The Reformation

The Reformation was a significant moment in Europe:

How did the Reformation promote the idea of individualism? The Reformation brought a huge challenge to papal authority. Martin Luther (1483–1546) insisted that a believer’s faith in God, not adherence to the papacy was the path to salvation. Luther’s ideas opened the door to claims of public respect for liberty of conscience and eventually individual freedom of worship.

Portrait of Martin Luther

Martin Luther, Father of the Reformation

Excerpt From Martin Luther’s Table Talk:

“The chief cause that I fell out with the pope was this: the pope boasted that he was the head of the Church, and condemned all that would not be under his power and authority; for he said, although Christ be the head of the Church, yet, notwithstanding, there must be a corporal head of the Church upon earth. With this I could have been content, had he but taught the gospel pure and clear, and not introduced human inventions and lies in its stead. Further, he took upon him power, rule, and authority over the Christian Church, and over the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God; no man must presume to expound the Scriptures, but only he, and according to his ridiculous conceits; so that he made himself lord over the Church, proclaiming her at the same time a powerful mother, and empress over the Scriptures, to which we must yield and be obedient; this was not to be endured. They who, against God’s Word, boast of the Church’s authority, are mere idiots. The pope attributes more power to the Church, which is begotten and born, than to the Word, which has begotten, conceived, and born the Church.”

Martin Luther helped the revolt against Church abuses in 1517. He was a German monk and a professor of theology. He grew disillusioned with what he saw as Church corruption and worldliness. Finally, something happened in the town of Wittenberg that helped him take action. A priest in Wittenberg, named Johann Tetzel started offering indulgences to any Christian who contributed money for the rebuilding of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. He claimed that buying these indulgences would help the purchasers get to heaven and they’re dead relatives as well. Martin Luther full-on revolted because that the buying of indulgences meant that poor people couldn’t get to heaven and he created a 95 Theses that told off the Church for not teaching by the Bible. Luther’s ideas began a religion called Lutheranism. Lutheranism taught that salvation is achieved through faith, it accepts some of the sacraments but rejects others because rituals cannot erase sin–only God can, the heads of the Churches were elected councils, the Bible alone is source of truth, and people read and interpret the Bible for themselves. His ideas spread and helped for the peasants to revolt against Catholic churches.

The break with the Catholic Church was the work of Henry VIII. He first stood firmly against the Protestant revolt. But in 1527, an issue arose that set Henry at odds with the Church, he tried to divorce his wife, but the pope would not let him. He broke off with the church and wanted to take over the church with his advisors. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which made Henry the supreme head of the England Church. Those of Catholics who refused to accept Henry as the supreme head were executed. Besides breaking away from Rome and allowing the use of the English Bible, he kept most Catholic forms of worship. He died in 1547.

John Calvin also challenged the Church. He helped to affect the direction of the Reformation. He was born in France and in 1536, he published a book that talked about his religious beliefs and explained how to organize and run a Protestant Church. He preached predestination, the idea that God had long ago determined who would gain salvation. The world was divided into two types of people according to Calvinists: saints, and sinners. Calvinists tried to live like saints. In 1541, Protestants in Geneva, in Switzerland, asked Calvin to lead their community. He set up a theocracy, a government led by church leaders. Calvinism beliefs were: god alone predetermines who will be saved, accepts some of the sacraments, but rejects others because rituals cannot erase sin–only God can, the head of church was run by a council of elders, the Bible alone is source of truth, and people read and interpret the Bible for themselves.

After Luther, others started to think about personal freedom of religion. In response to John Calvin’s burning of a fellow Christian theologian, Sebastian Castellion (1515–1563) published a treatise entitled De haereticis, an sint persequendi (On heretics, whether they are to be persecuted) under a pseudonym. Castellion maintained that only an individual can determine the level of their sincere conviction. He argued that argued that an individual Christian’s duties extend to charity and tolerance forbearance even in the face of disagreements of Christian understanding and interpretation.

Why Did the Reformation Happen?

With a large middle class and a more educated society, people were becoming aware of papal corruption. The papacy itself was weakened by its move from Rome to Avignon (1309-77), by the Great Schism of the papacy, which lasted forty years. Abuses such as simony, nepotism, and financial excesses increased. The church was riddled with immorality. The sale of Indulgences or selling of forgiveness and absolution to the wealthy was considered a deep injustice. Further, people wanted the church to  meet their spiritual needs. Some turned to mysticism and inward religion, but many 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.


  • 1517 Martin Luther posts his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Church to initiate discussion on abuses and restore the doctrine of salvation by grace, through faith.
  • 1525 At the Diet of Worms: Luther is called before a formal tribunal with guarantees of his safety. Instead, an attempt is made to assassinate him. Some German princes support him and the Reformation is born.
  • 1535 Henry VIII breaks with Rome so that he can divorce his wife and sire a male heir. He founds the Church of England with the King as its head.
  • 1541 Calvin in Geneva works on his Institutes of Christian Religion, and helps reform the churches in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland France and parts of Germany
  • 1540 Ignatius Loyola founds the Jesuits and the Counter-Reformation, attempting to stem the tide of Christians withdrawing from Rome
  • 1545 The Council of Trent; the Roman Church formally, for the first time, repudiates the doctrines of the Reformation which had ALWAYS been a part of orthodox doctrine.
  • 1553 “Bloody” Mary Tudor, Roman Catholic daughter of Henry VIII, persecutes Protestants, burning many famous men at the stake; e.g., Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer
  • 1514-1572 John Knox brings the Reformation to Scotland, battling Mary, Queen of Scots
  • 1558 Elizabeth takes the British Throne after her sister Bloody Mary dies. She establishes a “compromised” Protestant church.
  • 1572 The French persecute Protestants, murdering thousands during the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre
  • 1560-1609 Jakob Arminius repudiates key elements of Reformation doctrine, adopting the ancient heresy of semi-Plagiarism
  • 1611 James I of England authorizes the “Kings James Bible” though he hates Protestants and persecutes them
  • 1612 First British Armenian Baptist Church
  • 1618 The Synod of Dort is held in the Netherlands to refute the teachings of Arminius
  • 1620-40 Puritan Migration to New England while Old England under Charles I engage in a Civil war. Cromwell defeats the Royalists
  • 1633 First Calvinist Baptist Church
  • 1643 In New England, Ann Hutchinson is thrown out of the colonies for insisting that her “spiritual” revelations are authoritative
  • 1643-46 The Westminster Confession is written, providing a common theological document for England, Scotland and Ireland.
  • 1603-1688 Roger Williams is thrown out of the Puritan colonies and forms the first American Baptists
  • 1624-1691 George Fox advocates immediate experience of God and founds what is eventually known as the “Quakers.”

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