CHURCH HISTORY:THE REFORMATION
The third period of church history is called “The Reformation.” We have ~studied the glorious, apostolic period from 33 A.D. to 100 A.D. This was followed by the terrible apostasy of the dark ages, extending from about 500 A.D. to about 1500 A.D. During this long period, true religion deteriorated and primitive Christianity fell apart. The Dark Ages was followed by another period of church history termed by historians as the Reformation period or the Protestant Reformation. It lasted from 1530 A.D. to about 1750 A.D. It was called the Reformation because during this time widespread efforts were made to reform or improve the Catholic church. Most everyone has heard of Martin Luther's conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, Catholics and Protestants have conflicting views on the significance of this famous period of church history. It was also called the period of Protestantism because the people during this time protested against the church of Rome for curtailing and restraining religious liberty. The name was first applied to the followers of Luther, but soon came to be applied to all who opposed Papal Rome. The first thing to be noted about this historical period is that the reformation in its true meaning was of very short duration. The word reformation means the act of reforming, improvement in form or character, and a change from worse to better. There was not continuous reformation and improvement for the entire 200 years of the Protestant Reformation. In the sense of betterment, improvement, and religious correction, true reformation 1asted only a few years. When applied to the entire period of 200 years, the term reformation is a misnomer. The truth of the matter is that true reformation lasted for only a few short years at the very beginning of the period. The good that was done at the beginning of the reformation soon ended, and things went from bad to worse. The religious situation improved as a result of the reformation, but with the passing of years the religious situation became very bad under Protestantism.
The reformation period began as the result of a conflict between Martin Luther and the Catholic church which was the dominant church during the dark ages. After obtaining his Master's degree from the University of Erfurt in Germany, Luther entered the Monastary of the Augustine Monks at Erfurt, Germany. He was appointed a priest in the Catholic Church and later became an instructor in philosophy at Wittenberg University in Germany. While Luther was zealously fulfilling his pastoral and professional duties in Wittenberg, he was suddenly met face to face with a religious problem which gave birth to the reformation period of chuch history. In 1517 A.D. St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome was being built. In order to raise money for the building of this cathedral, the Vatican instituted a general sale of indulgences. In 1517 Rome sent a Dominican monk named John Tetzel to sell indulgences in Germany. An indulgence was the permission given by the church to commit a sin with the promise beforehand that it would be forgiven. The sale of them had grown into a trade. The pardon of sins was offered in the market, as government bonds are now sold. The buyer purchased a pardon ticket which guaranteed to him a release from all the penalties of the sin named on it. An indulgence could be bought to commit adultery, steal, or to release a soul from purgatory. For every sin there was a set price. Mr. Tetzel claimed that he had saved more souls with his indulgences than Peter had with with his preaching.
It was claimed that godly sorrow, repentance, and atonement for sin were needless, for one who had bought an indulgence which would hold good equally for future sins, When Mr. Tetzel was preaching a few miles from Wittenberg, some of Luther's congregation came to him with these indulgences. Some had committed terrible sins, and Luther refused to absolve them without repentance. They refused to repent or cease from their sins, and pleaded their papal indulgences from Tetzel. Luther refused to honor the indulgences and demanded the people repent for what they had done. Luther took the Bible and stood against Mr. Tetzel and the entire Catholic church. He declared the doctrine of indulgences was wholly unknown in the New Testament. The events which ushered in the reformation were the actions of the clergy in making salvation a matter of merchandise. Luther wrote out ninety five propositions concerning the power of indulgences and without consulting the Bishops or Archbishop of the Wittenberg diocese, he nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg church building. He then challenged anyone to dispute the truth they affirmed. The dispute finally led to his excommunication. Luther had no idea of starting a new church. He was seeking only to bring about reform within the Roman Catholic church because of abuses which he believed were contrary to the scriptures. Luther's ideas caught fire all over Europe, and a new religious movement was born.
With the reformation, a principle came back into existence which had been lost for a thousand years. It was the principle that a Christian can interpret the Bible for himself. Luther's stand against indulgences, based on what the Bible says, led to a greater emphasis on the authoritativeness of the Bible. This "back to the Bible" movement was truly an improvement, and it was a reformation in the true sense of the word. Luther translated the New Testament into German so that common people could read it. The Bible was restored to the common people. The increased study of the Bible resulted in the formation of Protestant churches all over Europe. When the civil authorities in Germany tried to stop this new found liberty, the people protested. It was for this reason that they came to be called Protestants. Unfortunately, this "back to the Bible" movement did not last long; it soon degenerated into fighting factions among the Protestants.
