As the sixteenth century dawned, Europe had already passed beyond the mediæval mile-stone. The old horizon had begun to recede in every direction. To all who had eyes to see, an enlarged outlook was presented. The mists brooding over the Western sea had been lifted, and the extended line of a new continent disclosed. At the same time, the past had been penetrated, and a long-hidden world brought to view. While the love of adventure, worldly gain, and thirst for dominion, mere directing the attention of men to the American shores, the interests of literature and scholarship were summoning them to explore the treasures of classic Greece and Rome. Even the heavens began to wear a new aspect, at least to the eyes of individuals; for it was in the first years of the sixteenth century that Copernicus broached his theory of the solar system. To crown all, the printing-press, invented near the middle of the preceding century, was at work to bring near to the common man all the varied acquisitions of the age.
This enlarged horizon, this quickened intellectual life, these new facilities for the acquisition and communication of knowledge, proclaimed that the fulness of time had come for the Reformation. They are not indeed properly described as causes of the Reformation. They were rather allies, helping on the movement to a successful issue. They subserved in the sixteenth century somewhat the same office that Roman roads and Roman civilization subserved at the beginning of the Christian era. The widening area of mental alertness and the spirit of inquiry gave a broad field to the reformer's message. The fundamental cause of the Reformation, however, the cause back of the message itself, and informing it with victorious energy, was intense religious conviction, enlightened and sustained by close contact with the Word of God.
In defining the Reformation it is not needful to take any extended notice of the Roman Catholic estimate. That estimate is a necessary attachment of an unmeasured assumption, whose proper refutation is an unbiassed history of the Church from the beginning to the present. The devotees of an infallible, visible Church are logically shut up to the conclusion that the Reformation was a wicked rebellion, a reckless plunge into anarchy, a most heinous and unjustifiable revolution. As Pallavicino said in the seventeenth century, "The [Roman] Catholic faith rests upon a single indivisible article; namely, the authority of the infallible Church. So soon as one would take away a part he destroys the whole, for it is plain that the indivisible must stand altogether or fall altogether." In the eyes of the Romanist, therefore, it must go for nothing that the Reformation acknowledged many points of doctrine found in his system. In attacking the supreme authority of the Church, it attacked every thing, and assumed the character of a wild revolutionary outbreak. The only good which it accomplished resulted from its gathering the impure elements of the Church into itself. "Our poignant grief," says Möler, "is modified by the consciousness that that mound has become at the same time an outlet through which all the impurities how away, which men have brought within the domain of the Church."
Möler is right in assuming that the Reformation benefited the Roman Catholic Church, but totally wrong in his illustration of the method in which the benefit was imparted. It was not by draining the corruptions of its opponent into itself, but by re-acting upon it through its higher moral and religious life, that Protestantism benefited the Roman Church. To say nothing about spirituality, Romanism owes no small part of such moral respectability as it has maintained during the last three centuries, to the quickening currents which the Reformation brought into Europe.
Though the Reformation was in a sense a reproduction of primitive Christianity, it was not an exact reproduction. It brought forth a clearer and more emphatic assertion of the Pauline doctrines of sin and grace than was current in the early Church in any century of its history, at least after the days of the Apostles. The early Church, no doubt, possessed the essentials of the Protestant theology; but it did not hold them with the Protestant tenacity, was not fully dominated by a Protestant consciousness.
Viewed on its positive side, the Reformation was the vindication of two fundamental principles; namely, justification by faith, and the sole authority of the Scriptures, --the material and the formal principle, as they have been respectively termed. Under the conditions then existing, these principles had a profound significance. They were a proclamation of the direct connection of the individual with God and the spiritual world. They were a protest against the overgrown system of human mediation, and a summons to the fountain-head of grace and instruction. They were means of wresting men out of the condition of passive subjects, and of bringing them under the ennobling stimulus of a felt responsibility for the use of their own powers in apprehending and working out religious truth.
Viewed on the negative side, the Reformation was a revolt of the human mind against the despotism of a corrupted hierarchy. For a long time the awakening mind of Europe had been growing impatient toward the unbounded claims of ecclesiastical authority. The statesman, the scholar, the intelligent religionist, all classes of enterprising minds, felt inwardly affronted by these claims. The Reformation was a response, not merely to needs distinctly religious, but to the widespread aspirations after freedom. The movement had begun before ever Luther dreamed of breaking with the papacy. Indeed, for two centuries or more the forces of society had been pressing toward a decisive issue. An outbreak of some kind, a revolution if not a reformation, had become well-nigh inevitable.
Such a tremendous revolt against the customs and beliefs of centuries was naturally attended with violent passions, with many crudities in opinion, and many errors in conduct. Released, or incited to hope for release, from the thraldom by which they had been bound, the ignorant masses might be expected to overstep, sometimes, the limits between freedom and license. Even the most distinguished leaders of the reform might be expected to be subject to the hot passions of the age, and to fall into more or less of self-contradiction, blindly violating the very principles which the Reformation was appointed to establish, and which ultimately it did establish. None but a romancer would look for an unblemished ideal in the Reformation. As matter of fact, it shows many an unwelcome phase. But these by no means nullify its historical worth and grandeur. One may give them the fullest consideration, and still approve the Reformation as an untold benefaction; for it laid the basis for that manly freedom and intelligence in religion, without which the race can accomplish no worthy destiny.
The period in which the Reformation falls is properly extended to the year 1648. The peace of Westphalia, consummated in that year, marks a turning-point in modern history. From the opening of the Reformation up to that date, the antagonism between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism had been the most prominent factor in the life and politics of Europe. It is true that even during this period, the rivalries of leading Roman Catholic princes brought them occasionally into war with each other. The Protestants also did not maintain harmony among themselves. The different Protestant communions engaged in bitter theological controversies, and indulged more or less of mutual proscription. These, however, were instances of minor conflicts included within a greater. The antagonism most comprehensively and deeply affecting the history was that between Protestantism and Romanism. But after the peace of Weetphalia, the influence of this factor was greatly modified. "It was by the treaty of Westphalia," says Guizot, "that the Catholic and Protestant States reciprocally acknowledged each other, and engaged to live in amity and peace, without regard to difference of religion. After this, difference of religion ceased to be the leading principle of the classification of states, of their external policy, their relations and alliances. Down to that time, notwithstanding great variations, Europe was essentially divided into a Catholic league and a Protestant league. After the treaty of Westphalia this distinction disappeared; and alliances or divisions among states took place from considerations altogether foreign to religious belief."