The pre-Reformation Roman Catholic church of the 15th century thought it had all the answers – there was, it concluded, nothing more to add on life’s major questions, and people had to accept what they were told: having faith was more important than having proof. Scientific challenges, like the discovery by Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) that the Earth was not the center of the universe (as the church taught), were met with cries of “heretic!” – and threats, or even imposition, of torture and death.
It was the study of the Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, used by the Roman Catholic Church that alerted scholars to errors that had led to possible false teachings, such as the belief that Christ was physically present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, or the concept of penance, rather than repentance. Although theologically subtle and complex, they mattered. The reformers also thought that people should read the Bible in their own language so they could understand the primary source of their faith.
This led to translations that preserved and spread languages that were in danger of disappearing such as Welsh. Until the mid-16th century there were no printed books in Welsh: it was an oral culture and the language was regarded as one only peasants spoke. The necessity to produce a Bible and other religious texts the native speakers could understand actually led to its preservation in a literary form, rather than a number of local dialects. Cornish did not get its own Bible until 2011, more than 200 years after it had been lost as a mother tongue.
In November I participated in a retreat for spouses of clergy and led a study on the Reformation in anticipation of its 500 year anniversary in 2017. The weekend included sessions about the Church’s history, some of the key theology topics that inspired the need for reformation in the church, and a discussion of how all of this is relevant today and in the future. We used curriculum created by the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA entitled, Ever-Reforming: A Reformation 500 Cross-Generational Study. The study has 44 easy to use lessons. The study was well received by the group and evoked lots of lively discussion.