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The Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation is the name given to a religious and
political development in the early 16th century. The reformation was
led by Martin Luther, a monk from Germany. He said that the Roman
Catholic Church was corrupt and that it should be reformed. Luther
also argued that a reformation was needed of other things. In
particular reformation was required with regards: the language that
the Bible was produced in:
 most people couldn't read Latin;
 the selling of forgiveness (Indulgences), this was considered to
be immoral by Luther but had been standard practice by some
monks and priests for years.
The ideas behind the Protestant Reformation were simple. The church
should be changed, or reformed, so that it was less greedy, fairer and
accessible to all people, not just the rich and well educated. For
these, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther.
The protest against the church was not entirely new. In England there
had been similar protests in the 14th century: although these had
been crushed. Luther though gained a lot of support for his ideas.
Many people were unhappy with the Pope and the church.
The Protestant Reformation in England
King Henry VIII was initially opposed to the ideas of Luther. He was
praised by the pope for a pamphlet that he wrote in 1521 that
criticized the German monk. However after the Split with Rome many
of the things that Luther said should happen, did happen in England.
Henry VIII ordered Bibles to be published in English and took much
money and land from the church. However Henry did this for political
gains, not because he supported the ideas of Luther. However
because of his actions Henry VIII laid the foundations of
Protestantism in England which under the rule of Edward and
Elizabeth would transform England from a Catholic to a Protestant
nation. By 1603 the Protestant Reformation in this country was
The Protestant Reformation
Arise, O Lord, and judge Thy cause. A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard. Arise, O
Peter, and consider the case of the Holy Roman Church, the mother of all churches,
consecrated by thy blood. Arise, O Paul, who by thy teaching and death hast illumined
and dost illumine the Church. Arise all ye saints, and the whole universal Church,
whose interpretations of Scripture has been assailed. (papal bull of Pope Leo X, 1520)
It truly seems to me that if this fury of the Romanists should continue, there is no
remedy except that the emperor, kings, and princes, girded with force and arms, should
resolve to attack this plague of all the earth no longer with words but with the sword. . .
. If we punish thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, and heretics with fire,
why do we not all the more fling ourselves with all our weapons upon these masters of
perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and all this sink of Roman sodomy that
ceaselessly corrupts the church of God and wash our hands in their blood so that we
may free ourselves and all who belong to us from this most dangerous fire? (Martin
Luther, 1521)
Young people have lost that deference to their elders on which the social order
depends; they reject all correction. Sexual offenses, rapes, adulteries, incests and
seductions are more common than ever before. How monstrous that the world should
have been overthrown by such dense clouds for the last three or four centuries, so that it
could not see clearly how to obey Christ's commandment to love our enemies.
Everything is in shameful confusion; everywhere I see only cruelty, plots, frauds,
violence, injustice, shamelessness while the poor groan under the oppression and the
innocent are arrogantly and outrageously harassed. God must be asleep. (John Calvin)
The 16th century in Europe was a great century of change on many fronts. The
humanists and artists of the Renaissance would help characterize the age as one of
individualism and self-creativity. Humanists such as Petrarch helped restore the dignity
of mankind while men like Machiavelli injected humanism into politics. When all is
said and done, the Renaissance helped to secularize European society. Man was now the
creator of his own destiny -- in a word, the Renaissance unleashed the very powerful
notion that man makes his own history (on the Renaissance, see Lecture 1).
But the 16th century was more than just the story of the Renaissance. The century
witnessed the growth of royal power, the appearance of centralized monarchies and the
discovery of new lands. During the great age of exploration, massive quantities of gold
and silver flood Europe, an event which turned people, especially the British, Dutch,
Italians and Germans, money-mad. The year 1543 can be said to have marked the origin
of the Scientific Revolution -- this was the year Copernicus published his De
Revolutionibus (see Lecture 10) and set in motion a wave of scientific advance that
would culminate with Newton at the end of the 17th century. In the meantime,
urbanization continued unabated as did the growth of universities. And lastly, the
printing press, perfected by the moveable type of Gutenberg in 1451, had created the
ability to produce books cheaply and in more quantities. And this was indeed important
since the Renaissance created a literate public eager for whatever came off the presses.
