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The Reformation

The Reformation (or Reformations) of the sixteenth century was a turning point in the history of the Church.

Read time: 7 minutes, 10 seconds

The Reformation of the sixteenth century

Throughout Europe for the thousand years that we call the Middle Ages, the Church was an organisation that was fully united, at least in its structure. It was centred in Rome, led by the Pope, and spread through the whole of society by means of parish churches, which meant that each person had a link to a local church, and a place for worship and to receive the sacraments. However, by the end of the fifteenth century, various stresses and strains that had been building up for a couple of centuries began to reach proportions that at first threatened and then succeeded in breaking this structure apart. The rethinking, reorganisation and reconstruction of how Christians thought about themselves, each other and the nature of the church that took place in the sixteenth century is what we call The Reformation.

Although we use the title “The Reformation”, in fact, this covers several movements and strands of thought. Some of those who have written about it have preferred to refer to The Reformations. This is partly because the changes took different shapes in different parts of Europe – the Reformation in England was very different, for example, from the Reformation in Germany – and both of them differ considerably from what happened in Scotland or Scandinavia. It is also reflects the differences in emphasis – theological and social in different places, and led by different people.

The normal starting point to consider the Reformation is the work of Martin Luther. He was a German monk, who in 1517 was teaching at a new University, an institution which was part of a new way of thinking and studying, called humanism, which was changing the philosophical context of study in the universities and academies at this time. The new ways of thought were largely a move away from accepting and working on traditional teaching. Instead, looking to the original texts on which Bible translations were based, they investigated original languages, and explored what such research could offer people in exploring finding a faith that was less institutional and more personal.

Many people found in Luther’s initial writings ideas that resonated

There was an increasing discomfort with the institutions of religion at the time; many bishops, for example, were more involved in politics than in care of their flocks, and many local priests were poorly educated and very poorly paid – which meant that they were not able to serve their congregations well.

A development in theology in the fourteenth century had led to a practice known as the selling of indulgences. It was based on a belief in purgatory – a place that was intermediate between heaven and hell, where people who were not totally wicked, but not perfect enough for heaven could be purged of their sins after death. Indulgences were ways of paying, through money, the penalties of purgatory before death, rather than in suffering and punishment after death. Indulgences could be earned through pilgrimage or particularly pious works, or could be bought. They were available for oneself, or could be bought on behalf of those who had died.

In 1516, the Pope had declared an indulgence to be sold to raise money to rebuild St Peter’s cathedral in Rome. This began to be sold around Europe. Martin Luther came to the conclusion that this did not accord with the Scriptural teaching about forgiveness and God’s acceptance of those who trusted in the grace offered in Christ. He was also angry that some of the very poorest were being manipulated into spending money they could ill afford in order to benefit dead relatives – and, in his new opinion, uselessly.

He produced a document – the 95 Theses – in which he outlined his objections and his new understanding, and published it for debate.

To his surprise, it was not simply taken up by scholars, which was what he expected. Instead, it became a best-seller – thanks to the new invention of the printing press, which was to have a very powerful effect in spreading the new ideas that now began to emerge.

Many people found in Luther’s initial writings ideas that resonated, and he quickly found himself having to write more to try and answer questions. From the point of view of the beginning of the Reformation, the three booklets he wrote between 1518 and 1520, known as the Reformation Treatises, are the most significant. In these three booklets, he outlined a process for reforming the church to be done not by the Pope or priests (he argued they had failed) but by the princes, those with civil power. He also outlined a new theology of sacraments, cutting back the list things Christians “have to do” to the two commanded by Jesus – baptism and communion, and wrote about what a true Christian life should look like.

Many people responded to his ideas, though the institution of the church resisted, and he was eventually brought to face both church and political power at the Diet of Worms, in 1521, when he was excommunicated.

Christianity The Reformation

Now, from outside the church, he started to organise and develop a new and different form of church, not based in Rome, and not led by the Pope.

Others took up his ideas, or found that ideas they had already been exploring fitted with Luther’s teaching. Different emphases developed – in Switzerland, for example, where the power was not with princes, but with City Councils, cities often adopted a form of this new theology, but it was done through the council rather than the prince. This had an effect on the kind of theology, and in particular on the kind of church that developed. Many reformers argued that the civil power had a duty and right to determine the nature of the church in its area, and to reform it if necessary. We call these the magisterial reformers – they operated on the authority of the magistrate. Luther was the first of these, but others, such as Zwingli in Zurich, or later, Calvin in Geneva follow a similar model. Although there were significant differences between them, especially over their understanding of communion, they all agreed on two key things. The authority for the church was the Bible alone; and salvation for Christians was attained not through doing the good works that the church prescribed – both sacraments and good deeds – but through faith in the grace of God made known in Jesus. These became the reformation mottos – sola Scriptura, sola fide. They also argued that believers had access to God directly, and not only through the mediation of a priest. This is known as the priesthood of all believers.

They also argued that believers had access to God directly, and not only through the mediation of a priest.

Others who also adopted this kind of theology rejected the place of the civil authorities in deciding how the church should be. They argued that Scripture taught that the church was made up of believers, without a structural place for human authority. Therefore, they argued, the church should not be ruled by the Pope , the prince or the City council. We call these reformers the Radicals – the Anabaptists of Zurich are one of the clearest groups of these. There were various groups of people who followed this path. They placed great emphasis on personal faith and active discipleship – their concern was not only with correct belief, but with living as a Christian, and they include within this avoiding violence, and active mission. They were never numerous; nor were they popular. They were associated with anarchy and threat to civil order, and were persecuted by both Roman Catholics and Reformers.

Their persecution is a reminder that the Reformation was not a bloodless or genteel event. There was a great deal of violence, including the 30 years war, and wars in Germany, France, and later in England, driven by the divisions that developed as a result of the breakdown of the wholeness of the church.

On the positive side, the Reformation emphasis on reading Scripture provoked the translation of the Bible into local languages – German, French, English – and also the development of services in these languages, rather than in the Latin that had been the previous practice. With its emphasis on individual responsibility, the movement also encouraged people to seek a faith that was their own, and was “lively” rather than depending on a pattern that could be impersonal.