A Whirlwind Tour of the Protestant Reformation

John Wycliffe (1330-84)

Attacked what he saw as corruptions within the church, including:

  1. The sale of indulgences
  2. Pilgrimages
  3. The excessive veneration of saints
  4. The low moral and intellectual standards of ordained priests.

Wycliffe’s political ideas included:

  1. The rejection of the right to property
  2. The rejection of the hierarchical organization of society

Wycliffe also repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation, held that the Bible was the sole standard of Christian doctrine, and argued that the authority of the Pope was not well-grounded in Scripture. Some of Wycliffe’s early followers translated the Bible into English, while later followers, known as Lollards, held that the Bible was the sole authority and that Christians were called upon to interpret the Bible for themselves. The Lollards also argued against clerical celibacy, transubstantiation, mandatory oral confession, pilgrimages, and indulgences.

John Huss (1372-1415)

A Bohemian priest, excommunicated in 1410, and burned at the stake for heresy in 1415. His death lead to the Hussite Wars in Bohemia. Huss followed Wycliffe’s teachings closely, translating Wycliffe’s Trialogus into Czechoslovakian, and modeling the first ten chapters of his own De Ecclesia after Wycliffe’s writings.

  1. Believed in predestination
  2. Regarded the Bible as the ultimate religious authority
  3. Argued that Christ, rather than any ecclesiastical official, is the true head of the church.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

10/31/1517–Nails his 95 theses onto the door of Castle Church at Wittenberg. These theses were Latin propositions opposing the manner in which indulgences (release from the temporal penalties for sin through the payment of money) were being sold in order to raise money for the building of Saint Peter’s in Rome.

6/15/1520–Condemnation of his teachings.


4/1521–Diet of Worms. Luther is summoned to appear before Emperor Charles and asked to recant. He refused, declaring that he would have to be persuaded by Scripture and reason in order to do so. The statement “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise,” is probably legendary.

In Lutheran Germany, an episcopal (bishop-based) form of Church government is retained.

Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531)

Swiss theologian and leader of early Reformation movements in Switzerland.

1518–Vigorously denounces the sale of indulgences.

Zwingli believed that:

  1. The Bible was the sole source of moral authority.
  2. Everything in the Roman Catholic system not specifically prescribed in the Scriptures should be eliminated.

Under Zwingli’s leadership:

  1. Religious relics were burned.
  2. Ceremonial processions and the adoration of the saints were abolished.
  3. Priests and monks were released from their vows of celibacy.
  4. The Mass was replaced by a simpler communion service.

John Calvin (1509-64)

Calvin was a French Protestant theologian who fled religious persecution in France and settled in Geneva in 1536.

Instituted a Presbyterian form of Church government in Geneva.

Insisted on reforms including:

  1. The congregational singing of the Psalms as part of church worship.
  2. The teaching of a catechism and confession of faith to children.
  3. The enforcement of a strict moral discipline in the community by the pastors and members of the church.
  4. The excommunication of egregious sinners.

Geneva was, under Calvin, essentially a theocracy. Household conduct was rigidly inspected. Dress and behavior were subject to minute details of regulation. Forbidden activities included: Dancing, Card playing, and Dicing. Less innocuous activities such as blasphemy were subjected to the most severe punishments. Nonconformists were persecuted and even put to death. All citizens were provided with at least an elementary education so that they might read and understand the Bible.

John Knox (1513-1572)

An ardent disciple of Calvin, Knox established Calvinism as the national religion of Scotland.

1560–Knox persuades the Scottish Parliament to adopt a confession of faith and book of discipline modeled on those in use at Geneva. The Parliament creates the Scottish Presbyterian church and provides for the government of the church by local kirk sessions and by a general assembly representing the local churches of the entire country.

Henry VIII (1491-1547)

1531–Henry VIII wishes to divorce Catherine of Arag√≥n because the marriage has not produced a male heir.

His marriage normally would be illegal under ecclesiastical law because Catharine was the widow of his brother, but it had been allowed by a special dispensation from the pope. Henry claims that the papal dispensation contradicted ecclesiastical law and that therefore the marriage is invalid. The pope upholds the validity of the dispensation and refuses to annul the marriage.

