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An Introduction to the Protestant Reformation


"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" (Philip Schaff, VII:1).


A.            Prelude to Reformation: the Renaissance


1.             Intellectual Developments - 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. "Scarcely a populist movement," notes Bard Thompson, "the Renaissance made headway in the society of intellectuals, artists, princes, and popes and among people of leisure, wealth, power, and artistic sensibility" (Humanists and Reformers, 7). Renaissance Humanism entailed:


·          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.


·          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. This celebration of the centrality, beauty, power and potential of human beings is seen in the emphasis on nudity in art. Says Thompson, "It is impossible to look at Michelangelo's David – fourteen feet tall, with outsized hands and head, triumphantly nude – without being taught the dignity and grandeur of human beings" (19).


·          Cultural achievements 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. As Thompson explains, "If one sought the best possible model for, say, painting or architecture, philosophy or ethics, law or literature, education or town planning, one would refer to the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans" (5). There was in the Renaissance a virtual reverence for classical culture and a concerted effort to reproduce it in every way possible.


It is interesting to note that the term Dark Ages with reference to the period 500-1,000 was first coined by the Italian humanist Petrarch (1304-74) because it separated him from the riches and pleasures of classical antiquity and broke the connection between his own age and that of the Greeks and Romans!


·          An emphasis on a return to the sources of classical antiquity 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.


·          An emphasis on the original text of Scripture available to all, exposed the discontinuities between the NT church and the medieval RCC.


A brief word needs to be said about the Christian Humanism that emerged north of the Alps. These men "were interested not merely in the revival of classicism but even more profoundly in the revival of a purified and biblical form of Christianity" (Thompson, 347). The principal representative was Erasmus of Rotterdam (b. 1466). He was instrumental in producing one of the first critical editions of the Greek New Testament. It has been said that "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched," yet he remained a Catholic throughout life (he died in 1536). Perhaps his most important contribution was his insistence on making available the Scriptures to every man and woman in their native tongue.


Erasmus developed a close personal and working relationship with two Christian humanists in England, John Colet (1466-1519) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), who became Henry VIII's lord high chancellor. Although both Colet and More were Catholics, their emphasis on the priority of Scripture and their disdain for the abuses of medieval catholicism contributed to the atmosphere in which reformation would eventually emerge.


In addition to these developments, the entire social landscape of Europe was dramatically altered with the development (by the German Johann Gutenberg [1390-1468] in the 1440s) of printing with movable type. Says 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."


It should be noted, however, that printing per se was not the invention of the European Renaissance. Printing with wooden blocks had been practiced in China, Korea, and Japan as early as the eighth century.


[We should also remember that the Renaissance was the period in which Columbus and Vasco Da Gama, among others, undertook their voyages of discovery. The scientific revolution, often associated with the Italian Galileo Galilei, began to emerge at the close of Renaissance toward the end of the sixteenth century.]


2.             Political Developments - 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.


3.             Economic Factors - 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.


All 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).


B.            Interpretations of the Reformation


1.             Roman Catholic - The RCC 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!


2.             Political interpretations - 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.


3.             Economic interpretations - 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.


4.             Theological interpretation - The reformation was first and foremost a providential work of God that focused on three essential principles:


First, the supremacy of the Bible over tradition, or the principle of SOLA SCRIPTURA


Second, the supremacy of Grace and Faith over Works, or the principles of SOLA GRATIA, SOLA FIDE, SOLO CHRISTO


Third, the supremacy of the Priesthood of all believers over the exclusivism of the RC clergy.


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 skill's, 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 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).


At the heart of all these principles, and surely the focal point of the Protestant Reformation, was the cry:




C.            The Religious Culture of the Medieval Church on the eve of the Reformation


1.             Secularization of the Papacy - Nepotism, simony, bribery, sexual immorality ("monastic mistresses"), theological indifference, etc.


·          Alexander VI (1431-1503; became pope in 1492) gained the papacy through bribery. He is generally regarded as the most notorious pope in all of history who, according to Lindberg, “is one pope to whom the title 'father,' if not 'holy,' may be literally applied. His many mistresses bore him at least eight known children, the most famous of whom are Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia" (53).


·          Pope Julius II, elected to the papacy in 1503, has been termed "the savior of the papacy" for his attempts to restore dignity and culture to Rome. He summoned the great artists of the Renaissance to Rome and set them to the task of restoring the Holy City to its former glory. He commissioned Donato Bramante, greatest of the living architects, to rebuild St. Peter's church. Julius himself set the cornerstone on April 18, 1506. The work was directed by a succession of architects, including Raphael and Michelangelo, until its dedication in 1626. It was Julius who brought Michelangelo to Rome and commissioned him to paint the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel (1508-1512). Pope Leo X succeeded Julius in 1513 and continued the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. On the other hand, Julius was also regarded as a political and military barbarian whose primary passion was warfare!


·          Julius was succeeded by Leo X (1513-21). Upon his installation as pope he is reported to have said: "Now that God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!" Evidently, he did.


2.             Religious life of the Laity - Dominated by superstition, magic, perfunctory ritual (the worship of saints, relics, the Mass, neglect of preaching). See esp. Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), pp. 25-166.


3.             The Sacrament of Penance - This more than anything else enslaved the laity prior to the Reformation and did more to provoke the rage of Luther, Calvin, and other reformers than any other practice of the RCC. See esp. Thomas Tentler's Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977). According to RC theology, penance is the means appointed by God to deal with sins that Christians commit after baptism. It consists of four parts: a person who has sinned and is contrite (contrition) goes to the priest and confesses (confession) his sin; the priest absolves (absolution) him and then lays upon him a temporal punishment for which he must make satisfaction.


Steven Ozment provides this description:


"When religiously earnest people sought forgiveness for immoral behavior, they encountered a very demanding penitential system, one that provided only temporary relief, and even that with conditions attached and the threat of purgatorial suffering for unrepented sins. Full, unconditional forgiveness of sin and assurance of salvation were utterly foreign concepts to medieval theology and religious practice. Effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety this side of eternity would have meant the end of medieval religious institutions, and advocates of this-worldly perfection were roundly condemned during the Middle Ages" (216).


As Tentler explains, "one knows he is forgiven because he is willing to perform the overwhelming penitential exercises demanded by the church. The consolation of this system lies in its difficulty" (14). Whereas confession and absolution in medieval Catholicism secured forgiveness from the eternal guilt (culpa) of sin, there was still the temporal guilt that called for punishment (poena) and suffering in purgatory. Tentler explains:


"According to the medieval theology of penance, a sinner must not only be absolved from his guilt but must also pay for his sins in the form of some kind of punishment. Purgatory is the middle place of destination for people who die absolved of guilt but with an outstanding debt of temporal punishment. Not until the expiatory fires of purgatory have 'satisfied' this debt will they enter heaven [again, in a real sense, according to this view it is not ultimately the suffering of Christ Jesus that secures one's place in heaven, but one's own suffering].


Obviously absolution from guilt is far more important than remission of punishment. Nevertheless, indulgences, which are ways of reducing the punishment owed for sin, aroused controversy in the sixteenth century because Christians retained a lively interest in that intermediate suffering place and wanted to avoid its worst or, if possible, all of its pains. And that is one reason why penance – the work of 'satisfaction' for sin that the priest assigns the penitent in confession [notice again that it is the sinner, not the Lord Jesus, who makes 'satisfaction'] – is vital to the practice of forgiveness" (318).


Ozment agrees, explaining that


"in the final stage of the traditional sacrament, priestly absolution transformed this eternal penalty, justly imposed by God on the sinner, into a manageable temporal penalty, that is, something the penitent could do already in this life to lessen his future punishment; for example, special prayers, fasts, almsgiving, retreats, and pilgrimages. If such works of satisfaction were neglected, the penitent could expect to burn for his laxness after death in purgatory" (216-17).


Although the granting of indulgences was quite old in the RCC, it was refined by the papal bull Unigenitus of 1343 which set forth the treasury of merits. Thompson explains: "It was proposed in that bull that the Catholic Church holds as a treasure the infinitely copious merits of Christ and of all the saints – merits far in excess of any that they themselves may have needed – and that the church may dispense these merits in the inexhaustible treasury to remit poena, that is, the recompense owed by living Christians" (Humanists and Reformers: A History of the Renaissance and Reformation, 395).