In the early sixteenth century, everyone knew that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt, in that it was not living up to its own principles. The Pope may have been head of the Church, but he was also a secular ruler, the sovereign of the Papal States, and as such, engaged in all the subterfuge that Machiavelli describes in The Prince. The Church forbade any number of things, like holding more than one church office, marriage within certain degrees of consanguinity, or the keeping of mistresses, but was always willing to grant an exception for the right price, or turn a blind eye if the subject was important enough. Many popes enjoyed a very luxurious and self-indulgent lifestyle, and even if we got some great Renaissance art out of this, it still didn’t sit well with a lot of ordinary Christians. And altogether, the Church as an organization appeared bureaucratic and very venal, a long way from its lofty self-image as the foundation of Jesus Christ himself and the sole guarantor of human salvation.
So in this sense, Martin Luther had a point.
Luther went a little further than that, though. In common with Erasmus and a number of other prominent thinkers of his time, he identified the corruption of the Church with its wealth of extra-Biblical traditions. The humanist impulse was to go ad fontes, which to them was always textual, the text in this case being the Bible. Where in the Bible to you find any justification for:
veneration of saints and their relics
pilgrimage to visit these
priests as a separate caste of human
prescribed use of Latin
Etc. So all of these practices, some over a thousand years old when Luther was alive, were to be downgraded, because they’re not endorsed by the Bible. They were figured as useless at best, or positively harmful at worst – idolatrous and sinful. Now, I suppose that Luther had a point here too… but, really, his program was no more true than its opposite. It is arbitrary, a judgment call, that the Bible should be the sole source of Christian practice. Even Erasmus condemned the mechanized, what’s-in-it-for-me aspect of popular piety, not its non-Biblicism as such.
The real significance of Luther, though, is encompassed in the word Glaubensspaltung – the “Faith-Splitting.” Luther was in no position to be elected pope, at which point he could use the power of the office to impose a more Bible-based Christianity over everyone. Instead, he managed to convince certain German princes that it was no big matter to declare their independence from the Roman Catholic Church, so that he could at least impose his vision of Christianity over their territories. Americans generally view this secession favorably, given this country’s Protestant history and its own parallel origin in the Declaration of Independence. But you could also say that Luther permanently destroyed the unity of Western Christendom, a terrible and tragic thing.
And if Luther could break away in order to implement his own interpretation of Christianity, then so could everyone else. The Bible is a big book, with a lot of stuff in it, and it all depends on what you want to emphasize. Luther himself retained some non-Biblical Catholic practices like infant baptism or the notion of an established church, for reasons that he could justify to himself. But following Luther’s lead, all sorts of people in Europe then felt licensed to interpret the Bible according to their own consciences and to establish their own churches, often going beyond far beyond the dictates of Lutheranism. Jean Calvin discerned predestination and limited atonement from his reading of the Bible. Even more extreme were the Anabaptists, who sought to recreate the church of the first century AD as described in the letters of St. Paul. You know you’re pure when you’re a small group in a hostile world, and accordingly Anabaptists refused all connection to state power, which had only been established in the fourth century, long after the closure of the New Testament canon. Other signature Anabaptist beliefs included adult baptism (in the mode of Jesus, who accepted it when he was old enough to understand what was going on), pacifism (Matthew 5: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”), the shunning of wayward members (Titus 3: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject”), and the refusal to take oaths (Matthew 5: “Swear not at all… but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay”).
How many other Biblical verses have inspired new sects or at least cherished practices? Off the top of my head:
Genesis 9: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.”
This is spoken to Noah as he leaves the Ark, thus it predates Moses and even Abraham, and so is still binding, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This prohibition on the consumption of blood means that JWs will refuse to receive blood transfusions.
Exodus 20: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
That would be the sabbath day, the seventh day of the week, i.e. Saturday, the one the Jews keep. Seventh-Day Adventists believe that the early Christian custom of treating Sunday as the sabbath was a grave error.
Mark 16: “And these signs shall follow them that believe… they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”
This has given rise to the Pentecostal custom of glossolalia (speaking in tongues)… and in extreme cases of serpent handling,* that emblem of Appalachian weirdness.
(Even the Westboro Baptist Church can explain very logically why the Bible compels us to picket AIDS funerals.)
Back in the sixteenth century, Roman Catholics responded to Biblicism by rejecting it. Or rather, they affirmed that the Bible was important, but they also affirmed that longstanding church traditions were important, on the principle that Jesus did not write the Bible, he founded a church, and without the church there would be no Bible. The Church precedes the Bible, and if the Church endorses a tradition, then it’s all good, and there is no reason to throw out customs that people have found efficacious and deeply meaningful for hundreds of years. Yes, the corruption of the church had to end, as did any calculated, mechanistic attitudes towards salvation. But, they rightly reasoned, there was no reason why a Bible-based Christianity would necessarily be the cure for these things. One can have the love of God in one’s heart, even as one believes in the efficacy of all seven of the sacraments, papal supremacy, or the intercession of saints.
And even the Anabaptists agree, in their way. The Anabaptist group that everyone knows about are the Amish. As mentioned, they hold themselves apart from the world (2 Corinthians 6: “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”), and have adopted any number of customs in order to signal this. But where in the Bible does it say that one must abjure electricity and automobiles? Where in the Bible does it say that men must wear plain dress and have beards, but with no hair on the upper lip?
You can drive tradition out with a pitchfork, but it always finds its way back.
* The trouble is that verses 9-20 (the “Longer Ending”) of Mark 16 were probably not in the original manuscript. I personally think that the practice is condemned by 1 Corinthians 10:9: “Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents.”