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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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6. Reformation as a Historical Period. The idea of
reformation has come to be very closely associated with
the Protestant movement as an historical epoch. In
more recent ecumenical days the term “counter-
reformation” has given way in historical literature to
the more generous designation of “Catholic Reforma-
tion” in order to bring out the positive side of the
Catholic response to Protestantism. How the concept
came to be used so exclusively to designate not only
a development within church history but as a term for
an entire era of European history in general is an
interesting question and not at all so obvious as one
might suppose. For Luther himself did not use the term
to describe his movement as a whole. Luther used the
concept in the old legal sense and not in a utopian
apocalyptic sense. He spoke of reformation as the
creation of something new only in the context of the
reform of the universities and its faculties. He rarely
spoke of himself as a reformer or an innovator, seeing
himself rather as a mere vehicle used by Christ the
Word to effect change. He wished to “let the Word
rule” and not personally to lead a reform. While he
drank beer with Amsdorf, he opined, the Word of God
went forth into the world creating tumults. Only in
his early years did Luther use the term reformation
at all. The young Luther made his most comprehensive
statement regarding “reformation” in his Resolution
to Thesis 89:
“The Church is in need of a reform—
which is not the duty of one man, the pontiff, or of
many cardinals (as the most recent council has proved
both points), but of the whole world, even of God
alone. But the time of this reform is known to Him
alone who has founded the times” (Weimar Ausgabe,
I, 627, 27ff.; Schmidt, 1964). Luther did not exult about
effecting a reformation of the Church nor did he hope
to achieve it once for all times.

The term “reformation” was applied to the new
evangelical church orders which replaced the pre-
Reformation territorial ecclesiastical orders. In 1526
Luther himself drew up “The German Mass and Order
of Divine Service” in which he laid down the principle
that every church order had to promote faith and love.
When it ceased to do so, it had to be set aside quickly
and decisively in favor of one more conducive to true
spiritual life. An evangelical church order should never
lend itself to legalism or to hierarchical tyranny as in
the case of the papal order with its canon law. Uniform
church orders were justified only insofar as they were
necessary for right doctrinal and sacramental practice.
The church orders usually contained first a section on
dogma in which the agreement of the territorial church
with the general Lutheran confessions was demon-
strated. There followed then the rules for liturgy, hold-
ing of church offices, organization of church govern-
ment, discipline, marriage laws, school ordinances,
salaries, alms, and the like. The adoption of the new
church orders (Kirchenordnungen) in territories as they
turned Protestant was viewed as a formalization of
ecclesiastical reformation and occasionally, as in the
case of the “Cologne Reformation” of 1543, the term
was specifically used.

Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) was reticent about
using the term “reformation” even in the old legal
sense. In the document of the Schmalkald Diet of 1537
the superscription De iure reformandi comes from a
strange hand. Only when the emperor in his proposal
of 1544 announced a Christian reformation did the
Saxons feel justified in assembling their recom-
mendations in the “Wittenberger Reformation” of
1545. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1548 a Reformation


guter policey was established. In the battle against the
Leipzig Interim in 1550 Pfeffinger and the conservative
Lutheran Flacius Illyricus undertook “the reformation”
of various rites such as confirmation. In his funeral
oration for Luther and again on the second anniversary
of Luther's death, Melanchthon evaluated Luther's
work and the reform effort, but without using the term
“reformation.” He distinguished five periods of church
history each of which was characterized by certain key
people and outstanding accomplishments. In the final
fifth period of church history Luther, Melanchthon
asserted, had relit the light of the gospel, but it was
really God who called the Church back to the pure
sources in the apostles and prophets. He still viewed
Luther as standing in a long line of teachers in the
one Church extending through all the past centuries
(Maurer, 1961).

The Lutheran church historians adopted this position
on the place of Luther and his work in church history.
Flacius Illyricus in his Zeugen der Wahrheit (Catalogus
testium veritatis,
1556; “Witnesses of Truth”) and the
Magdeburg Centuries (begun in 1559) referred to ref-
ormations in the Middle Ages in the old legal sense
and saw the late medieval reform ordinances as
prophetic of Luther's work. The Lutheran historian
Veit Ludwig von Seckendorf, author of the famous
Historia Lutheranismi, first equated Lutheranism and
Reformation. In 1688 he wrote against the Jesuit Louis
Maimbourg of the Lutheran movement as the reforma-
tio religionis ductu Dr. Martini Lutheri.
He spoke of
the Reformation as the “purification of the condition
of the church.” By this time general historians were
operating with the concept of modern times as distin-
guished from the Middle Ages, with the Reformation
and the Renaissance as twin sources of modernity. In
1685 the Lutheran historian Cellarius, schooled in
humanist cultural values, referred to the Middle Ages
as the medium aevum.