Despite all of these things, and there are more things to be considered, especially in the
area of literature and the arts, the greatest event of the 16th century -- indeed, the most
revolutionary event -- was the Protestant Reformation. It was the Reformation that
forced people to make a choice -- to be Catholic or Protestant. This was an important
choice, and a choice had to be made. There was no real alternative. In the context of the
religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, one could live or die based on such a
We have to ask why something like the Reformation took place when it did. In general,
dissatisfaction with the Church could be found at all levels of European society. First, it
can be said that many devout Christians were finding the Church's growing emphasis on
rituals unhelpful in their quest for personal salvation. Indeed, what we are witnessing is
the shift from salvation of whole groups of people, to something more personal and
individual. The sacraments had become forms of ritualized behavior that no longer
"spoke" to the people of Europe. They had become devoid of meaning. And since more
people were congregating in towns and cities, they could observe for themselves and
more important, discuss their concerns with others. Second, the papacy had lost much of
its spiritual influence over its people because of the increasing tendency toward
secularization. In other words, popes and bishops were acting more like kings and
princes than they were the spiritual guides of European men and women. And again,
because so many people were now crowding into cities, the lavish homes and palaces of
the Church were noticed by more and more people from all walks of life. The poor
resented the wealth of the papacy and the very rich were jealous of that wealth. At the
same time, the popes bought and sold high offices, and also sold indulgences. All of this
led to the increasing wealth of the Church -- and this created new paths for abuses of
every sort. Finally, at the local level of the town and village, the abuses continued.
Some Church officials held several offices at once and lived off their income. The
clergy had become lax, corrupt and immoral and the people began to take notice that the
sacraments were shrouded in complacency and indifference. Something was dreadfully
These abuses called for two major responses. On the one hand, there was a general
tendency toward anti-clericalism, that is, a general but distinct distrust and dislike of the
clergy. Some people began to argue that the layperson was just as good as the priest, an
argument already advanced by the Waldensians of the 12th century (see also my
HERETICS, HERESIES AND THE CHURCH). On the other hand, there were calls for
reform. These two responses created fertile ground for conflict of all kinds, and that
conflict would be both personal and social.
The deepest source of conflict was personal and spiritual. The Church had grown more
formal in its organization, which is hardly unsurprising since it was now sixteen
centuries old. The Church had its own elaborate canon law as well as a dogmatic
theology. All of this had been created at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. That
Council also established the importance of the sacraments as well as the role of the
priest in administering the sacraments. 1215 also marks the year that the Church further
elaborated its position on Purgatory (see Purgatory: Fact or Fantasy). Above all, the
Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 established the important doctrine that salvation could
only be won through good works -- fasting, chastity, abstinence and asceticism.
The common people, meanwhile, sought a more personal, spiritual and immediate kind
of religion -- something that would touch them directly, in the heart. The rituals of the
Church now meant very little to them -- they needed some kind of guarantee that they
were doing the right thing – that they would indeed be saved. The Church gave little
thought to reforming itself. People yearned for something more while the Church
seemed to promise less. What seemed to be needed was a general reform of Christianity
itself. Only such a major transformation would effect the changes reflected in the
spiritual desires of the people.
Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries the Church was faced with numerous direct
Heretics had been assaulting the Church since the 12th century. The heretics
were Christians who deviated from Christian dogma. Many did not believe in
Christian baptism -- the majority felt left out of the Church.
There were also numerous mystics who desired a direct and emotional divine
illumination. They claimed they had been illuminated by an inner light that
assured them of salvation.
There was an influential philosophical movement called nominalism that
stressed the reality of anything concrete and real, thus doubting faith.
Renaissance humanism rejected the Christian matrix almost completely and
instead turned to the Classical World, the true source of virtue and wisdom.
The breakdown of feudalism and the discovery and exploitation of the New
World gave way to commerce and trade, as well as an increasing tendency to
view life in the here and now as something good.
The Church was also challenged by an increasing awareness of ethnicity and
nationalism, e.g. Joan of Arc and the 100 Years' War.
Merchants and skilled workers living in cities were growing wealthy and
influential as they began to supply Europe with more and more "stuff."
European kings consolidated their power over their nobility.
There was an awareness, thanks to the age of discovery, that there was a pagan
world outside the world of Europe that needed to be
The Reformation was dominated by the figure of MARTIN
LUTHER (1483-1546). Luther was the son of Hans Luther, a
copper miner from the district of Saxony. Hans was a selfmade man. As a youth he worked menial jobs in copper
mines -- but by the time Martin was born at Eisleben, he had
risen to prominence and owned several mines. Hans Luther
wanted his son to do even more with his life so while Martin
was in his teens, it was decided that he would study law. So,
after his preliminary education was complete, at the age of 17
young Martin Luther entered the University of Erfurt. At the
time, Erfurt was the most important university in Germany
(more on German universities). It was also the center of a
conflict between the Renaissance humanists and those people known as the Scholastics,
who were adept at combining medieval philosophy and theology. Luther enrolled in the
Faculty of Philosophy and studied theology and law as well. It was at this time that he
read widely in the classical authors, especially Cicero and Virgil. He obtained his
Masters degree and finished second in a class of seventeen students. In 1505, a
promising legal career seemed certain.
But at this point, Luther rejected the world. He was twenty-one at the time. In 1505,
Luther tells us that he experienced the "first great event" of his life. In that year he
experienced some kind of conversion after having been struck by a bolt of lightning. He
cried out, "Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk." He was struck by the hand of God
and felt that God was in everything. He felt doubt within himself – he simply could not
reconcile his faith with his worldly ambitions. And so, Luther was plagued by an
overwhelming sense of guilt, fear and terror. To relieve his anxiety he joined the Order
of the Hermits of St. Augustine. There he would be shielded from worldly distractions.
There he would find the true path to heaven. He fasted, prayed and scourged himself
relentlessly. But he still felt doubts. One day, as he sat in his cell, he through his Bible
on the table and pointed at a passage at random. The passage was from the Epistles of
St. Paul: "For the justice of God is revealed from faith to faith in that it is written, for
the just shall live by faith." (Romans 1:17)
By 1508, Luther had been and was transferred from the monastery at Erfurt to
Wittenberg. At Wittenberg, Luther joined the university faculty as professor of
philosophy and quickly became the leader in the fight to make Wittenberg a center of
humanism rather than Scholasticism. In the end, Luther was more interested in
preaching a religion of piety than he was studying philosophy or theology. In 1510, he
devoted himself to discovering God and during a trip to Rome on official business he
acted more the part of a pilgrim than humanist scholar. He climbed the steps of St.
Peters, he knelt before the altars and prayed. He was soon shocked by the apparent
immoral life of the priests and cardinals whom he found cynical and indifferent toward
Church rituals.
In 1512, he returned to Wittenberg to teach and preach. He ignored the Scholasticism of
the Middle Ages and concentrated on the Psalms and Epistles of St. Paul. By 1517,
there would be no reason to think that Luther was a particularly dissatisfied member of
the Church. But 1517 is a very important year. Albert of Hohenzollern was offered the
archbishopric of Mainz if he would pay the required fee (Albert already held two
bishoprics, even though he had not yet reached the required age to be a bishop!). Pope
Leo X asked Albert to pay 12,000 ducats for the twelve apostles but Albert would only
offer 7,000 for the seven deadly sins. A compromise was reached and Albert paid
10,000 ducats. Leo proclaimed an indulgence in Albert's territories for eight years with
half of the money going to Albert and the other half to construct the basilica of St.
The storm broke on October 31, the eve of All Saints Day. On that day Luther nailed a
copy of the NINETY-FIVE THESES to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. The
Theses (actually 95 statements), all related to the prevalence of indulgences and Luther
offered to dispute them all. The day chosen by Luther -- All Saints Day -- was
important. All of Wittenberg was crowded with peasants and pilgrims who had come to
the city to honor the consecration of the Church. Word of Luther's Theses spread
throughout the crowd and spurred on by Luther's friends at the university, many people
called for the translation of the Theses into German. A student copied Luther's Latin text
and then translated the document and sent it to the university press and from there it
spread throughout Germany. It was the printing press itself, that allowed Luther's
message to spread so rapidly. [Note: Following the research of Erwin Iserloh, Richard
Marius has suggested that perhaps Luther never posted the Ninety-Five Theses. We
know, for instance, that Luther wrote a letter to his archbishop complaining about
indulgences. The story that Luther nailed the Theses to the church door comes from
Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), a professor of Greek and one of Luther's colleagues.
However, Melanchthon did not arrive in Wittenberg until August of the following year.
Luther never mentioned this incident in any of his table talk. See Marius, Martin
Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Harvard, 1999), pp. 137-139.]
The particular indulgence which attracted Luther's attention was being sold throughout
Germany by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar. Tetzel was trying to raise money to pay
for the new Church at St. Peters in Rome. In general, an indulgence released the sinner
from punishment in Purgatory before going to Heaven. The system was permitted by
the Church (since 1215) but had been abused by the clergy and their agents such as
Luther also attacked indulgences in general, and he
voiced his objections to the sale of indulgences in
his LETTER to the Archbishop of Mainz in 1517.
According to the Church, indulgences took their
existence from the surplus grace that had
accumulated through the lives of Christ, the saints
and martyrs. The purchase of an indulgence put the
buyer in touch with this grace and freed him from
the earthly penance of a particular sin, but not the sin
itself. But Tetzel's sales pitch implied that the buyer
was freed from the sin as well as the penance
attached to it. Tetzel also sold people on the idea that
an indulgence could be purchased for a relative in
Purgatory – this meant the relative's soul would now
fly to Heaven. For Tetzel: "As soon as pennies in the money chest ring, the souls out of
their Purgatory do spring." Luther answered (Theses 28) in the following way: "It is
certain that when the money rattles in the chest, avarice and gain may be increased, but
the Suffrage of the Church depends on the will of God alone." (my emphasis).
