7: The Protestant Reformation
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The Protestant Reformation was the permanent split within the Catholic church that resulted in multiple competing denominations (versions, essentially) of Christian practice and belief. From the perspective of the Catholic hierarchy, these new denominations - lumped together under the category of "Protestant" - were nothing more or less than new heresies, sinful breaks with the correct, orthodox beliefs and practices of the Church. The difference between Protestant churches and earlier heretical movements was that the Church proved unable to stamp them out or re-assimilate them into mainstream Catholic practice. Thus, what began as a protest movement against corruption within the Church very quickly evolved into a number of widespread and increasingly militant branches of Christianity itself.
- 7.1: The Context of the Reformation
- Within the Church, there were widespread and persistent calls for reform to better address the needs of the laity and to better live up to the Church’s own moral standards. Numerous devout priests, monks, and nuns abhorred the corruption of their peers and superiors in the Church and called for change. Despite this reforming zeal within the Church and the growing popularity of lay movements outside of it, however, almost no one anticipated a permanent break from the Church’s hierarchy itself.
- 7.2: Indulgences
- The specific phenomenon that brought about the Protestant Reformation was the selling of indulgences by the Church. An indulgence was a certificate offered by the Church that offered the same spiritual power as the sacrament of confession and penance: to have one’s sins absolved. Each indulgence promised a certain amount of time that the individual would not have to spend in purgatory after death.
- 7.3: Lutheranism
- Martin Luther could not understand how anyone merited admittance to heaven no matter how many good work they carried out while alive - the very idea seemed petty and base compared to the awesome responsibility of living up to Christianity’s moral standards. Luther began to explore a possible answer to this quandary: the idea that salvation did not come from works, but from grace, the limitless love and forgiveness of God, which is achievable through faith alone. This sparked the Reformation.
- 7.4: Calvinism
- The most important Protestant denomination to emerge after the establishment of Lutheranism was Calvinism. Jean Calvin accepted Luther’s insistence on the role of faith in salvation, but he went further. If God was all-powerful and all-knowing, and he chose to extend his grace to some people but not to others, Calvin reasoned, it was folly to imagine that humans could somehow influence Him.
- 7.5: The English Reformation
- Whereas Lutheranism and Calvinism had both come about as protests against the perceived moral and doctrinal failings of the Catholic church, the English Reformation happened because of the selfish desires of king Henry VIII. In 1534, Henry issued the Acts of Supremacy and Succession, effectively separating England from the Catholic Church and founding in its stead the Church of England, which was almost identical to the Catholic Church in its doctrine and rituals.
- 7.6: The Effects of the Reformation
- By the late sixteenth century, the lines of division within western Christianity were permanently drawn. Christianity was (and remains, although the enmity between the different groups is much less pronounced in the modern era) divided.
Thumbnail: Martin Luther posting his 95 theses in 1517. (Public Domain; Ferdinand Pauwels).