12: The Protestant Reformation


I. The Desire for Reformation

1521 Indulgence

Key Terms

  • indulgences
  • Protestant
  • Reformation

Johann Tetzel, Dominican Monk
and Indulgence Salesman

Won’t you part with even a farthing to buy this letter? it won’t bring you money but rather a divine and immortal soul, whole and secure in the kingdom of heaven.

  • Catholicism not responding to the crises of plague, famine, and war
  • Decadence of the pope begins to erode trust in his leadership
  • Dogmatic beliefs difficult to justify in the face of Church corruption
  • Indulgences: sins are absolved by giving money to the Church
    • The sale of Indulgences came about to fund the renovations of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, backed by Pope Leo X
    • Monks sold Indulgences, a piece of paper that “bought” one’s way out of Purgatory into heaven, or at least diminished one’s time in Purgatory
    • Letter could be purchased for self, family, anyone


II. Early Reformers

  • A. John Wycliffe (d. 1384)
    • The “Morning Star” of the Reformation
    • Early opponent of papal authority and Church corruption
    • Translates part of the Bible into English (a capital offense)
    • Opposed monasticism
    • Posthumously convicted of heresy

  • B. Jan Huss (1369-1415)
    • Czech Catholic priest
    • Excommunicated by Pope Alexander V
    • Burned alive for heresy

  • C. Erasmus (1466-1536)
    • Dutch Renaissance Humanist and devout Catholic
    • Objected to indulgences
    • Wrote satire about the pope not entering heaven in 1514
    • Compiled the foundational “Textus Receptus” version of the Bible, 1516

III. The Reformation and Luther

Romans 1:17
quoting Habakuk 2:4

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith”

  • A. The Road to Wittenberg
    • Became a monk in 1505 after a stormy dedication
    • Sent to Wittenberg by the Augustinian monastery in 1511

  • B. Luther, the Lecturer
    • Unconventional
    • Avoided non-scripturally based teachings--medieval commentaries, Aristotle, salvation ‘contracts’
    • 1513 ordered a batch of psalters with no commentary, just blank spaces for his students to make their own notes

  • C. Luther on Indulgences
    • Luther proposes indulgences be debated in a document he sends to his archbishop and nails to the church door
    • These are the 95 Theses, a call for honest discussion of what Luther considers an immoral abuse of power
    • Church leaders argued Luther should be obedient to the Church
      • Advocated the infallibility of Church authority
    • When Luther’s behavior did not change, he was excommunicated in 1520
      • Luther burned the bull of excommunication publicly with the people cheering him on
    • Luther reasoned that if the Pope was telling him that he was wrong, the Pope must be an enemy of God

No. 45 of Luther’s 95 Theses

Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.


  • D. Luther, the Writer
    • After his excommunication, Luther wrote to the German people
      • Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation - condemned the Pope as the antichrist and the church as an abomination
      • The Babylonian Captivity of the Church - argued in Latin to the clergy themselves that the sacraments had been perverted
      • The Freedom of a Christian - addressed the paradoxical responsibilities of a Christian who is both free and servant
    • The Church’s next move was to call in the civil authorities
      • Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor called Luther to a formal hearing
      • At the hearing, 1521, Luther confessed to authoring the treatises
      • When asked if he would recant, Luther refused, stating he could not add strength to tyranny
      • The Emperor honored Luther’s safe conduct from the hearing but, still in danger, Luther spent years in protected areas, translating the Bible into German and writing hymns


IV. Calvinism

  • Took place in Switzerland and Britain
  • Key person: John Calvin
  • Emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God and depravity of humans
  • Predestination of all humanity
  • Swiss movement brought to Scotland by John Knox (Presbyterians)


Henry VIII
1532 Speech to Parliament

We thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects, yea, and scarce our subjects: for all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the Pope, clean contrary to the oath that they make to us, so that they seem to be his subjects, and not ours.

V. Anglicanism, or the Church of England

  • Key Person: Henry VIII
  • Middle Path (“via media”) between Protestantism and Catholicism
  • Book of Common Prayer and King James Bible
  • Later branches include the Puritans and the Methodists
  • After 1776, Anglicans in America became known as the Episcopalians
  • Baptists were shaped by the Anabaptists, the English Reformation, Puritanism, and British colonialism


VI. The Catholic Response

  • Council of Trent 1545-1563 to affirm Catholic traditions
  • Formed the Jesuits, a traveling monastic order
  • Affirmed the seven sacraments
  • Launched the Counter Reformation
    • Saught to correct corrupt practices
    • Repressed Protestantism through warfare
    • Promoted church art, giving rise to Baroque Art in Europe


LINK to a map showing the religious breakdown of Europe in the 1600s