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In the narrower and probably most common sense, "Reformation" is the name given to the spiritual crisis of the sixteenth century that resulted in the permanent division of the Western church. The birthdate of the Reformation is traditionally given as 1517, the year in which Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg; the termination of the period may be assigned to the 1550s, by which time an ecclesiastical stalemate between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics appeared unavoidable. Sometimes the Reformation is extended backward to include such early reform movements as Lollardy or forward to include the religious conflicts, lasting into the seventeenth century, that sought to resolve the Catholic-Protestant stalemate forcibly or to readjust the divisions between the various Protestant groups. Reformation describes the aspirations of the age rather than its achievements. The Protestants did not succeed in reforming the church but only in splitting it into rival groups, each of which claimed for itself the fulfillment of the old dream of reformation in head and members.

The Age of Reformation

The Protestant movement was not the only attempt to bring the dream into reality. It can, indeed, be correctly interpreted only in relation to other reform movements even if we determine not to include these under the same general descriptive label. The sixteenth century was the age of reformation (or of reformations, in the plural), not just of the Reformation, and this is a fact of some importance in assessing the impact of the spiritual crisis on Western intellectual history. We should distinguish four reform groups in the sixteenth century, each of which left its own distinctive mark on Western culture.

humanistic reformers

The humanists were not merely (as Luther himself thought) forerunners who prepared the way for the Protestants. They developed a reform program of their own that did not lead to the formation of independent institutions but continued, even after the appearance of Luther, to exercise influence from within both of the two main confessional groups. The foremost humanistic reformer in northern Europe was Desiderius Erasmus, who wished to purify the church by returning to its primitive sourcesthe New Testament and the writings of the Fathers. His "philosophy of Christ" minimized the dogmatic and the institutional and treated Christ mainly as a teacher of virtue and Christianity as an ethical affair not essentially different from the pagan philosophies. Although not less critical of ecclesiastical abuses than was Luther, Erasmus deplored any action that might disrupt the unity and peace of Christendom, and this was one of the reasons that he remained aloof from the Protestant Reformation.

radical reformers

"Radical reformers" is a general term for a variety of groups and individuals who felt that the Protestant leaders had not gone far enough and that reform could not be brought about without abandoning the old idea of the state church (the corpus Christianum ). Of these radical or left-wing reformers, the Anabaptists (Swiss Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites) were biblical literalists who sought to establish voluntary associations of the regenerate on the New Testament pattern. The spiritualists (Andreas Carlstadt, Thomas Münzer, Sebastian Franck, Caspar Schwenckfeld), appealing to the Spirit who caused the Scriptures to be written, laid claim to immediate converse with God. The rationalists (notably the two Socinus) read the Bible in the light of reason even when reason led them to deny Christ's full deity and atoning sacrifice. A few of the radicals (for example, the leaders of the Münster uprising in 1534) were revolutionaries who brought total destruction upon themselves; many, like Michael Servetus, were free spirits who founded no school, but the influence of others, despite brutal persecution by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, still survives in some present-day denominations and sects.

catholic reformers

The Roman Catholics rejected the Protestant reform as essentially a revolt against the church, and they sought renewal of the church by the twofold means of fostering a churchly piety and taking an official stand on the administrative and dogmatic demands of the "heretics." Two of the greatest landmarks of the Catholic reformation were the establishment of the Jesuit order under the leadership of Ignatius Loyola and the work of the Council of Trent (15451563). The council, not without political and theological difficulties, sought to repudiate Protestant errors on authority, justification, and the sacraments. Yet the Tridentine fathers opposed many of the practical abuses and even theological inadequacies that had first provoked the Protestant movement. Preoccupation with Protestant errors, together with the militant campaign of suppression that followed the council, make it not inappropriate to speak of the Catholic reformation as the Counter-Reformation, though it was not merely this and had its roots in pre-Lutheran piety.

the protestant reformation

The Protestant leaders (the reformers in the narrower sense) were themselves not strictly a single group. Protestantism took three distinctive, though fundamentally related, forms.

Lutheranism, rooted in the religious struggles of Luther and his revolt against the papacy, prevailed in most of Germany and was wholly victorious in the Scandinavian countries. It was the Lutheran princes and cities represented at the Imperial Diet of Speyer in 1529 who, by making their historic protest, gave the Lutheran movement its nickname Protestantism. The classic formulation of Lutheran belief is the Augsburg Confession of 1530.

The so-called Reformed churches grew up first in Switzerland (under Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin); won majorities in Scotland, Holland, and parts of Germany; and maintained strong pockets of influence in France, England (where they were called Presbyterians), and eastern Europe. From their beginning they were a less homogeneous group than the Lutherans and produced a variety of national confessions rather than a single statement comparable to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. Nevertheless, the Lutheran interpretation of the Gospel exercised a decisive influence over the Reformed confessions, and though Zwingli sought to affirm his relative independence from the Germans, Calvin was one of Luther's staunchest admirers.

