A BRISK TOUR OF THE REFORMATION
Part 1 (Events leading to the
The Great Protestant Reformation begun about 484 years ago. Many things had
happened during that period of time. Some of the effects of the Reformation are
still felt today by the Church at large. For example, the reason why
non-Catholic and non-Eastern Orthodox churches call themselves Protestants can
be traced back to the Great Reformation in 1517. However, since then, a lot of
things have changed for Protestant churches too. In the first place, many
Christians today no longer know why we are called “Protestants.” In the second
place, many, when asked if they know who Martin Luther the Reformer is, will
reply quite confidently that they know: “He is the American civil rights activist
who was assassinated in 1968” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). This lack of
knowledge of seemingly trivia facts is not inconsequential. It actually betrays
the pathetic state of misinformation and blissful ignorance that are plaguing
many modern Christians. In fact, I have no doubt that a very large segment of
nominal Protestantism is today teaching, for doctrine, what is even more
heretical and damaging than what is taught in many Roman Catholic
congregations. Errors which have already been condemned by our godly forebears
are not only repeated, but damnable heresies are being paraded as truth, so
that there are, no doubt, many today who call the Lord, “Lord,” but know not
what is sin, and what they are being saved from.
This is one of the reasons why it is important for us to remember annually the
great work of God in the 16th Century Protestant Reformation so that we may be
warned against apostasy and encouraged to seek the “old paths” (Jer 6:16) and
to walk in it, knowing that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Mt
16:18). This year, we will do so by taking a very quick tour of the major
milestones and persons leading up to the Reformation and after the Reformation.
In this first part of a 4-part series (so planned), we shall jog through the
history of the New Testament Church from the time of the Apostles to October
31, 1517, itself. Our journey will comprise two legs. Firstly, we shall briefly
examine the steps away from biblical Christianity that made the Reformation
necessary in the first place. Secondly, we shall trace, in general, the steps
that actually led to the great event.
Steps Away from Biblical Christianity
The Reformation that was sparked off in Germany in 1517 was essentially an
attempt to restore the true Church of Christ to the doctrines and practices
stipulated in the Word of God. As such, it was not by itself entirely necessary
had it not been that the Church had apostatised. A study of the Reformation
must therefore include at least an introduction to the circumstances and events
pertaining to the movement away from biblical Christianity. This section
summarises three of numerous important events that might be thus described.
Edict of Milan (A.D. 313)
After a period of expeditious expansion, the New Testament
Church, which was under the ministry of the Apostles, began to experience
various forms of persecution, so that although numerical growth was greatly
inhibited, the Church was in some ways purified. There was, after all, little
visible benefits or incentives to pretend to be or to profess to be Christians
in those days. However, with the general toleration that came with the Edict of
Milan in A.D. 313, and the subsequent imperial sanction of Christianity, the
Church began to experience a period of rapid numerical growth while heathenism
began to be disfavoured. But this was not without a cost, for it immediately
resulted in a compromise of purity in the visible church as it became
fashionable to be called a Christian. At the same time, because Emperor
Constantine continued to be favourable to the worship of the Unconquered Sun,
many pagan ideas, such as the use of images, began to creep into the Church and
were, in some cases, even institutionalised. The existence of these
unscriptural practices and ideas in the Church, and others which would be added
along the way, would make the Reformation a necessity when the Church began to
see the importance of biblical purity.
Rise of the Papacy
While the New Testament sees only two permanent offices in
the Church, that of elders (or bishops) and deacons, some of the presbyters in
the early church began to see themselves as being superior in rank to other
elders. Thus a new office known as ‘bishop,’ as contrasted to ordinary elders,
was created. Soon, this error led to another in which the bishops of Rome,
Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth and Constantinople began to
consider themselves as superior to the bishops of the less important churches
in smaller cities. They called themselves Patriarchs and exercised authority
over the other churches. One error led to another and soon, these Patriarchs
began to struggle among themselves for pre-eminence. In 440, Leo I ascended to
the episcopal throne in Rome and began to claim supremacy over the other
bishops. Schaff considers him to be “the first pope in the proper sense of the
word” (History of the Christian Church, 3.315 [§63]). The Papacy was
firmly established in Rome when Gregory I, in 452, was able to persuade the
Huns under Attila to spare Rome when the weakened Roman empire could no longer
resist them. Gerstner observes very astutely that this “began the fall of one
Rome which tyrannised over the bodies of men to be succeeded by another Rome,
which ultimately tyrannised over the bodies and souls of men” (Handout
Church History, 9).
