ERA 5—Modern Church (1): Reformation & Struggles
(AD 1500–1700)


The Protestant Reformation


Modern church history is the age of conflicts, between Protestantism and Romanism, between religious liberty and authority, between individual Christianity and a traditional church system.


By the 16th-century, the corruption within the church had become so serious and widespread that the time of correction had arrived. In independent studies of the Bible, various groups came to the same conclusion that the church has deviated from the Biblical faith, and they could no longer submit to the authority of the pope. The largest groups were led by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Tyndale, and the Anabaptists. While all of them attempted to recover the original faith from the Word of God—the Bible, each arrived at a slightly different conclusion so that there were some disagreements among various groups.


Another important factor which propelled the spread of Reformation was the invention of printing. The Bible became more available for the common person as Luther translated the Bible into German [1534], and Tyndale into English [1525]. King James Version of the English Bible [1611] became the most influential Bible in English speaking countries for many centuries.


Martin Luther and Lutheranism


The catalyst for the Reformation was the troubled soul of a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546). Trying rigorously to pacify his guilty conscience through the sacramental system, he found failure in all his efforts. Eventually, he turned to the Bible and discovered that he had hopelessly tried to gain peace through his own effort instead of through faith in the work of Christ. He found peace with God. From then on, his emphasis in teaching became justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.


On October 31, 1517, Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the Wittenberg church door. His intention was simply to seek a debate in the selling of “indulgences” (releases from the punishment for sin for the living and the dead in exchange for money). It became the opening shot of the Protestant Reformation. As Luther’s writings gained wide publicity, he was eventually excommunicated by the pope. Luther was then tried at the Diet of Worms [1521] before both civil and church authorities. While hidden by his friends at Wartburg Castle, Luther prepared a German translation of the New Testament. One year later, he returned to Wittenberg and, until his death, led the movement that was known formally as the Evangelical Church and informally as Lutheranism. Assisted by the brilliant Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), who wrote the Augsburg Confession [1530], Lutheranism was accepted by the majority of the German states and in Scandinavia and was formally recognized by the Peace of Augsburg [1555].


Zwingli and Calvin


Another important leader of Reformation was the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531). After becoming a priest in Zurich [1519], he presented his new doctrines in the form of the Sixty-seven Articles. He won the city over to his position after a formal debate. By similar debates, the Reformation spread into surrounding areas of German-speaking Switzerland.


French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) wrote the Institutes of Christian Religion [1536] to summarize his theology, based on his study of the Bible. This work was revised many times during Calvin’s life and eventually influenced all subsequent work in Protestant theology. While travelling through Geneva, Switzerland, he became a participant of the Reformation that had already started in that city. He eventually became the most influential person in Geneva and helped reforming not only the church there but also the civic government. He also established the Geneva Academy which trained theologians that spread his teachings throughout the world. Later, the French-Swiss in Geneva and the German-Swiss in the north would unite under the Second Helvetic Confession.


Calvinism and the Reformed Church spread across Europe, becoming the dominant Protestantism in Holland and Scotland, and in parts of Germany, Poland, and Hungary. In France, the Calvinists were called Huguenots. They suffered persecution (particularly in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572), but emerged after the Edict of Nantes [1598] to enjoy toleration and growth. However, persecution scattered them once again when the edict was revoked [1685].


Calvinism was firmly established in Scotland through the labours of John Knox (1513–1572) and would exert an enormous influence in England with the establishment of the Puritan movement in the Anglican Church. In Holland, Jakob Arminius (1560–1609) and his followers sought to modify Calvinistic predestination through the Five Remonstrances [1610] which was rebuffed by the Synod of Dort [1618]. The Arminianism was eventually adopted by the Methodists and the General Baptists.


Anabaptists and Baptists


Historians have generally recognized two broad Reformation movements; the magisterial, linking the state and church together, and the radical, which opposed state alliances in order to be independent in their teachings. These radical reformists include a vast spectrum of theological opinions, including anti-trinitarians such as Michael Servetus (Socinianism), inner light advocates like the Schwenkfelders, pacifists such as Menno Simons (1496–1561, leader of the Mennonites), millennialists such as the Munsterites, and various Baptist groups.


The Baptist theology grew largely from Zwingli’s reforms in Zurich. Some of Zwingli’s supporters believed that baptism was only for adult converts. In 1525, a group of them rebaptized one another (the basis for the name Anabaptist), starting a new movement. Because of persecution against them, they were scattered throughout Europe. Many found a refuge in Holland and became Mennonites.


The Puritan movement (those who desired to purify the church of papal remnants) in England led to the emergence of Baptists as they are known today. Separatist Puritans (teaching church independence and congregational form of governance) established the General Baptists [1609]. Some formed the Particular Baptist movement in the 1640s.


