Reformation I: Historical Context

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In honor of Reformation Month, we’re beginning a four-part series on the Reformation. For those of you who enjoy history, you will probably revel in this episode. But for those of you who may not, we do our best to simplify and break down the episode in the timeline and summary below. 

When we study the Reformation, we need to keep in mind what happened before, during, and after the Reformation. Here are some important dates and events to be aware of.

Historical Timeline

1455: The Gutenberg Printing Press is invented, making books available and affordable for the very first time. The Gutenberg Press allowed for information to be spread cheaply and quickly.

1473: Copernicus, who discovered that the sun (not the earth) is the center of the Solar System, is born.

1483: Martin Luther is born.

1492: Christopher Columbus sails the ocean blue.

1496: William Tyndale is born.

1501: Luther enters university.

1505: Luther joins the Monastery.

1509: John Calvin is born.

1509: Henry VIII becomes King of England.

1513-16: Luther’s spiritual agony over the question, “How can a man be right before a righteous God?” By the work of the Spirit, Luther discovers that true righteousness is only through Jesus Christ. He then begins to criticize church leaders.

Oct 31, 1517: Reformation Day—Martin Luther posts 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg.

1520: Luther refuses to recant. The Pope issues Papal Bull, giving Luther 60 days to recant his belief. Luther publically burns it. 

1521: The Pope excommunicates Luther from the church--thereby condemning him to hell by the highest authority of the “church.”

1521: At the Diet of Worms, Luther is declared a heretic. Fearing for his life, Luther goes into hiding for 11 months. During this time, he translates the New Testament into German. 

1525: Luther marries former nun, Katharina von Bora.

1545: Henry VIII wants to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had not yet had a male heir. He leaves Roman Catholic church so that he can divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn. He then makes himself head of Protestant Church.

1536: John Calvin’s Institutes were first published. William Tyndale is martyred. 

1546: Martin Luther dies.

1553: Edward VI dies at 15 and with him dies any political hopes that the Monarch will support the Reformation. “Bloody” Mary becomes Queen and she is violently pro-Catholic.

1558: Elizabeth I takes the throne. With the “Elizabethan Compromise,” the queen sought to unite the church. This Compromise meant that the church would hold Protestant doctrine, but would be externally Catholic.

1558-1660: The Reformation continues in England and Wales,

1559: John Knox begins Reformation in Scotland.

1564: John Calvin dies.

With all of this in mind, we can better understand how God was using each of these things for the good of His church and His glory.

How was God ruling over all?

How was God ruling over all—not just the theological realms? 

First, we see this in the realm of Academia. Ad Fontes means, “go back to the sources.” Ad fontes is a call to read the original source, the first text. We’re able to go back to the Scripture and study it in its original language.

Second, it was an Age of Discovery. Columbus landed on a New World. Copernicus showed we are not, after all, the center of the universe. The Gutenberg Press circulated knowledge and information for the common man.

Third, we also see God’s rule in the Social Realm. Prior to the Bubonic Plague, it is estimated that the world’s population was around 400 million. But the plague took about 75 million lives. These events sobered and turned men’s hearts to eternity and the frailty of human life.

Fourth, we see God’s rule in the Political Realm. There was an utter inability of the Roman Catholic Church to enforce its will on all regions of Europe as it once was able to do. 

Throughout all of these realms, the gracious rule of an all-sovereign, all-powerful King brings about His good purposes.

There are two dangers we should heed:

  1. Modern historians find it very hard to understand the motivation of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin. They don’t have a category for the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ. But these men really were giving their lives for the spreading of the true gospel and for the honor and glory of God.
  2. Don't lift these men up as “Super Saints." These men were extraordinarily talented, yes, but they were also flawed, fallen men. God used them, but they were real men who struggled with sin. God can orchestrate His good plan even through flawed souls.

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Show Notes

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion

Robert Godfrey, Insights into Luther, Calvin, and the Confessions: Reformation Sketches

John Calvin, A Guide to Christian Living

T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin

Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther

James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism