Volume III - Church History

Sixteenth Century

The West

The Protestant Reformation

As the culmination of centuries of calls for reform of various abuses within the Roman Church, the Protestant Reformation exploded across western and central Europe in the decade of the 1520s. Martin Luther (1483–1546), an Augustinian monk, precipitated the Reformation when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, in the German province of Saxony, in 1517. This document was a list of demands for reform, mostly concerning the sale of indulgences (certificates granting full or partial remission of punishment for sins which have already been forgiven). At that point Luther did not envision breaking away from the Roman Church, but when he was officially excommunicated by the Papacy on January 3, 1521, the break became final.

Fueled by anti-Papal, nationalistic feelings among princes and commoners that were fanned by several provocative treatises written by Luther in 1520, in which he attacked Papal supremacy, clerical celibacy, and many other Latin doctrines and practices, the Reformation spread with remarkable speed. John Calvin (1509–1564) of France, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) of Switzerland, and Menno Simons (1496–1561) of Holland led the Reformation movement on the European continent. King Henry VIII of England (r. 1509–1547), after a long struggle with the Papacy over his request for a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, on the grounds of childlessness, made himself head of the Church in England—which became known as the Church of England, or the Anglican Church—by the Act of Supremacy in 1534. And John Knox (c. 1517–1572) brought the Calvinist faith to Scotland, in the form of Presbyterianism.

The basic Protestant position to this day is founded on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, with salvation understood as a gift from God given at one moment, rather than as an ongoing process with God and man cooperating together in the work of salvation (Phil 2.12–13). Protestants believe that the Bible is the sole churchly authority that can be interpreted directly by each believer through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The sacramental life of the Church is reduced to baptism and the Lord’s Supper understood mainly as symbolic actions.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation

In response to the challenge of the Protestant Reformation, and spurred by its demands for widespread ecclesiastical reform, the Roman Church held the Council of Trent (1545–1547, 1551–1552, 1562–1563). While instituting many needed practical reforms, it also officially reaffirmed the aberrant Medieval doctrines and practices of purgatory, indulgences, transubstantiation of the bread and wine in the Eucharist, communion for the laity with the bread only, the mass as a repropitiating sacrifice of Christ made to the Father, and extreme unction (whereby the sacrament of healing with holy oil became last rites for the dying). The Council of Trent also reinforced the supremacy of the Pope of Rome and the authority of the Church hierarchy, denying to the laity any role in the governance of the Church or in Christian teaching.

The Council of Trent, in addition, claimed that grace is a “created effect” or “created entity”—thus affirming the Latin doctrine that human beings can have no real, direct communion, or fellowship, or relationship with God. This understanding of the spiritual life is in direct contradiction to the Orthodox understanding that through the uncreated energies of God, human beings are called and enabled to have real, direct communion with God—as affirmed in the teachings of Saint Gregory Palamas and his coworkers.

The Roman Counter-Reformation was led by the Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus, founded in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola (c. 1491–1556). This monastic order was dedicated to direct service in complete obedience to the Papacy, with emphasis on doing mission work beyond Europe. Francis Xavier (1506–1552), one of the original seven Jesuits, conducted extensive mission work in Portuguese Goa, the Molucca Islands, Ceylon, and Japan. The Dutch Jesuit, Peter Canisius (1521–1597), led the Counter-Reformation in Germany, writing his famous Catechism which became a standard text of post-Reformation Catholicism. This catechism was translated into Slavonic and used by many Eastern Christians, both Orthodox and Uniate.

In Spain the mystical writers Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) and John of the Cross (1542–1591) led the reform of the monastic life of the Carmelite Order of the Roman Church. In Geneva, the Catholic bishop of the city, Francis de Sales (1567–1622), wrote his influential works providing guidance in the spiritual life. During this same time the famous Italian artist Titian (c. 1487–1576) created religious paintings “fraught with tragic emotion,” and the greatly influential Italian musician Palestrina (c. 1525–1594) produced his grandiose musical compositions which were used in the Roman Church.

The most famous of the Renaissance painters was the Italian, Raphael (1483–1520). His friend Michaelangelo (1475–1564) executed his magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican at the behest of Pope Julius II (r. 1503–1513).