Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A period in Western Christian history, usually dated as beginning in the early sixteenth century and extending to the mid-seventeenth, that yielded the theologies and organizations now known as Protestant but also altered the Western religious landscape and the character of Western Christianity to yield Roman Catholicism as that phrase is currently employed (i.e., strictly speaking, Christianity in western Europe should be referred to as Western Christianity prior to the Reformation).

Two questions precipitated the Reformation: (1) What is the relationship between church and state? (2) What assures life after death?

Central to the question of church-state relations was an ongoing dispute over control of land claimed by the Holy Roman Empire in the German nation. The papacy in the early sixteenth century struggled to maintain control. One form of mediation between political and religious uncertainty involved the sale of indulgences. In 1506, Pope Julius II announced an opportunity for penitents to purchase a new form of indulgence, the proceeds from which were earmarked to construct St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. This opportunity became the catalyst for a theological response that triggered social and political change.

On October 31, 1517, the eve of the feast of All Saints, Martin Luther, cleric and academic at the University of Wittenburg, posted his 95 theses on the door of Castle Church. By attacking the sale of indulgences, he not only threatened a source of revenue for the church, he also attacked the rationale for purchasing such writs in the first place. Salvation was granted, he declared, "by faith alone." He based his position, furthermore, on his reading of the Bible (particularly Paul's Epistle to the Romans) rather than any reference to a church authority.

The effect of this theological and political rejoinder to the status quo generated essentially three strands of allegiance. Lutherans and Anglicans adopted a theology of "grace" and maintained most ritual and liturgical traditions. Followers of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli minimized the importance of ritual and stressed scholarship and prudence. Finally, the Counterreformation restored Roman Catholicism in a reinvigorated form to much of western Europe by the end of the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648).

Guy E. Swanson in Religion and Regime (University of Michigan Press 1967) argues that the political and social persistence of these theological traditions depended on the nature of ruling regimes. Catholicism reemerged and persisted in "commensual" or centrist regimes (France, Ireland, Poland). Lutheran-Anglican traditions formed in "limited centralist states" (Denmark, England, Sweden). Calvinist-Zwinglian traditions emerged under "hetrarchic and balanced" governments (Bohemia, Scotland, Switzerland).

In addition to these territorial and political changes, the concurrent invention of the printing press and Luther's translation of the Bible into German created a cultural reformation. Social distance between clergy and laity, at least in Protestant circles, was drastically reduced as people learned to study scripture, articulate theology, and practice their faith in common worship.

Jerry Koch


H. J. Grimm, The Reformation Era (New York: Macmillan, 1954).

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