The religious revolution, known as the Reformation, took place in the Western Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century; its greatest leaders were Martin Luther and John Calvin. Reformation had political, economic, and social effects, and it became the basis for the founding of Protestantism, one of the three major branches of Christianity.
Over the centuries, the Catholic Church, particularly the papacy, had become deeply involved in the political life of Western Europe. Intrigues and political manipulations, as well as the church’s increasing power and wealth, contributed to the church loosing credibility as a spiritual force. Abuses such as the sale of indulgences and relics and the corruption of the clergy exploiting the pious, undermined the church’s spiritual authority.
The Reformation of the 16th century has predecessors in the medieval church; St. Francis, Peter Waldo, Jan Hus, and John Wycliffe had already criticised abuses by the church. In the 16th century, Erasmus of Rotterdam, proposed a liberal Catholic reform that attacked moral abuses and popular superstitions in the church, and urged the imitation of Christ, the supreme teacher. Luther is said to have posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg, on Oct. 31, 1517, the traditional date for the beginning of the Reformation. Previous reformers attacked corruption in the church, but Luther went to the theological root of the problem, the perversion of the church’s doctrine of redemption and grace. In his Ninety-five Theses, he attacked the indulgence system and added that the doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the gospel. According to him, Scripture alone is authoritative (sola sciptura) and justification is by faith (sola fide), not by works. Luther rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as, for him, the body of Christ is physically present everywhere. He did not intend to break with the Catholic Church but a confrontation with the papacy came soon. In 1521, Luther was tried before the Imperial Diet of Worms and excommunicated creating a fracture in western Christendom. The Reformation movement within Germany soon diversified and other reform movements appeared. Huldrych Zwingli built a Christian theocracy in Zürich in which church and state joined for the service of God. Another important form of Protestantism is Calvinism, named for John Calvin. Calvin wrote the first edition of his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” in 1536, the first extensive, systematic, theological treatise of the new reform movement.
The Reformation spread to other European countries over the course of the 16th century. By mid-century, Lutheranism dominated northern Europe and Eastern Europe accepted even more radical varieties of Protestantism. Spain and Italy were to be the great centres of the Counter-Reformation and Protestantism never gained a strong foothold there. In England the Reformation’s roots were primarily political rather than religious. Henry VIII, refused a divorce by Pope Clement VII, repudiated papal authority and in 1534 established the Anglican Church with the king as the supreme head. This started the religious reform in England, which included the preparation of a liturgy in English, The Book of Common Prayer. In Scotland, John Knox, who was greatly influenced by John Calvin, established the Presbyterianism.
One of the great weaknesses of the Reformed Churches is the fact that they accepted the Bible more or less in the form and the content adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the 4th century. As already told before, a Council of Roman Catholic Bishops, convened to this effect, chose the books included in the Bible. Their decisions were not so much based on the quality of the writings as on their support of the views of these Literalist bishops. As a result the Books retained supported the Literalist view of Christianity, the power of the clergy and its sole authority to explain and understand the Catholic doctrine, the principle of salvation by faith only, and the act that its bishops had to be considered as heirs of St Peters.
The fact that the Reformers did not review the list of the books included in the New Testament is, in some way, strange. It can only be explained that the fact that, initially, most of them did not want to create separate churches, but only “reform” the Roman Catholic Church. When they did create separate churches they went along with the Bible as it was then and did not feel the need to change it.
As a result, the new approach proposed in this document is exactly the same for the members of the many Protestant Churches that it is for the Roman Catholics.