Although the idea of papacy is foreign to the Scripture, it was now firmly
entrenched in the church and nothing short of the scale of the Reformation
could bring the true Church out of the ecclesiastical bondage. Furthermore, the
establishment of the Papacy saw also the institutionalisation of many
unbiblical doctrines and practices. These include many that had direct and
indirect bearings on the immediate events leading to the Reformation, such as
the doctrine of Purgatory which was established by Gregory I in 593, the use of
Latin in prayer and worship which was imposed by the same pope in 600, the
decree of the celibacy of the priesthood by Pope Gregory IV (Hildebrand) in
1079, the sale of Indulgence in 1190 and the banning of the Bible from laymen
in 1229, and the declaration by Boniface VIII of Unam Sanctam,
which made submission to the pope necessary for salvation in 1302 (see Loraine
Boettner, Roman Catholicism, [P&R, 1962], 7–9).
Although the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope was officially ratified
by the Vatican Council only in 1870, the pope has practically enjoyed the
authority since the beginning. As a result, a reversal to biblical
Christianity, by renouncing some of the false teachings, became doctrinally
impossible for the Church. Only a full scale Reformation and withdrawal from
the ecclesiastical machinery could effect any permanent change at all.
Establishment of the Inquisition
Another event, which clearly led the Church away from
biblical Christianity and contributed to the Reformation, was the establishment
of the Inquisition by the Council of Verona in 1184
(Boettner, op. cit., 8). The Inquisition essentially
allowed the church to try suspected heretics and to use civil authorities to
inflict severe punishments, including death by burning at the stake. The Inquisitionwas
used against many Waldenses, and the Lollards, who were the really forerunners
of the Reformation. It is difficult to imagine how its establishment could in
fact be leading towards the Reformation. However, when we consider the fact
that the existence of the Inquisition basically destroyed the
possibility of objective dialogue, it is not difficult to see how it has
contributed to the showdown of 1517.
Steps Towards the Reformation
It must be admitted that throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church,
there were in fact numerous attempts at reforming or renewing the Church.
However, these attempts were humanly engineered. Not only were they limited in
scope by design, but enjoyed very little success for various reasons. The Great
Reformation, on the other hand, was not only successful, but was surely
divinely appointed. This is to be noted, firstly, from the fact that Martin
Luther did not at first intended to cause a general reformation and, secondly,
from the numerous events that led to it decisively. Let’s look at some of these
steps by which the providence of God unfolded.
The Spread of Wycliffe’s Teachings
John Wycliffe (ca. 1329–84) was a leading professor in the
University of Oxford. In 1376, he began to criticise the clergy. He pointed out
that wealth and political power had so corrupted the church that a radical
reformation was necessary. Calling the pope the antichrist, he declared the
Bible, rather than the church, to be the only rule of faith; denied
transubstantiation; and declared that the church consists of God’s chosen
people, and therefore has no need of any priest to mediate for her.
Wycliffe also translated the Bible into English (The Wycliffe Bible) so
that Christians in England might be able to read for themselves. He also wrote
many books, including Summa Theologica. These books were greatly
read and consulted by many of the Reformers, including Luther.
Wycliffe was eventually forced to flee to Lutterworth where he died in 1384.
His followers, who became known as the Lollards, developed into an organised
group, with their own ministers and popular support. Although they were
severely persecuted, and many were martyred at the stake, the Lollards
continued to preach until their numbers thinned out. However, Lollardism
continued on in secret and prepared the way for Protestantism of the next
Martyrdom of John Huss and the Hussite War
John Huss (1374–1415) of Bohemia was trained for the
priesthood, and became the dean of the theological faculty and later the head
of the University of Prague. Huss, who was very much influenced by the writing
of Wycliffe, taught the importance of personal piety and purity of life. He
stressed on the authority of the Bible in the Church, and emphasised on the
centrality of preaching. He defined the Church as the Body of Christ, with
Christ as the only head. He distinguished between being in the
Church and of the Church (cf. 1 Jn 2:19). One could be in the
Church, and yet not be real members of her. Although, he defended the
traditional authority of the clergy, he taught that only God can forgive sin.
