The Reformation: A Larger View

written by Wayne Alan Detzler, PhD Retired Professor of Historical Theology

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Professor Earle E. Cairns used a rather simple acrostic to teach history. He patterned it on the word PERSIA.

P=political history

E=economic history

R=religious history

S=scientific history

I=intellectual history

A=aesthetic history

Few historical events lend themselves to this pattern as much as the Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Although Martin Luther triggered the Reformation 500 years ago this year, it burgeoned into a pan-European and British movement.

Reputedly on 31st October 1517 Dr. Martin Luther nailed “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of the chapel at Wittenberg University. It was a brazen step for a highly respected Augustinian monk and an emerging university teacher. The “theses” were points of disputation with traditional Catholic doctrine and practice. Especially, they were an attack on the effort sponsored by Pope Leo X. He sent indulgence salesmen throughout the so-called Holy Roman Empire.

An indulgence was an ecclesiastical “get out of jail free” card. It enabled the purchaser to shorten his stay in purgatory. Luther perceived this as a slick trick by the Pope He also realized the fallacy of purchasing forgiveness of sin. Only Christ could provide forgiveness of sin on the basis of his atonement.

Although the genesis of the Reformation was theological and ecclesiological, the implications were much more complex. The Reformation affected every aspect of civilized life, as it spread across northern Europe and enveloped the British Isles.

Political: At the outset of the Reformation, King Henry VIII reigned supreme in England. He ruled hand-in-hand with the most powerful man in all of Europe, Emperor Charles V. At first Henry defended the Catholic Church, an action that earned for him the title “Defender of the [Catholic] Faith.” However, when the pope forbade Henry from divorcing his barren queen (Catherine of Aragon), Henry broke with the pope.

Grand Duke Frederick of Saxony, on the other hand, cast his lot with Martin Luther. The Grand Duke stood against Emperor Charles V, realizing that the emperor was ineffectual. At the same time, Bavaria maintained its fidelity to the Catholic Church.

In Sweden King Gustavus Adolfus aligned himself with the Reformation, realizing that the Church of Sweden had already abandoned Rome. Rome was just too far distant from Scandinavia.

The Dutchman Desiderius Erasmus lived in Switzerland, and he became a devotee of Reformation through his own study of the Scriptures. In turn, he influenced the birth of a Reformed Church in his native Netherlands. Nevertheless, some sections of the country wishing to remain Catholic were allowed to do so.

When he was expelled from his native France, John Calvin fled to Geneva. There he crafted the doctrinal system that undergirds reformed churches to this very day. Calvin combined daily expository preaching with the development of his sophisticated doctrinal system.

    Economic: There are two levels of economic influence arising from the Reformation. First, in Protestant lands the workers were liberated from many of the shackles of feudalism, so they became more zealous workers. Second, a market economy also developed that rewarded labor for its production. Finally, urbanization opened a larger array of occupations to the working classes. Let’s look at these developments, one at a time.

First, liberation from feudalism cracked the shackles of slavery. Feudalism lingered in Catholic areas, but in Protestant areas there was an emergence of the market economy. Although the so-called Peasants’ Revolt was linked to Luther as a negative effect of the Reformation, in reality it marked a striving for freedom among the lower classes. A wage-based working class emerged in elementary form during the sixteenth century.

Second, the money economy resulted to a large degree from the market economy that arose during the sixteenth century. Wealth was not regarded as sinful greed. It was seen to be a blessing of God on hard work and financial diligence. An entirely new class of Protestant entrepreneurs emerged, and they cracked the stranglehold of old money, such as the Fugger banking family. (The Fuggers had amassed their wealth by financing the indulgence trade that triggered the Reformation.)

Third, the rise of European cities small and large opened the door to a larger array of vocations. As working people moved to the cities, they needed jobs. The answer was service, such as blacksmithing and even garbage removal. Another need was shops, and the Protestant cadre of shopkeepers came into being in the wake of the Reformation. A third class was that of city government, and the Protestant work ethic infused early civic government.

Religion: The Protestant Reformation in all its variety broke the stranglehold of the Catholic Church on Christian religion. With its emphasis on diversity and human individuality, the Protestant Reformation explored varying forms of religious expression.

