The Reformation

 The medieval Roman Catholic Church had many areas that separated it from the church found in the New Testament. The practice of simony occurred which was the practice of selling church offices to the highest bidder. Miscellaneous money making schemes were used such as the selling of indulgences, which was a source of rich profits for the Catholic Church. Some of the leading clergy claimed to be celibate but had concubines, and a number had children by these concubines. In many instances the Catholic Church resorted to carnal warfare in order to increase its power over others.

      However, throughout that time there arose some dissenting voices of people who protested against the abuses from the Biblical pattern.


      Generally when people think of the reformation they think of names like Martin Luther or John Calvin or Zwingli. However, there were many other individuals and groups who spoke out against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church.

      For example, the Albigenses became prominent in southern France about 1170 A.D.  They did hold some Gnostic philosophies and dualistic ideas about God. They were opposed to the doctrines of purgatory and image worship. They recognized the authority of the New Testament and opposed tradition as authority in religion.

However the Catholic Church had no tolerance for this group of people. Henry H.  Halley says this was the outcome of their opposition to Catholic authority.

In 1206 a crusade was ordered by pope Innocent III; a bloody war of extermination followed; scarcely unparalleled in history; town after town was put to the sword and the inhabitants murdered without distinction of age or sex; in 1229 the Inquisition was established and within a hundred years the Albigenses were utterly rooted out.[1]

      Moreover, the Waldensians were founded by Peter Waldo about A.D 1170. This group was more like the Protestant and Puritan movements. They were noted for their zeal for purity of life. They rejected masses, prayers for the dead and purgatory, and taught that the Bible was the sole rule of authority for belief and life. The Waldensians believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible in their own language. The church was not infallible, and Christian “laymen” were entitled to preach. They were also extremely benevolent to the poor. However they too were suppressed by Inquisition. Nonetheless, they did survive persecution and about thirty five thousand still exist in Northern Italy today.

      Furthermore, John Wycliffe (1324-1384) was another early reformer from England. He opposed the authority of the pope, cardinals, patriarchs, and monks, and Petrine succession, and the doctrine of transubstantiation, and celibacy. He also denied the veneration of saints and relics. He declared:

If there were one hundred popes and all friars were turned into cardinals their opinion ought not be acceded to in matters of faith except so far as they based themselves upon Scripture.[2]

Probably one of his greatest contributions was his belief that people had the right to read the Bible for themselves. He did translate the bible into English from the Vulgate. He believed it was a sin for clergy to keep the bible from the laity. The Catholic Church believed that it was injurious for the people at large to read the Bible, in the year 1229 at the Council of Toulouse forbade the Scriptures to laity. It was expressed in these terms:

We also forbid the laity to possess any of the books of the Old or New Testament, except, perhaps, the Psalter or Breviary for the divine Offices, or the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, which some, out of devotion, wish to have; but having these books translated into the vulgar tongue, we strictly forbid.[3]

In this way comparisons between the New Testament church and the Roman

Catholic Church could be avoided.

      Another early reformer was John Hus, who led a very active reform movement in Bohemia. He was a priest in the Catholic Church but was influenced by the ideas of Wycliffe. Hus intended to reform the church in Bohemia along the same lines as proposed by Wycliffe. He opposed the doctrine of indulgences and encouraged the return to the study of Scripture. He was excommunicated by the archbishop of Prague and later by the pope. He was put into prison and after he refused to recant, on July 6, 1415 he was burned at the stake as a heretic by the order of the Council of Constance. He was condemned as a heretic because of his diligent search for truth and his desire to reform the church along the lines of that found in the New Testament. Persecutors can destroy the bodies of men but they cannot destroy their ideas, and the ideas of these early reformers spread to others.


      Possibly the most outrageous thing that took place to incite the Reformation was the sale of indulgences. In 1506, Pope Julius began building Saint Peter’s in Rome, and it was continued by Pope Leo X. However, the project was threatened by the lack of funds and the sale of indulgences was begun. It was thought that after one had repented of sin and had confessed it that the guilt of sin and eternal punishment was forgiven by God, but there was a temporal satisfaction that the repentant sinner must fulfill either in this life or in purgatory.

To offset this one could do some meritorious deed, or take a pilgrimage, or make a donation of money to the church. Moreover, the indulgence was a document that one could buy for a sum of money that would free the purchaser from the temporal penalty of sin. The idea was first set forth by Alexander of Hales in the thirteenth century. Clement VI declared it to be dogma in 1343.

