Heiko Oberman, "Harvest of Medieval Theology," noted that
there is much to warrant the thesis that the later Middle Ages were born in Avignon and were shaped by the uncertainty and hierarchical confusion due to the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy (1309-1377) and the succeeding period of the Schism (1378-1415). The impact of this event can scarcely be overestimated, so much that we are inclined to advocate the terms "preschismatic" and "schismatic" Middle Ages to replace the traditional terms "early" and "later" Middle Ages. (323)Avignon was the era when the papacy moved to southern France; the "Schism" was a time when there were two and even three popes excommunicating each other and their followers. But as bad and as fundamental as that was, it wasn't the cause of the Reformation.
Oberman continued to discuss "the extent to which hierarchy, Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are understood to have exchanged poverty for greed." (324) But even on top of all of these evils, it wasn't the worst thing, and it wasn't the cause for the Reformation.
All of these characterized the state of the church at the time of the Reformation. And we all need to be reminded of such things -- the evils present within the Western church, the church at Rome, at the time of the Reformation.
But there was a greater evil than all of these, and it was the doctrinal mess that was passed off as "the one true faith."
Of course, at the doctrinal heart of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification, how exactly God saved men.
In his Iustitia Dei, "A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification" (Third Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) Alister McGrath noted that "the medieval period saw the the justification of the sinner firmly linked to the sacramental life of the church" (126), notably, the sacraments of baptism as an entree and confession as a "second plank" (initially a one-time saving plank after a "shipwreck," but by this time available over and over again)."
It was this that prompted Martin Luther to comment:
Life is bad among us as among the papists. Hence, we do not fight and damn them because of their bad lives …. I do not consider myself to be pious. But when it comes to whether one teaches correctly about the word of God, there I take my stand and fight. That is my calling. To contest doctrine has never happened until now. Others have fought over life; but to take on doctrine—that is to grab the goose by the neck! … When the word of God remains pure, even if the quality of life fails us, life is placed in a position to become what it ought. That is why everything hinges on the purity of the Word. I have succeeded only if I have taught correctly. (Cited by Steven Ozment, "The Age of Reform, 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe" (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1980), pgs 315-316 (emphasis added).It may have seemed a bit out of place to be talking about the earliest church at Rome on a site that's devoted to the Reformation. But the Reformation was, among other things, a discussion about authority as well as a discussion about doctrine. Rome claimed its own authority as the reason why it was able to stress doctrines (such as the sacramental system alluded to above).
That's why I want to take a little bit of time to discuss the "doctrinal system" that was in place at the time of the Reformation, and how truly far it had moved from its supposedly Biblical moorings.