The Protestant Reformation by Steven Kreis

The Protestant Reformation

Lecture 3: From The History Guide by Dr. Steven Kreis

Martin Luther by Robert Boissard, after Lucas Cranach the Elder, line engraving, circa 1597 (NPG D23476) © National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons License

Martin Luther by Robert Boissard, after Lucas Cranach the Elder,
line engraving, circa 1597
(NPG D23476)
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Creative Commons License

Arise, O Lord, and judge Thy cause. A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard. Arise, O Peter, and consider the case of the Holy Roman Church, the mother of all churches, consecrated by thy blood. Arise, O Paul, who by thy teaching and death hast illumined and dost illumine the Church. Arise all ye saints, and the whole universal Church, whose interpretations of Scripture has been assailed. (papal bull of Pope Leo X, 1520)

It truly seems to me that if this fury of the Romanists should continue, there is no remedy except that the emperor, kings, and princes, girded with force and arms, should resolve to attack this plague of all the earth no longer with words but with the sword…. If we punish thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, and heretics with fire, why do we not all the more fling ourselves with all our weapons upon these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and all this sink of Roman sodomy that ceaselessly corrupts the church of God and wash our hands in their blood so that we may free ourselves and all who belong to us from this most dangerous fire? (Martin Luther, 1521)

Young people have lost that deference to their elders on which the social order depends; they reject all correction. Sexual offenses, rapes, adulteries, incests and seductions are more common than ever before. How monstrous that the world should have been overthrown by such dense clouds for the last three or four centuries, so that it could not see clearly how to obey Christ’s commandment to love our enemies. Everything is in shameful confusion; everywhere I see only cruelty, plots, frauds, violence, injustice, shamelessness while the poor groan under the oppression and the innocent are arrogantly and outrageously harassed. God must be asleep. (John Calvin)

The 16th century in Europe was a great century of change on many fronts. The humanists and artists of the Renaissance would help characterize the age as one of individualism and self-creativity. Humanists such as Petrarch helped restore the dignity of mankind while men like Machiavelli injected humanism into politics. When all is said and done, the Renaissance helped to secularize European society. Man was now the creator of his own destiny — in a word, the Renaissance unleashed the very powerful notion that man makes his own history (on the Renaissance, see Lecture 1).

But the 16th century was more than just the story of the Renaissance. The century witnessed the growth of royal power, the appearance of centralized monarchies and the discovery of new lands. During the great age of exploration, massive quantities of gold and silver flood Europe, an event which turned people, especially the British, Dutch, Italians and Germans, money-mad. The year 1543 can be said to have marked the origin of the Scientific Revolution — this was the year Copernicus published his De Revolutionibus (see Lecture 10) and set in motion a wave of scientific advance that would culminate with Newton at the end of the 17th century. In the meantime, urbanization continued unabated as did the growth of universities. And lastly, the printing press, perfected by the moveable type of Gutenberg in 1451, had created the ability to produce books cheaply and in more quantities. And this was indeed important since the Renaissance created a literate public eager for whatever came off the presses.

Despite all of these things, and there are more things to be considered, especially in the area of literature and the arts, the greatest event of the 16th century — indeed, the most revolutionary event — was the Protestant Reformation. It was the Reformation that forced people to make a choice — to be Catholic or Protestant. This was an important choice, and a choice had to be made. There was no real alternative. In the context of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, one could live or die based on such a choice.

