The Reformers of the sixteenth century believed the only path to lasting reformation was the Word of God. As a result, the Bible again became the ultimate authority.
Surrounded by powerful dignitaries of both church and state, the young Augustinian monk was asked whether he would repudiate the books gathered on a table before him. In a ringing voice he declared that he could not deny them because they contained the truth of God’s Word and his conscience was captive to that Word. He said that it was not safe to go against his conscience. Though disputed, he reportedly closed his remarks by saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me.”
Martin Luther’s refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms in April 1521 signaled a turning point in the Reformation that swept throughout Europe in the sixteenth century.
The Reformation followed centuries of effort by clerics and theologians to address moral and religious decline in the Western church. Demands for reform can be traced back to 1307 when the office of the Pope and its associated “city” of workers moved from Rome to France. For 70 years the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, the papacy, remained in France. During this confused era, behavior within the church and society sank to scandalous lows through the influence of many factors, including Scholastic theology, which was based largely upon human reasoning.1
When the papacy finally moved back to Rome in 1378, rather than healing the scandal, the move worsened the scandal. Many church officials rejected papal authority and elected a rival pope who once again took up residence in France. Now, the presence of two popes, both of whom claimed to be legitimate and who hurled accusations and disdain at one another, scandalized the Christian world.
Before the 70 years in France,2 rumblings of discontent within the church had been heard, but now the situation was worse. All those who had a true heart for the church of God agreed that a reformation was needed, but what would it be and how was it to be accomplished? Different solutions were proposed, but no consensus about the cause or the remedy could be reached.
A group known as the Conciliarists argued for a general council (a special meeting) of the church. They believed the problems came from an abuse of authority. The Conciliarists were convinced the prime culprit was the pope himself, who had usurped authority that belonged exclusively to church councils. In their view, the supreme authority of the church needed to be a legitimately convened general council, not the pope.
Another group, known as the Pietists, believed the church’s problem was the low moral state of both the clergy and the laity. Sadly, this was an accurate description of the situation. But how could the moral condition of the church be improved? The Pietists were confident that the key to solving the problem was to provide living examples of dedication and self-sacrifice.
A third group, the Humanists, believed the problem was ignorance and the solution was education. As a first step, this group wanted to recover the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Roman philosophers who promoted ethics and strict moral standards of conduct. The Humanists believed the application of their insights to medieval Europe would reform the church.
The root of the church’s problem was wrong doctrine. Thus, the only path to lasting reformation was the Word of God.
However, others warned that moral reform alone would be inadequate. Clerics John Wyclif of England and Jon Hus of Bohemia called for a more radical approach. In their view, the root of the church’s problem was wrong doctrine. Thus, the only path to lasting reformation was the Word of God.
The invention of the moveable type printing press was a huge aid in the advancement of the Reformation work. In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg of Germany printed his first book, a Bible. Although this Bible was printed in Latin, Gutenberg’s invention proved to be a turning point in history because it enabled Reformers to quickly print and distribute thousands of Bibles in vernacular languages. No longer did Bibles have to be transcribed one at a time.
In 1516 Erasmus edited the first published Greek New Testament. The Novum Instrumentum, or New Instrument as it was called, was studied throughout Europe. In Germany, Martin Luther eagerly searched its pages. Reading Romans 1:17, he encountered the phrase “the righteousness of God.” At first it terrified him. But he soon came to understand that the righteousness of God was not an impossible standard that God required him to reach by self-effort. Rather, the “righteousness of God” was his free gift in Christ and received by faith alone. When that truth entered Luther’s understanding, he felt as though he had entered the gates of Paradise.
In 1517, Luther posted 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, condemning the selling of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins and release from the pains of Purgatory. In his 95 theses, the monk called for an examination of what the Word of God taught about indulgences. Soon all Europe was ablaze with Luther’s challenge. While some dismissed his protest as the work of a solitary monk, in reality it was a clarion call for a reformation of the church by the power of the Word of God.
In Zurich (Switzerland) on January 1, 1519, the priest Ulrich Zwingli departed from church tradition of prescribed readings from the Gospels and Epistles by preaching a series of expository sermons from the Gospel of Matthew. In the weeks that followed, people crowded his church in Zurich to hear such revolutionary teaching. This marked the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland.
In England, Thomas Bilney, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, was converted by reading the Greek New Testament. He began meeting with fellow students at the White Horse Inn to discuss the condition of the English Church. Soon the winds of reform spread throughout England.
