The Reformation


We begin this study with a look at a number of people, events and even a new technology which preceded the Reformation. Every great movement has such precursors and we will consider a few which contributed greatly to the Reformation.

1. John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe is often called the "Morningstar of the Reformation." He was born in England in 1320, studied at Oxford and later became a professor there. Wycliffe taught many topics which became central points of the Reformation: salvation not by works, predestination, priesthood of believers, the Bible as preeminent authority, rejection of indulgences, criticisms of the clergy and denial of transubstantiation. He published an English Bible in 1382, the first medieval theologian to publish a Bible in the vernacular. Up to that point, the Catholic Church used only the Latin Vulgate Bible of Jerome, completed about 382.

2. John Hus (1371-1415)

Hus was a follower in Bohemia of Wycliffe, adopting many of his ideas : Christ, not the pope, as head of the church, the Bible as ultimate spiritual authority, he protested lax practices of the clergy, questioned transubstantiation, wrote in the vernacular (Bohemian, Czech.) Hus also questioned the existence of purgatory, rejected worship of images and ornate religious rites, condemned taking of fees by priests for religious rites. He began teaching at University of Prague in 1398 and was minister at Bethlehem Chapel there, was excommunicated in 1410, appeared before the Council of Constance in 1414 and was burned at the stake in 1415. His greatest legacy was probably his influence on later reformers. However, Hus also started a church that still exists today, the Moravian Church.

3. Invention of Printing

Shortly before 1450, Johannes Gutenberg developed a method of casting type which made it possible to produce individual metal letters that could be turned out in unlimited quantities and could be used over and over again in the printing process. He also created a new type of ink, which would adhere to the metal. For a press, he simply adapted the type of winepress that had been familiar in the Rhineland since its introduction by the Romans.

One of the first books published was the Gutenberg Bible. By 1480, printing had been carried on in over 110 European towns, and in 1500 there were 236 places where presses were in operation. By the end of the sixteenth century, the number of printed books was somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 to 200 million copies.

4. Renaissance Humanism

Humanism was a cultural and intellectual movement of the Renaissance that emphasized secular concerns as a result of the rediscovery and study of the literature, art, and civilization of ancient Greece and Rome. Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), one of the greatest humanists, published in 1516 a Greek-Latin Parallel New Testament. The Latin part was not the corrupt Vulgate, but his own fresh rendering of the text from the more accurate and reliable Greek. Among his key beliefs: he mocked Virgin Birth, transubstantiation, called shrines and miracles "bugbears of superstition", openly criticized the wealth and nepotism of the papacy and lechery in the monastery.

5. Moral/ethical laxity of the Roman Catholic Church

Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) was known for throwing orgies in the Vatican. He had at least four illegitimate children, one of whom was Lucrezia Borgia. Gluttony, sexual excess, avarice and other vices were common in many religious houses, to the point where monks and nuns in many areas became targets of either hatred or derision from local townspeople.

The Roman Church was also known for its excessive wealth during this period. In 1502, the Catholic Church owned 75% of the money in France, and in 1522, the Catholic Church owned 50% of the wealth in Germany. In early 1500s Scotland, the Catholic church owned more than 50% of the real estate

The church exploited people by displaying their holy relics on church holy days. These relics included, pieces of the cross, a piece of Jesus' crib, bones of saints, Joseph's carpenter tools, a piece of the burning bush, a lock of Mary's hair, etc, etc.

The most famous excess of the Roman Catholic Church during the period of the Reformation was the sale of indulgences. An indulgence is used to signify a remission of worldly punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has already been absolved (during Confession). Common means of gaining indulgences include prayer, fasting, giving alms, going on pilgrimages. However, in the 15th-16th centuries, indulgences were also granted for money. In 1517.

Johann Tetzel, who has been described as a "medieval P.T. Barnum", sold indulgences for Pope Leo in Germany from a push cart, in a somewhat hucksterish manner. It was Tetzel's irreverent sale of indulgences which eventually led Martin Luther to tack his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle in 1517.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born 10 Nov, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany and moved with his family to Mansfield the following year. After 8 years of school there, he spent one year at a school founded by the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg. He then spent four formative years in Eisenach, where he had been sent to study. As a young student there, Luther earned money to pay his school fees by singing in the streets of Eisenach. Luther played the lute, and singing always was an important part of his life.