Luther claimed that it was not only Tetzel but the papacy itself which spread the false
doctrine of the indulgence. By attacking the issue of the indulgences, Luther was really
attacking the entire theology and structure of the Church. By making salvation
dependent on the individual's faith, Luther abolished the need for sacraments as well as
a clergy to administer them. For Luther, faith alone, without the necessity of good
works, would bring salvation. This was obviously heretical thinking. Of course, Luther
couched his notion of "justification by faith alone" within a scheme of predestination.
That is, only God knows who will be saved and will be damned. Good works did not
guarantee salvation. Faith did not guarantee salvation. God alone grants salvation or
This discussion all begs the question: why did people follow Luther? It is simply
amazing that within a relatively brief period of time, that so many people turned their
back on the Roman Church, and followed Luther. For the wealthy, becoming a Lutheran
was one way to keep their wealth yet still be given a chance for salvation without
paying homage to Rome. In other words, it can be said that the wealthy followed Luther
as a form of protest against the Church. For the very poor, Luther offered individual
dignity and respect. Not good works or servitude to Rome could guarantee salvation.
Instead, faith held out the possibility of salvation. For most Germans of the mid-16th
century, Lutheranism was a way to attack the Holy Roman Empire and Charles V
(1500-1558). Voltaire once wrote that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor
Roman, nor truly an Empire. Therefore, Germany became Lutheran for reasons other
than religion or theology. The bottom line is this: Luther told people exactly what they
want to hear. Luther appeared as an alternative to the Roman Church. Whereas the
Roman Church appealed to men and women as members of a group (i.e., members of
the Church), Lutheranism meant that faith was now something individual, and this
would have profound consequences..
JOHN CALVIN (1509-1564) represents the second wave of the
Protestant Reformation. Although Luther and Calvin were more
less contemporaries of one another, Calvin was an entirely
different man. John Calvin acquired his early education in Paris
-- here he learned to develop a taste for humanism. In the mid1520s he studied law at the University of Paris and then left to
study law at Orleans and Greek art at Bourges. I mention all this
simply to show that Calvin was indeed a humanist scholar in his
own right. He studied Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and thrived on
the humanist texts of the classical world and his own. By 1533,
Calvin fell under the influence of the New Testament translation by Erasmus as well as
certain writings of Martin Luther. So, before Calvin became a Calvinist, he was clearly
a Lutheran.
On All Saints Day in 1533, Calvin delivered an address at Paris which clearly defended
the doctrine of "justification by faith alone." Renouncing his Catholicism, Calvin settled
at Basel, in Switzerland, and there wrote a draft for his book, the Institutes of the
Christian Religion, a book which contains more than 80 chapters and took him almost
the rest of his life to complete. The core of what became known as Calvinism, was that
man was a helpless being before an all-powerful God. He concluded that there was no
such thing as free will, that man was predestined for either Heaven or Hell. Man can do
nothing to alter his fate. It was Calvin, and not Luther, who gave to the Swiss and
French reformers of this time a rallying point for Church reform. So, it was almost
natural that when a few men were trying to convert the town of Geneva to their
reformed doctrines that they called upon Calvin's help.
Calvin came to Geneva and immediately imposed a social order of harsh discipline and
order. The people of Geneva groaned under his repressive measures but they also felt
that Calvin was good for them and their children. Calvin was kicked out of the city for
three years but eventually returned -- those who objected to his terms left the city or
were jailed or executed.
Calvin urged -- actually forced -- all citizens of Geneva to succumb to his rigorous
ideals of a religious life. In this way his career at Geneva is remarkably similar to that of
Girolamo Savonarola in Florence. Genevan men and women were told to wake up early,
work hard, be forever concerned with good morals, be thrifty at all times, abstain from
worldly pleasures, be sober, and above all, serious. There was, then, very little laughing
in Calvin's Geneva. What we're talking about here can only be called a "worldly
asceticism," that is, the denial of all worldly pleasure while living in this world.
Of course, foundation of Calvinism was clearly the doctrine of predestination, that is,
the idea that all of mankind is assigned to either Heaven or Hell at birth. There is
nothing you can do that would change or destiny since it was an hands of all-powerful
God. Such an opinion logically leads to anxiety -- after all, no one knew just what to do.
While Calvin would not argue, as did the Church, that good works were one needed to
go to Heaven, he did admit that good works served a purpose. Good works, then,
became a divine sign, a sign that the individual was making the best of their life here on
earth. It was, however, still no guarantee.