The cry for a thorough reformation echoed through all Europe. Although the outward circumstances varied from country to country, the one constant was a reformation of hearts and lives by a return to the authority of the Word of God. With the recovery of the Word of God, there was the corresponding recovery of the gospel of grace. When the gospel of grace was preached in power and purity and received by faith alone, the lives of people were changed. The doctrines of justification and acceptance by God now became living realities in the hearts and lives of countless multitudes, rather than just religious phrases.
This movement of God’s Spirit also impacted the culture.
The Reformation reached forward and spawned many movements, including the variegated influence of English Puritanism, which in turn gave rise to the great missionary movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The impact brought down many strongholds, including slavery, child labor, polygamy, cannibalism, and other forms of societal ills.
The Reformation was the restoration of the Word of God to its rightful place in the life and witness of the church. While the moral reformers sincerely desired to see the church reformed, it was the doctrinal reformers, led by Luther, Zwingli, Bilney, and others who had the wisdom to perceive that the Word of God alone had the power to accomplish reform. Luther himself said that he did nothing; the Word did it all.
Does the Reformation of the sixteenth century have lessons for us today? We, too, live in a world that faces moral decline and confusion about God’s Word. What would be the effect if the Word of God would once again be proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit? What would be the impact on our society if that Word were proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit from every pulpit in our world? Let us pray for such a day!
Dr. Herb Samworth, currently the curator of the Van Kampen Collection at the Holy Land Experience in Florida, earned his doctorate in theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. He also teaches in national and international institutions.
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For other uses, see Reformation (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Reform movement.
The Reformation, specifically referred to as the Protestant Reformation, was a schism in Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther and continued by John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and other early Protestant Reformers in 16th-century Europe. It is usually considered to have started with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517 and lasted until the end of the Thirty Years' War with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
Although there had been significant earlier attempts to reform the Catholic Church before Luther – such as those of Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, and John Wycliffe – Luther is widely acknowledged to have started the Reformation with the Ninety-five Theses. Luther began by criticising the sale of indulgences, insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the Bible. The Protestant Reformation, however, would come to incorporate doctrinal changes such as a complete reliance on Scripture as the only source of proper belief (sola scriptura) and the belief that faith in Jesus, and not good works, is the only way to obtain God's pardon for sin (sola fide). The core motivation behind these changes was theological, though many other factors played a part, including the rise of nationalism, the Western Schism that eroded loyalty to the Papacy, the perceived corruption of the Roman Curia, the impact of humanism, and the new learning of the Renaissance that questioned much traditional thought.
The initial movement within Germany diversified, and other reform impulses arose independently of Luther. The spread of Gutenberg'sprinting press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular. The largest groups were the Lutherans and Calvinists. Lutheran churches were founded mostly in Germany, the Baltics and Scandinavia, while the Reformed ones were founded in Switzerland, Hungary, France, the Netherlands and Scotland. The movement influenced the Church of England decisively after 1547 under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, although the Church of England had been made independent under Henry VIII in the early 1530s.
There were also reformation movements throughout continental Europe known as the Radical Reformation, which gave rise to the Anabaptist, Moravian and other Pietistic movements. Radical Reformers, besides forming communities outside state sanction, often employed more extreme doctrinal change, such as the rejection of the tenets of the late antique councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon.
The Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent. Much work in battling Protestantism was done by the well-organised new order of the Jesuits. In general, Northern Europe, with the exception of most of Ireland, Poland and Lithuania, came under the influence of Protestantism. Southern Europe remained Catholic, while Central Europe was a site of a fierce conflict, culminating in the Thirty Years' War, which left it devastated.
Origins and early history
See also: History of Protestantism
The oldest Protestant churches, such as the Unitas Fratrum and Moravian Church, date their origins to Jan Hus (John Huss) in the early 15th century. As it was led by a Bohemian noble majority, and recognised, for a time, by the Basel Compacts, the Hussite Reformation was Europe's first "Magisterial Reformation" because the ruling magistrates supported it, unlike the "Radical Reformation", which the state did not support.
The later Protestant Churches generally date their doctrinal separation from the Catholic Church to the 16th century. The Reformation began as an attempt to reform the Catholic Church, by priests who opposed what they perceived as false doctrines and ecclesiastic malpractice. They especially objected to the teaching and the sale of indulgences, and the abuses thereof, and to simony, the selling and buying of clerical offices. The reformers saw these practices as evidence of the systemic corruption of the Church's hierarchy, which included the pope.
