Eric VanValin, contemplating the best way forward through written words & moving pictures.

The Reformation at 500

The Reformation at 500

In the Christian spaces I grew up in there was little interest in any church history that took place in between the life of Jesus and Billy Graham. I read a couple chapters about Martin Luther in history class but other than that... meh. We weren't Catholics with their saints and old bones and we weren't those confused Protestants with their many denominations and an -ology for everything (ecclesiology, epistemology, eschatology, etc.)

We were just Christians -- the correct version. The God-fearing Red White and Blue blooded Bible-believing don't you dare use X in Christmas Christians. Why did we need to care about a German guy and his prehistoric battles with the pope?

It wasn't until I started reading about the Protestant Reformation earlier this year that I started to piece together the influence it had on the faith of my country, the Baptist and Pentecostal schools I was educated in, and the many strands of Christianity that have influenced my own life.

This a piece I wrote about the most interesting/enlightening bits I came across during recent readings... call it a Reformation primer from a guy who knew literally nothing 'bout it before 2017.



A Half-millenia

Throughout 2017, countries, churches, schools, and scholars have planned events around the world to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the epochal split from the Holy Roman Church that has touched nearly every aspect of Western Society.  Historian Brad Gregory writes, “What transpired five centuries ago continues today profoundly to influence the lives of everyone not only in Europe and North America but all around the world, whether or not they are Christians or indeed religious believers of any kind.”

The scope of influence astounds when you contemplate the impact of from Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Reinhold Niebuhr or note the impact on philosophy from Locke, Hume, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. One might not want to imagine a world without the music of Bach or Handel, let alone the revolutionary social changes shouldered by Protestants William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet, the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century came with a great cost of bloodshed as Lutheran and Reformed leaders fought for independence and expansion across Europe and North America.  With the perceived blessing of God and the authority of scripture, Protestantism has played a part in fueling fierce nationalism, religious wars, genocide, and slavery not to mention the legacy of internal denominational division. Where there were once the two great pillars of the Christian church in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, we can now add the 41,000 individual Protestant denominations created from 500 years of differing interpretations of Scripture. As Catholics throughout previous centuries have noted, the Reformation may rightly be remembered for “setting up of a paper pope in place of one of flesh and blood one.” In this light, it’s important to hold the achievements and atrocities together as we reflect on what Christian scholar Jaroslav Pelikan described as “the tragic necessity of the Reformation.”

Ideas and Indulgences

In the early 16th century, the Catholic Church was influential in all facets of life, including areas as seemingly disparate as family, farming, government and education. That the enormous shift of the Reformation could break a century of standards so quickly speaks to the power of ideas. Prominent Reformation historian Diarmaid MacCulloch writes, “Only ideas and their independent power could so dramatically have brought down such a strong structure… it sprang from a big idea about death, salvation, and the afterlife.”

The initial sparks of the Reformation came from Martin Luther, the priest, monk and German moral theology professor who voiced grievances centering on the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences in exchange for the remission of sins. Indulgences had long been a practice of the church, but Luther, a priest himself, noticed parishioners had begun purchasing indulgences in place of going to confession. Luther was also disturbed by the increased commercialization of indulgences as even Pope Leo X had begun marketing the sale indulgences in order to rebuild the extravagant St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

On October 31st, 1517, Luther shared his attack on indulgences in the form of the infamous 95 Theses which he enclosed with a letter to Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg. Luther did not anticipate this would set forth an apocalyptic split in the life of the Western church. His initial intent was not meant to separate, but initiate reforms that would return the church to the example provided by the early Church.

Luther’s arguments hinged on idea that the individual faith of the believer was all that was needed for salvation, based on Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith was enough to spark “a turnabout in the whole Western Christian scheme of salvation.” The church ultimately rejected Luther’s theses, and the Pope himself issued a written response (a papal bull) requiring Luther to recant and return to the church traditions. Luther refused, burned the papal bull in defiance, and was excommunicated by the church in 1521.

