Christianity in the Reformation Era  
Pre-Reformation Christianity

Class Two

Late Medieval Christendom— Beliefs, Practices, Institutions  


To grasp the nature of the changes wrought during the sixteenth century, one must know something about the late medieval Christianity that preceded it. This understanding, in turn, requires a grasp of the complex interrelationships among basic Christian beliefs, institutions, and practices. Christian salvation history stretched from God’s creation through his incarnation in Jesus Christ to the Church as the instrument of his salvation for humanity. Human life was seen as a transitory period before the afterlife and judgment by God. Necessary for eternal salvation was faith and the practice of faith. Central to medieval Christianity was the notion of divine providence; trust in God’s abiding governance of the world; and sacramentality, the view of the spiritual manifest in and through the material, which included the Church’s seven sacraments as part of a much broader sensibility. 


Late medieval Christianity was an institutionalized worldview, a variegated amalgam of beliefs, institutions, and practices that cannot be separated. 

It was not a rigid set of doctrines enforced by a monolithic Church, but a core set of beliefs and practices surrounded by a wide variety of elaborations that evolved over time, exhibited great local variation, and found diverse institutional expressions.

The basic story of Christian salvation history begins with God’s creation and will eventually end with the apocalypse. Its authoritative source is the Bible, understood as God’s revealed Word. It emphasized the following elements: 

·      Adam and Eve’s original sin of disobedience against God made all human beings subject to pain, suffering, and death.

·      In his mercy, God called a people to himself, the Israelites, and made a covenant with them, foretelling through their prophets a future messiah who would usher in a messianic age.

·      Jesus of Nazareth was this messiah, the incarnation of God who preached the “good news” (Gospel). Through his obedient death, humanity was redeemed and the possibility of salvation renewed.

·      After Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, he commissioned his followers to preach the Gospel to all nations and to baptize. From this early movement, emerged the Church, the instrument of God’s salvation on earth, which derives its authority from Christ.

·      Human life was a transitory phase before judgment by God after death.

·      Depending on how one was judged by God, death was a transition to eternal salvation in heaven, eternal damnation in hell, or hope of eventual salvation in purgatory.

·      Right belief and right behavior were prerequisites for the possibility of eternal salvation; otherwise, one was not following Christ.

So how was faith understood? Medieval Christianity taught that faith and the practice of the faith were essential for salvation. Medieval theologians distinguished the act of faith from the content of faith and explicit faith from implicit faith.

·      The act of faith (fides qua) refers to trust in God, in Christ as Lord and savior; the content of faith (fides quae) refers to the specific content of faith as preserved and elaborated by the Church.

·      Explicit faith refers to the ability to articulate what one believes and why; implicit faith refers to obedience to, and participation in, Church life without explicit awareness of the content of faith. Faith alone (“dead faith”) was not enough for salvation. Only through a “living faith” expressed in concrete actions might one be saved by God’s grace.

Medieval Christianity was pervaded by belief in divine providence and in sacramentality. Divine providence is the notion that God orders and governs all things in his creation, often despite appearances to the contrary. Sacramentality is the idea that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality. Its paradigm is God’s incarnation in Christ. 

So what were the institutions and practices.    The fundamental institutions and practices of late medieval Christianity are inseparable from its beliefs. In its broadest terms, its basic institutional framework was partitioned in both space and time. Geographically, Christendom as a whole was overseen by the papacy, while bishops oversaw dioceses and secular priests and other lower clergy were responsible for laypeople in parishes. The members of religious orders, both male and female, coexisted with this geographical framework, and ecclesiastical institutions as a whole existed alongside secular authorities at every level of governance. The fundamental understanding of time was liturgical; Christian beliefs and worship structured the basic divisions of days, weeks, and the year as a whole.

The minimal practice of the faith expected (but not always enacted) of all baptized Christians included attendance at Mass, participation in the sacraments, and observance of basic ecclesiastical prescriptions. Common collective devotional practices included prayer, processions, pilgrimages, the making of endowments, and shared acts of Christian charity. At the committed end of voluntary devotion, practices included the extensive use of Books of Hours, the affective identification with Christ’s Passion, and the pursuit of holiness-the exemplary practice of the faith-as one’s highest priority. 

Some ecclesiastical institutions were linked to the geographical organization of medieval Christendom, whereas others were not. Together, they provided a framework for the transmission of Christian faith.

The Church was a hierarchical institution composed of all orthodox, baptized Christians, present and past, a community of the living and the dead.

The basic locus of authority in the Church lay with the clergy, who were distinguished from the laity by special vows and privileges. Ecclesiastical institutions existed alongside secular institutions and frequently conflicted with them. 

Some medieval institutions corresponded to Christendom’s geographical organization. The pope, Christ’s vicar, oversaw Christendom as a whole.

Bishops, successors to Christ’s apostles, were responsible for their dioceses.

Parish priests (also known as “secular” clergy), deputies to the bishops, served the laity directly in their parishes.

Religious orders, both male and female, were overlaid on the geographically based institutions of Christendom and frequently coexisted uneasily with them. 

The male members of these orders were known as the regular clergy, because they followed a regula (rule). 

Contemplative religious orders (e.g., Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, Brigittines) were devoted to cloistered lives of prayer and devotion. Mendicant religious orders (e.g., Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Carmelites) were dedicated to serving the laity through preaching, teaching, missionizing, and hearing confessions. 

The most important lay religious institutions were confraternities, diversely constituted mutual aid organizations that were plentiful in both large and small towns.

Sacred Time

In the Middle Ages, time was conceived and divided in liturgical terms based on Christian worship and beliefs. The basic idea was that no time stood apart from God.

In monasteries, the day was divided into the seven times of prayer that together comprised the “divine office.”

The week was geared toward Sunday as a day dedicated to God and to rest.

The year was organized around Christ’s life, from the preparation for his birth during Advent before Christmas, through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, six weeks after Easter. Other major holy days were devoted to important events in the life of Mary.

Every “ordinary” day was named in honor of one or more saints, Christ’s special friends and Christians’ intercessors with God. 

Expectations of Christians

Every Christian was expected to meet minimal requirements in practicing the faith.

Every Christian was expected to be present each week at Mass, the priest’s ritual reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. 

In this sacrament, God, through the priest’s words of consecration over the bread and wine, makes present Christ’s body and blood. This process was known as transubstantiation.

Every Christian was expected to participate in the sacraments, the most important channels of God’s grace, mediated through the priesthood.

There were seven sacraments: baptism, penance, communion (Eucharist), confirmation, matrimony, extreme unction, and holy orders. The two most important and the only repeated sacraments were penance and communion.

Every Christian was expected to observe basic religious and moral prescriptions and to avoid sins. Normally once a year, before receiving communion at Easter, Christians would confess their sins to a priest as part of the sacrament of penance.

A wide range of collective religious practices was common in late medieval Christianity.

Processions were ritualized local walks for various religious purposes; pilgrimages were journeys to specific sites distinguished in some way for their holiness.

Large numbers of Christians, clergy and laity alike, invested money in practicing their faith, through the endowment of Masses or churches or through the purchase of indulgences or religious art. 

Christians practiced their faith through the seven corporal acts of mercy and the seven works of spiritual comfort, which benefited both the practitioner and the recipient. Six of the seven corporal acts of mercy were drawn from the gospel of St. Matthew. These were:

 Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy

·      Feeding the hungry;

·      Giving drink to the thirsty;

·      Visiting the sick;

·      Clothing the naked;

·      Visiting the imprisoned;

·      Accommodating the homeless.

·      The seventh act was drawn from the apocryphal Book of Tobit regarding burial of the dead.

The seven acts of spiritual comfort were:








From the twelfth century on, more and more lay Christians adopted devotional practices that previously had been the preserve of the cloistered religious.

Books of Hours were prayer books that adapted monastic prayers for lay use. They were the most common type of printed book in Europe in the half century before the Reformation (1470–1520). 

A wide range of practices centered on affective identification with Christ’s passion. 