The Anglican reformation proceeded slowly, largely for political reasons. The repudiation of papal authority by Henry VIII, though not intended to alter Catholic doctrine, left the door open to Protestant reform in the reign of his son Edward VI, and the Romanizing reaction under Mary only temporarily reversed the trend. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (Latin 1563, English 1571), adopted under Elizabeth I as the official doctrinal standard of the reformed Church of England, are largely a compilation of Continental Protestant ideas. Parts of the Lutheran confessions of Augsburg and Württemberg are reproduced verbatim, and the articles on predestination and the Eucharist are clearly indebted to Reformed (Calvinistic) theology.

Essential Protestant Doctrines

In all three of its branches the Protestant Reformation was inextricably bound up with social and political factors, so that its triumph was always, in the final analysis, contingent on governmental support. Nevertheless, it was essentially a religious movement and its theological ideas have left their mark on European intellectual historysometimes, however, because they have been misinterpreted or interpreted too one-sidedly. Three beliefs are particularly associated with the Protestant movement: the authority of the Word, justification by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers. These beliefs have frequently been explained as the advent of individualism in the religious sphere, as though the intention were to regard the individual as his own priest with immediate access to God, to leave him in solitude with his conscience and his Bible, or to make each man his own pope in the interpretation of Scripture.

Fundamentally, however, the original Protestant reformers were suspicious of "immediate access to God," which they associated with the spiritualists, and they sought, rather, to replace the medieval notion of institutional means with a concept of the Christian fellowship as the locus of God's Word. The Word of God was understood chiefly as an effective proclamation of the Gospel, based on the Scriptures, which evokes faith and sustains a fellowship of believers each of whom is priest to his brothers. The heart of this proclamation is the promise of free forgiveness (justification) through Christ, which needs only to be accepted by the faith that is awakened through the proclamation itself. We may perhaps add a fourth idea of great religious and even social consequence: vocationthat the good works required of the justified man are not so much special religious acts as the thankful performance of his calling for the good of his neighbor. These four ideas were held in common by all three Protestant groups, and their formulation may be traced to Luther himself. Characteristic differences among the groups also developed; for example, the Reformed differed from the Lutherans, as is well known, on the manner in which the benefits of Christ's Passion are received in the Eucharist.

The Reformation and Western Thought

The Reformation's role in the making of the modern mind is a complex question that has ramifications in areas as diverse as social, economic, political, and artistic history as well as in the history of philosophy and science. Sometimes the Reformation has been represented as the great watershed between the medieval and modern worlds. This is, perhaps, partly because the individualism of Reformation thought has been overestimated and partly because certain isolated events in Luther's lifethe burning of the papal bull, the defiant stand before the Diet at Wormshave deeply impressed themselves on the German imagination. In some respects, however, the Reformation can be better understood as a late phase of medieval history than as an early stirring of the modern mind. The fundamental concerns of Luther were medieval, and it may be argued that in giving fresh vitality to religious questions he merely postponed for a while the triumph of Renaissance secularism. Moreover, though the Protestant reformers spoke ideally of a communion of saints (believers), in practice they refused to abandon the medieval concept of a Christian society (that is, an authoritarian, church-dominated society).

Unquestionably, the very existence of the Protestant churches alongside the Roman Catholic Church weakened the authoritarian ideal. But this was an accidental product of the Reformationa consequence, indeed, of its failure rather than of its cherished principles. It was the humanistic reformers, not the Protestants, who undermined the dogmatic conception of religion, and it was the radicals who broke with the old alliance between the spiritual and secular arms of the corpus Christianum. Similarly, if, as has been argued, Calvinistic ideas had revolutionary economic and political consequences, this was hardly the reformer's intention. On the other hand, the Reformation did, by its very nature, make a powerful impact on literature and music, education and scholarship; even its influence on the visual arts was not always uncreative.

Reformation and Science

The chief contribution of the Reformation to the history of Western philosophy was no doubt the accidental one of helping philosophy toward autonomy by weakening ecclesiastical domination. Attempts to establish the influence of Lutheran ideas on some of the German philosophers are often interesting but seldom of very great importance and sometimes farfetched. It might have been a service for philosophy, as it was for theology, that Luther shattered the medieval synthesis of Christianity and Aristotelianism, but the reformer's immediate successors reinstated the Greek philosopher, and the Christian faith was perilously entangled in an obsolete cosmology. (Ironically, Philipp Melanchthon repudiated Copernican astronomy on the ground that it represented merely a revival of outmoded theories that had already been rejected in the ancient world.)