We have to ask why something like the Reformation took place when it did. In general, dissatisfaction with the Church could be found at all levels of European society. First, it can be said that many devout Christians were finding the Church’s growing emphasis on rituals unhelpful in their quest for personal salvation. Indeed, what we are witnessing is the shift from salvation of whole groups of people, to something more personal and individual. The sacraments had become forms of ritualized behavior that no longer “spoke” to the people of Europe. They had become devoid of meaning. And since more people were congregating in towns and cities, they could observe for themselves and more important, discuss their concerns with others. Second, the papacy had lost much of its spiritual influence over its people because of the increasing tendency toward secularization. In other words, popes and bishops were acting more like kings and princes than they were the spiritual guides of European men and women. And again, because so many people were now crowding into cities, the lavish homes and palaces of the Church were noticed by more and more people from all walks of life. The poor resented the wealth of the papacy and the very rich were jealous of that wealth. At the same time, the popes bought and sold high offices, and also sold indulgences. All of this led to the increasing wealth of the Church — and this created new paths for abuses of every sort. Finally, at the local level of the town and village, the abuses continued. Some Church officials held several offices at once and  lived off their income. The clergy had become lax, corrupt and immoral and the people began to take notice that the sacraments were shrouded in complacency and indifference. Something was dreadfully wrong.

These abuses called for two major responses. On the one hand, there was a general tendency toward anti-clericalism, that is, a general but distinct distrust and dislike of the clergy. Some people began to argue that the layperson was just as good as the priest, an argument already advanced by the Waldensians of the 12th century (see also my lecture, “Heretics, Heresies and the Church”). On the other hand, there were calls for reform. These two responses created fertile ground for conflict of all kinds, and that conflict would be both personal and social.

The deepest source of conflict was personal and spiritual. The Church had grown more formal in its organization, which is hardly unsurprising since it was now sixteen centuries old. The Church had its own elaborate canon law as well as a dogmatic theology. All of this had been created at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. That Council also established the importance of the sacraments as well as the role of the priest in administering the sacraments (see the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council) . 1215 also marks the year that the Church further elaborated its position on Purgatory (see Purgatory: Fact or Fantasy). Above all, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 established the important doctrine that salvation could only be won through good works — fasting, chastity, abstinence and asceticism.

The common people, meanwhile, sought a more personal, spiritual and immediate kind of religion — something that would touch them directly, in the heart. The rituals of the Church now meant very little to them — they needed some kind of guarantee that they were doing the right thing – that they would indeed be saved. The Church gave little thought to reforming itself. People yearned for something more while the Church seemed to promise less. What seemed to be needed was a general reform of Christianity itself. Only such a major transformation would effect the changes reflected in the spiritual desires of the people.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries the Church was faced with numerous direct challenges.

  • Heretics had been assaulting the Church since the 12th century. The heretics were Christians who deviated from Christian dogma. Many did not believe in Christian baptism — the majority felt left out of the Church.

  • There were also numerous mystics who desired a direct and emotional divine illumination. They claimed they had been illuminated by an inner light that assured them of salvation.

  • There was an influential philosophical movement called nominalism that stressed the reality of anything concrete and real, thus doubting faith.

  • Renaissance humanism rejected the Christian matrix almost completely and instead turned to the Classical World, the true source of virtue and wisdom.

  • The breakdown of feudalism and the discovery and exploitation of the New World gave way to commerce and trade, as well as an increasing tendency to view life in the here and now as something good.

  • The Church was also challenged by an increasing awareness of ethnicity and nationalism, e.g. Joan of Arc and the 100 Years’ War.

  • Merchants and skilled workers living in cities were growing wealthy and influential as they began to supply Europe with more and more “stuff.”

  • European kings consolidated their power over their nobility.

  • There was an awareness, thanks to the age of discovery, that there was a pagan world outside the world of Europe that needed to be tamed.

The Reformation was dominated by the figure of MARTIN LUTHER (1483-1546). Luther was the son of Hans Luther, a copper miner from the district of Saxony. Hans was a self-made man. As a youth he worked menial jobs in copper mines — but by the time Martin was born at Eisleben, he had risen to prominence and owned several mines. Hans Luther wanted his son to do even more with his life so while Martin was in his teens, it was decided that he would study law. So, after his preliminary education was complete, at the age of 17 young Martin Luther entered the University of Erfurt. At the time, Erfurt was the most important university in Germany (more on German universities). It was also the center of a conflict between the Renaissance humanists and those people known as the Scholastics, who were adept at combining medieval philosophy and theology. Luther enrolled in the Faculty of Philosophy and studied theology and law as well. It was at this time that he read widely in the classical authors, especially Cicero and Virgil. He obtained his Masters degree and finished second in a class of seventeen students. In 1505, a promising legal career seemed certain.

