What was the Protestant Reformation?


The Climate of the 15th and 16th Centuries

Imagine a person driving down the road when they see someone crawling in a window of a house. That person would likely call the police to check for a break in. However, the suspect was actually the owner of the house who had accidentally locked his keys inside and did not have any other way to get inside. The passerby did not have the context of the situation to rightly discern what was happening. If the Reformation is examined without properly studying the conditions and climate in which this storm formed, incorrect assumptions and conclusions could be deducted. The Protestant Reformation was not some miraculous event handed down from heaven. It was not an event led by a singular person. It was a movement of God using flawed men for His purpose of returning the Church to the Gospel.

The late 15th century and early 16th century leading to the Reformation cannot be rightly understood without considering the Roman Catholic Church’s corruption, the printing press, and the Renaissance as a whole. The Roman Catholic Church had seen a decline in the papacy and a rise in corruption for several centuries.[i] The corruption of the church had nearly reached its pinnacle with indulgences and simony.[ii] Indulgences were a corrupt way for the church to fund its special projects which played a large part in the Reformation. The printing press was key in the spread of ideas. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press mid 15th century. This sparked literacy and the growth of knowledge. The Reformation could not have flooded Europe without the printing press busting the dam of illiteracy. The Renaissance was a revival of classical ideas, starting in Italy in the 1300’s and spreading abroad. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, an influx of classical Greek literature and other ancient texts made their rounds through Europe (class notes). This further excited scholars and helped them go “ad fontes.”[iii] God was using “secular” movements to propel the church into reformation.

Rumblings of a Reformation

Far before the Protestant Reformation, many people found the Roman Catholic Church in error and sought to reform or distance themselves from her. Four men that require attention are Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, John Hus, and Erasmus of Rotterdam. Peter Waldo and his followers, the Waldensians, would translate bibles so that lay people could read them. The Waldensians did not first seek overthrow the church but to supply it with closer obedience to Jesus and the Gospel. They became increasingly anti-sacerdotal and anti-sacramental. They later became a part of the Reformed branch.

John Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards, believed that the Roman Catholic Church was not the true church. The true church were the saints predestined to salvation. They differed with Rome on several doctrines including transubstantiation, confession, indulgences, and faith.[iv] His bones were dug up and burned after his condemnation at the Council of Constance. John Huss and the Hussites taught that the Bible was the ultimate authority of the Church, not the pope, councils, or tradition. He emphasized biblical preaching. He was also condemned at the Council of Constance and burned.[v]

God used those other reformers tremendously, but Erasmus of Rotterdam would become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. He was known as the “Prince of Humanists.”[vi] His Greek New Testament of 1516 would be the document to help the other reformers dig into Scripture to see where the Vulgate and church had erred. All of these men show that there was a spirit of a reformation long before 1517.

The Perfect Storm of October 31, 1517

All of the corruption, new scholarship, and a growing sense of needed reform were all swelling near the eye of the storm in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther was not a man of any significance at the time. He was the son of upwardly mobile parents who were harsh with him;[vii] his father had wanted him to study law, but after a thunderstorm, he decided to join an Augustinian monastery called The Black Cloister;[viii] he eventually transferred to Wittenberg because of complex monastic politics.[ix] While at Wittenberg, Luther began lecturing through books of the Bible. He was stuck on the phrase “the righteousness of God.”[x] One day, as he was pondering it, he had his famous “Tower Experience” where he understood righteousness as something God gives to those who have faith.[xi] This would fuel his doctrinal stance against indulgences which would have a lasting impact on the church.

John Tetzel, under the authority of Pope Leo X,[xii] had come to Germany to sell indulgences for the finishing of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.[xiii] Tetzel’s selling tactics are infamous for being quite scandalous.[xiv] Luther knew what was going on, and he was taking note. His note was the Ninety-five Theses. Though the primary subject was that of indulgences, the secondary charge was the unbiblical authority the pope wielded.[xv] He nailed this Latin document to the Castle Church of Wittenberg,[xvi] and the floodgates were opened. It was translated into German and printed by all the local printing presses, spreading to the general population, scholars, and rulers already disgruntled with Rome.