He also pointed out that neither popes nor cardinals could establish any
doctrine which was contrary to Scripture. And, in this respect, Christians
should not obey any order from them, which was plainly wrong. Huss also
condemned the corruptness of the clergy and criticised his people for
worshipping idols, believing in false miracles, and undertaking superstitious
pilgrimages. He criticised the church for withholding the cup from the laity in
the Lord’s Supper. He also condemned the sale of Indulgence.
Huss was eventually martyred for his faith in 1415. It would seem that this
would be a step away from the Reformation, but this is not the case as Wylie so
eloquently contemplates: “As a preacher of Bethlehem Chapel he had largely
contributed to emancipate Bohemia, as the martyr of Constance he was largely to
contribute to emancipate Christendom” (J.A. Wylie, The History of
Protestantism, 1.143). Gerstner further notes that “Luther was never to call
himself a Wyclifite but a Hussite” and that the Reformation was born not in
“1517, when the theses were posted and the Reformation had its external
beginnings, but in July 1519” when John Eck debated with him and cleverly
forced him to admit that he was a Hussite (Gerstner, op. cit., 14,
Furthermore, Huss’ treacherous murder caused a great unrest throughout Bohemia.
The followers of Huss and those sympathetic to his cause, which amounted to
practically the whole nation, rose up in arms and tried to attack the Roman
Catholic clergy. The attack was not successful, but it is significant that for
the first time, a whole nation opposed the authority of the pope. Bohemia was
the first European nation that dared to openly reject the papal yoke.
Martyrdom of Girolamo Savonarola
Of the pre-reformers, Girolamo Savonarola
(1452–98) was probably the most controversial and is sometimes not considered
as a genuine forerunner of the Great Reformation (see P.K. Keizer, Church
History, 87). Savonarola was a monk in the Domician order. Unlike Wycliffe
and Huss, Savonarola was not a doctrinal reformer. Although Luther regarded him
a pioneer of the Reformation, his reformation efforts were contained in
attacking the evil lives and immoral habits of many of his fellow-countrymen.
It had no link with the reform of doctrine that would begin just twenty years
after his martyrdom at the stake. Nevertheless, through his martyrdom in 1498,
he became a kind of hero to many of the early Protestants who saw his brave
opposition against the Papacy, an example to imitate.
Brethren of the Common Life
Towards the end of the 14th century, a movement sprung up
in northern Europe known as the Devotio Moderna which means
“modern way of serving God.” This was essentially a movement of spiritual
revival within the Catholic church, which strongly emphasised both personal
devotion and social involvement, especially in education.
One of the most significant founders of the movement was Geert Groote
(1340–84), of Deventer in Holland. Prior to his conversion of 1374, Groote
lived a life of self-indulgent luxury, but when he was soundly converted, he
lent himself totally to practical piety in the service of God and man. One of
the many things Groote did was to gather a community of men comprising mainly
of like-minded friends and followers to live a common life together in his
house. This community became known as the “Brethren of the Common Life.” It was
a semi-monastic group, observing the threefold rule of poverty, chastity and
obedience. This group of believers contributed significantly to the Reformation
by the teachings of three of her followers, namely, John of Wessel who taught
the doctrine of justification by faith alone and declared the sufficiency and
authority of the Bible even before Luther; Thomas à Kempis who wrote the much
loved devotional handbook, The Imitation of Christ, and Desiderius
Erasmus of whom we will say more in the next section.
Although the Brethren of the Common Life practised medieval mysticism, the
teachings that stemmed from it conditioned the hearts and minds of many to
receive the teaching of the Reformers.
One of the most important contributing events to the
Reformation is the Renaissance. The Renaissance began in Italy, but spread to
the rest of Western Europe. It created an intellectual outlook that favoured
the development of Protestantism.
The Renaissance began with the revival of classical learning by scholars who
have come to be called “humanists.” Although the term “humanist” originally
referred to those who taught Latin grammar, it later came to mean a student of
Latin and Greek who not only read classical writings but moulded his life on
what he read. Thus humanists stand in contrast to the schoolmen, and humanism
in contrast to scholasticism.
