Protestant Reformation: origins and beliefs

Protestant Reformation: origins and beliefs

Frank Mobbs

Over the past 500 years, since what became known as the Reformation, about one-third of the world's Christians have formed into a host of separate Protestant Churches. In the second of his three articles on 'Which Church did Jesus establish with his authority?', Dr Frank Mobbs outlines the 16th century origins of the major streams of Protestantism from which countless others have since evolved.

Until recently there was much suspicion and hostility between Catholics and Protestants. Today, with the focus on ecumenism, and the challenge of aggressive secularism, relations have improved with extensive cooperation in areas of common concern - marriage, family, abortion, euthanasia - although fundamental doctrinal differences remain.

Most Christians, not least Catholics, know little of the origins of the Protestant Churches, and what distinguishes them from the Catholic Church. Many these days consider all Christian Churches to be much the same. The following outlines provide some brief historical background.

In AD 1500 you could not have left the Catholic Church and joined a Protestant Church. There was none to join. Today there are thousands and thousands of Protestant Churches. By 'Church' I mean an organised body with a list of its defining beliefs (subscription to which is obligatory) and a hierarchy of officers who exercise control over members.


How did Protestantism begin? Martin Luther (1485-1546) was its founder and Protestants were those Christians belonging to the Churches that separated from the Catholic Church following the time of Luther.

Some fundamental Protestant doctrines were espoused by small groups before Luther and some were supported by major Catholic theologians. But the system of doctrines which marks Protestantism was the creation of Luther.

He was an Augustinian friar and professor of Scripture in the small University of Wittenberg and also preacher to the friars and preacher in the monastery church. Holding these positions, he built up an enthusiastic group of followers, including his religious community.

Luther did not come to public attention until 1517 when, as is well known, he posted 95 theses which he wanted to debate. Important is the fact that these were printed at once and widely distributed. A genius, he published a book or pamphlet on average every two weeks for the rest of his life. Today his works are collected in 56 volumes. The printing press made Luther.

His theses dealt with minor matters but in debate with Catholic theologians he was forced to make known the fundamentals of his theology, which he had developed in lecturing on the letters of St Paul: (1) salvation by faith alone (sola fide) and (2) Scripture alone (sola scriptura). These two doctrines distinguish Protestantism.

Regarding (1), he argued that humans are perpetual sinners, incapable of doing any good, from which condition they cannot escape except by 'faith', that is by believing Christ has saved them. This 'faith' alone saves. By it God does not forgive sins - he ignores them. So does one have to do good, such as keeping the Commandments?

Luther's reply is ingenious. If one has 'faith', he cannot help doing good works. 'Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it ... Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone'. So it turns out that 'faith' includes good works. One who appears to have faith and does not do good works never had faith at all!

Regarding (2), Scripture is the only rule of faith. The Church and Tradition have little authority. There are only three sacraments. Luther produced a new doctrine of the Eucharist, but, most importantly, rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. The Lutheran Church is Luther's creation.

No central authority

He was excommunicated but was always protected by the ruler of Saxony. Printing presses carried his theology great distances, even to England. Soon his followers began destroying statues and paintings in churches. Thus vandalism became an early feature of Protestantism. He attacked monasticism, so rulers seized monastic estates thus making Protestantism popular with the upper classes.

Germany consisted of mostly small states. One after the other they outlawed Catholicism and enforced Lutheranism. Much of Germany, Scandinavia, Hungary, Poland became Lutheran. Their descendants established Lutheran Churches wher- ever they migrated. Today there are about 66 million Lutherans worldwide, of whom 250,000 are Australians (1.3% of the population).

There is no central authority for Lutherans and Luther's principle that every Christian is entitled to interpret the Bible bit him savagely when other Protestants attacked his interpretations. The principle divided Lutherans. Soon Protestantism broke into warring factions, all appealing to Scripture. The principle of sola scriptura has proved perfect for producing endless feuds amongst Christians. This principle can hardly distinguish the Church which Christ founded.


The Frenchman Jean Calvin (1509-1564) founded a version of Protestant theology and Church organisation different in important respects from Luther's. Today his heirs are generally known as Reformed Churches, such as the Dutch Reformed and the Presbyterian. But the Baptist Churches, Church of Christ, Uniting Church of Australia, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, evangelical Anglican Churches generally, and hundreds of other Churches are basically Calvinist.

