What is The Reformation?

At Red Door Church here in central Vermont we are celebrating the Protestant Reformation for the sixth year in a row (since 2014).  One way we’ve decided to do that these last few years is by putting on an event we call, “Reformation Day Celebration.”  We open our doors during our town’s annual Fall Festival and invite people in to play Reformation themed games, eat seasonal foods, and look at our displays and booths which tell the story of the Reformation.

It is not uncommon that as I’m telling someone in our community about the event they ask, “What is the Reformation?”

I’m going to try and answer that question now.

A Definition

Definitions only go so far, but let’s start there.  Alister McGrath, professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, defines the Reformation as follows:

The term “Reformation” is used by historians and theologians to refer to the western European movement, centering upon individuals such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin, concerned with the moral, theological, and institutional reform of the Christian church in that region. 1

In terms of impact, the Reformation may be one of the most important events in Christian (and world) history.  Yet sadly many Christians are uninformed about this massive event that eventually spawned the Protestant church.

When Did the Reformation Start?

As hard as it is to suggest one particular starting point for the Reformation, if there was one act that set it fully in motion it was the swing of Martin Luther’s hammer on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31st, 1517.  The document he fixed there that day would make him forever famous.  In fact, more books have been written about Martin Luther than about any other historical figure, except Jesus Christ, largely in part because of his actions that day.

The document he posted on the door of the church has been called the 95 Theses because in it Luther raised 95 concerns with the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church at the time.  You can read an English translation of the 95 Theses here.

Factors that Fanned the Flame of Reformation

There were various catalysts for the Reformation.  Maybe one of the most significant was what later came to be know as The Renaissance.  The Renaissance was characterized by a fresh interest in the literature of antiquity.  The Reformation therefore was not something new.  In fact, it was a passionate plea to go back to the things of old.  “The Reformers were never innovators, as the papacy was so often to allege, but renovators.”  2 

One of the popular slogans around the time of the Reformation was ad fontes!, a Latin phrase meaning “to the fountains” or “[back] to the sources.”  A renewed interest in the study of original source documents and ancient literature had many looking to antiquity for inspiration.  The same was true of Christians.  Suddenly, many educated Christians (those who could read Greek and Latin) began to look to the Bible and to the church fathers instead of the Catholic Church and its traditions.3  What they began to see was that a great deal of accepted teaching and practice within the Catholic Church was out of sink with the Bible.

Another major factor was the invention of the printing press.  Just a few decades before Luther’s birth, around 1450 Johann Guttenberg invented the movable type printing process which allowed for the rapid printing and distribution of lengthy texts.  This would play a serious role in the dissemination of Luther’s writings including his 95 Theses, German Bibles and other literature, all of which were instrumental in educating the masses and allowing them to see the force of Luther’s arguments for themselves. 4

For more on the causes and various factors that played into the Reformation, read Russ Rohloff’s helpful entry “The Necessity of the Reformation” posted recently.

What Were Some of Luther’s Complaints?

(1) Indulgences.  One of Luther’s most serious complaints against the Catholic Church of the time was regarding what was called “indulgences.”  Below are numbers 27 and 28 in his Theses speaking of 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.

Part of the money made from indulgences was used in the building fund for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  But here’s the way indulgences worked:

The Catholic Church had created the idea of the Treasury of Merit, sort of a “bank account” of merit deposited by Christ, Mary, the saints, and others as a result of their good works. When church members sinned, they could purchase an indulgence, which was akin to asking the Church to “transfer funds” from the Treasury of Merit to the sinner’s account. The indulgence basically excused the sinner from a certain amount of time in purgatory and/or temporal punishment for that sin. 5

(2) The issue of authority.  Sylvester Prierias, one of Luther’s staunch opponents in the Roman Church, wrote in response to Luther’s 95 Theses: 

He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from with the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.

Official Catholic teaching saw the church as the highest authority, over even the very Word of God.  This was backwards to Luther, who believed that the Bible was the highest authority.

(3) Distortion of the Gospel Message. Back in 1510 before Luther posted his Theses, he had made a trip to Rome as a representative of his Augustinian Monastery.  Though the trip was for church business, Luther had hoped that it would help him personally.  Ever since he began church as a boy, Luther could not get over his intense fear that God was angry with him.  He once wrote “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy.”  And his progress in the church only made his guilt and anxiety about his standing with God worse.  He was ordained into the priesthood in 1507, received his Doctor’s degree in theology in 1512 and was given the chair in Biblical Theology at the University of Wittenberg (which Luther held the rest of his life).  But none of it helped.

