Latest Thoughts on the Reformation

BRIHC Scholar Elizabeth Crawley reports on a discussion between two leading Reformation historians to mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses.

In honour of the 21st year of the Oxford Literary Festival, festival-goers this year were treated to a rarity as amongst the usual host of cookery, sport, journalism, fiction and current affairs events, there was a talk given by two of the most respected Reformation historians in the country; Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch and Professor Alec Ryrie. The two have a long relationship, MacCulloch having supervised Ryrie’s doctoral research. In fact, the talk seemed dependent on the personal relationship between the two, as the talk took the form of a conversation between them on their thoughts on the European Reformation. This meant the talk took a more spontaneous, personal form, which was an innovative format, but perhaps not the most conducive to discussing the most cutting edge Reformation research. The discussion touched upon topics that particularly interested the two historians and brought up some interesting points.

Is the Reformation a ‘car crash’?Martin Luther

The first point of the discussion was an attempt to summarise in a nutshell what the Reformation actually was. What was it? Where did happen? When did it happen? Why did it happen? And like most historians, they did not come to a definitive conclusion. In fact they both agreed that the Reformation defied any attempt at simple classification, which is probably true. To resolve this ambiguity somewhat, both MacCulloch and Ryrie described the Reformation metaphorically, as a ‘car crash’ or an ‘explosion’ respectively. Whether these are accurate terms to describe the Reformation is up to the individual. Personally, I feel these rather violent metaphors are a good way of describing the Reformation; the Reformation is such a broad and often confusing field of study that realistically any attempt to categorise it will be flawed.

The Reformation began in Wittenburg, Germany with a renegade monk named Martin Luther who published a document detailing abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. As MacCulloch pointed out, Luther did not initially intend to start a Europe-wide search for purer religion, but that is what happened. However, the Reformation was never uniform; in Germany and France it ignited devastating wars and witch-hunts, England experienced a century of political upheaval, and it triggered Catholic reform in Rome, whilst in countries like Spain or Portugal the Reformation simply did not exist. The violent words chosen by MacCulloch and Ryrie accurately reflect the violence of Reformation; the rupturing of 1000 years of Christian tradition, the destruction of countless priceless artworks, literature and buildings, the beginnings of destructive wars and the birth of new Christian churches. The Reformation dominated the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, and is both a European-wide myth and an individual process in each country, from the Holy Roman Empire to Scandinavia. However, as all of this began with one dissatisfied churchman, the idea of the Reformation as a violent but unintended accident is apt.

The metaphor of the Reformation as a ‘car crash’ also accurately encapsulates the intense emotions at its heart, as Ryrie maintained. This is especially important in England, where the Reformation is often thought of as an inevitable logical decision by the people of England designed to escape the reach of the corrupt Roman Catholic Church, in a sense a sort of proto-Brexit. In fact, the Reformation in much of Europe was the result of passionate religious feeling. Both historians also highlighted the importance of personalities, such as Martin Luther, the less pronounceable Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. For an English audience, there were surprisingly few mentions of Henry VIII, the king who brought the Reformation into England, albeit to suit his own ends. The Reformation was, for the most part, violent and chaotic, for which the description of it as a metaphorical car crash seems fitting.

Why did the Reformation happen?

Wittenburg 95 Theses doors

One central question that Diarmaid MacCulloch seemed particularly interested in was the question of why the Reformation happened, especially what theological ideas were at its heart. Although he is often seen as the father of the Reformation, Ryrie pointed out that the 95 Theses Martin Luther so famously nailed to a Wittenburg church door were intellectually undeveloped, and Luther’s gift was for incendiary and galvanising rhetoric rather than for sound argument.

MacCulloch built on this when he said that the real strength of Lutheranism was not logic but the ability to spread their controversial message through many forms. Interestingly he draws a comparison between Luther’s introduction of vernacular hymns and football crowds who also sing (I use the term lightly) songs or chants to build and show solidarity. Ryrie continued this theme of why Lutheranism succeeded by naming faith and scripture the twin poles of the Reformation. It is true that Lutheranism and ‘Reformed’ Protestantism placed a far greater emphasis on the reading of the Bible than late medieval Catholicism had done, with some problems, as the Bible frequently contradicts itself.

