Protestant Reformation

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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 objective.

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.

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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.

Protestant Objections

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.

Papal Abuses

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.

Also, see:
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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