But at this point, Luther rejected the world. He was twenty-one at the time. In 1505, Luther tells us that he experienced the “first great event” of his life. In that year he experienced some kind of conversion after having been struck by a bolt of lightning. He cried out, “Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk.” He was struck by the hand of God and felt that God was in everything. He felt doubt within himself – he simply could not reconcile his faith with his worldly ambitions. And so, Luther was plagued by an overwhelming sense of guilt, fear and terror. To relieve his anxiety he joined the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine. There he would be shielded from worldly distractions. There he would find the true path to heaven. He fasted, prayed and scourged himself relentlessly. But he still felt doubts. One day, as he sat in his cell, he threw his Bible on the table and pointed at a passage at random. The passage was from the Epistles of St. Paul: “For the justice of God is revealed from faith to faith in that it is written, for the just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)

By 1508, Luther was transferred from the monastery at Erfurt to Wittenberg. At Wittenberg, Luther joined the university faculty as professor of philosophy and quickly became the leader in the fight to make Wittenberg a center of humanism rather than Scholasticism. In the end, Luther was more interested in preaching a religion of piety than he was studying philosophy or theology. In 1510, he devoted himself to discovering God and during a trip to Rome on official business he acted more the part of a pilgrim than humanist scholar. He climbed the steps of St. Peters, he knelt before the altars and prayed. He was soon shocked by the apparent immoral life of the priests and cardinals whom he found cynical and indifferent toward Church rituals.

In 1512, he returned to Wittenberg to teach and preach. He ignored the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages and concentrated on the Psalms and Epistles of St. Paul. By 1517, there would be no reason to think that Luther was a particularly dissatisfied member of the Church. But 1517 is a very important year. Albert of Hohenzollern was offered the archbishopric of Mainz if he would pay the required fee (Albert already held two bishoprics, even though he had not yet reached the required age to be a bishop!). Pope Leo X asked Albert to pay 12,000 ducats for the twelve apostles but Albert would only offer 7,000 for the seven deadly sins. A compromise was reached and Albert paid 10,000 ducats. Leo proclaimed an indulgence in Albert’s territories for eight years with half of the money going to Albert and the other half to construct the basilica of St. Peter’s.

The storm broke on October 31, the eve of All Saints Day. On that day Luther nailed a copy of the NINETY-FIVE THESES to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. The Theses (actually 95 statements), all related to the prevalence of indulgences and Luther offered to dispute them all. The day chosen by Luther — All Saints Day — was important. All of Wittenberg was crowded with peasants and pilgrims who had come to the city to honor the consecration of the Church. Word of Luther’s Theses spread throughout the crowd and spurred on by Luther’s friends at the university, many people called for the translation of the Theses into German. A student copied Luther’s Latin text and then translated the document and sent it to the university press and from there it spread throughout Germany. It was the printing press itself, that allowed Luther’s message to spread so rapidly. [Note: Following the research of Erwin Iserloh, Richard Marius has suggested that perhaps Luther never posted the Ninety-Five Theses. We know, for instance, that Luther wrote a letter to his archbishop complaining about indulgences. The story that Luther nailed the Theses to the church door comes from Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), a professor of Greek and one of Luther’s colleagues. However, Melanchthon did not arrive in Wittenberg until August of the following year. Luther never mentioned this incident in any of his table talk. See Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Harvard, 1999), pp. 137-139.]

The particular indulgence which attracted Luther’s attention was being sold throughout Germany by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar. Tetzel was trying to raise money to pay for the new Church at St. Peters in Rome. In general, an indulgence released the sinner from punishment in Purgatory before going to Heaven. The system was permitted by the Church (since 1215) but had been abused by the clergy and their agents such as Tetzel.