MacCulloch finally pinned Ryrie down on what he thought the key idea driving the Reformation was; Ryrie said that this key idea was the belief that there was no need for an intermediary between Christians and God. The Catholic church had taught for centuries that only through Catholicism could one reach heaven but Ryrie hypothesised that Protestantism in part grew out of the rejection of that idea.

Reformation or Rebellion?

This idea that the Reformation grew out of the desire by many European Christians for a more direct relationship with God led into the next big theme of the discussion; how the Reformation was as much a revolution as a religious movement. This is because the Roman Catholic church had built up a chain of command that it claimed was needed between the mass of the common people and God, but the Reformation challenged the established hierarchy of the church. At least, it did at first… Whilst Ryrie did argue that this rejection of religious hierarchy was the idea that drove the Reformation, he also pointed out that the reformers themselves quickly abandoned any idea of a more egalitarian approach to religion; Luther in his own church preferred to adapt existing structures of religion, rather than create a new egalitarian church. MacCulloch pointed out that although the Protestant churches never built the same degree of hierarchy between believer and God, Luther was repulsed by popular rebellion and by the idea that congregations could choose their own ministers. Like most movements for radical freedom, the Reformation quickly backed away from its full possibility to change European religion, and instead created new hierarchies and systems of controlling people. Both historians also pointed out that few to none Protestant regimes were as pluralistic or tolerant as is sometimes believed, in fact they could be just a repressive as their Catholic opponents.

The Reformation through our eyes

Often today we see some of the impacts of the Reformation as violent and destructive, especially events like the Dissolution of the Monasteries or the destruction of thousands of images, statues and stained glass windows. However, Ryrie commented that this view is a modern one, and that people who lived during the Reformation saw physical things in a profoundly different way. In a sense, they respected the power of images far more than us. After all, Roman Catholicism taught that images and statues had supernatural powers, but reformers saw images as deceiving people away from true faith.

John Calvin by Holbein

Therefore, reformers like John Calvin believed that by destroying images and  dissolving monasteries, they were saving the souls of believers by removing items that were distracting them from the true worship of God. MacCulloch also pointed out that reformers rarely approached images or sacred objects in the same way. Martin Luther, opposed as he was to most of the changes his ideas had spawned, tried to stop iconoclasm. MacCulloch compared the changes of the Reformation to putting on a new pair of spectacles and seeing the world in a new light; hence images and statues previously thought divine became dangerous, and the purpose of the church changed from being a go-between for earth and the divine, to primarily preaching and teaching the Word of God as written in the Bible.

The rivalry between churches

One rather startling point in the talk, was the discussion of the fact that the several strands of Protestantism that emerged during the Reformation hated each other as much as they hated the Roman Catholic Church they were rebelling against. Ryrie described how many of the reformers held different views on key issues, such as the rivalry in the early Reformation between Martin Luther, based in the German city of Wittenburg, and Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich.

Ulrich Zwingli Asper

Ryrie used the case of transubstantiation to demonstrate this. Transubstantiation was a central belief in the Roman Catholic church which taught that during Holy Communion, the bread and wine used literally became the body and blood of Christ. This belief was re-interpreted by various reformers, and the issue was really the ‘litmus test’ for Luther and Zwingli. Luther held to the traditional view that Christ was present during communion, but not as literally as Catholics believed, whilst Zwingli took a symbolic interpretation, and as the two could not reconcile their differing views on this key belief, they could never unite. Ryrie also commented on how the two strands of Protestantism regarded religious authority. Whilst both regarded churches ruled by councils positively, Luther, as can be expected, maintained that traditional belief in scholarly authority. In contrast, Zwingli, and later ‘Reformed’ Protestants believed that little intellectual expertise was required to receive knowledge from God. He also connected the different methods of government in the two cities and their theological differences. Martin Luther supported the rule by a single prince, whilst Zurich was a republic. MacCulloch in turn believes that this resulted in Luther’s traditional theological views, whilst in Zurich, there was more interest in community and a more metaphorical interpretation of the Bible. Whether Luther’s traditional views of both religion and politics are connected is an interesting idea, but personally I feel that Luther is simply not by nature a revolutionary and was entirely unprepared for the effects his incendiary writings would have. Instead his conservative views to me seem to be part of his overall profile, rather than two co-dependent aspects of his views.

