One of the more interesting thought-experiments that Reformation-era scholars embark upon is asking if there could have been a “Protestant Reformation” without Martin Luther. Understanding that we would likely need to reconceive our current notions of “Protestant” and “Reformation,” it seems likely that some form of theological reformation would have occurred in 16th century Europe even without the flamboyant figure of Martin Luther. In historical inquiry it remains a highly abstract (and somewhat fanciful) process to ask “What if…?” questions. However, given the pre-Protestant Reformation circumstances and European theological and socio-political context, it seems appropriate to let our minds wander and ask “What if there had been no Luther?” Certainly Luther powerfully shaped the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent history of Western Civilization. One need only look to Biblical Studies and the justification-centered interpretation of Pauline thought and the book of Romans that only now, nearly five-hundred years later, Protestant (and protestant influenced) scholars are beginning to emerge from in earnest. One need only to drive down the street in any town or city to notice the diversity of Christian Churches in America, each with the conviction that they cannot give into to other forms of theology, lest they betray their conscience. Unquestionably, Luther indelibly colored the fabric of the reformation and its subsequent impact on our world, few would argue otherwise.
However, our question may further be clarified by noting that while the Protestant reformation would likely not have occurred the same way without Luther, a number of contextual factors seem to suggest that some kind of “reformation” would have occurred during the 16 th century even without Martin Luther’s influence. Most notable of these factors were the socio-political situation in Europe, the corruption of the Roman Curia and the papacy, the new insights of textual criticism and return to sources advocated by renaissance humanism, and the impact of the printing press. In actual history, these factors combined with Luther’s theological insights to create the “perfect storm” of the Protestant Reformation. As we ask if a theological reformation were possible without Luther, these factors combine to provide the likely spark for some type of reformation without Luther.
Long before Luther, the peoples of the Holy Roman Empire and across Europe had begun to resent and occasionally revolt against the feudal system, a system inexorably tied to the function of the Roman Catholic Church. The formation of what could be called the “early middle class,” namely the creation of guilds, tradesmen, and cities, began to allow for a certain shift in the socio-cultural makeup of Europe, enabling a certain amount of social and geographic mobility that had been stunted since the days of the Roman Empire. The cultural fabric of Europe was moving and changing, making it more susceptible to tearing than it had been in years, making fairly significant reform among the common folk possible. Add to this general societal shift the increase in political entities, cities, and the gradual formation of the nation-state with their authoritative structures, and the political scene appears to have been set for change as well. In the same way that Frederick the Wise was able to protect his reformer, it is not inconceivable that another political power would have done so at some point.
Another factor influencing the likelihood of a non-Luther-led reformation was the widespread critique of the corruption of the Roman Curia and the office of the pope. Theologians and leaders within the church, including Erasmus, Savonarola, and Cajetan, all recognized the need for reform within the church. Whilst these conceptions of reform did not amount to reform on the scale of the Protestant Reformation, it seems clear that continued abuses of power by the Church and pope would not have been tolerated and ignored for much longer. Along such lines, one must wonder about the potential reforms of the Catholic Church that might have taken place had Pope Adrian VI had lived longer.
A final combination of factors pointing toward a non-Luther-led reformation would be those academic influences, most notably the insights of textual criticism, renaissance humanism, and the invention of the printing press. The development of academic textual criticism as applied to the Biblical text by scholars such as Erasmus made clear the need for reconsideration of the interpretation and application of the Biblical texts. Ad fontes humanists pointed the church back to Classical Greece and Rome, as well as the beginnings of the Christian tradition with a commitment to the past that seemed highly likely to impact the future of the church had Luther not come along and reconceived of how to use the Biblical text. And while Luther began in earnest the rhetorical and practical use of printed materials as a means of effective and forceful communication on a large scale, it seems likely that academics (such as Erasmus or Calvin) and/or other clergy (such as Zwingli and Marpeck) would eventually have been able to use their combination of humanism, textual knowledge, and the power of the press to get across ideas worthy of creating a theological reformation of the European Church during the 16th century.
As we are working in the realm of abstract possibility, we cannot know for sure that there would have been a Reformation without Martin Luther. However, the mix of the religious, social, and historical factors which we have surveyed here make it seem likely that some type of religious reformation would have occurred in 16th century Europe even without the Doctor of Wittenberg.