History of the Christian Reformation from 1517 until today
The beginning of the Protestant Reformation is dated from October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. The 500th anniversary of that event arrives October 31, 2017. The world has changed because of the Reformation, and this website is dedicated to commemorating the event and its legacy.
The word “Protestant” is based on the root word “protest.” Luther protested Catholic practice, and as a result of widespread abuses by the Catholic Church, a chorus of others joined in to likewise protest against Rome.
Between the New Testament era and the 1500s Roman Catholicism established a monopoly on Christianity in Western Europe. They abused their position. Many of the practices they used seem shocking today, even to Catholics. The celebration of Mass was performed in a language church members did not understand. The text of the Bible was unknown to parishioners. Governments were subject to the Pope. Most of the land was owned by the Catholic Church. Bishops lived with aristocratic privileges while peasants supported the Church under a feudal system that exploited their labor. Critics were tortured and executed.
For many of the common “Christians,” it was the traditions, icons, statuary, tapestries, and paintings that defined “Christianity” instead of the words of scripture. Today both Catholics and Protestants would regard the Catholic religion of the 1500s as completely alien to what now is regarded as “Christianity.”
The protests unleashed against Catholicism quickly spread throughout Europe. Protestantism succeeded because it was needed. Catholicism brought it upon itself by its failure to provide a genuine Christian experience for the common man. At the same time as Luther, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, Simons, and others began to oppose Catholic abuses, there was an eager audience wishing to be freed from under Catholic domination.
The Roman Catholic Church was changed by the Protestant Reformation. They responded, beginning in 1545, with the Counter-Reformation. The Council of Trent convened in 25 sessions between 1545 and 1563 to address needed church reform. In addition to condemning Protestantism, the council clarified Roman Catholic doctrine, reformed church administration, abolished some abuses affecting the sale of indulgences, established more rigorous clergy education and residential rules, affirmed that the Catholic Church was the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of scripture, and explained the relationship of faith and works to counter Luther’s doctrine of salvation by faith alone. It also reaffirmed many practices the Reformers found offensive, including veneration of saints and relics, pilgrimages, indulgences, and veneration of the Virgin Mary. The Counter-Reformation lasted until the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 and addressed reconfiguring the church’s structure, establishing religious orders as well as responding to spiritual movements and political reforms.
Between the Reformation outside Catholicism and the Counter-Reformation within, the Protestant movement reshaped Christianity. In turn, Christianity was revitalized and held far greater relevance to the lives of the common man. Whereas before mere superstition informed most “Christian” beliefs, afterwards Christians were expected to understand, even debate, the meaning of Christ’s teachings. Once the Protestant leaders translated and published the Bible in the language of the common man, an aloof and educated clergy lost their monopoly over access and the right to interpret scripture. Every soul was entitled and expected to read the Bible for themselves. Society in Europe was transformed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The transformation spread to the New World, and North America was initially populated by fleeing Protestants. The government of the United States reflected Protestant values. The American political example, in turn, changed European rule. In time the entire world was influenced, directly or indirectly, by the changes that began with the Protestant Reformation.
The question remains, however, whether it is enough to protest and reform an apostate Christianity. Roger Williams concluded that reformation could never return Christianity to its original state. For that, a Restoration would be required. Once lost, only God could bring it again.
Many people agreed a Restoration was needed and several men have stepped forward to Restore the original Primitive Christian Church. Among them were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, father and son. Joseph Smith likewise claimed to have restored the original, including twelve apostles, seventies, bishops, priests, deacons, and teachers. Smith’s movement has splintered into more than 80 different sects, all of which have dramatically changed from what he began.
Today, Christianity is a fragmented, quarreling, and inconsistent patchwork of denominational sects, many of which claim that they alone offer the truest form of Christianity. There have been many Christian thinkers who longed to see Christianity drop its internal disputes and find common ground: C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Charles Russell, and many others have made attempts to help Christianity find common agreement.
One of Christianity’s greatest impediments to unity is the competing economic interests of the various denominations. Today there are preachers, bishops, elders, and ministers who claim that their version of Christianity is the only one that has the power to save, while all others teach false doctrine, are a cult, or are inspired of the Devil. This “dangling carrot” of salvation keeps congregants loyal to their churches’ authority and willing to financially support their professional clergy. In the 500th year of Protestantism the time has perhaps finally arrived when once again the common man can see through the conflicting claims and again protest against the denominational conflicts for what they are: competing economic structures. There is little difference between what motivated the Catholic abuses in the 1500s and the conflicts between denominations today. What Christianity needs is to practice more of what Christ taught and less of what the theological schools have overlaid in order to rebrand their version as “true.” Ministers should not be paid. Tithes and offerings should help the poor. If there were no financial incentive to advance denominational conflicts, they would die out. During this 500th anniversary year, we likewise protest against the present state of Christianity and call again for reform. Three talks will be delivered this year, each of which will be recorded and made available on this website. The talks will address Christianity’s troubled history, the present disarray, and our potential future. The time may yet come when Christians will achieve a unity of faith.
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