In 1501, he entered the University of Erfurt, with a view to studying law at the request of his father. He earned a degree in 1505, started studying law, but dropped out after half a year. Either after the death of a friend or after being caught in a terrible thunderstorm he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. As a novitiate he began to read the Bible, which he had not done previously. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1507 and during the winter of 1508-09 he was sent to the University of Wittenberg. After one year, he went back to Erfurt and earned his Doctorate in theology. He was sent on a mission to Rome in 1510 or 1511, where he was exposed to some of the excesses of the Catholic Church and the worldliness of the Italian clergy.

In 1512, he went back to Wittenberg, where he had a “conversion” in his tower cell while studying Romans 1:17: “The righteous shall live by faith.” The phrase "the righteousness of God" like most Biblical terms (e.g., grace, faith, justification, etc.) had been reinterpreted by scholastic theologians of the high and late Middle Ages to support a theology of Law and works. For centuries the Church had taught that the righteousness of God was God's active, personal righteousness or justice by which he punishes the unrighteous sinner. On reading Romans 1:17 again, Luther realized that the phrase meant not the active righteousness that God demands, but the passive righteousness that He freely gives to those who believe the Gospel. The sinner is justified (declared righteous) by God through faith in the work and death of Jesus, not by our work or keeping of the Law. Put another way, the sinner is justified by receiving (faith) rather than achieving (works). Sola Fide, or "Faith Alone", became the watchword of the Reformation.

In 1517 Luther posted his 95 theses, under the title “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”

ULRICH ZWINGLI (1484-1531)

On January 1, 1484, seven weeks after Martin Luther was born, there was born in Wildhaus in the German-speaking part of Switzerland a boy who was to be known to history as Ulrich Zwingli. 1506 he entered the service of the Church. In 1519 he became pastor of the church of Zurich, the most important city in that part of Switzerland. He was also chaplain in the army of the city of Zurich. Shortly after arriving in Zurich, the Black Plague decimated the city, claiming about a quarter of its population. Zwingli ministerd to the vicitims and became ill himself, but recovered.In 1518 Zwingli attacked indulgences. The stand Luther took in the Leipzig debate and his burning of the papal bull inspired Zwingli to make a systematic attack on the Roman Church.In 1519 Zwingli began to systematically preach through the New Testament - beginning with the Gospel of Matthew. He opposed indulgences and preached the Gospel. He also secretly married!

Images were removed from the curch buildings in Zurich. The mass was abolished. Altars, relics, and processions were discarded. The government of the church and the care of the poor were placed in the hands of the city council. The school system was reformed. From Zurich the Reformation of the Church spread to several of the Swiss cantons; but many cantons remained Catholic.

Zwingli differed from Luther in his idea of the Lord's Supper. As we have seen, Luther taught that the body of Christ, having become everywhere present at His ascension, is actually present in the bread and the wine(consubstantiation.) Zwingli taught that the body of Christ is now only in heaven, and that the words,"This is my body" mean "This signifies my body." According to Zwingli the bread and the wine are only symbols of the body and blood of Christ and the Supper is only a memorial ceremony.

Conflicts arose between the Protestant and Catholic parties, culminating in the infamous defeat of the Protestants at Kappel (near Zurich) in 1531, where Zwingli also died. Zwingli's last words were: "They can kill the body - but not the soul!"

Bullinger, Heinrich  (1504-1575)

After the death of Ulrich Zwingli in 1531, Bullinger became pastor of the principal church in Zürich and a leader of the reformed party in Switzerland. He played an important part in compiling the first Helvetic Confession (1536), a creed based largely on Zwingli's theological views as distinct from Lutheran doctrine. In 1549 the Consensus Tigurinus, drawn up by Bullinger and Calvin, marked the departure of Swiss theology from Zwinglian to Calvinist theory. His later views were embodied in the second Helvetic Confession (1566), which was accepted in Switzerland, France, Scotland, and Hungary and became one of the most generally accepted confessions of the reformed churches. He wrote a life of Zwingli and edited his complete works.

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