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Recounting the Reformation
Part Two

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Martin Luther spearheaded the Protestant Reformation with the development of four primary theological positions that challenged the posture that he perceived the Roman Catholic Church from. Other future reformers would borrow from these four but would not include all four of them in their own formats of protest against the Church. Initially, Luther had no desire to create a “new church”, but rather to see the one “Holy and Apostolic Church” reform itself and come into alignment with his specific theological positions. It is these four developing theological positions that Martin Luther wrote his Thesis 95, which we will review later in this course. 

The first position has become known as “Sola Fide” (faith alone). This theological position declared that it was faith in Jesus Christ, and that alone was only necessary for salvation. There was a strong implication that the ritualistic works required by the Church had no part in one obtaining the free gift of salvation. Luther based his understanding of this position on a passage found in Romans 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "But the righteous man shall live by faith." (NAS)

The next theological posture was called “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone). This position rejected the possibility of the Church’s tradition being equal to the voice of Scripture. It also included a rejection of allegory when interpreting scripture. Luther insisted that Scriptures were to be interpreted literally and used only for the determination of correct theology of Christian faith and practice. In dealing with problematic areas of scripture, Luther simply eliminated scriptures that did not harmonize with or mention the words of Christ, or Paul’s epistles regarding Christ. Thus, Hebrews and James were removed from the Lutheran canon. 

Luther also presented the theology of “Sola Gratia” (grace alone). This statement connects strongly with “Sola Fide” position of faith alone. It emphasized the participation of God in the believer’s salvation utilizing the text of scriptures like Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.(NAS). The emphasis was placed on God’s grace as a gift and the vehicle of salvation and not as a result of participating in the prescribed sacraments.   

Finally Luther promoted the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This doctrine stated that the Bible could be read and interpreted by the individual believer. It also declared that Bibles must then be accessible to the common person in their own language. The doctrine also made a strong opposition to the doctrine of the Church known as Apostolic Succession. Luther based his posture on Revelation 1:6 “and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”(NAS) Revelation 5:10 "And Thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth." (NAS)

Apostolic succession teaches that the Church’s priesthood is spiritually descended from the first apostles, namely Peter. Each generation of priests has laid hands on the next generation, ordaining them to the exclusive priestly service to the Church. Priests are the only persons who can administer the seven sacraments of the Eucharist, baptism, penance, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick.

If all believers are priests, than there is no exclusive group of priests. Any Christian can baptize new believers. Any Christian and administer the sacrament (ordinance) of Holy Communion (the Eucharist). Obviously, this could be perceived as a genuine threat to the hierarchical order of the Roman Church.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Lord’s Supper (The Eucharist/Holy Communion) is a sacrifice, and that to offer a sacrifice a priest is required. Luther denied the sacrificial character of the Lord’s Supper. He taught that Christ was offered once for all as a sacrifice upon the cross. There was therefore no place in the Church for priests.[1]

The irony of this struggle is found in the fact that eventually the majority of Protestant reformers started ordaining their own ministers, forming their own Protestant priesthood which has perpetuates itself until today.   


[1] Kuiper, B.K. The Church in History (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdman’s Publishers, 2001) 183



Desiderius Erasmus  (1466-1536) was a Dutch Theologian and a Roman Catholic that was educated at Cambridge University in England. He lived in both England and in Belgium and was considered to be a Christian humanist. He was a very subtle critic of the Roman Catholic Church. He translated the New Testament into Greek with Latin annotations in 1516. His New Testament was used by Martin Luther to translate into German in 1522. His New Testament was also used by Tyndale for his English translation which was later outlawed in England.

Martin Luther (November 10,1483 – February 18,1546) was an Augustinian monk and a Professor of Scripture at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. He spoke out strongly against the Church’s traditions, transubstantiation and the  selling indulgences. He initiated the European Protestant Reformation by posting his Theses 95 to the church door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany in October 1517. He was later excommunicated by the Church in 1521 and led the way with many of his written works to form the initial start of the Protestant movement. He translated the New Testament into German in 1522. He married Katharina von Bora an apostate nun and raised a family of six children after his excommunication.  

