The Protestant Reformation

Progress of the Reformation 1517-1688


After several years of war in Germany between the Emperor and Catholic princes against the Protestant princes, complicated by the involved politics of Francis of France, Charles of Germany, and the Pope, the Peace of Augsburg was signed in 1555. In this treaty, the different German princes were to determine the religion of their subject lands. This has been called the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose the region, his the religion). Dissenters were to be given the right to move to other lands where the religion of the ruler was their religion. This agreement covered only Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrines; no others were allowed.

Lutheranism as a religion became more authoritative and less interested in the priesthood of all believers. The same development may be observed in all of the mature Protestant movements,

Doctrinal controversies racked Lutheran lands in these years after Luther's death. As would always be customary in Lutheran territory, the princes intervened at various times to settle disputes. In 1577 the Formula of Concord was written, which spoke for most Lutherans. With the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord became an important unifying document and confession of faith among Lutherans.

The doctrinal controversies revived the very logical and careful disputation style that once had characterized the Scholastic theologians, which has caused scholars to name this phenomenon "Protestant Scholasticism." The implication is that these were years of dry orthodoxy and fruitless debate about inconsequential issues. The same criticism is leveled at the Reformed theologians during this period, including some of the Puritans, the Covenant Theology, and even the Westminster Assembly in England.

The truth is probably somewhat more complicated. One unforseen consequence of Protestantism (unforseen to Luther, that is, but predicted by his enemies) was that the spirit of inquiry and of Bible study created many challenges to each aspect of Reformation teaching. Invariably the innovator would believe that he was merely improving or taking Protestant teaching to its logical conclusion. Conversely, parties arose which were the self-proclaimed defenders of every jot and tittle of Luther. The Formula of Concord dealt with most of these splits, but not with their spirit.


Scandinavia became Lutheranism's second home. Frederick I of Denmark (reigned 1523-33) encouraged Lutheran preaching, mainly to further his own political ends by dividing the nobles and the clergy. Danish New Testaments appeared beginning in 1524. King Frederick, like Henry VIII a few years later, found political advantage in setting up a separate-but-equal Danish church without regard for the pope. Unlike Henry, this new Danish church had more and more of a Lutheran flavor as Frederick's reign progresssed.

From 1533 a political struggle over who would be the next king ended in the accession of Christian III (1536-59), who was more clearly a Lutheran. Lutheranism became official in 1537-39. Norway and Iceland were brought to Lutheranism only by official action, and it was many years before the hearts of the people were reconciled to their official religion.

Sweden, which included Finland, gained its Protestantism hand in hand with its independence from Denmark. Its Protestantism solidified somewhat earlier than Denmark's, becoming unstoppable by the late 1520's.




By 1559 the Huguenots, as the French Calvinists were known, had their own national organization. In 1562 war broke out between them and the French Catholic king. In 1570 Protestantism was officially recognized. In this time period, given a different turn of events such as happened in England, France could have become a Protestant country. But it was not to be. But Catherine de Medici, the queen mother, exerted greater influence for evil than anyone could have guessed. Under her influence, all Protestant leaders were murdered in a single day, St. Bartholomew's day, probably about 20,000 people.

But national and international disgrace at this conduct weakened the French monarchy, and in 1576 the Huguenots were granted almost complete religious freedom again. Henry of Navarre, who eventually became the heir to the throne, publicly announced his Protestantism and became the leader of the Huegenots. Despite more fighting and difficulties, he became king in 1589. But because of international politics and the threat of Spain, Henry found it convenient to become a Catholic again, supposedly saying "Paris is worth a Mass." By this move he won the support of the majority of the people and was able to inflame sentiments against Spain and even win the support of the Pope.

Henry remembered his former friends, however, and in 1598 issued the Edict of Nantes, which made concessions to Huguenots and granted them most of the rights and liberties of Frenchmen.

(In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict and again began persecuting Huguenots. 400,000 or more of France's finest citizens fled the country. Protestantism was stamped out. No country except perhaps Spain was so anti-Gospel in the 200 years after the Reformation. Spain's influence waned and France's 18th century was a brutal and uncivilized regime which was brought to a bloody and justified end in the French Revolution. Today there are almost no Christians in France, according to evangelical missionaries who work there.)


The Netherlands, or Low Countries, had long been a Spanish territory. Under the firm hand of Catholic resurgence, William (the Silent), Prince of Orange, rose up around 1559. As Protestantism grew, Philip II (of Spain) sent the brutal Duke of Alva in 1567 to suppress the revolt. Between 6000 and 8000 "heretics" were executed, and hundreds of thousands fled. But by a true grassroots revolt, the Dutch nobles under William of Orange beat back Alva until even loyal Catholics turned against him. All the provinces of the Low Countries united under William. In 1580 in Delft, William publicly renounced his king. He became a hero and survived an assassination attempt, only to die in 1584 at the hand of a second assassin. But the work went on. In 1596 France and England recognized the United Provinces' independence, and in 1609 the Spanish officially ended the fight in the Twelve Years' truce. The Provinces grew into a Calvinist country, producing such great artists as Rembrandt and some of the finest theology.

The Netherlands also became the source of the worst of the evangelical errors. James Arminius in the early 1600's was teaching the free will of man and the conditionality of God's grace. His disciples, called the Arminians or Remonstrants, issued five points of theology. The Calvinists responded with an international Protestant council, the Synod of Dordt (Dordrecht), which refuted the Arminians with five points of their own. These became known as the five points of Calvinism, but Arminianism grew and grew. It infected the Church of England and later became the bedrock theology of the Wesleyans.