Sola Scriptura

Luther’s dispute over indulgences quickly moved to a dispute over the ultimate authority of the church as Reformers were now testing all traditions of the church against the Bible which had recently been made widely available throughout Europe thanks to the advent of the printing press. Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, championed the idea of “Sola Scriptura”, the doctrine that stated the Bible held sole authority for faith and practice of the church.

As Northern German states united behind Luther and Zwingli, conflicts arose, and though Luther denounced violence, religious wars ensued, reducing an estimated 40% of the German population, and taking 8 million lives across Europe in the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648. The bloodshed put enormous strain on the European society, leading to a series of peace treaties at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, signaling a tolerance between Catholics and Protestants that has remained.

Still Going Strong

Highlights of the five centuries since Luther’s 95 theses include the birth of modern science, medicine, philosophy, the colonization of North America, the enlightenment, modernity, postmodernity, the birth of capitalism, and the industrial revolution. Despite all of these Western progressions, many of the Reformers earliest modifications to the life of the church can still be found in the lineage of Protestant churches today.

Marriage in the Church

With the Bible placed firmly atop of the Protestant pyramid, Luther and the Reformers found no Scriptural basis for continuing to promote celibacy or prohibiting marriage by clergy. Lutheran magistrates quickly transferred marriage out of the hands of the corruptible church and into civil law while both Luther and Zwingli, the most influential leaders of their day, both married with the first decade of the Reformation.

These new views on marriage had great influence on the lives of both male and female clergy. As monasteries and convents were shut down, many single women were left without work, putting increased value on marriage as a vocation. Based on Paul’s teaching that men were to be the head of the home, husbands were placed as mediators between God and their wives, a standard that remains in conservative congregations to this day.

Worship and Scripture in a Common Tongue

Before Luther, scripture was to be read solely from the Roman Catholic approved Latin Vulgate Bible. This convention was challenged as Luther  the Scriptures into the common Germanic tongue. His New Testament interpretation in 1522 has been remembered by fellow Germans as Luther allowing, “that God might speak German to the German nation.” Luther’s translation inspired William Tyndale who transcribed and published an English New Testament in 1526, which in turn served as a resource during the translation and printing of the King James Bible in 1611.

In addition to scripture, Reformers transformed the music of the church. Unemotional chants and stoic readings were replaced with visceral worship described by John Calvin as bent toward the “swaying of the heart” that “extolled to delight”. Luther thought church music should be clear and not overly complex, harmonious, and Luther himself wrote vernacular hymns including “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Away in a Manger”.

Icons and Symbols

Under the new Protestant theology, an “iconophobia” emerged as icons, symbols and statues of the Catholic Church were seen as sorcerous impedances to God. Throughout Europe, icons of Christ and the saints were hung upside down in gallows, attacked with swords, and even drowned. Images of the Mother Mary received special attention given her prominence in the Catholic tradition and in one instance iconoclasts raided a cathedral, tore down a statue of the mother of Christ and tossed it into a river. Upon the wooden statue floating, it was condemned and burned at the customary place for executing witches. This deterrent to Christian symbols remains strong in modern Protestant churches today, where even the most lavish mega church sanctuaries rarely feature more than a symbolic cross.

Disenchantment and the Devil

Luther and the Reformers were the originators of NOTW (Not Of This World), professing a clear separation between this life and the heavenly realm.  This challenged 16th century Catholicism that revered the monastic journey which sought mystical encounters with the divine, thus becoming purer and more God-like. In contrast, the Lutheran “desacralization” of the world removed the possibility of supernatural and mystical experiences from the Earth and any claim of accessing the divine was seen as “unhinged fanaticism”.

Yet as the inherent divinity of the Earth was removed, Satan remained. Luther still saw God as ultimately in control. But the Earth was temporarily under attack from the devil and his human minions who were capable of manipulating the laws of the Earth, though not powerful enough to actually change God’s natural laws.

Luther’s later writings on the demonization of specific people groups has been a thorn in his legacy as he went as far as to justify the slaughtering of Jews because of their assumed association with the devil. As historian Sarah Hinclicky Wilson writes, “Luther at times became entirely too confident about identifying the devil’s work with a particular group of people - one of the most dangerous and destructive habits of the human race, at which Luther unfortunately excelled”.