Luther also attacked indulgences in general, and he voiced his objections to the sale of indulgences in his LETTER to the Archbishop of Mainz in 1517. According to the Church, indulgences took their existence from the surplus grace that had accumulated through the lives of Christ, the saints and martyrs. The purchase of an indulgence put the buyer in touch with this grace and freed him from the earthly penance of a particular sin, but not the sin itself. But Tetzel’s sales pitch implied that the buyer was freed from the sin as well as the penance attached to it. Tetzel also sold people on the idea that an indulgence could be purchased for a relative in Purgatory – this meant the relative’s soul would now fly to Heaven. For Tetzel: “As soon as pennies in the money chest ring, the souls out of their Purgatory do spring.” Luther answered (Theses 28) in the following way: “It is certain that when the money rattles in the chest, avarice and gain may be increased, but the Suffrage of the Church depends on the will of God alone.” (my emphasis).

Luther claimed that it was not only Tetzel but the papacy itself which spread the false doctrine of the indulgence. By attacking the issue of the indulgences, Luther was really attacking the entire theology and structure of the Church. By making salvation dependent on the individual’s faith, Luther abolished the need for sacraments as well as a clergy to administer them. For Luther, faith alone, without the necessity of good works, would bring salvation. This was obviously heretical thinking. Of course, Luther couched his notion of “justification by faith alone” within a scheme of predestination. That is, only God knows who will be saved and will be damned. Good works did not guarantee salvation. Faith did not guarantee salvation. God alone grants salvation or damnation.

This discussion all begs the question: why did people follow Luther? It is simply amazing that within a relatively brief period of time, that so many people turned their back on the Roman Church, and followed Luther. For the wealthy, becoming a Lutheran was one way to keep their wealth yet still be given a chance for salvation without paying homage to Rome. In other words, it can be said that the wealthy followed Luther as a form of protest against the Church. For the very poor, Luther offered individual dignity and respect. Not good works or servitude to Rome could guarantee salvation. Instead, faith held out the possibility of salvation. For most Germans of the mid-16th century, Lutheranism was a way to attack the Holy Roman Empire and Charles V (1500-1558). Voltaire once wrote that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor truly an Empire. Therefore, Germany became Lutheran for reasons other than religion or theology. The bottom line is this: Luther told people exactly what they want to hear. Luther appeared as an alternative to the Roman Church. Whereas the Roman Church appealed to men and women as members of a group (i.e., members of the Church), Lutheranism meant that faith was now something individual, and this would have profound consequences..

JOHN CALVIN (1509-1564) represents the second wave of the Protestant Reformation. Although Luther and Calvin were more less contemporaries of one another, Calvin was an entirely different man. John Calvin acquired his early education in Paris — here he learned to develop a taste for humanism. In the mid-1520s he studied law at the University of Paris and then left to study law at Orleans and Greek art at Bourges. I mention all this simply to show that Calvin was indeed a humanist scholar in his own right. He studied Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and thrived on the humanist texts of the classical world and his own. By 1533, Calvin fell under the influence of the New Testament translation by Erasmus as well as certain writings of Martin Luther. So, before Calvin became a Calvinist, he was clearly a Lutheran.

On All Saints Day in 1533, Calvin delivered an address at Paris which clearly defended the doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” Renouncing his Catholicism, Calvin settled at Basel, in Switzerland, and there wrote a draft for his book, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a book which contains more than 80 chapters and took him almost the rest of his life to complete. The core of what became known as Calvinism, was that man was a helpless being before an all-powerful God. He concluded that there was no such thing as free will, that man was predestined for either Heaven or Hell. Man can do nothing to alter his fate. It was Calvin, and not Luther, who gave to the Swiss and French reformers of this time a rallying point for Church reform. So, it was almost natural that when a few men were trying to convert the town of Geneva to their reformed doctrines that they called upon Calvin’s help.