Zwingli and Johannes Oecolampadius consider Henry’s marriage invalid, but Luther and Melanchthon declare it binding.

1533–Henry marries Anne Boleyn, and two months later he had the archbishop of Canterbury pronounce his divorce from Catherine.

1533–Henry is excommunicated by the pope.

1534–Henry has Parliament pass an act appointing the king and his successors supreme head of the Church of England, thus establishing an independent national Anglican church.

1536-1539–The monasteries are suppressed and their property seized.

1539–The Act of Six Articles makes it heretical to deny the main theological tenets of medieval Roman Catholicism. Obedience to the papacy remains a criminal offense. Lutherans are burned as heretics, and Roman Catholics who refuse to recognize the ecclesiastical supremacy of the king (most notably, Sir Thomas More) are executed.

King Edward VI (1537-53)

The Protestant doctrines and practices opposed by Henry VIII are introduced into the Anglican church.

1547–The Act of Six Articles is repealed.

1547–Continental reformers, such as the German Martin Bucer, are invited to preach in England.

1549–A complete vernacular Book of Common Prayer is issued to provide uniformity of service in the Anglican church, and its use is enforced by law.

1552–A second Prayer Book is published, and a new creed in 42 articles is adopted.

Mary I (1516-58)

Mary attempts to restore Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and during her reign many Protestants are burned at the stake.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

1563–Protestantism is restored.

  1. The 42 articles of the Anglican creed adopted under Edward VI are reduced to Thirty-nine Articles. This creed is closer to Lutheranism than to Calvinism.
  2. Large numbers of people in Elizabeth’s time do not consider the Church of England sufficiently reformed and non-Roman. They are known as dissenters or nonconformists and eventually form or become members of numerous Calvinist sects such as the Brownists, Presbyterians, Puritans, Separatists, and Quakers.

The Episcopal organization and ritual of the Anglican Church is substantially the same as that of the Roman Catholic Church.

James I (1566-1625)

“No Bishop, No King.” James ties the Episcopal form of church government directly to the power of kingship. This statement would serve ironically as a kind of rallying cry for the anti-prelatical and anti-Charles I forces during the English Revolution.

Charles I (1600-1649)

1637–Attempts, under the influence of Archbishop William Laud, to impose the Anglican liturgy in Scotland leading to rioting by Presbyterian Scots.

Protestant Church Government (or Polity) in this period can be broken down roughly into two camps: Episcopacy, and Presbyterianism.

The churches of Lutheran Germany and those of Anglican England are primarily Episcopal in their polity, while those of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Scotland are Presbyterian.

Episcopal vs. Presbyterian: Bishops vs. Presbyters

What exactly is the difference between an Episcopal church organization and a Presbyterian church organization? The essential difference is that between the offices of Bishop and Presbyter. In the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, a Bishop is an ecclesiastical official who, through sacramental consecration, holds special powers in the ministry, and has special administrative powers. (Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches claim apostolic succession for their bishops, while Lutheran churches do not.) The English word “bishop” is a translation of the Greek word episkopos, which means “overseer.” A presbyter does not hold such special office nor have such special powers (nor is any claim of apostolic succession made). Presbyterian churches are less hierarchical in their organization than are Episcopal churches: the Presbyterian Church takes literally Luther’s idea (developed and systematized by Calvin) of a “priesthood of all believers.” The Presbyterian Minister is conceived of as a servant to the congregation rather than as a leader of the congregation. The English word “presbyter” is a translation of the Greek presbuteros, which means “elder.”

The argument made by Calvin and later Calvinist supporters (such as the Milton of the anti-prelatical tracts of the early 1640s) of a Presbyterian church government runs as follows:

Presbyterianism is a “rediscovery” of the apostolic model found in the Greek Scriptures. (Many supporters of a Presbyterian arrangement hold it to be the only permissible form of ecclesiastical government.) This claim is based on such texts as Acts 11:30 and 15:22, which describe a church government that closely resembles that of the Jewish synagogues of the time, each of which was governed by a group of “elders” (presbuteroi, or “presbyters”). Acts 14:23, describes Paul appointing these presbuteroi in Churches he founded during his ministry. In these early congregations, the terms for presbyter and bishop (presbuteros and episkopos) were used interchangeably, and did not serve to distinguish any necessary or Biblically-prescribed hierarchical distinctions (see Acts 20:17 and 20:28). Episcopacy establishes distinctions between believers that cannot be justified by Scripture, and bishops are spiritual and temporal usurpers who are dangerous to both their flocks and to their civil rulers.

