32 The Reformation

The Reformation

a statue of a soldier holding a yellow object
Photo by Cody Otto on Unsplash

A Challenge to the Church in Rome

The Baroque style emerged at the end of the sixteenth century in western Europe, inspired primarily by the Protestant Reformation’s successful challenge to the spiritual and political power of the Church in Rome. This challenge was focused in part on the use of religious images. Many images were attacked or destroyed during this period, a phenomenon called iconoclasm.

The Protestant Reformation

Today there are many types of Protestant churches. For example, Baptist is currently the largest denomination in the United States, but there are many dozens more. How did this happen? Where did they all begin? At the beginning of the 16th century, there was only one church in Western Europe, what is now referred to as the Roman Catholic Church, under the leadership of the Pope in Rome. Prior to this time, the Roman Catholic Church was referred to simply as the Church.

The Church and the State

In the year 1500, the Church (what we now call the Roman Catholic Church) was very politically and spiritually powerful in Western Europe, but there were other political forces at work, too. There was the Holy Roman Empire (largely made up of German speaking regions ruled by princes, dukes and electors), the Italian city-states, England, as well as the increasingly unified nation states of France and Spain, among others. The power of the rulers of these areas had increased in the previous century, and many were anxious to take the opportunity offered by the Reformation to weaken the power of the office of the Pope and increase their own power in relation to the Church in Rome and other rulers.

For some time the church had been seen as an institution plagued by internal power struggles (at one point in the late 1300s and 1400s the church was ruled by three Popes simultaneously). Popes and Cardinals often lived more like Kings than spiritual leaders. Popes claimed temporal (political) as well as spiritual power. They commanded armies, made political alliances and enemies, and, sometimes, even waged war. Simony (the selling of church offices) and nepotism (favoritism based on family relationships) were rampant. Clearly, if the Pope was concentrating on these worldly issues, there wasn’t as much time left for caring for the souls of the faithful. The corruption of the Church was well known, and several attempts had been made to reform the Church (notably by John Wyclif and Jan Hus), but none of these efforts was successfully challenged Church practice until Martin Luther’s actions in the early 1500s.

Martin Luther

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, Bust in Three-Quarter View,
Luther, Bust in Three-Quarter View, 1520 (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Martin Luther was a German monk and Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther sparked the Reformation in 1517 by posting, at least according to tradition, his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. These theses were a list of statements that expressed Luther’s concerns about certain Church practice, largely the sale of indulgences, but they were based on Luther’s deeper concerns with church doctrine. Note that Protestant contains the word “protest,” and that reformation contains the word “reform. This was an effort, at least at first, to protest some practices of the Catholic Church and to reform that Church.


The sale of indulgences was a practice where the Church acknowledged a donation or other charitable work with a piece of paper (an indulgence), that certified that your soul would enter heaven more quickly by reducing your time in purgatory. If you committed no serious sins that guaranteed your place in hell, and you died before repenting and atoning for all of your sins, then your soul went to Purgatory, where you finished atoning for your sins before being allowed to enter heaven.

Pope Leo X had granted indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These indulgences were being sold by Johann Tetzel not far from Wittenberg, where Luther was Professor of Theology. Luther was gravely concerned about the way in which getting into heaven was connected with a financial transaction. But the sale of indulgences was not Luther’s only disagreement with the institution of the Church.

Faith Alone

Martin Luther was very devout and had experienced a spiritual crisis. He concluded that no matter how “good” he tried to be, no matter how he tried to stay away from sin, he still found himself having sinful thoughts. He was fearful that no matter how many good works he did, he could never do enough to earn his place in heaven (remember that, according to the Catholic Church, doing good works, for example commissioning works of art for the Church, helped one gain entrance to heaven). This was a profound recognition of the inescapable sinfulness of the human condition. Luther found a way out of this problem when he read St. Paul, who wrote “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Luther understood this to mean that those who go to heaven (the just) will get there by faith alone, not by doing good works. In other words, God’s grace is something freely given to human beings, not something we can earn. For the Catholic Church on the other hand, human beings, through good works, had some control in their salvation.