Rome was to be for Luther a time to find healing and help.   But God had very different plans. Instead of finding answers to his questions and help for his troubles, Luther left Rome frustrated.

It was not until Luther began to read the Scriptures for himself that he found help.  It grieved Luther that the pure gospel message of salvation in Christ alone through faith alone was obscured and distorted through the teachings of the Church at the time.  Most people, in fact, could not read the Bible for themselves because common Bibles were written in Latin and were extremely expensive.  What is more, the Church taught that the Bible was difficult and hard to understand and therefore should not be entrusted to the interpretation of the common man, but only the Magisterium (or teaching office of the church) could accurately interpret them.  Luther himself saw that not only was the belief of the Church untrue, but it prevented people from having access to the very thing that gave freedom to those suffering under guilt and the oppression of sin. 6   He writes in his book Bondage of the Will:

But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e. lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth… Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear scriptures of God… If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures, but he that hath the Spirit of God… If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.

Protestantism Born Out of the Reformation

After Luther’s death in 1546 the Reformation continued to spread and evolve.  Out of it was born the Protestant churches, which make up one of the three major branches of Christianity in the world today.

  1. Taken from his book Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 1998), 156.)
  2. Tim Dowley, ed., Introduction to The History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 370.
  3. If you are interested in the church fathers, who they were, some of what they wrote, click here.
  4. You can read more about the importance of the printing press in The Reformation here.
  5.  http://www.satisfactionthroughchrist.com/2014/10/what-is-reformation-day.html
  6. Luther would eventually translate a Bible in German to distribute to the common folk while living under the protection of Frederick of Saxony in the Wartburg Castle.  Luther’s Bible became the major German Bible of the time; all other later translations were dependent upon it.  He finished the New Testament in 1522 and the Old Testament over the course of the following ten years, from 1522 to 1532.  The first complete Luther Bible appeared in Wittenberg in 1534.  According to Dowley’s History of Christianity, “Luther’s Bible was a literary event of the first magnitude, for it is the first work of German prose.”

Why Celebrate the Reformation?

wooden letterpress blocks

October 31st of this year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his “95 Theses”1 to the All Saints Church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  David Mathis’ writes:

“It’s no accident that October 31 is both Halloween and the day remembered for the start of the Reformation. Both key off November 1, All Saints’ Day — or All Hallows’ Day (Hallows from the Old English for saints or holy ones).  On All Hallows’ Eve, October 31, 1517, the Roman Church received the world’s most memorable trick-or-treater at its door — though barely noticed at the time — when a lowly priest named Martin Luther approached the threshold of the Wittenberg branch in Germany and posted his 95 measly theses (they aren’t nearly as impressive as you would expect). The coming All Saints’ Day seemed like an excuse for sparring about the Church’s deplorable sanctioning of indulgences, and Luther was angling for some good-spirited debate.” 2

Some people may be asking what the Reformation was about. Who was Martin Luther? What are these things called “indulgences?  If those are the sort of questions you are asking, you can read about those things herehere or here.  But others who may already have some knowledge about the Reformation may be asking question: “Why should we celebrate?”

For the average person today such events feel like distant memories, relics of an era long passed by.  The move by Pope Francis last year to attend a joint commemoration of the Protestant Reformation with Lutheran leaders, suggests to the world that the Reformation is water under the bridge and that maybe all the arguing and division back in the 16th century among Christians was nothing but bluster.

But truth be told, the Reformation was more than a bunch of stodgy Christians fighting about irrelevant theological details.  The significance of the events can not be overstated and it’s marks upon our world are indelible.

If these marks were undesirable, that would be one thing, but the marks of this movement are ones absolutely worth celebrating.3  So we intend to–on Saturday, October 28th of this year.

But why?  What are some of the reasons we will celebrate what Luther and other Reformers did some 500 years ago?