The next thing to be remembered about the Reformation period is that it was the era of modern sects and the age of denominationalism and sectarianism. The reformation quickly degenerated into unscriptural denominationalism. During the time from 1500-1700 the Protestant churches had a great opportunity to return to the world original New Testament Christianity as it was before the apostasy of the dark ages. But instead of restoring primitive Christianity, they gave to the world a religious system consisting of hundreds of fragmentary divisions, sects, and warring factions. The primitive church of the apostolic period was non—demominational; the apostles presented one church to the world in the first century(Ephesians 4:4-6). Before the universe wasa created, God had intended there would be one religion and one church for all nations in the Christian age of the world. All nations were commanded to convert to the one religion revealed in the New Testament, and all nations that rejected the Christian religion will be shut out of heaven. Moreover people of all nations who accepted Christianity became members of the one church we read about in the New Testament. All should become Christians exactly in the way people became Christians in the first century, and worship God in the way first century Christians worshiped. The denominational, sectarian concept of the church was the chief mistake of the Protestant reformation. The reformation period was indeed an improvement over the dark ages, but it did not give back to the world primitive Christianity as we find it from 33 A.D. to 100 A.D. The reformation was a movement back toward primitive Christianity, but it failed to reproduce it.
The Protestants did not know how to use their new found liberty. The recovered principle that a Christian can study the Bible for himself did not mean that religious people could do and belileve whatever they wanted to in serving Christ. They made the mistake of thinking the individual conscience was the only authority. This led them into the error that every group was entitled to their own peculiar ideas, whether found in the Bible or not. There was a failure to recognize the authority of Christ and the authority of the New Testament. Although the Bible was given back to the people for the first time in a thousand years, they failed to use their freedom wisely. Instead of restoring the one
primitive church of the apostolic period, they established conflicting churches which flourished like wild flowers. As time went on, sects multiplied wherever there was freedom. It was this development which accounts for the numerous and different churches which make up the denominationnal world today. As a result people are confused as to whcih church they should be a member of. The apostolic church of the first century was not a sectarian deonominational church. It did not have a hundred different names. It was called the Chuch of Christ, the Church of God(Romans 16:16; I Corinthians l:2). There was but one church for all nations, and it wore the name of Christ and the name of God. However today, there are hundreds of conflicting churches, all wearing different names. All of the denominational churches in existence today have come from a few parent religious bodies which were formed during the reformation period. It will contribute much to our religious understanding to trace the development of the original denominations which rose during the reformation period between 1500 and 1750.
The first Protestant church to come out of the Reformation was the Lutheran church. After Luther's separation from the Roman Catholic church, he gained a large number of followers. After teaching his followers for many years, Luther died. As there was no man of equal stature to take his place, they rallied around his teachings and called themselves Lutherans after his name. This was the first example of calling the Lord's church after a man's name. This mistake was repeated by Protestant churches for the next 200 years. Martin Luther was the first man during the Reformation to teach the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. The New Testament does not teach this doctrine. This false opininated doctrine aose in the first century church, and the apostles and other writers condemned it. James, the earthly brother of Jesus, wrote these words to Christians, "But will you know O vain man that faith without works is dead?"(James 2:20.) He also said to Christians, "Puttting away all filthiness and overflowings of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word whichis able to save our souls"(James 1:21,22). Erring Christians need to save their souls by repentance and confession to God.. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone is a dead faith, says the New Testament. A faith that will not motivate a Christian to keep the commandments of Christ is a dead, worthless faith and can cause Christians to be lost. However this false doctrine has been adopted by most Protestant churches today. Faith that does not obey God and produce good works is a dead faith. The New Testament teaches salvation by faith which leads one to obey the commandments of Christ. The only saving faith is an obedient faith. The Lutheran church had its beginning about 1530 A.D.