Although Renaissance humanists read non-Christian authors, such as Cicero and
Plato, they were not outwardly opposed to Christianity. In fact, most of the
early humanists professed faith in Christ. Since the New Testament is in Greek,
inevitably, the humanists began to extend their attention from the text of
secular literature to the Bible. The pioneer in this field was Lorenzo Valla
(1405–57), who deserves to be called the father of modern biblical criticism.
In a most significant move, in 1444, he published a daring comparison between
the Latin Vulgatetranslation and the Greek original in his Annotations
on the New Testament. In many ways Valla foreshadowed Erasmus. His writings
had tremendous influence on the German Reformers of the next century and were
especially prized by Luther.
Soon after it begun, Humanism begun to spread to the surrounding countries such
as France, Germany, Holland, Spain and England. In France, one of the leading
humanists was Jacques Lefèvre (1450–1536), a man much respected by John Calvin.
The story is told of how Calvin visited Lefèvre while a fugitive at Angoulême.
The aged Lefèvre grasped young Calvin’s hand and said: “Young man, you will be
one day a powerful instrument in the Lord’s hand; God will make use of you to
restore the kingdom of heaven in France” (Wylie, op. cit., 178).
Lefèvre also contributed to the Reformation movement by his translation of the
New Testament and the Old Testament into French in 1523 and 1528 respectively.
Most other French translations, including the Geneva Bible,
depended on his translation.
In Germany, of particular importance were Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (ca.
1400–64), the foremost speculative thinker of his age, and Johann Reuchlin
(1455–1522), whose Rudimenta Linguae Hebraice, 1506, established
the study of Hebrew in the West and was one of the most important contributions
of the Renaissance to the Reformation.
In England came the notable scholars John Colet (1467–1519) and Thomas More
(ca. 1478–1535). These were Christian humanists whose teachings also sowed the
seed of the Reformation.
In Holland, came, no doubt, the greatest of all humanists, Desiderius Erasmus
of Rotterdam (1467–1536). Erasmus’ contribution to the cause of the Reformation
is so significant, it is said that “he laid the egg that Luther hatched.”
Erasmus was greatly influenced by the Christian Humanism of Colet and More,
having studied under them from 1499 to 1500. He contributed to the Reformation
in various ways, but by far the most important way was his ‘epoch-making’
edition of the Greek New Testament, which was published at Basle in 1516, one
year before the Reformation begun. This was the first Greek New Testament ever
printed, and would form the basis of many translations into the vernacular
tongues, during and after the Reformation.
Invention of the Printing Press
About 1445, a man by the name of Johann Gutenberg of
Germany rediscovered and developed the ancient art of printing (invented by
Chinese in the 5th century) and began to pioneer with metal typeface.
Significantly, the first book which he chose to print was the Bible.
For about twenty years, the technology was a closely guarded trade secret in
Mainz, where it was invented. However, by the providence of God, the city was
plundered in 1462, and as a result of that the printers dispersed, so that
within two decades printing presses were set up in Rome, Paris, Cracow and
Westminster. By the time Luther was born in 1483, printing was well established
To a large extent, it was printing that contributed to the spread and
sustenance of the Reformation in the early days. Without it, it would have
taken too long before the writings of the early Reformers would get a
reasonable audience, and it would have been difficult to keep the fire burning
the way it did. Of greatest significance, perhaps, is the way in which the
printing presses helped to spread Luther’s famed ninety-five “Theses.” Wylie
Now was seen the power of that instrumentality which God
had prepared beforehand for this emergency—the printing-press. Copied with the
hand, how slowly would these propositions have travelled, and how limited the
number of persons who would have read them! But the printing-press, multiplying
copies sowed them like snow-flakes over Saxony. Other printing-presses set to
work, and speedily there was no country in Europe where the “Theses” of the
monk of Wittenberg were not as well known as in Saxony (Wylie, Protestantism,
The Ninety-Five Theses
One of the most significant and well-known factors that led
to the Reformation is the theological factor: the key question being “What must
a man do to be saved? How shall a sinner be justified before God and attain
peace of his troubled conscience?”