Calvin also introduced his concept of the "calling." Some men and women seemed illfitted for life on earth. They were avaricious, slothful, amoral. However, there were
others who seemed to work happily in their lifetime, accomplishing much and in the
right spirit. In other words, they had been "called" to do a certain thing here on earth.
Of course, we wake up early, work at your calling, are thrifty, sober and abstain from
frivolity, there is an unintended consequence. That consequence was the acquisition of
wealth. So, while Calvin did not invent free enterprise, nor did he invent capitalism, or
the desire for wealth, he did rationalize that desire by arguing that certain men are
imbued with the spirit of acquisition, the correct spirit. That spirit has often been called
the Protestant Work Ethic. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904),
the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) asked why it is that the world's most
wealthy men were of Protestant origin. His answer was that it was these men who were
also Calvinists, men who had internalized the religious code set down first by Calvin
and then by the Puritans of 17th century England. In other words, the ethic says to work
hard, save what you have made, and reinvest any profit in order to increase wealth. That
is capitalism in a nutshell. Calvin does not invent this idea, he simply rationalizes it by
ascribing a certain spirit or calling to certain men of his own age, all of whom just
happened to be Calvinists. Of course, such a scheme could and did lead to tension,
conflict and anxiety. How much of a calling was a good thing? When did one know
when enough was enough? Anxiety and its sister guilt, then, seemed to become one of
the guiding principles of Calvinism.
While Lutheranism spread widely in Germany and Scandinavia, Calvinism made
inroads across Europe. In general, Calvin produced an organization unmatched by any
other Protestant faith at the time. The Institutes spelled out faith and practice in fine
detail. Tight discipline within each cell, or synod, held the entire system together.
Calvinist ministers traveled throughout Europe winning adherents and organizing them
into new cells. From the city of Geneva flowed an endless wave of pamphlets, books
and sermons whose purpose was to educate the Calvinist congregation. By 1564, the
year of Calvin's death, there were more than a million French Calvinists or Huguenots,
Scotland had been won over to Calvinism, and the religion also found a home in
England, the Low Countries and Hungary.
Protestant Reformation
"The Protestant Reformation was a major 16th century European movement aimed
initially at reforming the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Its
religious aspects were supplemented by ambitious political rulers who wanted to extend
their power and control at the expense of the Church. The Reformation ended the unity
imposed by medieval Christianity and, in the eyes of many historians, signaled the
beginning of the modern era. A weakening of the old order was already under way in
Northern Europe, as evidenced by the emergence of thriving new cities and a
determined middle class.
"In 1517, in one of the signal events of western history, Martin Luther, a German
Augustinian monk, posted 95 theses on a church door in the university town of
Wittenberg. That act was common academic practice of the day and served as an
invitation to debate. Luther's propositions challenged some portions of Roman Catholic
doctrine and a number of specific practices.
"The movement quickly gained adherents in the German states, the Netherlands,
Scandinavia, Scotland and portions of France. Support came from sincere religious
reformers, while others manipulated the movement to gain control of valuable church
"The term Protestant was not initially applied to the reformers, but later was used to
describe all groups protesting Roman Catholic orthodoxy." [1]
As the hope of reforming the Roman church faded, the "protestants" were forced to
separate from Roman Catholicism resulting in Lutheran churches in Germany,
Scandinavia and some eastern European countries, the Reformed churches in
Switzerland and the Netherlands, Presbyterian churches in Scotland, and the Anglican
church in England, and other diverse elements all of which have evolved into the
Protestant denominations of today.
Theological Issues of the Reformation
The theology of the Reformers departed from the Roman Catholic Church primarily on
the basis of three great principles:[2]
Sole authority of Scripture,
Justification by faith alone, and
Priesthood of the believer.
Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) was one of the watchwords of the Reformation.
This doctrine maintains that Scripture, as contained in the Bible, is the only authority
for the Christian in matters of faith, life and conduct. The teachings and traditions of the
church are to be completely subordinate to the Scriptures. Roman Catholicism, on the
other hand, holds Scripture and Tradition to be of the same inspired Deposit of Faith.
Sola Fide (by faith alone) was the other watchword of the Reformation. This doctrine
maintains that we are justified before God (and thus saved) by faith alone, not by
anything we do, not by anything the church does for us, and not by faith plus anything
else. It was also recognized by the early Reformers that Sola Fide is not rightly
understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of Sola Gratia, by grace
alone. Hence the Reformers were calling the church back to the basic teaching of
Scripture where the apostle Paul states that we are "saved by grace through faith and
that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God," Eph. 2:8.
