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Protestant Reformation
Encyclopedia of Catholicism. Frank K. Flinn. Facts on File Library of Religion and Mythology: Encyclopedia of World Religions New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. p530-535.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Frank K. Flinn
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Protestant Reformation

Of the many traumas endured by the Catholic Church, only the GREAT SCHISM that divided it from EASTERN ORTHODOXY can compare with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century for its continentwide impact. Most of northern and western Europe (Upper GERMANY, SCANDINAVIA, the Netherlands, GREAT BRITAIN, etc.) were severed from the church, and the great power that soon arose in NORTH AMERICA was dominated by non-Catholics from the start. All around the world Catholic and Protestant forces have been and often remain in competition for the hearts of the public.


The Protestant Reformation emerged in an environment of self-criticism on the part of the Catholic Church, in which several reform movements had already appeared, and a variety of changes were under active consideration (see COUNTER-REFORMATION ). The Protestants, however, demanded changes that were much more extreme; their ultimate success can be explained by their alliance with political leaders pursuing their own temporal interests.

The spark that set off the Reformation was a noisy campaign to sell INDULGENCES in Germany, carried out under the leadership of DOMINICAN preacher JOHANN TETZEL (c. 1465–1519). Tetzel sent the money he raised to Rome to cover bills for the construction of ST. PETER 'S BASILICA. Martin Luther (1483–1546), a professor of THEOLOGY at the University of Wittenburg, challenged the practice of selling indulgences and called for a debate on a set of related issues (theses), when he nailed his 95 Theses to the cathedral door at Wittenburg on October 31, 1517. Discussions with theologian JOHANN ECK (1486–1543) and others over the next few years pushed Luther to more extreme positions, such as when he elevated the authority of the BIBLE over that of popes and even church COUNCILS, thus claiming that councils too can err.

Pope Leo X (r. 1513–21) condemned 41 of Luthers 95 Theses in the bull Ex surge Domine (June 15, 1520). But he was protected from the worst consequences by Frederick III, the elector of Saxony (1463–1525), who wanted not only to defend his relatively new university at Witten-burg, but, like several other German princes, also wanted to prevent large sums of money flowing out of his dominions to Rome. In 1521 Luther wrote three famous treatises in which he argued Page 531  |  Top of Articlefor the priesthood of all believers, developed his understanding that there are only two SACRAMENTS (BAPTISM and the EUCHARIST), and called for the Eucharist to be given to the laity in both kinds (bread and wine). As the writings circulated through the Holy Roman Empire, Luther was summoned to the imperial Diet of Worms (1521), near Frankfurt, where tradition has him proclaiming: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise,” before Emperor CHARLES V, who presided, and, Johann Eck, the papal legate.

Luther defended his position by appealing to the Bible and reason but in the end was condemned. He was protected by electors and princes in northern Germany, many of whom he won to his cause. The Protestant Reformation was underway.

Luther found immediate support in German-speaking Switzerland when the priest of the cathedral church at Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), began to sermonize in favor of reform. In 1523 he issued his own set of debating points, the 67 Theses. Following a public debate, the city council supported Zwingli and gave him authority to pursue his reforms, including the abolition of priestly CELIBACY. Zwingli removed all statues from the cathedral and attempted to strip church life of anything not having the direct support of Scripture. From Zurich, the Reformation in a Zwinglian mode spread to Basel and Berne and found some initial support throughout the French-speaking cantons. Luther objected to the smashing of statues and stained glass.

Through the early 1520s, the movement launched by Luther would seem to have been containable. It was largely a German movement, and its two most prominent leaders, Luther and Zwingli, were divided over their approach to reform. However, Catholic authorities were distracted by what seemed to be a more imminent threat. For a generation, Turkish forces had been pushing northward up the Danube. Luther's appearance at Worms was seen as far less important than the fall of Belgrade that same year. In 1526, the Hungarian army was defeated and the cities of Buda and Pest fell soon afterwards. By 1529, Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66) was laying siege to Vienna. If the city had fallen the whole of central Europe could have been under attack. While pushed back from Vienna, the Ottoman army would remain a threat for the next century.