Although the doctrine of “Justification by Grace through Faith” was already
clearly taught by Augustine of Hippo in the earlier past of the fifth century,
the Medieval church on the whole adopted the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas
(1225–74), who taught that the will of man was not totally corrupt. He asserted
that by faith and the use of the means of grace in the sacraments dispensed by
the church, man could achieve salvation. Augustine, on the other hand, held
firmly to the Pauline theology that man could do nothing towards his salvation.
Salvation was monergistic: by grace through faith.
With the advent of the Renaissance, and the emphasis on the study of the
Scriptures, this important doctrine of justification by grace through faith
alone:sola fide, was once again rediscovered. Although, the accounts on
how the truth of the doctrine dawned upon Martin Luther are contradictory, it
is quite clear that it was Luther who sparked off the Reformation by his
application of the doctrine in reaction to the Roman Catholic doctrine of
Indulgence and penance. The immediate events leading to the significant public
re-declaration of this doctrine is a display of the sovereignty and goodness of
God, so that even the sin of men redounds to His own glory.
In 1514, Archbishop Albert, a prince of the House of Hohenzollern, who was
already in control of two provinces of the Roman Catholic Church, desired also
the vacant arch-bishopric of Mainz.
Because the cannon law forbade one man to hold more than one office, he had to bribe
Pope Leo X for the dispensation necessary before he could fill the two offices.
Leo X, who was also aspiring at this time to build the present Saint Peter’s
Cathedral, imposed a huge sum on Albert before he would be permitted to take up
the bishopric. The Papacy then suggested that Albert take a loan from the
wealthy Fugger banking family in Augsburg, and
as a security for the loan, the pope issued a papal bull authorising the sale
of Indulgence in Saxony. This would guarantee
that Albert would be able to repay the sum borrowed.
Having secured the loan, Albert immediately employed a Dominican monk, Johann
Tetzel, to sell the Indulgences on his behalf. Tetzel, who once narrowly
escaped the death sentence by drowning for a shameful crime he committed, lacked
no quality necessary for success in his scandalous occupation. As he progressed
through Germany, he
eventually reached Saxony, but the Elector
Frederick, shocked at the man’s trade and yet more for the scandals of his
life, forbade him from entering the city. Tetzel nevertheless set up his store
at Juterbock, a small town on the Saxon frontier. And since Wittenberg was only an hour and a half’s
walking distance to the town, thousands flocked to do business with this
While Luther was an academician, he also acted as a confessor as well as a
preacher, and soon he discovered the moral havoc that Tetzel was creating in Wittenberg. One day, as
he sat in the confessional, some citizens of Wittenberg came before him, and confessed
having committed thefts, adulteries, and other heinous sins. “You must abandon
your evil courses,” said Luther, “otherwise I cannot absolve you.” To his
surprise, and grief, they replied,—waving their Indulgence papers,—that they
had no thought of leaving off their sins since they had already paid good money
Luther, much disturbed and enraged by what he saw and heard, eventually wrote
his famed ninety-five “Theses” or propositions on the doctrine of Indulgence
and nailed in on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg
on October 31, 1517. These propositions, Luther undertook to defend the next
day at the university against all who might choose to debate with him. However,
no one turned up. Instead, as mentioned earlier, the propositions began to gain
a wide audience, and became the catalyst of the Reformation that followed.
We have briefly outlined the events that led to the Great Reformation of 1517
in two phases. Firstly, we summarised the steps that took the Church away from
biblical Christianity; and secondly we traced the events that brought the
Church back by way of the Reformation. These steps and events of course must
not be viewed in isolation, but must be considered as part of God’s overall
initiative to purify the true Church and to bring her back to biblical
Christianity. As such, there are many factors that led to the Reformation that
cannot be detailed as events leading to it, but as contributing individuals and
favourable circumstances. A complete study of the Reformation cannot disregard
these individuals, such as Peter Waldo, Nicholas of Lyra, William of Ockham,
etc., and circumstances such as the economic situation, the social and
political climate of the Church. When all these are viewed together, an
overwhelming sense of the guiding hand of God can be seen and felt everywhere.
Truly the primary and surest event, in the history of the Church, that may be
said to have led to the Reformation, is not any that has been discussed in this
paper, but Christ’s momentous sacrifice at Calvary
itself, where God’s victory over the Evil One is sealed for all eternity.