The Reformation

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Martin Luther[edit]

For some time before Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg in October of 1517, a need for reform had been felt by many people in diverse places within the Catholic church. Efforts had been made by such groups as the Waldensians and the Cathars, in the Alpine regions and southern France, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries; the Lollards in England in the 14th century; and the Hussites in Bohemia in the fifteenth. All of these were eradicated or contained by the established church, sometimes brutally. Yet, in retrospect, it seems inevitable that the Roman church could not stave off these reform movements indefinitely. The reformation only awaited the right time and place, and the right person, to start a ball rolling which the considerable power of the medieval church would be unable to stop. That person was a priest named Martin Luther. The irony is that when he took his fateful step of nailing the ninety-five theses on the door of the cathedral at in the university town of Wittenberg, he had no idea that such a small deed would have such a monumental impact on the course of history.

The problem was an established church which had become more of a tyrannical political power than a spiritual entity. Where church doctrine was concerned, the word of the pope and the church councils was final. All else was heresy and would be punished by excommunication, torture, or even death, frequently by burning. The pope, the cardinals, and the bishops wielded great power, not just over the church, but also over secular authorities, and they became extremely wealthy through political favors and the sale of indulgences.

Indulgences were based on the doctrine that God had given the church on earth the power to forgive sins, a teaching which opened the door to rampant corruption. In return for money or property, the church would grant “forgiveness” of specific sins. This practice brought large amounts of money into the church coffers. Other problems included the notion of papal infallibility; the veneration, unsupported in Scripture, of Mary and the saints; the doctrine of transubstantiation; Latin masses; and the prohibition against translating the Scriptures from Latin into the language of the people. These and other abuses were the cause of a growing discontent in the early sixteenth century.

There was no great conspiracy, however, to overthrow the church’s authority. Luther’s initial goal was to bring about reform within the church, rather than rebellion against it. Unfortunately, the church proved to be so inflexible that he was eventually left with no alternative but to either recant or break away. Luther’s study of the Bible, in particular Paul’s epistle to the Romans, had led him to believe that salvation is found in God alone, and is based on a right relationship with him. This belief contradicted the church’s sacramental theology, which stated that salvation is obtained through the observance of the sacraments. Since only priests could administer the sacraments, salvation came through the church, not directly from God.

There were seven sacraments in all: baptism, communion, confirmation, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. Luther eventually rejected the sacramental status of all but two, baptism and communion, and even then did not attach any saving grace to them in and of themselves. In his treatise, The Freedom of a Christian (Fortress, 1970), he says, “God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.” In addition, he taught that Jesus alone is the head of the church, and Scripture is our final authority in all matters of doctrine. All church teachings must be weighed against Scripture and only can be considered authoritative to the point that they are supported by it.

In another time or place, Luther would have been speedily condemned for his “heresies,” but he was fortunate to find a sympathetic ear in a powerful place: Frederick III, Elector of Saxony. (As an elector, he was one of the German princes qualified to vote in the choosing of the Roman emperor.) The support of Frederick afforded Luther protection which proved to be indispensible. As a result, Luther not only escaped with his life, but was able to continue to teach his views openly. The people were ready for his message and he rapidly gained a large following. Before long, Luther’s writings were being circulated throughout the empire, and “evangelical” congregations (i.e. adhering to the teachings of the New Testament) sprang up all over Germany. Thus, the first of the major Reformation groups, the Lutherans, was born.

Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation[edit]

Ulrich Zwingli was a Swiss priest and a contemporary of Luther. Zwingli was to become the leader of the reformation in German-speaking Switzerland. Switzerland at that time was a loose confederation of cantons which, although nominally a part of the Roman Empire, ran their own affairs with very little interference from outside. Zwingli had been influenced by Erasmus and other humanists and had long been moving in the direction of the reform movement, but the developments in Germany and his study of Luther’s writings motivated him to a greater zeal. He began to openly pursue the reform of the Swiss churches while working as a priest in Zurich in 1522.

While Luther’s main emphasis was that salvation was given only by the grace of God through the faith of the believer, Zwingli, while not contradicting Luther, emphasized the Bible as the binding authority in matters of practice and doctrine. Luther had a high view of Scripture also, but Zwingli was more radical in that he felt that all authority, both secular and spiritual, must find support for its actions in Scripture. It was not enough that the Bible did not forbid a particular thing, it must be explicitly supported. A History of the Christian Church (Charles Scribner, 1985) says:

The city council, accordingly, ordered a public disputation, in January 1523, in which the Bible should be the exclusive touchstone. For this debate, Zwingli prepared sixty-seven brief articles, asserting that the Gospel derives no authority from the church and that salvation is by faith alone, and denying the sacrificial character of the Mass, the salvatory character of good works, the value of saintly intercessors, the binding character of monastic vows, and the existence of purgatory. He also declared Christ to be the sole head of the church, and he advocated clerical marriage.