One could not have joined a Calvinist Church in AD 1520. There were none.

Calvin was a genius. He published his most influential work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, when he was only 23 years old. It is one of the great works of theology, though deeply flawed. He published dozens of books, pamphlets, sermons - of which we have 2,300.

He is Protestant in that the fundamental principles of his theology are the same as those of Luther: total depravity of humans, the Bible as the only rule of faith (sola scriptura), and salvation by faith alone (sola fide). His distinctive addition is his doctrine of predestination: prior to any human's making choices, God has decreed that he or she will be saved or damned. There is nothing one can do to be saved.

Some comments: (1) This flatly contradicts the teaching of Christ, the Son of God, as a glance at the Gospels will show, e.g., Matthew 19:16-19, 25:31-46. (2) It must be the most boring doctrine invented, for if there is nothing one can do to achieve salvation, one might as well ignore the whole matter.

Calvin's disciples did not so conclude. The City-State of Geneva was in turmoil after Protestants took control. The leaders begged Calvin to lead the city. He spent 25 years there and succeeded in establishing a dictatorship. Having secured the agree- ment of the government to enforce his laws, he regulated every aspect of citizens' lives.

Five times a week all had to attend his sermons and those who left a sermon were punished. No gambling, no dancing were permitted and styles of clothing and shoes and women's hair styles were regulated with children's names restricted to those in the Bible. There were no holy days now for all were obliged to work six days a week because the Bible said, 'Six days shall you labour'

Signs of Catholicism were obliterated with statues, stained glass windows and tombs smashed while dissident Protestant theologians were sent to the stake, Calvin instigating 58 sentences of death and 76 of exile: 'Calvin had to perfection the cold ruthlessness of the righteous.' Remember Mao and his Little Red Book? And the Taliban of Afghanistan have much to learn from Calvin.

Lack of unity

The astounding fact is that hundreds of persecuted Protestants found Geneva attractive and fled there, becoming militant disciples. Geneva, though small, became the powerhouse of Protestantism. Calvin's clergy were well educated - much superior to Catholic priests of the time - while Genevans in general were drilled in Calvin's doctrines.

Calvin established a system of Church government, presbyterianism, in which committees of presbyters (elders) regulated Church affairs. Like Islamic Mecca and Cairo, Geneva exported hundreds of fanatical and disciplined missionaries. Soon they had converted Scotland through John Knox, and heavily influenced the Church of England. The 17th century English Civil War was fought by Calvinists against Anglicans with Catholic tendencies.

Today Calvinists are deeply divided, lacking anything remotely like unity. They, like Calvin, fight with Lutherans. One survey found there are 746 Calvinist denominations. They do not claim to be Christ's Church which they say is invisible and consists of the elect. Certainly it is not that visible body, consisting of saints and sinners, which we find in the New Testament and which continues as the Catholic Church.


Suppose I am in England today. I have become a Christian. I know the Lord founded a Church. I want to belong to it but I have a smorgasbord of Churches from which to choose. Two strike me as having strong claims - the Church of England and the Catholic Church. I can join one or the other. People do make that choice.

That choice was not available in AD 1500. There was no Church of England - the Church from which the Anglican Communion developed. Then, I could no more become an Anglican than I could become an Australian citizen.

King Henry VIII of England deserves full credit for bringing about the Church of England which was established by State power. The story of its foundation is well known. Henry wanted to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Ann Boleyn. The Pope would not grant permission, so Henry bullied parliament into declaring in 1534 that the Pope had no authority in England and Henry was Head of the Church. He got his divorce and also the revenues that used to go to the Pope.

Luther's doctrines were already seeping into the kingdom. Throughout the 16th century successive monarchs, using grovelling parliaments, replaced Catholic teachings and practices of the past thousand years with Protestant doctrines and forms of worship. The Thirty-nine Articles, which became the creed of Anglicanism, affirmed the fundamental Protestant doctrines of salvation by faith alone and Scripture alone and that the sacraments number two, not seven.

Severe penalties were imposed for Catholic practices, such as saying or attending Mass. The nobles were rewarded with confiscated monastic lands, thus creating a vested interest in the maintenance of Protestantism.