      Luther was a Catholic priest in Germany who was very dedicated to that faith. He fasted for days on end, extended vigils far beyond the rule, abased himself, performed noxious chores, confessed every sin he could imagine. He said of himself: “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, I was that monk.”

He also taught biblical theology at Wittenberg University when John Tetzel began his sale in indulgences in Germany.

John Tetzel, at the authority of the Pope, came through Germany selling these indulgences, preaching, ‘As soon as the money tinkles in the chest, the soul springs out of purgatory.’ Luther was highly disfavored at this abuse. He did not, at this time, deny the authority of the pope nor the efficacy of penance, but only the abuse. Thus on October 31, 1517, he nailed to the door of Castle church in Wittenberg ninety five theses for debate (a common thing in that day).[4]

      Martin Luther saw that this did not agree at all with his belief about the way that God saved people. Therefore, Luther condemned the abuses of the indulgence system and challenged any one to debate him on this matter. In defending scripture he was proud to defy both councils and hierarchy. In 1520 a bull of excommunication was issued by the pope which stated that unless Luther recanted he would be cast out of the church. To show his contempt for the document he publicly burned it. In the years that followed there was actual combat between the Lutherans and Roman Catholics. The pope declared the war a Crusade, and offered indulgences to all who would take part. The war lasted from 1546 to 1555. Moreover, in 1555 peace terms were drawn up in the Peace of Augsburg. This document stated that both Lutheranism and Catholicism could be tolerated in Germany and that each prince could decide which religion would be legal in his territory. Luther spent the rest of his life spreading and defending the ideas of Protestant Reformation. He was a prolific writer and his works fill about 70 large volumes; beside this he translated the Bible into


      Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531) of German Switzerland was also a priest within Catholicism. However, he too became very discontent with the Roman church. In 1522 he prepared sixty seven theses in which he differed with the Catholic Church. He published them and offered to debate them. He began to oppose indulgences and of the veneration of images. He emphasized salvation by faith, the authority of the bible, and the headship of Christ in the church, and the right of clerical marriage, and church services were held in the language of the people. He would permit nothing in religion except what could be proved by Scriptures. He also believed that only those who rejected the gospel in unbelief were predestined to condemnation. Furthermore, he believed that the Lord Supper was symbolic and simply a memorial to Christ, and in this he differed from Catholic transubstantiation (he did not believe that the priest could perform a miracle to change the elements into the actual body and blood of Christ) and Lutheran consubstantiation. He also had rejected the doctrine of original sin and taught that babies could be saved without baptism. Zwingli reduced the church service to extreme simplicity; pictures and statues were removed and organs were banished and instrumental music ceased to be used. The Catholic Church used forcible measures to suppress the Zwingli movement and began warfare in 1529. When the war began Zwingli said farewell to his wife and children and went with follow reformers to battle. The reformers were defeated with great slaughter and Zwingli himself died in battle October 11, 1531.

      John Calvin of French Switzerland was a successor to Zwingli as a reformer. He was born in Noyon, France to Roman Catholic parents. Calvin was converted from Catholicism in 1533. He went to Geneva in 1533. Calvin was about 25 years younger than Luther and Zwingli and had the advantage of building on their foundations. On July 20th, 1539 Geneva renounced the papacy and accepted


One of the essential principles of his system of theology was human depravity. He accepted the teachings of Augustine that the will of man is depraved, and, accordingly, the doctrine of predestination was a necessary part of this theological system. Whereas Augustine said that God permits people to be damned, Calvin stressed that God ‘decreed’ their condemnation and that the number was definitely established and could not be increased or diminished. For the elect he taught the corollary of predestination and the perseverance of the saints.[5]

      Calvin followed a simple worship in his churches. There was congregational singing, which was a departure from his early experience in the Roman Catholic Church. They did not use instrumental music, for Calvin thought that was a departure from New Testament worship. He broke away from altar worship, and placed an emphasis upon reading and preaching. Calvin and his followers required complete uniformity to their beliefs. Inns were required to keep a bible handy and no dice, cards, or gambling allowed, and no one was allowed to be out after nine o’ clock at night. The religious leaders pronounced excommunication on all who refused to follow Calvin’s theology. Between 1542-1546 there were fifty seven executions and seventy six banishments from Geneva because of heresy. The five points of Calvinism are: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.