The changes did not come overnight, but the next few years saw a decisive break from Rome in the Zurich churches, culminating in the abolition of the Mass in 1525. Soon, Zwingli’s reformation was exported to Bern, the largest of the Swiss cantons, which pledged allegiance to the evangelical cause in 1528. Basel followed closely upon its heels and evangelicalism was solidly established there by 1529.

Although Zwingli was in agreement with Luther for the most part, they differed in their views concerning the communion elements. Luther believed that the words, “This is my body,” were literally true, that the bread and the wine took on the essential nature of Christ’s flesh and blood. Zwingli taught that the bread and the wine merely represented Christ’s flesh and blood. They were “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” This became a serious point of contention at times and proved to be a cause of division in the fledgling Protestant church.

The Anabaptists[edit]

Zwingli was willing to let change come gradually if it meant that it would be more peaceful. He did not believe in provoking the establishment unnecessarily. This led some of the reformers to become frustrated with him. The leaders in the movement for more radical reform were Balthasar Hubmaier, a preacher in Waldshut on the northern edge of Switzerland; and Louis Haetzer, Felix Manz, and Conrad Grebel, citizens of Zurich. They believed that Scripture does not teach infant baptism, and the baptisms which had been administered to them as babies were invalid. This meant that rebaptism was necessary. Such a move, however, would be extremely controversial, and Luther and Zwingli were not prepared to go so far. These dissatisfied reformers became solidified as a separate strain of the Reformation in January of 1525, when at a prayer meeting in Zurich, an ex-priest named George Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him. Grebel obliged, and Blaurock immediately baptized fifteen others. More baptisms were to follow in the coming weeks in open defiance of the authorities, who had forbidden them to continue in this teaching. As a result of these baptisms, these dissenters came to be known as Anabaptists, which literally means re-baptizers. But initially they would not accept this name because they did not believe their first baptism to be genuine.

As this new sect developed, its differences with Zwingli became more sharply defined. In The Radical Reformation (Westminster, 1962), George Huntston Williams writes:

Zwingli’s ideal was a cantonally reformed Alpine ‘Israel’, still to be realized by the prophet’s patient ecclesiastical diplomacy and patriotic grasp of the importance of bringing into line the other cantons of the Confederation. The ideal of the voluntarist Anabaptists was a mobile fellowship of conventicles, a righteous remnant assembling in Zurich and throughout its village dependencies and beyond, determined to put into immediate practice what their leaders had in breathless religious excitement learned from Zwingli himself in his appeal to Scripture as the ultimate authority.

Where Zwingli sought to work through the existing authorities to establish a state church under the reformed pattern, the Anabaptists began to distance themselves from the establishment, rejecting the notion that secular authorities had any role in religious matters. Here we see the beginning of what, for the time, was a revolutionary doctrine: the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, their lack of involvement in civic affairs led to a lack of protection under the law, and Anabaptists and other radicals were to experience severe persecution in the years ahead. Notwithstanding, variations of Anabaptism spread quickly to such diverse places as the Netherlands, Poland, Transylvania, and Italy. They were the forerunners of today’s Mennonites, Amish, Brethren and related traditions and were a strong influence on the early Baptists who were exposed to them in the Netherlands while in exile from England.

John Calvin[edit]

Guillaume Farel, a Frenchman, was a key player early on in the Swiss Reformation in the French language areas. After actively participating in the reform or partial-reform of several French-speaking Swiss cities, including Bern, Lausanne, and Neuchatel, he arrived in Geneva in 1532 where over a period of several years he had great success. By 1536, the city had completely embraced Protestantism. However, while Farel excelled at preaching, teaching, and in debate, he did not consider himself equal to the task of completely reorganizing Geneva’s religious institutions under reformed guidelines. But as fortune would have it a well-known reformer, a religious exile from France, passed through the city at about that time. His name was John Calvin. Calvin was already known for his writings, in particular his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which although at that time was much smaller than the expanded work we now have, was still the most complete presentation of Reformation doctrine to that time. Farel wasted no time in persuading Calvin to stay in Geneva and help with the reorganization of the city.

Calvin’s path in Geneva was not always as smooth as might have been desired, but in due time he succeeded in reorganizing the church there according to the new constitution which he had written, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances. In John Calvin: A Biography (Westminster, 1975), T.H.L. Parker writes:

The Ordinances, intended to legislate for the whole of Church life, were composed principally in terms of ministerial function. A well-ordered Church lives under the supervision of the four orders of pastors, doctors (teachers), elders, and deacons. The task of the Church is to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, to teach believers the faith, to train them in obedience, and to care for the afflicted. Broadly, each of these tasks belongs to each of the offices, although there will be some overlapping.

The elders were at the heart of Calvin’s system. In Geneva, the religious and civil authorities worked hand in hand, and the elders were chosen by the civil authorities. They were chiefly responsible for church policy and for discipline. They had the power to excommunicate, or to refer to the civil authorities if more severe punishment was desired. Our modern day Presbyterian churches trace their roots back to this system of Calvin’s. The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek presbyteros, meaning elder. These Presbyterian churches, and others who trace their roots back to Calvin, are often called Reformed, because their doctrine and organization stem from the second wave of the Reformation, which is sometimes thought of as reformed Lutheranism.

