Protestant Reformation

"The Protestant Reformation was a major 16th century European movement aimed initially at reforming the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Its religious aspects were supplemented by ambitious political rulers who wanted to extend their power and control at the expense of the Church. The Reformation ended the unity imposed by medieval Christianity and, in the eyes of many historians, signaled the beginning of the modern era. A weakening of the old order was already under way in Northern Europe, as evidenced by the emergence of thriving new cities and a determined middle class.

"In 1517, in one of the signal events of western history, Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, posted 95 theses on a church door in the university town of Wittenberg. That act was common academic practice of the day and served as an invitation to debate. Luther's propositions challenged some portions of Roman Catholic doctrine and a number of specific practices.

"The movement quickly gained adherents in the German states, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Scotland and portions of France. Support came from sincere religious reformers, while others manipulated the movement to gain control of valuable church property.

"The term Protestant was not initially applied to the reformers, but later was used to describe all groups protesting Roman Catholic orthodoxy." ^[1]^

As the hope of reforming the Roman church faded, the "protestants" were forced to separate from Roman Catholicism resulting in Lutheran churches in Germany, Scandinavia and some eastern European countries, the Reformed churches in Switzerland and the Netherlands, Presbyterian churches in Scotland, and the Anglican church in England, and other diverse elements all of which have evolved into the Protestant denominations of today.

Precursors to the Reformation

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe (1330–84) attacked what he saw as corruptions within the church, including the sale of indulgences, pilgrimages, the excessive veneration of saints, and the low moral and intellectual standards of ordained priests.

Wycliffe also repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation, held that the Bible was the sole standard of Christian doctrine, and argued that the authority of the Pope was not grounded in Scripture. Some of Wycliffe's early followers translated the Bible into English, while later followers, known as Lollards, held that the Bible was the sole authority and that Christians were called upon to interpret the Bible for themselves. The Lollards also argued against clerical celibacy, transubstantiation, mandatory oral confession, pilgrimages, and indulgences.

John Huss

John Huss (1369–1415) — A Bohemian priest, excommunicated in 1410, and burned at the stake for heresy in 1415. His death lead to the Hussite Wars in Bohemia. Huss followed Wycliffe's teachings closely, translating Wycliffe's Trialogus into Czechoslovakian, and modeling the first ten chapters of his own De Ecclesia after Wycliffe's writings. He believed in predestination, regarded the Bible as the ultimate religious authority, and argued that Christ, rather than any ecclesiastical official, is the true head of the church.

Prominent figures in the Reformation

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483–1546) — In 1517, nails his 95 Theses onto a Wittenberg Church door. These theses were Latin propositions opposing the manner in which indulgences (release from the temporal penalties for sin through the payment of money) were being sold in order to raise money for the building of Saint Peter's in Rome.

Huldreich Zwingli

Huldreich Zwingli (1484–1531) — Swiss theologian and leader of early Reformation movements in Switzerland. Vigorously denounces the sale of indulgences in 1518.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509–64) — Calvin was a French theologian and reformer who fled religious persecution in France and settled in Geneva in 1536. He instituted a form of Church government in Geneva which has become known as the Presbyterian church. He insisted on reforms including: the congregational singing of the Psalms as part of church worship, the teaching of a catechism and confession of faith to children, and the enforcement of a strict moral discipline in the community by the pastors and members of the church. Geneva was, under Calvin, essentially a theocracy.

John Knox

John Knox (1513–1572) — An ardent disciple of Calvin, Knox established Calvinistic Protestantism as the national religion of Scotland. He left a powerful political legacy within the Calvinist or Reformed branch of Protestantism, a political legacy known as Presbyterianism.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII (1491–1547) — In 1533, Henry was excommunicated by the pope for marrying Anne Boleyn and having the archbishop of Canterbury sanction the divorce from his first wife, Catherine. In 1534, Henry had Parliament pass an act appointing the king and his successors supreme head of the Church of England, thus establishing an independent national Anglican church.

Theological Issues of the Reformation

The theology of the Reformers departed from the Roman Catholic Church primarily on the basis of three great principles:^[2]^

  • Sole authority of Scripture,
  • Justification by faith alone, and
  • Priesthood of the believer.

Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) was one of the watchwords of the Reformation. This doctrine maintains that Scripture, as contained in the Bible, is the only authority for the Christian in matters of faith, life and conduct. The teachings and traditions of the church are to be completely subordinate to the Scriptures. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, holds Scripture and Tradition to be of the same inspired Deposit of Faith.

Sola Fide

Sola Fide (by faith alone) was the other watchword of the Reformation. This doctrine maintains that we are justified before God (and thus saved) by faith alone, not by anything we do, not by anything the church does for us, and not by faith plus anything else. It was also recognized by the early Reformers that Sola Fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of Sola Gratia, by grace alone. Hence the Reformers were calling the church back to the basic teaching of Scripture where the apostle Paul states that we are "saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God," Eph. 2:8.

Priesthood of all believers

The third great principle of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. The Scriptures teach that believers are a "holy priesthood," 1 Pet. 2:5. All believers are priests before God through our great high priest Jesus Christ. "There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus," 1 Tim. 2:5. As believers, we all have direct access to God through Christ, there is no necessity for an earthly mediator. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox concept of the priesthood was seen as having no warrant in Scripture, viewed as a perversion and mis-application of the Old Testament Aaronic or Levitical priesthood which was clearly fulfilled in Christ and done away with by the New Testament.

As a result of these principles, the Reformers rejected the authority of the Pope, the merit of good works, indulgences, the mediation of Mary and the Saints, all but the two sacraments instituted by Christ (Baptism and the Lord's Supper), the doctrine of transubstantiation, the mass as a sacrifice, purgatory, prayers for the dead, confessions to a priest, the use of Latin in the services, and all the paraphernalia that expressed these ideas.

Even though the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches fall within Orthodoxy as most would define it, much of their teaching beyond the basic tenets is regarded as erroneous by conservative Protestants. In fact, they would say much of it is clearly to be regarded as false teaching which has perverted the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ. In general, evangelical Protestants see the Reformation as simply a call back to biblical Christianity.


  1. The Protestant Reformation at
  2. Eerdmans' Handbook to the History of the Christian Church, Tim Dowley editor, p. 364ff. See also, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1911), s.v. The Reformation, Vol. IX, p. 419.


See also