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What was the Reformation? A Brief History of the
Interpretations of the Reformation

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Mention the word "Reformation" and what comes to mind? For many Protestants, the word immediately evokes heroic memories of a determined monk named Martin Luther defiantly hammering his challenge to the Roman Church with his posting of his Ninety-five theses on the Castle Church door on October 31, 1517. Among many Lutherans, at least, the commemoration of the posting of the Theses on October 31 is known as "the Day of the Reformation." It is designated thus, because the posting of the Ninety-five theses has long been held to be the beginning of a church movement or era known as "The Reformation." This is no doubt due to the fact that Luther himself refers to the Indulgence Affair and the publishing of the Ninety-five theses as the beginning of what later became known as the Reformation.1
 

The Word Reformatio

Yet long before applied to the work of Martin Luther, the word reformatio had a long and varied history. According to Heiko Oberman,

    The word reformation was as popular in the Middle Ages as democracy is today -- and it meant as many things to as many people . . . Then reformation meant return to original ideals. The Church was to emulate the model of the early Christian community, to be united again in love; or a monastic community was to regain sight of the original, authentic principles of the founder of their order. With regard to the individual reformatio stood for the renewal of man and woman.2
     

In the eleventh through the thirteenth century, many in Europe took up the ideal of "apostolic poverty" and harshly criticized the wealthy established Church and called for "reformation," which in that case meant repentance and return to Christ's way of life.3 The word could technically refer to reestablishing universities according to their original usage, e.g., reformatio in pristinum statum. As one of their slogans, the fourteenth-century conciliar movement adopted the phrase, "reformation of the church in head and members" (reformatio ecclesiae in capite et in membris), which was basically an appeal to an ethical reform of both people and leaders within the church.4
 

As has been often noted, it is interesting that Luther rarely used the word reformation to describe the work he had undertaken. When he did, it was with a marked difference. The reformation he undertook was a reformation of doctrine rather than ethical renewal. And the reformation of doctrine occurred through the preaching of the Gospel of justification by grace through faith. And in all this Luther differed substantially from all medievals and so-called forerunners of the reformation. In his own words,

    Doctrine and life must be distinguished. Life is bad among us, as it is among the papists, but we don't fight about life and condemn the papists on that account. Wycliffe and Huss didn't do this and attacked the papacy for its life. I don't scold myself into becoming good, but I fight over the Word and whether our adversaries teach it in its purity. That doctrine should be attackedthis has never before happened. This is my calling. Others have censured only life, but to treat doctrine is to strike at the most sensitive point . . . When the Word remains pure, then the life (even if there is something lacking in it) can be molded properly. Everything depends on the Word, and the pope has abolished the Word and created another one. With this I have won, and I have won nothing else than that I teach aright. Although we are better morally, this isn't anything to fight about. It's the teaching that breaks the pope's neck.5
     

And this doctrine can only be reformed by the Gospel:

    However, they do not want to be reformed (as they say) by this former mendicant monk. Yet this same mendicant monk . . . has reformed them considerably. I have, God be praised, reformed more with my gospel than perhaps they have done with five councils. So far they have done nothing more in the councils than play around with unprofitable matters that do not concern the Christian church. However, now our gospel comes along, takes away indulgence, abolishes pilgrimages, puts a stop to bulls, checks covetousness, and achieves marvelous results.6

Ultimately, for Luther man could not be reformed completely this side of heaven. Only Christ's return could accomplish that. The real aim in this life for Luther was forgiveness, not reformation.

Reformation as an Event or Era of History

When the question is asked how the Reformation has been interpreted since the time of Luther, the answer is in many and various ways. One of the first ways was through commemorations. Though there were various local commemorations in the sixteenth century, it wasn't until the seventeenth century that widespread observances occurred. It was at this time that Reformation jubilees were introduced. This seems to have first occurred in 1617, when both Reformed and Lutheran congregations separately celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Luther's Ninety-five theses in the territory of the Palatinate and Electoral Saxony.7 These observances chiefly celebrated Martin Luther's cleansing of the Church.

It wasn't until the late seventeenth century that Reformation was used as a term to describe an era in church history. Veit Ludwig von Seckendorf's Historical and Apologetic Commentary on Lutheranism or the Reformation was the first work to reformation in this sense. Seckendorf, who had definite pietistic leanings, used reformation as the key word to describe the events in Germany in the early sixteenth century, especially the years 1517-1524.8 This work, as did dictionaries and encyclopedias of the eighteenth century, typically linked the era of the Reformation to the life and career of Martin Luther. The Reformation epoch was then seen as beginning with the date of the "Ninety-Five Theses" (1517) and ending with the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555). The problem with this approach, is that other reformers (such as Zwingli and Calvin) and reformations (such as the Bohemian, English, Swiss, French and radical reformations) tended to be ignored or downplayed.9
 

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the era of Reformation was studied as a purely religious phenomenon. The first to present the Reformation in its cultural setting was Leopold von Ranke in his German History in the Epoch of the Reformation (1839). Ranke made important contributions. He located the Reformation in both its church and political settings and saw both as mutually interactive. And he also popularized the term Counter-Reformation to describe the Roman Catholic reaction to the Protestant reformations. Both of these contributions set the stage for later Reformation scholarship.

