6.5 Reformation Conclusion

Before Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, Christianity was already divided in to two major groups (the Orthodox Church in the east and the Roman Catholic Church in the West). The Reformation resulted in a third group being added to the Christian family; this third group came to be called Protestants. There were certain basic similarities between the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches, e.g. members of all three groups were inspired by Jesus, they all regarded the Bible as the word of God, and all three taught and upheld Christian values.

Nonetheless, there were several theological differences between the three factions. For example, Protestants and Orthodox Christians did not accept the Pope's authority. The Pope, for his part, did not accept the authority of either the Patriarch of Constantinople (leader of the Orthodox Church) or Protestant churches. By contrast the Orthodox Church rejected the Catholic and Protestant doctrine of Original Sin. Lutherans rejected the Catholic and Orthodox belief that the bread and wine given to believers during Communion literally turned in to the flesh and blood of Jesus. Luther argued the bread and wine were just symbols. Most Protestants also rejected the existence of Purgatory and opposed the notion of saint veneration. The map below shows the relative distribution of the major religions of Europe and the Middle East.

Protestants differed from both Orthodox and Catholic Christians in two other important ways: Protestants believed the Bible, and only the Bible, was the only authority worth respecting. Anything written after the time of the disciples and the Apostle Paul wasn't authoritative. The Orthodox and Catholic churches, however, accepted the writings produced by leaders of the Church in the centuries following the crucifixion as just as authoritative as scripture. Thus, when Bishop Athanasius writes something defending the Trinity in the 4th century AD, Catholics accepted Athanasius as worthy of believing while Protestants did not. Protestants were critical of Catholic doctrines because these doctrines appeared to be invented (or non-scriptural).

Another difference between the three groups is while Catholics and Orthodox could (eventually) read the Bible they were never allowed (at least not officially) to interpret it for themselves. The Church interpreted scripture, developed a teaching, and then transmitted it to faithful. Protestants, on the other hand, could read and interpret scripture for themselves. The Reformation displaced Catholic priests by encouraging the development of a "priesthood of all believers." This priesthood had important implications for how people looked at faith: Catholics were taught obedience to the Church was obedience to God. By contrast Protestants were free to read, free to interpret and, ultimately, free to reject. Some people used this new found freedom to reject any church (Protestant or otherwise) altogether.


An immediate effect of the Reformation was the growth in religious intolerance. Intolerance didn't start with the Reformation. For example, there are countless examples of Catholics persecuting, killing, etc. Jews. (I always thought this was a silly thing to do since Jesus was Jewish.)

In the beginning, Protestant reformers wanted to encourage the creation of a more inclusive Christian community based upon Christ's simple message of love and forgiveness. Despite this noble aim the Reformation not only inspired love in Catholics and Protestants but it also inspired hatred. People living under the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian monarchs, were forced to remain Catholic, or suffer death or imprisonment at the hands of the Inquisition. King Philip II of Spain, and ’Bloody’ Mary in England persecuted the Protestants. Similarly, the Protestant princes of Germany and England punished their Catholic subjects.

The Reformation weakened the Catholic Church and strengthened the authority of secular leaders (princes, kings, queens). For example, the princes of Germany were more than happy to be free from the control of the Pope. The kings of Europe could now pursue policies and build their countries according to their own choice. Secular authorities were relatively more tolerant of new ideas and ways of looking at the world; this encouraged the growth of humanism, liberalism, and the eventual emergence of democracy. Northern Europe's new found religious and political freedoms came at a great cost; nonetheless, the Reformation's positive consequences are evident even today in the intellectual, political, and religious freedoms enjoyed by people living in the West.