Who Were the Protestants?
The Protestant Reformation
“Christ is truth, the pope is the principle of falsehood. Christ lived in poverty, the pope labors for worldly magnificence. Christ refused temporal dominion, the pope seeks it.” Thus spoke John Wycliffe, an English theologian and academic, in the late 1300s AD. These were bold words for the times. Wycliffe wrote during the Avignon/Roman dual papacy, a time when there was a rift in the Catholic church that had given rise to a second pope in Avignon, France, known as the Great Schism.
Wycliffe could be considered a proto-Reformer who laid the groundwork in which Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others would follow. In this video, we’ll give an overview of the time known as the Protestant Reformation, which peaked in the 1500s AD.
Bruce Shelley, in his book “Church History in Plain Language,” wrote that according to Wycliffe, “the pope should be the shepherd of the flock and the preacher who brings men to Christ,” which was “a view [that left] no room for the temporal power of the pope. The conception of the papacy as a political force constantly striving for the mastery of men by political means was anathema to Wycliffe.”
Those of us living in the 21st century are familiar with the idea of separation of church and state, but this was a relatively new idea in mainline church history. The seeds of this idea can be partially found in the early years of the 1300s.
For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church had exalted itself above secular and civil authorities. As a result, kings came to the pope to legitimize their reign. The idea of the divine right of kings gave the kings legitimacy in the eyes of their Catholic citizens, but only if the pope smiled upon their kingship. In Europe in the Middle Ages, Catholicism was the common cultural denominator.
In the late 1200s, there were two secular kings of England and France, Edward I and Philip the Fair, respectively. They were wrestling with each other over lands in France under English control. They needed more money and both decided to tax the clergy, something prohibited by the Catholic Church. Boniface VIII, the pope at the time, threatened excommunication for lay rulers who engaged in such preposterous acts. But Edward and Philip were unfazed and both retorted, changing laws in their countries making it harder for clergy and the Church to operate. “Faced with such stiff opposition,” Shelley writes, “Boniface . . . backed down, explaining that he had not meant to cut off clerical contributions for defense in times of dire need. Since the kings could decide what constituted ‘defense’ and ‘dire need,’ the victory for Edward and Philip was clear.”
Wycliffe pressed this point theologically as he questioned the pope’s temporal authority from a Biblical basis. He preferred the shepherding metaphor found in Scripture instead.
Shelley goes on: “In time, Wyclif challenged the whole range of medieval beliefs and practices: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints, the treasury of their merits laid up at the reserve of the pope, and the distinction between venial and mortal sins. He retained belief in purgatory and extreme unction, though he admitted that he looked in vain in the Bible for the institution of extreme unction.” He would also deny the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which taught that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine became the literal body and blood of Christ. It was this denial that finally got him in major trouble with the Catholic Church. He was forbidden to continue lecturing at Oxford. But by this time Wycliffe had been spreading his ideas throughout the land through his “poor priests.” These men went to the villages and hamlets around England, carrying some of Wycliffe’s translated Bible and sermons. They gained massive support among the people, which helped Wycliffe maintain his safety.
These “poor priests” eventually made their way to Bohemia, in modern-day Czech Republic, thanks to a royal marriage between English and Bohemian monarchs. The missionaries linked up with Jan Hus, a Czech pastor and reformer. Hus would circulate Wycliffe’s teachings among the students at the University of Prague. The Archbishop of Prague eventually grew tired of Hus and Wycliffe and excommunicated Hus. He then was summoned before the Council of Constance which gave him the option of recanting his views and spending the rest of his life in prison, or being burned at the stake. Hus refused to recant what he believed to be true Biblical teaching and went to the stake with a clean conscience in 1415.
A small Bohemian church remnant would continue until Martin Luther’s momentous activities some one hundred years later. The Protestant Reformation is commonly dated to begin in 1517 when Luther wrote and published his 95 theses, but as you can see, events in history don’t always have clean lines.
Martin Luther, a German monk and academic, set off the whole chain of events that shook the Catholic church to its core.
Beginning during his time as an Augustinian monk, Luther had firmly committed himself to the idea that the Bible’s spiritual authority was higher than that of the clergy. It gave him a clear lens for viewing Church corruption. The Vatican believed that you attained salvation by faith and “righteous works”, which is a phrase that the Church officials left somewhat ambiguous. Pope Leo X came to power in 1515 and used the ambiguity to his advantage.
He did this by pulling in vast sums of money from churchgoers using what were called “indulgences”. Indulgences were official statements bought with money that claimed to lessen a sinner’s period in Purgatory before ascending to Heaven.
This practice did not sit well with Luther and his view of Scriptural supremacy, so he took action. In 1517, he wrote his pamphlet detailing offenses and abuses he perceived in the Catholic Church, centered around the use and abuse of indulgences. This pamphlet became known as the 95 Theses, and was probably not actually nailed to the cathedral door in Wittenberg.
His first three statements read:
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.