See also: Bohemian Reformation, Hussites, Lollardy, Waldensians, and Arnoldists
Unrest due to the Great Schism of Western Christianity (1378–1416) excited wars between princes, uprisings among the peasants, and widespread concern over corruption in the Church. New perspectives came from John Wycliffe at Oxford University and from Jan Hus at the Charles University in Prague. Hus objected to some of the practices of the Catholic Church and wanted to return the church in Bohemia and Moravia to earlier practices: liturgy in the language of the people (i.e. Czech), having lay people receive communion in both kinds (bread and wine – that is, in Latin, communio sub utraque specie), married priests, and eliminating indulgences and the concept of Purgatory. Some of these, like the use of local language as the lithurgic language, were approved by the pope as early as in the 9th century.
Hus rejected indulgences and adopted a doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.
The Catholic Church officially concluded this debate at the Council of Constance (1414–1417) by condemning Hus, who was executed by burning despite a promise of safe-conduct. Wycliffe was posthumously condemned as a heretic and his corpse exhumed and burned in 1428. The Council of Constance confirmed and strengthened the traditional medieval conception of church and empire. The council did not address the national tensions or the theological tensions stirred up during the previous century and could not prevent schism and the Hussite Wars in Bohemia.[better source needed]
Pope Sixtus IV (1471–1484) established the practice of selling indulgences to be applied to the dead, thereby establishing a new stream of revenue with agents across Europe.Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503) was one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes. He was the father of seven children, including Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia.[better source needed] In response to papal corruption, particularly the sale of indulgences, Luther wrote The Ninety-Five Theses.[better source needed]
Early Reformation in Germany
The Reformation is usually dated to 31 October 1517 in Wittenberg, Saxony, when Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz. The theses debated and criticised the Church and the papacy, but concentrated upon the selling of indulgences and doctrinal policies about purgatory, particular judgment, and the authority of the pope. He would later in the period 1517–1521 write works on the Catholic devotion to Virgin Mary, the intercession of and devotion to the saints, the sacraments, mandatory clerical celibacy, monasticism, further on the authority of the pope, the ecclesiastical law, censure and excommunication, the role of secular rulers in religious matters, the relationship between Christianity and the law, and good works.
Reformers made heavy use of inexpensive pamphlets as well as vernacular Bibles using the relatively new printing press, so there was swift movement of both ideas and documents.
Main article: Magisterial Reformation
Parallel to events in Germany, a movement began in Switzerland under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli. These two movements quickly agreed on most issues, but some unresolved differences kept them separate. Some followers of Zwingli believed that the Reformation was too conservative, and moved independently toward more radical positions, some of which survive among modern day Anabaptists. Other Protestant movements grew up along lines of mysticism or humanism, sometimes breaking from Rome or from the Protestants, or forming outside of the churches.
After this first stage of the Reformation, following the excommunication of Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, the work and writings of John Calvin were influential in establishing a loose consensus among various groups in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere.
The Reformation foundations engaged with Augustinianism; both Luther and Calvin thought along lines linked with the theological teachings of Augustine of Hippo. The Augustinianism of the reformers struggled against Pelagianism, a heresy that they perceived in the Catholic Church. In the course of this religious upheaval, the German Peasants' War of 1524–1525 swept through the Bavarian, Thuringian and Swabian principalities, including the Black Company of Florian Geier, a knight from Giebelstadt who joined the peasants in the general outrage against the Catholic hierarchy. Zwinglian and Lutheran ideas had influence with preachers within the regions that the Peasants' War occurred and upon works such as the Twelve Articles. Luther, however, condemned the revolt in writings such as Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants; Zwingli and Luther's ally Philipp Melanchthon also did not condone the uprising. Some 100,000 peasants were killed by the end of the war.
Main article: Radical Reformation
The Radical Reformation was the response to what was believed to be the corruption in the Catholic Church and the expanding MagisterialProtestant movement led by Martin Luther and many others. Beginning in Germany and Switzerland in the 16th century, the Radical Reformation gave birth to many radical Protestant groups throughout Europe. The term covers radical reformers like Thomas Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt, groups like the Zwickau prophets, and Anabaptist groups like the Hutterites and Mennonites.
In parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, a majority sympathized with the Radical Reformation despite intense persecution. Although the surviving proportion of the European population that rebelled against Catholic, Lutheran and Zwinglian churches was small, Radical Reformers wrote profusely and the literature on the Radical Reformation is disproportionately large, partly as a result of the proliferation of the Radical Reformation teachings in the United States.
