Europe experienced many changes in the 16th century, among them the protestant reformation, also referred to as the protestant revolt. The pioneers of this movement were Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldreich Zwingli, and John Knox among other early Protestants (Spitz 45). The major aim of the Protestant movement was to break away from the practices and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Former events within Europe including the Western Schism and the Black Death had gradually destroyed the faith people had in the Catholic Church leading to the Protestant reformation. Ambitious political leaders that wanted to extend their powers to the church supplemented the religious aspects of the Protestant movement. The reformation indicated the beginning of a new contemporary era by ending the unity imposed by the old-fashioned Christianity.
The Protestant reformation dates back to the year 1517 in Wittenberg. During this year, Martin Luther who was a German monk pinned his 95 theses on the door of a church in the Wittenberg town (Hillerbrand 67). The act of posting theses on doors was a common academic behavior during that time and it served as an invitation to debate. Luther’s assertions in the theses challenged the practices and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The propositions criticized both the Pope and the Catholic Church. They concentrated on the Catholic’s loyalty to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the intercession and love of the saints, the compulsory clerical celibacy, and the powers of the Pope and the selling of indulgences about purgatory.
When the reformation began, people had become tired of the practices of the Catholic Church and it was time to break away. The Roman Catholic was selling the grace of God. The pope had authorized the sale of indulgences to the public in an effort to raise money to build the St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Rome. The temple of God was going to be erected using money raised from sin. These practices led to the beginning of the protestant reformation as people opposed the papal leadership. The practices dissatisfied the European society and it was time to make an end to the evil practices and break away from them. The Roman Church was emphasizing so much on rituals at the expense of personal salvation of Christians, which made people find the rituals unhelpful. The sacraments given by the church had lost their meaning because they were only rituals and yet Christians wanted something more personal.
The reformation also took place because papacy had lost its spiritual impact upon its people because of the increased inclination towards secularization. Popes and bishops of the Roman Church were behaving like kings and princes rather than being spiritual mentors to the European people (Gray 111). As many people from all lifestyles moved to the cities, they noticed the lavish homes of the church. The very rich envied the wealth of papacy while the poor were resentful of it. The wealth of the church increased as popes sold indulgences opening paths for all sorts of abuses. The clergy of the Roman church had become corrupt, immoral and relaxed and people began noticing that sacraments were concealed in indifferences and complacency.
Because of these abuses, people developed distrust, dislike for the clergy, and argued that even the laymen were as good as the priests. These abuses led to the call for reforms by creating ground for personal and social conflicts.
Martin Luther who lived between 1483 and 1546 dominated the protestant reformation by being the first person to spark debate about the abuses of the Roman Church. In 1505, Luther says he experienced a conversion after being struck by lightning. During one of his trips to Rome, Luther was shocked by the immoral lifestyles of the priests and on his return to Wittenberg, it was time to preach and teach people about the truth. One particular indulgence that caught Luther’s attention was the sale of the indulgences to raise money for building the St. Peter’s church in Rome by Johann Tetzel in Germany (Gray 123). The indulgence relieved the sinner from purgatory punishment before going to heaven. Although it was a permitted system, the clergy and the agents such as Tetzel had abused it. According to Luther, the buying of the indulgence released the sinner from the earthly punishment of sin but not the sin itself. On the other hand, Tetzel implied that the buyer of the indulgence was not only free from punishment but also from the sin itself.
Luther asserted that it was not only Tetzel spreading false teachings about the indulgence but also papacy. According to Luther, salvation depended on faith alone and not good works. His was a heretical thinking that justification was to be by faith alone and only God would grant salvation or damnation (Coppens 213). Good works alone would not assure someone of their salvation. Within a short period, many people turned away from the Roman Church to follow Luther. For the rich, following Luther was a way of retaining their wealth and have a chance for salvation without paying tribute to Rome. For the poor, on the other hand, Luther provided personal dignity and respect. Subjection to Rome and good works could not guarantee salvation. This movement thus seemed as an attack to the Roman Church since Luther told people what they wanted to hear. It was an alternative to the Roman Church.
