Introduction: Forum on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

MRB September 28, 2017 0

Bruce Gordon on the 500th Anniversary of the Movement

The Reformation was a revolution that created a new form of Christianity. What emerged as Protestantism was a manifestation of the faith previously unknown in the Western Church. Such was the pace of radical change that by the printing of Martin Luther’s seminal treatises in 1520, the papacy was identified as antichrist, the sacraments reduced to two, and the salvation of men and women declared to be dependent on faith alone. It is a commonplace to say that Luther had no intention either of breaking the old Church or of founding a new one, but it is hard to imagine the consequences of his radical teaching being otherwise given the magnitude of his objections to the old order. The Wittenberg professor placed the Bible at the heart of the church, roundly denying the authority of the medieval hierarchical establishment. The results, however, were less than entirely clear. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the problem posed by sola scriptura was the enduring strife between Luther and the Swiss over the meaning of Christ’s words, “This is my body.” Who, both Luther’s opponents and advocates asked, possessed authority to interpret scripture? What did a church that held to the Word of God look like? And what formed the historical identity of that church?

Such questions shaped the Reformation as Protestants and Catholics came to profoundly different conclusions. Older, largely Protestant, narratives of the Reformation speak of a movement that arose ex nihilo under a heroic German monk against a corrupt and benighted medieval church. Scholars and writers today take a different view, increasingly looking to the roots of the Reformation in late-medieval culture and emphasizing the diversity of the reform movements that followed in Luther’s wake. Among Protestants themselves of the 1520s, competing visions of reform and of the ideal Christian community emerged in sharp relief. Reformers such as Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin sought to create a godly community that embraced the whole of society, believers and non-believers alike, in which spiritual and temporal authorities had overlapping yet distinct claims to authority under God. At the same time, radicals, such as the so-called Anabaptists, followed the principle of scripture alone to very different results: they repudiated infant baptism as not found in the Bible, embraced separation from the ungodly, and refused to acknowledge temporal authorities. As the Reformation evolved into confessions such as Lutheran, Reformed, and the hybrid character of the English church, and radical sentiments continued to flourish under such figures as Menno Simons, the Protestant reformation became a story of a robust religion that flourished in localities in a myriad of forms and with significant variations in doctrine and practice. With its emphasis on the encounter of each person with the Word of God under the guidance of the Spirit, Protestantism had a troubled relationship with institutional forms. No sooner did it take on its institutions then further reform movements emerged. The local nature of Protestantism proved its strength as the Reformation movement fragmented, yet it meant that the faith was never one set of ideas or practices, that it flourished through constant calls for reform, and that the movement remained remarkably fractious.

As Protestantism fragmented, Catholic reform during the sixteenth century, and particularly following the Council of Trent, sought the formation of a universal church distinguished by uniformity of theology and liturgy. Led by the Jesuits, the missionary nature of the Tridentine church led to the expansion of the faith across the Americas, Africa, and Asia, although at times with tragic results for both indigenous populations and the Europeans. Nevertheless, the story of Catholic renewal in the sixteenth century is astonishing, and although it would take a very long time for the decrees passed at Trent to be realized on the ground, a new form of the church emerged locked in battle with Protestantism and determined to take true religion across the world. The term “Counter-Reformation” no longer suffices to understand what took place, and as Brad Gregory, Ulinka Rublack and Carlos Eire have demonstrated, the only way to approach the Reformation is with a comparative disposition that looks to the similarities, patterns, and differences among Protestants, Catholics, and the radicals.

As we mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in all its forms, the older verities seem less certain. The authoritarian nature of both Protestantism and Catholicism created a world in which the faithful were disciplined into conformity with well-defined forms of Christianity. Whether through a pure heart or obedience to the sacramental nature of the Church, Protestants and Catholics made heavy demands on men, women, and children in the early modern world. Among other new realities, the Reformation created cultures in which people of opposing religions had to live side-by-side in rural villages and urban centers. Religious co-existence changed Europe and the Atlantic world, fostering, at least embryonically, the possibility for debates about religious toleration in a later age.

There is no clear trajectory from the Reformation to modernity. Without doubt, the seismic changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries opened new possibilities and profoundly altered the nature of religion. Nevertheless, the Reformations both Catholic and Protestant held to ideas of truth and orthodoxy far removed from our present world. Our goal in this forum is to think afresh about this movement, challenging ourselves and our readers to new ways of engaging a subject that has gone a little dusty. The Reformation is a very human story about the interaction of high ideals with the realities of societies with their politics, economics, and quotidian concerns. We find transformative words and deeds, abject failure, fierce conflict, and numerous tensions and contrary impulses. To recover in 2017 a sense of this protean series of events, we need to ask the questions raised in the following contributions.


Bruce Gordon is the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of a number of books, including the Swiss Reformation (Manchester, 2002), Calvin (Yale, 2009), and most recently John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Princeton, 2016).