The Protestant Reformation was a major event in European history and had long-lasting effects on the history of Christianity as a religion. It began at the start of the 16th century in Europe in the midst of the Renaissance. In order to understand the significance of the Protestant Reformation it’s first important to have knowledge of the history of the Renaissance and Christianity itself.
Christianity first emerged from Judaism in the Middle East in the mid-1st century. It began in the century after the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom the religion is based around. In fact, Christianity is centered on the teachings and life of Christ. Our understanding of the life of Christ today comes from the accounts in the Gospels. These were written by four of the twelve disciples, which were the people who followed Jesus and helped to spread his teachings. These twelve disciples believed him to be what is referred to in Christian ideology as a Messiah, or the chosen prophet talked about in the Old Testament teachings. In the Gospel we learn that Jesus taught people during his life and built a considerable following among the poorest. As part of his teachings, Jesus taught his followers to reject sin and instead follow the code passed down in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount was a series of teachings on morals found in the Gospel of Matthew. The purpose of Jesus’s teachings was in preparation for Judgement Day when God was said to reward the righteous and condemn the sinners. These teachings and writings later were solidified into a book known today as the Holy Bible. Christ’s following caused anger among some people at the time and ultimately led to his death. The Romans, under pressure from local religious leaders, arrested him and crucified him around 30 CE.
The Roman Catholic Church (Catholicism) developed out of early Christianity and established itself as the main religion in Europe and sections of the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages. At the time, Catholicism was the only denomination of the religion and was generally known simply as Christianity. As a result, most Christians of the time period believed in several similar aspects of faith. Christian faith and belief centers on a few main factors, known as creeds. A creed is best defined as a formal statement of belief. The most widely held creed in Christianity is the Apostle’s Creed (as well as the Nicene Creed) which dates from the 4th century. The Apostle’s Creed (and Christian faith) contains several different points but there are three main one’s that are generally universally held by Christians. First, the Apostle’s Creed stated belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Trinity). Second, it stated belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Third, it stated belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ and Judgement Day.
The Renaissance in Europe began in the 14th century and it had a profound impact on Christianity at the time. A major feature of the Renaissance was the introduction of Renaissance Humanism. In general, Renaissance Humanism was the study of ancient Greek and Roman texts with the goal of promoting new norms and values in society. These norms and views varied from those at the time because they focused less heavily on a religious worldview. Instead, Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch used ancient texts to promote a worldview based on logic and reason. This was a major challenge to the Catholic Church and ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.
The Protest Reformation began at the start of the 16th century. Historians consider it have started with the publication of Martin Luther’s ‘Ninety-five Theses’ in 1517. Martin Luther (who lived from 1483 to 1546) was a German professor and monk. In his work ‘Ninety-five Theses’, Luther challenged several different teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. For instance, he argued against the notion that salvation was gained through good deeds and instead suggested that it could be attained simply through belief in Jesus Christ. As well, he argued that the scriptures themselves were the only true form of teachings and any other directives from the Catholic Church were not necessarily in line with Christianity. Furthermore, he translated the Bible into his native language of German which allowed many more people to access it and understand it for themselves. These ideas resonated with many Europeans as their worldview had been altered due to the development of humanism and the overall Renaissance. Ultimately, his ideas clashed with those of the Catholic Church and then Pope Leo X. In fact, he was excommunicated from the Church and was forced into hiding. Regardless, his actions inspired others to further the cause of reforming the Church, including: John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli.
Huldrych Zwingli, who lived from 1484 to 1531 helped advance the Reformation in his native Switzerland. As a student, he was attended both the University of Basel, which was a scholarly center for Renaissance Humanism at the time. As well, he was also inspired by the writings of Erasmus, who was a Dutch humanist. Zwingli became a pastor in 1519 and began preaching about reforming the Catholic Church. For example, he was critical of several practices within the Church at the time and began introducing new traditions. His work advanced the Reformation throughout Switzerland and many of his practices live on still today.
John Calvin was a French theologian and pastor who lived from 1509 to 1564. He was a central figure in the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland and developed a system of Christian theology referred to as Calvinism. Calvin was originally trained as a lawyer in the humanist movement of the Renaissance but began to challenge the Catholic Church in 1530 when he moved from France to Switzerland. The essential ideas of Calvin (and Calvinism) were that Christian belief and traditions should only focus on what is written in the Holy Bible. He believed that Christians should follow a strict moral code but did not agree with he Catholic Church dictating aspects of Christian faith to people. Rather, he believed that the words in the Bible were the only true authority. In the end, he helped advance the Protestant Reformation throughout Europe.
Another example of a country that underwent the Protestant Movement was England. Occurring in the 16th century, the English reformation saw the Church of England break away from the Catholic Church in Rome. At the time, England was commanded by monarch Henry VIII. Several factors led to England’s break away from the Catholic Church, including: the overall Reformation Movement in the rest of Europe, the development of the printing press, and the desires of Henry VIII. For instance, by breaking away from the Catholic Church, Henry VIII was able to command more authority within England since he no longer had to deal with the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Furthermore, Henry VII wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He required the Catholic Church to do this for him, and due to inaction from the Pope and the Church, he oversaw England’s break from the Catholic Church. Later monarch’s continued the trend and the Church of England became a central factor in the Protestant Reformation.
As a result, the Protest Reformation took hold and a major divide occurred in Christianity. Those that remained focused on the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Pope in Rome were Catholics while those that practiced Christianity in a different church that did not follow the authority of the Pope were Protestants. It became known as the Protest Reformation due to the former's ‘protesting’ for change within the Church.
In more modern times, Christianity has continued to spread around the world. For example, European explorers during the Age of Exploration took missionaries with them on voyages to Africa, the Americas and Asia. This resulted in a worldwide spread of Christian believers that continues to this day. For instance, there are currently 2.4 billion Christians on the planet, meaning that about one third of all people identify themselves as Christian. This makes it the largest religion on the planet today. Of the 2.4 billion total Christians in the world, approximately 1.1 billion of them are Catholic, with another 800 million identifying as Protestant. There is another 300 million or so that are other forms of Christianity such as Orthodox. In reality, Protestantism is not one single group and actually consists of several different denominations within itself, such as: Anglican, Baptists, Evangelical, Lutherans, Methodists, and more. This makes Protestantism a diverse ideology with each denomination sharing similar beliefs and practices but also differing on some.