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History of the Church

The Reformation

1500-1650Lesson audio


After several hundred years of monolithic Christianity (at least in the western part of Christendom) the church was wracked by controversy and torn apart.  The divisions of those days were divided even more by later reformers – so that western Christianity today appears to be completely fragmented.  Even the fragments do not agree on what is a basis for fragmentation.  The seeds of the modern church were sown in this time.


Times and Technology

A movement so powerful as the Reformation did not spring to life in a vacuum.  There were factors existing in Europe which prepared the ground for the Reformers.  The two most important were these:Gutenberg's Original Printing Press

  • The Printing Press.  It is difficult to understand in our instant communications world that it is entirely possible tokeep a whole people ignorant – if the leaders so conspire.  Word of mouth is notoriously inaccurate, and reasonably distrusted.  But the press gave even the least influential a method by which they could bring their ideas forth into the world.  Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, was greatly concerned that his invention be used to spread the Gospel:  “Religious truth is captive in a small number of little manuscripts which guard the common treasures, instead of expanding them. Let us break the seal which binds these holy things; let us give wings to truth that it may fly with the Word, no longer prepared at vast expense, but multitudes everlastingly by a machine which never wearies to every soul which enters life.”
  • To the surprise of most Evangelicals, the other great factor was a Catholic book:  The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis.  One author called it, “searching, scriptural and utterly centered on Christ.”  This work was the high point of the “Devotio Moderna” school of writing.  The book itself has sold more copies than any other except the Bible.[1]  The impact on millions of believers was to prepare them to seek Christ in the scriptures rather than in the hierarchy of the church.


The world around

Three factors influenced the history of modern Europe at this time. 

  • The first was the threat of the Turk.  The Islamic rulers of Turkey were a constant threat to conquer Italy – and with it the center of Christianity.  This obliged the Pope – still the strongest political figure of the day – to occupy himself with his worldly duties more than his spiritual.
  • Glowing from this period is the Renaissance.  The money from selling indulgences went to pay for the magnificent work of art known as St. Peter’s in Rome, along with many other great works.  Painting, sculpture, even music flowered.  The culmination of the Renaissance was the baroque period, which produced an artistic style which still dazzles those who see it in person.
  • Beyond this there is the rise of humanism – the idea that man alone is the arbiter of all things.  This philosophy challenged the belief that right and wrong were determined by the Roman Catholic church – arguing that man is the measure of this.  This philosophy is still with us today.  So are its ill effects.


The image of the church

The image of the church at this time was indeed a dismal one.  It was not the church in the world but the church of the world.  Clerical offices were bought and sold; money flowed freely to the high officials of the church – who very often spent it on their pleasures.  It was something that every Christian knew – and rather generally accepted as the way things were, not subject to change. 

Worse, this corruption of the church was not limited to the lower levels.  On the contrary, as Machiavelli said, “The nearer to Rome, the more the corruption.”  The papacy was bought and sold – and often enough this was accompanied by political intrigue and assassination. 

The source of much of this was money; particularly the money derived from the sale of indulgences.  The concept is now foreign to most readers, so we will take a brief detour through Roman Catholic theology of the time and show you how this got started.

The Church (note the capital) held that she was the possessor (by inheritance) of all the good deeds of all the saints of all time.  A vast treasury of spiritual goodness was therefore available.  But how to convert it to cash?  It started simply enough.  Since you were saved from hell you had no fear of that.  But the church taught that you needed to have your sins “purged” in Purgatory – sort of a halfway house to heaven.  This purging was taught as being extremely long and very painful.  But – the church to the rescue – you could buy indulgences here and spare your dead relatives that pain.  This went some way to providing the cash desired.  But then it was decided that not only could indulgences be sold on behalf of the dead, but also the living!  Indeed, you could purchase them in advance of the sin!  The money flowed in; the result was St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome – and the Reformation.


Wonder where the money went?  Click on this thumbnail of just a tiny portion of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. 


The Church

The fundamental fact of this time is the Reformation.  It touched every aspect of the church, including her worship.  Please remember that people in this day thought much more deeply about their worship service.  They genuinely believed that there was a right way to worship, and that the ceremonies needed to be correct.  One reason for this is that this was the primary means of instructing people in the faith.  Repeat it over and over, get it right.  So what kinds of things were so controversial regarding worship?

  • Great controversy happened with regard to the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper).  In particular, the argument about transubstantiation produced many factions.  Did the bread and wine magically transform into Christ’s body?  Was there some other sense in which it could be understood to do so?  Or was it merely symbolic, just empty matter?
  • Further controversy raged over the question of “what are the sacraments of the church?”  Some had long lists of ceremonies which must be performed by the church, such as last rites (we still have elders to anoint the sick).  Others cut the list to two – baptism and communion.  The distinction is this:  is there a “one right way” to do it?  If the answer is yes, it’s a sacrament.
  • A third aspect which changed was in music.  This began with the idea that Christians could sing – just like popular music – in the church in the praise of God.  They didn’t have to “listen only.”  Music grew out of chant.  As this period went from Renaissance to Baroque, music grew in power in the church.  As Martin Luther put it, “Why should the devil get all the good tunes?”  Later, Baroque music would give wings to the liturgy. 
  • If Baroque music gave wings to the liturgy, Baroque church architecture was to give wings to the worshiping soul.  In no other architecture does the building of the church make such a “wow” impression.

    Click to enlarge - it's 
gorgeous.This one's 
worth a look too!



Great Men

It would certainly be possible to list great men in dozens from this period.  We shall pick, however, the primary three who established the main systems of the Protestant churches.

