The Reformation started as a protest in 1517 by German Augustinian monk Martin Luther against perceived corruption in the Catholic Church. It snowballed, through the obduracy of reformers and popes alike, into an open-ended doctrinal quarrel about the very nature and practice of the Christian faith in its most essential elements.
The sparks set off by Luther’s protest ignited a conflagration in Europe spread by French polemicist Jean Calvin and Swiss cleric Ulrich Zwingli. Their fiery words, in turn, spawned the even more radical ideas of Dutch priest Menno Simons and Scottish clergyman John Knox and dragged into its vortex the accidental monarch of England, Henry VIII, a man who originally aimed to be a churchman.
For its part, the Catholic Church and the popes in Rome did not take the challengers sitting down. Princes and monarchs were mobilized, bulls and decrees (including excommunications by the bushel) were issued. A general council of the Church was called to respond to the charges and protestations, and entire new orders were founded to combat what was seen as rampant error.
Unfortunately, the medieval marriage of church and principalities transformed a war of words into judicial persecutions and caused splits within nations and outright war. The Protestant Reformation did not reach a point of settlement until the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which effectively put an end to the devastating Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe.
Five hundred years later, Protestantism has split like a cell undergoing mitosis, to the point that 1980s United Nations statistics counted over 23,000 competing and often contradictory denominations, predominantly in Northern Europe and North America and former British and Dutch colonies elsewhere. For its part, Catholicism effectively froze into a monolithic fortress in Southern Europe, South America and former Spanish, Portuguese, French and Belgian colonies in Asia and Africa, a stance that held fast for roughly 400 years, until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s dared embrace the challenge to heal the rifts, a quest that after nearly half a century of largely symbolic gestures remains to be completed.
What Was It All About?
Before we go into the the bloody details—they will involve bloodshed—it might be well to understand some of the basic differences of opinion that arose, why they arose and, briefly, the chief issues of contention.
At heart, the divide between Catholic and Protestant Christianity is a matter of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies whether and how truth can be grasped, if at all. All Christians agree that God has revealed certain truths necessary for believers to live according to the divine will and mercy. Where they disagree is how the Christian comes to receive God’s revelation.
Before Luther, almost all Christians had agreed or submitted to the idea that God spoke to holy men in biblical times all the way to Jesus the Christ, who then delegated the task of telling the world the “good news” (or gospel) of divine mercy and love to his most trusted followers, the apostles. Even after the 1054 schism between Catholics in the West and Orthodox in the East, all Christians believed that truth comes from God to Christ to his apostles and their successors, the Bible being the Church’s anthology of holy writings, collected and passed on along with extrabiblical traditions to help transmit the true faith to all people.
After Luther, Protestant Christians began to believe that God speaks directly to the heart of each believer, who is entrusted with the responsibility of studying the Bible and drawing from it the divine truth necessary for salvation. The apostles’ successors—i.e., members of the Church hierarchy—were unceremoniously cut out of the process. Once that momentous change of thinking was formulated, no teaching of the faith was ever quite the same.
To begin with, Protestantism rejected the idea of papal or even episcopal supremacy over the Church, including also the whole ecclesiastical structure as it existed. In its place, the Reformers spoke of a priesthood of all believers, subject only to the authority of the Bible, or as Luther put it, sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). Given this approach of individual biblical interpretation, Luther and other Reformers concluded that Christians are saved by faith alone (sola fide), not by their deeds. Moreover, salvation from punishment due as a result of the human fall into sin is only a gift (sola gratia) of God, totally unearned.
As a corollary, Protestants add two more solas. Solus Christus (only Christ) teaches that Christ is the only mediator between God and man; there is no need for priests or sacraments or rituals. Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) eliminates all veneration or “cult” of Mary the mother of Jesus, the saints or angels.
Over time, of course, each Reformer, and even Luther himself, developed these kernels of Protestantism with emphases and variants that eventually led to dissent and doctrinal splits between Protestants.
The Protestant Reformation was also a child of its era, the Renaissance, which opposed the theocratic and top-down notions of the Middle Ages with the more horizontal idea of humanism. The age featured also the introduction of the printing press, which made possible the affordable distribution of Bibles and other books. Modern banking launched in the Italian city-states brought about the accumulation of and trade in capital as a commodity of value in itself, which spurred urban commerce and eventually capitalism.
All of these developments in some way shaped Protestantism. This is most noticeable if one compares the fiery zealotry of Reformers to the Protestant churches of today, which have clerical bureaucracies, rituals of some sort and churches and statements of faith and in some ways became the handmaidens of the prevailing economic system. This is similar to the way the Catholic Church of 1517 reflected the political and socioeconomic realities of the Middle Ages.
In an age of ecumenism, when Western Christianity is attempting to heal itself, it is also important to note that many of the most serious disputes of the Reformation era were in some ways semantic and cultural misunderstandings that we are just beginning to recognize.
None is more notable than the very name “Protestant,” which evokes images of people holding signs and chanting slogans against some potentate; actually, the term comes from the Latin pro (“for”) and testari (“witness”) and protestatio (“declare”). The first people ever to be called “Protestants” were six princes of the Holy Roman Empire who, together with the rulers of 14 Imperial Free Cities, in 1529 issued a protest or dissent against an anti-Reformation measure by the Diet of Speyer. They were bearing witness to their beliefs and declaring the folly of the imperial assembly.