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A Brief Look into the Protestant Reformation

Updated on August 12, 2016
Alyssa Nichol profile image

Alyssa has studied psychology, philosophy, religion, and the arts. She loves sharing her thoughts, ideas, and papers with the world.


As Humanism and the Renaissance movement took hold of Europe, a tumultuous war was about to happen within the realm of religion. At this point in history, the Catholic Church dominated life and the beliefs of Europeans. However, the Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism of the fourteenth century saw corruption changes, doctrinal issues, and raised questions concerning papal authority by heretical groups. Likewise, the radical reshaping of Western society and culture combined with a new sense of yearning by human beings helped to break up the religious unity of Europe. It was well known that many members of the clergy were leading less than exemplary lives, especially within the walls of the monasteries. Anti-clericalism was on the rise as writers began to describe clerical scandals and the general public was overtaken by the latest gossip of the priest’s sins. Martin Luther and John Calvin led the way for Protestant Reformation, raising questions of age-old practices, pointing out the hypocrisy of the Church, and creating new forms of religious belief and worship based on their own, individual studies of the Bible.

Martin Luther spoke out against the Church and hoped to reopen debate on the selling of indulgences; which were pardons, granted by a pope that limited the temporal punishments attributed to individual sins. In his piece, Ninety-Five Theses, Luther questioned the legitimacy of indulgences, the sacraments of confession and penance, and the authority of the pope. Nailing the work on the doors of the Wittenburg Castle Church marked the beginning of a massive movement. Luther’s extensive study of scripture led him to the argument that Christianity was a fundamental phenomenon of the inner world of human beings and had little to nothing to do with the outer world. He believed in “justification by faith alone,” meaning that salvation is achieved by a person’s faith; it is not attainable from any outward source. This was a new, radical idea that removed power from the papacy and the Church.

In 1520 Luther published five books among many smaller works that brought the ire of Rome and local church officials in Germany. In June of that year a Papal bull was issued decrying Luther’s works and in April of the following year he was called to the Diet of Worms under the authority of a young Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, to recant his contrarian views. Luther’s heroic stand on the authority of the Bible over the church and tradition is more remarkable when you consider the secular powers against whom he stood. Charles V controlled more European territory than any ruler since Charlemagne, and had the authority of Rome behind him. Without regard for his own safety, Luther stood his ground and declared, ‘Unless I am convicted by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scripture I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.’

The importance of this event is perhaps more symbolic than effective in its long-term impact on Protestantism. But its symbolism is important and far-reaching when you consider part of the official response by the Diet. ‘But if it were granted that whoever contradicts the councils and the common understanding the church must be overcome by Scripture passages, we will have nothing in Christianity that is certain or decided.’ In uttering these words, Johann Eck could not have known how prescient they were. This was Christianity’s dangerous idea - The Bible could and should be interpreted by all people.

Luther’s legacy included choosing his own version of the Bible, accepting the Old Testament and the New Testament that still holds true in today’s Protestant religions; Advocating for a life lived in moderation; affirming the dominant role of men and the subservient role of women; and altering education. Supporters of Luther set up schools and universities, replacing the Catholic Institutions, and financed by taxes, furnishing the belief that church and state should work together. Luther inadvertently created a belief that, instead of causing reform, influenced the creation of a new church, future religions, debates, and modern society.

John Calvin also left a lasting impression. Like Martin Luther, Calvin believed that the Bible was the ultimate religious authority. However, Calvin had different ideas about the nature of God, the relationship between church and state, and morality. Calvin’s radical ideas became known as Calvinism - an overwhelming belief in predestination; an all-powerful God assigned mankind, at birth, for either heaven or hell. He contended that no one can know for sure if they will be saved, but that immoral people will not be saved and good people would be. Those who are saved are ‘living saints’ and their salvation is not contingent on anything they do, or indeed on giving their hearts or lives to Jesus…. the saints will be those who pray, attend divine service, work hard, who are honest, thrifty and generous of spirit. Calvin made charity and relief of poverty an essential sign of being counted among the saints. Calvin did not argue that all good people are saved, but he argued that morality and piety are divine duties that do no harm.

Calvin’s ideas helped the Swiss and the French make their own reformation movements. He was also asked to help reform Geneva’s doctrines. He ended up imposing a social order that citizens felt was good for them and their children. He also introduced a concept, the "calling." Some men and women seemed ill-fitted for life on earth. They were avaricious, slothful, amoral. However, there were others who seemed to work happily in their lifetime, accomplishing much and in the right spirit. In other words, they had been "called" to do a certain thing here on earth. Waking up early, working, being thrifty, sober, and abstaining from frivolity results in an unintended consequence: the acquisition of wealth, of which Calvin called the ‘correct spirit;’ This is known today as the Protestant Work Ethic. Calvin’s teachings helped influence the thought of capitalism and justify accumulation of wealth. Success symbolizes God’s approval, whereas poverty is a sign of God’s disfavor.

Both Martin Luther and John Calvin helped spur the Protestant Reformation all over the world. They spoke out against the corruption that had befallen the Catholic Church, in the hope of new debates and the clergy renouncing their ways and reforming. Instead, Luther and Calvin inspired new religious beliefs; their ideas live on and continue to have an impact on our modern world.


"Calvin, John." Info:Main Page - New World Encyclopedia. Web. 09 July 2011. <>.

Hooker, Richard. "Martin Luther." Washington State University - Pullman, Washington. Web. 09 July 2011. <>.

Kreis, Steven. "Lecture 3: The Protestant Reformation." The History Guide -- Main. Web. 09 July 2011. <>.

Matthews, Roy T., F.DeWitt Platt, and Thomas F.X. Noble. The Western Humanities. 7th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2011. Print.

Walsh, Daniel. "Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation | The Theology Pilgrim." The Theology Pilgrim | If Your Theology Doesn't Shape You, Then You Haven't Understood It. -Joshua Harris. 14 June 2011. Web. 09 July 2011. <>.


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