The Protestant Reformation: A critical assessment

The Reformation is a religious movement that began in 1517 as a reaction to medieval Catholic doctrines and practices, which broke up the institutional unity of the church in Western Europe and established the third great branch of Christianity, called Protestantism, which can be distinguished for its emphasis on the absolute and sufficient authority of the Bible and on justification by faith alone.

Many factors such as feudalism, social, political, economic as well as religious life of several countries paved the way for the conditions that resulted in the Reformation. Furthermore, nationalistic fervour, rise of lay piety, theological awareness and humanism also contributed to the development of the Reformation which led to the renewal of morals, worship, liturgy, spirituality as well as study of Christian doctrines.

Several fundamental doctrines can be found in the four Solas that are stated in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 that was edited by Philipp Melanchthon, a professor at the University of Wittenberg and close friend of Martin Luther sums up the theological thrust of the Reformation movement.

  1. Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) – This speaks of the place of Scripture as the sole authority with regard to Christian doctrine and practice. Therefore, the studying and understanding the Scriptures plays an important role in the life of all believers. Moreover, this also highlights the need for the Bible to be translated into the vernacular language that common people will understand.
  2. In Christ Alone (Solus Christus) – This asserts the rightful place of Jesus Christ as the sole conciliator between God and man. It also articulates that a person is made right with God by the merits of Christ alone Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection is a once-and-for-all event that reconciles the world with God. Furthermore, this also entails that Christ is the sole mediator between God and man.
  3. By Grace Alone (Sola Gratia) – This relates to the nature of God’s loving initiative to make people right with Him, not through any merit on the part of the person. But rather out of God’s own accord salvation is given as an unearned gift.
  4. By Faith Alone (Sola Fide) – This accounts for the personal response of the individual to God as the ultimate cause of salvation that was enacted through Christ and is made available by as a gift by grace. It speaks of the individual’s appropriation of this gift of salvation that comes through faith alone in Christ.

The call for reform within the Catholic Church started early on with people like Peter Waldo began to preach and teach publicly, based on his ideas of simplicity and poverty, notably that “No man can serve two masters, God and mammon” accompanied by strong condemnations of Papal excesses and Catholic dogmas, including purgatory and transubstantiation; the French abbot Bernard of Clairvoux; John Huss a Czech priest, who was burned at the stake for heresy against the doctrines of the Catholic Church, in consequence for his attacks against the excess of the Pope; and John Wycliffe of Oxford, England who had been labelled as “the Morning Star of the Reformation”, for the reason that he translated the New Testament of Jerome’s Vulgate into vernacular English in 1382, as well as for being one of the earliest opponents of papal authority influencing secular power.

But it wasn’t until 1517 when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk from Germany nailed his “95 Theses” on the church door at the Castle Church in Wittenberg in protest against the selling of indulgences, that the call for reform became widespread throughout Western Europe.

While in 1519 Huldreich Zwingli became the People’s Priest at The Great Minster Church in Zurich. He abandoned the liturgical calendar and started preaching through the Bible book by book. He began to challenge unscriptural practices in the Catholic Church. Like so, he became the leader of the Swiss Reformation, which rose independent from Martin Luther, as Zwingli also arrived at similar conclusions in his own personal study of the Scriptures. Zwingli was later killed in 1531 at Kappel am Albis, while serving as a military chaplain in a battle against the Catholic cantons.

In April 17, 1521, Luther stands before the Diet of Worms which addressed the effects of the Protestant Reformation. His refusal to retract all of his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X in 1520 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V resulted in his excommunication by the pope and his condemnation as an outlaw by the emperor.

Conrad Grebel, the son of a prominent Swiss merchant and councilman, who studied under Zwingli the Greek classics, the Latin Bible, the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament splits with Zwingli’s group over disagreement on infant baptism in 1525. Later he forms Swiss Brethren movement which was influential in the formation of the radical wing of the Reformation which became known as the Anabaptists (re-baptizers), whose direct descendants, are the Amish which came from a group in 1693 led by Jakob Ammann; the Hutterites a communal branch of Anabaptists founded by Jakob Hutter which emphasized on living in a community of goods and absolute pacifism; and Menno Simons’ followers who called themselves Mennonites which founded their belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, which they held to with great conviction despite persecution by the various Roman Catholic and Protestant states.

In the meantime Henry VIII dismisses Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey for failing to obtain the Pope’s consent to his divorce from Catherine of Aragon; Henry VIII summons the “Reformation Parliament” and begins to cut the ties with the Church of Rome in 1529.

Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of the English kings Henry VIII and Edward VI gains his first contact with a Continental reformer was with Simon Grynaeus, a follower of the Swiss reformers Basel. In the summer of 1531, Grynaeus took an extended visit to England to offer himself as an intermediary between the king and the Continental reformers. He struck up a friendship with Cranmer and after his return to Basel, he wrote about Cranmer to the German reformer Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. Grynaeus’ early contacts initiated Cranmer’s eventual relationship with the Strasbourg and Swiss reformers. Cranmer later led the Church of England to a more Protestant direction the Thirty-Nine Articles, an Anglican statement of faith which was derived from his work as well as through the Book of Common Prayer.

During his 18-month stay in Bourges, the Frenchman, John Calvin learned Greek, and experienced a sudden religious conversion. Later we will publish seminal work the Institutes of the Christian Religion in Latin in 1536.

The Catholic Church convenes the Council of Trent to counter the Protestant Reformers in 1545, which resulted with the condemnation of the dissenting Protestant views with the concluding “anathema sit” (“let him be anathema”) which literally means ‘to be accursed’.

