Q&A: Reformation Genesis

Reformation Genesis

Question

How did the Reformation begin? I hear Martin Luther was responsible for initiating it. How long did it take to become accepted? What kinds of obstacles did Luther basically face? How did he eventually achieve this? What kinds of effects did the Reformation have on places like Germany, England, France, Italy, and Europe in general (e.g socially, economically, religiously)?

Answer

Martin Luther was a key figure in the initiation of the Reformation -- he accidentally started it. He was the doctor of theology at Wittenberg in Germany who posted his famous "95 Theses" on the church door. The Theses were in Latin -- not accessible to the populace of Wittenberg -- and 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 invention of the 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 Catholic 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 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 Catholic Church (to which they paid significant tribute). For the religious leaders, Reform was about retrieving the gospel from the clutches of apostasy. 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, he 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 Catholic Church.

Simultaneously with this, Reform was taking place in Switzerland, France, and neighboring countries. England was affected in an interesting way. First, the church of England had already split from the Roman Catholic Church by the time the Reformation began (1517). 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, while Scotland became a cornerstone of Reformed thought under John Knox.

Many peope attribute substantial social, economic and political advances to the Reformation. It certainly changed the face of international politics, and of national religion, throughout Europe. Along these lines, it is interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson borrowed the language in the Declaration of Independence substantially from a document used in by the Presbyterian church at the time (a main branch of the Reformation, descending primarily from John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, and from John Knox in Scotland). Prior to the Congress, the Presbytery was the only interstate government that existed in American Colonies.

Personally, the part of the Reformation I find most interesting is the theology -- both the recovery of the Bible as the standard of theology, and the divergence of views spawned thereby. I owe a great personal debt to the theology of the Reformed tradition, which, oddly, is not the branch of tradition that started the Reformation. The Reformed churches grew from Calvin in Geneva, and then from his students in the Netherlands and Scotland (like Knox). The church that started the Reformation is now known as the Lutheran Church. I also have a particular interest in John Wyclif, who is often called the Morningstar of the Reformation. He died well over a century before the Reformation began in Germany, but championed many similar issues in England in his own day (such as a vernacular Bible).

We have a good series on the Reformation in our Magazine Online under the Church History section. The series is entitled Reformation Men and Theology, and is by Dr. Jack L. Arnold. The articles are brief, easy to scan, and densely packed with good information.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.