Reasons to Celebrate

(1) The Five Solas.4  The Five Solas were five principles that emerged out of the Reformation.  They were originally Latin phrases that each began with the word sola.  They are Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Sola Gatia, and Soli Deo Gloria.  In English they are Scripture alone, Faith alone, Christ alone, Grace alone and to the Glory of God alone.  In the Christian church Luther put the Bible back at the center, saying that it was our only final authority (contra the Catholic Church at the time, which said it was the final authority, even over holy scripture).  With the bible back at the center, this brought other long forgotten, or at best, neglected, Christian beliefs like grace, back into focus as well.  The Christian no longer needed the church to make one right before God, all she needed was faith in Christ.

(2) America. America’s founders were overwhelmingly Protestant, the branch of Christianity that was created by the followers of Martin Luther and other Reformers.  The emphasis on democracy in America was a direct result of the emphasis on individual, private interpretation; that a person should be free to obey the dictates of the conscience, formed by their understanding of Scripture, and not by the powers that be.  The principles of freedom of religion, assembly, and speech are all close relatives of the ideas born out of Luther’s Reformation.5

(3) Language.  Just prior to the Reformation came what is known at the Renaissance.  During the Renaissance a renewed interest in original sources proliferated throughout Europe.  The development of the movable type printing press in the mid 1400s made this possible.  One of the popular phrases of the time was ad fontes, which means “to the sources” (or “to the fountains”, literally).

“The phrase [ad fontes] epitomizes the renewed study of Greek and Latin classics in Renaissance humanism.  Similarly, the Protestant Reformation called for renewed attention to the Bible as the primary source of Christian faith. The idea in both cases was that sound knowledge depends on the earliest and most fundamental sources.” 6

Out of his own study of the original sources, Erasmus, a Catholic theologian and scholar, published the first copy of the Greek New Testament in 1516. This allowed Luther and many others to more easily go back to the original sources of the bible and begin to see for themselves some of the deviations of Catholic teaching.  The eventually led Luther to publish his own bible in German, so that the people could access the holy scriptures for themselves as well.

(4) Conscience. Luther is famous for his “Here I stand” speech at the Diet of Worms in 1521.  Though there is some disagreement about whether or not he actually said those famous words,7 one thing he did say was with regard to the conscience was this:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.” 8

In Luther’s actions that day and in his campaign to reform the church of the time, we see a man fighting for the freedom of an individual to be allowed to obey the dictates of one’s own conscience over against the heteronomy of the church and state.  This was one of the foundational pillars that would lead to the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights in America some 250 years later (mentioned above).

(5) Democracy.  The Reformation drew a great deal of attention to the problem of having the state and the church in bed together.  The 30 Years War was a direct result of inappropriate relationship between church and state.  The birth of America and the popularization of the concept of democracy would likely not have happened were it not for the revelations that were born out of the Reformation.  Today Americans take it for granted that the church and the state should not function as one; that the state should protect religion and not prevent it or promote any particular faith.


  1. You can read an English translation of Luther’s 95 Theses here. They were originally posted on the door of the church in Latin, but then were quickly taken down by students, translated into German, and distributed throughout Germany (Luther did not intend any of this to happen, though).
  2. Taken from http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-reformation-trick-or-treat.
  3. That is not to say that everything about the Reformation was desirable.  The political turmoil and conflicts that stewed for decades following the Reformation were bloody and are still a black-eye upon Christian history.
  4. Here is an excellent summary of the Five Solas if you want to do further reading.
  5. Read more about this here.
  6. Info pulled off of Wikipedia.
  7. Here is an interesting article about whether or not he actually said those famous words, “here I stand.”
  8. Taken from “What Luther Said” in Christianity Today, August 2008.

The Necessity of The Reformation

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me….I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. – Philippians 3:12-16

The Feast of the Reformation is not part of the universal Church calendar although all portions of the Church that were in existence at the time of the Reformation knew its effect.  Unfortunately, the Reformation is one of the most poorly understood occurrences in Church history, and it is usually forced into one of two extreme positions.  Either it is viewed as one of the most destructive forces ever to be unleashed upon the Church (destroying an integral unity of faith which traced its lineage back to the apostles); or it is viewed as one of the most constructive forces ever to be unleashed upon the Church (rooting out corruption and restoring the Church to the bedrock of faith first practiced in the apostolic age).  In the final analysis we see that it was both destructive and constructive, but more importantly it was necessary and brought to pass by the hand of God as part of His promise that He would present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. – Ephesians 5:25-27.  Philip Schaff, in his History of the Church, holds that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in the history of the Church.  In a real sense it marked the end of the middle ages of the Church and secular society, and the beginning of the modern age in which we currently live.

