Interesting Facts About the Reformation

church-door-in-Wittenberg1. The Reformation is tagged to the day that Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, but the movement began much earlier than that. Three of the church leaders who were working for reform before Martin Luther were Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, and John Wycliffe. Their focus was on preaching, Scripture accessibility, and reform of the papacy. These men became martyrs and their movements stalled.

Catholic-Church2. The people who agreed with Luther and left the mainstream Catholic Church were known as Protestants. The term Protestant originally began with the German princes who protested Emperor Charles V of Rome when he opposed those who were requesting reform of the Catholic Church.

3. While Martin Luther is rightly recognized as the key figure of the Reformation, it likely wouldn’t have happened (at least not when it did) if not for the pope in office at the time. After a number of years during which the popes served from Avignon, France, instead of Rome when things were becoming more stable in Vatican City, Pope Julius II decided to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica into a magnificent edifice. To fund this construction, he began selling indulgences. This was defined as the Catholic Church as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” The purchase of an indulgence purportedly reduced the time in Purgatory of a departed friend or relative of the purchaser. He asked the very important (and unanswered) question, “Why does not the Pope empty Purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to buy a church? The former reason would be most just, the latter is most trivial.”

4. When he posted the Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther was not yet “Protestant.” At the time, he was a committed Catholic. He later said that he would have been willing to see murder committed (and possibly commit murder himself) in the name of the Pope.

5. While the Ninety-Five Theses were the catalyst for Reformation, they were not the first Theses posted by Martin Luther. A few weeks prior to the famous posting, he’d posted ninety-seven theses. These discussed his opinions about Aristotle, among others. They were ignored. The Ninety-Five Theses were not as radical as one might expect from something that sparked a reformation and did not include some key doctrines of the Lutheran church, such as justification by grace through faith alone.

6. Luther’s intention for posting the Theses was simply to spark debate. The church door in those days was similar to a public bulletin board in today’s world.

7. The Ninety-Five Theses were posted in Latin. Without Luther’s authorization, people translated them into German, then printed them and distributed them.

8. The first Pope to respond to Luther was Pope Leo X in 1520, in the Papal Bull ExsurgeDomine. It threatened Luther with excommunication.

9. In 1521, a formal assembly was held in Worms, Germany (known as the Diet of Worms), resulting in the Edict of Worms. This declared Luther an obstinate heretic and officially banned both possession of and reading of Luther’s writings.

10. On the way to Worms, Luther was granted safe passage, because they wanted to hear his side of the story. They also granted safe passage as he left. We don’t know what they had planned once he returned home, because, on the way, a friendly Elector (one of the men who choose the Pope) kidnapped him and took him to safety in his castle. Luther used his time away from society to begin translating the New Testament. He finished translating in just a few months.

11. In 1545, the Council of Trent was summoned. It attempted to refute the Lutheran movement. It confirmed common teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, such as purgatory, the Apocrypha as Scripture, the importance of the sacraments, and the co-authority of Tradition with Scripture. It also confirmed indulgences, though reforms were suggested. The time immediately following this has been termed the Counter-Reformation, led by the Catholic Church.

12. The Jesuits (originally called the Society of Jesus) was founded in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola as a part of the Counter-Reformation.

13. Part of the Roman Catholic’s Counter-Reformation efforts included adding effervescence and intricacy to art, music, and architecture, in the hope that people would find it more enticing than the less ebullient approach Protestants took toward worship, art, and liturgy.

14. It is thought that Protestant ideas spread more quickly due to Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Included with the spread of written information was a spread of literacy, with Scripture and catechisms made available to the public. Before the Reformation, literacy rates in Germany ranged from 5% to 30%. Additionally, the written Scriptures were translated into several languages from the Latin, allowing more of the general public the ability to have the Scriptures at home. Before this, one could only hear Scripture in Church, from the priests, and only in Latin.

15. The growing interest in education encouraged people to question the status quo and seek understanding. This may have played a large part in the acceptance of Luther’s ideas among the general public.

16. Multiple new denominations sprung from the Reformation, with the most obvious and direct being Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anglicans.

17. The Anglican church came into being because Henry VIII didn’t want to remain married to Catherine of Aragon because she had not provided him with any surviving male heirs. Since the Catholic Church is strongly against divorce, the Pope would not grant him one. The head of the Church of England granted him the divorce, and he split from the Roman Catholic Church and, through Parliament, became the head of the Anglican church. While divorce was not the founding purpose of the Anglican church, it did play a part in its separation from the Roman Catholic Church.

18. Following the Reformation, a series of religious wars broke out. The most well-known was the Thirty Years’ War from 1618-1648. The main opponents in this war were a Roman Catholic royal family, and Protestant princes. In the course of the war, 25-40% of Germany’s population was killed.

19. During this violent time in history, several countries set up policies that allowed the local prince or ruler to declare whether his region would follow Catholicism or Protestantism.

20. The idea that icons (images) may have been more idols than images caused some Protestants to begin a period of iconoclasm – the destruction of any icons they were able to find, including paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and other pieces of art. The Council of Trent decried this practice, and stated, “Images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints are to be placed and retained especially in the churches, and due honor and veneration is to be given to them, because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which they represent. Let the bishops diligently teach that by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in the paintings and other representations the people are instructed and confirmed in their articles of faith.” That is, the images were used for teaching to those who were not able to read the stories for themselves.

21. While they are not actually mentioned in the Theses, there were five principles of theology that threaded through the Reformation period: sola fide (by faith alone), sola Christus (through Christ alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), and soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone). Sola fide became the base premise of the Lutheran doctrine.

22. John Calvin took Luther’s ideas and, in 1541 in Geneva, founded the Reformed Tradition, which has come to be known as Calvinism. The primary difference between Calvinism and Lutheranism is the doctrine of predestination, which did not become the main thrust of Calvinism until after he died in 1564.

23. The Anabaptists, which have been referred to as the Radical Reformation, were focused on the Holy Spirit and His role in the believer’s life. Their beliefs allowed and encouraged women to fill ministerial roles in the church. These women were persecuted and, in some cases, martyred for their positions in the church.

24. Because there were so many different angles to the Reformation, some historians consider there to have been multiple Reformations in the 1500s, including Protestant, Radical, Catholic, urban, peasants’, princely, German, French, British, etc. Different historians break it up differently, but the overall result was a great change in the religious atmosphere of the time – and throughout the following years.