The Reformation in England

Considering that the two speakers primarily specialise in the Reformation in England, it is rather surprising that so little time in the talk was spent on England at all. The only aspect of the English Reformation discussed was that both historians agreed that until Henry VIII decided he wanted to annul his marriage, English reformers were a small persecuted minority, which Ryrie claimed would have been destroyed by 1540 had Thomas More been able to have his way.

Portrait of Henry VIII

Ryrie described how Henry VIII began as an opponent of reform, until he realised that a pragmatic alliance with reform could get him the annulment he wanted. Ryrie also made some brief comments as to how radicals in the English Reformation used to be ignored, such as Anabaptists, but have now been restored a place in Reformation historiography. Overall, this lack of comment regarding England, by two historians who primarily study Reformation England was rather odd, but perhaps this omission has more to do with the limited time of the conversation.


This talk was an interesting and engaging way to hear two respected historians discuss their views on the Reformation in a more informal fashion. However, perhaps because the talk had to be accessible to the public, it did not reflect the newest movements in Reformation historiography which focus on issues such as religious identity amongst more ordinary people, the slow internalisation of Protestantism, the role of images and material and visual culture even within Protestantism and the Catholic response, among many other new strands of scholarship. In many ways, this talk was rather traditional; focusing on prominent (white male) figures, theological issues and on Protestants, rather than Catholics. The counter-Reformation barely got a mention. This is not surprising given the limited time the talk had, and the fact that the talk seemed inordinately focused on the early Reformation. This focus is interesting because the early Reformation (particularly in England) is one of the more neglected areas in current historiography. In fact Ryrie has been gradually edging away from it in his own work, considering his first book was about the early English Protestants, and his newest one is concerned with showing how the modern world was created by Protestantism. It was refreshing to hear about the wider European Reformation, as in England we often have a sort of tunnel focus on our own Reformation. In short, this talk was a fascinating way to hear how two highly-respected historians thought about a defining European event, but the views themselves were not especially challenging or innovative.

Key terms

‘Reformed’ Protestantism – Not a general term for the reformers, but instead refers specifically to the churches started by European reformers like John Calvin. Takes form later than Lutheranism and so is a sort ‘2nd wave’ church, as it emerges in the mid sixteenth century. Is realistically the most successful form of Protestantism, shares some similarities with Lutheranism, but the main theological differentiator is predestination, which is the belief that God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will be damned.

John Calvin – French lawyer and thinker cleaned up much of Luther’s ambiguities. Appears a generation after Luther in the mid-sixteenth century. The English church under Elizabeth I is arguably a Calvinist church. His teachings are also important in the formation of Puritanism.

Lutheranism – The strain of Protestantism started by Martin Luther. Strikingly similar to Catholicism in many ways, such as views on Eucharistic presence and music, but regards the pope as the Antichrist and argues for justification by faith.

Martin Luther – The monk whose 95 Theses have been credited with kick-starting the Reformation. However, his theology was actually rather undeveloped and traditional. His central belief is ‘justification by faith’ or the belief that to be redeemed by God and to reach heaven one must only have faith in God. Specifically opposed the selling by the Roman Catholic church of indulgences, or documents that promised to redeem the soul of the buyer faster, for a price.

Ulrich Zwingli – Probably the most important Reformation thinker you have never heard of. Based in Zurich, in modern day Switzerland, and gets involved in the Reformation when he and some friends were accused of breaking fasting laws by eating sausages! Contemporary of Martin Luther and agrees with him on points such as Catholic corruption and clerical marriage but they disagree on the crucial issue of Eucharistic presence. He is one of the key thinkers of ‘Reformed’ Protestantism.

Elizabeth Crawley is a BRIHC Scholar on the MA Early Modern History Course whose research focuses on religious violence in the English Reformation.