The Protestant Reformation Movement
By Emmanuel Oluwatoba | Niger, Nigeria
Up until the year 1500, the Roman Catholic Church was very powerful both politically and religiously. During this period, the Roman Catholic Church had been seen as an institution plagued by internal power struggles. Popes and cardinals lived like kings having temporal and spiritual power; they commanded armies, made political alliances and enemies and sometimes waged war.
Originally the word Reformation (from the Latin reforme, meaning“ to renew”) suggested the removal of impurities or corruption. The Reformation Movement is generally recognized to have begun in 1517, when Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German monk posted his ninety-five (95) theses on the door of the castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther believed that individuals could only be saved by personal faith in Jesus Christ and the grace of God (sola fide – Faith alone), and that the Catholic Church’s practices that focus on work (such as Pilgrimages, the sale of indulgences to obtain forgiveness, and prayer addressed to saints) were immoral. He also advocated that the Bible be the sole source of authority to Christians (sola scriptura – scriptures alone) and advocated that the Bible should be printed in the language of the reader, rather than in Latin. The pope condemned the reformation movement and in the year 1521 in the Diet of Worms council, Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Church. Afterwards he was sheltered by Friedrich, elector of Saxony, and then he translated the Bible into German language and continued his output of pamphlets.
Spread of the Reformation Movement
The Reformation Movement spread far beyond Germany in the early 1500s. Luther, while pivotal, was only one of many Christians struggling to reform the Church.
In Switzerland – Ulrich Zwingli also challenged the authority of Rome from his pulpit in Zurich; he rallied against Church corruption and any practices that were not specifically mentioned in the Bible. Zwingli agreed with Luther that faith was important for justification and salvation but he had a different understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli’s Ideas spread through Switzerland and his theology became common amongst the Switz.
In Geneva, a French man named John Calvin, also preached reform. Like Luther, Calvin was convinced that salvation was by God’s grace, but Calvin emphasized predestination; the notion that God had already decided those who would be saved. However Calvin found a more positive place within the Christian community than Luther did and Calvinism spread to France, Netherlands and beyond.
In Scotland, John Knox, who spent time in Geneva and was greatly influenced by John Calvin, preached at the main church in Edinburgh where he founded Presbyterianism. Knox insisted that every person be able to read the words of God for themselves.
Protestant ideas spread quickly to Denmark through its ruler, King Christian III of Denmark who was present at the Diet of worms and was inspired by Luther’s brave stand and returned home to establish Lutheranism as Denmark’s religion.
Impact of the Reformation Movement on Christianity
At the time of the reformation, the Bible was literally a closed book for majority of the populace as only key members of the Catholic Church had access to it and it was available only in Latin. At the same time the reformers recognized that Scriptures were the supreme authority for faith and practice in the Church, and so efforts were made to make the Scriptures more available to every Christian and they began translating the Bible into different languages for easy understanding. For the first time, common people could read the word of God and worship Him in their own language.
Prior to the reformation movement, cultural Christianity denominated Europe as everyone was considered a Christian due to Christianity being the official religion of the land. There was little emphasis on personal faith and belief; one was considered a Christian due to social standings and birth condition and not necessarily personal conviction. The reformation movement through study of the scriptures came to understand faith as the true requirement of being a Christian, shifting emphasis to the spiritual state of man. This change in view came with the realization that not everyone in the broader culture was a Christian, and so evangelism took a whole new level of urgency, teaching faith and personal relationship with God as the basis of Christian living. The church began to be viewed more as a body of believers and not a political and social estate which it had become.
There was also clear Church hierarchy. Famous saints from the past, as well as members of the clergy were in a class by themselves, most of the church goers had little part in the life of the church. In the reformation movement this hierarchy was abolished and every believer was considered to be a saint who could intercede on behalf of others and have a vital role as a member of the body of Christ.
While the goal of the reformation movement was to purge Christianity of false doctrines and practices, one of the practical adverse effects was that it lead to diversity of the Christian faith, with terms like “Lutheran”, “Calvinist”, “Presbyterian” replacing the term “Christian” as the sole Identity of professors of the Christian faith. It gave grounds for further division in Christianity. Such division, Apostle Paul condemned in his writings to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). Also, some of the teaching that they advocate too are not in line with what the scriptures teach. For example, TULIP –mnemonic for the five points Calvinist doctrine (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints) are all unscriptural concepts but sadly, it is being accepted by almost all the protestant denominations. See the “Salvation” section of this journal for the refutation of these concepts.
The Reformation Movement is a key part of Church history, it brought about a lot of changes to Christianity at the time. There were positive effects of the reformation movement, such as emphasis on faith and the scriptures as important aspects of the Christian life. However, it also marked the beginning of further divisions in Christianity, spirally over time and now we have over 40,000 denominations in the world today.
Armstrong, Alastair (2002). European Reformation: 1500 – 1610 (Heinemann Advanced History): 1500 – 55. Heinemann Educational. Khan Academy (n.d.). The Protestant Reformation.