Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Stroke Heard 'Round the World - Reformation 500

   In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I'm temporarily breaking my blogging fast to share a series of posts over the next two weeks on the impact of the Reformation, who was behind it, and what the Reformation's main message is. 
Hope you enjoy!


     Flickering candles cast irregular shadows on the room’s walls. A mouse cautiously emerged from a hole in the corner and scanned the floor for crumbs. All was silent except for the soft scratching of a quill pen being applied to parchment. A stout monk sat hunched over his writing desk laboriously working out the details of his document. His face was twisted in concentration. Years of studying the Scriptures had brought him to this point. He could no longer stay silent. With a final stroke, Martin Luther laid aside his writing instrument. Tomorrow morning, he would nail his treatise to the church door.

     It can be arguably stated that Luther never anticipated the tremendous influence his Ninety- Five Theses would have on Christendom. They ignited a flame of controversy fueling the Reformation in Europe, the impacts of which were felt across the globe. Not only did it affect religion, but nearly all other aspects of life, including culture, economics, education, science, and politics. The two, perhaps, most significant areas are the religious and political influences of the Reformation.

Catholicism’s Choking Hold on Religion
     The era prior to the Reformation, commonly called the Medieval Times, Middle, or Dark Ages, was heavily controlled by the Roman Catholic Church. And in the area of religion, they reigned supreme. Tormented by the fear of hell, which priests portrayed using numerous graphic banners, the common people were driven to strict obedience of the church’s creeds and doctrines. Desperate to avoid eternal damnation, paupers and princes alike paid large tithes, donated land and food, worked without pay in the building of cathedrals, or bought indulgences, all in exchange for a priest’s assurance of their soul’s admission into heaven. If any dared question the authority of the Pope, the threat of excommunication (expulsion from the church and supposed exclusion from heaven) was enough to silence critics.

     So how was the Catholic Church able to twist the Scriptures to suit their own purposes and maintain such tight religious control over the people? Quite simply, it was because the common man couldn’t read the Word of God for himself. Besides the fact that few were literate, the Bible was written in Latin, a language only the clergy and well educated understood. Hence, if anyone wanted to know what the Scriptures said, they had to rely on the Roman Catholic Church for guidance. Christendom was truly in the Dark Ages.

Breaking Catholicism’s Hold
     The Reformation changed nearly everything. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses resonated with nearly all branches of society on a central issue of concern, but none dared question: salvation being granted through the sale of an indulgence. Using Scripture and plain logic, Luther argued, “It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security."1 With the help of the Gutenberg printing press, his Theses were copied and disseminated throughout Europe. Those who were literate read them aloud to large groups of captivated townsfolk. The talk at every table and over every fish stand was about Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. People began to wonder where else the Catholic Church erred in doctrine. The demand for Bibles translated into the common tongue increased sharply, as did interest in literacy. The populace no longer felt enslaved into blindly following the Pope’s creeds. They wanted to read the Scriptures for themselves.

     Alarmed by the rising tide of the Reformation and anxious to maintain their position of power, the church excommunicated Martin Luther and declared it lawful for anyone to murder him. But a powerful duke secreted Luther away into his castle at Wartburg. Isolated from the world and with little else to do but write, Luther once again applied pen to parchment. Germany needed the Bible in her own language and he was determined to satisfy her longing. In 1534, his translation, called the Luther Bible, was made available to the public. It became immensely popular and was sought after by both religious and non-religious. The Luther Bible was also read by William Tyndale, whose subsequent English Bible reflected some of Luther’s work (most notably his chronology of the New Testament books). Ordinary individuals could now read the Word of God in their native language. Light was finally penetrating the Dark Ages.

Taking Sides
     It must be remembered that during the Middle Ages, and for a great time afterwards, there was no concept of separation between church and state. Religion and politics were closely intertwined. With the Reformation’s tremendous impact on religion, it was inevitable that politics would be significantly affected as well, if not more so. As those in positions of political power began to read the Bible for themselves, their reaction to the Catholic Church was similar to that of their subjects. Disturbed by the Pope’s misinterpretations of Scripture and blatant abuses of power, some monarchs aligned themselves with the Protestant cause. Conversely, other monarchs, particularly those in the Holy Roman Empire, felt threatened by the Reformers and their attacks on Catholicism. Thus, they aligned themselves against the Protestant cause. Tensions ran high. War was on the horizon.

     The Religious Wars of Europe lasted from 1546 to 1648 and were a series of lengthy blood baths interspersed with temporary peace agreements. There were four major conflicts during this period: the Schmalkaldic War, French Wars of Religion, Spanish Religious Wars, and the 30 Years’ War. Devastation ravaged much of Europe as Catholics and Protestants clashed. Civil wars turned into international wars as neighboring countries aided whichever side they agreed with religiously. Finally, on January 30, 1648, the conflict ceased through another document, the Peace of Westphalia. This treaty established two crucial principles: the validity of Protestantism as a religion and the Principle of Internal Sovereignty, which mandated that other countries could not interfere with another’s internal issues. Despite fierce opposition from the Pope, due mainly to the first dictum, the treaty was signed and ratified in several major European countries. The Peace of Westphalia successfully secured religious freedom for Protestants and dealt a serious blow to the power of the Roman Catholic Church. Europe was changed forever.

Pro’s and Con’s of the Reformation
     In Job 12:23 we read that God, “...increaseth the nations, and destroyeth them: He enlargeth the nations, and straiteneth them again.” As the supreme ruler of all, the Lord directs the paths of nations and raises up faithful believers at pivotal moments. The providence of God can be clearly seen in the Reformation. Martin Luther was sent at a time when people were searching for the truth. It could scarcely be found in the Catholic Church, as she had instead become a way to climb higher on the social ladder and gain power. Common was the practice of “Simony” where church positions were sold to the highest bidder. The rampant corruption of the church was evident to all. Europe was spiritually hungry. It was at this critical moment when God’s Word was released and the truth was finally liberated for the masses.

     Unfortunately, many took their newfound liberty too far. One of the illegitimate children of the Reformation was Humanism. Indeed, the main reason the Catholic Church refused to allow for translations of the Bible into the common tongue was for fear of the rise of heretical doctrines. But as the Westminster Confession clearly states, “...because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto and interest in the scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the scriptures, may have hope”2(23-24). Despite the rise of Humanism and the Renaissance Period, the Lord used the Reformation to spread His Word throughout Europe and eventually, throughout the rest of the modern world. Little did Martin Luther realize that the Lord would use his pen in a stroke that would be heard around the world. 

1 “The 95 Theses.” A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Accessed 22 May 2017.
2 Westminster Assembly. Westminster Confession Of Faith. Free Presbyterian Publications, 1985. 


   This post is the first in a three-part series on the Reformation. Check back next week as we look at the man behind the Reformation. 


  1. Ah, I never linked the rise of humanism to the reformation before! Thanks for bringing that to light! And it's nice to see you around here too. :)

    1. My dad was actually the one to point out that unfortunate connection to me. Thanks!