The second major denominational church to come out of the reformation was the Presbyterian church. It was established about 1536 A.D. under the leadership of John Calvin who separated from the Catholic church while studying in the University of Paris. He taught the church should have a government like the primitive church had in the first century. He was the first reformer to suggest that the church should be organized according to the divine plan of church government authorized in the New testament. His emphasis on church organization and government is the origin of the term Presbyterian. The name comes from the word presbytery which means the Eldership. This was another example of calling the Lord's church after the name of men. The presbytery or eldership was composed of men who were the highest officers in the New Testament church. Calvin influenced the religious beliefs of the Protestant churches more than any other reformer. Churches who do not appoint Elders as the highest officers in the church are not scripturally organized. Most of the Protestant churches adopted his teachings. He wrongly taught that before the creation of the earth, God predestined or prechose all who would be saved and all who would be lost, and this number could not be increased or diminished. Salvation was not a matter of free choice. You were elected by God to be saved or be lost. In addition, he taught that Jesus died only for those whom God prechose to be saved. This was called the limited atonement. Furthermore, he taught total hereditary depravity. This meant everyone was born in sin and was depraved at birth. A direct operation on the mind by the Holy Spirit was necessary before one could even have faith. The New Testament does not teach these false opinionated ideas. The word of God does not teach predestination without free choice, the limited atonement, and hereditary depravity. However, most Protestant churches hold to this belief.
Another Protestant church produced by the reformation was the Church of England in about 1609 A.D. This church began over a marriage disagreement. King Henry the 8th wanted to divorce his wife and marry another woman. When the Pope of Rome refused permission, Henry caused the Church of England to secede from the Catholic church. Henry said, “I am the head of the Church of England.” From that day to this, the king or queen of England has been the head of the church in that country. The church of England holds to most all teachings of Roman Catholicism except the headship of the Pope over the church on earth. When our forefathers came to this country, many of them were members of the Church of England. In the war of independence, members of the Church of England in America were fighting against members of the church of England from Great Britain. Hence, in America the members of the Church of England changed the name of the church to the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal church and the Church of England are identical in their beliefs.
The Baptist church was another Protestant denomination which separated from the Church of England. It was established about 1611 A.D. by people who is disagreed with the Church of England over the mode of baptism. The Church of England practiced sprinkling for baptism as it did when associated with the Catholic church. But the Baptists believed in immersion as the only scriptural baptism, and this caused them to separate from the Church of England. The name Baptist comes from John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ or from the act of baptism itself. The Baptist church clings to Luther's false opionated doctrine of salvation by faith alone, as do many Protestant churches. The apostle John said to Christians, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins He is faithful and just forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness"(I John 1:8,9). This provess that at baptism, only past sins were forgiven and not any future sins after baptism. The Methodist church was established about 1729 A.D. by John Wesley, an outstanding religious reformer who disagreed with the Church of England. His followers came together to sing psalms, pray, visit the sick, and visit the prisons. Their strict methodical manner, punctuality, and their close attention to religious duties caused them to be called Methodists. New and different church names continued to increase based on the peculiarities of each denomination. They follow the Romana Catholic practice of spinkling for baptism.
The Congregational church was established in America in 1620 A.D. by the Puritans. They were called Puritans because they insisted on purifying the worship of the Church of England. The name Congregational came from their belief that each congregation was autonomous and self governing. In this they were correct. They believed each congregation could arrange its own affairs without any centralized organization above the local level. All other denominational churches in the world today have splintered off these first seven or eight original Protestant churches. There are now hundreds of denominational churches in the world.
The final observation on the reformation is that many of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church continue to be perpetuated by the Protestant churches. In forms of worship, doctrine, and ritual numerous changes were made by the Protestants. However, their close relationship to the Catholic church can be seen in the many doctrines which were carried over from the Church of Rome. In fact, many of the doctrines of the Roman church are perpetuated and taught by the Protestant churches. For example, such religious matters as sprinkling for baptism, clergy and laity, instrumental music, an earthly priesthood, annual religious holidays, infant damnation, ecclesiastical church organization, and many other things are found in Protestant churches. These are Catholic doctrines carried over and retained by the Protestants. The mother church of Rome continues to exercise a great influence over her daughters (Protestant churches).
In spite of the diversity in forms of worship and in church policy, in two respects there was perfect agreement between the Protestant churches and the Catholic church. There were two very prominent Catholic doctrines brought over into Protestantism. The first was the idea of a self—perpetuating clerical caste possessing legislative and judicial authority over the church. The second idea was the centralization under a human headship of administrative functions, instead of that local autonomy which prevailed in the congregations of apostolic times. The Protestants did not hesitate to use force to further their peculiar beliefs, as did Rome. To prevent the spread of Lutheranism, the Church of England instituted the “Bloody Six Articles” of Henry the 8th. A number of Lutherans were burned as heretics, and Catholics were executed who refused to recognize the reeligious authority of Henry the 8th. Protestant persecution continued in
England with the imprisonment of John Bunyon, a Puritan, for twelve years. It was this intolerant spirit that drove the Puritans to the inhospitable shores of America, where they might have the free privilege of worshiping God according to the dictates of their conscience.