Luther would be summoned several times to defend or recant of his beliefs.[xvii] After Leo X put off handling Luther in other ways to no avail, he excommunicated him after Luther burned the papal bull giving him sixty days to recant. In 1521, The Diet of Worms convened with the new Holy Roman Emperor Charles V presiding over it. Many objectives were on the agenda but Luther was one. After his first day of hearing, Luther was asked to recant. He pleaded for a day of deliberation. His request was granted and on the second day, he was asked again. In no few words,[xviii] Luther did not recant and said, “On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”[xix] He was condemned a heretic, but Fredrick the Wise had arranged for him to be hidden at the Wartburg Castle, where Luther had some of his most productive yet torturous days.[xx]

Many Raindrops Make a Flood

Luther may be a towering figure of the Reformation, but he was not alone. Running parallel and even beyond Luther were other “heretics” and movements that lasted much longer than the 16th century. Four worth noting here are Zwingli, the Anabaptists, Henry VIII, and Calvin. Ulrich Zwingli was the Swiss Reformation leader. This reformation was essentially independent of the German Reformation but was a part of the general ethos of the time. Zwingli sparked the reformation by his own preaching and teaching of Greek. The Zurich city council sided with Zwingli on several key doctrinal issues before finally breaking with Rome.[xxi] Zwingli sought to change many of the church’s practices, not just doctrines unlike Luther.[xxii]

The Anabaptists originated as followers of Zwingli, but took his teachings further than he was willing to go. They were a part of a larger movement called the Radical Reformation.[xxiii] Anabaptists believed in complete separation of church and state, a believer’s church, and ultimate authority in Scripture. Other reformation groups saw them as heretics.[xxiv] The first known believer’s church in centuries was founded by them January 21, 1525. They are the ancestors of many mainline and evangelical denominations today, including Southern Baptists.

The Reformation in England happened more out of defiance of the Pope than devotion to Scripture. Henry VIII, king of England, wanted to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Spain’s powerful monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, since she had not borne him a male heir. After the pope would not annul their marriage for more political reasons,[xxv] Henry VIII had the Parliament enact the Act of Supremacy that officially broke England from Rome by making him head of the English Church in 1534 (class notes). Henry VIII did little to truly reform the church, but his sons and daughters who ruled after him did much.[xxvi] The strongest was Elizabeth I (1558-1603). She enacted the “Elizabethan Settlement” which made the Anglican Church a via media of Protestantism and Catholicism. Other groups arose to further reform the Anglican Church in various ways.[xxvii]

John Calvin was a second generation reformer in Geneva. Calvin sought to systematize Protestant teachings by writing the Institutes of the Christian Religion as a handbook with six chapters in 1536. By its final edition in 1560, it had grown to four books with eighty chapters.[xxviii] By 1554 in Geneva, Calvin essentially ruled as head (class notes). Calvin’s Geneva became a refuge for other Protestants fleeing persecution.[xxix] He was strict in church discipline and studies.[xxx] He instated the Genevan Academy under Theodore Beza, which became a fountain gushing Protestant theology throughout Europe.

The Spring of a New Age

Not all places in Europe were safe havens for Protestants like Calvin’s Geneva. The Roman Catholic Church was doing all they could do to squash the movement. The amount of blood spilt by both parties over the Reformation remains a horrible stain on the church.[xxxi] However, the result of all those struggles came the rise of nation states and religious freedom. Thanks to the washing rain of Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Radical Reformers, the world has a clearer picture of God. Thanks to the Spirit empowering all the nameless men and women who gave their lives for their conviction of biblical authority, the whole and parts of the Bible are translated into 3,223 languages.[xxxii] Thanks to scholars, professors, rulers, and ordinary people who knew the church was not who she should be, 59.4% of the world’s people groups are considered reached for the gospel.[xxxiii] Twenty-first century, Protestant Christians should take courage in anything that may come, for they have a lush heritage of God-loving, Bible-believing, corruption-defying reformers.

