The Catholic Reformation and Missionary Movement

Jesus Christ Savior | “You should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” I Timothy 3:15

The Catholic Church reformed itself both through the positive work of renewal and through the impetus of the Protestant Reformation. Efforts at reform had already begun with the Oratory of Divine Love in Genoa in 1497. The strict order of the Theatines was founded in 1524 and made significant efforts at the reform of the parish clergy. The Capuchins were founded in Italy in 1528 to restore the Franciscan Order to its original ideals. St. Ignatius of Loyola began the Jesuit Order in 1534. Spiritual enrichment was kindled through the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

The major thrust at reform was the Council of Trent, begun by Pope Paul III in December 1545. The Council of Trent marked an important turning point for the Catholic Church, for it provided clarity on the beliefs of the Church, and ecclesiastical discipline was restored. Pope Pius IV, co-founder of the Theatines, confirmed the Decrees of the Council of Trent in January 1564. The doctrines established at Trent persist to this day.

The Council addressed three areas: doctrine, discipline, and devotion. Seven major areas were included in doctrine: that our justification was not just by faith alone, but also by hope and charity expressed in good works in cooperation with God’s grace. Both Tradition and Scripture were essential to the faith. The Latin Vulgate Bible was promoted as the only canonical Scripture. There was a clear definition of the seven sacraments. The Mass as a Memorial of the one Sacrifice of Christ was confirmed, and the Council reaffirmed Transubstantiation. The Mass, known as the Tridentine Mass, was given strict form and was celebrated only in Latin. The Latin Tridentine Mass provided unity for the universal Church, for it was the same Mass in every place and time. Discipline involved strict reform and the establishment of the seminary system for the proper and uniform training of priests. The office of indulgence seller was abolished, and doctrine on indulgences was clarified. A Bishop was allowed only one diocese and residence was required, begun by the reformer St. Charles Borromeo of Milan.

The Catholic Reformation coincided with the wave of exploration to the New World and the Far East. Catholic Missionaries accompanied the explorers on their journeys, such as Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Portuguese Vasco da Gama to Goa, India in 1498, and Ferdinand Magellan to the Philippines in 1521.

St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) exemplified the missionary movement, and has been recognized as second only to the Apostle Paul in his evangelical efforts. The patron saint of missionaries, Francis Xavier sailed from Lisbon, Portugal and landed in Goa in 1542. His humble way had great impact on the local people, and he trained the young in the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. He was soon reported to have baptized 10,000 a month. He then headed to Cape Comorin, the southern tip of India, where he made many conversions of the fishermen there. Further travels took Francis Xavier to Malacca in Malaysia in 1545 and then to Japan in 1549.

Fr. Andres de Urdaneta and the Augustinian monks sailed to Cebu, Philippines in 1565. Upon discovery of Santo Nino (the Image of the Infant Jesus left by Magellan), they began the conversion of the Philippines to Catholicism.

The Missionary Franciscan Toribio de Benavente arrived in Mexico in 1524. He was a self-sacrificing man dedicated to protecting the natives, and received the name Motolinia for his life of poverty. He recorded in his book History of the Indians of New Spain the dramatic conversions following the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Dominican Bartholomew de Las Casas first went to the West Indies in 1502 as a soldier, but on viewing the horrendous enslavement of the native Indians through the Spanish encomienda system, was ordained as a Dominican priest in 1523, the first ordination in America. In his role as human rights advocate for the Indians, he is considered an early pioneer of social justice.

The Jesuits were also noted for early missionary efforts to North America, such as Father Andrew White, who accompanied the Calverts to Maryland in 1634, Isaac Jogues to Quebec in 1636, and Jacques Marquette to Michigan in 1668. Missionary efforts would continue to the New World for years to come.

Our anonymous author is a physician and a Masters graduate in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio. He teaches Sunday Bible Class at St. James Catholic Church and serves both Pastoral Care and the Medical Staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

The Protestant Reformation

Jesus Christ Savior | The Protestant Reformation resulted from the failure of the Catholic Church to reform itself in time.