The third great principle of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. The
Scriptures teach that believers are a "holy priesthood," 1 Pet. 2:5. All believers are
priests before God through our great high priest Jesus Christ. "There is one God and one
mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus," 1 Tim. 2:5. As believers, we all
have direct access to God through Christ, there is no necessity for an earthly mediator.
The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox concept of the priesthood was seen as
having no warrant in Scripture, viewed as a perversion and mis-application of the Old
Testament Aaronic or Levitical priesthood which was clearly fulfilled in Christ and
done away with by the New Testament.
As a result of these principles, the Reformers rejected the authority of the Pope, the
merit of good works, indulgences, the mediation of Mary and the Saints, all but the two
sacraments instituted by Christ (Baptism and the Lord's Supper), the doctrine of
transubstantiation, the mass as a sacrifice, purgatory, prayers for the dead, confessions
to a priest, the use of Latin in the services, and all the paraphernalia that expressed these
Even though the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches fall within Orthodoxy
as most would define it, much of their teaching beyond the basic tenets is regarded as
erroneous by conservative Protestants. In fact, they would say much of it is clearly to be
regarded as false teaching which has perverted the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ.
In general, evangelical Protestants see the Reformation as simply a call back to biblical
The Protestant Reformation began as an attempt to reform the Catholic Church, effected
by Western European Catholics who opposed what they perceived as false doctrines and
ecclesiastic malpractice — especially the teaching and the sale of indulgences, and
simony, the selling and buying of clerical offices — that the reformers saw as evidence
of the systemic corruption of the church’s hierarchy, which included the Pope.
Martin Luther's spiritual predecessors included John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, who
likewise had attempted to reform the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation
began on 31 October 1517, in Wittenberg, Saxony, where Martin Luther nailed his
Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the All
Saints' Church (a university notice board),[1] the theses debated and criticised the
Church and the Pope, but concentrated upon the selling of indulgences and doctrinal
policies about purgatory, particular judgement, Mariology (devotion to Mary, Jesus’s
Mother), the intercession of and devotion to the saints, most of the sacraments, the
mandatory clerical celibacy, including monasticism, and the authority of the Pope. In
the event, other religious reformers, such as Ulrich Zwingli, soon followed Martin
Luther’s example.
Moreover, the reformers soon disagreed among themselves and divided their movement
according to doctrinal differences — first between Luther and Zwingli, later between
Luther and John Calvin — consequently resulting in the establishment of different and
rival Protestant Churches (denominations), such as the Lutheran, the Reformed, the
Puritans, and the Presbyterian. Elsewhere, the religious reformation causes, processes,
and effects were different; Anglicanism arose in England with the English Reformation,
and most Protestant denominations derive from the Germanic denominations. The
reformers also accelerated the development of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the
Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation is also referred to as the German
Reformation, Protestant Revolution or Protestant Revolt.
History and origins
All mainstream Protestants generally date their doctrinal separation from the Roman
Catholic Church to the 16th century, occasionally called the Magisterial Reformation,
because the ruling magistrates supported them; unlike the Radical Reformation, which
the State did not support. Older Protestant churches, such as the Unitas Fratrum (Unity
of the Brethren), Moravian Brethren (Bohemian Brethren) date their origins to Jan Hus
in the early 15th century. As it was led by a Bohemian noble majority, and recognized,
for a time, by the Basel Compacts, the Hussite Reformation was Europe’s first
Magisterial Reformation. One hundred years later, in Germany the protests erupted
simultaneously, whilst under threat of Islamic Ottoman invasion ¹, which especially
distracted the German princes responsible for military defense.
See also: History of Protestantism
Humanism to Protestantism
The frustrated reformism of the humanists, ushered in by the Renaissance, contributed
to a growing impatience among reformers. Erasmus and later figures like Martin Luther
and Zwingli would emerge from this debate and eventually contribute to another major
schism of Christendom. The crisis of theology beginning with William of Ockham in
the fourteenth century was occurring in conjunction with the new burgher discontent.
Since the breakdown of the philosophical foundations of scholasticism, the new
nominalism did not bode well for an institutional church legitimized as an intermediary
between man and God. New thinking favored the notion that no religious doctrine can
be supported by philosophical arguments, eroding the old alliance between reason and
faith of the medieval period laid out by Thomas Aquinas.
