** Christianity -- Protestant Reformation

Christianity: The Protestant Reformation

Figure 1.--This is a modern artist's depiction of a 16 year old Martin Luther while a student at Eisenach being taken in by Kunyz anfd Ursula Cotta so he no longer has to sing in the street to support himself.

The Protestant Reformation was the religious struggle during the 16th and 17th century which began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church and ended with the splintering of the Western Christendom into the Catholic and Protestant churches. Combined with the Renaissance which preceeded it, the reformatuin marked the end of the Medieval world and the beginning of a modern world view. The French Revolution which followed the Reformation in the 18th century marked the beginning of our modern age. Conditions developing in Medieval Europe laid the groundwork for the Reformation. The Reformation began when a German monk, Martin Luthur nailed his 95 Thesis on the church door in Wittenberg (1517). Luthur was offended by the papal sale of indulgences by which the Renaissance popes were fiancing the splendid new church of St. Peters in Rome. Luthur's concern with indulgences were soon intertwined with a complex mix of doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural issues that would take European Church and temporal authirities nearly two centuries to partially resolve, leading to several devestating wars -- especially the 30 Years War in Germany. Western Christendom would be left permanently split and even the Cathloic Church profoundly changed. Changes in man's view of himself and the Church were to also affect his view relative to the state and many in Europe began to question royal absolutism and divine right monarchy, a process keading to the French Revolution.


The Protestan Revolution was the religious struggle during the 16th and 17th century which began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church and ended with the splintering of the Western Christendom into the Catholic and Protestant churches. Combined with the Renaissance which preceeded it, the reformatuin marked the end of the Medieval world and the beginning of a modern world view. The French Revolution which followed the Reformation in the 18th century marked the beginning of our modern age.

The Medieval Church

The Christian Church developed in the Roman Empire. The supression of Christians was a constant theme during the reigns of many emperors. The early Church fathers (Peter, Paul, and many others) operated in this hostile environmnt. Finally with Constantine, the Church became the official religion of the Empire. Early Chiurch theologiand like Augustine lived at a time that the Church was not only tolerated, but the official religion of the Empire and a rligion that acted to supress other rival creeds. The Church was thus significantly influenced by the Empire. Much of the Church's organization (pope, cardinal, bishop, ect) was a relection of how the Roman Empire was organized, although the modern organization of the Church and the primacy of the Pope only developed over time. The political structure of the Empire was reflected in how Christian diosceses were set up. Even before conversion, important local officials (Roman, Celtic, and Germanic) might protect or even endow monastaries and convents seeing it beneficial to have "a powehouse of prayer" in their territory. [Brown] One remarkable aspect of the triumph of Christianity in Europe was the fact that Christianity was the religion of the defeated Empire, yet it was gradually adoped by the victorious barbarians. The story of medieval conversions is a fascinating one. Actual conversion took many forms. Very few European people were Christianized by conquest. Rather conversion occurred by coverting leaders, primarily by persuasion. This process took many forms (missionary zeal, princly fiat, election, and shamanistic vision). Many features of the modern Church were not aspects of the early Church. One of the most important is the cult of the saints. Another is the confessional, intitially only practiced by the most deeply pious. One aspects of the confessional was tariffed penances based on penitentials. Surviving medieval penitentials provide a wealth of information to sociologists concerning the intimate details of everyday life. [Brown]

Developing Conditions

Conditions developing in Medieval Europe laid the groundwork for the Reformation. The Church led by the pope by the 10th century was the clear authority in moral and religious issues throughout Christendom and in the 11th century launched the Crusades with that moral authority. By the 13th century, however, the Church had become vunerable because of the greed, ignormance, and imorality of its officials at all levels. Huge expamses of land probably exceeding over one fifth of Europe's arable land had come into the hands of the Church denying taxes to state coffers and land to the peasantry. The Great Schism added to the Renaissance and Black Death of the 14th century began to erode the Church's moral authority. These trends were notable throughout Europe, but were especially apparent in Bohemia, England, France, and Germany.