More Recent Interpretations

Since George H. William's major study, The Radical Reformation10, the term "Reformation" is often modified by the adjectives "magisterial" and "radical" Magisterial Reformation denotes those reform movements that were supported by the magistrates, such as royalty and town councils. Because Luther had the support of the princes of Saxony, Zwingli the support of Zurich town Council, and Calvin the support of the Geneva councils, these reformations are described as magisterial. Magisterial (from the Latin magister, teacher) also describes those reform movements that followed the authority of a particular teacher, such as Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin. All other reforming movements which dissented from the magisterial reformations and insisted on strict separation from the political authorities have most often been called radical reformations. The various Anabaptist groups, the Spiritualists, and revolutionary leaders such as Thomas Müntzer all fall into this group.

Another recent change in the scholarly approach in the Reformation has to do with the extent of the era in view. Whereas earlier interpreters limited the Reformation to roughly the sixteenth century, more recent scholarship extends the Reformation back into the Middle Ages and forward into the 18th Century. Some of these scholars refer to this period as "the long sixteenth century" or as "the early modern period."11 No longer is the Reformation seen as a self-contained unit with little connection to the periods that preceded and followed.

Interpretations of the Reformation are legion and many large studies have been written just to assess them. However, all recent interpretations of the Reformation roughly fall into two categories. They fall either in the category of Intellectual history or the category of Social history.12
 

The focus in intellectual reformation history is on the ideas of the reformation. The scholars using this approach are primarily church historians and theologians. Studies of the theology of the various reformers would be one example of intellectual history. But biography, political ideology, psychohistory, and ecumenical theology would be other examples of the intellectual history approach.

The focus in social reformation history, which is considered to be the "cutting-edge" approach, is on social and political issues and groups. Whereas intellectual history holds that ideas (especially religious ones) caused social and political change during the era of the Reformation, social historians reverse this. They maintain that religious ideas were merely one reaction among many to the political and social movements, which were their causes. Thomas Brady, one of the leading proponents of social history, suggests that the Reformation can be better explained as "an adaptation of Christianity to the social evolution of Europe."13 Notice, it was not that new ideas in Christianity brought about social change, as most intellectual historians hold. It was that "social evolution in Europe" led Christians to adapt to this change. Social historians concern themselves with local and urban histories, social groups (e.g. women), power relationships, cultural anthropology, and popular culture. Social historians also cull the contemporary data to determine how the people of the period reacted to the ideas of the Reformation. An extreme example of social history is Marxist historiography, which presents theology as a mere cover for the "real" material and economic causes of the Reformation. For them the Reformation was a social phenomenon in which religious ideas fought against new capitalism. For Marxist social historians, those who fought for social and political revolution are the real heros of the period.

Though intellectual and social historians have at times polemicized each other, most scholars see these approaches as mutually helpful, provided that extremes are avoided. For example, interpreting life in sixteenth century only by a study of the ideas and observations of the major reformers such as Luther is to produce a very one-sided picture. On the other hand, interpreting the Reformation only on the basis of social statistical information while ignoring the religious ideas will produce an equally one-sided picture. It also needs to be stressed that both intellectual and social historians strive to locate that data they are studying in the proper historical context. Intellectual historians strive to locate the theologies of the Reformation in their late medieval context; and social historians seek to locate their social observations in the statistics and records of the time.

The best approach is to seek to understand the ideas and theology of the Reformation in order to understand the cultural context AND to seek to understand the cultural context in order to understand the theology. For example, Luther's discovery of justification by grace through faith alone can only be understood when set in the context of cultural, linguistic, and personal conditions of his world. However it is not fully explained by these things nor was it caused by these alone. Luther's discovery set many things in motion and brought about many cultural changes. Both intellectual and social history must be seen as working together.


1 . As an example, see Luther's "Preface to Latin Writings," Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther's Works (hereafter LW) (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 34:328-329. See also "Against Hanswurst," LW 41:231-236. Here Luther writes, "So my theses against Tetzel's articles, which you can now see in print, were published. They went throughout the whole of Germany in a fortnight, for the whole world complained about indulgences, and particularly about Tetzel's articles . . . This is the first, real, fundamental beginning of the Lutheran rumpus, which the bishop of Mainz, not Duke Frederick, began with that fleecer and pickpocket, Tetzel."

2 . Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (Yale: Yale University Press, 1990; New York: Image Books, 1992), 50.

3 . Ibid., 51.

4 . Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 9.

5 . LW 54:110. See also LW 54:231: "The pope doesn't want reformation in his council, for it's said that in Rome the word `reformation' is hated more than thunder in the heavens or the last judgment . . . We Lutherans won't be satisfied even if they should concede the eucharist in both kinds and the marriage of the priests. We also wish to have the pure doctrine of faith and justification which banishes all idolatry . . . The pope feels and fears such a reformation."

6 ."A Letter of Dr. Martin Luther Concerning His Book on the Private Mass," 1534; LW 38:231-232

7 . Electoral Saxony celebrated the jubilee from October 31 through November 2. The Protestant Union did so on November 2. Neighboring territories joined in the observance and others, such as Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel and Hesse chose other dates (Nov. 9 and Jan. 4, 1618 respectively). See Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 204-205.

8 . See Lindberg, 10; Lohse, 205-206.

9 . A.G. Dickens and John M. Tonkin, The Reformation in Historical Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 9.

10 . George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd edn. (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992).

11 . Examples of this are John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).

12 . In the discussion that follows I'm indebted to Carter Lindberg's fine summary - Lindberg, European Reformations, 13-22.

13 . Thomas A. Brady Jr., "Social History," in Steven Ozment, ed., Reformation Europe: A Guide to Research (St. Louis: Center for Reformation Research, 1982), 176.