What Your Church Members Should Know About the Reformation


Late Medieval Background

The Reformation began with Martin Luther, but he was influenced by doctrine and pastoral practices that preceded him by centuries. We need to begin by understanding some of the main currents that impacted Luther’s Reformation breakthrough.

1. Others had seen problems in the Catholic church prior to Luther.

  • John Wycliffe (d. 1384) and Jan Hus (d. 1415), for instance, saw doctrinal errors within the Catholic church that needed to be addressed.
  • Even some Catholic humanists like Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (d. 1542) taught justification by faith until the Catholic Council of Trent (1545–63) condemned that view.
  • The great humanist Desiderius Erasmus and others knew that the Church needed moral reform in its upper echelons, including the papacy, and wrote bitter satires directed against the immorality of the church.

2. There were a variety of Catholic doctrines of salvation.

  • There was a renewed interest in Augustine’s (d. 430) thought, including its emphasis on God’s complete sovereignty. This, though, was the smallest stream.
  • Most believed, as did Thomas Aquinas, that one had to cooperate with God’s grace available to people through the sacraments.
  • The smallest stream—nominalism, or “the modern way”—declared that before one could receive God’s grace in the sacraments one had to make the first move. This “doing your best” in order to receive God’s grace (Latin: facere quod in se est) was what Martin Luther was taught. It almost drove him crazy as he struggled with his sensitive conscience to know if he had done enough.
  • These latter two views led many to wonder if they had done enough good works to ultimately get to heaven and if they would be punished for centuries in purgatory.
  • In a real sense, then, we can say that the Reformation was fundamentally a biblical and pastoral reaction to Catholic theology in which assurance of salvation was the most existentially important issue. Beginning with Luther, there was a biblical answer to “What must I do to be saved?” that did not place the emphasis on a person’s effort but on God’s grace given to us in Christ.

3. Humanism was significant.

  • Humanism was an educational approach which stressed the need to go ad fontes (“to the sources”), reading ancient Greek and Roman literature in the original Greek and Latin.
  • Out of this humanistic interest Erasmus published the Greek New Testament in 1516. This had more of an impact on the Reformation than any other single event because now university-trained thinkers could—for the first time in centuries—read the New Testament in its original language.
  • For example, the year after its publication Luther made use of it in the first of his 95 Theses when he noted that Jesus’ message was “repent” (the Greek), not “do penance,” which had been the Latin rendering for centuries.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Lutheranism

Luther’s quest for certainty of salvation—aided by his reading of Augustine and especially of the New Testament—led to his Protestant Reformation breakthrough. It began with Luther struggling to understand Romans 1:17 in its immediate context, led to his questioning the appropriateness of selling indulgences, moved to Luther’s questioning of more Catholic doctrines in the hope that the church would reform itself, and ended with his excommunication. Thus began the first of the “Protestant” groups, aptly named after its affable, always-quotable founder. James Atkinson is right: “The Reformation is Luther and Luther is the Reformation.”