The second movement of the protestant reformation started with John Calvin who lived between 1509 and 1564. Although Calvin and Luther were similar in certain contemporary issues, Calvin was a different man. He was a humanist scholar who studied Hebrew, Greek and Latin and he followed the teachings of Luther before breaking away later on. He denounced his catholic beliefs and defended justification by faith in a book containing more than 80 chapters (Hillerbrand 89). Calvin led the Swiss and French reformers of that time to make changes in the church and argued that there was nothing like free will. The fate of man was sealed for either heaven or hell and man could do nothing about it.
After some time, the pioneers of reform disagreed among themselves leading to a division of their movement according to doctrinal differences. The division resulted to establishment of rival protestant denominations such as the Presbyterian, Lutheran and the Reformed. The Anglicans were also among the largest reformed church based in England. Lutherans, as started by Marin Luther had their foundation in Germany and Scandinavia. On the other hand, the Reformed churches of Calvin were based in Netherlands, Switzerland and Scotland. The Roman Church in turn responded to the reformers by developing the counter-reformation movement over Europe.
The protestant reformation was a success because it promoted literacy and the printing press. Because of the reform movement, Luther was able to translate the Bible to German hence promoting literacy and stimulating printing and distribution of religious pamphlets and books. By 1530, the press had published about 10,000 religious pamphlets and distributed them around Germany and Europe (Spitz 66). Therefore, the reformation brought a revolution to the media industry.
The reformers broke from the Roman Church based on three great theological principles. One was the authority of the scriptures referred to as the Sola Scriptura, which means by scripture alone. This doctrine held that the scriptures from the Bible are the sole authority for Christians in matters of life and faith. Therefore, the teachings and other practices of the church are subordinate to the scriptures. On the contrary, the Roman Catholics believed that the scriptures and practices of the church carried the same weight.
“The next doctrine of the reformers was Sola Fide, which means by faith alone” (Gray 122). This doctrine emphasizes that only faith justifies Christians and not good works or anything that the church does for its believers. The wider principle of Sola Gratia, which means by grace alone, supported the doctrine of Sola Fide and made this principle clearer. Therefore, the reformers were calling Christians back to the fundamental teachings of the scriptures where Apostle Paul asserts that people are saved by grace through faith.
The third major doctrine of the reformers was the priesthood of all believers. According to the scriptures, all believers are a holy priesthood before the eyes of God through Jesus Christ the high priest. The Scripture further assert that there is only one mediator between God and man and that is Jesus Christ and therefore, an earthly mediator is not necessary. On the other hand, the Roman church did not support the concept of priesthood using the scriptures. Therefore, because of these principles, the reformers refused to accept the powers of pope, the indulgences, the worth of good works and the meditation of the saints and Mary the mother of Jesus (Coppens 101). The Protestants viewed the reformation as a call back to Christianity as illustrated in the Bible.
The protestant reformation resulted to religious wars that ended in thirty years of war, which destroyed a great part of Germany and killed about 40% of its population. The Roman Catholic Church tried to fight the protestant movement together with its other allies between the years 1618 to 1648. The reformation ruined the unity of faith of the Christians of Europe and drew many people from the true Catholic Church. The reformation caused great damage from the religious point of view by robbing people of the greatest part of their supernatural life.
The reformers taught that justification was by faith alone and this led to disappearance in the zeal for religious life. Because people denied the divinely instituted powers of the church, this led to the division of the protestant group into endless sects and disputes among the protestant church (Hillerbrand 133). Some people argue that the protestant reformation led to values that compelled people towards worldly achievements. It encouraged people to work hard save for investment. The religions that emerged after the reformation especially the one pioneered by John Calvin, prohibited people from wasting hard-earned money and suggested that the buying of luxuries was a sin.
In conclusion, the protestant reformation produced the many reformed churches witnessed in the contemporary world. The movement was a major break through from the Catholic Church that dominated the world before the 16th century. The charismatic leaders of that time such as Marin Luther and John Calvin helped in beginning the protestant reformation. Even though the Catholic Church tried to counteract the reformation with a counter reformation, the protestant revolt gained much influence and succeeded the test of time.
Coppens, Charles. The protestant reformation: How it was brought in various lands (1907).
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Gray, Madeleine. The protestant reformation: belief, practice and tradition. Brighton: Sussex
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Hillerbrand, Hans. The protestant reformation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.
Spitz, Lewis. The protestant reformation, 1517-1559. Missouri: Concordia Publishing House,