The Protestant Reformation fundamentally transformed the social, political, religious and intellectual landscape of Europe, leaving a lasting imprint on our modern world. Yet few understand what really happened during this turbulent period, or realize its significance for us today.
The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s was a crucial turning point in the history of Western civilization. This momentous event fundamentally transformed the social, political, religious and intellectual landscape of Europe that had existed for over 1,000 years. It left a lasting imprint on our modern world. Yet few understand what really happened during this turbulent period, or realize its significance for us today.
The Roman Catholic church has considered the Reformation an unwarranted rebellion which produced a tragic split in Christendom. Protestants have viewed it as the hand of God working to purify the church from the evils of corruption and paganism that had accumulated over centuries. Regrettably, both of these commonly held views are misleading—and obscure what really happened.
Bible prophecy reveals that before the return of Jesus Christ, the Western world will experience another great religious movement which will attempt to unite diverse factions of professing Christians, and amalgamate the religious world into one body. This ecumenical movement will deceive millions. We need to understand why the Reformation occurred and what actually happened, because crucial facts and important lessons of history—which will facilitate this coming deception—have been forgotten and obscured.
The Reformation did not "just happen"! There were powerful causative factors. One fundamental reason was the well-documented and pervasive corruption in the Roman Catholic papacy and clergy. Popes in the late Middle Ages had mistresses, meddled in politics, hired armies and waged wars. Many clergymen lived lavishly in palaces, exploiting people monetarily and spiritually. Church offices often went to the highest bidder or were given out as political favors. Crusaders were recruited with the promise that killing infidels would forgive sins. Indulgences (spiritual pardons) were sold to raise money for the church. By the 1500s, many reformers saw that the church was corrupt, yet resistant to attempts at internal reform.
Another important factor was the invention of the printing press in Mainz, Germany in the 1440s. This made possible widespread circulation of books, pamphlets and tracts at prices that nearly anyone could afford. Access to knowledge and ideas was no longer limited to the elite. Translations of the Bible from Latin (which few understood) into commonly spoken tongues (German, French and English) allowed people to read the Bible for themselves. Bible readers discovered that many Roman Catholic beliefs and practices were contrary to Scripture! For example, the Bible plainly shows that Mary was not a perpetual virgin (Matthew 13:55–56), that Jesus alone is our Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) and that Peter, whom Roman Catholics consider the first Pope, was married (Mark 1:30; 1 Corinthians 9:5).
A third element that contributed to the Reformation was the Renaissance—the rebirth of learning, the growth of science and the emphasis on the individual and the practical. The rise of an affluent middle class, and the expanding number of universities, gave rise to a spirit of critical inquiry that clashed with the authoritative, tradition-bound approach of the Roman Catholic church. Protestant reformers were much more in tune with these trends than were their Roman Catholic peers. Reformers correctly saw that the Pope and his clergy had assumed an intermediary position, between God and people, not supported by Scripture. Although Rome attempted to suppress these ideas, the dam finally broke. The Catholic edifice shattered because its hierarchy was on the wrong side of powerful historical trends.
Did the Reformation really destroy the unity of professing Christendom? The facts of history provide informative answers. The Reformation was not the first disagreement with, or challenge to, the authority claimed by the church headquartered in Rome. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches separated in 1054ad, with the Pope and Patriarch excommunicating each other. In 1,500 years following the ministry of Jesus Christ, there had been numerous conflicts over doctrine and multiple ruptures in the so-called body of Christ. In fact, history records the continuous existence of Christians who never accepted doctrines that emanated from Rome.
The Jerusalem Church—not Rome—was the model for Apostolic Christians (Acts 15:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Galatians 2:1–2). In the second century, a controversy arose over the date and manner of keeping Passover, and whether it should be replaced by Easter. Rome promoted Easter observance on Sunday, but churches in Asia refused to support this doctrine. They continued to observe the Passover on Nisan 14 (using the Hebrew calendar), declaring that they had been taught this observance by John, the last surviving Apostle. At first, this declaration settled the validity of their case, but 50 years later, those who insisted on keeping a Nisan 14 Passover were excommunicated by a Roman bishop for holding to their practice. This "Quartodeciman controversy" continued to cause divisions in the church for centuries.