Relevance to the 21st Century

I can recall when first studying the reformation being amazed at how sometimes minor doctrinal differences could inspire such fervent feeling and often extrondinary brutality. The Reformation seemed about people and times so strikingly different. With the approach of the 21st century it began to dawn on me that the Reformation was more relavent to modern times than I had realized. As with many Americans, this was bought home with the Septtember 11, 2001 attacks. The Europe of the 16th century was under assault by Islam. The Ottomon Turks had swept through central Europe and layed seige to Vienna (1529). The West then as now was divided. The French saw the Turks and the Protestnts as a way of weakening the Holy Roman Empire (Germany). Religion had further divided the Holy Empire, fueling a series of wars known as the Thirty Years War which is notable for its savegery. Ethnic cleansing scarred Europe of the 15th century. The Spanish expelled the Jews and Muslims (1492) and throught the Inquisition in the 15th century hunted down conversos that were less than sincere in their conversion. While purportedly religious in nature, there were decidedly ethnic asp;ects to these expulsions and the subsequent operation of the Inuisition. There were burnings of heretics on an unprecedented scale. Political leaders acted or purported to act in the conviction or purported convinction that their actions were endorsed by God himself, thus sanctioning the some oif the most apaling brutality in European history. There were religious teachers decrying the decline of moral standards in the increasingly secular world. And the 16th century had its own communications revolution. Printing with moveable type first appeared in Germany in the mid-15th century. Europeans by the 16th century had access to printed material and books that had previously because of the cost of publishing (hand copying) been impossible. As religion was still a major aspect of European life, much of the published work dealt with religion and much of it was not favorable to the Church. The very idea pf publishing vulgate (modern language versions) of the Bible was opposed by the Church, concerned of the repercussions of the common man reading the Bible. It is no accuident that the Reformation followed soon after the explosive expansion of printing in Europe.

Reform Movement

The long institutional monopoly that the Catholic Church and the papacy held on Western Chrustendoim had profoundly affected the nature of the Church. Many within the Church realixzed that reform was needed. Luthur himself began as a reformer. Reform of the the hierarchy was the major issue at the Council of Constance (1414-18). No one prohram of reform, however, managed to receive support of a majority and thus no substantial actions were taken. There were of course powerful forces within the Church resisting change.

The Renaissance

Although generally classified by most scholars as the last century of the medieval era, the 14th century is generally seen as the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of a modern state of mind. Humanism began to replace Schlolaticism as the philosophical foundation of European intelectual thought. "Renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and describes the cultural and economic changes that occurred in Europe beginning in the 14th century. The precise time is difficult to set and of course varied accross Europe. The Renaissance began at Firenze around 1300 and gradually spread north. Even so, the indicators that constitute the Renaissance did not reach other areas of Europe for 1-2 centuries. It was during the Renaissance that Europe emerged from the Feudal System of the Middle Ages. The stagnant Medieval economy began to expand. The Renaissance was not just a period of economic growth. It was an age of intense cultural ferment. Enormous changes began in artistic, social, scientific, and political endevours. Perhaps of greatest importance was that Europeans began to develop a radically different self image as they moved from a God-centered to a more humanistic outlook. The Humanist scholars used their clasical work to assess Church practices and Biblical scholarship.

Renaissance Popes

The Renaissance popes affected by Humanism and the classics were fiancing the construction and decoration of the magnificent new church of St. Peters in Rome. The Renaissance popes were followed by Paul IV. Pope Paul IV played an important role in the Reformation. This was in part because he and other popes of the era continued to persue the papacy's tempopral interests in the Papal States even when it conflicted with the campaign against Protestahntism. Pope Paul IV (1476-59) was a Neopolitan. He was an esestic monk wih a rigid outlook. He initiated reforms which did much to purify the Catholic clergy. He is perhaps best known to history as the pope who insisted that fig leaves be painted all over Rome to cover the senuous art work of the Renaissance--including Micelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel. But it was his ability to hate that is his primary legacy, helping to weaken the Catholic cause. There was quite a long list of those he hated and that list was not dominated by Protestants. High on his listvwere the Jews. He coinfined the Jews in the Papalm States in ghettos and forced them to wear easy to spot yellow hats. He hated the independent thinkig of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He also hated the Spanish monarchy which threatened the temporal holdings of the papsacy--the Papal States. This was most reflected in the Spanish Hapsburg control of Naples which bordered the papal states in the south. Then the Spanish gained control of Milan to the north. It was the Hapsburgs, Charles V and his son Philip II that were the most poweful princes suporting the Catholic cause, yet Paul saw them as enemies. [MacCulloch] He even quarled with Mary Tudor who was doing her best to return England to Catholocism. Paul's outlook and rigidity was a factor in complicating any unified Catholic reaction to the Refornation.

