Martin Luther – Celebrating 500 Years Since the Beginning of the Reformation Part 4

by | Oct 30, 2017 | Articles, Luther 500

In the fourth and final part of his series Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson gives a broad overview of what we mean when we use the term Reformation.

Alister McGrath in his excellent book Reformation Thought: an Introduction explains that when we talk about the Reformation we are usually thinking of four components:

1 Lutheranism
2 The Reformed Church (Calvinism)
3 The Radical Reformation (Anabaptism)
4 The Counter-Reformation (Catholic Reformation)


In our last three Revival Times articles we have chiefly been focusing on Luther. The direct impact of his reforming programme chiefly affected churches in the regions of Germany and Scandinavia. The Lutheran Reformation was rooted in Luther’s theology, notably the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther wrote his ideas in the language of the common German people and even translated the New Testament into the German language for the first time.

Luther attacked the false Catholic notion of a special priestly class, teaching instead that all Christians were equally able to access God through Christ by simple faith. This was known as the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Luther had never intended to break away from the Catholic Church but to reform it from within. When this was not possible, the Lutheran churches in Germany produced a statement of faith called the Augsburg Confession in 1530, stating that “the faith as confessed by Luther and his followers is nothing new, but the true catholic faith, and that their churches represent the true catholic or universal church”. The Lutherans retained some of the liturgical practices of the Catholic Church with a special focus on the Lord’s Supper.

The Reformed Church

Unlike the Lutheran Reformation, the Reformed Church began in the Swiss Confederation and initially focused more on reforming the morals and worship life of the church rather than theological issues. They wanted church services and people’s daily lives to be patterned more on Bible than on Catholic traditions. This movement first centred on the Swiss cities of Zurich, Berne and Basle. Ulrich Zwingli was a major figure in the early years;

he was a very zealous figure in reforming church practice especially in Zurich. He failed to agree with Luther over the importance of Holy Communion and was seen as far too radical by the Lutherans.

The Reformed Church really found its feet as a coherent movement through the great John Calvin and his work in Geneva. His famous textbook The Institutes of The Christian Religion gathered many of the reforming truths recovered in Scripture and presented them in a simple way for people to study and teach. Pastors from all around Europe (many in forced exile) were trained at Geneva in theology and ministry, returning later to their own countries to spread the Reformed truths and practices. Out of this English Puritanism would arise that would also have a powerful influence on America. Also the Church of England was heavily influenced by Calvin’s theology, although not so much by his ecclesiology (doctrine of the church).

The Radical Reformation (Anabaptists)

Anabaptists (re-baptisers) were zealous reformers who were far too radical for Zwingli, Luther or Calvin who all opposed them. They disagreed with infant baptism teaching that only believers should be baptised on confession of their faith in Christ. The Anabaptists had an absolute commitment to sola scriptura (scripture alone) as the basis for all belief and practice. They didn’t want any compromise with Christian tradition but to order life and worship directly out of their understanding of the Bible. Many believed in the common ownership of property, pacifism, non-resistance, and a deep distrust of civil authority.

The Counter Reformation

Focusing on the famous Council of Trent (1545) the Roman Catholic Church countered the theology and practice of the ‘Protestant heretics’. Some of the abuses in the church were indeed addressed in practice if not in theology during this time, yet other doctrines such as salvation depending on sacraments and good works were strengthened and confirmed. Out of this Counter- Reformation new Catholic orders such as the zealous Jesuits were established to teach Catholic truth and to counter Protestantism across the world. ❖

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