The Roman hierarchy gained control over most of professing Christendom in the fourth century, in the days of Constantine. This control was extended and maintained for more than 1,000 years. It is instructive to remember how that power was used. During this time, anyone who disagreed with decisions of Popes or church councils was censored or excommunicated. At the pinnacle of the Roman church's power, between 1000 and 1300ad, it launched Crusades against infidels and an Inquisition against heretics. The Inquisition was conducted (usually in secret) by priests who functioned as lawyer, judge and jury. Those convicted of believing or teaching contrary to Roman doctrine—Jews, Muslims, and non-conforming professing Christians—were labeled heretics. Properties were confiscated and the "guilty" were banished, imprisoned, tortured or burned at the stake. The Inquisition was instituted because "Christendom" was not united. It was in dynamic ferment, as it had been since the first century!
A far more crucial issue was that the Roman hierarchy itself was seriously divided. During the 1300s, French and Italian bishops were locked in a power struggle for control of the church. At one point there were two rival Popes. A French Pope ruled from Avignon in France. An Italian Pope ruled from Rome. Each claimed to be the universal head of the church with the right to collect the revenues of "Christendom."
The Reformation sought a return to the purity of the Apostolic Church. Many assume that this happened, yet history reveals otherwise. In their quest to purify the church, reformers asserted the Bible alone was the ultimate authority for doctrine—as Scripture states (Isaiah 8:20). They rejected the Roman idea that church councils and traditions were equal to Scripture for establishing doctrine. The role and authority of the Pope were rejected as lacking scriptural and historical foundation. History shows that there was no papal office in the Apostolic Church. The bishops of Rome assumed that position "by elevating themselves to the head of the Western church" over a period of centuries (History of Western Europe, James, et al., 1903, p. 49). While Roman Catholics claim that Jesus appointed Peter as the first Pope (Matthew 16:18–19), both Protestants and Eastern Orthodox reject this "Petrine theory." Peter's role in the first Church council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) hardly resembles that of a Pope. The Apostle James presided at that council and stated the final decision (Acts 15:13–21).
Reformers disagreed with Rome over the doctrine of Transubstantiation—the idea that during the Mass, the priest transforms bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus. Most of the reformers understood that these were symbols and not the actual flesh and blood of Christ. The reformers also rejected the ideas of purgatory, celibacy and prayers for the dead as lacking scriptural foundation. They viewed the worship of relics and statues as idolatry and a violation of the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4). The Mass, adoration of the "Virgin Mary" and the cross and the practice of praying to dead "saints", were also rejected as unscriptural practices borrowed from paganism. Many professing Christians may be surprised to learn that worship of a Madonna and child can be traced back to ancient pagan Babylon (The Two Babylons, Hyslop, pp. 19–23).
The Reformation eliminated much of the pomp and ritual, and many of the doctrines, which the Roman Catholic church had absorbed from paganism. However, the reformers carried with them from Rome many doctrines foreign to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Scripture reveals that Jesus and the Apostles kept the seventh-day Sabbath (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2), observing the Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8–11). The Bible nowhere commands Christians to observe Sunday. Roman Catholic literature acknowledges the lack of scriptural grounds for changing the Sabbath to Sunday, thus showing that Protestants who observe Sunday are following Roman Catholic tradition. The Council of Laodicea (364ad) outlawed Sabbath keeping because of anti-Jewish sentiments among professing Christians. Those who continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath were anathematized by the Roman church and persecuted by the Roman Empire.
Jesus, the Apostles and the early Church kept the biblical Holy Days (Luke 2:41–42; 22:7–16; John 7; Acts 18:21; 1 Corinthians 5:7–8), but the reformers failed to restore the observance of these festivals. The holidays celebrated by Protestants and Catholics alike (e.g. Christmas and Easter) were originally pagan festivals, only "Christianized" by Rome in the fourth century and later. As a result, both Protestants and Catholics remained unaware of the plan of God and the real purpose of life (see our free booklets The Holy Days—God's Master Plan and Your Ultimate Destiny).
For most Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, the gospel is about the person of Jesus, knowing the Lord, receiving forgiveness and going to heaven. Yet the focus of Christ's preaching was about repenting of sins, keeping the commandments and looking forward to a coming kingdom of God (Mark 1:14–15) to be set up on earth (Daniel 7:27), where the saints would rule with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 5:10; 20:4–6). The Bible states that no human being—not even David—has gone to heaven (see John 3:13; Acts 2:29–34: 13:36). Comparing the biblical gospel with the message proclaimed in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, one finds a vastly different gospel (Galatians 1:6–9). While the reformers aspired to return to Apostolic purity, they actually created a Protestant version of Roman Catholic teachings which differed from the Bible and early Apostolic Christianity on numerous points of doctrine. Ironically, Calvinist reformers even succeeded in their goal of building a "Protestant Rome" in Geneva.
