A Brief Survey of the Reformation’s Aftermath

A Brief Survey of the Reformation’s Aftermath

Based on: Justo L. González The Story of Christianity Vol. 2

Harper Collins ©1985

During the Reformation Period there were indeed some very noteworthy things taking place in Europe.  Later, during a period that would be come known as the Age of Reason, there were again some very notable events transpiring in Europe.  Sandwiched between these two periods was nearly a century that is mostly remembered for its religious wars and relentless fixation upon orthodox views (from around mid-1500’s to mid-1600’s).

In an effort to counter the Protestant Reformation, Roman Catholics were drawn back to the table to re-examine, and in some instances, reform their views.  The Council of Trent (1545-1563) fixed Roman Catholic dogma and plotted it along a course of firm orthodoxy.  Lutheran theologians hammered out their own sets of beliefs, and Calvinists met challenges from within by establishing its parameters.  This obsession with orthodoxy entrenched each group on a course that continually led to conflict with any who stood beyond their particular viewpoints.

During this time, the Calvinist Huguenots fought a number of armed conflicts against the Catholics in France.  In Holland there was civil war between the northern Calvinists (modern Netherlands) and the southern Catholics (modern Belgium).  While in Germany the call to orthodoxy between Lutherans and Catholics led to frequent and sometimes violent fighting.

The Peace of Augsburg (1555) had brought some semblance of peace between Catholics and Lutherans in Germany.  It allowed the expression of Lutheranism as long as it was confined to what was stated in the Augsburg Confession.  It also permitted the various providences in Germany to be either Catholic or Lutheran – depending upon the particular persuasion of its ruling prince.

Like any law, the Peace of Augsburg did nothing to quell the carnality of the human heart.  Tensions continued to exist between Catholics and Lutherans, and between Catholics and Calvinists who were not part of the Augsburg Confession.  Fighting between the sects continued.

In 1618 anxiety between some Bohemian nobles, who were Calvinists, and some neighboring Roman Catholics erupted into violence.  This violence spilled forth into all-out conflict that became known as The Thirty Years War.  It began as a religious war with political overtones but ended as a political war with religious overtones as various leaders jockeyed for political power.  The Peace of Westphalia marked its closing in 1648.  One significant product of the war was the populaces’ “growing indifference to religious matters”[1].  Europeans were beginning to question the fixation on orthodoxy that for them had only led to violent bloodshed.  That attitude would mold an altogether different theological landscape in the years just around the corner.

The century was not only marked by wars.  There was also a certain edifying movement taking place in the Anglican Church in Great Britain.  Since its break with Rome, the Anglican Church had mimicked much of Roman Catholic theology and practice.  Certain English Calvinists, known as Puritans, began to challenge some of these traditions and made a call to more primitive Christianity.  They preached against sin and encouraged a holy lifestyle.  The Puritans also challenged the Church’s episcopal leadership of bishops.  This did not cast them in a favorable light among the Anglican Church or the British Monarchs, who were both deeply invested in that style of church government.  The Puritans encouraged the New Testament model of presbuteros (elder), or presbyterian leadership. Other Puritans encouraged congregational (democratic) government.  Later, there were some Puritans who became known for their focus on a separation of Church and State.  These Puritans became known as the Separatists. 

Unfortunately, the Puritans are often viewed today as lifeless and rigid legalistics.  Although there were some who fit that description – or worse – many were genuinely godly men who sought to live out the Christian experience with honest fidelity.

With the cessation of hostilities of the Thirty Years War came an era known as the Age of Reason.  Some of Europe had been decimated by the decades of fighting.  People had grown weary of the bloodshed and began to question religion’s role in it.  They developed genuine concerns about the value of a religious system that seemed to place strict adherence to its own teachings above the worth of human life.

There was also a growing interest in science and philosophical study at this time; prompting Europe to produce scientists who are still today considered among the greatest.  But the scientists and philosophers of the era, having been somewhat liberated by the Reformation, pressed the boundaries of their disciplines like never before.  A primary focus of the scientist and philosopher became the concept of authority.  For centuries, authority in matters of science and philosophy was the Church.  However, the free-thinkers of the Age of Reason proposed bold, alternative theories.  Whatever could be deduced through logical, pragmatic means became the basis of authority.  Philosophers, who had once been kept on a short leash by the Church, broke free and turned to challenge their former master.  The scientific mind placed the authority of the Church under the newly-invented microscope, and found it wanting[2].  The Church, which had long dictated the thoughts and pursuits of humankind, was losing its power to hold sway.  The mind of man became the great new moral arbitrator.

The emerging rational mind soon gave way to a new religious outlook: Deism.  Since the natural world appeared to function in a predictable mathematical manner, the Deist assumed religion too must be rational in origin.   Those who held to Deism believed that the universe may have been caused by God, but that it operated naturally and reasonably.  If there is any divine intervention, it must also fall within natural understanding.  Deism was not embraced by orthodox thinkers who remained in their faith because it downplayed the life of Christ, rationalized miracles, and painted a picture of a very impersonal God (unfortunately the Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches of Europe were not providing a much clearer image).

