Protestant Reformation - II

General Information


The Reformation of the 16th century was a movement within Western Christendom to purge the church of medieval abuses and to restore the doctrines and practices that the reformers believed conformed with the Bible and the New Testament model of the church. This led to a breach between the Roman Catholic Church and the reformers whose beliefs and practices came to be called Protestantism.


The causal factors involved in the Reformation were complex and interdependent. Precursors of the Reformation proper included the movements founded by John Wycliffe (the Lollards) and John Huss (the Hussites) during the 14th and 15th centuries. These reform groups, however, were localized (in England and Bohemia) and were largely suppressed. Changes in the intellectual and political climate were among the factors that made the reform movement of the 16th century much more formidable.

The cultural Renaissance that occurred during the preceding century and a half was a necessary preliminary, because it raised the level of education, reemphasized the ancient classics, contributed to thought and learning, and offered Humanism and rhetoric as an alternative to Scholasticism. Especially through its emphasis on the biblical languages and close attention to the literary texts, the Renaissance made possible the biblical exegesis that led to Martin Luther's doctrinal reinterpretation. Moreover, Christian humanists like Desiderius Erasmus criticized ecclesiastical abuses and promoted the study of both the Bible and the church fathers. The invention of printing by Johann Gutenberg provided a powerful instrument for the spread of learning and Reformation ideas.

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That grave ills were spreading through the church was already evident at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, at which Pope Innocent III called for reform. The papacy itself was weakened by its move from Rome to Avignon (1309-77), by the Great Schism of the papacy, which lasted four decades thereafter, and by the doctrine that supreme authority in the church belonged to general councils (Conciliarism). The Renaissance popes were notoriously worldly. Abuses such as simony, nepotism, and financial excesses increased. The church was riddled with venality and immorality. The sale of Indulgences was a particularly unfortunate practice because it impinged upon true spiritual repentance and improvement of life. At the same time a genuine upsurge of popular religiosity manifested itself and increased the disparity between the people's expectations and the church's ability to satisfy spiritual needs. Some turned to mysticism and inward religion, but the great mass of people were restless and dissatisfied.

A significant political change occurred during the later Middle Ages as well. The Holy Roman Empire, which had lost cohesion partly as a result of its struggle with the papacy in the Investiture Controversy, was weakened by the growth of virtually independent territorial princedoms and free imperial cities. Externally the empire was weakened by the gradual evolution of the nation-states of modern western Europe. The monarchies in France, England, and, later, Spain were developing dynastic strength and unity that enabled them largely to control the church within their borders.

Economically, the rise of commerce and the shift to a moneyed economy had the effect of creating a stronger middle class in a more urban society. The church met financial difficulty during this time because it had become involved in the manorial economy, possessed landed wealth, and had trouble meeting its extensive administrative, diplomatic, and judicial obligations.



The Reformation began in Germany on Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, an Augustinian university professor at Wittenberg, posted 95 theses inviting debate over the legitimacy of the sale of indulgences. The papacy viewed this as a gesture of rebellion and proceeded to take steps against Luther as a heretic. The German humanists supported Luther's cause during the early years. The reformer's three famous treatises of 1520, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian, also won him powerful popular support. He was excommunicated in 1521, but in April of that year at the Diet at Worms he stood before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the German princes and refused to recant unless proven wrong by the Bible or by clear reason. He believed that salvation was a free gift to persons through the forgiveness of sins by God's grace alone and received by them through faith in Christ.

Luther was protected by Frederick III, elector of Saxony, and other German princes--partly out of intellectual and religious conviction, partly out of the desire to seize church property, and partly to assert independence of imperial control--gave their support to the reformers. In 1530 many princes and cities signed the Augsburg Confession presented at the Diet of Augsburg as an expression of the evangelical faith. After years of conflict the settlement reached in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) provided that each German prince would determine the religious affiliation (Roman Catholic or Lutheran) of the territory he ruled. Lutheranism also became the established religion of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Apart from the role of the princes, however, the Reformation spread rapidly as a popular movement. It penetrated Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, and Transylvania.