Calvin came to Geneva and immediately imposed a social order of harsh discipline and order. The people of Geneva groaned under his repressive measures but they also felt that Calvin was good for them and their children. Calvin was kicked out of the city for three years but eventually returned — those who objected to his terms left the city or were jailed or executed.

Calvin urged — actually forced — all citizens of Geneva to succumb to his rigorous ideals of a religious life. In this way his career at Geneva is remarkably similar to that of Girolamo Savonarola in Florence. Genevan men and women were told to wake up early, work hard, be forever concerned with good morals, be thrifty at all times, abstain from worldly pleasures, be sober, and above all, serious. There was, then, very little laughing in Calvin’s Geneva. What we’re talking about here can only be called a “worldly asceticism,” that is, the denial of all worldly pleasure while living in this world.

Of course, foundation of Calvinism was clearly the doctrine of predestination, that is, the idea that all of mankind is assigned to either Heaven or Hell at birth. There is nothing you can do that would change your destiny since it was in the hands of all-powerful God. Such an opinion logically leads to anxiety — after all, no one knew just what to do. While Calvin would not argue, as did the Church, that good works were one needed to go to Heaven, he did admit that good works served a purpose. Good works, then, became a divine sign, a sign that the individual was making the best of their life here on earth. It was, however, still no guarantee.

Calvin also introduced his concept of the “calling.” Some men and women seemed ill-fitted for life on earth. They were avaricious, slothful, amoral. However, there were others who seemed to work happily in their lifetime, accomplishing much and in the right spirit. In other words, they had been “called” to do a certain thing here on earth.

Of course, if one wakes up early, works at their calling, and are thrifty, sober and abstain from frivolity, there is an unintended consequence. That consequence was the acquisition of wealth. So, while Calvin did not invent free enterprise, nor did he invent capitalism, or the desire for wealth, he did rationalize that desire by arguing that certain men are imbued with the spirit of acquisition, the correct spirit. That spirit has often been called the Protestant Work Ethic. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) asked why it is that the world’s most wealthy men were of Protestant origin. His answer was that it was these men who were also Calvinists, men who had internalized the religious code set down first by Calvin and then by the Puritans of 17th century England. In other words, the ethic says to work hard, save what you have made, and reinvest any profit in order to increase wealth. That is capitalism in a nutshell. Calvin does not invent this idea, he simply rationalizes it by ascribing a certain spirit or calling to certain men of his own age, all of whom just happened to be Calvinists. Of course, such a scheme could and did lead to tension, conflict and anxiety. How much of a calling was a good thing? When did one know when enough was enough? Anxiety and its sister guilt, then, seemed to become one of the guiding principles of Calvinism.

While Lutheranism spread widely in Germany and Scandinavia, Calvinism made inroads across Europe. In general, Calvin produced an organization unmatched by any other Protestant faith at the time. The Institutes spelled out faith and practice in fine detail. Tight discipline within each cell, or synod, held the entire system together. Calvinist ministers traveled throughout Europe winning adherents and organizing them into new cells. From the city of Geneva flowed an endless wave of pamphlets, books and sermons whose purpose was to educate the Calvinist congregation. By 1564, the year of Calvin’s death, there were more than a million French Calvinists or Huguenots, Scotland had been won over to Calvinism, and the religion also found a home in England, the Low Countries and Hungary.

[See Lecture 4 for the Radical Reformation, Lecture 5 on the Catholic Reformation and Lecture 6 on the Age of Religious Wars. You may also want to see Lecture 5, of my series of Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History, for a different approach to the Reformation.]


Dr. Steven Kreis is a professor of history and military studies at American Public University. This article is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work. Many thanks to Dr. Steven Kreis for graciously granting us permission to reproduce this lecture, which originally appeared on his History Guide website.


You may also find the following articles helpful in learning about some of the more surprising consequences of the Protestant Reformation.

Causes and Consequences of the Protestant Reformation (PDF)

The religious Roots of the Secular West: The Protestant Reformation and the allocation of resources in Europe

More History Guide lectures available from Excellence in Literature

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