14.  The Protestant Reformation
(Early to Mid 1500s)

Why did Martin Luther post his 95 theses on the Wittenberg chapel door?

  • Just as new money wealth was permitting kings and princes to build up their power in weapons, ships, paid professional soldiers (mercenary troops) and of course new forts and palaces, so also new money wealth was permitting bishops and other church officials to build up not only towering churches but also regal palaces for themselves.
  • In Rome, the Pope was building a new and very expensive church (Saint Peter's Basilica) and office complex for himself (called the Vatican)--with the idea of making this a symbol of the power and wealth of the pope and his staff.  Even the very famous artist Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel within this Vatican complex.
  • To finance this very expensive project the Pope asked for financial support from all Christians.  To raise additional money for this project, he also offered "indulgences" to Christians--for a price.  Indulgences were heavenly rewards that could be purchased by money from the extra credit that the great saints of the past had earned in excess of what they needed to get into heaven.  Thus sinners could buy an easier judgment for themselves (and thus get themselves to heaven faster) by purchasing some of this extra credit of the saints.
  • Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk living in Germany--actually a teacher of priests and fellow monks.  Luther taught the Bible, which he had carefully studied, even in the Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament).
  • His study of scripture impressed him with the fact that the church had wandered far away from the original teachings of Jesus and the example of the 1st century church described in scripture.  Many errors had found their way into the church over the centuries.  Luther was very insistent that the church clean out all the corruption that had worked its way into the church--and restore to itself as much of the ways of its early days as was possible.
  • But he was especially upset about the church always being so money hungry--and especially being so desparate as to sell indulgences.  To Luther the sale of indulgences was in direct violation of everything that Jesus had stood for.
  • When it was announced that a representative of the pope was coming to his town to sell indulgences, Luther decided that it was time to act.  In late October of 1517, Luther posted on the chapel door to Wittenberg castle 95 things he found to be wrong about the church--and challenged the church to debate him on these 95 points or theses.
  • Sola gratia (grace alone).  At the very heart of Luther's challenge to the church was the idea of our "earning" our way into heaven, whether through the extra credits of the great saints or through our own credits.  To Luther scripture makes it very clear that we are saved not by our human works, but only through the grace which God freely extends to undeserving sinners.
  • Sola fide (faith alone).  But also, this salvation is received and becomes fully operative within us as we receive this free gift of grace through our faith--faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ (not faith in ourselves and our doings!).
  • Sola scriptura (scripture alone).  Another major point of Luther's was that every Christian had to answer to God in heaven, not any man on earth, not even a bishop or pope, in matters of the Christian conscience.  The Christian was to be guided by the clear teachings of scripture, not by the traditions of man or even the church.  Men could make huge mistakes; so could even churches and church councils.  Only the Word of God in scripture was a true standard for the Christian to live by.  When the clear teachings of scripture and the teachings of the church come into conflict, the Christian had to follow the teachings of scripture.
  • So Luther himself was now taking a stand in challenging the church in areas where clearly it had wandered very far from the teachings of scripture.

What efforts were made to silence him?  How did Luther respond?
  • The church did not want to debate Luther.  It wanted to silence him.
  • This kind of challenge to the church's moral authority the church had a long record of crushing--by whatever means it felt necessary (as we saw with Jan Huss in the early 1400s)
  • Furthermore the church was backed by a powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles of Habsburg, who felt it his duty to "protect the faith."  He was a fair man--but resolved to allow no rebellion within the ranks of the church.
  • But the church and the Emperor could not get to Luther as easily as had been the case with Huss.  A powerful German prince, Frederick of Saxony, offered Luther his protection.  Other German princes were interested as well--though more for political reasons than for religious ones.  They saw in Luther's rebellion a moral cause that would allow them to move out from under the political domination by the Emperor.  They also resented the competition for power and land that the church offered.  They particularly disliked the sight of so much German money going to Italy to support the lavish lifestyle of a Roman pope.  They were ready for rebellion.
  • For the next few years Luther and the church hierarchy centered on Rome grew increasingly bitter in their relationship.  Luther was now taking to calling the Roman Pope the great whore of Babylon (described in the Book of Revelation as the anti-Christ).
  • Finally at the end of 1520 Luther and representatives of the church agreed to meet to debate his complaints.  But the church was not going to change its position--and neither was Luther.  Before the "truce" between the two was come to an end, Luther escaped and went into hiding, where he basically remained for the rest of his life.
  • The Emperor really had no opportunity to chase down and eliminate this "heretic" because at this point the Muslim Turks were attacking Vienna, the Emperor's Eastern capital and the Empeeror became totally absorbed in fighting off the Turks.  He really could spare nothing of his own power and resources to deal with Luther and his spreading "heresy."
  • During this time Luther began to write vast amounts of literature attacking the economic, political and religious corruption of the church--and calling for the rebuilding of a purefied church.