PR 2.0

The most influential successor of Luther and Zwingli was the French theologian, John Calvin, whose legacy is hard to quantify given the breadth of his influence across multiple continents. His seminal writings, Institutes of the Christian Religion, became the defining text of Protestant theology as it continued to spread throughout Europe and eventually North America. Calvin also spent much of his life putting his theology into practice. He was appointed to the head the church in Geneva and his Ecclesiastical Ordinances served as the blueprints for a theocracy in the city, which fellow Reformer John Knox and founder of Presbyterianism describes as "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles."

While Calvin’s legacy lives on in the Protestant and Reformed congregations around the world, his memory is often reduced to his understanding of predestination. Where as Lutherans believed salvation was predestined for those who seek God, Calvin introduced a take on St. Augustine’s view in which God’s chosen were selected before the creation of the world, which has been interpreted as creating a God-ordained hierarchy here on Earth. In Calvin’s words, "All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death." For Calvin, this did not limit the power of grace or the responsibility of love and compassion from the elect, but it did open up the idea that Calvinists were the “new chosen ones”, with a mission from God to spread this newly purified religion to the rest of the world. 

Coming to America

Calvin’s teachings coincided with the colonization of America and it was English pilgrims, Scots, Scots Irish, and Huguenot French, all Calvinists, who would exodus from Europe into North America, believing they were indeed God’s “New Israel’, chosen to spread the new Protestant religion. With that covenant mindset, the early European settlers saw their new continent as the “inherited” Promised Land similar to that of Canaan in the Bible. And, just like the Canaanites who once ruled the land, the genocidal removal of the Native “savages” was seen as justified by God.

The First and Second Great Awakenings spread and galvanized the Protestant churches and saw the founding of colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to train Protestant ministers. As the country grew by the millions in the early 1800’s, it was seen as God’s will that settlers expand west, shining the light of democracy, education, and technology to the old world. American exceptionalism became “Manifest Destiny”, a term first used by influential journalist John O’Sullivan to justify expansion and in particular, the annexation of Oregon and Texas. O’Sullivan wrote, “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” 

Even the belief of modern U.S. foreign policy, with the desire to be the “leader of the free world” and mission to “spread freedom and democracy”, can partly be traced back to the nation’s Protestant and Puritan roots.

Luther’s Ultimate Legacy

After 500 years, the theological legacy of the Protestant Reformation celebrated by both Catholics and Protestants is that Jesus Christ remains central in the Christian faith. And while the church remains categorically divided, the vitriol that fueled these divisions has long simmered. At a 2016 ecumenical prayer service in Sweden, Pope Francis shared, “The spiritual experience of Martin Luther challenges us to remember that apart from God we can do nothing. “How can I get a propitious God?” This is the question that haunted Luther. In effect, the question of a just relationship with God is the decisive question for our lives. As we know, Luther encountered that propitious God in the Good News of Jesus, incarnate, dead and risen. With the concept “by grace alone”, he reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response. The doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.”

Where Are We Headed?

The late Christian author Phyllis Tickle is remembered for the notable line, “Every five hundred years, the church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.” Dating back to 1000 BCE with the construction of the first of Jerusalem in Temple up through the Protestant Reformation, an event occurs that creates a major shift in the life of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Time will tell what the next “Rummage Sale” may get rid of, but as Catholics and Protestant leaders come together to commemorate the last 500 years, a challenge has been cast to all move into the next era together.

As noted by historian Mark Noll in the book Protestantism after 500 Years, Karlheinz Diez (Auxiliary Catholic Bishop of Fulda, Germany) and Eero Huovien (Lutheran Bishop Emeritus of Helsinki, Finland) recently challenged, “In 2017, we must confess openly that we have been guilty before Christ of damaging the unity of the church. This commemorative year presents us with two challenges: the purification of memories and healing of memories, and the restoration of Christian unity in accordance with the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”


Recommended Reformation Reading:

To brush up on the church history from the past 500 years, check out these recommended readings on the Protestant Reformation:

The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch

A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass

Protestantism after 500 Years – A recent collection of essays edited by Thomas Albert Howard & Mark A Noll

The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle



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