A wide - ranging movement of religious renewal in Europe
concentrated in the sixteenth century but anticipated by earlier
reform initiatives, e.g., by Waldensians in the Alpine regions,
Wycliffe and Lollardy in England, and Hussites in Bohemia. Although
inseparable from its historical context, political (the emergent
nation - states and the tactical interplay of forces and interests
in Imperial Germany and in the loose Swiss Confederation), socio -
economic (particularly urban growth, with expanding trade, the
transition to a money economy, and new technologies, notably
printing, promoting a new assertive middle class, alongside
persistent peasant discontents), and intellectual (chiefly the
Renaissance, especially in the Christian humanism of northern
Europe), it was fundamentally religious in motivation and
It was not so much a trail blazed by Luther's lonely comet, trailing
other lesser luminaries, as the appearance over two or three decades
of a whole constellation of varied color and brightness, Luther no
doubt the most sparkling among them, but not all shining solely with
his borrowed light. The morning star was Erasmus, for most Reformers
were trained humanists, skilled in the ancient languages, grounded
in biblical and patristic sources, and enlightened by his pioneer
Greek NT of 1516. Although Luther in Wittenberg's new university in
rural Saxony had a catalytic effect felt throughout Europe, reform
was astir in numerous centers.
Probably independent in origin was Zwingli's radical reform in
Zurich, provoking the thoroughgoing Anabaptist radicalism of the
Swiss Brethren. Strasbourg under Bucer's leadership illustrated a
mediating pattern of reform, while Geneva, reformed under Berne's
tutelage, had by midcentury become an influential missionary center,
exporting Calvinism to France, the Netherlands, Scotland, and
elsewhere. Much of Germany and Scandinavia followed Luther's or
perhaps Melanchthon's Lutheranism, while England welcomed a welter
of continental currents, at first more Lutheran, later more
Reformed, to energize indigenous Lollard undercurrents.
The Reformers' target may be generally
described as degenerate late medieval Catholicism, over against
which they set the faith of the apostles and the early fathers.
Some central target areas may be specified.
There was proliferating abuse, theological and
practical, connected with penance, satisfactions, and the treasury
of merit. These practices were the basis of indulgences, to which
were directed Luther's Ninety - five Theses with their pivotal
affirmation that "the true treasure of the Church is the most holy
gospel of the glory and grace of God." Luther's anguished quest
had taught him the bankruptcy of an exuberant piety that never
lacked exercises for the unquiet conscience, vows, fasts,
pilgrimages, masses, relics, recitations, rosaries, works, etc.
The Reformation answer, to which Luther's new understanding of
Romans 1 brought him through many struggles, was justification by
God's grace in Christ alone received by faith alone.
"The righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through
grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith." Christ's
righteousness credited to the believer gave him assurance before
God, while he never ceased to be sinful and penitent, for "the whole
life of the Christian is one of penitence." Jesus said "Be penitent"
(Greek), not "Do penance" (Latin Vulgate). Luther's theology of the
cross was a protest against the "cheap grace" of a
commercialized, fiscal religion.
The False Foundations of Papal Authority
Lorenzo Valla's exposure
of the forged Donation of Constantine combined with fresh biblical
and historical study to undermine papal pretensions. The rock on
which the church was built was Peter's faith, and in the early
centuries the Roman bishop enjoyed no more than a primacy of honor.
While most Reformers professed a readiness to accept a reformed
papacy that served to edify the church, so resistant did it prove to
even moderate reform that Antichrist seemed a deserved designation.
The Ecclesiastical Captivity of the Word of God
Whether by papal
magisterium, church dogma, or the sophistries of schoolmen,
canonists, and allegorists, this was a leading target of Luther's
"Reformation Treatises" of 1520. In 1519 he had denied the
infallibility of general councils. The Reformers liberated the
Bible, by vernacular translation (notably Luther's German Bible),
expository preaching (recommenced by Zwingli), and straighforward
grammatichistorical exegesis (best exemplified in Calvin's
commentaries). Disputations, often critical in the pacing of
reform, operated like communal Bible studies. Thus were the
Scriptures enthroned as judge of all ecclesiastical traditions
and the sole source of authentic doctrine, as well as experienced
as the living power of God in judgment and grace.
The Superiority of the "Religious" Life
The Reformers maintained
a tireless polemic against monasticism, one of the most prominent
features of Latin Christianity. They rejected the distinction
between the inferior life of the secular Christian and the higher
"religious" world of monk and nun. The Reformation was a strident
protest against this distorted set of values. Luther and Calvin both
stressed the Christian dignity of ordinary human callings of
artisan, housewife, and plowman. Reformers almost insisted on
clerical marriage, by their own example elevating the importance of
family life. From another angle they objected to clerical intrusion
into civil affairs, e.g., the administration of marriage and
divorce, and regarded political office as one of the most
significant Christian vocations.
Perverted Priesthood and Usurped Mediation
The mediation of Mary
(though not necessarily her perpetual virginity) and the
intercession of the saints were denied alike by the Reformers.