The Reformation in England[edit]

These developments in the European church had not gone unnoticed in England. Luther’s writings began to circulate in about 1520 causing quite a stir among the more educated members of the population. However, the Reformation was achieved not so much by a grass roots movement as by royal decree from a monarch who had political reasons for breaking with papal authority. Henry VIII wanted a son for an heir and his wife was unable to provide him with one, so he decided to remarry. The story of the pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce and his subsequent break from Rome is a famous one. Nevertheless, the time was ripe for reform in England, for there was large-scale discontent with the Roman church. The king saw the opportunity and took advantage of it. Lollardy, an earlier reform movement in England inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe, had seen a revival in the early part of Henry’s reign, and the people in general were tired of a church which seemed just as eager to take their money as to save their souls. And since most of the higher clerical positions were political appointees made by Henry himself, there was very little opposition from within the church. In 1534, the Act of Supremacy was passed by parliament in which King Henry was declared to be the head of the Church of England. In turn, Henry made the Archbishop of Canterbury to be the theological spokesman for the church. This would later result in The Book of Common Prayer, the primer for Anglican worship, and the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Anglican document of beliefs.

The Reformation in England suffered a brief setback when Mary came to the throne in 1553. Mary was a Catholic and sought to restore Catholicism in England upon her accession. This led to persecution and the exile of many prominent Protestants to the continent, chiefly the reformed cities of Germany and Switzerland. During this time, the Geneva Bible was produced by some of the exiles in the city from which it takes its name. It was destined to become the standard English translation until the King James Version of 1611.

After a brief reign of only five years, Mary died and Elizabeth I came to the throne. Elizabeth, a Protestant, restored the Reformation, to the satisfaction of the majority of the population. Although some reformers objected to the retention of an episcopal form of church government, there were no major setbacks from this time on and the Reformation was an established fact in England.

John Knox and the Reformation in Scotland[edit]

One of the exiles during the time of Mary, and a man who had worked on the Geneva Bible, was John Knox. Although Knox was a Calvinist, he believed that the common people were justified in taking up arms against godless rulers, a view not shared by Calvin. Knox took advantage of a nationalistic fervor which had arisen in Scotland in response to a series of political events which had left the nation largely under the power of France. By linking the causes of Protestantism and Scottish independence, Knox was able to rouse the people into what was both a political and a religious rebellion, and it was extremely successful. In August of 1560, the Scottish Parliament saw no option but to adopt a Calvinistic confession of faith, largely authored by Knox, as the national creed. Papal jurisdiction was abolished a week later and the Mass forbidden.

The Counter-Reformation[edit]

Naturally, all of these events caused repercussions within the Roman church. In the middle of the sixteenth century, it made changes in response to the Reformation which are collectively referred to as the Counter-Reformation. The first of them was the creation in Spain in 1540 of the Society of Jesus, whose members are known as Jesuits. They sought to live the Gospel in the world, rather than retreating to monasteries. They became famous for education, missionary work, and unbending loyalty to their organization. This was the most positive Catholic innovation of the sixteenth century. The creation of the Inquisition in 1542 was a less wholesome response to the Protestant Reformation. Its purpose was the elimination of heresy and dissent. History remembers the Inquisition chiefly for its brutality.

The Council of Trent, a major ecumenical council regarded as a milestone in the history of the Catholic church, was a key event of the Counter-Reformation. It consisted of twenty-five meetings held between 1547 and 1563. The overall tone was understandably anti-Protestant, but it was useful in that it codified certain doctrines which had long been practiced in the Roman church. There was little that was conciliatory or new in its decrees, however. It affirmed almost all of the things which had been rejected by the Protestant reformers: salvation through the sacraments; the Latin Vulgate as the only acceptable translation of Scripture; the granting of indulgences; transubstantiation; purgatory; the withholding of the cup from the laity during the mass; and the conducting of masses in Latin rather than in the vernacular. Nevertheless, the church was forced to take a good look at itself and many of the previous abuses were curbed, allowing the church to solidify its position in the areas where it still held sway.

The Religious Map of Europe Redrawn[edit]

By the end of the 1500s, the religious map of Europe had changed dramatically. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Western and Central Europe were almost entirely Catholic, but by the end, most of Germany and Scandinavia were Lutheran; Switzerland, Scotland, Holland and parts of Germany were Calvinist (‘Reformed’); and England was Anglican. In addition, there were pockets of all of these groups, as well as Anabaptists and others, throughout those parts of the continent which were still predominantly Catholic. In political terms, the power of the Catholic church was greatly diminished, and the Reformation nations gained their independence from the influence of Rome. In religious terms, it created a new branch of the church which held to a more biblical approach to Christianity, and it forced the Catholic church to take stock of itself and curb the rampant corruption. So in the end, Luther’s little act of protest in Wittenberg did bring about a measure of reform within Catholicism, but not until half the churches of Europe had seceded.