Footnotes for deeper understanding–

[i] The Western Schism (1378-1417) had severely hurt the credibility and authority of the papacy.

[ii] Indulgences were a practice by the Roman Catholic Church that relieved the buyer of “punishment for temporal sins.” Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, “The Bull Unigenitus of Clement VI, 1343.” Documents of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 194-195. Simony was the buying and selling of clerical offices.

[iii] This is a Latin phrase meaning “to the sources.” It became the unofficial slogan of the Renaissance.

[iv]  Galli, M., & Olsen, T. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000. 212.

[v] This whole paragraph was pulled heavily from both class notes and Alan Kreider “Protest and renewal: Reformers before the Reformation” ChristianityToday.com (accessed March 15, 2017) http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-9/protest-and-renewal-reformers-before-reformation.html

[vi] Humanists in this sense should not be confused with the secular humanists of the 21st century. Here, humanist means someone devoted to the humanities; someone wanting to uphold the classical writings. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. 14.

[vii] James M. Kittelson, and Hans H. Wiersma. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016. 4-5.

[viii] Kittleson, 15-19.

[ix] Kittleson, 25-27.

[x] He was not just “stuck,” he hated the phrase because of its medieval interpretation of active righteousness of God. Luther said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Timothy F Lull and William Russell, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. 496-497.

[xi] The words Luther uses to describe this experience are powerful: “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scripture from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Lull, 497.

[xii] Leo X was the son of Lorenzo de Medici, or Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Medici family ran the wealthy bank in Europe at the time. Leo X’s family had bought his way into the papacy. Leo X is seen as one of the most corrupt popes in history. “Leo X.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Encyclopedia.com. (accessed March 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/leo-x

[xiii] How Tetzel got to Germany is quite complicated. Basically, Rome was in great debt because of past popes. Leo X wanted to get out of that so he started greatly pushing indulgences because it was quick and easy money. There was a particular man in Germany part of the Hohenzollern family, by the name of Albert, wanting his third bishopric in Mainz. This was the archbishopric of Germany, which would grant him to be one of the seven electors who elected the emperor. This required paying Leo X roughly $300,000 in today’s money. However, not to be outdone by others who wanted it, Albert put up $550,000. The Fugger Bank of Germany fronted the money to Albert for the archbishopric. To pay the Fuggers back and to gain extra money for St. Peters, Leo X sent Tetzel to Germany. This information is a synoptic of Kittelson, 65, Gonzalez, 26-27, and Fredrick Noll, Martin Luther: Hero of Faith. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1962. 27.

[xiv] “Tetzel and his preachers were heard announcing that the indulgences that they sold made a sinner ‘cleaner than when coming out of baptism,’ and ‘cleaner than Adam and Eve before the Fall,’ and that ‘the cross of the seller of indulgences has as much power as the cross of Christ.’ Those who wished to buy an indulgence for a loved one who was deceased were promised that, ‘as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.’” Gonzalez, 27.

[xv] This is seen in several of the theses including, “26. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.” (emphasis mine) Lull, 9.

[xvi] Some scholars dispute this. Their evidence is that Luther never mentioned nailing the 95 Theses to the church door. The first appearance of this event comes in the writings of Phillip Melanchthon. Though he was an extremely close friend of Luther’s, he could not have been an eye witness. Also, it is a fact that Luther mailed the 95 Theses to the bishops of the area on October 31, 1517. If he would have nailed it to the church door on the same day without awaiting a response and dialogue, this would have been an open defiance of his superiors, which he would have been unlikely to do. “Legends about Luther: Nailing the 95 Theses” Luther.de (accessed March 19, 2017) http://www.luther.de/en/legenden/tanschl.html.

