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The Protestant Reformation

History of the Reformation

What you need to know


  • Babylonian Captivity
  • Great Schism
  • Conciliarism
  • Humanism
  • Indulgences
  • Predestination
  • Transubstantiation
  • Consubstantiation
  • Anabaptism
  • Doctrine of Salvation by Faith Alone
  • Priesthood of All Believers
  • Index of Prohibited Books
  • Society of Jesus
  • Church of England
  • Elizabethan Settlement


  • Jan Hus
  • Leo X
  • Johan Tetzel
  • Johann Eck
  • Charles V
  • Frederick the Wise
  • Erasmus
  • Ulrich Zwingli
  • John Calvin
  • Anabaptists
  • Henry VIII
  • Clement VII
  • Catherine of Aragon
  • Mary Tudor
  • Elizabeth I
  • Ignatius Loyola


  • Leipzig debate
  • Diet of Worms
  • Peasant’s War
  • Schmalkaldic League
  • Schmalkaldic War
  • Augsburg Confession
  • Act of Supremacy
  • Council of Trent
  • Roman Inquisition
  • Catholic Reformation
  • Counter-Reformation
  • Peace of Augsburg
  • Edict of Nantes


  • Ninety-Five Theses
  • Babylonian Captivity of the Catholic Church
  • Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation
  • New Testament in English
  • New Testament in German
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion
Questions to answer
  • How did the Renaissance pre-condition Luther’s “protest”?
  • In what way did the condition of the Church lend itself to Luther’s message?
  • What were Luther’s fundamental objections to Indulgences?
  • Describe the escalation of the Protest, citing critical works and events.
  • How did political factors of the time promote the spread of Protestantism?
  • How did Luther’s theology differ from that of the Church?
  • Discuss the social impacts of Luther’s beliefs.
  • How did Luther differ from Calvin and Zwingli on communion, predestination, and church and state?
  • Explain the Catholic Church’s reaction to Protestantism. Was it successful or not?
  • How did the Catholic Reformation differ from the Counter-Reformation?
  • Why was the Reformation so successful?
  • Describe the pattern of diffusion of Protestantism between 1517 and 1598.
Sample questions answered

How do Luther’s teachings differ from those of Calvin and Zwingli?

In the catholic Church, there is only one interpretation of Christianity, and one authority on all matters of doctrine: the Pope. But in Protestantism, since every person talks to God directly, there quickly emerged a variety of different interpretations. These became the multiple sects that is characteristic of Protestantism today: Lutheran; Methodist; Episcopalian; Baptist; Presbyterian; Mormon; Congregationalist; Quaker; Mennonite; Unitarian; and so on.

Two of the earliest alternatives to Luthercame from Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. They differed from Luther in matters of predestination, communion, and the relationship between church and state.

On predestination, Luther believed that each person’s fate in salvation was decided by God before the person was born. Calvin one-upped Luther, saying that there was “double predestination,” that is that God decided not just those chosen for salvation, but those destined for Hell as well. Zwingli rejected pre-destination in favor of free will on the basis that without free will man would have no capacity for moral choice.

On communion, Luther believed in the “Real Presence,” that is that the real presence of Jesus was at the communion. Calvin accepted the doctrine of Real Presence, but only if the person accepting communion had the proper spirit. Without such spirit, the ritual was purely secular. Zwingli rejected both interpretations and claimed that the communion was purely symbolic of Jesus’ sacrifice, intended to produce a mood of awe and humility.

Finally, on church and state, the Catholic Church had taught that the state should be beneath the Church. Luther believed it was the other way around: that the church should be beneath the state. Calvin believed that church and state should be separate but equal, which made it easy adapt to new political environments. Zwingly believed that church and state should be one and the same, that society should be run as a theocracy.


What is the difference between the Catholic Reformation and the Counter-Reformation? How effective were they?

The Catholic Church underestimated the appeal of Protestantism and was slow to react. When it did, however, its reaction was broad-based and sustained. There were two different elements to its response, the Catholic Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Their success was mixed.

The Catholic Reformation was a defense of Church doctrine and a partial reform of some of its practices. It was championed by the Council of Trent, which met from 1545 until 1563. The Council was very conservative, affirming most church doctrines including transubstantiation, all seven sacraments, veneration of the saints, indulgences, and good works. In the area of reform, Trent banned concubinage and multiple offices, advocated for more charitable works on behalf of the people, and for better education of the clergy.