The Reformation in Switzerland initially developed in Zurich under the leadership of the priest Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli had been influenced by Erasmus and by Christian humanism. He arrived at an evangelical understanding of Christianity from his study of the Bible and from contacts with Lutherans. On Jan. 1, 1519, he began a 6-year series of sermons on the New Testament that moved the city council and the people of Zurich toward reform. The favorable response to The Sixty-Seven Articles, which he prepared for public disputation with a papal representative in 1523, proved the popularity of his program. He called for the abolition of the Mass (and its replacement by a symbolic Lord's Supper), independence from episcopal control, and a reform of the city-state in which both priests and Christian magistrates would conform to the will of God. His influence spread to other Swiss cantons such as Basel, Saint Gall, and Bern.


Through Lutheran tracts and merchant missionaries, the evangelical movement spread to France, where it won many converts, among whom was John Calvin. In 1536, Calvin went to Geneva, where a reformation led by Guillaume Farel was well under way. Calvin was persuaded to stay in Geneva and helped organize the second major surge of Protestantism. In his Ordinances of 1541, he gave a new organization to the church consisting of pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. His Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) had great influence in France, Scotland (where John Knox carried the Calvinist reformation), and among the Puritans in England. Geneva became the center of a great missionary enterprise that reached into France, where the Huguenots became so powerful that a synod met in Paris in 1559 to organize a nationwide church of some 2,000 reformed congregations. As a result of the French Wars of Religion, the Huguenot party was checked and the French monarchy kept the kingdom Catholic.


Although England had a religious reform movement influenced by Lutheran ideas, the English Reformation occurred as a direct result of King Henry VIII's efforts to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The formal break with the papacy was masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, the king's chief minister. Under Cromwell's direction Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals (to Rome; 1533), followed by the Act of Supremacy (1534) fully defining the royal headship over the church. As archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer annulled Henry's marriage to Catherine, allowing the king to marry Anne Boleyn. Although Henry himself wished to make no doctrinal changes, Cromwell and Cranmer authorized the translation of the Bible into English, and Cranmer was largely responsible for the Book of Common Prayer, adopted under Henry's successor, Edward VI. The gains that Protestantism made under Edward (r. 1547-53) were lost under his Catholic sister Mary I (r. 1553-58). The religious settlement (1559) under Elizabeth I, however, guaranteed the Anglican establishment.

The Radicals

The radicals consisted of a great variety of sectarian groups known as Anabaptists because of their common opposition to infant baptism. The Anabaptist leader Thomas Munzer played a leading role in the Peasants' War (1524-26), which was suppressed with the support of Luther. In Munster, radical Anabaptists established (1533) a short-lived theocracy in which property was held communally. This too was harshly suppressed. The radicals also encompassed evangelical humanists and spiritualists who developed highly individualistic religious philosophies.


An obvious result of the Reformation was the division of Western Christendom into Protestant and Catholic areas. Another result was the development of national churches; these strengthened the growth of modern national states, just as, earlier, growing national consciousness had facilitated the development of the Reformation. The Catholic Counter-Reformation--including the founding of the Jesuits by Ignatius Loyola (sanctioned 1540), the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Inquisition, the Index, and reformed clergy like Charles Borromeo--gave new life to the old church and was in part a result of the Reformation movement. Finally, the Reformation introduced much radical change in thought and in ecclesiastical and political organization and thus began many of the trends that are taken to characterize the modern world.

Lewis W. Spitz

Bainton, Roland H., Women of the Reformation (1977) and Age of the Reformation (1984); Chadwick, Owen, The Reformation (1964); Cowen, I.B., The Scottish Reformation (1982); Dickens, A G, The English Reformation (1964) and The German Nation and Martin Luther (1974); Dickens, A.G., et al., The Reformation in Historical Thought (1985); Donaldson, Gordon, The Scottish Reformation (1972); Elton, G.R., Reform and Reformation: England, 1509-1558 (1978); Grimm, Harold, The Reformation Era, 2d ed. (1973); Hillerbrand, Hans J., Christendom Divided: The Protestant Reformation (1971), and, as ed., The Reformation (1978); McNeill, John T., The History and Character of Calvinism (1954); Olin, John, and Smart, J.D., eds., Luther, Erasmus and the Reformation (1970; repr. 1982); Ozment, G R, The Reformation in the Cities (1975), and When Fathers Ruled (1983); Smith, Page, The Age of Reformation, 2 vols. (1962); Spitz, Lewis W., The Renaissance and Reformation Movement (1971), and The Protestant Reformation (1984).

Also, see:
Protestant Reformation (advanced information)

Canons of Dort
Belgic Confession
Heidelberg Catechism

Helvetic Confession
Westminster Confession of Faith
Augsburg Confession

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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