Part 1 (Events leading to the Reformation)

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 century.

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, 19).

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 throughout Europe.

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 astutely observes:

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, 266–7).

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 pardon-monger.

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 for them.

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.

J.J. Lim