Gregory Brown
513 Agnes Arnold Hall
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-3004


The religious revolution that took place in the Western church in the 16th century; its greatest leaders were Martin Luther and John Calvin. Having far-reaching political, economic, and social effects, the Reformation became the basis for the founding of Protestantism, one of the three major branches of Christianity.

The world of the late medieval Catholic Church from which the 16th-century reformers emerged was a complex one. Over the centuries, the church, particularly in the office of the papacy, had become deeply involved in the political life of western Europe. The resulting intrigues and political manipulations, combined with the church's increasing power and wealth, contributed to the bankrupting of the church as a spiritual force. Abuses such as the sale of indulgences (or spiritual privileges) and relics and the corruption of the clergy exploited the pious and further undermined the church's spiritual authority.

The Reformation of the 16th century was not unprecedented. Reformers within the medieval church such as St. Francis, Peter Waldo, Jan Hus, and John Wycliffe addressed abuses in the life of the church in the centuries before 1517. In the 16th century, Erasmus of Rotterdam, a great Humanist scholar, was the chief proponent of liberal Catholic reform that attacked moral abuses and popular superstitions in the church and urged the imitation of Christ, the supreme teacher. These movements reveal an ongoing concern for reform within the church in the years before Luther is said to have posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg, on Oct. 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints' Day—the traditional date for the beginning of the Reformation.1

Martin Luther claimed that what distinguished him from previous reformers was that while they attacked corruption in the life of the church, he went to the theological root of the problem—the perversion of the church's doctrine of redemption and grace. Luther, a pastor and professor at the University of Wittenberg, deplored the entanglement of God's free gift of grace in a complex system of indulgences and good works. In his Ninety-five Theses, he attacked the indulgence system, insisting that the pope had no authority over purgatory and that the doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the gospel. Here lay the key to Luther's concerns for the ethical and theological reform of the church: Scripture alone is authoritative (sola sciptura) and justification is by faith (sola fide), not by works. While he did not intend to break with the Catholic Church, a confrontation with the papacy was not long in coming. In 1521, Luther was tried before the Imperial Diet of Worms and was eventually excommunicated; what began as an internal reform movement had become a fracture in western Christendom.

The Reformation movement within Germany diversified almost immediately, and other reform movements arose independently of Luther. Huldrych Zwingli built a Christian theocracy in Zürich in which church and state joined for the service of God. Zwingli agreed with Luther in the centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith, but he espoused a much more radical understanding of the Eucharist. Luther had rejected the Catholic Church's doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the bread and wine in the Eucharist became the actual body and blood of Christ. According to Luther's doctrine of consubstantiation, the body of Christ was physically present in the elements because Christ is present everywhere, but Luther was not willing to go as far as Zwingli, who claimed that the Eucharist was simply a memorial of the death of Christ and a declaration of faith by the recipients.

From the group surrounding Zwingli emerged those more radical than himself. These Radical Reformers, part of the so-called left wing of the Reformation, insisted that the principle of scriptural authority be applied without compromise. Unwilling to accept what they considered violation of biblical teachings, they broke with Zwingli over the issue of infant baptism, thereby receiving the nickname “Anabaptists? on the grounds that they rebaptized adults who had been baptized as children. The Swiss Anabaptists sought to follow the example of Jesus found in the gospels. They refused to swear oaths or bear arms, taught the strict separation of church and state, and insisted on the visible church of adult believers—distinguished from the world by its disciplined, regenerated life.

Another important form of Protestantism (as those protesting against Rome were designated by the Diet of Speyer in 1529) is Calvinism, named for John Calvin, a French lawyer who fled France after his conversion to the Protestant cause. In Basel, Calvin brought out the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, the first extensive, systematic, theological treatise of the new reform movement. Calvin agreed with Luther's teaching on justification by faith. However, he found a more positive place for law within the Christian community than Luther did in his concern to distinguish sharply between law and gospel. In Geneva, Calvin was able to experiment with his ideal of a disciplined community of the elect. Under Calvin's forceful leadership, church and state were united for the “glory of God.?

The Reformation spread to other European countries over the course of the 16th century. By mid-century, Lutheranism dominated northern Europe. Eastern Europe offered a seedbed for even more radical varieties of Protestantism, because kings were weak, nobles strong, and cities few, and because religious pluralism had long existed. Spain and Italy were to be the great centres of the Counter-Reformation, and Protestantism never gained a strong foothold there.

In England the Reformation's roots were primarily political rather than religious. Henry VIII, incensed by Pope Clement VII's refusal to grant him a divorce, repudiated papal authority and in 1534 established the Anglican Church with the king as the supreme head. In spite of its political implications, Henry's reorganization of the church permitted the beginning of religious reform in England, which included the preparation of a liturgy in English, The Book of Common Prayer. In Scotland, John Knox, who spent time in Geneva and was greatly influenced by John Calvin, led the establishment of Presbyterianism, which made possible the eventual union of Scotland with England.

Copyright © 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


   1Luther was long believed to have posted the theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, but the historicity of this event has been questioned. The issue is discussed at length in Erwin Iserloh's Luther zwischen Reform und Reformation (1966; published in English [1968] as The Theses Were Not Posted). Iserloh indicates that the first known reference to the story was made by Philipp Melanchthon in 1546 and that Luther never mentioned the posting of his theses on the church door. He suggests that, according to the best historical evidence, Luther wrote to the bishops on Oct. 31, 1517, did not receive an answer, and then circulated the theses among friends and learned acquaintances.


  • Encylopedia Britannica 2002, Expanded Edition DVD