punishment" was invented. In other words, the sinner needed to undergo some punishment or task; the sin would not be expiated until this was accomplished. Part of this temporal punishment involved doing "good works," that is, deeds that are charitable, such as feeding the poor or caring for the sick. A truly repentant person would show that repentance by behaving in the most charitable ways towards fellow human beings.

   Sins that have not been properly expiated with temporal punishment land the sinner in purgatory. In fact, the entire concept of purgatory, which is invented in the late twelfth century, is as a place of temporal punishment. The concept of performing expiatory acts in this life to demonstrate one's internal state was pushed into the afterlife. At the conclusion of this punishment, the individual soul is allowed into heaven.

   Now, here we'll take a short diversion from church history to economic history. In the latter centuries of the Middle Ages, the Europeans discovered mercantilism big time. Mercantilism is an economic activity in which goods are purchased in one place and then moved to another place, where those goods are scarce, and sold at a much higher price. In the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, Europeans really learned how to do this from Muslims and they took to it like a duck to water. From the twelfth century onwards, Europeans busied themselves moving all sorts of goods—salt, wool, sheep skins, and all sorts of new inventions, all over Europe and the European economy began to boom.

   This booming mercantile economy quickly changed the way people traded things. For the most part, trade in medieval Europe involved barter: individual goods were traded for other individual goods. I will give you one toilet for three chemistry textbooks. Mercantilism, however, put money into circulation and everybody started using it. Rather than trading goods directly, people began to trade goods through the medium of money. By the late thirteenth century, most economic transactions were taking place with money and Europe shifted from a largely barter economy to a money economy.

   Now, since we live with money all the time, we really don't think about how strange it is. Medieval Europeans, however, did understand the strangeness of money and began to adjust their thinking and world view around this strange new phenomenon. (Money had always been around, it just hadn't been in wide circulation). You see, in order for money to really work, it can't have a use value, or then it would just be barter. If money had a use value, then its value would fluctuate wildly. Let's say that we used toilets for money. If you could buy three chemistry textbooks for one toilet, this would perhaps seem reasonable to you if you have had nothing to eat or drink in a day or two. If, on the other hand, you had just finished drinking a case of soda pop this morning, you'd probably be less willing to trade your toilet away at such a low price. So, in order for the trade value of money to be relatively fixed, not only must money be made of a material that is relatively rare, money can't have any real value, that is, it can't have use value.

   This is an odd way of doing business. You can walk into a car dealership and hand someone several thousand pieces of paper with George Washington's face on it—pieces of paper that have no use whatsoever—and that fool will hand you a brand new car. And the only reason he'll do it is because he can take those thousands of pieces of useless paper and hand it to someone else who will then give him something back that is useful and valuable.

   Now follow me on this next argument. Money works, then, by substituting for real things. Do you understand? When you look at a sweater and see a price tag on it that says "$50," that means that you can substitute fifty dollars for that sweater. If you own a CD player that says "$50," that means that you can substitute fifty dollars for that CD player. Rather than trade your CD player for the sweater, you can sell the CD player and take fifty dollars instead as a substitute for the CD player and then use that money to purchase the sweater. In a money economy, then, money can be substituted for any object whatsoever.

   This was a long digression to explain indulgences, but bear with me as I put the two together. Indulgences were originally created by the church for one and only one reason: to collect money, that stuff that began circulating all over Europe in the late Middle Ages. The medieval Catholic church was the source of almost all social welfare and charity and all this charity needed to be paid for. Beginning in the twelfth century, various hospitals and other organizations affiliated with the church would send people out begging for money. However, there wasn't that much money around and it was hard to persuade people to give it up for nothing at all.

   In the late thirteenth century, the church came up with the idea of indulgences. In the spiritual life of sinners, indulgences function exactly the same way money functions in their economic life. Here's the logic: since the expiation of sin involves temporal punishment and this temporal punishment involves the doing of good works, why not substitute someone else's good works for the good works you're required to do? Why not pay someone else to do the good works demanded of you as temporal punishment? Church officials argued that clergy were doing more good works then they needed to; they had, you might say, a budge surplus of good works in the spiritual accounts. Why not sell them? So that's what the church did. With the approval of the pope, individual bishops could sell indulgences which more or less paid off any temporal punishment or good works that the individual believer had accumulated in the previous year. It substituted the good works of the Catholic clergy for the good works required of the individual believer. Proof of this substitution was in the indulgence itself which was a piece of paper, like a piece of money or a check, that certified that the good works of the clergy had paid off the "good works debt" of the individual believer.

   Inspired by the need to raise money, indulgences reproduced the very logic of money. In place of the real thing (good works), indulgences substituted a completely valueless piece of paper. The only reason this worked is because everybody accepted this to be a valid substitution, just like money.

   Indulgences, like money, had their critics from the very beginning. With the invention of the printing press, however, indulgences became big business for the church and the critics grew. Nowhere was criticism of the church more revolutionary than in northern Europe.


The Northern Renaissance


Italian Renaissance / Early Modern
Humanism
   The Northern Renaissance simply involved the importation of Italian humanist ideas into northern Europe. The Northern Humanists, however, applied these ideas far more rigorously to church practices and became the first major group to call for the reform of the church.
Desiderius Erasmus
by Hans Holbein the Younger


   There are two major figures in the Northern Renaissance: Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Erasmus (1466-1536) adopted the standard humanist education in the classics, but also developed a simple theology of Christian love. Erasmus saw Christianity as primarily an ethical religion; the "philosophy of Christ," as he called it, was a philosophy of selfless love and piety. The dogmas, rituals, and, in particular, the business practices of the Catholic church were for Erasmus dangerous departures from the philosophy of Christ. Although Erasmus intended to reform the Catholic church, his writings became some of the foundational texts of Protestantism.

   Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was the most prominent English humanist of the sixteenth century. He was an unwavering Catholic and would be executed by Henry VIII for not renouncing this Catholicism. Even though More did not convert to Protestantism, his writings which criticized the papacy and the abuses of the church, especially indulgences, became the foundations of English Protestantism.

   These Northern humanists in their critiques of church practices laid down the terminology and ideas that would fuel the Reformation movement. The spark that would light this movement would be a young, Augustinian German monk well read in the texts of the Northern humanists: Martin Luther.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-7-98