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 , and
Tyndale into English . King James
Version of the English Bible  became the most influential Bible in
English speaking countries for many centuries.
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  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 , Lutheranism was accepted by the majority of the German
states and in Scandinavia and was formally
recognized by the Peace of Augsburg .
Another important leader of Reformation was the
Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531). After becoming a priest in Zurich , 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
French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) wrote
the Institutes of Christian Religion 
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  to enjoy
toleration and growth. However, persecution scattered them once again when the
edict was revoked .
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  which was
rebuffed by the Synod of Dort . The Arminianism was eventually adopted by
the Methodists and the General 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 . Some formed the Particular Baptist movement in the 1640s.
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 . 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 , removing some objectionable Calvinism while remaining
Protestant in doctrine and elevating the role of the priesthood and liturgy.
This Elizabethan Settlement  created the Church of England or the
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  and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress .
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 .) Tensions
escalated between the Puritans, the church, and the king until civil war
erupted . 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 , 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  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.
Even before the Protestant Reformation, some in
the Roman Catholic Church had attempted to revitalize the decadent medieval
church. The Inquisition was established  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  and the Capuchins .
The most influential of the new orders was the Jesuits , 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,
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs recorded the
persecution of believers in Christ through the centuries.
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.