  • Because of his desire to save his soul, Luther entered an Augustinian monastery in 1505.
  • He struggled with deep spiritual doubts (German: Anfechtungen). Luther began reading St. Augustine and found solace there. But he was especially helped by his reading of the New Testament in the original language.
  • To take his mind off his introspective questions, Luther’s superiors made him get a Ph.D., and he became professor of the Bible at Wittenberg in 1512.
  • He taught whatever books of the Bible he was interested in studying, and his choices were a wonderful I-want-to-become-a-Protestant reading list: Psalms (1513–1515); Romans (1515–1516); Galatians (1516–1517); Hebrews (1517–1518); and Psalms again (1518–1519).
  • On October 31, 1517 Luther posted his 95 Theses which were meant to debate with other academics the appropriateness of the church’s relatively recent practice of selling indulgences to those who could afford them in order to decrease the amount of time they would be punished in purgatory for their sins. Luther didn’t think this was his clarion call for a Reformation. In fact, reflecting on them later, he called the theses “weak and popish.”
  • But these theses drew the church’s response and led to Luther’s development of his thinking at a breakneck pace. Some of the more important events were:
  • His exposition of “the theology of the cross” (in contrast to “the theology of glory” that marked the works-righteousness and pride of the Catholic church) at the Heidelberg Disputation (1518). The reformer Martin Bucer traced his conversion to hearing Luther at Heidelberg.
  • In “Two Kinds of Righteousness” (1518) Luther distinguished between the “alien righteousness” of Christ that was accounted to a Christian by faith and the believer’s “proper righteousness” that was the result of this imputed righteousness of Jesus.
  • At the Leipzig Disputation (1519) against Johann Eck, Luther came to the conclusion that the Bible alone (sola Scriptura) was authoritative in matters of Christian doctrine and practice.
  • In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) Luther denied the church’s seven sacraments in favor of just the two biblical ordinances—baptism and the eucharist.
    • Luther came to teach the bodily presence of Christ “in, with, and under” (in the words of later Lutheran theologians) the bread and wine of the Supper.
    • Luther believed that infants should be baptized after the gospel was preached in the baptismal service since God sovereignly grants faith through the gospel.
    • In The Freedom of the Christian (1520) Luther beautifully exposited the role of faith in uniting a Christian with Jesus and giving all the benefits of Christ to him from the beginning point of faith.
    • Luther had initially been protected from the Catholic church by both his wily protector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and the desire of the young Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to move slowly in his imperial duties. But Luther’s developing theological understanding called down the church’s and the empire’s wrath. He was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in January 1521. He was declared an outlaw by the Empire at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, after he famously said he was captive to Scripture, not the tradition of the church.
    • In his following exile at Frederick’s Wartburg Castle (where Luther said he was plagued by laziness) he translated the New Testament into German in about 11 weeks!
    • Luther returned to Wittenberg and led the reform efforts there for the rest of his life. His approach to reform was to move slowly, only changing Catholic liturgy and practice when it was essential to the gospel.
    • This led to the so-called “normative principle” of Lutheranism (and Anglicanism), the idea that anything was permissible in the worship of the church as long as Scripture did not explicitly condemn it.
    • This is in contrast to Calvinism’s “regulative principle,” the notion that God has carefully regulated in Scripture how he is to be worshiped. The church is obligated to do only what Scripture explicitly requires or models.
    • Luther married Katherine von Bora in 1525
    • In 1525 Luther wrote one his great treatises, On the Bondage of the Will, responding to Erasmus’s On Free Will of the previous year. Luther’s Bondage is an exhaustive defense of the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation necessitated by the utter deadness of humanity in sin.
    • At the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, Luther and Ulrich Zwingli failed to come to a Protestant consensus about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Because of this, the Lutheran and Reformed traditions of Protestantism were seen as distinct movements throughout the rest of the sixteenth century.
    • The Lutherans were first called “Protestants” at the Diet of Speyer in 1529.
    • Luther believed that justification by faith alone (sola fide) was central to the Christian faith. In the Smalcald Articles of 1537, he said, “Nothing in this article [justification] can be given up or compromised, even if heaven and earth and things temporal should be destroyed….On this article rests all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world. Therefore we must be quite certain and have no doubts about it. Otherwise all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all our adversaries will gain the victory.”
    • Toward the end of his life, Luther more and more spoke out in frustration against the Jews, being frustrated that they hadn’t turned en masse to Christ as their Messiah. His acerbic and sinful comments were employed by the Nazis as justification for the Holocaust.
    • After Luther’s death in 1546, Philip Melanchthon (d. 1560) led Lutheranism. He changed Luther’s Augustinian theology, instead stressing the necessity of humans’ cooperating with God’s wooing of the sinner in the gospel. By the end of the century Lutheranism had developed—at least soteriologically-speaking—in a direction Luther would not have recognized.

