What was the Reformation and what is its continuing significance for today?

  • 11 February 2019


The question has been asked of Protestantism: “Where was your church before the Reformation?” One response wittily put forward asks “Where was your face before you washed it this morning?” The Reformation was a cleansing of an increasingly “dirty” church; a rediscovery of truths largely hidden or forgotten; a return “to more biblical foundations in relation to its belief system, morality and structures”. (Historical Theology, McGrath, p158)

Precursors of Reformation

Many streams converged to form the rapids of the Reformation. The late medieval church was authoritarian, immoral and corrupt. The Western Schism from 1378-1417 had eroded confidence in the Papacy. Rome was a cesspool of sin and had fallen into decay, yet the Popes sought more money to fund extravagance. Rising nationalism meant states no longer looked to Rome as their supreme.
In England, the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, John Wycliffe, disillusioned with the state of the church, preached that the Bible, not the pope, was the ultimate source of spiritual authority. (The Unquenchable Flame, Reeves, p29) He began to raise key doctrinal issues; transubstantiation, the priesthood, the need for the scriptures in the vernacular. John Hus, deeply influenced by Wycliffe, sounded similar calls for reform in Bohemia and was subsequently martyred.

This was also the period of the Renaissance and the rise of humanism with it’s call of “ad fontes” (back to the sources). This was a movement to restore the prominence of ancient Greek and Roman culture and, within Christianity, a return to the scriptures in their original language and the writings of the church fathers. Led by Erasmus of Rotterdam, the “Prince of the Humanists”, theirs was a call to reform the church to a “simple Christ-centered faith and a practical religion” (2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Needham, p37).

Dawn of the Reformation

Ultimately, Erasmus remained within the church of Rome, but it was said that he laid the egg for the Reformation and Luther hatched it (Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious, Catherwood, p92). It was the German monk, Martin Luther, who lit the flame of the Reformation. In 1517, angered by the sale of indulgences, Luther reportedly nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, intending to spark a disputation. The church authorities were angered and, when Luther refused to recant, the course was set that eventually led to his excommunication and the establishment of the Lutheran Church.

In Zurich, the priest Ulrich Zwingli was concurrently and independently preaching similar Reformational ideas. He also put forward a series of theses, emphasising scripture as the final authority on all matters and attacking Rome’s system of religion. Although agreement could not be reached with Luther on the Lord's Supper, Zwingli’s ideas were ultimately taken up by John Calvin in Geneva. A brilliant, systematic thinker, Calvin continued to refine and define the Reformation. His ideas were spread throughout western Europe, even as far as Scotland under the leadership of John Knox. In England, Henry VIII broke with Rome to obtain a divorce and became supreme Head of the Church of England.
Some believed the reforms of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin et al. did not go far enough. Known as the radical reformers, these men differed from the magisterial reformers in important ways, emphasising the separation of church and state, a congregational view of the church, believers baptism and pacifism.

Primary Causes of the Reformation

Although the Reformation touched on many areas of theology, such as ecclesiology, worship, the sacraments, grace etc., scholars have come to regard two issues as the primary causes; justification and authority. R.C. Sproul states:

“The so called “material” cause was the debate over sola fide (“justification by faith alone”). The “formal” cause was the issue of sola Scriptura, that the Bible and the Bible alone has the authority to bind the conscience of the believer.” (Sproul, 2001)

Justification by Faith alone: Luther held that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls. He searched for peace with God but could find no respite within the Roman Catholic system, which held that justification was a process by which a sinner is changed or made more righteous. For Luther, one could never be fully assured they were righteous enough before a holy and just judge. In his study of the Scriptures, particularly the book of Romans, he came to see that justification was a forensic act - a declaration that one is “righteous” before God. Thus, the two-fold Protestant doctrine of justification was developed - the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

Scripture alone: Doctrinal difference between the Reformers and Rome was ultimately a question of authority; what was the normative source of truth? Rome gave tradition an equal status to Scripture. In contrast, although the Reformers had respect for tradition, particularly the church fathers, they believed that Scripture alone should have the final say.

The Continuing Significance of the Reformation for Western Society

Despite Rome’s Counter-Reformation, the rise of Protestantism could not be thwarted. With the help of the printing-press the Reformer’s ideas spread quickly. With an estimated 900 million Protestants worldwide (Protestantism by country, Wikipedia), the Reformation has positively shaped Western society in important ways. It made inevitable the separation of Church and State, freedom of religion and free speech. It’s emphasis on personal piety based on obedience to Scripture created mass-education and literacy. The elevation of the laity and teaching of the priesthood of all believers has led to modern notions of equality and democracy. The "Protestant work ethic", famously coined by German sociologist Max Weber, arguably produced the modern economy of the free market and capitalist systems.

The Continuing Significance of the Reformation for the Church

Still, today, many within the church see the Reformation as a regrettable event: at best, unnecessary; at worst, a great apostasy. Sectarianism on both sides has led to much conflict, bloodshed and war - right up to the present day. Christianity's “dangerous idea”, that individuals could interpret the Bible for themselves, has caused further fracturing and splintering of the church into a disparate collection of denominations, independent churches, sects and cults. Critics claim this is a far cry from Jesus call to unity in his high priestly prayer. More broadly, in society, individualism and anti-authoritarianism have been blamed for the rise of secular humanism and unbelief.

There have been calls to repair the breach. In 1999 the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a joint declaration affirming “a common understanding of our justification”. (The Unquenchable Flame, Reeves, p184) In their book “Is the Reformation Over?”, church historian Mark Knoll and author Carolyn Nystrom answer the titular question with a resounding ‘yes’, pointing to the many areas of agreement shared among Protestants and Roman Catholics. (The Unquenchable Flame, Reeves, p183)

But on closer inspection, the need for division remains. Despite agreement on many doctrinal, ethical and practical issues, the core differences remain – how is one made right with God and what is our ultimate source of authority for faith and practice?

The Reformation was not primarily a negative movement. Most importantly, the Reformation was a “rediscovery of the Gospel” (Historical Theology, McGrath, p158) This Gospel - of justification by faith - has been taken to the ends of the earth, with approximately 9,937 people groups reached with the liberating, empowering news that Christ’s work is finished once for all. The Bible has been translated into at least 670 translations becoming the best-selling book of all-time, with an estimated 5 billion copies sold and distributed.(List of best-selling books, Wikipedia) The centrality of the Scriptures is seen in Protestantism’s emphasis on expository preaching, teaching, books, commentaries and personal Bible-reading. The renewed vision of the church as a communion of saints has sanctioned believers to use the variety of spirit-fueled gifts for the corporate good. The Reformation still matters.

“The only way the Reformation could possible still not matter would be if beauty, goodness, truth, joy and human flourishing no longer mattered. We have been made to enjoy God, but without the great truths the Reformers fought for that display him as glorious and enjoyable we shall not do so. Seeing less of him, we shall be lesser and sadder. Seeing more of him, we shall be fuller and happier. (Why the Reformation Still Matter, Reeves and Chester, p175)

Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria.


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Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010). The Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. HarperCollins. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
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