Doctrinal Issues

The many Protestant sects that emerged in the Reformation are testuiment to the extent and variety of the doctrinal issues that emerged in Western Christendom. These issues, even what seems to the obscure or even trivial, werevery important to the men an women of the 16th century. Important to kill or die for. There was one central issue to the religious debate, an issue elicited by Erasmus, "Did the Bible contain all sacred truth? Or was there a tradition the Church guarded, independent of it?" One of the most important doctrinal issues an one that had moved Luther from the beginning was Predestination. Luthur and Calvin were coinvinced that God had already selected who was saved. Calvin reached the same conclusion. (Interestingly Calvin in his writing gave varying estimates of those to be saved, from 1 in 5 to 1 in 100. We are not sure how he reached these calculations.) Their theology echoed St Augustine who contened that good works did not grarantee salvation. Yet there is no clear statement of this in the Bible. It was the sale of Indulgences more than anything else that had moved Luthur to post his 95 Thesis. And induklgences were nothing more than buying one's way out of purgatory--good deeds of a sort.

Country Trends

The Reformation began in Germany. This was no accident. Church state issues had reached serious levels in Germany with the Ivestiture Controversy. This played a major role in Germany's failure to develop a strong national government. Thus the Germans were not like the French able to negotiate withthe papacy om a position of strength. There were many doctrinal issues involved in the Reformation and the Church showed with the supression of Huss and his followers that within the Holy Roman Empire that it was willing to use the Inquisition to limit debate. Financial concerns and the disposition of the Church's wealth and income should not be minimized as a major cause of the Reformation. Almost independent of the German Refomation was the Reformation in England, but this proved to be crucial because of the future imperial role of England.

Council of Trent (1545-63)

The Council of Trent was the 19th ecumenical council of the Catholic church. The Council was held in Trent, a town in northern Italy. It was one of the longest Churchb Councils, convened in three separate session between 1545 and 1563. It was the Church's primary response to the doctrinal issues raised by Protestant Reformation. It was in effect a central statement of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The Church had preceived the need for a Church Council fotr some time, but intenational politics had complivated the convoking of a Council. French king Francis I was concerned that it would benefit his chief rival--Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Even popes at the time were concernrdc about a Council, fearing that it would revive Conciliarism and undermine their authority. The Council convened for three lengthy sessions (1545-47, 1551-52, 1562-63) under the authority of three different popes (Paul III, Julius III, Pius IV). The Council was not in cession during the papcy of Paul IV (1555-59). The Council's decrees were officially confirmed by Pope Pius IV (1564). The Council made no concessions to the Protestants on doctrinal issues. Perhaps the key outcome of the Council was strengthen the papacy's authority on matters of faith. [MacCulloch] The Council reaffirmed the validity of the seven sacraments, and the importance of the priesthood. The Council rejected predestination and confirmed the importance of good works as well as faith. The Council also reaffirmed clerical celibacy and monasticism as well as the veneration of relics and indulgences. The Council found tht Church tradition was coequal to Holy Scripture. The Council's only real concession to the Protestants were measures to reform the clergy and end a variety of abuses.

Counter Reformation

The Catholic response to the Reformation is refrred to as the Counter or Catholic Reformation. The Counter Reformmation was at first an effort to supress the escalating Protestant Reformation, but there was also a movement to revive and reform the Roman Catholic Church. The effort was not only inspired by the Lutheran and Calvinist movements as well as within the Catholic Church itself. Many issues are associated with the Counter Reformation. Many were primarily concerned with defeating the Lutherans and other developing Protestant sects. Others were concerned with correcting abuses within the Catholic Church as well as reassess doctrinal issues. The first major step in the Counter Reformation was the Council of Trent (1545-63).

Thirty Years War (1618-48)

Germany was ravaged by the Thirty Years War. The Thirty Years War was the most bloody and destructive war ever fought in Europe until the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. It was actually a series of wars involving most European countries, but fought primarily in Germany. The war was exceedingly brutal, in part because of the religious passions of the Reformation. The struggle was between Catholic and Protestant princes aided by non-German coregilionalists. While initially a religious war, the fighting was complicated by dynastic rivalries and the desire of the Sweeds and French to curb the power of the German Holy Roman Empire dominated by the Hapsburgs. It is believed that about 6 million civilians, mostly Germans, perished in the conflict.


The Protestant Reformation began whem Martin Luther posted the 95 Thesis on the door of the Witttenburg church. But there were many different theological trends among Prptestants. There are so many Protestant Churches that it is difficult to even count them. There are of course substantial differences among countries as to the importance of these groups. More Protestant churches exist in America because of the level of religious freedom there especially after the doctrine was enshirned in the First Amendment of the Constitution. There are some Protestant Churches, however, of particular importance. We have begun to develop information about some of the more important denominations.


