The Reformation

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Ideas of reform had been brewing in Europe for a few centuries. John Wycliffe in England, Jan Huss in Bohemia, Savonarola in Italy, and others had dared to speak out against church policies.

But Martin Luther brought the conflict to a head on 31 October, 1517, when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses (disagreements with church policies) to the door of the Church at Wittenberg, Germany. The content of Luther’s criticism did a great deal of damage to the status quo.
The church was selling indulgences. Major donors could get forgiveness for themselves or departed loved ones. The money raised would pay off the debts the new bishop had accrued while buying his new position. The church was aggressively hawking the scheme because a cut of the take went to build a new basilica in Rome. For Luther, this just added to a pattern of corruption and unspiritual leadership. In addition to finding this corrupt, Luther also argued that it was a system of works that was contrary to the biblical message of redemption and grace.
At that time, he had no intention of leaving the Catholic church or launching a new religion, but the church’s unyielding response arguably forced him to.
A papal decree condemned Luther, and he was ordered to recant, prompting his famous response, “Here I stand, I can do no other.

A few years earlier Luther had been studying the book of Romans. It was then that he personally faced up to God’s grace. The church at that time wasn’t teaching much about grace: salvation was earned by good works and religious observance, and forgiveness apparently could be purchased. When Luther discovered the biblical teaching that “the righteous will live by faith,” it changed his life, and it changed the world.
This principle—justification by faith—formed the basis of Reformation thinking. Since it was one’s personal faith that connected with God, there was no need for any priest or pope to mediate that relationship.
And if each believer could personally stand before God, then each one should be able to hear God’s word and interpret it.
Thus the Bible became the authority, rather than church leaders, and it became very important to the Reformers to translate the Scriptures into vernacular languages.
Also, since bread and wine could not save you, the Reformers’ concept of the Lord’s Supper changed. Although different Protestant groups had different views on this, all agreed that the work of taking communion had no saving effect; it was faith in the Christ who gave his body and blood for us.

Europe was ripe for reform. Luther’s ideas spread to other scholars, teachers, and priests. Since the church had established such political power throughout the continent, the Reformation became a sort of political revolution as well as a religious one. Luther gained support from some German nobles, and there were some popular uprisings as well.
In Zurich Ulrich Zwingli began preaching from the Bible and criticizing church policies. The city government supported him, asserting its independence from church power. A similar thing happened in Geneva, where reformer William Farel enlisted the help of a bright French scholar named John Calvin. Like Zurich, Geneva became a laboratory for Christian statecraft.
Calvin was a great organizer, and it’s appropriate that his teachings became commonly known as “Reformed,” since he paid a lot of attention to the formulation of theology and Christian practice. In 1536, just three years after his own conversion experience, he published the first edition of The Institutes, which set forth Reformation principles in an orderly style. This was hugely important for the young movement. Many revolutions explode in a burst of passion and later people wonder what it was all about. Luther had provided the passion, but now Calvin presented the principles.These became the two major Protestant groups: the Lutherans and the Calvinists. They shared many beliefs, but they differed in enough points that they never merged. Lutheranism spread northward, through Germany to Scandinavia.
Calvinism went north and west, through Switzerland to France, Holland, Scotland, England.
The Roman Church stayed strong in the south: Italy, much of France, Spain.Two smaller Protestant groups deserve mention.
The Anabaptists emerged in Switzerland and elsewhere as a radical back-to-the-Bible movement. The other Protestants saw them as a threat, and treated them badly. The most notable Anabaptist was Menno Simons, for whom the Mennonites were named. Mennonites in Holland strongly influenced the formation of the Baptist church. And the tradition of Jan Huss remained alive in Bohemia in the form of the Unity of the Brethren.
The Brethren were caught in the crossfire between Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, but they ultimately contributed to the Moravian Brethren community in Herrnhut, Germany, which pioneered revivalism and missions and had major influence on John Wesley.

While continental Europe was being carved up by the new denominations, England was doing its own thing. King Henry VIII had been in an ongoing power struggle with the Pope, and the tipping point came when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce. This was purely a political matter with no moral high ground, but it gave opportunity to a group of reform-minded Christians in England. When Henry grabbed control of the English church from Rome, some strong Protestants arose to shape this new Anglican church: Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Thomas Cromwell, and others. The sixteenth century turned into a violent roller coaster ride as Henry changed his mind a few times, Lutherans and Calvinists bickered, and Bloody Mary tried to bring England back under the Catholic church. Many good Christians were martyred by other Christians. Ultimately, Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter, navigated a sane middle course.

Of course, the Protestant Reformation completely changed the religious landscape of the Western world. Roman Catholic hegemony was broken. On the one hand, the Protestants successfully challenged an oppressive regime rife with corruption. On the other hand, they opened the door to all sorts of new heresies and fringe groups. It’s no wonder that the number of Protestant denominations keeps growing as new churches continue to break away from old churches. The emphasis on an individual’s relationship with God and each person’s capacity to interpret Scripture created an environment of vitality and creativity, but also held potential for chaos and division.The Reformation also triggered political, academic, scientific, and philosophical revolutions. It’s no accident that the Reformation followed hard on the heels of the Renaissance. In many ways, they were the same movement—a new freedom for people to interact with truth on their own. Humanism, individualism, nationalism, and a number of other isms all have Reformation connections. The world hadn’t really changed a lot between the years 480 and 1480. But by 1580 it was hardly recognizable.

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