With Catholic forces distracted, in 1529 Luther and Zwingli met in an attempt to reconcile their differences and unite the Reformation cause. The so-called Marburg Colloquy found the two men in agreement on most points but unable to agree on the crucial issue of the sacraments. Luther had begun from a basic stance of stripping the church of anything that was opposed by the Bible (as he interpreted it). He retained the idea of the real presence of CHRIST in the sacraments, though he had discarded the idea of transubstantiation (which he saw as magical) and proposed in its stead the idea of consubstantiation. Rather than the substance of the bread and wine of the Eucharist being changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, Luther suggested that Christ's substance coexisted with the substances of bread and wine.

Zwingli began his reform from a very different position, arguing that everything should be stripped from the church that was not actually supported by Scripture. He found no scriptural basis for the idea of the real presence. He understood the Eucharist to be merely an ordinance to be followed because it was commanded, its significance being that it was a figurative memorial of Christ's Last Supper with his disciples (1 Cor. 11:24). It had no sacramental meaning. The inability to reach an agreement at Marburg meant that the reforms in Germany and Switzerland would go their separate ways.

The 1530s set the basic shape of the Protestant movement on the European continent. In 1530 Luther and Philip Melancthon (1497–1560) presented Catholic representatives with the Augsburg Confession, in an attempt to work out their differences. It was written so as to emphasize the Page 532  |  Top of Articlepoints in common between the two sides. Even so, the Catholic representatives found the confession unacceptable. It would become the defining statement of Lutheranism that also marked it off from the Reformed Church in Switzerland.

In 1531, Zwingli was killed in Catholic-Protestant fighting in Switzerland. In the vacuum created by his death the center of the Swiss Reformation shifted to Geneva and John Calvin (1509–64). An early reformer, Calvin had to flee Paris in 1533 to Basel, where he would write the first version of the first systematic Protestant theology, the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). He moved to Geneva later that year and in 1541 became established as the city's ecclesiastical authority.

Calvin had worked out what might have become an acceptable reconciliation between the Lutheran and Zwinglian position on the Eucharist. He suggested that Christ was truly present in the sacraments (thus retaining the sacramental quality of baptism and the Eucharist), but in a spiritual rather than a substantial way. In deference to Zurich he added that Christ was perceivable only to the eye of FAITH. However, by the time he proposed this approach the Swiss and German camps were beyond reconciliation. Calvin's ideas would come to dominate among the western Swiss cantons and among French-speaking Protestants in Strasbourg and throughout France.

With the establishment of Calvin in Geneva, Protestantism was divided into two major camps, the Lutheran and Reformed (Swiss). However, a third group now arose to claim its space within the emerging Protestant realm. As Zwingli carried his reforms forward, there arose in Zurich a group of believers who saw the implications of his sacramental reforms and their challenge to the secular order. They suggested that the church should separate entirely from the state; instead of a church of all citizens, they proposed a church of those who professed faith. They challenged the idea of infant baptism (for which they could find no biblical support) and thought that adults who professed the new faith should be rebaptized (hence their early name, Anabaptists, or rebaptizers).

The idea of a believers church, united by its profession of faith, sharing the ordinances (baptism and the Lord's Supper), and committed to a disciplined Christian life found little favor within the Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed Churches. In 1524 Luther authorized the German princes to suppress the “New David,” Thomas Münster (1489–1525) in the Peasants' War. Zwingli had driven Anabaptists from Zurich, burning many martyrs in caves. Others adopted MILLENARIANISM and preached the imminent return of Christ. Some of the most radical millenarian Anabaptist zealots took control of Münster, a town in Westphalia, Germany, and turned it into a utopian communal society under the leadership of lay preacher Melchior Hoffman (1495–1543), who believed the city would become the New Jerusalem when Christ returned. After a lengthy siege, the city was captured and the leaders executed.

After the disaster at Münster, the Anabaptists were vilified by association. Their cause was saved by the emergence of new leaders in Menno Simons (1492–1561) and Jakob Amman (c. 1644–c. 1730). A former priest in Holland, Simons articulated his vision of a life in the Schleithein Confession (1527) centered on discipleship and nonresistance to evil. Simons was able to find havens in Germany and Denmark to grow the pacifistic movement. Later Amman would lead a reform of the Anabaptists. Both the Mennonites and Amish would escape persecution in Europe to find refuge and success in North America.


