What Caused the Reformation?
October 31st, 1517 is the date Martin Luther is alleged 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.
Let’s consider an important question: what caused the Reformation? Someone might say, “It’s obvious: God caused the Reformation.” As true as that is, it’s not a 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!