A term covering a number of changes in Western Christianity (Europe) between
the 14th and 17th centuries, resulting in the split in Christianity between
Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Reformation, widely conceived, was a
reaction against the hierarchical and legalistic structures of the Papacy and
the Roman Catholic Church. Reformers rallied against the Roman Catholic Church's
dogmatic theology, economic and religious exploitation of the common masses, and
colonialization and conquest of indigenous peoples. Most fundamentally, the
Reformation challenged the Papacy's claims of divine authorization and
One particularly well-known Catholic method of exploitation in the Middle
Ages was the practice of selling indulgences, a monetary payment of penalty
which, supposedly, absolved one of past sins and/or released one from purgatory
after death. It was the selling of indulgences that led the Reformer Martin
Luther to post his famous 95 Theses - a document challenging Roman Catholic
authority in theological matters, including indulgences and many others.
Luther's opposition to the selling of indulgences was not new, however. In most
of the Reformation movements stress lay not upon new understandings or
doctrines, but on a return to the more authentic and original excellence of
Luther, one of the main Protestant Reformers, eventually arrived at the
conclusion that divine relationship and salvation come by grace through faith,
not by good works, belief in dogma, or economic propitiation. One's relationship
to the divine is initiated by God, and one can only participate in this
relationship by remaining open to it. Therefore, Luther's theology placed him in
square opposition to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences.
The Roman Catholic emphasis on the acceptance and adherence to its dogma
exemplifies its legalistic bent, while for the Protestant Reformers it is just
this legalism which cuts one off from the Good News of the Gospel. Therefore,
Protestant Reformers tended to give primacy to the New Testament and Scripture.
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