The Reformation was a triumph of literacy and the new printing press.[a] Luther's translation of the Bible into German was a decisive moment in the spread of literacy, and stimulated as well the printing and distribution of religious books and pamphlets. From 1517 onward, religious pamphlets flooded Germany and much of Europe.[b]
By 1530, over 10,000 publications are known, with a total of ten million copies. The Reformation was thus a media revolution. Luther strengthened his attacks on Rome by depicting a "good" against "bad" church. From there, it became clear that print could be used for propaganda in the Reformation for particular agendas. Reform writers used pre-Reformation styles, clichés and stereotypes and changed items as needed for their own purposes. Especially effective were writings in German, including Luther's translation of the Bible, his Smaller Catechism for parents teaching their children, and his Larger Catechism, for pastors.
Using the German vernacular they expressed the Apostles' Creed in simpler, more personal, Trinitarian language. Illustrations in the German Bible and in many tracts popularised Luther's ideas. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), the great painter patronised by the electors of Wittenberg, was a close friend of Luther, and he illustrated Luther's theology for a popular audience. He dramatised Luther's views on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, while remaining mindful of Luther's careful distinctions about proper and improper uses of visual imagery.
Causes of the Reformation
The following supply-side factors have been identified as causes of the Reformation:
- The presence of a printing press in a city by 1500 made Protestant adoption by 1600 far more likely.
- Protestant literature was produced at greater levels in cities where media markets were more competitive, making these cities more likely to adopt Protestantism.
- Ottoman incursions decreased conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, helping the Reformation take root.
- Greater political autonomy increased the likelihood that Protestantism would be adopted.
- Where Protestant reformers enjoyed princely patronage, they were much more likely to succeed.
- Proximity to neighbors who adopted Protestantism increased the likelihood of adopting Protestantism.
- Cities that had higher numbers of students enrolled in heterodox universities and lower numbers enrolled in orthodox universities were more likely to adopt Protestantism.
The following demand-side factors have been identified as causes of the Reformation:
- Cities with strong cults of saints were less likely to adopt Protestantism.
- Cities where primogeniture was practiced were less likely to adopt Protestantism.
- Regions that were poor but had great economic potential and bad political institutions were more likely to adopt Protestantism.
- The presence of bishoprics made the adoption of Protestantism less likely.
- The presence of monasteries made the adoption of Protestantism less likely.
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The Reformation also spread widely throughout Europe, starting with Bohemia (Czech Lands) yet before Luther and over the next few decades also other countries.
Austria followed the same pattern of the German-speaking states within the Holy Roman Empire, and Lutheranism became the main Protestant confession among its population. Lutheranism gained a significant following in Austria which was concentrated in the eastern half of present-day Austria, while Calvinism was less successful. Eventually the adoption of the Counter-Reformation reversed the trend.
Main article: Bohemian Reformation
The Hussites were a Christian movement in the Kingdom of Bohemia following the teachings of Czech reformer Jan Hus.
Czech reformer and university professor Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415) became the best-known representative of the Bohemian Reformation and one of the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation.
Jan Hus was declared heretic and executed – burned at stake – at the Council of Constance in 1415 where he arrived voluntarily to defend his teachings.
This predominantly religious movement was propelled by social issues and strengthened Czech national awareness. In 1417, two years after the execution of Jan Hus, the Czech reformation quickly became the chief force in the country.
Hussites made up the vast majority of the population, forcing the Council of Basel to recognize in 1437 a system of two "religions" for the first time signing the Compacts of Basel for the kingdom (Catholic and Czech Ultraquism, a Hussite movement). Bohemia later also elected two Protestant kings (George of Poděbrady).
After Habsburgs took control of the region, the Hussite churches were prohibited and the kingdom partially recatholicized. Even later Lutheranism gained a substantial following, after being permitted by the Habsburgs with the continued persecution of the Czech native Hussite churches. Many Hussites thus declared themselves Lutherans .
Two churches with Hussite roots are now second and third biggest churches in the predominantly agnostic country: Czech Brethren (which gave origin to the international church known as the Moravian Church) and Czechoslovak Hussite Church.
Main article: Reformation in Switzerland
In Switzerland, the teachings of the reformers and especially those of Zwingli and Calvin had a profound effect, despite the frequent quarrels between the different branches of the Reformation.