This is the Church of England.

English people migrated overseas, taking their Church with them. Also they became vigorous missionaries during the 19th century, mostly within the British Empire and many Anglicans suffered martyrdom for their faith in Christ.

Deeply divided

Today there are about 80 million Anglicans. But with no central authority, they are deeply divided. They acknowledge the Archbishop of Canterbury but he has no jurisdiction outside England. National Anglican Churches, such as the Australian, have their own constitutions. As well, dioceses differ markedly from each other in doctrine and modes of worship. For example, some bishops teach that God has revealed through the Scriptures that females can be ordained priests. Other bishops teach that God has revealed that only males can be ordained.

In one diocese one congregation celebrates the Eucharist as the sacrifice of Christ whilst the neighbouring parish conducts a mere remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ. Many Anglicans are proud of these differences, claiming their Church is 'comprehensive'. Others describe it as 'chaotic'.

According to Anglican authorities, the Church of England is the original Catholic Church in England. Well - er - yes, if one means that it was in the same position as the Catholic Church in France, or Sweden, or Rome. All were parts of the one Catholic Church.

The repudiation of the papacy is remarkable in the case of England because no kingdom in the Middle Ages was as devoted to the papacy as England. A Pope had sent to England St Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, and the bishops took an oath of loyalty to the Pope. The crossed keys of St Peter still adorn hundreds of churches.

In making a choice I would therefore hesitate to join an Anglican Church when it is so disunited, whilst not doubting the Christian convictions and holiness of many Anglicans.


Wanting to be faithful to Christ, I am asking: Which is the Church he founded so that I may join it? Perhaps the Methodist Churches are his.

Who are they? They are the offspring of the Church of England. In the 18th century in Britain, many people were neglected by Anglican clergy or had escaped the clergy's attention because they had moved to large towns. John Wesley and his brother, Charles, and George White- field began to preach to these people. Whitefield established congregations in America while John Wesley, an Anglican clergyman all his life, travelled over 300,000 kilometres and preached in the open air and in halls to crowds at times numbering over 10,000. I have before me extracts from his diary which show he was amazingly tough and active.

He instructed people in the basics of Christianity and brought them to repentance for their sins. He urged them to adopt a life of holiness, gradually developing an organisation to expand his work. But he departed from Anglican doctrine when he, not being a bishop, ordained clergy (priests). With that, Methodists abandoned belief in the apostolic succession, the doctrine that Christ's Church is ruled by bishops, successors to the apostles.

The three leaders differed on theology whilst holding much in common. By 1800 their followers were separated from the Anglican Church.

Today we hear little of Methodists in Australia because most of them joined Presbyterians and Congregationalists in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia. It is well known for its extensive network of charities, such as the Wesley Mission.

The beliefs of the Church are contained in the Basis of Union. Its theology is vague. It is Protestant in that it includes the doctrines of (1) justification by faith alone and (2) Scripture alone as containing the Christian rule of faith, in the sense that the Church's teaching is 'controlled by the Biblical witnesses.' The document contains an astounding assertion: 'The Uniting Church lives and works within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.'

Two-thirds of Christians - Catholics and Orthodox - deny that the Uniting Church shares the faith or unity of the One Church of Christ, so where is this 'One Church' which includes the Uniting Church?

Conflicting beliefs

Methodism, however, is highly visible in other parts of the world, mostly in Britain and the USA, numbering about 70 million adherents. Its missionary efforts have produced congregations in many countries, such as Fiji.

From its beginning it has divided and subdivided into different organisations, with different beliefs and conflicting beliefs. There are at least 40 separate Churches in the USA alone calling themselves 'Methodist'. They combine in fellowships to formulate common policies and implement them.

The Methodist movement in its disunity perfectly illustrates the consequences of adopting Luther's principles of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) and private or individual interpretation of the Bible.

John Wesley and Whitefield disagreed sharply in theology. Already one party was Calvinist and another Arminian (after Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius who modified some Calvinist doctrines). The divisions have gone on endlessly. Why not, when all Christians are inspired by God to read a Bible and interpret it for themselves?

Dr Frank Mobbs is a former lecturer in philosophy and theology at various universities and seminaries and the author of several books and numerous articles. His email address is: fmobbs@

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