Luther himself prepared the way for the conflict of theology and the modern worldview by refuting a scientific theory on theological groundsif, indeed, the notorious passage from the Table Talk, "Joshua commanded the sun, not the earth, to stand still," is authentic. Yet an open clash of science and religion was not unavoidable until post-Reformation theologians in the age of Protestant scholasticism had reaffirmed the old partnership with Aristotelianism and had come to think of the Scriptures as containing a "biblical science" that could compete with Copernican science. Luther and Calvin themselves did not accept the Ptolemaic cosmology in defiance of scientific evidence since the weight of the evidence during their lifetimes was still against Nicolas Copernicus. In principle, they were not suspicious of scientific progress. On the contrary, Luther welcomed the stirring of the new science, in which he saw a partial recovery of Adam's lost dominion over nature, and Calvin envied the astronomer's closeness to the mind of the Maker. They were both interested in the Bible not as an encyclopedia of supernaturally communicated information but as the vehicle of Christ's presence to his church in the Gospel proclamation.

Luther had grasped clearly that theological and scientific interest in nature are two distinct things. For example, from the religious viewpoint the light of the moon was for him a symbol of divine care, but he recognized that the astronomer's concern was to show how the moon's light was borrowed from the sun. Similarly, Calvin argued that biblical observations on the heavenly bodies, such as those in Genesis and the Nineteenth Psalm, are not scientific statements but homely forms of speech accommodated to the unlearned. Luther understood even better than Calvin that theology's heaven is not the same as the astronomical heavens; hence, the celebrated Dextera Dei est ubique (God's right hand is everywhere). Elementary though they may seem today, such concessions and insights, had they not been neglected or expressly repudiated by Protestant orthodoxy, could have saved the Reformation churches from their warfare with science. Conversely, they might have prevented skeptics from drawing overhasty theological conclusions from natural science.

See also Aristotelianism; Calvin, John; Copernicus, Nicolas; Erasmus, Desiderius; Franck, Sebastian; Humanism; Luther, Martin; Melanchthon, Philipp; Servetus, Michael; Socinianism.


Studies of the Reformation include Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952); Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era (New York: Macmillan, 1954); G. R. Elton, ed., The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. II, The Reformation 15201559 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1958); Émile G. Léonard, Histoire générale du protestantisme, Vol. I, La réformation (Paris, 1961); H. A. Enno van Gelder, The Two Reformations in the 16th Century: A Study of the Religious Aspects and Consequences of Renaissance and Humanism (The Hague, 1961); George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962); and H. Daniel-Rops, The Catholic Reformation, translated by John Warrington (New York: Dent, 1962).

The Augsburg Confession, the Thirty-nine Articles, and a representative Reformed confession will be found in The Faith of Christendom: A Source Book of Creeds and Confessions, edited by B. A. Gerrish (New York, 1963). For the religious ideas of the reformers there are excellent bibliographies in the studies by Grimm and Léonard.

On the special question of the Reformation in relation to Western culture and thought, see Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther's World of Thought, translated by Martin H. Bertram (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958); John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science: An Historical Interpretation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960); Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of the Reformation, translated by Karl Hertz and Barbara Hertz and John H. Lichtblau (New York: Meridian, 1959); Jaroslav Pelikan, From Luther to Kierkegaard: A Study in the History of Theology (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950); and Ernst Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World, translated by W. Montgomery (London: Williams and Norgate, 1912).

other recommended works

Brady, Thomas A., Jr. The Protestant Reformation in German History. Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 1998.

Caponetto, Salvatore. The Protestant Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy. Translated by Anne C. Tedeschi and John Tedeschi. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999.

Gonzalez, Justo L. A History of Christian Thought. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 19701975.

Gray, Madeleine. The Protestant Reformation: Belief, Practice, and Tradition. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2003.

Harrison, Peter. "Original Sin and the Problem of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe." Journal of the History of Ideas 63 (2) (2002): 239259.

Hillerbrand, Hans Joachim, ed. The Protestant Reformation. New York: Walker, 1968.

Johnston, Andrew. The Protestant Reformation in Europe. New York: Longman, 1991.

Kourvetaris, George A. Social Thought. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.

Painter, Mark A. The Depravity of Wisdom: The Protestant Reformation and The Disengagement of Knowledge from Virtue in Modern Philosophy. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.

Spitz, Lewis William, ed. The Protestant Reformation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Spitz, Lewis William. The Protestant Reformation, 15171559. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Steinmetz, David Curtis. Luther and Staupitz: An Essay in the Intellectual Origins of the Protestant Reformation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1980.

Thompson, Stephen P., ed. The Reformation. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999.

B. A. Gerrish (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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