On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther started a revolution within the world of Western Christianity that we know today as The Protestant Reformation. At THINK|17, College Park Church’s celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by looking at some of the key issues, people, and doctrines involved in this monumental event in church history. In preparation for this event, we want to help you get into the spirit of the Reformation by writing a series of blog posts to introduce you to the background and key ideas of the Reformation.
This particular blog post will introduce the what, where, and who of the Reformation.
WHAT IS THE REFORMATION?
In short, the Reformation was a re-discovery of core doctrines by the Western Church. In the 1500s, the Western Church was almost exclusively dominated by Roman Catholicism and there had been an increasing separation between religious authorities and lay people. While many people define the Reformation as a recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone, there were actually several other issues at stake beyond the doctrine of justification.
What should the church view as its chief authority? While the Catholic church taught that church tradition, the papacy, and the Scriptures were all virtually equally authoritative, the Reformers argued that Scripture alone is our chief authority. This led to an understanding of ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) that differed between Protestantism and Catholicism. Catholicism held to the authority of the one true church—the Roman Catholic Church—while Protestantism’s emphasis on Scripture’s sole authority led to the establishment of different church denominations that recognized that Scripture is infallible but man as an interpreter is not.
What is the nature of our salvation, especially as it relates to righteousness? Roman Catholicism had taught for years that we participate with God’s grace in growing in righteousness. That we could become more righteous gradually through our good works and the grace of God. The Reformers, however, believed and taught that we are declared righteous (justified) by the sheer grace of God in response to our faith alone. Our good works (sanctification) are the fruit of that declaration of righteousness but do not make us righteous.
In addition to the theological issues at play, the Reformers also noted the injustices present within Catholicism. Two key injustices stood out. First, there was an increasing separation between the clergy and the laity. Worship services and Scripture were both produced in Latin, creating a divide between the culturally and religiously elite and the common people. Second, the sale of indulgences—papal pardons for certain kinds of sin made available to those who could afford it—made righteousness something that could be bought by the wealthy rather than something that is received entirely through faith. These injustices infuriated the Reformers and it was actually the sale of indulgences that served as the chief motivation for Martin Luther to nail his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
This leads us to the next two questions.
Where did the Reformation Happen and Who was Involved?
While the Reformation “officially” began in Wittenberg, Germany with Martin Luther, it encompassed most of Europe. While Luther sought to reform Germany, John Calvin advanced the cause in France and in Switzerland. Alongside Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli led the Swiss Reformation, while John Knox took the mantle of the Reformation in Scotland. Each of these different leaders and movements had their own unique personality and emphases, which led to a beautiful picture of unity in diversity that centered around the gospel of Jesus Christ and the authority of his Word.
So there’s your quick introduction to the what, who, and where of the Reformation. In our next post, we’ll unpack the key doctrinal points of the Reformation known as the Five Solas.