Protestant Reformation Anniversary

    The year 2017 is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which took place during the period between the sixteenth century and the middle of the seventeenth century.  It is generally believed to have started with the actions of Martin Luther (1483-1546), who published his "Ninety-five Theses" on October 31, 1517.  While that action is usually cited as the trigger for the Protestant Reformation, there were certainly other forerunners to the reformation whom the Roman Catholic Church despised because of their anti-church thoughts and actions.    

   One such man was John Wycliffe (1330-1384), who was an Oxford University professor with a conviction that the Bible should be the source of authority for the church's doctrine and practice.  He believed there was corruption among Roman clerics, transubstantiation was unbiblical, and scripture was best interpreted by individual Christians rather than the church's hierarchy.  He also rejected clerical celibacy, indulgences, and the idea of purgatory.  With others, he translated the Latin Vulgate into English, and because he lived prior to the printing press, his Bibles existed only in manuscript form.  On May 4, 1415, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic, and his works were ordered to be burned.  It was also decided that his body be exhumed and burned.  This shows that there was a degree of dissatisfaction and resistance to the Roman Catholic Church prior to the actions of Martin Luther. 

    Martin Luther was in a terrible thunderstorm on June 2, 1505, and must have felt he might die right there.  During the storm, he cried out and pleaded to Saint Ann, the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus, saying: "Please help me, and if I survive, I promise I will enter a monastery to serve the Lord."  Well, he did survive, and became an Augustinian monk, following the practices of fasting, prayer, and confession.  He was ordained in 1507, went to teach at the University of Wittenberg in 1508, and became a Doctor of Theology in 1512.  As a priest, he heard many confessions from the local people, and heard a number of complaints about the Roman Catholic Church.  Many of the complaints had to do with clergy abuses and also with what were felt to be non-scriptural practices.  Luther made some of these complaints known in the posting of his famous "Ninety-five Theses". 

    Two important points to know is that Martin Luther at one time was quite traditional in his thinking about the Roman Catholic Church, and even with his posting of the 95 Theses, he never intended to start new churches in order to replace the Roman Catholic Church.  His whole protest was meant to be done "from within the existing church",  hoping that the hierarchy would listen and accommodate him on at least some of the changes he was proposing.  Martin Luther was a gifted student of scripture, and he came to believe that the book of Romans defined for him that people are "justified by faith in Jesus Christ", and this faith is received by God's grace (Romans 1:16-17).  Another way of saying this is that "salvation is received, not earned".  Of course, his stated beliefs were regarded as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church.  While he was given more than one opportunity to publicly recant his beliefs, he never did.  Instead, his beliefs became quite popular among other reformers of his day, and Luther was excommunicated from the church.  

   One of the main reasons Martin Luther became so popular is the invention of the printing press.  He was one of the most voluminous Christian writers of all time, and his writings became quickly available to the people of his lifetime, read by many scholars residing in several different nation states.  One of his writings was a German translation of the scriptures, a project he wanted to complete so that the many common people of his own nation would be able to read the Bible in their native tongue.  We must bear in mind that many people of his day were illiterate, but Luther figured that even if a literate member of a family could just read portions of the Bible to others, many would be able to benefit from hearing and knowing what was contained in God's Word.  As literacy rates increased, learning was laicized more and more.

   Major Protestant Reformers besides Martin Luther included Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich, William Tyndale (1494-1536) an English theologian whose Bible translations helped form the foundation of the King James Bible published in 1611, John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Menno Simons (1496-1561) a leader of Dutch Anabaptists who became known as Mennonites, John Knox (1514-1572) the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, and many others who were followers of the above named, or fulfilled other specific roles within the reformation period.  The Protestant Reformation led to the development of a large number of different faith communities who no longer believed in the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. 

   One of the lesser known aspects of the reformation was its bloodiness, with people on both sides of the equation feeling that "if you don't believe in God in the very way we do, then you must die".  Being called a heretic was not enough for some folks.  For example, in 1536 William Tyndale was burned at the stake near Brussels.  Roman Catholics had Zwingli's body drawn and quartered and burned.  In 1556, Queen Mary ordered that Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), who held a broadly Reformed theology, be burned at the stake in Oxford.  The Huguenots were French Protestants and members of the French Reformed Church.  By 1561, this church had 2,150 congregations, but the people faced terrible persecution which led to the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598).  The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre on August 24, 1572 produced Protestant casualties estimated to be about 20,000.  Because of their constant persecution by King Louis XIII and XIV, and the attempts to force the Huguenots to accept Catholicism, over 400,000 Huguenots fled throughout Europe, to the Netherlands and elsewhere, with many of them finally emigrating to North America.   

   One of the foremost beliefs which grew out of the reformation was "the priesthood of all believers".  By 1520, Martin Luther contended that all Christians were "spiritual priests" since they were baptized and were believers in Jesus Christ.  This meant that both clergy and laity had equal standing before God, and that any Christian could come directly to God through Jesus Christ, without the need of a clergy mediator.  The Priesthood of All Believers also meant that all Christians have the right to interpret Scripture and the responsibility to judge what is true and untrue in Christian faith.  At the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church rejected the "priesthood of all believers", favoring the church's traditional priestly structure.

   [Much of the information about the Protestant Reformation was drawn from two sources: a DVD course on the reformation, ordered by Pastor Larry from the GREAT COURSES, and the reading of Reformation Questions, Reformation Answers, by Donald McKim, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017]

   The above document was prepared by a previous pastor, Rev Dr Larry LeFeber.