The Counter-Reformation aimed at rolling back the gains made by Protestants and even eradicating it entirely. Among its most visible instruments were the Roman Inquisition, modeled on the highly successful Spanish Inquisition, the Index of Prohibited Books, and the establishment of the Jesuit order which undertook a dramatic expansion of Catholicism to new territories in South America and Asia.

These two campaigns had mixed results. On the one hand, they did contain the expansion of Protestantism in Europe. Protestantism reached its highest proportion of the European population in the 1560s and has remained stable or declined ever since. But they were not able to eliminate Protestantism, nor to contain its expansion outside of Europe. The United States was formed as a predominantly Protestant country, as evidenced in the fact that 42 of its 43 presidents have claimed affiliation with a Protestant sect.

Why was the Protestant Reformation so successful?

We can cite reasons of doctrine, politics, economics, and technology to explain the success of the Protestant Reformation.

In doctrine, Luther’s concept of the “priesthood of all believers” gave each person the license to talk to God directly, and not have to go through a priest. This was an enormously ennobling practice and gave millions of people a more direct connection to their spiritual practice.

In politics, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor at the time of Luther’s protest, needed the assistance of German princes in order fight wars with the French Valois dynasty, and with the Ottoman Turks. So, he was reticent to punish them for their embrace of Protestantism.

In economics, since a person’s fate in the afterlife is already determined (predestination), they didn’t need to make any tithes to the Church. So, the got to keep all of their money, a huge incentive to embrace Protestantism. This is one of the reasons Protestantism was so popular with Europe’s emerging bourgeoisie, or middle class. What were their former tithes became the capital that formed the engine of a newly emerging economic system: capitalism.

Finally, in technology, the availability of printing greatly accelerated the adoption and spread of Protestantism. One of the first things Luther did after posting his Ninety-Five Theses was to translate the New Testament into German so local people could read for themselves that many of the church’s claims had no Biblical foundation. He also produced pamphlets, hymnals, and doctrinal documents that were distributed quickly and widely. The spread of Calvinism and its offshoots were greatly accelerated by availability in print of Calvin’s great work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which became something of an “operating manual” for setting up a new Protestant church.

Original documents

Download the pdf of the notes

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The Protestant Reformation Original Works

Supplementary notes
Intro to the book

Reform is a curious word. It has the flavor of “change” about it: re-form. Less often associated with reform is “revolution.” Yet, when Martin Luther protested certain practices of the Catholic Church in 1517 and tried to reform them, he unknowingly set off one of the greatest revolutions the world has ever known. Without meaning to (at the beginning, anyway), Luther undermined many of the foundations of Church power. In the process, he unleashed a torrent of cultural conflicts and innovations that would end up, indirectly, birthing the modern world.

This book explains how this well-intended monk from a small town in Germany re-arranged the architecture of religious power in the Western World. It begins by explaining the context of the time — the year 1500 — and what grievance Luther was protesting. It then describes the protest itself and how it escalated. It details the deeper theological issues that lay beneath the protest and their implications for the Catholic Church. It discusses how other protesters took up the cause, even as they changed some of Luther’s essential ideas, and how the Catholic Church responded. Finally, it finishes with a reflection on how much the modern Western world owes its essential character to the changes Luther unleashed.

A new concept of salvation — by Faith — lay at the heart of Luther’s revolution. It required a complete rethinking of man’s relationship with God and an equally complete repudiation of the role of the Church as an intermediary between man and God. As a consequence, it shattered the religious unity that had held Europe together as a single cultural entity for a thousand years. Indeed, if we were to reduce the Reformation to its simplest possible seven-word formulation, it might be this: Salvation by faith shattered European religious unity.

Out of this simple idea — an individual’s faith — the old order was shaken to its foundations and the seeds of the modern world were planted. This is that story.

Table of Contents to the book
  1. Introduction
  2. The Context of the Time
    1. The Cultural Context
    2. The Political Context
    3. The Religious Context
  3. Luther and His Protest
    1. The Immediate Provocation
    2. Ninety-Five Theses
  4. The Protest Escalates
  5. The Protest-ants’ Reforms
    1. Fundamental Theological Issues
    2. Secondary Theological Issues
    3. Practical Implications
  6. The Protest Spreads and the Church Responds
    1. Other Leading Protest-ants
    2. The Church Responds
  7. The Great Civilizational Tumult
    1. A Century of War
    2. Deep Origins of the Modern Western World
  8. Final Word
  9. Timeline
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