Main article: Huldrych Zwingli
Parallel to events in Germany, a movement began in the Swiss Confederation under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli. Zwingli was a scholar and preacher who moved to Zurich – the then-leading city state – in 1518, a year after Martin Luther began the Reformation in Germany with his Ninety-five Theses. Although the two movements agreed on many issues of theology, as the recently introduced printing press spread ideas rapidly from place to place, some unresolved differences kept them separate. Long-standing resentment between the German states and the Swiss Confederation led to heated debate over how much Zwingli owed his ideas to Lutheranism. Although Zwinglianism does hold uncanny resemblance to Lutheranism (it even had its own equivalent of the Ninety-five Theses, called the 67 Conclusions), historians have been unable to prove that Zwingli had any contact with Luther's publications before 1520, and Zwingli himself maintained that he had prevented himself from reading them.
The German Prince Philip of Hesse saw potential in creating an alliance between Zwingli and Luther, seeing strength in a united Protestant front. A meeting was held in his castle in 1529, now known as the Colloquy of Marburg, which has become infamous for its complete failure. The two men could not come to any agreement due to their disputation over one key doctrine. Although Luther preached consubstantiation in the Eucharist over transubstantiation, he believed in the spiritual presence of Christ at the Mass. Zwingli, inspired by Dutch theologian Cornelius Hoen, believed that the mass was only representative and memorial – Christ was not present. Luther became so angry that he famously carved into the meeting table in chalk Hoc Est Corpus Meum – a Biblical quotation from the Last Supper meaning 'This is my body'. Zwingli countered this saying that est in that context was the equivalent of the word significant (signifies).
Some followers of Zwingli believed that the Reformation was too conservative and moved independently toward more radical positions, some of which survive among modern day Anabaptists. One famous incident illustrating this was when radical Zwinglians fried and ate sausages during Lent in Zurich city square by way of protest against the Church teaching of good works. Other Protestant movements grew up along the lines of mysticism or humanism (cf.Erasmus), sometimes breaking from Rome or from the Protestants, or forming outside of the churches.
Main article: John Calvin
Following the excommunication of Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, the work and writings of John Calvin were influential in establishing a loose consensus among various groups in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere. After the expulsion of its Bishop in 1526, and the unsuccessful attempts of the Berne reformer Guillaume (William) Farel, Calvin was asked to use the organisational skill he had gathered as a student of law to discipline the "fallen city" of Geneva. His "Ordinances" of 1541 involved a collaboration of Church affairs with the City council and consistory to bring morality to all areas of life. After the establishment of the Geneva academy in 1559, Geneva became the unofficial capital of the Protestant movement, providing refuge for Protestant exiles from all over Europe and educating them as Calvinist missionaries. These missionaries dispersed Calvinism widely, and formed the French Huguenots in Calvin's own lifetime, as well as causing the conversion of Scotland under the leadership of the cantankerous John Knox in 1560. The faith continued to spread after Calvin's death in 1563 and reached as far as Constantinople by the start of the 17th century.
The Reformation foundations engaged with Augustinianism. Both Luther and Calvin thought along lines linked with the theological teachings of Augustine of Hippo. The Augustinianism of the Reformers struggled against Pelagianism, a heresy that they perceived in the Catholic Church of their day. Unfortunately, since Calvin and Luther disagreed strongly on certain matters of theology (such as double-predestination and Holy Communion), the relationship between Lutherans and Calvinists was one of conflict.
- See also: Reformation in Denmark-Norway and Holstein, Reformation in Iceland, Reformation in Norway, Reformation in Sweden
All of Scandinavia ultimately adopted Lutheranism over the course of the 16th century, as the monarchs of Denmark (who also ruled Norway and Iceland) and Sweden (who also ruled Finland) converted to that faith.
In Sweden, the Reformation was spearheaded by Gustav Vasa, elected king in 1523. Friction with the pope over the latter's interference in Swedish ecclesiastical affairs led to the discontinuance of any official connection between Sweden and the papacy from 1523. Four years later, at the Diet of Västerås, the king succeeded in forcing the diet to accept his dominion over the national church. The king was given possession of all church property, church appointments required royal approval, the clergy were subject to the civil law, and the "pure Word of God" was to be preached in the churches and taught in the schools – effectively granting official sanction to Lutheran ideas.
Under the reign of Frederick I
Martin Luther initiated the Reformation with his Ninety-five Theses against the Catholic Church