Hundreds of years later, effects of Reformation linger

Nov 2, 2012

The presidential election is just a few days away, but that’s not what this week's faith and values update is about. 

Instead, we’re going to talk about something that was making news about 500 years ago in Germany: The Protestant Reformation. This past Wednesday was Reformation Day – the anniversary of the day in 1517 when the movement began.

The Protestant Reformation was sparked back in the 1500s. Now, nearly 500 years later, its unintended effects continue to linger.
The Protestant Reformation was sparked back in the 1500s. Now, nearly 500 years later, its unintended effects continue to linger.
Credit Photo by Kellie Kotraba/ColumbiaFAVS

I sat down with John Frymire, who teaches Renaissance and Reformation history at the University of Missouri, to get some perspective. He’s Catholic, but he was an atheist for a while, and he went to a Lutheran College and did his graduate studies with Protestants.

“There was a good deal of anti-papalism in Germany at this time," Frymire said. "Not anti-Catholicism, that’s different.”

It wasn’t a problem with the Catholic religion, but with the institution of the church – mostly its diplomatic and financial policies, and its leaders. But in terms of faith, historians find people seemed pretty happy.  

Then, enter Martin Luther.

“ He had religious crises, etc., that led him to become a monk,” Frymire said. 

Luther eventually became a professor of Biblical theology. After years of study, he found points of disagreement with the Catholic church – that alone is another story. On October 31, 1517, he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church. But what was intended to be a rediscovery of doctrine had unintended consequences.

One of his key points was the notion of “Sola Scriptura,” or Scripture alone.

“What he meant is, the Bible contains everything we need to know about God’s promises regarding our salvation,” Frymire said. 

When Luther read Scripture, he saw his doctrine. To him, it was clear, without the church regulating it.

But within about 38 seconds of the Reformation beginning, other people are reaching other conclusions, and you have splits," Frymire said. 

One of the most important splits was between Luther and Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, whose work was later picked up by John Calvin.

“Lutheran churches retains a lot of Catholic elements," Frymire said. 

But the Zwingli and Calvin line took a different direction, becoming vastly different than the Lutherans. And from there, other splits occurred. Look for Christian churches, and you’ll find Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalean – you get the idea.

"Now we call it diversity, but in terms of Christian history, that’s not a real nice word," Frymire said. "It’s tragic, in terms of, if you think back to the theologians who thought of the church as a unified thing."

That’s not to say the Reformation was bad –  it led to some positive reform within the Catholic Church, and many people today stand firmly on Protestant doctrine. But it did have unexpected effects that continue to linger.

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith and Values. Find more at ColumbiaFAVS.com.