One major influence of the reformation was a greater emphsis on public education. The emphsis that Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and other Reformation leaders placed on the Bible meant that it was imperative for individuals to read the Bible. This meant that schools were needed to teach basic literacy. The greatest attention to schooling in Europe thus came the Protestant states of northern Europe.


Western Christendom would be left permanently split and even the Cathloic Church profoundly changed. Changes in man's view of himself and the Church were to also affect his view relative to the state and many in Europe began to question royal absolutism and divinr right monarchy, a process leading to the French Revolution.


Once concept that Luthur, Calvin, and other early Protestant leaders did not promote was toleration. They did not argue that people shold be free to choose Protestantism, but rather that they had found the true doctrine for the Faith. The Protestants were every bit as intolerant as the Catholics, although there was no Inquisition established by the Protestants. There were radical Protestants that (such as the Baptists and Ababaptists) who did not believe that coersion should be used to compel acceptance of the correct religious views. Only in the Englightenment did this become accepted by mainline Protestant churches. [MacCulloch] In the end it was probably the diversity of Protestant churches that promoted toleration among Protestants. It simply was not possible or at least not practical to supress those with differing religious views. Here the fact that often the doctrinal difference among some Protestant churches were minor in comparison to their shared theology was another factor. Catholics with a institutional system to resolve doctrinal issues was less willing to tolerate doctrinal diversity.


The outcome of the Reformation and ensuing religius wars is not what the clerics and political leaders had anticipated. Not only did terrible devestation take place, but Western Christendom was wrent into two compeng world views and the Protestant side had already begun to splinter into a multiplicity of scects. Luther had wanted as much as the pope to have one universal church--he simply wanted to reform it--not create a new church. The impact of this split was to move Europe toward an unprecedented secularism that is still proceeeding today creating whatsome call a de-Cristianized Europe. There were several factors that gave rise to the secular spirit. It is difficult to say with any certainty what inspired the development of a more secular outlook in Europe. Certainly the Renaissance had affected the European outlook. But the explosion of religious passions that begun with the Reformation showed that the European outlook was still highly religious. There are several factors which may have helped develop a secular outlook. First, the terrible passions and destruction of the religious wars must have some to question religion. Second, the fact that so many religious denominations evolved must have given rise to questions about religion itself. Third, the multiplicity of denominations meant that the state was less willing or less able to supress religious non-conformity. The absence of a single codificationn of Truth in religion must have enspired inquiring minds to persue truth in other areas. Fourth, the seriousness which Europeans had persued religiius truth was now shited ino thr areas, most importantly science. The Catholic Church still imposed limitations on scientific studies, but this was much less the case with the Protestant church. As a result, scientists were left almost unfterred to persue their work in the Protestant north. And it was here that modern science arose.

Catholcism and Protestantism

There were areas of Europe whre the one world view and the stranglehold of the Church continued on scientific and other inquiryand that was the areas of southern Europe dominated by the Catholic Church. Ironically this stifeling atmosphere was most prounced in Spain which until the Reconquista had been a beacon of learnng during the dark ages and Italy where the Renaisance first appeared. Scholars debate the extent to which religion was a factor. We tend to think that religion was a factor. Protestant churches had no doctrine comparable to papal infalibility or the inquisition. We do not know of any great scienctist like Galileo that was attacked by Protestant churchmen. Nor did the Protstant churches have 1500 years of tradition to resist the new findings of natural science. Remember that science in essence involves testing theories through observation and measurement which normally resulted from questioning established authorities. This mindset was not one that the Catholic Church was predeposed to incourage. Clearly Protesant churches are not imune from rejecting science. The modern opposition to Darwinian evolution in America comes primarily from Protestant churches. Another factor was the Protestant emphasis on salvation through individaul Bible reading and study. This emphasis must have carried over into other fields as well. We can not say, however, to what extent religion was a factor. It certainly was not the only factor. Evolving political democracy in the Protestant north may have also have been a factor. This said, the picture is not as stark as some po-Protestant scholars have suggested. There were some German Protestant states which enforced orthodoxy. And Catholic France was an inportant center of learning. The development of science as well as political liberalism was certainly also associated with the emergence of the urban middle-class as a an inflential class. [McNeill, p. 590.] Just how important these various factors are is difficult to asses with any degree of certainty.


Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 2nd edition (Blackwell paperback: 2003), 625p.

Elton, G.R. Reformation Europe (1963).

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History (2004), 750p.

McNeill, William H. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991), 828p.


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Created: August 27, 2003
Last updated: 7:25 PM 7/25/2018