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If you're an Evangelical, the Protestant Reformation probably represents the redemption of Christianity—its salvation from the Roman Catholic hierarchy and restoration to apostolic and Biblical truth.
Do you prefer a shorter, more concise version of this page?
If you live in the west, then the Protestant Reformation—the inevitable outcome of the Renaissance—ought to represent freedom from tyrannical governments to you.
My area of expertise is early Christianity through the Council of Nicea and the Reformation. A friend, though, has written a page on the First Great Awakening, a period that was a glorious testimony to the power of Jesus Christ.
It's true that Reformation leaders still believed in theocracy. Protestant leaders ruled with as much of an iron fist as Roman Catholic leaders had before them. Nonetheless, it is the Protestant Reformation that paved the way for the freedoms and secular governments we enjoy today.
It is true that theology was involved. The love for learning stirred up by the Renaissance led both to changes in theology and to the Protestant Reformation. However, the Protestant Reformation was not prompted by theology.
It was prompted, like most things in our modern world …
… by money.
Many historians mark the start of the Protestant Reformation with Luther's 95 theses. On October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther marched to the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed his 95 theses to the door. Almost every thesis concerned the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences.
Indulgences are, in Roman Catholic theology, "remission of the temporal punishment due to sin" (Catholic Encyclopedia). Roman Catholics believe that there is temporary punishment for sins, even if those sins have been forgiven. The forgiveness given in their sacrament of penance removes only "the eternal punishment due to mortal sin."
If the temporary punishment for sins is not paid during a person's lifetime, then they are sent to purgatory to endure that punishment. After they have been punished sufficiently, then they are released to go to heaven.
In the Middle Ages, and especially through the Protestant Reformation, indulgences were used for fundraising. In return for a contribution to the Catholic Church, the pope or priest would grant an indulgence, which would remit some or all of a person's temporal punishment.
That indulgence could be applied to the person contributing money, or it could be applied to someone else on the giver's behalf.
Superstition abounded during the Protestant Reformation era, so indulgences sold well for loved ones supposedly suffering in purgatory.
The Roman Catholic Church filled their coffers with the sale of indulgences, and Luther's 95 theses dealt almost exclusively with indulgences.
Money talks. Martin Luther became instantly popular with the nobles.
No name is so tied to the Protestant Reformation as Martin Luther. When he hammered his 95 theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg, the sound echoed for centuries.
Whether you agree with his theology or not, Martin Luther changed the world and paved the way for freedom.
Martin Luther's most famous doctrine is sola fide, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.
What is not so well-known is that Luther taught a version of Calvinism, the doctrine of predestination that is ascribed to John Calvin. (Of course, he taught it before Calvin did, so it's not really "Calvinism.") He wrote a book called The Bondage of the Will in which he taught a version of predetermination every bit as strict as Calvin's.
Luther's story is utterly fascinating, both in a positive and negative sense. The positives include a German translation of the Bible, one of the first Bibles since the Dark Ages that was translated into the language of common people. His bravery at the Diet of Worms (yes, I know it's a funny name) is also inspiring and commendable, to say the least.
On the negative side, he was prone to very crude bathroom humor. "The world is a giant anus, and I am a ripe stool ready to be squeezed out of it," is one of his real doozies. He said that when he felt his death was near.
He also reported some contests with the devil that would shock you (more on that on the Martin Luther page). Historians denounce him as well for his role in the Peasant's Rebellion.
Martin Luther was the first of the Reformers, born in 1483 and beginning his role in the Protestant Reformation in 1517. John Calvin was not born until 1509, and his role in the Protestant Reformation did not begin until the 1530's.
While Luther's political influence was only in the role of counselor, and he was often in trouble with authorities, John Calvin eventually gained almost dictatorial power in Geneva, Switzerland.
Calvin was a tireless preacher, and it is said that he preached over 2,000 sermons. At times he preached up to five times a week, and most of those sermons were over an hour long.
Calvin is most known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion and for his strong views on predestination. His predestination doctrine is best remembered now by the acronym TULIP and is generally referred to as Calvinism.
Calvin was highly influential, and the "Reformed Church" continues to this day. Presbyterian churches are usually Calvinist in doctrine, as are some Baptists. Other Baptist churches refer to themselves as 3-point Calvinists, in opposition to the 5 points represented by TULIP.
Calvin and Luther stayed independent of each other, Luther in Germany and Calvin in Switzerland. Much of their inability to work together hinged on Luther's disagreement with the third major Reformer, …
Ulrich Zwingli was born on the first of January the year after Luther was born. Also in Switzerland, he lived in Zurich. He died several years before Calvin's rise to prominence.