Other countries


The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648)

This war brings us to the conclusion of the Reformation as far as the continent of Europe is concerned. Like the American Civil War, it signaled the end of an era. It began as a religious war in the spirit of the Reformation and ended as a conflict between the new nation-states of Europe. It began as a dispute over Holy Roman Empire rights, and ended with the Empire a pawn between the new great powers of Europe.

In 1618 the Protestants of Bohemia tossed the Catholic imperial regents out of the castle window into the moat fifty feet below - the "defenestration of Prague." Later they named Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate as their king. This ensured that the emperor would make war against Bohemia. This war was successful, and there followed a ruthless suppression of Protestants, their property, the university, etc. About 30,000 Protestants had to leave the country, including the education pioneer Comenius. The Catholics later pursued the same course in the Palatinate, sacking the University of Heidelberg in 1623 and stealing its library to send to the Vatican.

The king of Denmark tried to counter the Emperor's gains in the 1620's but was ineffectual. By 1629 the Catholic Hapsburg forces (remember that Spain and the Empire were ruled over by the same Hapsburg emperor) were victorious everywhere, which aroused the jealousy of Catholic kings, not just the enmity of the Protestants. At this point the Lutheran king Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden entered the picture, gaining victories and sweeping armies from the field. He died in battle, but his victories were enough to cause Germans to stop fighting with each other. The Peace of Prague of 1635 ended the religious part of the war.

Now Catholic France allied itself with Protestant Sweden against Hapsburg Spain and the Empire. They fought until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Europe had been devastated for thirty years in what was an ever more meaningless war.

The results were mostly negative, but there were a few bright spots. Religious liberty, or at least toleration, grew as compared to the previous century. The Reformed were recognized as a separate and legal church along with the Lutherans in the Empire.

Conclusion: The Reformation and Us

There are many ways to look at the Reformation. Our way has generally been to consider the Reformation as a religious phenomenon and to regard other social events as either aiding or hindering the spread of Biblical truth. Our way has been from a Protestant, free church perspective, which has allowed us to both appreciate and criticize the Reformers for the times and ways that they rediscovered and applied the truths of the Bible which had been neglected.

We could look at the Reformation strictly from the free church perspective, which could cause us to see the events in a pretty negative light, as basically the handing off of the baton from one set of religious oppressors to another. From this viewpoint, the Anabaptists would be seen as the only worthy reformers of the period.

We could view the Reformation strictly from the Protestant viewpoint, as someone might like George Grant or R. C. Sproul, Jr. or someone from the Christian Reconstruction movement. These folks suspect, or even assert, that the magistrate is right to enforce "the crown rights of King Jesus," and therefore Calvin was right to try to make civil government over in the church's image. From this perspective, Geneva and Scotland are the great expressions of Reformation. But how can a Baptist (little-b or big-B) Christian allow that this is true? Those great reformers' persecution of their fellow Christians exposes the fallacy of "the reign of the saints." The floundering of their infant-baptist-based communities in the sea of liberalism, Unitarianism and plain old unbelief, shows that the consistent application of infant baptism in duly constituted (Word and Sacrament) churches is nothing more than old timey superstition.

To continue: it is a fallacy that the saints have never ruled. This has been tried at least four times in modern history: Geneva, Scotland, Cromwell's Protectorate, and Puritan New England. In all four times it has been a failure -- either a long but ultimately dismal future (Scotland and Geneva) or spectacular unbelief and blasphemy within a few generations (New England and Old England).

We must, therefore, view the reformation from a Protestant, Free Church combined viewpoint. Christians should be Protestants: they should revere Christ not saints, Bible not tradition, Faith not works, God's glory not man's glory. But Christians should also be Free Church. They should consistently and joyfully proclaim that God's people are not the same as the King's people; that the Church is not an arm of the State nor the State of the Church; that the Reformation had to be completed by adding religious freedom to it. This is not a second class or dubious form of Protestantism, it is Protestantism fulfilled and completed.

So we celebrate the Reformation as the important first step. Nothing in this life is complete or perfect, but by the end of the Puritan period, at least in England, we see the glimmerings of freedom that will finish the job.

Still less important is to view the Reformation from one of its various secular interpretations. From a Biblical viewpoint, we simply cannot agree that the Reformation is the first glimmering of the Enlightenment or of liberalism. (Conservative Catholics tend to view it this way as well.) Nor did it produce heresy as an unavoidable by-product. Without the Reformation, the Renaissance and Enlightenment would still have taken place, with ever more grotesque heresies being accomodated within the pale of the one universal Western church. This was to some extent true anyway before the Reformation. But with the Reformation, truth breaks free, and the church AS church is able to respond to error powerfully.

This is not to say that historically European man did not fragment into countless heresies and schisms after the Reformation. It happened. But a lot of that needs to be laid at the feet of early and late Romanism, since it was Constantine and his allies that subjected Europe to the political Church for a thousand years, until in weariness Europe threw it off. In its downfall, not in the triumph of Protestantism, came the errors that had been suppressed by inquisitors and burned at the stake.

Was the Reformation responsible for capitalism or modern science or modern republican government? There are powerful arguments for these assertions. Enough hints have already been given to meditate on these topics, and good books are available.

I suppose my greatest desire for 21st-century Protestants is for them to recognize and value their heritage. Look away briefly from insipid Christian radio shows, blasphemous Christian television networks, bland Christian bookstores full of the latest "solutions," and drink deeply of the writings of the giants of the faith. Two years in the Puritans ought to be mandatory in the lives of English-speaking Christian youth.

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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.