A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE
OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH”
A broad term used to denote a religious movement in Western Christendom which arose about 1500 and culminated around the mid-seventeenth century, with direct antecedents going back to the fourteenth century. Although conditioned by political, economic, social, and intellectual factors, the course of events and the writings of the Reformers themselves reveal that it was above all else a religious revival which had as its goal Christian renewal.
The Reformation occurred against a vast backdrop of unrest and change in Europe. Politically the most salient feature of the era was the emergence of national states which challenged the old order, including traditional papal prerogatives and the medieval concept of higher loyalties. In the economic realm it was a time of mounting discontent among the exploited peasantry as well as a period of revival of trade, the return of the money economy, and the growth of cities. These developments brought into existence a virile new socioeconomic class, the bourgeoisie. This upset tidy medieval social arrangements and led to increasing political tensions because of the rising expectations of the middle class. Further, beginning in the fourteenth century, the Renaissance produced a new era of cultural achievement and expression, as well as widespread intellectual unrest. Moreover, a high moral sentiment, the desire for a restoration of past greatness, and growing racial and ethnic pride are common themes in the pre-Reformation literature of discontent.
But most important of all was the troubled state of the Western Church on the eve of the reformation. It was an age of decline for a church faced with persistent heresy (e.g., the Waldenses in the Alps, the Lollards in England, and the Hussites in Bohemia); an outburst of popular piety; a loss of papal credibility resulting from the years of “Babylonian Captivity” in Avignon, the Great Schism which followed, and a secularized Renaissance papacy; widespread clerical ignorance and abuse; and the unrelenting insistence of the Christian humanists that the church be reformed. Thus the seeds for Reformation in the sixteenth century were nurtured in the fallow soil of discontent at nearly every level of human existence.
The actual beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 in Germany was a combination of the confluence of events with a man of dynamic personality, considerable talent, and deep religious concerns. In the coming of the Reformation, Martin Luther was the catalytic individual, and the sale of indulgences near his parish at Wittenberg the precipitating event. Convinced that it was time to challenge the perversion of the doctrine of indulgences and the papal authority which made such abuses possible, Luther drafted his Ninety-Five Theses for debate among theologians. At the time, he had no thought of disrupting the church or starting a new religious movement. Rather, his concern flowed from his desire to reform the church and his conviction that it had departed from its apostolic foundations. Luther, in a desperate search for personal peace with God, had found it, not in the sacraments or the works of merit prescribed by the church, but in Jesus Christ. Luther had recovered, he maintained, NT Christianity with its prescription of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and not by works of righteousness (sola fide).
Thus Luther never espoused a radical rupture with the church’s immediate past or its abolition as an institution as did the Anabaptists, but only reform based on apostolic principles. Nevertheless, a combination of papal inability to comprehend the nature and intensity of the religious issues raised by Luther and of the temper of the times led to a breach between Rome and the German priest. After several debates over papal authority, and after attempts to reconcile and then coerce Luther, the fundamental differences between Roman and Lutheran Christianity became increasingly clear. The Reformation spread with the preaching of justification through faith in Christ, and Luther’s doctrinal position developed more fully to include biblical authority in the place of the teaching church as mediated by the pope, the priesthood of the believer, and two rather than seven sacraments. After his confrontation with the emperor and church authorities at Worms in 1521 in which Luther refused to recant his views, the rupture was complete.
By 1529, when the imperial diet convened at Speyer, six German princes and the representatives of fourteen upper German cities embraced the name “Protestant” (“protesting” the emperor’s attempts to suppress Luther) and identified themselves as adherents of the Reformation. Luther’s own town of Wittenberg in Saxony became the center of the movement which had by the time of the Reformer’s death spread to every German-speaking land. By mid century the Lutheran Church had taken form and become the dominant faith of much of Germany and most of Scandinavia. It also had by this time made a significant impact on the religious life of the remainder of Europe.
Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich was one of those touched by the Lutheran Reformation. Guided partly by Luther and partly by his own Biblical insights, Zwingli introduced the Reformation in his native canton. Gradually the movement spread westward through German Switzerland, finally reaching the French cantons, where John Calvin became its leader. Calvinism became the most important expression of the Reformation, historically speaking, and by the middle of the century Geneva replaced Wittenberg as the main center of the Protestant world. In the last half of the sixteenth century Calvinism became the driving force of the Reformation, especially in Switzerland, W Germany, France, the Netherlands and Scotland, and to a lesser extent in England, E Germany, Hungary and Poland.
Calvinism triumphed in Scotland largely because of the work of John Knox, who was the guiding spirit behind the Scots Confession adopted by the Parliament of that land in 1560. Knox, impressed by Calvin’s example, established the church of Scotland on Presbyterian polity and Calvinist theology while at the same time linking the fortunes of the Reformation as closely as possible with growing Scottish national feeling against the Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.
In England the fortunes of Calvinism were more varied. The development of the English Reformation was uneven compared with the reform movement in other countries. Beginning as an act of state in 1534 when Henry VIII severed connections with Rome and assumed the title of Supreme Head of the Church, the Reformation soon became a genuine attempt to restore the ancient Christian faith to England. Building on the work of John Wycliffe and his Lollards, the English Christian humanists, and imported Lutheran and Calvinist ideas, the Church of England began to take shape. More thoroughgoing reform during the reign of Edward VI was erased by Mary Tudor when she tried to restore the English Church to the Roman fold. Her attempt failed, and under Elizabeth I the Church of England once and for all became non-Roman, but not entirely Protestant. Rather, it developed as a via media between the former Roman faith on one hand and Protestant Calvinism on the other.
Often overlooked as an important part of the Reformation are the Radical Reformers. These advocates of the Radical Reformation appeared early in the sixteenth century, represented the left wing of the movement away from Rome, and emphasized “restitution” rather than “reformation.” Anabaptists and other Radicals to their left wanted to abolish all the accumulated practices, traditions, and ceremonies of the medieval Catholic Church and instead build a restored church entirely on NT principles. The majority of Anabaptists felt the true church was local, autonomous, governed by democratic polity, and composed only of heartfelt believers who had been baptized after the confession of faith in Jesus Christ.
Although there were a few notable exceptions such as the fanatical millenarians of Munster (1534-35) and the unitarian Socinians, most Radicals did not participate in politics and were pacifists. They were also the first in modern times to call for full religious liberty and separation of church and state. After 1535, Menno Simons a former Roman priest, emerged as the primary leader of the Anabaptists in the Low Countries. Gradually mainstream Anabaptists became known as “Mennonites”. Other enduring expressions of the radical Reformation include the Hutterites and Schwenkfelders, while the Baptists and Quakers of the next century grew out of related and similar foundational principles and impulses.
Finally, the Catholic Reformation represented an attempt to renew the established church from within, both in reaction to the Protestant threat and in response to certain internal developments. The Oratory of Divine Love (founded 1517), a reformed papacy, the establishment of the Jesuites (1540), the reforming Council of Trent (1545-63), the Roman Inquisition, and Spanish mysticism were all expressions of this growing emphasis on reform, renewal and retrenchment within the Roman Church.
Unlike the Renaissance, the Reformation directly affected nearly every European and forced almost everyone to make a choice between the old and the new. As it did, the Reformation movement profoundly changed the course of Western civilization and touched every facet of human existence. The modern, pluralistic, culturally fragmented Western World, for better or for worse, is largely the child of this tumultuous and significant movement.