      There were other reform groups that are called Anabaptist. The word means rebaptizer, and they were known for rebaptizing people. Lynn McMillion summarized the teaching of many of these groups in this fashion:

First, they practiced only believer’s baptism and rejected the Catholic practice of infant baptism. Second, they believed that the spiritual government of the church rested upon the power of each local congregation. Third, for Anabaptist a belief in the communal nature of the church’s fellowship constituted a mark of the true church. Fourth, the significance of the Lord’s Supper was found in its memorial character rather than the Catholic sacrificial understanding. Fifth was Anabaptist insistence upon passive obedience to civil government. This developed as a counter thrust to the belief that the union of the church and civil government of the medieval era had eroded the spiritual quality of the Catholic Church.[6]

      In some of the groups they refused to bear arms, to hold civil office, or to take oaths, or participate in worldly amusements, some introduced feet washing based upon what is said in John 13. Some of them began to rely in an inner light believing that the Holy Spirit would work apart from the bible in bringing them to truth. Most of them rejected predestination of Calvin and emphasized free will of each individual.


      The last reform movement that will be discussed in this paper is the Church of England. The difficulty between Henry VIII of England and the pope developed out of his desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Cairns had this to say about this conflict:

When it became apparent that he could not have a son by this marriage, Henry became concerned, because he believed that England would need a male ruler after his death in order to see the land through the period of international turbulence. He also thought that possibly God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow, an action prohibited by canon law and Leviticus 20:21. Falling in love with the pretty Anne Boleyn, Henry ordered his advisor Cardinal Wolsey to negotiate with Clement VII for a divorce from Catherine. Clement VII was unable to grant his request because in 1527 he was under the control of Catherine’s nephew, the powerful Charles V, the ruler of Spain and the emperor of Germany. Henry accused Wolsey of high treason when he failed to get the divorce but Wolsey died before Henry could execute him.[7]

      This eventually led to the Acts of Supremacy of 1534. This decree declared that the king was the only supreme head of the Church of England. In 1536 Parliament ordered all monasteries to close and the land was taken over by the government. However, the Church of England still holds to many doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the major differences between the groups involves ecclesiastical power. The Church of England preserves the Catholic sacraments and creeds but rejects the authority of the Pope of Rome. After many English colonists moved the North America, connections with the Church of England were broken during the Revolutionary War. The church in North America was then named the Episcopal Church.


      It is evident that each reformer’s work resulted in the beginning of a new religious group. Unusually there was an effort to correct some particular error or errors, but as his followers increased in number a formal statement of faith and practice was adopted and a new religious denomination was born. The first few denominations were off shoots from Catholicism. As time passed by many other churches appeared as off shoots of the off shoots until today there is religious chaos. Although great doctrinal changes were brought about by the Reformation, the student must not think that the new denominations broke away totally from New Testament departures that have occurred over the centuries. The Protestant reformation developed its own set of problems and divisions. Practically every group has invented some organizational structure which suits the purposes of men, but which largely ignores the simple serving organization of the New Testament church. As is so often the case with civil government, high offices in religion tend to be self serving, wasteful, and abusive. For example, local members lose control of funds and property. Even doctrinal positions may be forced upon churches, without regard to what members find in the Scriptures.

Divisions have not resulted from God’s word, but from man’s misapplication of it.

The only way to achieve unity is by a return to the Bible. First, there needs to be an acceptance that the church was established 2,000 years ago on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The church is perfect in its plan and in its design. And it was intended to be the model for all subsequent ages, in all matters of faith and practice. Now we do not have to model the customs of the day or social traditions of the first century. But it is a model of faith and practice. Second, the New Testament Scriptures, as they reveal the church, are a pattern or a blueprint for us to follow today.

[1] Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965) 785.

[2] F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom (Delight: Gospel Light Publishing Company, 1961) 225.

[3] J.W. Shepherd, The Church the Falling away and the Restoration (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1929) 75.

[4] Morris M. Womack, The Church through the Ages (Austin: R.B. Sweet Company, 1965) 32.

[5] Mattox, 260.

[6] Lynn A. McMillion, Restoration Roots (Dallas: Gospel Teachers Publications, 1983) 12.

[7] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity through the Ages (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 322.

Posted in Topical Papers.