Protestant Reformation

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Martin Luther at the Diet (Reichstag) of Worms 1521 addressing the Roman-German Emperor

The Protestant Reformation was a movement in Europe that began with Martin Luther's activities in 1517 in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The Protestant Reformation is also referred to as the Protestant Revolution, Protestant Revolt, and, in Germany, the Lutheran Reformation.


The movement began as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church as many western Christians were troubled by false doctrines and malpractices within the Church, particularly involving the teaching and sales of indulgences. Another major contention was the practice of buying and selling church positions (simony) and the tremendous corruption found at the time within the Church's hierarchy. This corruption was systemic at the time, even reaching the position of the Pope.

On 31 October 1517, in Wittenberg, Saxony, Germany, Martin Luther, a German Roman Catholic monk, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, which served as a pin board for university-related announcements. The document was a series of 95 ideas about Christianity that he invited people to debate with him. These ideas were controversial because they directly contradicted the Catholic Church's teachings.

Luther's statements challenged the Catholic Church's and the Pope's role as intermediary between people and God. The most controversial points centered on the practice of selling indulgences, which in part allowed people to purchase a certificate of pardon for the punishment of their sins, and the Church's policy on purgatory. Luther argued against the practice of buying or earning forgiveness, believing instead that salvation is a gift God gives to those who have faith.

Two years later, Henry VIII began writing the first two chapters of what would become Assertio Septem Sacramentorum. Sir Thomas More is rumored to have helped with the third section of the Assertio. Other reformers, such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, soon followed Luther's lead. Other Church beliefs and practices under attack by Protestant reformers included particular judgment, absolute devotion to Mary, the intercession of the saints, most of the sacraments, and the authority of the Pope. In 1533, an amorous Henry VIII gave his assent to the Act of Restraint of Appeals, thus making a constitutional break with Rome and beginning the English Reformation.

King Henry VIII at first took it upon himself to personally repudiate the arguments of the German Protestant Reformation leader. The pope rewarded the Henry with the lofty title of Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith. But by 1527, Henry had a big problem: His first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, had failed to produce a son and male heir to the throne. Henry had also become infatuated with one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, whose sister Mary had previously been his lover. Anne encouraged the king’s attentions, but shrewdly refused to become his mistress, setting her sights on a higher goal. So Henry asked Pope Clement VII to grant him a divorce from Catherine. He argued that the marriage was against God’s will, due to the fact that she had briefly been married to Henry’s late brother, Arthur. But timing was not on Henry’s side. That same year—1527—the imperial troops (Reichsarmee) of the Holy Roman Empire had attacked and destroyed Rome itself, forcing Pope Clement VII to flee the Vatican through a secret tunnel and take shelter in the Castel Sant’Angelo. At the time, the title of Holy Roman Emperor belonged to King Charles V, head of the rising House of Habsburg, Catherine of Aragon’s beloved nephew. When Henry assented to the Act of Restraint (1533), halting clerical appeals to Rome, he did not intend a religious revolution. He clung to the essentials of Romanist doctrine and, if he felt any true reforming urge, it was mainly in what he considered to be the outward forms of religion. Parliament’s passage of the Act of Supremacy in 1534 solidified the break from the Catholic Church and made the king the Supreme Head of the Church of England. With Cranmer and Cromwell in positions of power, and a Protestant queen by Henry’s side, England began adopting “some of the lessons of the continental Reformation,” Pettegree says, including a translation of the Bible into English. Yet by 1547 the insular Church was fast becoming a definitely Protestant body.

The most important Protestant groups to emerge directly from the reformation were the Lutherans, the Reformed/Calvinists/Presbyterians, the Anabaptists, and the Anglicans. Subsequent Protestant denominations generally trace their roots back to the initial Reformation traditions. It also accelerated the Catholic or Counter Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church.

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