To understand the Reformation, we must understand three distinct movements of the age, Catholicism, Romanism, and Protestantism.  Catholicism represented the Church universal, the body of faith and doctrine, the liturgy and sacraments, and the calling of the people of God which had always been within the Church since her birth on Pentecost.  When the Holy Spirit was poured forth upon the Church, He placed within her all that was necessary to fulfill the great commission of her Lord Jesus Christ.  But the Church gravitated towards the principle of Christian authority under God.  While it had been successful in discipling both the Roman and the barbarian nations, the Catholic authoritative spirit became entrenched, and Schaff points out that the Church became traditional, hierarchial, ritualistic, and conservative in its nature.  Protestantism sprang from the same root, but it was biblical instead of traditional, democratic instead of hierarchical, spiritual instead of ritualistic, and progressive instead of conservative.  It was founded on the principle of Christian liberty in Jesus and was a breath of fresh air of the same type as the mighty, rushing wind that first blew through the Church on Pentecost.

Romanism, on the other hand, was a separate movement of the Latin Church which aligned itself against the principles and practices of the Reformation.  This movement was formally codified by the Council of Trent beginning in AD 1545 (often referred to as the Counter-Reformation) and later completed and ratified by the First Vatican Council in AD 1870.  At the heart of these council’s decrees were the teaching and defense of the dogma of the Roman papacy’s absolutism (a recognition of Rome as the sole head of all Christendom upon earth) and its infallibility (an acknowledgement that Rome speaks without error in matters of faith and practice).  These standards isolated the Roman Church from all other church groups of its time.  With these three distinctions made, we can still claim to be catholic while avoiding the excesses of the Romanist position.   The Reformation Church can therefore legitimately show itself as a continuation of that catholic lineage which had its foundation upon the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone. – Ephesians 2:20.

A short article such as this cannot hope to capture all of the reasons why reformation of the Church was necessary.  Let me only relate this one story as illustrative of the corruption of Romanism which had infected the Church of its age.  At the height of the papacy’s power and influence at the end of the 13th century, it is said that Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest defenders of the Roman Church and Papacy, had an audience with the pope.  The pope is said to have showed the theologian the papal treasury and then to have remarked “Thomas, the Church can no longer say as Peter once did to the lame man ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”  “That is true, your holiness”, Thomas replied, “but neither can she or Peter’s successor lay hands on that lame man and say in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”  The Roman Church had, as the Apostle Paul said, a form of godliness but denied its power. – II Timothy 3:5  As Schaff remarks, the entire Church was one large tinder pile (perhaps reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1-6) and it only required one spark to set the fires of purification underway.  The history of the Reformation is a history of those sparks, in Germany, in France, in Switzerland, in England, wherever the Spirit of God moved in revival.  The spark which we celebrate as representative of the movement, is October 31, the day on which Martin Luther, in AD 1517, nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral.

Let me make one more distinction.  This was not a Renaissance within the Church; that was a purely secular movement which spanned the 14th to the 17th centuries.  This was not a return to some golden age or ideal condition; this was a true reformation, a purging of that which was corrupt so that the Church could continue on from the place to which God in His sovereign grace had brought her.  It is true that it sought to recover some of the purity and focus of the apostolic age, but it was beyond her power to physically return to that age.  It was a much different society and a different time which confronted her.   The spirit of the reformation is best expressed in Paul’s statement in in Galatians 5:1, Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.  The Reformation, in closing, restored to the people of God three important principles of Christian living.  It established the supremacy of the scriptures over church tradition.  It established the supremacy of faith over works.  It established the supremacy of the Christian people (the priesthood of all believers) over the exclusive priesthood of clericism.  It, not the Roman Church, is the true continuation of that root of catholicism which touches upon the apostles.  It reminds us that the entrance is narrow and the way difficult which leads to life, but the way is nothing more than the road which Jesus Christ walked when He was upon this earth.  It only remains for us to follow Him wherever He calls us and to trust that He is able to complete that which He has begun not only in us, but in His Church upon the earth.