Q&A: Reformation Beginnings

Reformation Beginnings

Question

When and where did the Reformation begin?

Answer

The Reformation "officially" began in 1517 with Martin Luther (1483-1546), but it did not start like a "bolt out of the blue." First, there were key men who began to call for reform in the church long before Luther was even born. I will mention two of the more prominent ones.

John Wycliffe (1320-1384): Wycliffe was born in England in the year 1320. He studied at the University of Oxford. In 1376 he began to criticize the clergy and the corruption of the Roman Church, and rejected purgatory and the worship of saints. It is no wonder that he is called "The Morning Star of the Reformation." Wycliffe wanted a return to simple, first-century Christianity. He believed the Bible to be the supreme authority for the Christian. Although he was a priest of the Roman Church to his dying day, he declared that the only head of the church is Christ. Those who followed Wycliffe were called "Lollards," and they went about the country of England preaching the gospel. Wycliffe is best known for the Lollard translation of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into the English language. Many attempts were made by the Roman Church to try Wycliffe for heresy with the hope of putting him to death, but various secular nobles protected him from the Inquisition. Wycliffe died in peace in 1384. The reception given by the laity to Wycliffe's writings reveals how widespread was the desire for reform of the church.

John Hus (c. 1369-1415): Hus, who was trained for the priesthood, became the head of the theological faculty at the University of Prague in the capital of Bohemia. He was greatly influenced by the teachings of Wycliffe, but was also a diligent independent thinker. He preached against the corruption of the Roman Church and believed that the church consists of the total number of the predestined (those who will be saved). He distinguished between being in the church and being of the church. He taught that one could be in the church and yet not be a real member of it. He also taught that popes and cardinals are not necessary to the government of the church, although he would not have opposed the Episcopal form of government. The whole nation of Bohemia followed Hus, even after he had been excommunicated by the pope. When the pope summoned Hus to the Council of Constance, the Emperor Sigismund ordered him to go and promised safe conduct to and from the Council. But when the Council condemned him as a heretic and burned him at the stake, Sigismund did not interfere. On the day of his martyrdom, Hus was dressed in full vestments of a priest. Then, one by one, every article of clothing was stripped from him with lewd remarks made about him. A paper cap was placed upon his head which said "Here is the Heresiarch." A crusade was organized against the followers of Hus, and for many years Bohemia was ravaged by war. But the spirit of reform lived on, and when the Reformation began in Germany, opposition to the Roman Church was still strong in the land of Hus. Hus had a profound influence upon Europe, and his teachings spurred Luther to take his stand against the Roman Church.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) and beyond: The main grievance that Luther had against the Roman Church was the system of indulgences. In fact, many of the "95 Theses" that Luther posted at the door to the church in Wittenburg, Germany, dealt with this practice. The service of indulgences was an exchange whereby the priests employed their special rapport with God to perform certain religious acts for laymen. For a price, clergy would pray, fast and read Scripture for a person. In other words, priestly services were bought. This was later developed into buying up time one might have to spend in purgatory. Indulgences were sometimes even sold on the pretense that a person could buy a loved one's entry into heaven.

Martin Luther was a doctor of theology at Wittenberg who posted his "95 Theses" in Latin — a language not accessible to the populace of the city. These theses were intended as topics for scholarly debate, not as rebellion or revolution. Posting theses in this way was common practice. In any event, the content of these theses aroused interest, and they were translated, printed in volume (thanks to Guttenberg's printing press), and widely distributed. Evidently, the time was ripe for reform and/or revolution, because before Luther knew what had happened, he found himself embroiled in a controversy that would not quit. He ended up spearheading a movement in Germany that split many German princes from their loyalty to the Roman Church, thus beginning the Lutheran church.

Luther was not the only Reformer, however, nor was he even the fountainhead of all Reformers. For example, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) started reform in Switzerland simultaneously with Luther's in Germany. Princes and kings also joined the fray, seizing the opportunity to justify cessation from the Roman Church (to which they paid significant tribute). For the religious leaders, reform was about retrieving the gospel from the clutches of false teaching and corruption. Some political leaders no doubt shared this concern, but others were motivated by a hunger for autonomy as well or instead. As one might guess from the mention of both Luther and Zwingli, and from the political nature of the kings' and princes' involvement, the Reformation was not a unified movement. It was rather a collection of movements, broadly separated along national boundaries, and finely split within them.

The obstacles Luther faced are somewhat hard to describe. To a large degree, they were personal obstacles. The Reformation began as Luther's personal defense of his writings and teachings. He claimed his teachings were in accordance with Scripture and church tradition, and the church lawyers argued otherwise. In defending himself, Luther gained support from other theologians and from politicians, and the matter escalated. Eventually, Luther's private defense movement turned into a new group of churches in Germany that had the political approval of the German princes, and autonomy from the Roman Church.

Not only was reform taking place in Germany and Switzerland, but also in France and neighboring countries. England was affected in an interesting way. The Church of England had already split from the Roman Church by the time the Reformation "began." The Reformed doctrines, however, did not begin to take strong root in England until the Reformation was well established on the continent. By the 17th century, during the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, England had adopted the Reformation doctrines almost entirely.

Many people attribute substantial social, economic and political advances to the Reformation. It certainly changed the face of international politics, and of national religion, throughout Europe. As a side note, the theology of the Reformed tradition is not the branch of tradition that started the Reformation. The Reformed churches grew from John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva, Switzerland, and then from his students in the Netherlands and Scotland, such as John Knox (1505-1572).

Answer by David Zoeller

David Zoeller is the Post Production and Senior Language Director at Thirdmill