Like Luther and the other magisterial reformers,
Calvin was concerned with the substance of Christian
reform, not with personally leading a movement as
such. His intention was to affirm the preeminence of
Jesus Christ against all corruptions in religion which
diminish the centrality and sufficiency of Christ in
theology and in the life and form of the Church. His
teaching was not a new legalism or a gloomy predes-
tinarianism, but his aim was to promote the truth of
the gospel and the proper form of the church, as he
patiently explained in his Reply to Sadoleto (1539). In
his preface to Olivetan's New Testament (1535) Calvin
already laid down the determinative ideas of his theol-
ogy which remained the leading themes to the final
edition of his Institutes: man's blessedness is acknowl-
edging God as the source of good; the heart of Scrip
ture is Jesus Christ; and the Gospel is the Word of
God which confers faith. Calvin answered the question
of the religious meaning of “reformation” very
explicitly in a treatise On the Necessity for Reforming
the Church
(1543). He described Luther as a prophet
who spoke out for the Gospel against apostasy. He
denied the charge that the reformers were disturbing
the peace, laying the blame on those who had brought
the Church to a low spiritual estate, citing the words
of Elijah to Ahab: “I have not troubled Israel, but thou
and thy father's house in that ye have forsaken the
commandments of the Lord.” The reformers, he held,
were merely obedient to their vocation to preach the
Gospel. For Calvin, then, “reformation” meant pro-
claiming the Gospel of “good news of salvation” and
leaving the consequences to God. In doctrine and
practice the Church had come to diminish the purity
of the gospel by impairing the glory of Christ. The
saints were invoked instead of Christ alone. Men were
led to rely upon their own works of righteousness
rather than upon Christ's all-sufficient merit and mercy.
Sacramental practice was so distorted as to minimize
the importance of Christ as the central reality. Refor-
mation for Calvin, as for Luther, meant the rediscovery
and renewed proclamation of the Gospel (Gerrish,

A somewhat different emphasis is evident in the case
of the Zurich reformer. The Zwinglian “reformed”
reading of the reformation was rooted in the Erasmian
notion of a “renaissance of Christendom.” Zwingli
himself spoke of a “restoration of Christendom.” In
later years after the Zurich and Genevan Swiss
Protestant movements had been amalgamated in com-
mon confessions, this way of looking at the reformation
was given expression also by men in the Calvin tradi-
tion. In 1580, for example, Theodore Beza in his church
history referred to the “renaissance and growth” of the
reformed churches.

The radical or left-wing reformers, very commonly
in that century lumped together under the term
Anabaptists, had a bewildering variety of reformation
conceptions. A few ideas appear, however, with con-
siderable regularity and consistency. They expected
that in their sectarian groups, having separated from
official church and state, they would anticipate in the
here and now the coming of the kingdom of God. They
were for the most part pacifists and sought to imitate
Christ and to reestablish the pristine purity of the
primitive church. Whether Anabaptists, Spiritualists,
or Evangelical Rationalists, the radical reformers were
alike in their dissatisfaction with the Lutheran-
Zwinglian-Calvinist forensic formulation of justifica-
tion and original sin or predestination that seemed to
them to undercut the significance of their personal


religious experience. They believed that holiness or
sanctification could be achieved by the saints in the
here and now. They were martyr-minded like the early
Christians and society obliged them by persecuting
them horribly as subversives. But they persisted in
exercising those personal and corporate disciplines by
which they strove to imitate in their midst what they
construed from the New Testament texts to have been
the life of the original apostolic community (Williams,

If the Lutheran church historians contributed to the
development of the idea of the Reformation as an
historical epoch, the Swiss reformed church historians
also contributed to this usage. In the historiography
of the reformed churches the Reformation was most
often dated from 1516 with Zwingli as “the first of
all to reform the church.” The eighteenth-century
Enlightenment church historians accepted the Refor-
mation as a period, and added new motifs of inter-
pretation. With Johann Lorenz Mosheim, the “founder
of modern church history,” the view of the Reforma-
tion as a general European phenomenon gained wider
currency. He introduced the conception of the church
as a kind of sociological entity and stressed the impor-
tance of political factors. The Groningen professor
Daniel Gerde in his Geschichte des im 16. Jahrhundert
allenthalben in Europa erneuerten Evangeliums
gave to the Reformation a trans-confessional character
and treated it as a European movement. During the
nineteenth century as a result of the fervor generated
by the wars of liberation and the rise of nationalism,
the Reformation was viewed once again as a German,
French, or English phenomenon by many historians.
Historicism and a stress upon the social aspects of the
Reformation introduced new emphases. Thus the idea
of the Reformation as an historical conception was
enlarged from the narrower religious and ecclesiastical
framework to include the entire social, political, and
cultural development of Europe at the beginning of
“modern times.”