Devout men and women made faith their highest priority, engaging in frequent prayer, ascetic routines, acts of Christian charity, and other practices. 

Major Trends Leading Up to the Reformation Era 

Most of what we just presented portrays a vibrant Christian church thoroughly embedded in the life of European countries. And remember – it was one all-powerful church. And that church was of course the Catholic church. There were no other possible churches. 

But there were shifts in perception taking place that made the coming reformation tide possible. More than we can discuss today but I would like to point out a few of them. 

The first was a slowly growing set of resentments against the clergy. The term for this was anticlericalism.  This came from the common people – the peasants. 

Some anticlericalism took the form of complaints about the existence of clerical privileges as such. These privileges included exemption from trial for civil offenses according to the secular law of cities and territories or kingdoms. Clergy could be tried only in ecclesiastical courts. 

Like the nobility, the clergy was exempt from paying most royal or civic taxes. The resentment that this situation produced was coupled with resentment over the obligatory taxation that the laity owed to the local church in the form of the tithe. The ill will was exacerbated when economic conditions deteriorated, as, for example, during a crop failure. 

Some resentment was also felt over the fact that the clergy were exempt from certain civic duties, such as standing watch at night or fire fighting. 

Other anticlericalism focused on the abuse of clerical authority in the form of greed, the holding of multiple church offices, the buying and selling of church offices, and the clergy’s educational and moral shortcomings. 

Related to anticlericalism was the impact of the Black Death. The most devastating wave of the Black Death was roughly 1340-1350. Estimates of how many died are just that – estimates – because good data is not available.  But most of the estimates are that up to 60% of the population died in that decade.  In one four year span it is estimated that 50 million people died. Talking about how that kind of devastation impacted not only the church but society in general is a subject we do not have time for today. And for the church it resulted in a weakening of trust in the church. 

Early in in the plague the secular and regular clergy tried to minister to the sick but as a result were quickly hit with major losses. In response they tended to withdraw to save their lives. There was a general response form the general population that the clergy, who they expected to help in such a calamity, was helpless. This was another contributor to anticlericalism.

As for the church after the Black death a large percentage of the clergy died and was replaced over time with less trained priests. 

The Impact of Christian Humanism 

One of the most important strands of reform in the early decades of the sixteenth century was Christian humanism, especially important in northern Europe. It emerged out of the broader movement of Renaissance humanism, an attempt to recover the classical Greek and Latin rhetorical and literary tradition and apply it to contemporary morals and politics. The humanists’ general admonition to “return to the true sources” meant a return to the text of the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, plus a return to the writings of the Greek and Latin Church Fathers, to reform Christianity through philological erudition and moral education. 

Christian humanism offered a notion for Christian renewal that differed from and antedated those of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation Catholicism, both of which appropriated certain of its emphases in their own ways. 

The Bible and Fathers provided criteria for criticizing practices deemed superstitious or harmful, for deploring the ignorance of many Christians, and for criticizing sub-par clergy. 

Christian humanists envisioned a purified Christianity based on norms derived from scripture and the Fathers, combined with a relatively optimistic view of human nature that was partly the product of their immersion in other classical sources. 

The most important Christian humanist was Erasmus (1466–1536) whose “philosophy of Christ” sought the gradual moral improvement of Christendom through scholarly erudition and education. 

By the 1510s, Erasmus’s education, travels, and writings led to his wide acknowledgment as the “prince of the humanists.” 

Erasmus viewed the central problems plaguing Christendom as ignorance and immorality, to be addressed through the scholarship and education of the “philosophy of Christ,” the inculcation of Christian virtue based on the Bible and the Church Fathers.

As a straightforward, moralizing reformer, Erasmus wrote his Handbook of the Christian Soldier (1503), which confidently urged individual Christians to moral self-mastery of their passions and temptations in a neo-Platonic view of the human being. 

All of the Magisterial reformers were influenced in different ways by Erasmus. 

With all of these changing trends working to “soften” the resistance to reform we now turn to the Luther Phenomena. 

Christianity in the Reformation Era   -  Pre-Reformation Christianity

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