John Calvin (1509–64) and the Reformed Tradition

The other main tradition of Protestantism traces its heritage to Calvin. Calvinism had much in common with Lutheranism (e.g., sola Scriptura, justification sola fide, and infant baptism). Yet it also developed in more consistently biblical directions on doctrines such as predestination and worship in the church.

  • The founder of this tradition was Zwingli, who ministered in Zurich, Switzerland from 1519–1531. He died fighting against an invading Catholic force. His theological emphases were:
    • expositional preaching (not knowing where to begin, since he’d never seen it done before, he started in Matthew 1:1)
    • the regulative principle of worship
    • a covenantal approach to reading Scripture, seeing a great deal of continuity from Old to New Testaments, unlike Luther’s approach which stressed the discontinuity of Law vs. Gospel
  • John Calvin then took up the leadership of the tradition. His biography is not as exciting as either Luther’s or Zwingli’s.
  • Born in France, educated as a lawyer in the humanist tradition, Calvin converted to Protestantism somewhere between 1533 and 1535.
  • Desiring to be an author, while fleeing France due to his Protestant faith, he stopped in Geneva, Switzerland overnight in 1536. The Protestant evangelist Guillaume Farel (d. 1565) convinced Calvin to stay and help lead the Reformation cause there.
  • Calvin was exiled from Geneva from 1538–41 to Strasbourg where he was deeply influenced by Martin Bucer (d. 1551), one of the great pastors of the Reformation. While in Strasbourg Calvin married Idelette de Bure.
  • When back in Geneva, Calvin was the chief theological prosecutor of the Unitarian Michael Servetus who was executed as a heretic in 1553. Calvin was not the judge and jury. That dubious honor goes to the city council of Geneva.
  • Calvin worked tirelessly almost until the end of his life, suffering from health problems probably caused partially by the small amount of sleep (around 4 hours) he got every night most of his adult life so that he could work.
  • Calvin was the great systematizer of the Reformation. Some of his more important theological contributions include:
    • The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The first edition was published in 1536; the final edition of 1559 was about five times as long as the first. The important doctrines Calvin discusses here include:
      • Knowledge of God.
      • Scripture. God accommodates himself to our limited ability, even lisping as a parent would to a child; the Spirit authenticates the truthfulness of Scripture to Christians as they read it.
      • God’s absolute providence.
      • Because of our sin in Adam, God must save us; we can do nothing to save ourselves.
      • Justification is by faith alone, through Christ’s work alone, because of God’s grace alone.
      • It results in union with Christ.
      • It only happens because of God’s predestining work of the elect, a predestination which is gracious, sovereign, and double (meaning that God also has eternally decided the fate of the non-elect).
      • The chief metaphor of the Christian life is that of a pilgrim; a believer is a stranger in this world, bearing the cross of Christ, on his or her way to heaven.
      • The visible church is not the same as the invisible church, which is composed of the elect. The church is to be led by four officers (professors, teaching elders, ruling elders, and deacons)
      • Christ is spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper as the Spirit raises a Christian to commune with Christ in heaven.
      • Infant baptism is correct because of the continuity of the old covenant rite of circumcision with baptism in the new covenant.
    • Calvin was an energetic commentary writer, starting with his commentary on Romans (1540). His goal throughout was “lucid brevity.”
    • His Reply to Sadoleto (1539) is the shortest and punchiest introduction to Calvin’s theology. It also includes some of the only autobiographical statements in all his writings.
  • Calvin staunchly followed the regulative principle, including only allowing acapella singing of the Psalms in worship.
  • The city counsel of Geneva paid a stenographer to write down Calvin’s sermons (he preached multiple sermons a week, usually with no notes and just the Hebrew Old Testament or Greek New Testament) which were subsequently published.
  • Calvin stressed the importance of doing missions, sending well over 100 young men into Catholic-controlled France as church planters and even sending a pair of Genevans to reach the natives of Brazil. He was not a hyper-Calvinist!