Luther saw the sale of indulgences as a symptom of what he called works righteousness whereby believers tried to earn salvation by doing trivial good works rather than relying on the grace of God. In the polemics that followed, each side made less-than-accurate accusations about the other. However, there was no escaping that Protestants had replaced much of the basic outline of Page 533  |  Top of ArticleCatholic theology and reformed the basic practices of Christian life.

Catholic theology had developed a sacramental vision of the Christian life that carried an individual believer from birth to DEATH. Ideally, a person was baptized into the church as a baby, nurtured in the faith, and confirmed as an adult Christian when he or she moved beyond childhood. As adults, Christians were offered a system to guide them to a Christian life, assisted by communion with Christ in the Eucharist. In their earthly lives, the church offered many opportunities to redress the problem of sin through pilgrimages, the veneration of MARY and the saints, and other forms of spiritual devotion. At the end of this life, a final sacrament prepared one to go to heaven and attain the BEATIFIC VISION.

Protestants felt that many of the features of medieval church life had been corruptions adopted from postbiblical extra-Christian sources. They refocused the attention of the believer on the event of faith in Christ and the justifying and sanctifying power of that event. The great affirmation of the Protestants was that salvation is by faith alone and is not affected by any good works. The faithful should live a life of gratitude for Christ's work.

Protestants found authority for their affirmations in the Bible, the plain message of which, they believed, was accessible to the average Christian, without any allegorical embellishment (see ALLEGORY ). No pope or church council was needed to interpret it. However, the fact that so much in the Bible is open to a variety of interpretations would lead later to the splitting of the Protestant movement into many sects.

While Lutherans kept an emphasis on LITURGY and both Lutherans and Anglicans continued to affirm the real presence in the sacraments, as a whole Protestants downplayed the sacraments in favor of the proclamation of the Gospel message. In fact, they all eliminated five of the traditional seven sacraments. Protestants continued to marry and ordain people, they just did not consider marriage or ordination, however solemn, as sacraments.

For John Calvin, the emphasis on the free gift of God in granting salvation to sinners led him to deny any human initiative even in the beginnings of the act of faith. He came to affirm God's absolute sovereignty and predestination as a key element in his theology. At the end of the 16th century, predestination would become a major bone of contention within those churches with Calvinist roots. Dutch Calvinists would turn Calvin's theology into a rigid set of doctrines at the Synod of Dort (1618–19). A form of Reformed faith that affirmed FREE WILL would be articulated by Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560–1609) and transmitted to the free-will Baptists and Methodists, who rejected harsh predestinationism. Another form of Calvinism would be carried to North America by the Puritans.


As the Reformation moved forward on the Continent, England remained under the rule of a devout Catholic. Soon after Luther appeared on the scene, HENRY VIII (1491–1547) wrote a book attacking him, for which LEO X (r. 1513–21) named him a “Defender of the Faith.” Earlier he had married Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), the daughter of FERDINAND OF ARAGON AND I SABELLA I OF CASTILE, the Catholic rulers of SPAIN, and the widow of his heirless brother Henry VII (1457–1509).

The rise of the Church of England was both similar to and different than the Lutheran and Reformed trajectories. First it arose out of the attempt of Henry VIII to obtain an annulment from Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that she had been the wife of his deceased brother. When that failed he married Anne Boleyn (1507–36), who gave birth to the future Elizabeth I (1533–1603). In the Act of Supremacy (1534) Henry declared himself head of the English church, though he sought to keep the Catholic liturgy intact. Sts. JOHN FISHER and THOMAS MORE refused to sign the Page 534  |  Top of Articleact and thereby incurred their executions. Henry then set about the divestment of the MONASTERIES of their holdings and approved the destruction of RELICS, including those of St. THOMAS À BECKET at Canterbury Cathedral.

When Edward VI (1537–53), Henry's legitimate son by Jane Seymour (1509–37), succeeded to the throne, Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) introduced the English liturgy and took the Church of England in the direction of Calvin's Geneva reform in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549). Cranmer learned much from former Dominican Martin Bucer of Strassburg (1491–1551), who taught at Cambridge University from 1549 to 1551. When Catholic Mary I Tudor (1553–58), daughter of Henry and Catherine, succeeded to the throne, these Protestant advances on the public level were reversed with the assistance of the Oratorian cardinal Reginald Pole (1500–58), one of the champions of the Catholic COUNTER-REFORMATION. Protestant currents remained strong, however.