How did Ulrich Zwingli start the reformation in Switzerland?
  • Ulrich Zwingli by Hans Asper - Zurich, Swiss NationalMuseumIn Zurich, Switzerland, meanwhile, a young priest was being drawn toward Luther's reform movement. In 1522 Ulrich Zwingli began to make his moves to establish Scripture as the sole religious authority for the Christian (sola scriptura!).
  • Zwingli opposed the Lenten Fast, citing the lack of Scriptural warrant for the practice--a position which was supported by the Zurich civil government.
  • The bishop of Constance tried to suppress this innovation--but lost out to the Zurich government, which moved to take control of ecclesiastical matters within its jurisdiction.
  • Zwingli supported this shift in authority--claiming that the civil government, under the Lordship of Christ and guided in its work by the dictates of Scripture, was the legitimate voice or conscience of the believing community.
  • Zwingli soon proved himself to be even more radical in his demand for reforms.  While Luther was interested only in restoring matters of personal faith to the standards of scripture (sola gratia, sola fide) Zwingli wanted to get rid of all religious practices that had no scriptural support.  Thus while Luther believed in keeping most of the rituals of worship of the mother church, Zwingli insisted in removing all traditional rituals, litirgies, creeds, prayers--anything that could not be found described in scripture as how the early church worshiped.
  • Zwingli thus truly stripped down worship from a very fancy practice of rites and rituals into a very simple form of singing, praying and preaching.
  • He also insisted in getting rid of stained glass windows and all the artwork on the walls.
  • He pulled out the high altar in the cathedral at Zurich claiming that we needed no such altar for the priests to perform the ritual of the mass--but only a simple communion table around which the congregation could gather to celebrate the Lord's Supper.
  • Indeed he felt strongly that worship should shift its focus away from the Catholic Mass or Lord's Supper and focus instead on the Word preached.  To Zwingli, the pulpit, not the altar, should be the center of focus in the reformed church.  So desirous was Zwingli of getting the focus of the people away from the Mass that he downgraded the celebration of the Lord's Supper to only a few times a year.

How did the reform movement begin to spread in and from Switzerland?

  • Meanwhile the Reformation began to spread to other parts of Switzerland: most notably to the cities of Basel (where Oecolampadius had been leading the reform movement), Constance and Bern.
  • It also made its way down the Rhine River to Strasburg in Germany--where under the leadership of Zell, Capito and Bucer the reform movement there took on the more thorough-going Swiss character (as distinct from the more conservative Lutheran variety).
  • But the conservative rural cantons of Switzerland remained firmly opposed to the Zwinglian reforms. Relations grew bitter and hostilities resulted--with Zwingli himself being wounded and then put to death in a losing battle against the rural cantons in 1531.
  • The more gentle-natured Heinrich Bullinger took over the Zurich reform movement.

How did Luther's movement and the Swiss reform movement get along?
  • They were quite different in the degree to which they were willing to change things.  Besides being more radical in changing the style and content of worship, the Swiss reformers were more radical in redesigning the makeup of the church's officers.
  • With respect to church government, Luther kept the episcopal system of the Roman church--with bishops placed above priests and making whatever appointments of priests were necessary to fill church positions.
  • (But along with the Swiss reformers, Luther agreed that priests and bishops could be--even should be--married men, not celebate batchelors.  Scripture gave no call for celebacy among its priests.)
  • The Swiss reformers disagreed with Luther in terms of church organization.  They focused on the importance of each worshiping community selecting its own leaders:  elders slected by the congregation from among their own ranks--presbyters (using the Greek term for "elders") who had, in accordance with scripture, demonstrated their call to authority through the quality of their Christian lives lived out among the faithful.
  • This difference might not have been great enough to cause a complete split in the ranks of the  "Lutherans" and the Swiss "Reformers."  But Zwingli's downplaying of the Lord's Supper was something that Luther disagreed with violently.  Zwingli interpreted Jesus' words about being in the bread and wine as being a simply symbolic presence; Luther insisted on the real presence.
  • Efforts of the supporters of Luther and the Swiss reform movement tried to get the giants Luther and Zwingli together proved to be a dismal failure.  Even after Zwingli's death, Luther would have nothing to do with the Swiss reformers.

Who were the radical reformers, or Anabaptists?
  • The mood of rebellion against old political and religious authority had been caught not only by the German princes but also by the German people, the commoners, the peasant farmers.
  • Luther's doctrine that matters of religious authority should be decided in the hearts of the Christian himself or herself in accordance with their conscience--easily implied that the same should happen in matters of political authority.  In those days kings and princes claimed authority because of God's will.  Under the influence of Luther's challenge to religious authority, the commom people in their own search for the will of God began to question the authority of their kings and princes as much as Luther had invited them to question the authority of the church and its priests.
  • On this Luther disagreed--violently.  When in 1524-1525 German peasants under the radical leadership of Karlstadt and Müntzer rose up in rebellion against their princes and rulers, Luther came out strongly in condemning the rebellion as evil (Luther proved unwilling to upset the princes who were protecting him and his religious movement).
  • Luther developed the doctrine of the two spheres of life--religious and political, splitting what had always been in the minds of European Christians one and the same thing.  Luther claimed that only in the matter of personal religious faith was an independent conscience the right thing.  In matters of politics the faithful, even the church itself, should be submissive before political authorities.
  • The "radicals" were destroyed in the failed uprising (6,000 peasants lost their lives alone in the one-day battle of Frankenhausen).  But their spirit was not.  It lived on in the form of anabaptism (baptized again) or the doctrine of believer baptism in which a person was truly baptized only when in their own conscience they received Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Baptism as infants was to them a horrible mistake because the child really was not able to actively decide for Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  These anabaptists might "dedicate" their infants to God--but baptism could come only when the person was old enought to make that decision for themselves.
  • The Lutherans disagreed strongly with this doctrine.  But so did the Swiss Reformers.  But it was not until John Calvin took over the leadership of the Swiss Reformed Movement that their position on baptism became clearly stated.

Continue on to the next section:  15. John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition - I
Return to the home page: The Spiritual Pilgrim

  Miles H. Hodges