John Calvin

Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg Bible (British Museum)

After the birth of Lutheranism, other denominations rose. The most significant of these was Calvinism. Jean Calvin, a French lawyer exiled for his sympathy with Protestantism, settled in Geneva, Switzerland in 1536. Calvin was a generation younger than Luther, and therefore was born into a world in which religious unity had already been fragmented; in that sense, the fact that he had Protestant views is not as surprising as Luther’s break with the Church had been. In Geneva, Calvin began work on Christian theology and soon formed close ties with the city council. The result of his work was Calvinism, a distinct Protestant denomination that differed in many ways from Lutheranism.

Calvin accepted Luther’s insistence on the role of faith in salvation, but he went further. If God was all-powerful and all-knowing, and he chose to extend his grace to some people but not to others, Calvin reasoned, it was unlikely to imagine that humans could somehow influence Him. Not only was the Catholic insistence on good works wrong, the very idea of free will in the face of the divine intelligence could not be correct. Calvin noted that only some parishioners in church services seemed to be able to grasp the importance and complexities of scripture, whereas most were indifferent or ignorant. He concluded that God, who transcended both time and space, chose some people as the “elect,” those who will be saved, before they are even born. Free will is merely an illusion born of human ignorance, since the fate of a person’s soul was determined before time itself began. This doctrine is called “predestination,” and while the idea of the absence of free will and predetermined salvation may seem absurd at first sight, in fact it was simply the logical extension of the very concept of divine omnipotence according to Calvin.

Scripture Alone

Luther and other reformers turned to the Bible, as opposed to the teachings of the Church, as the only reliable source of instruction.

The invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century by Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany together with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular meant that it was possible for those that could read to learn directly from the Bible without having to rely on a priest or other church officials. Before this time, the Bible was available in Latin, the ancient language of Rome spoken chiefly by the clergy. Before the printing press, books were handmade and extremely expensive. The invention of the printing press and the translation of the bible into the vernacular meant that for the first time in history, the Bible was available to those outside of the Church.

The Counter-Reformation

The Church initially ignored Martin Luther, but Luther’s ideas and variations of them, including Calvinism quickly spread throughout Europe. Luther was asked to recant (to disavow) his writings at the Diet of Worms (an unfortunate name for a council held by the Holy Roman Emperor in the German city of Worms). When Luther refused, he was excommunicated. The Church’s response to the threat from Luther and others during this period is called the Counter-Reformation (“counter” meaning against).

The Council of Trent

In 1545 the Church opened the Council of Trent to deal with the issues raised by Luther. The Council of Trent was an assembly of high officials in the Church who met on and off for eighteen years, principally in the Northern Italian town of Trent for 25 sessions. Outcomes of the process include the idea that the Council denied the Lutheran idea of justification by faith and affirmed, instead, the Doctrine of Merit, which allows practitioners to redeem themselves through good works and the sacraments. The affirmed the existence of Purgatory. They affirmed the importance of all seven sacraments. They affirmed the necessity of religious art. Finally, they affirmed the authority of scripture and the teachings and traditions of the Church.


Illustration of a Session of the Council of Trent
Session of the Council of Trent in Matthias Burglechner “Tyrolischer Adler,” vol.IX

The Council of Trent on Religious Art

At the Council of Trent, the Church also reaffirmed the usefulness of images but indicated that Church officials should be careful to promote the correct use of images and guard against the possibility of idolatry.

The Reformation was a very violent period in Europe. Even family members were often pitted against one another in the wars of religion. Each side, both Catholics and Protestants, were often absolutely certain that they were in the right and that the other side was doing the devil’s work. The artists of this period, like Michelangelo in Rome, Titian in Venice, Durer in Nuremberg, Cranach in Saxony, were impacted by these changes since the Church had been the single largest patron for artists. And now art was now being scrutinized in an entirely new way. The Catholic Church was looking to see if art communicated the stories of the Bible effectively and clearly (see Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi for more on this). Protestants on the other hand, for the most part lost the patronage of the Church and religious images were destroyed in iconoclastic riots.

Adapted from “The Reformation and Counter-Reformation” by LibreTexts is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Adapted from “Calvinism” by Christopher Brooks is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


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Being Human Copyright © 2023 by Jacqui Shehorn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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