The defenders of the Episcopal structure of the English Church argue that authority for Episcopacy is found both in Scripture and tradition.

Richard Hooker argues against the Puritan notion that Scripture is the sole source of guidance for either church doctrine or church discipline.

1593–Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

  1. Contradicts the Puritan notion that Scripture was the only guide either to man’s conduct or his construction of Church government.
  2. Beyond, and before, Scripture is another source of truth–the law of nature: “an infallible knowledge imprinted in the mindes of all the children of men, whereby both generall principles for directing humane actions are comprehended, and conclusions derived from them” (Polity , I, viii, 3 1611 edition).
  3. Even without Scripture the law of nature acts to spur man to perfection and to show him his obligations to other men in society.
  4. With the law of nature God “illuminateth every one which cometh into the world,”


Bishop Joseph Hall is the most famous (and most temperate) spokesman for the Anglican Episcopal cause in Milton’s day (unlike Archbishop William Laud, Bishop Hall never ordered the removal of a dissident’s ears). Hall argues that Bishops were appointed in the early church as overseers for groups of presbyters as the church’s membership increased. According to Hall, this overseer function of the bishops served to prevent the spread of schism and heresy, helping to keep Christian worship pure and undefiled.

1640–Episcopacie by Divine Right

  1. Traces the origin of bishops and justifies hierarchy by the practice of the early church.
  2. Bishops justified by the Holy Ghost.
  3. Episcopacy–“an eminent order of sacred function, appointed by the Holy Ghost, in the Evangelicall Church, for the governing and overseeing thereof; and for that purpose, besides the Administration of the Word and Sacraments, indued with the power of imposition of hands, and perpetuity of Jurisdiction.” (Part II, p. 4)
  4. In any single church, all is done with the consent of the presbyters, but with the power of the bishops who receive their power in a direct line from the apostles.
  5. “The apostles, by the direction of the Spirit of God, found it requisite and necessary for the avoyding of schisme and disorder that some eminent persons should every where be lifted up above the rest.” (Part II, pp. 21,22)

The “typical” Presbyterian response to this line of reasoning is made by a group of ministers known collectively as Smectymnuus. (An acronym derived from the initials of Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcomen, and William Spurstowe).

1641 (February)–An Anti-Remonstrance to the Late Humble Remonstrance

  1. Antiquity is no argument for Episcopacy
  2. Bishops’ fees contrary to the customs of the early church.
  3. The distance between minister and archbishop violates the spirit of the early church.
  4. Bishops have no right to delegate deputies to preach for them or sit as judges in courts.
  5. Reviews the abuses of excommunication, commuting of bodily penance to monetary payment, and argues that the church government cannot claim divine authority because of its numerous violations of the customs of early Christianity.

1641 (June 26)–A Vindication of the Answer to the Humble Remonstrance, from the Unjust Imputations of Frivolosnesse and Falsehood

  1. Reviews further arguments against a mandatory liturgy, using the liturgies of Justin martyr and Tertullian as examples.
  2. Dissenters to the Church of England created by the Prelates, not the Puritans.
  3. Wide difference between the Reformations on the Continent and in England: “Our first Reformation was onely in doctrine, theirs in doctrine and discipline too.” (39)
  4. English bishops must trace their lineage through the hated Catholic Church, drawing “the line of their pedigree through the loynes of Antichrist.” (89)
  5. Ancient bishops never sought superior power.
  6. Ancient bishops were preaching bishops.
  7. Question: “What is the Church of England?” The Laudian Canons of 1640? The particular forms and ceremonies used?
  8. Smectymnuuns object to the appropriation by the bishops of the sole right to define the Church of England.


William Laud is perhaps most famous as the Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I, and as the force behind the Star Chamber trials of the 1630s and early 1640s.