The major individualistic reform movements that revolted against medieval
scholasticism and the institutions that underpinned it were humanism, devotionalism,
(see for example, the Brothers of the Common Life and Jan Standonck) and the
observantine tradition. In Germany, "the modern way" or devotionalism caught on in
the universities, requiring a redefinition of God, who was no longer a rational governing
principle but an arbitrary, unknowable will that cannot be limited. God was now a ruler,
and religion would be more fervent and emotional. Thus, the ensuing revival of
Augustinian theology, stating that man cannot be saved by his own efforts but only by
the grace of God would erode the legitimacy of the rigid institutions of the church
meant to provide a channel for man to do good works and get into heaven. Humanism,
however, was more of an educational reform movement with origins in the
Renaissance's revival of classical learning and thought. A revolt against Aristotelian
logic, it placed great emphasis on reforming individuals through eloquence as opposed
to reason. The European Renaissance laid the foundation for the Northern humanists in
its reinforcement of the traditional use of Latin as the great unifying language of
European culture.
The polarization of the scholarly community in Germany over the Reuchlin (1455–
1522) affair, attacked by the elite clergy for his study of Hebrew and Jewish texts,
brought Luther fully in line with the humanist educational reforms who favored
academic freedom. At the same time, the impact of the Renaissance would soon
backfire against traditional Catholicism, ushering in an age of reform and a repudiation
of much of medieval Latin tradition. Led by Erasmus, the humanists condemned various
forms of corruption within the church, forms of corruption that might not have been any
more prevalent than during the medieval zenith of the church. Erasmus held that true
religion was a matter of inward devotion rather than outward symbols of ceremony and
ritual. Going back to ancient texts, scriptures, from this viewpoint the greatest
culmination of the ancient tradition, are the guides to life. Favoring moral reforms and
de-emphasizing didactic ritual, Erasmus laid the groundwork for Luther.
Humanism's intellectual anti-clericalism would profoundly influence Luther. The
increasingly well-educated middle sectors of Northern Germany, namely the educated
community and city dwellers would turn to Luther's rethinking of religion to
conceptualize their discontent according to the cultural medium of the era. The great
rise of the burghers, the desire to run their new businesses free of institutional barriers
or outmoded cultural practices, contributed to the appeal of humanist individualism. To
many, papal institutions were rigid, especially regarding their views on just price and
usury. In the North, burghers and monarchs were united in their frustration for not
paying any taxes to the nation, but collecting taxes from subjects and sending the
revenues disproportionately to the Pope in Italy.
These trends heightened demands for significant reform and revitalization along with
anticlericalism. New thinkers began noticing the divide between the priests and the
flock. The clergy, for instance, were not always well-educated. Parish priests often did
not know Latin and rural parishes often did not have great opportunities for theological
education for many at the time. Due to its large landholdings and institutional rigidity, a
rigidity to which the excessively large ranks of the clergy contributed, many bishops
studied law, not theology, being relegated to the role of property managers trained in
administration. While priests emphasized works of religiosity, the respectability of the
church began diminishing, especially among well educated urbanites, and especially
considering the recent strings of political humiliation, such as the apprehension of Pope
Boniface VIII by Philip IV of France, the "Babylonian Captivity", the Great Schism,
and the failure of conciliar reformism. In a sense, the campaign by Pope Leo X to raise
funds to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica was too much of an excess by the secular
Renaissance church, prompting high-pressure indulgences that rendered the clergy
establishments even more disliked in the cities.
Luther borrowed from the humanists the sense of individualism, that each man can be
his own priest (an attitude likely to find popular support considering the rapid rise of an
educated urban middle class in the North), and that the only true authority is the Bible,
echoing the reformist zeal of the conciliar movement and opening up the debate once
again on limiting the authority of the Pope. While his ideas called for the sharp
redefinition of the dividing lines between the laity and the clergy, his ideas were still, by
this point, reformist in nature. Luther's contention that the human will was incapable of
following good, however, resulted in his rift with Erasmus finally distinguishing
Lutheran reformism from humanism.
[edit] Lutheranism adopted by the German princes
Luther affirmed a theology of the Eucharist called Real Presence, a doctrine of the
presence of Christ in the Eucharist which affirms the real presence yet upholding that
the bread and wine are not "changed" into the body and blood; rather the divine
elements adhere "in, with, and under" the earthly elements. He took this understanding
of Christ's presence in the Eucharist to be more harmonious with the Church's teaching
on the Incarnation. Just as Christ is the union of the fully human and the fully divine (cf.
Council of Chalcedon) so to the Eucharist is a union of Bread and Body, Wine and
Blood. According to the doctrine of real presence, the substances of the body and the
blood of Christ and of the bread and the wine were held to coexist together in the
consecrated Host during the communion service. While Luther seemed to maintain the
perpetual consecration of the elements, other Lutherans argued that any consecrated
bread or wine left over would revert to its former state the moment the service ended.
Most Lutherans accept the latter.
Portrait of Philipp Melanchthon, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Oil on panel.
A Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist is distinct from the Reformed doctrine of the
Eucharist in that Lutherans affirm a real, physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist (as
opposed to either a "spiritual presence" or a "memorial") and Lutherans affirm that the
presence of Christ does not depend on the faith of the recipient; the repentant receive
Christ in the Eucharist worthily, the unrepentant who receive the Eucharist risk the
wrath of Christ.
Luther, along with his colleague Philipp Melanchthon, emphasized this point in his plea
for the Reformation at the Reichstag in 1529 amid charges of heresy. But the changes
he proposed were of such a fundamental nature that by their own logic they would
automatically overthrow the old order; neither the Emperor nor the Church could
possibly accept them, as Luther well knew. As was only to be expected, the edict by the
Diet of Worms (1521) prohibited all innovations. Meanwhile, in these efforts to retain
the guise of a Catholic reformer as opposed to a heretical revolutionary, and to appeal to
German princes with his religious condemnation of the peasant revolts backed up by the
Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, Luther's growing conservatism would provoke more
radical reformers.
At a religious conference with the Zwinglians in 1529, Melanchthon joined with Luther
in opposing a union with Zwingli. There would finally be a schism in the reform
movement due to Luther's belief in real presence—the real (as opposed to symbolic)
presence of Christ at the Eucharist. His original intention was not schism, but with the
Reichstag of Augsburg (1530) and its rejection of the Lutheran "Augsburg Confession",
a separate Lutheran church finally emerged. In a sense, Luther would take theology
further in its deviation from established Catholic dogma, forcing a rift between the
humanist Erasmus and Luther. Similarly, Zwingli would further repudiate ritualism, and
break with the increasingly conservative Luther.
Aside from the enclosing of the lower classes, the middle sectors of northern Germany,
namely the educated community and city dwellers, would turn to religion to
conceptualize their discontent according to the cultural medium of the era. The great
rise of the burghers, the desire to run their new businesses free of institutional barriers
or outmoded cultural practices contributed to the appeal of individualism. To many,
papal institutions were rigid, especially regarding their views on just price and usury. In
the North, burghers and monarchs were united in their frustration for not paying any
taxes to the nation, but collecting taxes from subjects and sending the revenues
disproportionately to Italy. In northern Europe, Luther appealed to the growing national
consciousness of the German states because he denounced the Pope for involvement in
politics as well as religion. Moreover, he backed the nobility, which was now justified
to crush the Great Peasant Revolt of 1525 and to confiscate church property by Luther's
Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. This explains the attraction of some territorial princes
to Lutheranism, especially its Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. However, the Elector of
Brandenburg, Joachim I, blamed Lutheranism for the revolt and so did others. In
Brandenburg, it was only under his successor Joachim II that Lutheranism was
established, and the old religion was not formally extinct in Brandenburg until the death
of the last Catholic bishop there, Georg von Blumenthal, who was Bishop of Lebus and
sovereign Prince-Bishop of Ratzeburg.
With the church subordinate to and the agent of civil authority and peasant rebellions
condemned on strict religious terms, Lutheranism and German nationalist sentiment
were ideally suited to coincide.
Though Charles V fought the Reformation, it is no coincidence either that the reign of
his nationalistic predecessor Maximilian I saw the beginning of the movement. While
the centralized states of western Europe had reached accords with the Vatican
permitting them to draw on the rich property of the church for government
expenditures, enabling them to form state churches that were greatly autonomous of
Rome, similar moves on behalf of the Reich were unsuccessful so long as princes and
prince bishops fought reforms to drop the pretension of the secular universal empire.
Mr. Gelfand
To make sure your NEWSPAPER is as complete as possible, answer
the following questions:
Why were people dissatisfied with the Catholic Church in the
early 1500s?
Why was Martin Luther the central figure in the Protestant
What were Luther’s criticisms of the Church?
How did Luther’s ideas spread?
Why did Luther want the Bible to be translated from Latin
into German and other national languages?
How did the Church respond to Luther’s 95 Theses?
What were the roles of John Calvin, John Knox, and Henry VIII
in the Reformation?
How was Europe affected by the events following Luther’s
excommunication? (How did the map of Europe change as a
result of the early stages of the Reformation?)
Briefly predict what the Catholic Church will do in response to
the initial events of the Reformation.
Street Preachers, about 1520 A.D.
What do you think he was saying about the Catholic Church?
A German translation of the Bible
Why were translations important during the Reformation?
A Christian getting armor, mid-16th century
Why would a Christian need fighting gear during this period?
John Calvin preaching in Geneva, Switzerland
What new ideas did Calvin contribute to the Reformation?
Jan Hus, a 14th-century monk, on trial for heresy
What does Hus’s trial tell us about the origins of the Reformation?
A Puritan church, early 17th century
Why do you think Protestants wanted their churches to be very simple in design?