Christ alone was exalted as man's advocate before God and God's
appointed priest to bear our sins and minister to our frailty. By
rejecting all but two, baptism and Lord's Supper, of the seven
medieval sacraments, the Reformation liberated the faithful from
the power of the priesthood. The church lost its indispensable role
as sacramental dispenser of salvation. Transubstantiation was
refuted, along with the sacrificial character of the Mass except as
the response of thankful hearts and lives. In accordance with NT
usage all believers were declared to be by baptism a royal
priesthood, free to fulfill a priestly service to others in need
of the Word of life.
The Hierarchical Captivity of the Church
In response to
allegations of innovation and disruption of the church's long -
lived unity, the Reformers claimed to be renovators, restorers of
the primitive face of the church. Such a church was not dependent
on communion with the papacy or hierarchical succession but was
constituted by its election and calling in Christ and recognized
by faithfulness to the word and sacraments of the gospel. Although
several Reformers experienced doubts about infant baptism, and
both Luther and Bucer hankered after a closer congregation of the
truly committed, in the end all stood by the baptism of infants.
A major factor was their fear of dividing the civil community
which by common baptism could be regarded as coterminous with
the visible church. Although the distinction between the church
visible (seen by human eyes) and invisible (known only to God) was
used by the Reformers, it was not their customary way of
acknowledging the mixed character of the church.
The Confusion of Divine and Human
Reformation theology was
strongly theocentric, and clearly reasserted the distinction
between Creator and creation. Confusion between the two blighted
medieval doctrine in various spheres, Eucharist, church, papacy,
and made its influence felt in other areas, such as mysticism and
anthropology. With a starkly Augustinian understanding of original
sin (qualified somewhat by Zwingli), the Reformers asserted
mankind's total spiritual inability apart from the renewal of the
Spirit. On unconditional election the Reformation spoke almost as
one voice. If Calvin related predestination more closely to
providence and directed all his theology to the goal of the glory
of God, Luther no less saw God's sovereign Word at work everywhere
in his world.
The Legacy of the Reformation
Quite apart from the varying hues
and shades of their theologies, which owe much to different
intellectual and religious formations as well as to temperament,
sociopolitical setting, and conviction, the Reformers were not
agreed on all issues.
Most notoriously they parted company on the Lord's Supper. For
Luther the solid objectivity of Christ's presence was created by
his word ("This is my body") and could not be vulnerable to the
recipient's unbelief. (His position is wrongly called
"consubstantiation," because this implies that it belongs to the
same conceptual order as "transubstantiation.") Others, even the
mature Zwingli, stressed faith's spiritual eating of Christ's body
and blood, and Calvin further focused on communion with the
heavenly Christ by the Spirit. In reform of worship and church
order both Lutherans and Reformed adopted respectively conservative
and more radical approaches. A significant difference lay in
attitudes toward the Mosaic law. Whereas for Luther its primary
function is to abase the sinner and drive him to the gospel,
Calvin saw it chiefly as the guide of the Christian life. Again,
while for Luther Scripture spoke everywhere of Christ and the
gospel, Calvin handled it in a more disciplined and "modern"
manner. Overall, "careful Calvin orchestrated Protestant theology
most skillfully, but fertile Martin Luther wrote most of
the tunes" (J I Packer).
Separate attention must be paid to the orthodox Anabaptist
Radicals whose Reformation was more sweeping than the "new
papalism," as they called it, of the magisterial Reformers.
Believers' baptism identified and safeguarded the bounds of the
church, the gathered community of the covenanted band. Discipline
was essential to maintain its purity (a point not lost on
influential Reformed circles). The church's calling was to
suffering and pilgrimage, and to total separation from the world.
By its accommodation with the empire of Constantine the church had
fatally "fallen." The restitution of the apostolic pattern in all
particulars entailed the renunciation of the sword and of oaths. By
advocating toleration, religious liberty, and separation of church
and state, such Anabaptists were ahead of their time, and suffered
for it. As Christendom dies out in the West, the attraction of the
Radical Reformation option appears in a clearer light.
At times, e.g., c. 1540 in Germany, it seemed as though reform -
minded Catholics might prevail. Rome thought otherwise, and in
theology the Catholic reforms of Trent were in large measure
counter - Protestant reaction. If renewal was more evident
elsewhere, in the new Jesuit order, the Spanish mystics, and bishops
like Francis of Sales, not until the twentieth century and Vatican
Council II did the Roman Church take to heart the theological
significance of the Reformation.
D F Wright
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
A C Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth
Century; B J Kidd, Documents Illustrative of the Continental
Reformation; H J Hillerbrand, The Reformation in Its Own Words;
H A Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late
Medieval Thought; W Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of
the Reformation; B M G Reardon, Religious Thought in the
Reformation; H Strohl, La pensee de la Reforme; G W Bromiley,
Historical Theology: An Introduction; H Cunliffe - Jones, ed., A
History of Christian Doctrine; S Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250 -
1550; H J Grimm, The Reformation Era 1500 - 1650; A G Dickens,
The English Reformation; I B Cowan, The Scottish Reformation;
G H Williams, The Radical Reformation; F H Littell, The Anabaptist
View of the Church; G F Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the
Anabaptist Vision; P E Hughes, The Theology of the English
Reformers; P D L Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers.
Reformation (general information)
The individual articles presented here were generally first published
in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed
on the Internet in May 1997.
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