National churches: In Germanic Europe these were largely Lutheran. In Holland and France they were Reformed in nature, following John Calvin, or Jean Cauvin, as he was known in French. In England it was a royalist, Anglican Church. Various reformers shaped their reformations differently,  and their distinctive emphasis placed on biblical data. All of them sought to predicate their practice on the vernacular Scriptures, the Bible, in the language of the people.

Non-state churches: Prof. Cairns used to say, “The Protestants killed the Catholics. The Catholics killed the Protestants. They both killed the Anabaptists.”

Free worship: Arising from the fringes of the Empire, the Anabaptists, the Waldensians, and even the Albigensians resisted the standard reformers. Their distinctive dogmatic directions exceeded the traditional religion of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.

    Science: Under the guise of the Renaissance, scientists were enabled to resist Catholic dogma and restrictions. Be it here noted that Renaissance historians often declare that scientific advancements were independent of the Reformation. However, it was the Reformation that first curried royal support and created an atmosphere conducive to innovation.

Copernicus espoused a round earth form of cosmology, and he expounded it in direct disobedience to the Catholic hierarchy. Copernicus published his On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (1543) while the pope was otherwise engaged in combatting the reformers.

Isaac Newton wed Neoplatonism and mathematics to develop his universal law of gravitation in 1666. Paracelsus introduced the process of diagnosing illnesses, while Vesalius taught medicine by way of dissection. William Harvey explored the circulatory process in the human body.

In Denmark, Tycho Brahe created the concept of astronomy. (Remember, Denmark was an early adopter of the Reformation.) Building on Brahe’s work, Johannes Kepler explored the elliptical orbit of the planets. Kepler likewise supported the work of Copernicus, thus strengthening the scientific impact of reformed freedom. Kepler became the astronomical voice for the Protestant Reformation.

    Intellectual history: The definer of Renaissance thought is Jacob Burckhardt, who wrote and published The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1861). He saw the Renaissance and the Reformation as heralds of the modern era, the so-called age of reason.

In Italy, Renaissance thinkers tried to remain within the boundaries of the Catholic Church, as weak and wobbly as it was. Pico della Mirandola set the pace in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486). Lorenzo Valla disproved the “Donation of Constantine,” which supposedly ceded much of Italy to the pope. At the same time, Nicolo Machiavelli penned The Prince, in which he formed a secular philosophy of government, also known as power politics.

Elizabeth I of England transformed the fragmented reformed ideas of her father, Henry VIII, into a cohesive Christian culture. In many ways, the Anglican Church was a product of her nearly totalitarian reign. King James strengthened the Reformation with a Bible translation into the language of the people.

In the meantime, Philip Melanchthon developed the ideas of Martin Luther. He was the first systematic theologian of Lutheranism, and he expanded the Reformation by developing a school system to teach the young of Germany. He transformed Luther’s simplistic ideas into a sophisticated system of theological thought.

Aesthetic history: Renaissance art is most often identified with Italy. However, the Reformation gave a new twist to art. Luther was vehement in speaking out against the iconic art of Italy. He saw Italian religious art as a form of idolatry, accusing Catholics of worshipping images. Luther purified the churches by removing statues of saints and holy figures such as Mary.

In Switzerland Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin stripped all artistic expressions from churches. A visit to Reformation churches in Zurich and Geneva confirms this zeal, even five hundred years after the Reformation. Plain walls and simple altars mark the churches.

Luther engaged his friend, Lucas Cranach, to replace Catholic altarpieces. These ornate altar decorations survived the Reformation and became the accepted form of art in post-Reformation church architecture.

Hans Holbein the Younger produced a rare oil painting of Christ. It is devoid of Catholic hagiography such as a halo. Holbein was heavily influenced by the humanist artists, and this shaped even his religious art, such as The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1522).

  In Summary: The influence of the Reformation cannot be overstated.

  1. The Bible became available in the vernacular language of the Reformation countries. This gave readers access to God’s Word.
  2. The ecclesiastical monopoly of Catholicism was broken, once for all. Beside the established Reformation churches, so-called “free churches,” such as the Anabaptists, emerged in an effort to foster biblical doctrine.
  3. The so-called Holy Roman Empire was fractured, as nation states such as Germany, England, Sweden, Norway, and Portugal emerged. The power of the emperor was broken.
  4. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers gave new dignity to each human being, as it recognized each individual’s right to read the Scriptures and pray to God without the mediation of a priest.
  5. The foundation was laid for a future evangelical movement that emerged after the Wesleyan awakening of the eighteenth century.






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