[xvii] Some of these included the Heidelberg Disputation that was Leo X’s attempt for the Augustinians to handle their own monk. They ended up generally agreeing with Luther, and it was a success for Luther. He also had interviews with Cardinal Cajetan. Cajetan’s sole purpose was to get him to recant. These interviews turned into heated arguments over the authority of the pope.  They were largely unproductive. Karl von Miltitz was sent to take Luther back to Rome. His meeting with Fredrick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, made him essentially warm up to Luther. After a meeting with Luther, they agreed that if a German bishop could find anything biblically wrong with Luther’s writings, he would gladly recant. Then came the Leipzig debate with John Eck, professor at the University of Ingolstadt. The debate centered around how the papacy came to be, and the theological divide became evident: Luther’s primary source was Scripture, Eck’s were council rulings and church tradition. Eck made Luther identify himself with John Hus, who was tried by the Council of Constance as a heretic and burned.

[xviii] His closing statement was: “Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.” Bettenson, 214.

[xix] Bettenson, 214.

[xx] He translated the Bible into German, but also had horrible cases of constipation.

[xxi]  Issues such as the use of statues in the church, purgatory, worship, Lord’s Supper, and baptism were all discussed at these meetings, which would side with Zwingli over the RCC (class notes).

[xxii] This is said with some nuance. Obviously, Luther did want to change some practices, but not have a complete overhaul of the church. Zwingli believed in giving the communion cup back to the laity, and changing worship entirely. He believed that if it was not explicitly commanded in the Bible, then it should not be done. Gonzalez, 61. Some would even say that whole of the Protestant Reformation “can be rightly described as a reformation of worship in the church.” Jeffrey K. Jue, “The Centrality of Worship.” Tabletalk, October 2016.

[xxiii] The Radical Reformation was broad and had many different sects. However, the main ones were the Spiritualists, the Rationalists, and the Anabaptists (class notes).

[xxiv]  Gonzalez, 85.

[xxv] Catherine was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s aunt. Charles V had the pope, Clement VII, under his thumb. Annulling Catherine and Henry’s marriage would have alienated Charles and caused a rift. Gonzalez, 88.

[xxvi] “Did much” is a gross understatement. Edward VI, who was far more devout than his father, published the Book of Common Prayer, which gave unity to the English church. Mary took the throne next. She reverted England back to Catholicism in 1554. She waged war on the Protestants, killing roughly 300, 200 of them being Anabaptists. Many protestants fled to Geneva. When they returned later, they brought with them Calvin’s teachings (class notes).

[xxvii] One such group was the Puritans. They retained that the Anglican Church was the true church but needed to be purified. Another was the Separatists. They saw the Anglican Church as a false church and true Christians should separate themselves from it. The last group was the Independents. They believed similarly to the Separatists but were less hostile in their position (class notes).

[xxviii] Gonzalez, 78-80.

[xxix]  Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008. 260.

[xxx] This is evident in the burning of Michael Severtus in 1553. Shelley, 260.

[xxxi] The wars between Protestants and Catholics (also those influenced by the reforming ethos) throughout Europe during this time are completely embarrassing. Some of the main ones include: The Peasants’ War (1524-1525), First and Second Wars of Kappel (1529, 1531), The Fall of Munzter (1534-1535), The Schmalkaldic Wars (1546–1555), The French Wars of Religion (1562–1629) which include St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (August 1572), The Dutch Revolt (1567–1648), The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which was the bloodiest in European history until WW1, and then several wars on the British Isles (1560–1651). As mentioned earlier, not every war on this list had religion as its main issue. However, to view these wars without considering the role religion played in them would be irresponsible. David J. B. Trim, “The Reformation and Wars of Religion.” Liberty Magazine. May/June 2010. (accessed March 19, 2017) http://www.libertymagazine.org/article/the-reformation-and-wars-of-religion.

[xxxii] “Scripture & Language Statistics 2016” Wycliffe.net (accessed March 19, 2017). http://www.wycliffe.net/statistics.

[xxxiii] “Global Statistics” joshuaproject.net (accessed March 19, 2017). https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/statistics.


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