When she succeeded to the throne, her half-sister, Elizabeth I (1533–1603), sought a middle course between the Reformed Protestantism of Cranmer and the Catholic side of her father. This became known as the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) and became embodied in the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571. Richard Hooker (c. 1554–1600) was the great champion of the Elizabethan Settlement in his Law of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593–1648), which argued against the Puritans for the primacy of natural reason prior to the civil and ecclesiastical polities and to which even scripture and its interpretation is subject. Hooker's theology shaped the future course of the Church of England. Today the Elizabethan compromise can be recognized in the Anglican formula 2 + 5 understanding of the sacraments: 2 = baptism, Eucharist, in deference to the Continental reformers; 5 = penance (RECONCILIATION), CONFIRMATION, MARRIAGE, Extreme Unction (ANOINTING OF THE SICK), and HOLY ORDERS, in unison with the Roman church.

Elizabeth renewed the Act of Supremacy in 1559 and required the Oath of Supremacy recognizing her as spiritual head of the Church of England of all public servants, but many high office holders remained Catholic. Some recusant Catholics went into hiding; others, like the Jesuit martyr St. Edmund Campion (1540–81), who maintained his loyalty to the queen as a Catholic, met their deaths; still others fled to Belgium, where they took refuge at Douai and Louvain and began training priests to sneak back into England. The Archbishop of Canterbury retained the title of primate of England, but today the bishops share power with priests and laity in the General Synod. The Anglican Church's attempt to mediate differences is reflected in the liturgical division between Low Church, which looks like evangelical Protestantism, and High Church, which sometimes can hardly be distinguished from Roman Catholicism.

The basic structures of the present did not take final shape until the organizational consolidation of Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645), who rejected Calvinist predestinationism. In 1622 Laud argued against John Percy (1569–1641, known as “Fisher the Jesuit,” that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church were parts of the same church.


All the modern Protestant groups can trace their history to the four churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican) established in the 16th century. Particularly important in the diffusion of Protestantism was the maturing Puritan movement in the British Isles in the 17th century. Puritans disagreed over how the church should be organized, giving rise to both Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Baptists emerged arguing for a congregationally based organization, but one separated from any ties to the state. A more radical form of Puritanism appeared as the Society of Friends (the Quakers).

In the 18th century, a revitalization movement appeared in England known as Methodism. It was aligned with the Pietist movement within the Page 535  |  Top of ArticleLutheran church and centered around the small Moravian church in Germany. In the 1730s, the Moravians launched a global missionary movement that was copied by Methodists and Baptists later in the century, and by all of the Protestant churches in the 19th century. Like Roman Catholicism, Protestantism became a worldwide movement. Methodism enjoyed its greatest expansion in North America, where it gave rise to the Holiness Movement (19th century) and Pentecostalism (20th century).

Protestant-Catholic hostility followed the missions to many countries. Catholic anti-Protestantism would be countered by Protestant ANTIC ATHOLICISM. Meaningful attempts to move beyond centuries of hate came only after the World Council of Churches was formed in 1948 and JOHN XXIII was named to the Holy See (see ECUMENISM ). In his very first encyclical Aeterni Petri Cathedram 63 (June 29, 1959), John addressed Protestants as separated brethren, an important step toward recognizing Protestants as legitimate partners in a future dialogue. He then created a Vatican Secretariat of Christian Unity (1960), and Catholics sent official observers to the World Council of Churches in 1968. VATICAN COUNCIL II declared that Protestants were already united with Catholics, sharing one baptism and a common faith in Jesus Christ. Protestant observers were invited to VATICAN COUNCIL II and had input to the proceedings on an indirect basis. Since the 1960s, significant efforts have been made by both Catholics and Protestants to understand each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. More recently the Vatican, however, has retrenched somewhat from the ecumenical openness of Vatican II.

Further reading:

Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991); Vergilius Ferm, Pictorial History of Protestantism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957); Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era (New York: Macmillan, 1954); Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of Protestantism (New York: Facts On File, 2005); Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2003); Wilhelm Pauck, The Heritage of the Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Flinn, Frank K. "Protestant Reformation." Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Facts on File, 2007, pp. 530-535. Facts on File Library of Religion and Mythology: Encyclopedia of World Religions. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 22 Apr. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4065000527

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