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The History Of The Reformation And Why It’s Important

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The only alternative to the doctrine of predestination is the assertion of the reign of total chance, of meaninglessness and brute factuality.

—Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (1979)

 I did nothing; the Word did it all.

—Martin Luther, The Second Sermon (1522)

lutherJust meaningless names and dates.  That’s how many perceive the study of history.  And if there is no sovereign Creator, then the assessment is accurate.  And if that’s the case, all facts are “brute facts”… equally unimportant and irrelevant, except where pragmatism can turn them into a useful, if short-lived tool for deception or manipulation.

But from the standpoint of Holy Scripture, history is story of God’s redeeming work through Christ, the story of His kingdom realized in the affairs of men.  History is the story of Jesus’ reign as He saves His people, sanctifies His Church, and confounds His enemies.  It’s a very long story with countless intricate subplots and a cast of billions.  And yet, in retrospect, some of the broad outlines of that story come out clear.  One of the easiest chapters to read is that of the Reformation.  But before we begin, we need to turn back of few pages for context’s sake.

Johannes Guttenberg Invents The Printing Press, c. 1450

Printing presses of a sort existed before Guttenberg.  But they made use of carved blocks of text.  The process of creating them was long and costly.  In consequence, the price of books was exorbitant.  Printed books were rare, and few men or women could read.

Guttenberg created type that could be rearranged to spell new words, to create new pages, over and over again.  The time to set and print each new page was short.  The output of the new press was high—3600 pages a workday.  Books, tracts, and printed documents became affordable and, within a short time, commonplace.

The new printing press changed the face of European society.  The explosion of books led to an explosion of information and ideas.  Literacy and education, particularly for the emerging middle-class, became a necessity.  Children had to learn to read if, as adults, they were to participate in this new information age.  Primary school and even childhood as we now know it were forged from this need, especially as it was fired by the Reformation that soon followed.

The Fall Of Constantinople, 1453

Byzantium was the crown jewel of Christendom and the last, sparkling relic of the ancient Roman Empire.  It was a glorious fountain of art and literature, of trade and industry.  And it was the bulwark of Christendom against the Islamic East.

In May of 1453 it fell to Muslim armies of Mohammed the Conqueror.  The city was sacked; its citizens were massacred by the thousands.  A few ships escaped from a nearby port to bear the news to Genoa in Italy:  “Byzantium is fallen!” its mariners cried.  The city’s the church bells rang in sorrow and supplication to God.

How would our world respond if tomorrow London, Paris, and New York fell to Muslim insurgents?  The psychological impact alone would be devastating.  And what of the religious fall out?  By nightfall, the Internet, talk radio, and the religious broadcasting world would be caught up in eschatological hysteria.  “It’s the end of the world!”  That’s what it was like when Byzantium fell.  You see, eschatology matters.

Columbus Discovers The New World, 1492

Christopher Columbus was a native of Genoa.  He was also a student of Bible prophecy.  He knew that the prophecies of Isaiah spoke clearly of the conversion of the Gentile nations.  But with the end of the world at hand, God had to be running on a tight schedule.  The Muslims controlled the overland routes to the East, and the trip around Africa was long and perilous.  There had to be a short cut—and a way of ending the Muslim control of Jerusalem.  So Columbus wrote:

It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel his hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.  All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter ridiculing me.  There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because he comforted me with rays of marvelous inspiration from the Holy Scriptures. . . . For the execution of the journey to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps.  It is simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied.

The issue, of course, was not the shape of the Earth, but its size.  That the Earth was round was common knowledge, but Columbus believed its circumference was much smaller than most scholars believed.  He thought China was about where the eastern seaboard of North America actually is.  Columbus hoped to bring the gospel to the Indies; he also hoped to fund a final crusade into the Holy Land, one that would finally free Jerusalem and break the Muslim power.  Instead, he opened up a relatively New World to European Christianity.  We will return to this branch of the story in a later article.

Martin Luther Pens His 95 Theses In 1517

Meanwhile, as the Middle Ages drew to an end, the churches of Europe had generally come to rely on priests, images, ceremonies, and the works and relics of the saints to get men to God.  This approach to salvation was championed by the Church of Rome and her bishop, the Pope.  Among the trappings of this sacerdotal theology was the practice of selling indulgences, papal dispensations that supposedly shortened a soul’s stay in Purgatory.  When a Rome-approved salesman, Johann Tetzel, began hawking these indulgences in Germany, a local professor and pastor responded with a rousing critique summed up in ninety-five theses.

And on October 31st, 1517, the evening that led into All Saints’ Day, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  These were propositions for scholarly debate, all written in Latin, but with the aid of the new printing press, they became a spark that ignited a revolt against papal authority.  They also marked the beginning of the more visible phase of an already growing movement for spiritual and moral reform within the Church in Europe.

Luther soon came to understand that the Bible teaches justification by faith alone—that man is made right with God, not by his own works, but through faith in Christ and His finished work on the cross.  This understanding of salvation challenged the medieval concept of the Church and Empire as mediating institutions.  Instead, it emphasized the priesthood of the common believer, and it put a heavy emphasis on reading, studying, and preaching the Bible.

The Reformation kept the new printing presses busy.  Luther’s writings circulated throughout Europe.  Meanwhile, Ulrich Zwingli was already at work in Zurich, and soon John Calvin would take the pulpit in Geneva.

John Calvin Comes To Geneva, 1536

Calvin was drafted into Christ’s service by Guillaume Farel, a Genevan pastor.  Geneva needed theological order and direction:  Farel believed Calvin could provide it.  Calvin served as pastor to the city for some twenty-five years.  He preached and lectured and administered the sacraments.  He never held civil office and was often at odds with the civil authorities on matters of church polity.  On one occasion, he and Farel were banished from the city, and Calvin returned only after the city council, Farel, and others begged him to do so.

As Luther was the master of the tract, John Calvin was the master of the lengthy book.  Calvin wrote the first systematic defense of Reformation doctrine, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), and provided extensive biblical support for that system with commentaries on most books of the Bible and with many volumes of lectures and expository sermons.  Calvin’s writings emphasized the glory of God as the chief end of man and taught justification by faith in the context of a covenant theology that embraced all of life as the proper arena for the kingdom of God.

Calvin’s influence spread throughout Europe and across the Channel to Britain.  The Scots Presbyterians and the English Puritans were among his spiritual heirs.  So were the believers who settled England’s American colonies.

Conclusion

The Reformation wasn’t a golden age.  The battle for truth was intense, and even among the Reformers, theological unity proved allusive.  Ultimately, those who favored the Reformation and those who remained loyal to Rome soon found themselves locked in religious and political conflict.  Many times that conflict broke out into persecution and open war.  The nations of Europe divided in terms of religious faith.  Many of the children of the Reformation looked westward for refuge and an opportunity for a better life.

For Further Reading:

Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979).

Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York:  Vintage Books, 1994).

George Grant, The Last Crusader:  The Untold Story of Christopher Columbus (Wheaton, IL:  Crossways, 1992).

Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Old Tappan, NJ:  Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977).

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Shall We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Old Tappan, NJ:  Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976.)

Otto Scott, The Great Christian Revolution, How Christianity Transformed the World (Windsor, NY:  The Reformer Library, 1994).

About Bill Heid

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