We will attempt to define the Protestant Reformation. We will outline the principal movements, people, and doctrines which comprise the Reformation. In the time available to us, we have the ability to introduce and outline the topic, spend one or two class periods on each of the main characters or movements, and try to look ahead to the post-Reformation time period and relate the Reformation to the state of the Church today, and to our local church. Regrettably, since we are teaching from the Protestant perspective and time is limited, we will rarely explore the rich history of the Catholic or Counter-Reformation, and we will find this limitation increasing as we approach the modern period. It is difficult enough for modern evangelical Protestants to self-identify within the Protestant tradition, because of our ignorance of history and anti-intellectualism within our ranks. Attempting in a Sunday School class to follow the strands of Catholic or Orthodox history into the modern period would be beyond me right now.
The Reformation is the movement in history, beginning in 1517, which broke up the institutional unity of the church in Western Europe and established the third great branch of Christianity, called Protestantism, which was and is centered on the absolute and sufficient authority of the Bible and on justification by faith alone.
It is normal within evangelical churches to present the Reformation as simply the recovery of the truth of the Bible after hundreds of years of false teaching, which had increased as the medieval period went on. From a religious perspective, there is much to commend this view. Never before were so many people brought to read and study the Bible for themselves. Seldom before had God's grace been so magnified rather than man's ability. The people turned from pilgrimages and indulgences to a simple worship of God and relied on his grace implicitly. And the results of that truth worked in society powerfully to create a new kind of people -- literate, dynamic citizens whose work ethic changed Europe and churches which eventually spread the Gospel across the globe.
A theological interpretation of the Reformation is that it was the final outworking of the tensions within Roman Catholic theology itself, personified in the great father of Western theology, Augustine (354-430). Augustine had solidified the foundations of the medieval reverence for "holy mother church," but
. . . Augustine was both the founder of Roman Catholicism and the author of that doctrine of grace which it has been the constantly pursued effort of Roman Catholicism to neutralize, and which in very fact either must be neutralized by, or will neutralize, Roman Catholicism. Two children were struggling in the womb of his mind. There can be no doubt which was the child of his heart. His doctrine of the Church he had received whole from his predecessors, and he gave it merely the precision and vitality which insured its persistence. His doctrine of grace was all his own:it represented the very core of his being . . . it was inevitable, had time been allowed, that his inherited doctrine of the Church, too, with all its implications, would have gone down before it, and Augustine would have bequeathed to the Church, not "problems," but a thoroughly worked out system of evangelical religion. . . . The problem which Augustine bequeathed to the Church for solution, the Church required a thousand years to solve. But even so, it is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church. (Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, 321-22)
Unbelievers have sought other reasons for the Reformation's success and its placement in history. It has been commonplace to point out that Luther gave German princes the weapons they needed to do battle against the Pope in their constant jockeying for power. Variations on this pattern were repeated in other countries, such as the opportunistic "Reformation" of Henry VIII when he wanted a divorce. It is true that the progress of reformation was intricately bound up with politics in many ways, as was true of any religious question since Constantine. And it is true that at critical points, different Reformers enlisted the help and protection of the State (whether electors of the Holy Roman Empire or city councilmen). But this was the way religion was conducted back then. It was left to the Anabaptists to point out the biblical incongruity of this way of doing business, and the Reformers normally weren't ready to reform quite that much. But the integrity of the message remained. And it was never compromised for the sake of the nationalistic powers. It was up to the secular state to toe the line to the Gospel, not vice versa.
"A more sophisticated version of what might be called the pathological account of late medieval Catholicism is associated especially with the historian Jean Delumeau, who drew on the collective findings of a group of French historical sociologists of religion. In this perception, late medieval Europe, especially in its rural heartlands, remained a very superficially Christianized society, waiting not so much for a change of religious orientation as for its primary conversion to an informed, disciplined religion worthy of the name of Christianity. This was the task undertaken (with varying success) by both Reformation and Counter-Reformation movements. This thesis is doubtless too condescending to the intellectual and moral capacities of late medieval Europeans and probably exaggerates the stregnth in an at least nominally Christian society of irreligious forms of instrumental magic" (McManners 247).
