The Protestant Reformation is one of the most important developments that has taken place in the entire history of the Christian church. It began early in the 16 th century with a series of actions taken by a German monk (and Biblical scholar) named Martin Luther who loved the Bible and came to believe that the church of his day was not faithful to the teaching of Scripture. After he tried privately (and unsuccessfully) to convince his superiors of the need for change in the church, Luther went public with his criticism by posting a series of 95 “theses” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517—an action which eventually resulted in his excommunication. In the years that followed Luther took many actions that departed dramatically from the established religious practice of the day—including the translation of the Bible into the native language of the people and rejection of the authority of the papacy—and the example he set was soon followed by people in many other parts of Europe. But even though Luther enjoyed great respect among those who were attracted to the cause of reforming the church, by no means all of them agreed with him in every respect. In particular there were disagreements about how far to go in departing from the teaching and practice of the Catholic church, and out of those disagreements came the diversity that has characterized Protestant Christianity ever since. As early as the 1520’s the proponents of church reform had split into factions, and it was not long before those factions turned into organized movements that were known by such labels as “Lutheran,” “Anabaptist,” and “Reformed.”
The Reformed movement, which is the source of Presbyterianism, arose out of the work of such figures as Ulrich Zwingli (a German-speaking Swiss priest), John Calvin (a French lawyer turned pastor who spent most of his life in the Swiss canton of Geneva), and John Knox (a Scottish priest)—all of whom were Luther’s contemporaries. The members of this movement, which spread throughout much of central Europe (east and west), soon got into the habit of characterizing their cause as “Reformed,” and they did so to indicate that they were prepared to go farther than most other “Protestants” (including Luther’s followers) in changing the church. In their minds, however, all the changes they had in mind—from the elimination of bishops and the involvement of lay people in the governance of the church to the removal of all “graven images” from places of worship—were the fruit of their desire to be faithful to Scripture and return the church to its original form.
The Reformation did not succeed everywhere; in some places it had little appeal. Indeed, in some countries (Spain, e.g.) its main effect was to spark a vigorous counter-movement among Catholics. But in the places where the ideas of the reformers caught on they typically brought profound changes in people’s lives—and not just in the religious realm. Everything from economic practices to the laws governing marriage was affected, and in the process a whole new way of life was born—one that was to play a major role in the creation of the modern world. Reformed churches exist today in more than 100 countries, and together they have more than 75 million members.
Larry Goleman, Director
Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington