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The Reformation in Europe

October 2017 | by Paul Wells

It is difficult today to grasp the psychic trauma caused by the Reformation in sixteenth century Europe. As well as a religious renewal, it had profound historical, social and cultural effects.

The Reformation’s benefits are largely ignored by our contemporaries, who are mesmerised by ‘latest is best’ ideology and technical progress, invariably traced back to humanism and the Enlightenment two centuries later.

While Roman Catholic interpretation of the Reformation often considers it to be a mistake and the first step on the slippery slope to the French Revolution (without Calvin there would have been no Voltaire!), recent secularisation theories tend to see it as the first stages of the deconstruction of society, and on the way to de-sacralising life and to greater human flourishing and sidelining religious authority.

We may agree or disagree with these interpretations, but they raise the question of what our own view of the Reformation is; and, sadly, that may be a rather simplistic one. For some evangelicals, the Reformation doesn’t seem to matter much, since the revivals of the eighteenth century or Pentecostal explosion of the twentieth century are the real deal.

Several alternative narratives exist. Was it all darkness before and all light after, as post tenebras lux (‘light after darkness’, used on coins in Geneva) affirms? Was it just the remarkable heroism of Luther and his 95 theses? Was it the stellar influence of outstanding men? Was it the golden age presented by those who treat it as a sort of ‘holy history’?

In the following, I will not rock the boat too much, but describe the sea where the boat was sailing and which our historical geography sometimes forgets.

Unexpected destination

Firstly, if we were able to put ourselves in the place of Luther and his allies of the first generation, we must realise that they did not know where they were sailing!

Their experience was of a united church under the pope, where everyone belonged to one church, with a fixed place in society; where the educated communicated in Latin; where a semblance of unity was created in the Holy Roman Empire, in spite of local customs and tensions; and where the Turks were perpetually at the door, giving a strong sense that the end times were near.

Luther could not have known what he was getting into, and he certainly had no idea in 1517 what a Reformed Christianity or church would look like. He acted on conscience, not like a politician calculating the effects. What he wanted was ‘Christ alone’, preaching the gospel and the freedom of faith.

The break became a rift later, after the Diet of Speyer that met in 1529 because of the Turkish danger in Hungary (when the word Protestant was first used), and with the Augsburg Confession presented to the Emperor Charles V in 1530 and the Catholic reply (Confutation).

The fault line divided Europe in a tectonic upheaval, unimaginable previously, which changed everything that was to follow. All this is difficult for us to take in today. We either take Protestant and Catholic for granted, or think, in a secular way, that the issues are of no consequence. But the Reformation was enormous.

Influences above and below

Secondly, we speak of the Reformation as something cut and dried, but it rumbled on for a long time, from Luther’s outburst until probably the mid-seventeenth century.

It set change in motion in a variety of places and promoted a plethora of ideas, including (of central importance) a return to the sources of Scripture. It was driven by the contribution of now well-known names, with their predecessors and followers: Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, Viret, Bucer, Cranmer and Latimer, followed by the Puritans.

It provoked the reaction of their enemies, the Anabaptists, who were for ‘true baptism’, and the opposition of the growing Jesuit movement and counter-Reformation, spearheaded by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The fissures became a fracture with the Wars of Religion, culminating in the catastrophic Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a defeat for European unity.

Such was the ‘public’ or magisterial Reformation. However, there was another Reformation, the popular movement. As one historian describes it: ‘The Reformation would not have happened if ordinary people had not convinced themselves that they were actors is a cosmic drama plotted by God: that in the Bible he had left them a record of his plans and directions as to how to carry them out.

‘Their revolution was not simply a search for personal salvation. They changed the way that their world worked, because they were convinced that this visible world was the least important part of the divine plan’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s house divided 1490-1700; Penguin Books, 2004; p.550).

People’s lives changed, because they came to see life as a calling lived before God, and to see it in the light of eternity. This made personal and social ethics important and led to what sociologists, such as Charles Taylor in A secular age, call the ‘modern moral order’.

Confessional movement

Thirdly, this popular Reformation, which alienated people from popes and the mass, created a diversity of places and ways in the worship and service of God and touched the whole of life.

The Reformers denounced the idolatry of false worship, and happily replaced it with biblical preaching. People identified themselves with confessions. The Reformation was above all a confessional movement, founded on Scripture as the primary authority and the availability of its message to all.

New Bible translations in the vernacular spurred the movement. The confessions of faith of the national churches became important. Some Reformed churches held to the ‘Three forms of unity’: the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563) showed the influence of both Wittenberg and Geneva. From 1577 the Lutherans had the Formula of Concord. To these confessional texts were added books of church order.

