10 things you need to know about the Reformation

Illustration: David Shaw
Published October 11, 2017
What’s being commemorated this year?

Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, then a professor at the University of Wittenberg, nailed a copy of his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the city’s All Saints’ Church. (At least, this is what Luther’s co-reformer, Philip Melanchthon, recollected 29 years after the event. Some modern scholars have cast doubt on this detail, arguing it’s more likely he simply distributed the Theses.)

What’s the significance of this event?

Luther’s Theses were highly critical of a church practice (selling “indulgences” for the forgiveness of sin) and were written at a time of widespread dissatisfaction and unrest in the Western church. The Theses were published throughout western Europe, provoking a wave of criticism against church doctrines and practices. The Reformation—the origin of Protestantism—had begun. (The term “Protestant” arose out of a “letter of protestation” jointly issued by a number of German rulers in 1529 arguing against the church’s condemnation of Luther as a heretic.)

How did this lead to the existence of Protestant churches?

Feeling encouraged by Luther and other reformers, some communities in Switzerland began to take matters into their own hands, changing the practices in their churches. It wasn’t long before new churches began to be organized based on the doctrines of Luther and other reformers such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), Jean Calvin (1509-1564) and many others. Most historians see the Reformation as a historical period ending roughly in the mid-17th century, but of course, new Protestant denominations have continued to emerge since then.

What was Luther so upset about?

Indulgences were certificates issued by the church guaranteeing the forgiveness of someone’s sins; in the case of the dead, this could mean the release of their souls from penance in Purgatory. By Luther’s time, the church was issuing indulgences in return for “offerings” of money. A series of indulgences issued in 1515, intended to raise money for the construction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, was especially controversial, and angered Luther greatly.

What do the Ninety-five Theses say?

The Theses make no mention of the formation of a new church, but several are fiercely critical of the Pope and church at a time when enemies of either risked being burned at the stake. One of them asks, “Since the pope’s income to-day is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of indigent believers?”

Is that all the Reformation was about?

No. Luther’s attack on indulgences was really just the catalyst of a wider movement to reform the church. His Ninety-five Theses were followed by many other works critical of the church on a range of issues, and other reformers (they actually called themselves “evangelicals”) soon began to follow his example. Doctrines central to the Reformation included rejection of the authority of the pope, justification by faith and the authority of Scripture alone. Many reformers also rejected transubstantiation—the idea that the wine and bread of the Eucharist become the actual body and blood of Christ—and some scholars believe the English expression “hocus-pocus” began out of Protestant ridicule of the Latin phrase Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body”) used during the Roman Catholic mass.

What is justification by faith?

A key teaching of Luther and other reformers is that human beings are made righteous or “justified” through their faith alone, and not through their good deeds or “works.” The doctrine is greatly complicated, however, by the fact that both Protestants and Roman Catholics make a distinction between justification and salvation—and for both, salvation is not earned through human effort but is rather a free gift of God.

Was there one single idea behind the Reformation?

Maybe. Some believe the central idea of the Reformation was the primacy of the role of the individual in Christianity. For example, the Protestant doctrine of universal priesthood sees all Christians as priests in some sense, since every individual is able to access God through prayer. “We are all priests, as many of us as are called Christians,” Luther wrote in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Ministers of the church, he argued, should be seen as having authority over lay people only insofar as the people have granted this authority to them, not because they are a special class of people before God.

Some of Luther’s ideas sound very modern.

Yes. But in many other ways, the reformers were products of their era, a time of widespread prejudice and superstition. In a 1543 work, On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther called for synagogues in Germany to be burned, and any Jews who refused to convert to Christianity to be expelled from the country. (Luther’s anti-Semitic writings have been repudiated by many Lutheran organizations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.) Luther seems at times to have spoken of the Devil as having a physical presence, and he and many other reformers were highly fearful of witches.

Why is this event being “commemorated” rather than “celebrated”?

Many Lutherans say they’re “commemorating” rather than “celebrating” the 500th anniversary of Luther’s defiant act. They want to be mindful of the fact that the movement set in motion by Luther caused deep divisions, as well as reform. The Reformation fractured Western Christianity and led to persecution and wars of religion. From 1562 to 1598, seven (some historians say eight) wars of religion were fought within France alone, and up to 40% of the population of Germany is estimated to have died as a result of the Thirty Years’ War that ravaged that country from 1618 to 1648.

In a similar spirit, when the Council of Churches in Germany prepared materials for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it decided that, given the significance of the 500th anniversary, the materials should stress reconciliation as much as celebration. 


Luther: Man between God and the Devil.
Heiko A. Oberman.

Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings.
Edited and with an introduction by John Dillenberger.

Reformation: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650. Carlos M.N. Eire.

The Reformation: A History. Diarmaid MacCulloch.

The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction.
Peter Marshall.

Reformation image: David Shaw


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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