Later on in the pamphlet, he addresses indulgences:
27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
For Luther, it was not the clergy or Rome that granted remission of sins, but the work of Christ alone. He concluded with these two statements:
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).
Thanks to Gutenberg’s new printing press, word of the text got around quickly in Germany as copies spread far and wide, setting off a train of events that eventually led to the upheaval we know as the Protestant Reformation.
In 1518, the Vatican lodged an official claim of “suspicion of disseminating heresy” against Luther and mandated his attendance at a council in Rome.
At this time, Frederick III of Saxony was the prince of Luther’s home territory in Germany and also one of the seven electors who decided on the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Desiring to protect Luther from what he viewed as unjust persecution, he got the tribunal examining Luther moved to Augsburg, in Germany.
The papal legate Cardinal Cajetan and Luther went back and forth for three days, mainly over the issue of if the pope was allowed to issue indulgences. The cardinal had been instructed to arrest Luther if he did not recant, but did not do so and Luther slipped out of the city and continued to write and debate with Johann Eck, a Catholic theologian.
Pope Leo responded in June 1520 by issuing the papal bull Exsurge Domine. In this decree, he listed 41 teachings of Luther that he decided went against Catholic doctrine and threatened Luther with excommunication if he refused to recant. By the 1500s, the threat of excommunication was a favorite method of popes to bring dissenters into line. All of this only made Luther more strongly opposed to Leo and committed to his own expanding movement. He wrote a quick reply in which he called Leo the Antichrist, fittingly titled Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist.
Later in the year, he made it clear where he stood by torching Leo’s papal bull in the town square of Wittenberg. Leo summarily excommunicated him.
With the support of Charles V, the Catholic ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic authorities eventually issued the Edict of Worms in May 1521, declaring Luther a heretic and forbidding Catholics from owning or discussing his writings. Yet under the active protection of Frederick III and other rulers in Germany who supported Luther’s beliefs, the Edict of Worms was never effectively enforced in the German states. By 1525, Luther had translated the Bible into German and conducted worship along Protestant lines, and in 1530 he published the Augsburg Confession, detailing the tenets of his faith.
Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church on several crucial points of doctrine and salvation. These are known as the “Five Solas,” after their Latin names:
- Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone is God’s inspired Word and the only guide for salvation
- Solus Christus: salvation is through Christ and His life, death, and resurrection alone
- Sola Gratia: we are saved through grace alone, not through any work of ourselves or the church
- Sola Fide: faith alone through the work of Christ is what we base our assurance of salvation on, not on receiving the sacraments, saying the sinner’s prayer, walking the aisle, or having been baptised as an infant, etc, and
- Soli Deo Gloria: all things are for the glory of God alone.
John Calvin, a French-born convert to Protestantism, would build upon Luther’s work and lay the foundation for what would become known as Reformed Protestantism, which is slightly different from Lutheranism.
In addition to the Five Solas, some of Calvin’s further articulation of Scriptural truths fall under the acronym of T.U.L.I.P.
- Total depravity: mankind is born in sin (which is a rejection of God’s law), and cannot save himself from his sin
- Unconditional election: There is nothing that prevents a person from being saved by God – in other words, you can’t be “too bad”
- Limited atonement, sometimes called particular atonement: Christ died for those whom He chose to save
- Irresistible grace: God is the prime mover in salvation and man cannot will himself into or out of salvation
- Perseverance of the saints: A true Christian who has been chosen by God cannot be taken away from God and will join Christ in Heaven after Christ comes again
The Protestant Reformation also shook up politics. In Britain, King Henry VIII conveniently became a Protestant in 1534, founding the Church of England with himself at its head. This move allowed him to remove Vatican restraint on his ambitions, as he then divorced his Spanish wife and seized the wealth of Catholic monasteries in England. Meanwhile, Germany’s large number of provinces became divided along Lutheran and Catholic lines. In France, the political result of Luther’s reforms was civil war along religious lines. By the 1560s, the French Wars of Religion had consumed the country, reaching right into the royal family.
In Switzerland, a preacher named Ulrich Zwingli began speaking out against Vatican corruption, which sparked the beginning of the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli’s Protestantism, considered part of the Calvinist movement, took hold in several areas of the Swiss Confederation, resulting in a civil war. These conflicts would eventually lead to the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 which ended in 1648, with the signing of the treaties of Westphalia.
Ok, now that we’ve covered many things in detail, here’s a quick recap:
The seeds of the Reformation began in the late 1300s with a growing willingness on the part of secular rulers to defy the Catholic pope. John Wycliffe of England and Jan Hus of Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic) laid the seeds of the theological reform, which would lay dormant until the early 1500s when Martin Luther’s intense study of Scripture would lead him to different conclusions than that of the Catholic Church. John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and others would continue emphasizing Scripture in response to Catholic tradition. In 1545 the Catholic Church responded to Protestantism with the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation in which they reformed, modified, or affirmed their previous teachings. But that’s a topic for another video.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!