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3. The Reformation
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1. Witnesses and Families   |   2. Governance   |   3. The Reformation   |   4. Confessions

B. Reformation Agendas.

When Luther sparked the initial controversy over the preaching of indulgences, it was obvious to no one that the affair would lead to what might be called “The Reformation.” Nor did Luther expect such a consequence from his own action. Only later did he reveal his moment of conversion, the “Tower Experience,” in which he read the verse in Paul’s Letter to the Romans in a new way: “The just shall live by faith.” Not until Luther’s appearance in April 1521 at the Imperial Diet of Worms, where he refused to retract his opinions, did the possibility of a schism within the Church begin to become clear. Within a few years, calls increased, echoing Luther, for a reformed religion based on the principles of salvation “by the Bible alone,” “by faith alone,” and “by grace alone” [sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia]. According to the first of these principles, the highest Christian authority was Scripture, which every reader is capable of understanding without the intervention of pope, council, or professor. The second principle refers to the centrality of personal faith as the sole path to salvation, and the third principle points to the centrality of divine grace as the sole means of salvation. By emphasizing the individual’s relationship to God, Luther and his followers devalued the role of the Church as mediator. They supported – in principle though not always in practice – a “priesthood of all believers.”

This was more or less the initial spark of the movement that eventually (after 1529) came to be known as Protestantism. Or such was the claim, for in fact the break with Rome gave rise not to one movement but to many. The divisions began in the winter of 1521-22, when Luther was in hiding at the Wartburg in Thuringia. Some of his original allies at Wittenberg, the Saxon university town where he taught, began preaching more radical messages against secular authorities and against traditional religious practices involving images and the sacraments. Luther denounced them and urged that they be silenced. This act marked a positive shift in Luther’s estimation of the secular ruler’s role in religious matters.

Meanwhile, the multiplication of reformist programs grew apace. In Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli had broken with Rome and was developing his own doctrines and practices. His interpretation of the sacraments, especially his rejection of the real presence of Christ in the Communion bread and wine, infuriated Luther and marked the opening of the split that would divide the movement permanently into Lutheran and Reformed streams of reformation. By the late 1520s, the doctrinal differences between Luther and Zwingli and their followers posed a serious threat to Protestant efforts to organize a defensive alliance to protect the new faith. In 1529, Landgrave Philip of Hesse attempted to mediate the dispute by inviting Protestant religious leaders to his residence at Marburg in hopes of reaching a compromise. The colloquy failed in its goal, however, and Luther and Zwingli left more embittered than ever. This schism damaged the prestige and moral authority of the Protestants, because it revealed that those who insisted on the principle of sola scriptura could in fact not agree on what Scripture said. The schism did not greatly affect the power of the defensive league formed by the Protestant princes and cities in 1531, because they were able to exclude the Swiss cities and to curb partisanship for Zwingli in Strasbourg, Augsburg, and some smaller towns.

After the mid-1520s, the Protestant movement was also hampered by the formation and persistence of small groups that crystallized into distinctly heterodox communities. In Switzerland, former allies of Zwingli rejected infant baptism as unbiblical and began calling for believers’ baptism as a sign of true repentance and conversion. Their opponents thus called them “Anabaptists” (i.e., rebaptizers). About the same time, widespread revolts by peasants occurred across much of the southern and central sectors of the Empire. The connection between Anabaptism’s appearance in central Germany and the peasants’ demands and their ensuing defeat is a subject of controversy. The two movements did overlap, and the peasants’ defeat influenced the adoption of pacifism as a central Anabaptist tenet. Yet the rise of Anabaptism was by no means just a by-product of the Peasants’ War, for the movement sprang from the very impulse which led to the initial attempts at reforming the Church at large. Anabaptism attracted many who had agreed with Luther’s challenge to immorality and hypocrisy in the old church, but who ultimately turned the same critique on the Protestants. They were then led to reject the local Protestant churches as hardly better than the old ones. There is evidence, for example in Hesse, that this was the central issue for the appeal of the Anabaptist separatist message.

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