  • Martin Luther is the man whose courage and insight fired the minds of the western world.  A monk, he became utterly convicted when reading the letter to the Romans.  The story of posting the 95 Theses on the church door is well known.  Luther placed in the forefront the major points of Protestant thought:
    • The prime method by which God makes his will known to us is in the Scripture.
    • Faith is what saves you – by the grace of God.
    • Priests?  Only in the priesthood of all believers.
  • John Calvin might be said to be the great theologian of the Reformation.  His Institutes of the Christian Religion is still studied today.  He and Luther disagreed on various items – particularly the Lord’s Supper – and he was a firm believer in predestination.  (He considered it as indispensable in explaining why one obtains grace and another does not).  Most of his beliefs would fit in with evangelical churches today.
  • Huldreich Zwingli is a name unknown to most American evangelicals.  His interpretation of Scripture with regard to the Lord’s Supper was different from these other two, but like them he regarded Scripture as paramount.  He was also the man who reformed the Swiss church.  His systematic theology, Commentary on True and False Religion, remains a foundation stone for Protestantism.

One thing should be noted about these three men:  they had no way to conclusively settle their differences.  The Roman church could call a council of bishops to deal with such things; the early Protestant church had no such option.  The result was that splinter groups formed from splinter groups – as is still done today.


The New Testament

It is in this period that the scriptures take on the importance they had in the early church.  Step by step:

  • The one biggest step forward was taken by the noted scholar Erasmus.  He assembled what is now referred to as the textus receptus – meaning the “received text.”  He assembled the New Testament – in the Greek – into a published work.  He had no intention of abetting the Reformation – which started after this – but once the single copy of the original was made, the way was cleared.
  • Translations began to appear.  Not just in English; all the languages of Northern Europe began to see translations appear.  One story will show the importance of this.  In England there was a translation named the Great Bible – not for its excellence but its huge size.  Copies were printed and given to the major church cathedrals – where people would stand in line to get inside, to hear someone read the Bible to them in their own language.
  • Indeed, translations of the Bible became nation builders.  Martin Luther’s translation into German defined Germany.  The process was to be repeated later in England, when King James II commissioned a translation into English.  For three hundred years the English speaking peoples were bound together by a common translation of the word of God.  It might well be said that England defines a people; Great Britain was defined by the King James Version.



Christian Doctrine

Doctrine exploded in all directions during the Reformation.  Lets look at three groups who are typical of the splintering of doctrine into enthusiastic churchlets:

  • First, consider the Anabaptists – the word means “rebaptizer”, after their insistence on adult baptism only – who gave us the idea that the Christian must go beyond inner experience and outer doctrines to what we would call the walk with Christ.  They were (probably) the first group who desired not reform – but restoration of the early church.  They stressed the truth that we are to love on another.  The congregation, not the bishops or elders, were to determine doctrine for the local assembly.  They practiced pacifism.  They taught the separation of church and state (also the first to do so).  Most of this movement now survives in the Mennonite church.
  • The Puritans – so called by their wish to purify the Anglican church (Henry VIII’s contribution to Reformation) - objected to Anglican worship practices (far too close to the Roman Catholic).  They too wanted congregational authority, even to the point that they challenged whether elders (bishops) should have any authority.  They are known today mostly for the small bunch of them who came over on the Mayflower.
  • Baptists – different from Anabaptists – started in this period.  Their major contribution to the development of the church was in government.  They held that the local congregation was autonomous and should not be persecuted by the government for that.  But they also held that an individual congregation could not handle matters alone, and began to form various boards, agencies and other collectives of specific purpose – a characteristic which distinguishes them even to this day.


The Counterreformation

At first the Roman Catholic church had a very low key reaction to Martin Luther.  The Pope is said to have quipped, “Luther is a drunken German.  He will feel different when he is sober.”  The Roman church’s disdain for Luther gave him one thing he could not manufacture:  celebrity.  The Italian church sneered; the German church took offense.  In the early stages, the Roman church did not see the threat posed by Luther.  They assumed he would be assimilated. 

Later, however, the Roman church took action in traditional fashion:  they summoned a council, the council of Trent.  Pope Paul III summoned them as an ecumenical group – but overstocked with Italian clergy.  The result was that the Council reaffirmed most of the existing theology, including the existence of purgatory.  But they did abolish the office of indulgence-seller.  The rest of the doctrinal statement came with various curses attached to the articles of faith, so that by this council the Roman church would have unity with the Protestants only on its own terms.  Luther said that it confirmed the “irreformability of the Catholic church.”

One significant change did emerge from this period.  Ignatius of Loyola formed the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits.  Highly centralized and trained for years, the Jesuits became the shock troops of the Papacy.  Their dedication and insistence on such devotion has made them effective missionaries around the world.  Their usefulness in combating the Reformation – often with the Inquisition – hardened the lines between Protestant and Catholic.  The slaughter of Protestants in various European countries – particularly France – so divided the church that there seems little reasonable possibility of union.



Two consistent patterns emerge from all this:

  1. As the divide between Protestant and Catholic grew wider, the Reformation began to look more and more to Restoration.  Churches which taught that priests were necessary, and they needed to have hands laid upon them (in succession to Christ, or Peter), diminished in favor of those who opened the Bible to find how the church was to be run.
  2. There is one other sad fact:  more and more denominations and groups keep popping up – largely because the group from which they sprung had lost the fire of the Spirit.  The organizational unity of the church is fractured; unity in the Spirit binds us in ways unseen.




[1] My local readers will recall this work, I think.  I thought so highly of it myself that I gave each of my students a copy for Christmas one year.  If you would like to try it, I would suggest the Penguin Books translation. 

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