Ordained in the Church of England in 1601, he became bishop of Saint David’s, Scotland, in 1621. Laud was made bishop of London in 1628, chancellor of Oxford in 1629, and archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Laud fiercely opposed the church reforms proposed by the Puritans, and he staunchly supported King Charles I in his battle with Parliament.

Laud, with the support of Charles, attempted to introduce the Anglican liturgy in Scotland in 1637. This resulted in a riot in Saint Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. This led to the Solemn League and Covenant of 1638, the First Bishop’s War in 1639, and finally to the meeting of the Long Parliament in 1640, by whom Laud was impeached for treason. Laud’s impeachment by the House of Commons was nullified by the House of Lords, but soon afterwards he was condemned under a bill of attainder and beheaded on 1/10/1645.


1) Acted without doubts in suspending preachers: “Nor have I by these Suspensions, hindred the Preaching of Gods Word, but of Schism and Sedition” (History of the Troubles and Tryal of . . . William Laud, ed. Henry Wharton, 1695, p. 164).

2) Refugees at fault, not him: “Nor have I caused any of his Majesty’s Subjects to forsake the Kingdom; but they forsook it of themselves, being Separatists from the Church of England; as is more than manifest to any Man, that will but consider what kind of Persons went to New-England” (Ibid).

3) “They have thrust themselves out” (p. 509).

4) No middle ground–anyone who did not worship according to prescribed ritual was a Separatist, no matter how small the deviation.

5) From Constitutions and Canons Eclesiastical (1640): “The most High and Sacred order of Kings is of Divine right, being the ordinance of God himself, founded in the prime laws of nature.” This was to be read by each parish priest four times during the year.

Why is any of this important? Who cares whether a church is governed by men called bishops or men called presbyters? The matter of how the Christian Church was organized was of the utmost importance because many English Protestants believed that, with the “overthrow” of the Roman Church, Christ was preparing “his Englishmen” to be a kind of theological lamp to the world. In John Davis’s The World’s Hydrographical description (1595) the English are “by the eternal and infallible presence of the Lord predestined to be sent unto all these Gentiles . . . to give light to all the rest of the world” (Hughes 743, n. 236). In John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) England is a “nation chosen before any other . . . a nation of prophets, of sages, and of worthies” (Hughes 743). What could be more important for such a “chosen nation” than the organization of its worship? Polity and Politics are not separate in a “nation of prophets.”

The English reformation differs from those in Germany, Switzerland, and France in two respects:

  1. England is a small country with a strong central government; therefore, unlike the continental experience of revolution splitting a country into regional factions or parties and ending in civil war, the English revolt is national. The king and Parliament act together in transferring to the king the ecclesiastical jurisdiction previously exercised by the pope.
  2. In the continental countries agitation for religious reform among the people precedes and causes the political break with the papacy. In England the political break comes first, as a result of a decision by King Henry VIII to divorce his first wife, and the change in religious doctrine comes afterward in the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I.

Basic Calvinist (Presbyterian) Doctrine can be summed up with the acronym TULIP:

Total Depravity: Man in his fallen, sinful state does “not receive the things of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned.” Fallen and unregenerate man finds himself “dead in trespasses and sin.” He is unable to help himself and cannot be delivered from this dreadful state except through the unmerited grace of God our Savior.

Unconditional Election: God has not left mankind to perish in its sin, but has from all eternity chosen to save unto himself a people which no man can number. God has chosen “us in Him before the foundation of the world.” This means that those who will be saved are those who have been chosen to be saved by the sovereign Lord, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy.” He does not base His election on any condition within man, “lest anyone should boast.”

Limited (or Definite) Atonement: Christ’s atonement was designed specifically for the redemption of His people; “I lay My life down for My sheep.” He did not shed His blood for those who will not come to Him, He has not paid the price for their sin — they will. “I do not pray for the whole world but for those you have given me.”

Irresistible Grace: Those whom He has chosen will surely come to Him. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” God sends His Holy Spirit to effectually work in the hearts of His elect for whom Christ died; “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” The “gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

Perseverance of the Saints: “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” Salvation was not merited by any, and the eternal security of His true sheep is never dependent on them, for “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” The true believer will persevere by God’s grace. Those who fall away from the faith prove that they were never really saved in the first place.

Original article no longer seems to be available on the web, but is preserved on archive.org.