The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther on October 31, 1517. He was a preacher and theology professor in Wittenberg, North Germany. Luther disagreed with the practice of selling indulgences, church-issued declarations of forgiveness of sins. To start a debate, he wrote 95 theses concerning this matter and published them on the door of the Wittenberg church. This was the beginning of a movement protesting various abuses in the Roman Catholic church organization.
Luther was also critical about other aspects of the church, such as the teaching about the Eucharist (transubstantiation), prayers to Mary and the saints, the view of the role of good works, and the use of Latin in the worship service. Eventually, the church wanted Luther to recant his critical writings. Luther refused and was excommunicated in 1521.
While hiding from the authorities, Luther wrote a German translation of the Bible.
Luther’s greatest insight, which is at the theological heart of the Reformation movement, is that believers are not saved by doing sufficiently many good works, but only by the grace of God. Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to believers, that is, God declares them righteous only because of Jesus’ obedience and works.
The Roman church gave its definitive answer to Luther and other Reformers at the Council of Trent, a series of meetings held in Northern Italy between 1545 and 1563.
In 1530, a group of German princes officially adopted Lutheranism as their states’ religion. Their statement of faith was the Augsburg Confession. After a number of internal debates, a further statement was issued in the Formula of Concord (1577). Eventually, a good part of Germany and the Scandinavian countries adopted Lutheranism as their tradition.
In North-America today, there are two large Lutheran denominations. The Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS) is more conservative and confessional. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) is more liberal and diverse.
A key focus in Lutheranism is on the Word of God as a great power. Lutherans tend to interpret the Bible in a plain sense, and have great respect for the confessions (which reflect the traditional Lutheran understanding of the Bible).
Lutherans also give a greater place to the sacraments than some other Protestants. They emphasis the real presence of Jesus’ physical body in the Eucharist. While denying the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, they say that Jesus Christ is physically present “in, under, and around” the elements of bread and wine. Finally, the Lutherans more than other Protestants make a sharp distinction between the “law” (which shows us how sinful we are) and the “gospel” (which proclaims salvation through Jesus).
The Radical Reformation
Luther and the other Reformers on were no rebels. They wanted to reform the church from the inside out, not to separate from it. They did not reject the institution of the church, but only its abuses. Others, however, did not think this was sufficient. They promoted more radical ideas and were more outspoken, sometimes even violent. This “Radical Reformation” consisted of several groups, each with its own focus. They had in common that they rejected the Roman church organization and most of the traditions of the church.
The Radical Reformation became known as Anabaptist, referring to the fact that they were “baptized again”. (The Anabaptist reject the validity of infant baptism.) Anabaptist groups opposed the idea of a state church, and attempted to admit only those who were genuine Christians (perfectionism).
The so-called Schleitheim confession (1527) summarizes the distinct Anabaptist views. Apart from adult-only baptism, they also emphasized separation from the world, opposed swearing of oaths, and refused to participate in military or political office (pacifism).
Today, we find three main groups of Anabaptists in North America: the Mennonites, the Amish and the Hutterites. In general, these are tightly-knit, isolated communities, who are known for their “simple life” in agrarian setting. The theological focus of these Anabaptist is on practical Christianity rather than doctrine. It can be summarized in three words:
- obedient following of Jesus Christ (Nachfolge)
- separation from the world (Absonderung)
- community with like-minded believers (Gemeinde)