             John Calvin  (1509 – 1564) was a French Reformer in Geneva, Switzerland. He earned a

Doctor of Laws degree and moved to Geneva in 1536.  He eventually accepted a pastorate in Strasbourg, France from 1538-1541. He was in poor health all of his life suffering from migraines and kidney stones. Calvin systematized Luther’s theological thinking with more of a legal mindset. He published the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, defining his five point theological position as follows; Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints. He started the first university for reformed ministers called the Geneva Academy. Calvin made Geneva the “Rome of Protestantism”. He was considered to be an “unmatched” theologian of his day. He died in Geneva at age 55

Ulrich Zwingli  (1484-1531) was a Swiss theologian and reformer. He attended the University of Basel and earned his Bachelor degree and a Masters of Divinity and was originally ordained a Catholic Priest. Eventually, he strongly opposed the Catholic Church and Papal authority and taught extensively on the covenants and the sacraments. As a protestant reformer he removed music from worship in the church. He agreed with very little of Luther’s doctrine and eventually confronted him face to face, arguing extensively over the theology of the Eucharist. He was eventually killed in a battle against the Roman Catholic Cantons.  

            Jacob Arminius  (1560-1609) was the professor of theology at Leyden University. He attempted to modify the doctrines of Calvinism and called for a national synod to debate the issues. Unfortunately he died before the assembly could convene. His potential opponents would not allow his followers to attend. The Calvinists persecuted Arminians (his followers) until 1625. He authored the original Arminian doctrinal positions which were later adopted by John Wesley in the 18th century. They are as follows; Total Depravity of all humans, Salvation is through God’s Grace alone, Works cannot contribute to one’s salvation, God’s election is conditional on faith being placed in Jesus Christ, Atonement is available for all people, Continued faith is continued salvation.

            Thomas Bilney  (1495 – 1531) was born in Norwich, England and educated at Trinity Hall in Cambridge. He was then ordained a Catholic Priest. He started reading the Erasmus Greek New Testament and was converted after reading I Timothy 1:15 “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance,that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” He started a Bible study at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge with a Group that included William Tyndale and Matthew Parker. He was arrested in Ipswich, England in 1527 for preaching from Tyndale’s English New Testament. He signed an adjuration but recanted it later. He was arrested again in Norwich in1531 and burnt at the stake in. “In life he showed the reformers how to live for Christ, and in his death he showed them how to die for Christ.”

            William Tyndale (1494-1536) was an English theologian who earned his Masters Degree from Magdalene Hall in Oxford. He left  there in 1524, traveling to Wittenberg and Cologne, Germany. There he translated the New Testament into English in 1525-26 in Antwerp and smuggled his Bibles back into England in sacks of flour. He translated the Pentateuch into English in 1530 Jonah 1531. Much of his work was later used in the King James Bible of 1611. He is often considered to be the “Father of the English Bible”. He was eventually strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536. His famous saying was, “I will cause the boy who rides the plow to know more about the scriptures than the Pope.” 




Out of the Protestant Reformation came several individual confessions, not to be confused with the original creeds adhered to by the Roman Church. The original creeds were the Apostles Creed which probably came into formation and first use sometime in the 2nd century. The Nicene Creed took its primary shape in 325 AD at the Council of Nicaea which the first Christian sympathetic emperor Constantine, called and presided over to organize and unify the Christian movement in the Roman Empire. Neither of these two original creeds speaks directly  of Scripture, therefore the Reformers were quick to disqualify their use.

In their place they wrote confessions, which were primarily documents of theological positions and discourse. Some were quite brief, while others were exhaustive and oppositional in nature.   

The Augsburg Confession was composed in 1530 and consists of a compilation of Lutheran doctrine. It concentrates on faith and works and speaks out against the Roman Church’s cult of saints. It also presents contrasting positions from the Roman Catholic Church on: the Eucharist, the Mass, marriage of priests (clergy), monastic vows, and the authority of bishops. Several succeeding Reformed confessional statements gave the Bible an explicit position in their arguments and focused the reformation into a dividing split from the Roman Catholic Church. 

The Ten Conclusions of Berne was written in 1528, and promoted one key statement, “The church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God” The Second Helvetic Confession was written in 1566 and makes the following pivotal statement; “We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and the apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves and not of men.” The Westminster Confession was written in 1646 and declared that “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself”.