But really, this is not so absurd as it may sound. The German tribes were still being "converted" up into the 800's, and the conversions were, to put it mildly, not always spritually sound. Christianity was by no means 1500 years old in the Reformed and Lutheran countries. In many ways, northern Europe's popular religion may have resembled Latin American Catholicism of today, where the grossest forms of idolatry are combined with Tridentine Roman Catholicism to create a semi-pagan religion which has not much in common with what an educated American Catholic believes. Could the Evangelical reform have swept across Europe in the same way Protestantism is sweeping Latin America today -- a reaction, Biblically based, to the partial Christianity of the past, never fully taught to the people?
Our exploration of the Reformation must cover at least the following:
Europe was changing. What we now know as nation-states were arising from the old feudal kingdoms. Newly powerful kings in many countries had been flexing their muscles for years, testing the limits of the Church's power. Especially in the area of revenues, nations tried various ways of limiting the Pope's ability to collect money, but secular rulers also tried to interfere in the government of the Church as well, often to institute reforms that the Papacy seemed powerless to enforce.
The Black Death had decimated Europe in the 1300's, and by the mid to late 1400's society was recovered from its effects. The plague had increased the preoccupation with death among all classes of people, but there was also a renewed optimism in the late 1400's across various human endeavors. The middle class was rising on a new wave of trade. Money had taken its place alongside land as a form of wealth.
The Turks had expanded their empire into Europe and were always feared. They threatened Austria itself during the reformation period, causing the Holy Roman Emperor to go slower than he wished to when punishing heretics, whose sympathetic leaders he needed to aid him against the Turks.
The printing press had just spread throughout Europe when Luther appeared. The Gutenberg Bible had been printed in 1456, and printing technology had advanced rapidly. Luther had a ready made mass media available to him.
The influence of Humanism cannot be overestimated. Humanism was the movement, starting in the 1300's, which called for a new scholarship based on the study of the classics, often unknown and neglected in monastery libraries, plus the study of the original Greek and Hebrew when interpreting the Bible. Erasmus' first Greek New Testament, the first ever printed, was published in 1516, just one year before Luther's 95 Theses.
The Renaissance, in its manifestation as art, was greatly loved by the debauched Popes of the period, who spent untold sums to have the new art installed everywhere. The prime example was St. Peter's church itself, which was being financed partly by the sale of indulgences in Germany.
We have already studied Wycliffe (1330-1384) and Hus (1370-1415). There were also the movements of various schismatics and heretics in the medieval church, such as the Waldenses (from the 12th century onward). Most of the others that existed long enough to have a name (such as the Albigensians or Cathars) were truly heretical, and abandoned some fundamental Christian doctrines, but the Waldenses were quite orthodox (in the Nicene sense) and seem to be a sort of Protestants before the Reformation. They criticized the Roman view of the sacraments, rejected prayers to the saints, rejected worldly pomp for the church, prayers for the dead, etc. When the Reformation arrived, they accepted Protestantism and became in effect a Protestant church.
Let's recap some of the other previous developments in church history. The Middle Ages are by no means the "dark ages." Many achievements of the medieval church are to be admired and adopted. Anselm, for instance, began to teach the first clearly acceptable doctrine of the atonement (in 1099). On the other hand, Anselm was one of the most extreme admirers of Mary, and was influential to increase Marian devotion.
The monastic movement had now been a powerful influence for over 1000 years. The monks and nuns preserved for all time a vision of devotion to God and personal relationship with him which has become instructive to all believers. Yet, again, this was in a context of vows and celibacy that was artificial and not related to everyday human life. The medieval church didn't really believe that everyday believers would or could have this kind of life with God.
An interesting corollary to this is that almost all the good theology starting with Augustine and all through the Middle Ages was written by unmarried, celibate men. What effect, I wonder, did this have?
By the time of the Reformation, we have a Catholic church that
At the same time, we have a population, as we have outlined in previous lessons, that was influenced by
There was no clear indication that a crisis was approaching, or that current efforts to reform the church from
within could not continue peacefully.
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Copyright © 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.