The five solas — Christ, Scripture, faith, grace and the glory of God alone — exemplified what is needed for salvation. The Reformers made popular instruction one of their goals. Luther said a Christian should know the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, and began the practice of question-and-answer catechisms for all.

Others followed his lead, encouraging Bible translation, psalm-singing and Bible study. In other words, the Reformation stood or fell on the basis of its teaching and the appeal of its ideas, freeing people from the hocus pocus — a pastiche on the Latin for, ‘This is my body’, in the mass of Catholic liturgy (John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Sermons (1694) suggests the phrase is a parody of transubstantiation).

In passing, is it an exaggeration to say that it would be a fine thing if evangelicals today were up to Luther’s three-text ideal? Would that not be better than the litany of the much-repeated latest worship ditty?

Holy Spirit

Fourthly, come the moment, came the men. They were prophets and sometimes exiles and martyrs. The outcome of their work was unexpected and a movement of astonishing diversity.

It seems to be correct, as it is fashionable at present, to talk of the ‘Reformations’ in the plural, since they happened spontaneously throughout Europe. This is important, as it points to something beyond the view of secular historians.

The Reformations, it is sometimes forgotten, were an amazing movement of the Holy Spirit, across national frontiers and social classes, from princes to ploughmen. In fact, the Reformations were, and remain, the major work of the Holy Spirit in renewal since apostolic times — and the apostolic model was the capital for the Reformers.

If the Reformers’ ideas were biblical, great, beautiful and mightily powerful, ideas alone cannot explain the remarkable way myriads were swept into the kingdom of God by regeneration and faith.

Calvin hinted at the relation of Word and Spirit in the early chapters of his Institutes (I.6,7). Even the inspired Word of God alone is not enough to open eyes of sinful human beings and change sinful cultures, without the internal work of the Holy Spirit.

Calvin’s later chapter on faith is preceded by a presentation of the secret work of the Spirit (III.1,2). The Spirit is the one who unites us with Christ, brings about faith in us, and through the truth of the inspired gospel illuminates and changes human minds. Without the seed of the Holy Spirit secretly implanted, there can be no fruit of faith (Herman Bavinck, Saved by grace: the Holy Spirit’s work in calling and regeneration; Reformation Heritage Books, 2008).

The success of the Reformation cannot be attributed to the fact that the Reformers were exceptional theologians and great communicators, or that they were tuned in to the needs of their time. The fruit of the Reformation can only be the result of the immediate, invisible work of the Spirit, the result of the action of the sovereign will and power of God.

If renewed Reformation is our sincere desire today, it can only happen on those conditions, and not by better theology, more effective communication or evangelistic methods, purer churches, or awesome worship. Realisation of this might deliver us from the frustrations involved in thinking that, with better and more faithful preaching, success as we see it is inevitable.

Common grace  

Fifthly, the Reformation also spread like wildfire because of common grace: the availability of new printed means — Scripture and devotional books in the language of the people; the rise of national consciousness, and teaching in the vernacular.

The Reformers promoted Scripture translation, and their publications were at the cutting edge because they contained ideas dangerous for the status quo. If a monk in an obscure town could stand up to the pope, no one was safe.

The spread of this ‘subversive’ literature often followed the lines of trade and was in the hands of a rising, newly rich merchant class: up and down the Rhine from Heidelberg; down the Rhone from Geneva, and up from Lyon to Paris; along the Danube into Transylvania; from France to Scotland and across the Baltic. These routes were the internet of the sixteenth century.


Finally, the Reformation had earth-shaking and far-reaching political consequences. Europe became broadly fractured between the Protestant north and Catholic south.

The Reformation was put down with ferocity in inquisitional Spain, in Italy with papal dominance, and in France with the slow strangulation of the Huguenots by the French monarchy. In Hungary, Protestants fared better under Islamic rule than in Catholic areas, where elimination was the order of the day.

This north/south divide had lasting consequences. The home of Protestant refugees in North America was to become the major world power in the twentieth century, whereas South America lagged behind under Spanish and Portuguese rule.

Economic liberalism and scientific progress strongly influenced the north, whereas revolution and communism found seed beds in the countries of the south and the former Orthodox Tsarist empire. But all that is another story.

The Reformation signals that the triune God did it. He did it in the past and he can do it again in the future — when, where and how he wishes — before the Lord Jesus returns in glory. Perhaps it will not be in Europe, but somewhere else; maybe in the place we least expect it!

Paul Wells is editor-in-chief of Unio cum Christo ( and lives in Liverpool

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