England returns to Roman Catholicism: Protestants are persecuted and about 300, including Cranmer, were convicted of treason and heresy was burned at the stake. While in Germany the Peace of Augsburg was signed giving each German prince the right to determine the religious affiliation of the territory he rules in 1555.

Lastly, John Knox a Scottish clergyman who came under the influence of John Calvin returns to Scotland after several years in Geneva, and led the Scottish Reformation and began to preaching against the Papal Church. Later he was arrested under Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland in 1560 and tried for treason, but was acquitted. He spent his remaining years preaching and lecturing in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. He is considered the founder of the Presbyterian denomination in Scotland.

On hindsight, the Protestant Reformation was instrumental in instituting a reorganizing of Christianity that resulted in the restoration of the place of Scripture as the sole authority in the rule of faith and life, which puts forward the necessity for churches to consult the Bible in formulating doctrines and practices as well as for the laity to include the daily reading of Scripture part of their piety, and situating the preaching of the Word central in congregational worship. This restoration moreover, necessitates the translation of the Scriptures into the common lingua franca of the people.

It is also noteworthy that prior to the Reformation John Huss and John Wyclife, have laid the groundwork for this when they stressed the need to have the Bible available in vernacular language. This bore fruit with Luther’s translation of Erasmus’ Greek translation Bible into German, as well as in the work of William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale and John Rogers in translating the Bible into the English language.

It also paved the re-discovery of the liberating message of being made right with God by grace which an individual can receive by faith in Christ alone.  This is important because this got to the bottom of Luther’s argument in his 99 Thesis against indulgences which he believed makes forgiveness of sins burdensome for people (especially the underprivileged). More importantly the re-discovery reinstates God’s proper place in His role in the salvation of people because it reveals Him as the initiator and finisher of man’s reconciliation with Him and that man can only respond to that salvific work in faith so as to receive that gift of salvation from God.

The recovery of the individual person’s access to God through Christ . While at the same time God is equally accessible to all the faithful, and every Christian has equal potential to minister for God.  This prompted greater participation from the part of the laity in ministerial functions in the church, thus renewing the communal life of the church where parishioners are transformed from mere spectators into co-ministers of the clergy in administering functions in the church.

From the Roman Catholic perspective the Reformation destroyed the unity of faith and ecclesiastical organization of the Christian peoples of Europe which was also partly because of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the Protestants in Trent, which in their perspective diminished a unified witness to the Body of Christ.

Via the Reformation what resulted is a fragmented Christian movement with the tendency to split over issues of dispute within their respective traditions and interpretations of Scripture. It is not totally wrong to say that this is the Protestantism’s weakness as this transition from a monolithic Christian expression of Western Christianity to a diverse group of faith communities unified by agreement on principal doctrines was able to renew Christianity and not to mention reach out to more people and re-establish the place of evangelization in both Protestant and Catholic Churches and not to mention was also influential in the later rise of free enterprise and the Enlightenment.

However, looking at it from today’s perspective this fragmented Body of Christ also shows a Christianity that tends to look more after its denomination’s distinctive rather than what unifies them, thus I believe on a personal note that there is much to be learned from Philip Schaff, who stated on numerous occasions his ecumenical hope that: “In Christ all contradictions are reconciled.” Thus I believe this aftermath of  the Reformation presently challenges us Christians to pursue a greater understanding of all expressions of the Christian faith, as well as gives us the hope to pray and work harder for a reconciliatory reunion of, all those who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

While it is also tragic to note that no research of the Reformation would be complete without stating that the Reformation was also tainted with violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the persecution from the Magisterial Reformers of the Radical Reformers. Not to mention that the dreadful combination of religious fervour with politics of patronage also led to the Thirty Years’ War that was fought largely as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire, although disputes over the internal politics and balance of power within the Empire played a significant part. The Peace of Westphalia denotes a series of peace treaties signed between May and October of 1648 which eventually ended the Thirty Year’s War, but not without the loss of precious life and damaged witness to the cause of Christ.

In spite, of its failings we also need to keep reminding ourselves to look for the big picture. We cannot help but see flaws, disgraceful aspects, even scandals. But as we look deeper you will find that it is a marvel that through it the Biblical foundations of the Church was reclaimed and Christianity was able persist even though it’s very essence and existence has been threatened in many ways at different times. Somehow it coped. Still it survives. Its doors are always open. And never forget that this is the institution that at is best seeks out the worst, welcoming in and caring for those who no one else wants.

The Reformation also highlighted the fact that in spite of widespread abuse and scandal within the Church, the Holy Spirit worked in the lives of its outstanding members that are in the person of the Protestant Reformers who made great impacts that would forever transform the character of Christianity forever, by teaching us that we can reclaim our idealism and our belief and our confidence in God and His written Word who calls us to always reform and keep on reforming for God’s Glory.

Further reading

  1. Le Poulet Gauche: The Reformation
  2. The Story of the Church Part 4: The Protestant Reformation
  3. Catholic Encyclopedia: The Reformation
  4. Diercke International Atlas: The Reformation in Europe circa 1570
  5. A Puritan’s Mind: The Reformation, the greatest revival of the church and its aftermath
  6. The Story of the Church: Progress of the Reformation 1517-1688
  7. Hanover College History Department: Internet Archive of Texts and Documents for the Protestant Reformation
  8. Fordham University: Modern History Sourcebook entry on the Reformation
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One thought on “The Protestant Reformation: A critical assessment

  1. Pingback: Protestant Reformation Documents – THE DOCUMENTARIES

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