Protestantism Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church continued to assert its primacy of position. The growth of the papacy had paralleled the growth of the church, but by the end of the Middle Ages challenges to papal authority from the rising power of monarchical states had resulted in a loss of papal temporal authority. An even greater threat to papal authority and church unity arose in the sixteenth century when the unity of medieval European Christendom was irretrievably shattered by the Reformation. Martin Luther was the catalyst that precipitated the new movement. His personal struggle for religious certainty led him, against his will, to question the medieval system of salvation and the very authority of the church. His chief opposition was Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who, due to multiple circumstances, was unable to impede Luthers movement.
He opposed the Catholic doctrine of faith and good works for salvation, instead proposing a doctrine of salvation through faith. His publishing of the Ninety-Five Theses, which covered the abuse of indulgences, is often seen as the beginning of the Reformation movement. However, the movement was not only confined to Luther’s Germany. Native reform movements in Switzerland found leadership in Ulrich Zwingli, who eventually sought an alliance with Luther and the German reformers, and especially in John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion became the most influential summary of the new theology. On most important doctrines, Calvin was in agreement with Luther. Calvin differed from Luther in his belief in the concept of predestination, derived from his belief in Gods supreme authority. This concept became the central focus of succeeding generations of Calvinists.
One of the more radical Reformation groups, the Anabaptists, set themselves against other Protestants as well as against Rome, rejecting such long-established practices as infant baptism and sometimes even such dogmas as the Trinity and denouncing the alliance of church and state. They believed in nonviolence and strict separation of church and state, equality, and voluntary congregations. England during the Reformation was one of continuous change. The English Reformation, provoked by the marital troubles of Henry VIII, reflected the influence of the Lutheran and then of the Calvinistic reforms, but went its own “middle way,” retaining both Catholic and Protestant elements. Following Henrys reign, Edward VI moved the Church of England toward Protestantism, followed immediately by a reversion to Catholicism by Mary I.
Elizabeth then reverted to Protestantism, and tried to merge Catholicism and Protestantism into the Anglican church. The Protestant Reformation did not exhaust the spirit of reform within the Roman Catholic church. In response both to the Protestant challenge and to its own needs, the church summoned the Council of Trent, which would not compromise with the Protestants by reaffirming traditional teachings, making both faith and good works necessary for salvation. They reestablished the sacraments, relics, clerical celibacy, and the practice of indulgences. Responsibility for carrying out the actions of the council fell in considerable measure on the Society of Jesus, which was grounded on the principles of absolute obedience to the papacy and to militarily protect the word of God.
The chronological coincidence of the discovery of the New World and the Reformation was seen as a providential opportunity to evangelize those who had never heard the gospel. Trent on the Roman Catholic side and the several confessions of faith on the Protestant side had the effect of making the divisions permanent. In one respect the divisions were not permanent, for new divisions continued to appear. Historically, the most noteworthy of these were probably the ones that arose in the Church of England. The Puritans objected to the “remnants of popery” in the liturgical and institutional life of Anglicanism and pressed for a further reformation.
Because of the Anglican union of throne and altar, this agitation had direct political consequences, climaxing in the English Revolution and the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Just as many other denominations that would form such as the Quakers and Nonconformists, Puritanism found its most complete expression, both politically and theologically, in North America, where denominations could find some sanctuary from the persecution of the homeland.