History and Traditions
The Protestant Reformation was the 16th century movement which led to the separation of the Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church. It is usually said to have started when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenburg, Germany calling for a discussion of false doctrines and malpractices within the Catholic Church as he saw them. These included the sale of indulgences and the doctrine underlying them, as well as the powers of the Pope. He had not, however, intended to create a rival church.
Luther was excommunicated a few weeks later but continued the effort to have his issues addressed. Condemned as an outlaw by the Imperial Diet of Worms (1521), Luther avoided arrest and possibly even death thanks to the timely intervention of a prominent nobleman sympathetic to his cause. In time, Christian congregations which agreed with Luther's teachings were founded and Luther moved on to additional religious concerns. He translated the Bible into German while in hiding, and he wrote extensively on many theological subjects.
Luther identified three cardinal concepts he believed were supported by Scripture but which the Medieval Church had suppressed:
1. Sola Scriptura, the idea that the Bible is the ultimate authority given to the Church by God and by which we are to judge doctrinal matters,
2. Sola Fide, the idea that it is by Faith in Christ, and nothing else that we might perform in the way of religious devotionals or acts of mercy, that causes God to account us as righteous, and
3. Sola Gratia, the idea that saving Faith comes to those who are saved only through an act of God's graciousness, not in any way because of our own merits.
In these points, Luther (and Protestantism generally) rejected the Catholic Church's beliefs that there is an equality of Tradition with Scripture, in the efficacy of our own good deeds, and in the idea that it is the clergy and the institutional church that make possible the ordinary Christian's access to God.
In Switzerland, other Protestants quickly followed Luther's lead. Ulrich Zwingli and then John Calvin preached an even less ceremonial brand of Christianity. Whereas Luther had retained most of the worship style of Catholicism if not all of its structure and doctrines, the Swiss Reformers sought a simpler style of worship and a more decentralized system of church government. Their churches normally are termed "Reformed," as opposed to Luther's following which is known by his name ("Lutheran"), as "Evangelical," or by a combination of the two words.
One distinctive of the Reformed churches is belief in Predestination. While Calvin agreed with Luther on the three "Solas," the way by which God decides whom to allow to have saving Faith was addressed more precisely. Judging from several passages in Scripture, Calvin concluded that God makes his decision before our births and that there is then nothing anyone can do in life to alter the decision. Men are either chosen for salvation (the "Elect") or else they are eternally lost (the "Reprobates").
While men cannot alter their eternal destiny, it is an incorrect assumption that the Elect can live however they want and be saved nevertheless. Obviously, Calvinists say, if one is given the Faith, he will want to live as Christ-like a life as is possible. If a man chooses a life of sin, selfishness, and depravity, it is evidence that he is not among the Elect. Likewise, it is not correct to conclude that those who are lost are separated from God unfairly. All men are born in sin, according to Scripture and the teaching of Catholics and the churches of the Reformation alike. Unless they have a means of escaping their sin—which, in the absence of God's selection of them to be among the Elect, they would not have—they are left with their sins and are, therefore, undeserving of salvation.
"Protestants" opposed the buying and selling of church positions and the systemic corruption they saw in the Church of the time, which even reached to the position of the Pope. They were opposed to what they considered to be excessive devotion directed towards Mary and the saints rather than true Biblical Christianity seen as a matter of inward devotion.
Most of the early Protestants wanted less in the way of outward symbols of ceremony and ritual and rejected the authority of the Pope (because they believed the only true authority to be the Bible). The various Protestant churches wanted the Bible to be available to all by publishing it in the common language and by promoting universal education. The mandatory celibacy of the clergy and monasticism were rejected, along with the Catholic use of images in church buildings, priestly vestments, and many of the Catholic Church's festival days. Instead, Protestantism emphasized a new participation in public worship services by the members of the congregation. Congregational singing became a feature of Protestantism, unlike Catholic worship. The wine in Communion was distributed to the congregants, no longer being reserved for the priest as had been Catholic practice. And in most churches, the congregation was empowered to select its own ministers rather than have them chosen, in Catholic fashion, by the bishop.
Before the official beginning of the Reformation, groups like the Waldenses and Albigenses adhered to Protestant doctrines, and were thus persecuted by the Catholic Church. Similarly, figures such as Jan Hus and John Wycliffe are considered reformers, despite acting before 1517. Luther claimed that he was distinguished from the previous reformers by going to the theological root of Catholic corruption.
In 1515, Martin Luther, a German monk, experienced a spiritual enlightenment when he read Romans 1:17: "For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith." On October 31, 1517, Luther is thought to have nailed his 95 Theses on the University of Wittenberg door, angered at the Church's sale of indulgences to fund the building of St. Peter's Basilica. This is credited with starting the Protestant Reformation and Making Luther a household name. In 1520, the Pope sent a letter to Luther threatening to excommunicate him. He burned that letter publicly. He would be excommunicated in 1521. Under legal condemnation, Luther fled to Warburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament into German.
Concerning his impact:
- Luther's legacy is immense and cannot be adequately summarized. Every Protestant Reformer—like Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and Cranmer—and every Protestant stream—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist—were inspired by Luther in one way or another. On a larger canvas, his reform unleashed forces that ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern era.
- John Calvin
- Ulrich Swingli
- John Knox
- Martin Luther
- Huguenots, Protestant in France
- Church of England
- Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (reprint 1995) excerpt and text search
- Beard, Charles. Martin Luther and the Reformation in Germany Until the Close of the Diet of Worms (1896) 468 pages; complete text online this Charles Beard is not the American historian
- Brauer, Jerald C. The Westminster Dictionary of Church History (1971), 880pp
- Chadwick, Owen. The Reformation (1990) excerpt and text search
- Collinson, Patrick. The Reformation: A History (2006) excerpt and text search
- Hillerbrand, Hans J., et al. eds. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (1996) vol. 1:296 pp., vol. 2:506 pp., vol. 3: 491 pp., vol. 4:484 pp.,
- Hsia, R. Po-chia. A Companion to the Reformation World (2004), essays by 24 scholars cover the major themes excerpt and text search
- MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation (2005), influential recent survey excerpt and text search
- McGonigle, Thomas D., and James F. Quigley. A history of the Christian Tradition: vol. 2: From the Reformation to the Present (1996) excerpt and text search vol 2
- Smith, Preserved. The Age of the Reformation (1920) 861 pages; complete text online free
- New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1911), major sources of older scholarly articles; mainline Protestant perspective
- Vol. 1: Aachen - Basilians
- Vol. 2: Basilica - Chambers
- Vol. 3: Chamier - Draendorf
- Vol. 4: Draeseke - Goa
- Vol. 5: Goar - Innocent
- Vol. 6: Innocents - Liudger
- Vol. 7: Liutprand - Moralities
- Vol. 8: Morality - Petersen
- Vol. 9: Petri - Reuchlin
- Vol. 10: Reutsch - Son
- Vol. 11: Son of Man - Tremellius
- Vol. 12: Trench - Zwingli
- Vol. 13: Index