Roman Catholicism did not take lightly the Protestant challenge to it's authority. It's hierarchy launched a Counter-Reformation. In scenes reminiscent of the Roman Empire's persecution of Christians, reformers were jailed, tortured and burned at the stake. During the Middle Ages, "Christian" murdered "Christian"—in spite of the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." Protestants, where they gained an upper hand, often treated Roman Catholics with similar brutality. The bloody struggles fanned by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation lasted for more than a century.
Important lessons emerge from these turbulent centuries. During the Middle Ages (ca. 500–1500ad), Roman Catholicism provided a framework for social stability when the Roman Empire crumbled. However, the first 500 years of the Middle Ages have also been called the "Dark Ages" because, under Rome's dominance, ignorance (especially of Scripture) was widespread, superstition was rampant and intellectual progress was frozen in time by tradition. The Roman Catholic church banned translation of the Bible into common tongues, effectively preventing people from reading the Bible. The widespread dissemination of Scripture that we have today was one result of the Reformation.
Roman Catholic persecution slowed the progress of the Reformation, and re-established Rome's control, especially in southern Europe—Italy, Spain, Portugal, parts of France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. As a result, many fled to North America in search of religious freedom. It is no accident of history that America was founded largely by Protestants who considered freedom of religion a basic right. Many early American colonists had experienced firsthand that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Areas of the globe where Roman Catholicism gained predominance found themselves stagnating, while the Protestant countries of England, Holland and America became driving forces of progress that shaped our modern world—a fact of history which should not be forgotten.
The Waldenses have been regarded as "the most ancient and most evangelical of the medieval sects" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed.). From their refuge in the Alpine valleys of Northern Italy, ministers (called barba) traveled throughout Europe. Most accounts trace the Waldenses to the preaching of Peter Waldo, a merchant from Lyon, in the 1100s. We are told that Waldo sought to reform the Roman Catholic church from within, and had few differences with Roman Catholic theology. He and his followers (Waldensians) were labeled heretics and excommunicated for preaching without permission.
Other early accounts, however, state that the name Waldenses (Vaudois, Valdes, Vallenses, Wallenses—valley dwellers) was derived from the valleys in Northern Italy where Christians fled during the persecutions of Diocletian (300ad). Many authors assert the attempt to link the origin of the Waldenses to Waldo was a fraud perpetrated by Catholic persecutors to deliberately obscure the antiquity of these people's beliefs (see Some Remarks upon the Ecclesiastical History of the Ancient Churches of the Piedmont, Allix, 1689, chap. 7).
The challenge of reconstructing the history and doctrines of "heretics" is compounded because most surviving accounts are from Roman Catholic persecutors. Raynerus, an Inquisitor from the 1300s, stated that the heresy of the Vaudois "was of great antiquity… some say it has been continued down ever since the time of Pope Sylvestor [314–335ad], and others, ever since that of the Apostles" (Allix, pp. 176–178). According to Raynerus, the Vaudois had major differences with Roman Catholicism. He lists 33 beliefs that he considered "errors", including: their claim to be the true Church of Christ and the Apostles' successors, their belief that the Roman Catholic church is the harlot of Revelation and their rejection of Roman Catholic feast days, purgatory, transubstantiation and prayers for the dead (Allix, p. 188). Accounts from the 1100s assert that the Waldenses (Vaudois) shared the same beliefs as Albigenses and Cathars. One account of Cathar beliefs states that they kept the Law of Moses, the Sabbath, circumcision and rejected the Trinity and the whole Roman Catholic church (Allix, p. 154). To provoke revulsion against them, opponents deliberately attributed bizarre doctrines to the Cathars.
