This semester, now that we are going into learning about Protestantism, it looks like the course is shifting to being purely a history of Protestantism without much further inclusion of Catholic history. On one hand, this is understandable in that this is a Protestant seminary, and it is pertinent for students to learn the history of their own traditions. On the other hand, it is annoying that a course which should encompass the history of Christianity as a whole seems to be shifting focus and paying far less attention to what is the largest Christian Church.
Here are a few brief thoughts on what I've learned so far about the beginning of the Reformation (by a combined means of the course and my husband, who thankfully is a medievalist who can help me know when the textbook is
The most stereotypical backstory of the Protestant Reformation is how corrupt the Church was in the late middle ages. Two things on this:
1. Yes, but not completely. There is an important semantic distinction that I think needs to be made. Yes, there was some corruption in the Church. It may have been widespread or localized or significant, or only to some degree. To say that the Church itself was corrupt is incorrect and inaccurate in a couple of ways. Most pertinent historically, the phrase is too vague. How much corruption, and performed by which individuals, makes "the (whole) Church is corrupt" an accurate statement? Theologically, really, how could the whole Church be corrupt? It cannot be. If the church as a whole was corrupt, it would not have prevailed as long as it has. The Church cannot be corrupt. It is Divine.
2. Yes, but so what? There was some corruption in the Church. But this is not what caused the Reformation, nor does it justify the fact that it happened. Martin Luther did observe corruption, as many likely did, but his ultimate reason for breaking from the Catholic Church was theological, most specifically, about salvation theology. Whether there had been corruption or not, in many or some aspects of ecclesial operation, Luther was unhappy (scrupulously so) with Catholic salvation theology (to the extent that it was developed at the time) and took it upon himself to try to change it. He objected not primarily to the corruption of practice of indulgences, but to a theology that he (mistakenly) thought meant man could earn his way into heaven.
Even if there hadn't been any corruption concerning indulgences, Luther would have went with his newly perceived theology anyway. The idea of indulgence (even corruption-free) simply does not fit into Luther's theology. This further goes to show that the indulgence issue was not what mainly fueled the Protestant reformation.
Interestingly, my husband has explained to me that at this time, in the late middle ages, there was not yet a hard and fast definition of what Catholic salvation theology was. The Church had defined what it did not believe, like when various heresies were dismissed, but within the guidelines of orthodoxy, there was room for speculation, and several concurrent theories, including those of St. Thomas Aquinas and a guy named William of Ockham. The Ockhamist view was what Luther had likely been taught, and this semi-Pelagian view that one earns grace through deeds ("If you do what is in you, God will not deny you grace") is the particular view that Luther was reacting against. Some scholars think that had he read or been taught the Thomist view, which put less stress on earning grace by doing one's best) he may have had less of a problem.
It is also relevant that Luther was not simply critiquing the Church's theology and tradition for the sake of doing it. Luther had been overly scrupulous about his own salvation. "He felt unworthy of God's love, and he was not convinced that he was doing enough to be saved." (1) Luther was not a bad monk, and Gonzalez points out that he tried to live out his monastic vows as best he could. He frequented the sacrament of penance, but still constantly stressed about his sinfulness. Eventually his scrupulosity pushed him to feelings of fear and bitterness toward God. Instead of seeking help and correction for his feelings, he attempts to change the theology to make it suit his feelings. He does this by re-interpreting Scripture, and insisting that we are saved by faith alone.
This post by Caitlin at Catholic Cookie Jar gives a summary about Protestant and Catholic salvation teachings.
(1) Justo Gonzalez, the Story of Christianity Vol II (New york: HarperCollins, 2010), 22.