Reformation: A Short History

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Before I Bought it, my car was in a bad accident. The story goes like this: One day a young couple near Chicago ordered a new vehicle. They went to the dealership to take possession of it on a fine November morning. As they signed their names to the paperwork, a fierce winter storm blew in. Just as they left the dealership to take the car on its maiden voyage, another car skidded into the icy driveway and slammed into the front of the couple’s brand-new car.

Because they had purchased a new, not used or damaged, car, they demanded that the dealer order them a factory-fresh replacement. In the end the insurance company bought the new-but-crumpled vehicle and paid for the dealer to order another from the manufacturer. The insurance company had the crumpled car fixed to new-car specifications, and then sold it to a friend of mine who owns a car brokerage company. He, in turn, sold it to me for a significant discount from its original new-car price.

So did I buy a new car, an old car, or a used car…? It’s a little hard to say. Easier to get my mind around is the idea that my car was formed well, got deformed in an unsightly manner, and needed to be re-formed to the exacting standards of the manufacturer’s specifications.

That may be a good way to think about church history and about something we call “the Reformation.” If something needs to be “re-formed,” it is only because it has become “de-formed.” And “re-formation” after “de-formation” presupposes an original “formation.” That’s also how it is with the church. Let’s take a look.

Formation

For several hundred years after Pentecost, Christianity was a minor but growing religion. The Roman emperor Constantine changed that in 313 a.d. by allowing Christianity to be observed as a legitimate belief. Soon it dominated religion in the empire—so much so that when the political government of Rome collapsed around 500 a.d., the church took over as the shaping force in Western society.

So we can think of the years 30-500 a.d. as the period of “formation” for the church: from Jewish messianic fellowship to Jewish/Gentile religious faith; from powerless beginnings to a role of governing leadership. But power often corrupts, and it undermined the Christian church’s effectiveness during the medieval period of Western civilization. For this reason we could call the millennium from 500-1500 a.d. a period of “Deformation” for the church.

Deformation

During these years tensions grew between the Eastern and Western parts of the church. They disagreed about leadership structures, use of the sacraments, and the theological understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Eastern regions followed the “Patriarchs” as a continuation of Apostolic leadership. In the West, the importance of the Bishop of Rome had increased rapidly, and his leadership was described as a direct continuation of the Apostle Peter’s perceived primary place.

In the East, the act of baptism allowed all Christians to share in Holy Communion, but in the West other sacraments were developed to mark different stages of life. Communion began to be used as a tool of discipline—church leaders could withhold it from people as a sign of divine judgment.

In the West the work of the Holy Spirit was limited to helping people understand the teachings of Jesus, while in the East there was a perspective that the Spirit continued to empower and enthuse God’s people in many ways.

Tensions festered until 1054 a.d. when each region disowned the other and the Roman Catholic (Western) and Orthodox (Eastern) branches of Christianity went their separate ways. The growing power of Rome and increasingly strange practices related to the sacraments produced wide-scale discontent in Western Christianity. This discontent ultimately broke out as the “Reformation.”

Re-formation

The “Reformation” was triggered when Martin Luther posted his  “95 Theses” in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. Luther was a respected monk and seminary teacher in the Roman Catholic Church, but he became disillusioned with certain sacramental practices and was skeptical about the authority of the pope. Others joined him in a movement that would create the “Protestant” branch of the church.

Luther’s own idea was to “reform” the church by getting rid of unbiblical ideas and practices. Much of Germany and the Scandinavian countries responded to Luther’s teachings, and many people from these backgrounds continue to call themselves “Lutherans” to this day.

John Calvin was born into a Roman Catholic family but gained an appreciation for Reformation ideas during his years as a university student. Eventually he became leader of the church in Geneva, Switzerland, and took Luther’s early reforming emphases several steps further. Instead of merely getting rid of things that seemed against Bible teachings, Calvin insisted on trying to recover early Christian practices. Thus his version of Christianity seemed more austere than those expressed through the many ceremonies of Roman Catholic and even Lutheran churches. Followers of Calvin’s teachings were called “Huguenots” in France, “Reformed” in the Low Countries and Hungary, and “Presbyterian” in Scotland.

Reformational efforts also happened for less theological reasons. English king Henry VIII had trouble fathering a male heir, so he went from wife to wife. When the Pope refused to grant him another annulment, Henry declared that the Roman Catholic Church would no longer have authority in England and formed the Church of England (the Anglican Church). The Revolutionary War of the United States transformed the Anglican Church in America into the “Episcopal” Church.

Back in England, some people wanted the reforming movement of the church to go further. Among the next generation of leaders were John and Charles Wesley, nicknamed the “Methodists.” The name stuck, and the Methodist revival spread wherever there were English-speaking people. Later, when Methodist zeal was ebbing, a new reforming movement produced the “Wesleyan” denomination. Similar developments in Europe created the Anabaptists (Mennonites, Hutterites, Moravians, Amish), and in the United States, first the Baptist and later the Pentecostal branches of Protestantism.

Transformation

All this “reforming” work transformed Christianity. Among Roman Catholics, it surfaced in the Council of Trent (1545-1563). While addressing “heresies” among these new “Protestant” groups, the Catholic Church also purged or righted many practices that had become scandalous during the period of the church’s deformation.

For both Protestant and Roman Catholic groups, other non-biblical and extra-biblical practices were “reformed.” These included overly close ties between church and state rulers, the sale of church offices, some sacramental practices
that had become almost “magical” in tone, and the marketing of church pardons in the form of indulgences. The Reformation also

  • renewed the church’s study of the Bible in its earliest languages and manuscripts

  • promoted the development of biblical theology alongside dogmatics

  • nurtured worship celebrations in the languages of the people

  • reignited the church’s missionary zeal.

The Reformation was a major turning point in the church’s history. Because of its dynamic nature, it splintered the church’s Western branch as people picked up its zeal in varying intensities. It also caused Roman Catholics to rethink many practices and dogmas that had parasitically attached themselves to the church during the millennium of “Deformation.” Indeed, “reformed” expressions of Christianity often looked more like the early church in its original “form” than did the “deformed” aberrations of the so-called Dark Ages.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the Reformation was all about—and why we still think it’s important to follow in the footsteps of committed Reformers who changed the world forever.

About the Author

Wayne Brouwer is a Christian Reformed pastor who teaches at Hope College and Western Seminary, both in Holland, Mich. His latest books are Martyr's Manual and Splitting the Day of the Lord.

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