A recent comprehensive study of the Waldenses describes different factions within the movement (see Waldenses—Rejection of the Holy Church in Medieval Europe, Cameron, 2000). During the Inquisition, those holding Roman Catholic sympathies (or seeking to save their lives) deserted the Waldenses "when the chance of papal rehabilitation and recognition beckoned" (Ibid., p. 68). Tradition holds that in the 1500s the Alpine Waldenses met with Geneva Protestants and merged, based on common convictions. Contemporary accounts, however, say that this occurred only after "much discussion." Recent research suggests that the "merger" may actually have been more of a "takeover, a suppression of old ways by new ones and of old preachers by new ministers" (Ibid., p. 7). Today the Waldensian church is part of the Protestant community—united with Methodists in Italy and Presbyterians in North Carolina.
These two conflicting claims—that the Roman Catholic church is the one true church, and that the Reformation restored Christianity to its original Apostolic purity—obscure what happened to the Church established by Jesus and the Apostles. The Church of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:2) existed down through the Middle Ages, yet few recognized it as such. But the Bible contains keys that reveal the Church's identity. Jesus said that His Church would not die but would continue to exist (Matthew 16:18). The true Church never became a prominent worldly institution, but was prophesied to be a little, persecuted flock (Matthew 10:16–24; Luke 12:32). Scripture shows that the Church would flee into the wilderness, opposed by a much more dominant and wealthy church (see Revelation 12 & 17). The true Church of God continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath, the biblical Holy Days and the biblical dietary laws (cf. Leviticus 11). That Church preached the gospel of the coming kingdom of God and the reign of the saints with Christ on this earth. It emphasized the need for repentance, the sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and obedience to the commandments. The true Church did not believe in a Trinity, an immortal soul or purgatory. It did not promote clerical celibacy, indulgences, infant baptism, prayers to the dead or the use of idols and images. It did not use the Mass as a form of worship.
Using biblical criteria, one can identify—among groups classified as heretics by Catholics and dissenters by Protestants—groups of believers who followed the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Remnants of the true Church can be found among Paulicians in Armenia in the 600s–800s, Bogomils in the Balkans in the 900s, Cathars (Puritans) and Albigenses of Southern France around 1000–1200ad, Waldenses in northern Italy in the 1200–1400s, and Lollards in England in the 1300s. Not everyone given these labels was part of the true Church, but it appears that members of the Church of God are found among these groups. Some groups retained the truth for a period of time, then compromised and lost that precious truth. Down through the centuries, the true Church of God has not embraced pagan ideas promoted by Roman Catholicism under a "Christian" label, nor has it followed doctrines Protestants carried out of their "mother church."
The Deception Ahead
What does religious history have to do with us today? Simply this—lessons of the past can warn us about the future. Bible prophecy indicates that, before the return of Jesus Christ, the world will again see a great religious movement. An influential religious leader will appear on the world scene, doing miracles and deceiving multitudes (2 Thessalonians 2:3–9). People will be deluded into believing lies because they do not know the truth (2:10–11). Many today have lost the capacity to discern between what is true and what is false—especially in religious matters. Many simply do not know Scripture, as in the Middle Ages! Many do not know the difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic teaching. Most have forgotten why the Reformation occurred, and what happened during that dynamic period. This will prove to be a costly mistake for millions!
An influential religious leader termed "the false prophet" (Revelation 20:10) will lead a great church that Scripture personifies as a fallen woman. Leaders of this church are pictured, in 2,000-year-old biblical prophecies, as wearing vestments of purple and scarlet, studded with jewels and precious stones (Revelation 17:1–6). Over the centuries, this church has meddled in politics, persecuted true saints of God and spread false religious doctrines throughout society. This church and its leader will associate with, and promote, a political leader of global stature who will gain power as a humanitarian but will turn into a military dictator, labeled a "beast" by the Bible (Revelation 13:1–10).
Once in power, that great false church will use methods of social control to prevent those who do not accept its teachings from holding a job or participating in the economy (Revelation 13:11–17). Dissenters will be persecuted and killed. While this sounds unbelievable to our modern ears, we need to remember that this church has used similar methods in the past—before, during and just after the Reformation! The Bible also indicates that this great church—called a "mother of harlots"—will mount a concerted effort to lure her estranged children back into her fold. The prophet Isaiah writes of a church called "the Lady of Kingdoms" who makes the audacious claim: "I am, and there is no one else besides me [I am the one true church]; I shall not sit as a widow, nor shall I know the loss of children" (Isaiah 47:5–8). This ecumenical movement is under way today! Professing Christians who lack knowledge of doctrinal truth, and do not understand religious history, will be deceived. Pray that this does not include you!