10 Things You Should Know about the Protestant Reformation
Today, October 31st, is the 499th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation. It was on this day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg as a protest against the abuse of the sale of indulgences. So today we look at ten things that everyone should know about the Protestant Reformation.
(1) According to church historian Philip Schaff, “The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization" (VII:1).
(2) There were many indirect causes of the Reformation, some of which include the following. The Renaissance (lit., "rebirth") of the 14th and 15th centuries cannot be underestimated in terms of its impact on the reformation. The beginning of the Renaissance is generally dated @ 1300 a.d. and is most often associated with developments in Italy (and then by extension to other European countries). Some see it lasting well into the later years of the sixteenth century. Renaissance Humanism was characterized by several factors. There was the spirit of individualism as over against the emphasis on corporate identity in the medieval period. In the middle ages people often yielded their identity to institutions such as the church, the state, the feudal society, the guild, the university, and the monastic order. With the Renaissance came an increased sense of individuality and a focus on personal uniqueness and self-determination.
There was also a growing anthropocentrism (man-centeredness) as over against the ecclesiocentrism (church-centeredness) of the medieval period. Not God and the heavenly world but man and this world became the focus of intellectual and cultural efforts.
We should also note the cultural achievements which nurtured a sense of self-worth, dignity, etc., not tied to or dependent on the church. This period experienced a surge of activity in painting, music, poetry, other forms of literary production, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, law, ethics, etc. The "rebirth” in view with the use of the term Renaissance was specifically rebirth of classicism, i.e., the cultural archetypes of classical antiquity. There was in the Renaissance a virtual reverence for classical culture and a concerted effort to reproduce it in every way possible.
The Renaissance also witnessed an emphasis on a return to the sources of classical antiquity which yielded more accurate texts of the ancient writings, several of which undermined the church's authority, such as the exposure of the Donation of Constantine (by Lorenzo Valla, 1405-57) and the Isidorian Decretals as forgeries. This combined with an emphasis on the original text of Scripture available to all, which served to expose the discontinuities between the NT church and the medieval RCC.
(3) One cannot understand the Reformation apart from an acknowledgment of the world-changing impact of the German, Johann Gutenberg (1390-1468) and his development of printing with movable type. Says Stephen Ozment,
"as Luther also recognized, the printing press made it possible for a little mouse like Wittenberg to roar like a lion across the length and breadth of Europe. By the end of the fifteenth century printing presses existed in over two hundred cities and towns. An estimated six million books had been printed and half of the thirty thousand titles were on religious subjects. More books were printed in the forty years between 1460 and 1500 than had been produced by scribes and monks throughout the entire Middle Ages. . . . Between 1518 and 1524, the crucial years of the Reformation's development, the publication of books in Germany alone increased seven-fold. . . . Between 1517 and 1520, Luther wrote approximately thirty tracts, which were distributed in 300,000 printed copies" (199).
It is little wonder, then, that Luther described the new art of printing as "God's highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward."
(4) The medieval vision of a universal ecclesiastical-political order in which church and state were one was all but shattered by the close of the 15th century. States became increasingly independent of the church and were organized on a purely national basis. These emerging nation-states of northwestern Europe led by powerful rulers were largely self-sufficient. They maintained their own military and civil service and thus opposed the intervention of Rome. Papal interference in local affairs was increasingly resented (e.g., church ownership of land, church appointment of ecclesiastical officials, control of education, taxation, tithes, the sale of offices and indulgences, clerical appeal to Rome, etc.). In sum, the increasing sense of national identity and the desire for self-determination enhanced conditions favorable to reform.
(5) Economic factors also played a role in setting the stage for the Reformation. During the medieval period the economic structure of society was largely agricultural. With the increase in discovery of raw materials, the opening of new trade markets, and the revival of town life, an age of commerce and a monied economy were ushered in. Thus the middle class merchant, who deeply resented the confiscation of his profits by the church, replaced the medieval feudal lord as the leader in society.
(6) All of the above may be classified as indirect causes of the Reformation. That is, although not sufficient in themselves, collectively they created a spirit and atmosphere conducive to reform. The occasion or jump-start of the Reformation was, of course, Luther's posting of the 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg in 1517. But why did people respond so favorably to Luther's revolutionary claims? Ozment is surely correct:
"The essential condition of the Reformation's success was aggrieved hearts and minds; a perceived need for reform and determination to grasp it are the only things without which it can be said categorically said there would have been no Reformation" (204).
"The failure of the late medieval church to provide a theology and spirituality that could satisfy and discipline religious hearts and minds was the most important religious precondition of the Reformation" (208).
(7) Many have interpreted the Reformation in different ways. The Roman Catholic Church viewed this movement as a Rebellion, not a reformation. Luther, so they argued, was a disgruntled heretic who simply used the reformation to provide himself with an excuse to get married!
Some argue that the reformation was little more than the consequences of a monastic squabble in Germany. The English reformation is said to be nothing but the result of the love affairs of Henry VIII. Others view it as the inevitable repudiation by the emerging nation-states of the power and control of the RCC. Still others argue that the reformation was the result of the RCC's attempt to exploit the common people. Marxists have seen it as a good example of the working class throwing off the yoke of the aristocracy.
(8) But the Reformation at its heart must be seen as a providential work of God that focused on three essential principles. First is the supremacy of the Bible over tradition, or the principle of SOLA SCRIPTURA. Second is the supremacy of Grace and Faith over Works, or the principles of SOLA GRATIA, SOLA FIDE, SOLO CHRISTO. Third is the supremacy of the Priesthood of all believers over the exclusivism of the RC clergy.
(9) Consider how Luther's emphasis on salvation being by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, contrasts with the RC doctrine of penance and purgatory. According to Luther and other reformers, remission of the guilt of sin, hence forgiveness, requires nothing beyond what has already been provided in the sacrifice of the cross of Christ and the promise attached to it. It does not depend on the power of the priest or the purity of the individual sinner. It does not depend on the wording of the priest's declaration of absolution or on any skills, tasks, promises, or deeds performed by anyone. Period.
Forgiveness exists independently and objectively outside the temporal, visible church. It is received through individual faith in Christ, not through corporate sacraments or obedience to the church or the relationship one sustains to any place or person. As Thomas Tentler puts it, "Luther teaches sinners that the cause of forgiveness is not internal – in human virtues and performances – but external, in Christ alone, Who becomes, as it were, physically interposed between us and the righteousness of God. Because God looks at Christ's righteousness, not our sinfulness, if only we believe it, He always certainly forgives" (361).
(10) At the heart of all these principles, and surely the focal point of the Protestant Reformation, was the cry: SOLI DEO GLORIA . . . Glory to God Alone!