Reformation in England


Reformation in England was initiated by the monarchs. It began with papal unwillingness to grant Henry VIII a divorce. The conflict led Henry to make himself the head of the English Church. Under his successor Edward VI, Protestantism flourished. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) wrote the Forty-two Articles and the Book of Common Prayer [1549]. Later, Queen Mary Tudor (1516–1558) attempted to violently reestablish Catholicism, earning her the epithet Bloody Mary. Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) reversed the course and established the via media, the church of the middle way, bringing religious peace. The confession was reduced to the Thirty-nine Articles [1562], removing some objectionable Calvinism while remaining Protestant in doctrine and elevating the role of the priesthood and liturgy. This Elizabethan Settlement [1558] created the Church of England or the Anglican Community.


Puritans hoped for more decisive change and developed alternatives to state-episcopal rule—Presbyterianism under Thomas Cartwright, and Congregationalism under Henry Jacob. Classic works of Christian literature by Puritans at this time include John Milton’s Paradise Lost [1667] and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress [1678].


The ascension of James VI of Scotland to the throne in 1603 as James I proved to be a disappointment for the Puritans. He increased the power of Episcopalianism. (James did sanction a new Bible translation, the King James Version [1611].) Tensions escalated between the Puritans, the church, and the king until civil war erupted [1642]. Parliament replaced King Charles I but quickly fell into disagreeing factions that doomed hopes for restructuring the national church. With the writing of the Westminster Confession [1644], two catechisms, and a Directory of Worship, the Westminster Assembly sought to establish Presbyterianism as England’s official religion but was opposed by Congregational Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell. The restoration of the monarchy [1660] brought an end to Puritan hopes of restoring the church to its primitive simplicity.


Before the English Civil War, the persecution of nonconformist Puritans led to their mass migration to the English colonies during the 1620s and 1630s. Many settled in New England, hoping to establish more Biblical Christian governments. The Pilgrim branch of the Puritan movement established Plymouth Colony.


Roman Catholic Counter Reformation


Even before the Protestant Reformation, some in the Roman Catholic Church had attempted to revitalize the decadent medieval church. The Inquisition was established [1480] by the pope to get rid of false adherents in Italy and Spain. Jimenes, Bishop of Toledo, became Inquisitor General in Spain persecuting Jews, Muslims, and dissenting Christians. It is estimated that the Spanish Inquisition burnt 14,000 people, and condemned another 200,000 who were mostly exiled.


Several monastic orders were created in an effort to reform, such as the Oratory of Divine Love [1517] and the Capuchins [1525]. The most influential of the new orders was the Jesuits [1540], founded by Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556). Stressing a militant level of obedience to the Pope, the order emphasized education, missions, and inquisition to preserve the church and deter Protestants. Their missionary work was commendable; their political intrigues and persecution of Protestants were not. Jesuit Francis Xavier (1506–1552) carried the message of the church to the Far East; Franciscans founded missions in South America.


The grand reforming council of the church was at Trent [1545–1563] in northern Italy. However, it was hardly ecumenical as only 31 bishops attended the first session, eventually increasing to 213. It wrote the modern Roman Catholic creed. Protestant teachings were condemned, and the church alone was recognized as having the authority to interpret the Scripture. Tradition was granted an authoritative status equal to the Scripture; seven sacraments were defined; and justification was seen as a gradual process of becoming righteous, and required good works. Christ’s death was a sacrifice that only made salvation possible; it then had to be received through the offices and sacraments of the Roman Church. Further, it was claimed that the actions of Trent were the direct will of the Holy Spirit for the church, giving council decisions the authority of infallible dogma. Activities against Protestantism were generally referred to as the Counter Reformation.


The struggles between Protestantism and Romanism led to the death of many thousands. In central Europe, the Thirty Years’ War [1618–1648] brought destruction as Protestants and Catholics fought for power. Thousands of religious leaders and common people were executed for religious reasons, most of them Protestants, the largest number being in France and the low countries (Holland, Belgium). Foxe’s Book of Martyrs recorded the persecution of believers in Christ through the centuries.


Enlightenment and Rationalism


With roots stretching back to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment held that human reason was able to create a glorious future through the sciences. Traditional Christian views such as human depravity and dependence upon God were increasingly regarded as detrimental to progress. The religious expression of the Enlightenment was Deism, a belief that God was a clockmaker who had created the world and then abandoned it to natural law. God was effectively reduced to a force within nature.


Rene Descartes (1596–1650) has been called the first modern man because he embodied so much of Enlightenment thought. He sought truth from the starting point of reflective thinking, from “clear and distinct ideas,” not from the Bible. John Locke (1632–1704), the father of the British empiricism, suggested that knowledge could only be derived through data accumulated by the senses.


Gottfried von Leibniz (1646–1716) believed in “pre-established harmony” between matter and mind, and developed a kind of rationalism by which he attempted to reconcile the existence of matter with the existence of God. He was also, with Isaac Newton, a co-inventor of calculus which later facilitated advances in scientific theories.


Most approaches to knowledge proposed by philosophers ridiculed the role of revelation. Christianity now faced a serious philosophical opponent. Religious expressions of the Enlightenment—Unitarianism and Deism—attempted to reshape traditional Christianity by questioning the integrity of the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ, and the traditional teaching about the sinfulness of mankind. These were replaced by an optimism about human progress.