The Anabaptist Tradition

Luther’s and Calvin’s were “magisterial Reformers” in the sense that they were supported by the government (the magisterium). The Anabaptists were the first in the “free church” tradition because they thought that church and government should be disassociated from each other. Although their name might lead you to think they were just a sort of proto-Baptists, they held many other distinctive views. They were persecuted ferociously by Protestants and Catholics alike throughout almost all of Europe, finding refuge only in parts of Moravia and the Netherlands.

  • Some of their important leaders and events are these:
    • 1525: the first “baptism” of someone as a professed follower of Christ in Zurich, followed by almost immediate persecution wherever they fled.
    • 1527: the publication of The Schleitheim Confession, a seven-point doctrinal statement of the essential components of their faith.
    • 1528: the best-trained theologian of the Anabaptists, Balthasar Hubmaier, and his wife, were executed by the Catholics in Vienna.
    • 1529: the Diet of Speyer made it illegal throughout the Holy Roman Empire for anyone to be “re-baptized” (ana-baptized).
    • Thomas Müntzer (d. 1525), a radical who led armies during the Peasants’ War, and the immoral debacle in the city of Münster under the leadership of two Anabaptists from 1534–35, regularly tarnished the reputation of the Anabaptists as a sinful sort of cult.
    • Menno Simons (d. 1561) was the earliest, longest-living Anabaptist writing theologian.
  • Distinctive Anabaptist beliefs:
    • The church was a community of committed disciples who had counted the cost to follow Jesus, including showing a willingness to suffer for their faith. It was to be distinct from the secular society around it.
    • Baptism (generally performed by the pouring of water on the one being baptized, not his or her immersion in water) was reserved for those who made a credible profession of faith in Jesus.
    • Christians were to be separated from the world, so they could not serve in municipal government or the military.
    • The church was to “ban” (i.e., excommunicate) those who failed to live according to the requirements of the church.
    • An aversion to Calvinistic soteriology.

Catholic Reaction at the Council of Trent

We already noticed how Luther fared in relation to the Catholic Church. Finally, from 1545–1563, the ecumenical Council of Trent responded to Protestants in decisive fashion, countering the novel doctrine concerning authority in the church, justification, and the sacraments, among many others.

  • Concerning authority in the matters of doctrine, Trent said that truth is contained in both “the written books [of the Bible] and in unwritten traditions—those unwritten traditions, that is, which were either received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself or were received from the apostles themselves (having been dictated by the Holy Spirit) and have come down even to us, haven been transmitted as it were hand by hand.” Sola Scriptura was nullified.
  • Concerning justification, Trent clearly identified it as both the forgiveness of sin and sanctification: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but sanctification and renovation of the interior man through the voluntary reception of grace and gifts whereby a man becomes just instead of unjust.”
  • Trent proceeded to anathematize (excommunicate) those who taught that justification was sola fide (“by faith alone”) due to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone.
  • Trent also anathematized the view that a justified person could have assurance of his or her salvation in this life (that privilege being reserved for only a few “saints”).
  • Trent also reaffirmed Catholic teaching on the sacraments, including the doctrine of transubstantiation (the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ) along with its accompanying belief that the Mass is a true propitiatory sacrifice that represents in an un-bloody manner Christ’s self-offering on the altar of the cross anew for the faithful as they take the eucharist.
  • Trent’s reaction to the “formal principle” (sola Scriptura) and the “material principle” (justification sola fide) demonstrates that the Reformation still matters deeply to Bible-believing Christians. Since we know our sin and our inability to do anything good, and since we see that Christ has done everything necessary for our salvation, we throw ourselves on his mercy and find our soul’s rest in him alone. What Luther, Calvin, and others rediscovered in the sixteenth century is as relevant for us today as it was for them.
Shawn Wright

Shawn Wright is an Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the Pastor of Leadership Development at Clifton Baptist Church.

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