Zwingli claimed his break from the Catholic Church, and his role in the Protestant Reformation, was independent of Luther's, which is very likely true.
While his doctrine was like Luther's and Calvin's in many respects, he is known for being the only leader of the Protestant Reformation to reject the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Zwingli was a careful theologian, and his break from the Catholic Church was gradual and was supported by the leaders of Zurich. Due to location, he had the most interaction with the Anabaptists, the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation (and a favorite group of mine). All the Reformers persecuted the Anabaptists, and Zwingli, probably the least combative of the three, was no exception.
The brightest star of the Protestant Reformation in England was William Tyndale, who devoted his life to producing an English translation of the New Testament, which he accomplished in 1526 with the help of Reformation printing presses in Germany.
I mention the Waldensians here only because they are well-known. Really, they are a movement that belongs to the late Medieval period. Originally Roman Catholic until they were driven out of the Church by persecution in the 13th century, they were satisfied enough with the Protestants to basically become a part of the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the Waldensian Confession of 1655 is Calvinistic and based upon the Reformed churches' Gallican Confession of 1559 (Re: Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, bk. VIII, sec. 162).
There are still Waldensian churches to this day, mostly in Switzerland and Italy. The city of Valdese, North Carolina has a Waldensian Museum and a "Trail of Faith" that recounts much of their history.
I have included a page on their horrendous treatment by the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation.
The Anabaptist/Radical Reformation is easily my favorite part of the Protestant Reformation.
Never mind that the current Amish and Mennonites are the physical descendants of the Radical Reformers. Like Paul said of the Jews, it is not the children of the flesh who are God's children. It's their spiritual descendants that matter, and we all have opportunity to be the spiritual descendants of the awesome Anabaptists.
You'll find me overflowing with praise for men like Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel, and Georg Blaurock. These guys were all persecuted by Ulrich Zwingli and the Zurich city council.
Felix Manz was drowned by the Zurich city council. His brother and mother were there to shout encouragement to him to stand fast in the faith.
Georg Blaurock, however, was not a citizen of Zurich, so they banished him from the canton instead. Before they did, they chased him out of town, beating him with sticks as he ran from them.
When they reached the edge of town, the people stopped. Georg, his back bleeding, stopped as well. Slowly, he took off his shoes, then dusted them off in front of all the people.
Then he turned and headed down the road to bring the radical version of the Protestant Reformation to the next place he came to.
Georg (no, that's not misspelled; it's German) was full of boldness. One time he attended a service, looking for an opportunity to preach the Gospel. When he saw the priest walking up to the pulpit, he jumped up, stopped him, and told him, "God has called me to preach today."
The startled priest gave up his pulpit to Georg, who proclaimed the Gospel of salvation by faith and complete commitment to Christ.
Georg was the noted bold and brave one. Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel were "the brains of the operation." Felix Manz especially was the careful and skilled theologian.
This didn't mean he lacked in bravery. It was Felix Manz, not Georg Blaurock, who was the first Anabaptist martyr, put to death by Protestants, not Catholics.
Felix Manz' martyrdom came directly after a debate with Ulrich Zwingli. Debates with Protestant Reformers could be dangerous. The Council of Geneva, for example, put a heretic named Servetus to death after a debate with John Calvin during the Protestant Reformation. (To be sure, the Roman Catholics asked for Servetus once Geneva arrested him. Their designs were the same, to execute him for heresy.)
Servetus really was a heretic, rejecting the pre-existence of Christ. This doesn't change the fact that putting opponents to death has nothing at all to do with following Christ. If we are called to pray for those who persecute us, how can we become persecutors ourselves?
I love the Anabaptists. I get excited about their faith. I believe God did, too. They were not just the radical Reformation; they were the real Reformation.
Christian History magazine, way back in the 1980's (Issue 5, 1985) said that, during the Protestant Reformation, if a man didn't "drink to excess, curse, or abuse his workmen or family," he could be arrested for suspicion of being an Anabaptist. The difference between them and the Protestants was stark.
While the Protestant Reformation bore pitiful fruit in the area of holiness, Anabaptists were so transformed that one Anabaptist, Dirk Willems, actually stopped to save his Roman Catholic pursuer from drowning after he fell through the ice. He was taken captive anyway, then put to death.
The book Martyrs Mirror has myriads of stories about the bravery and love of Christ among the early Anabaptists.
Some of those stories are reproduced on the Christian Martyrs page on this site. You can also read:
Very few movements have relived the majesty that belonged to the church from apostolic times through A.D. 250. The Radical Reformation was among them.
Unfortunately, Menno Symons and other Anabaptist leaders would later instill an insatiable desire for division that became self-righteousness and legalism and ruined the movement, but in the 16th century they brought the glory and fire of the early church to life again for decades.