15.0 The Reformation Movement

Perhaps the most famous movement in the Christian Church is the Reformation. As powerful as it was, it is important to note that the emphasis of the Reformation movement was not to restore the church to the standards of the first century. Wordnet defines the reformation as “a religious movement of the 16th century that began as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the creation of Protestant churches”.[1] It was, first and foremost, a reform movement to correct the Roman catholic Church as opposed to a movement to restore Christianity to the state of its birth.

Martin Luther is often credited as the person starting the Reformation movement with the posting of his 95 theses. There were actually people working in a similar vein to Luther before him (i.e. Wycliffe, Hus et al), but Luther was the first one to have what could be perceived as success. In response to Luther’s posting the papacy issued a rebuttal but Luther’s stand was so popular that for the first time churches sprang up that “protested” the rule from Rome, and Protestant-ism was born.

Looking at the substance of these 95 theses gives good insight into what the Reformation was about. The 95 theses were concerned with errors in the Roman Catholic Church, especially concerning confession, absolution, and indulgences. The title of the theses, which is somewhat self explanatory, was “Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”. This shows how the purpose of this movement was to correct, to “reform” the existing Roman Catholic Church, in this case, on the very egregious practice, of selling what some call the power to sin and get away with it. An indulgence was a pardon from the penalty of sin. By purchasing indulgences buyers could be led to believe that they could sin freely without penalty.

Accompanying the sale of indulgences at the time was the sale of church offices. Becoming a bishop often was not grounded in spiritual development as much as how much you could improve the financial position of the church. The scope of these bishopric purchases and indulgences was huge. “Pope Leo X had decided in favor of the claims of Albrecht of Brandenburg to hold at the same time the Archbishopric of Mainz, the Archbishopric of Magdeberg, and the administration of the bishopric of Hallberstadt, an argument moving thereto being a large financial payment. To indemnify himself, Albrecht secured as his share half the proceeds in his district of the indulgences of the papacy had been issuing, since 1506, for building that new church of St. Peter which is still one of the ornaments of Rome. A commissioner for this collection was Johann Tetzel (1470 – 1519), a Dominican monk of eloquence, who, intent on the largest possible returns, painted the benefits of indulgences in the crassest terms. To Luther, convinced that only a right personal relation with God would bring salvation, such teaching seemed disruptive of real religion.”[2]

Luther’s goal was to work within the church to fix this. That he was so vigorously challenged was what led to the start of other churches. It is important to note that Luther and other reformers did not want to start churches independent of the Catholic Church. And the first Protestant churches kept many of the practices of Catholicism: sacraments, the mass, or a mass-like liturgy, church hierarchy, and so forth.

It would be overly simplistic to say that Luther alone led the Reformation. Others like Zwingli and Calvin had tremendous impact in their areas. But it was Luther who really got the ball rolling. After challenging papal authority on the indulgences and offices he promoted the concepts of the priesthood of all believers, salvation by grace alone, the error of clerical celibacy, the Christian’s freedom in Christ, and a number of other issues.

Once started the Reformation focused on some major well known cries. “Sola Scripura”, by scripture alone, was the approach taken to reform the Churches’ claim against the Roman Catholic proclaimed authority of Popes who promoted corrupt doctrines such as the selling of indulgences in order to acquire property. Sola Scriptura was the declaration that the Pope, and the tradition of the Church held no authority compared to the writings of the New Testament. It is important to note that the adherence to scripture at this point was not the fundamentalist adherence to scripture that the fundamentalist movement calls for today. Still it was a radical departure from the doctrinal domination by the Popes, councils, and traditions of the church.

Other cries developed. Sola Fide, by faith alone, was the emphasis that salvation is not dependent on works of any kind, but rather on faith. Sola Gratia, by grace alone was the declaration that again salvation was not dependent on any works, but it was purely given by grace. Solo Christo was the declaration that Christ alone is the head of the church, as opposed to the pope. Solo Dei Gloria, glory to God alone, was the declaration that glory is due to God alone, as opposed to the Pope, or the canonized saints.

The impact of the principle of Sola Scriptura was impressive in practice. Look at what happened in Zurich:

“Persuaded by Zwingli, that cantonal government ordered a public discussion, in January, 1523, in which the Bible only should be the touchstone. For this debate Zwingli prepared sixty-seven brief articles, affirming that the gospel derives no authority from the church, that salvation is by faith, and denying the sacrificial character of the Mass, the salvatory character of good works, the value of saintly intercessors, the binding character of monastic vows, or the existence of purgatory. He also declared Christ to be the sole head of the church, and advocated clerical marriage…

Changes now went rapidly. Priests and nuns married. Fees for baptisms and burials were done away. In the second great debate, in October, 1523 Zwingli and his associate minister, Leo Judd (1482 – 1542), attacked the use of images and the sacrificial character of the mass. The government was with them, but moved cautiously. January, 1524, saw a third great debate. The Upholders of the old order were given choice of conformity or banishment. In June and July, 1524, images, relics, and organs were done away. December witnessed the confiscation of the monastic establishments, their property being widely used, in large part, in the establishment of excellent schools. The Mass continued till holy week of 1525, when it too was abolished. The transformation was complete. Episcopal jurisdiction had been thrown off, the service is put into German, the sermon made central, the characteristic doctrines and ceremonies of the older worship done away…”[3]

The Reformation, as good as it was, was just a start in bringing Christianity back to the purity and vitality of original Christianity. Now that we have seen the result of many years of dispute, and consequently, a seemingly incalculable number of denominations and churches, we are in a much better position to evaluate the approach of the reformers and the resulting fallout.

The Reformation did not examine all the differences between the practice of faith at that time and the time of original. primitive Christianity. Issues such as form of baptism, the trinity, holiness, church government, the manifestations of the holy spirit, and actually getting back to the faith of original Christianity still waited for attention in later movements.

The fallout of the Reformation is that there has been a continuous series of divisions over one doctrine after another. On the other hand, succeeding movements after the Reformation have worked to restore at least some segments of Christianity closer to the purity and vitality of original, primitive Christianity.  The Reformation was then, a good start.

[1] http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=reformation
[2] A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, Williston Walker, Scribners, New York, 1959, p. 304-305
[3] ibid, p. 322 -323

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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