When looking at the results of the Reformation, we must ask “Was it a success?” The Protestant Reformation movement did divide the Roman Catholic during the first half of the 16th century. Was that a positive experience or a negative experience? Many have argued its effects on both sides of the historical picture.

When a balanced and accurate appraisal is yielded, it is obvious that the Roman Catholic Church did indeed benefit and even grow from the effects of the Protestant Reformation as much as the reformers sensed a feeling of accomplishment in their efforts to establish what they considered from their perspective to be a more Biblical portrayal of the New Testament Church.

As we look at some of the things that the reformers transacted, we will also not soon forget the Roman Catholic Church initiating and endorsing the Jesuit Order as the counter reformation specialists they became. They also initiated their own adequate adjustments and reforms at the Council of Trent that realigned the Church to maintain their historical unity in Christian tradition and worship.              

While Protestant worship services were established so as to hold scripture in a privileged place in worship liturgy, the high altar in the Roman church still rivaled the Protestant pulpit. The hymns that were sung in Protestant worship contained a higher content of scripture.

Personal Bible study and Bible learning opportunities were encouraged and initiated by the Protestant Reformers. At the same time the Jesuit order of preachers swept across Europe and taught Catholics from the Bible.

Protestant denominationalism as birthed as a result of the Reformers gathering followings. The various interpretations separated under specific leadership. Most of the new Protestants  never returned to Roman Catholicism. The early denominational groups looked somewhat like this. Those who followed Martin Luther became known as Lutheran. Those who adhered to the teachings of John Calvin and John Knox were either referred to as Calvinists or Presbyterians. The followers of John Wesley became known as Methodists or Wesleyans.

The Reformation influenced the fine arts in many ways. We see it in the works of painters like Albrecht Durer (1481-1528), Matthias Grunewald (1475-1528) and Rembrandt van Rijn(1606-1669). It can be heard in the music of  Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) and Charles Wesley (1704). It can be read in the writings of authors like John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) and John Milton (Paradise Lost).  

Was the Protestant Reformation a success? Yes, it was. For Roman Catholicism, it required them to stand more secure for what they knew to be the truths of Christianity.  For the new founded Protestants, they were able to express themselves in a new way in their Christian faith that was more meaningful and relevant to how they lived and perceived the world.

Was the Protestant reformation a failure? Yes, it was. This sad era in Christian history caused much needless bloodshed and personal strife. Countless Catholics and Protestant died on the European battlefields to defend a doctrinal position. Many of the problematic issues of the Roman Catholic Church were never corrected and resolved. The Protestant movement splintered into a massive array of disunity that we now know as denominationalism. Today both Protestants and Catholics live fairly well side by side, even though there is an undeniable wall between them. The wall is not wide enough for most people to sit on. They have been able to find some positions that bring them together in harmonizing voices in the North American Society.

Some say that another reformation is on the horizon. The Eastern and the Western church split in 1054 over basically one phrase in the Nicene Creed. The Protestant movement was birthed about 500 years later by an Augustinian monk who tacked a piece of paper to the door of a church. Here we are about 500 years later. Many say this coming reformation will not be about a creed, or corruption, but will be about genuine faith standing strong in the midst of severe persecution by a synthesized image of faith.             


PLEASE NOTE: In addition to reading the text of this course students are required to listen to a lecture by Pastor John Piper  title “Always Singing one Note” It is available on line at: http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Biographies/1840_Always_Singing_One_NoteA_Vernacular_Bible/  



Bibliography & General Reference


Gregory, Brad S. The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era (Chantilly, VA, Teaching Company,2001)

Connolly Ken, The Indestructible Book (Bridgestone Multimedia, 1997 ) DVD

Kuiper, B.K. The Church in History (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdman’s Publishers, 2001)

Bowker, John Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (New York, Oxford Press, 2006)

Latuorette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity Volume II  (Peabody MA, Prince Press, 2007)

Smith, Carroll & Smith, Roddy Christian History Guidebook Wheaton, Il, Barbour Publishing, 2001)

Carey,P.W. & Lienhard, J.T. Biographical Dictionary of Christian Theologians (Prabody, MA Hendrickson Publishers, 2002)


A special acknowledgement and thanks to Professor Brad S. Gregory for the excellent and balanced presentation for the Teaching Company (Chantilly, VA) entitled “The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era”. His presentation is highly recommended for both Roman Catholics and Protestants alike.    


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