Although Deism would not last, a scientist influenced by Deism would emerge to have nearly immeasurable impact: Charles Darwin.  Darwin was a scientist who developed a theory about the origin of the species based on a natural process.  Darwin’s followers zealously propagated his theory which was embraced by a growingly secular society.  (Having its origins in a religious culture, Deism still retained a belief in God.  However, when it collapsed as a philosophy it created a vacuum that was replaced in Europe by secularism – an absence of a belief in God.)

Darwinism, fueled by the philosophical doubts raised by Emmanuel Kant, and later interpreted through with social interests of Karl Marx, created a unique challenge to Christianity: how to understand the Bible in light of science.  A response to those challenges created the eventual rise of Liberal Christianity.  Not wanting to appear foolish before the scientific community by placing undue confidence in the Bible, Liberalism sought to reinterpret the Bible.  This gave rise to a new form of Biblical criticism.  The assumption that scripture was divinely inspired, which was enjoyed by medieval scholarship, was discarded.  With this new level of criticism the Liberal Christian thoroughly scrutinized Scripture from every possible aspect, and began to raise doubts about its historicity, authorship, and interpretation.  The criticism seemed more designed to help Christianity evolve into a more modern faith than because the evidence dictated it.

Liberal Christianity is still a popular movement.  The term liberal means “generous” and many of its followers would define themselves as having very open-minded, tolerant, or generous views.  This student has encountered many from the movement and has noted that in practice they are indeed tolerant of most views – except orthodoxy.  They are also marked by a skepticism in terms of Scripture, but generous in terms of non-Biblical worldviews.  This student has found that the MTSO Course of Study campus has marks of the Liberalism movement.  It is not uncommon to be required to read material that claims to be (and indeed is) an intense criticism of God, the deity of Christ, miracles, and the authority and authorship of Scripture[3].  However, this student has found that Liberal theology is marked by an unwillingness to submit to the same degree of criticism.  This lack of intellectual integrity exposes its agenda.

There was a response to Liberal Christianity: Fundamentalism.  It started as a very noble, intellectual reply in order to deal with the criticisms.  However, some fundamentalists began exercising an extremely literal interpretation of Scripture, and created some never-before-seen interpretations (dispensationalism).  After the famous Scopes trial of 1925, Fundamentalists began to be viewed as uneducated, emotionally-charged, “Bible-thumpers” with no foundation in the scholarly fields.  Fundamentalists would later endeavor to change this image by adopting a new name: Evangelicalism.

During the Age of Reason another notable movement began.  It was born primarily due to the general lifelessness of the churches in Europe, which left distaste in the mouth of many.  One of those who spat with institutional-church displeasure was George Fox (1624-1691).    Disillusioned with the cold orthodoxy of his day, Fox claimed that enlightenment could be found in a Christian mystical experience.  Rather than experiencing God through outward means, or orthodox-held sacraments, Fox looked to the leading of the Sprit from within.  He called his followers “Friends,” but they would later be better known as The Quakers (so named because they would physically quake during their inward mystical encounters).  They rejected orthodox forms of church leadership and tradition.  They focused on a personal, immediate revelation of God, and were marked by pacifism and personal holiness.  The movement spread to America and is still thriving today.

Another noteworthy movement to come out of the Age of Reason was Pietism.  This movement began primarily out of Lutheranism in Germany, which had grown quite lifeless with its doctrinal debates and heavily theological sermons.  A Lutheran pastor, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), began emphasizing the need for personal conversion experience, Bible study, loving service, and a “user-friendly” style of preaching.  Spener led this movement among Lutherans, whose theologians were at first suspicious.  However, the movement grew and left a distinct mark in Lutheranism, as well as the Reformed (Calvinist) Church.

Another figure to emerge from the Pietism movement was a highly educated Lutheran pastor, Count Nikolas von Ludwig Zinzendorf.  While in Dresden, Germany he provided asylum to a group of Moravians who were fleeing persecution from their own land.  He was inspired by their pietism and became part of their community.  Zinzendorf and the Moravians became impassioned with missions.  They would become the first Protestants to organize worldwide missions.  Their efforts to reach the unsaved world are most inspiring.  Note: This student has heard accounts of Moravian missionaries actually selling themselves into slavery in order to evangelize third-world slaves.  Source documentation is unconfirmed.

In 1735 an unconverted Anglican priest, John Wesley was returning to England after a failed mission trip to America.  During a violent storm on the ship he was so impressed by the calmness of a group of Moravians that he would later seek them out for direction.  As a result of their influence Wesley would experience conversion and begin a pietistic movement wherein the world would become his parish: Methodism.

If a pebble dropped in a pool of water sends out ripples, then the Reformation was like a fiery meteor slamming into a body of water, sending out waves of titanic proportions.  In their aftermath those waves have shaped the lives of men and nations.  They redirected economic, political, and social pathways.  They created inroads where there were none, and washed over those who defiantly tried to stop it.  Its waves continue to surge today.  They lap at this student’s feet.

[1] Justo L. González, This Story of Christianity Vol 2, Harper Collins © 1985, page 140.

[2] Not to be taken in a literal sense.  This is a play on words as the microscope was invented during the Age

of Reason.

[3] See this student’s response to a liberalistic textbook: Mark – An Early Effort?



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