The dark side of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries witnessed the errant Fourth Crusade to Constantinople in 1204, the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathari in 1209, and the beginning of the Inquisition which became severely punitive. The Papacy suffered a great loss of respect during the Avignon Papacy (1305-1378) and especially during the Papal Schism (1378-1417), when two and at one point three men declared themselves Pope and opposed each other. The Papal Schism had to be resolved by Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg and the Council of Constance 1414-1417, which finally deposed all three Popes and chose Martin V to continue the Papacy. However, the Council also condemned John Hus, the Prague reformer who believed in the priesthood of all believers and the reception of Communion through bread and wine; he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. Another victim of the Inquisition was St. Joan of Arc, who saved France during the Hundred Years War with England. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 in Rouen, France. The Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century was particularly ruthless.

The lack of Church funds led to even further corruption, including simony and the selling of indulgences. For example, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz had to pay Rome ten thousand ducats for the right to hold three dioceses at once, and agreed to a three-way split with the Roman Curia and the Fugger Banking firm from the proceeds of the selling of indulgences.

These events led many to question the compassion and integrity of the Church. The unity of Tradition and Scripture went unchallenged through the Patristic Age and thirteenth century scholasticists such as St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas. But the unity of Scripture and Tradition began to be questioned with the decline of the Church. The Belgian Henry of Ghent believed that one should first have the duty to follow Scripture rather than a Church that became one in name only. The English Franciscan William of Ockham (or Occam) was known for the principle of Occam’s Razor, that one needs to reduce everything to its simplest cause. Ockham (1288-1348) theorized on three possibilities of the relation of Scripture and the Church. First there was Sola Scriptura, that one could obtain salvation by following Scripture alone; second, that God does reveal truths to the universal Church, an ecclesiastical revelation supplemental to apostolic revelation; and third, the concept of orally transmitted apostolic revelation parallel to written Scripture. Ockham believed that one could reach God only through faith and not by reason. He wrote that universals, such as truth, beauty, and goodness, were concepts of the mind and did not exist, a philosophy known as Nominalism. Thus began the division of the realm of faith from the secular world of reason.

The rise of Nationalism led to the end of Christendom, for countries resented any effort to support Rome, especially in its dismal state. Dissemination of new ideas followed the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany; his very first printing was the Latin Vulgate Bible in 1456.

The stage was set for the reform-minded Martin Luther (1483-1546), the Augustinian monk of Wittenberg, Germany. He received his doctorate in theology in 1512, and then taught biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg. His study of Scripture, particularly St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, led him to believe that salvation was obtained through justification by faith alone. At first, his only interest was one of reform when he posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church October 31, 1517.

But the intransigence of the Church and poor handling of the situation by the Pope and Curia only worsened matters, such that a break was inevitable. In a July 1519 debate with the Catholic theologian Johann Eck, Luther stated that Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – was the supreme authority in religion. He could no longer accept the authority of the Pope or the Councils, such as Constance. In 1520 Luther published three documents which laid down the fundamental principles of the Reformation. In Address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther attacked the corruptions of the Church and the abuses of its authority, and asserted the right of the layman to spiritual independence. In the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he defended the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance, but criticized the sacramental system of Rome, and set up the Scriptures as the supreme authority in religion. In The Freedom of the Christian Man, he expounded the doctrine of salvation through justification by faith alone. The Augsburg Confession of 1530, written by Philip Melanchthon and approved by Martin Luther, was the most widely accepted Lutheran confession of faith.

Once Sola Scriptura became the norm, it became a matter of personal interpretation. Huldrich Zwingli of Zurich, Switzerland was next, and he broke with Luther over the Eucharist, but his sect died out. The Anabaptists separated from Zwingli as they denied the validity of infant baptism; they survived as the Mennonites. Jean Calvin published his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, and influenced John Knox and the Presbyterians of Scotland; the Huguenots of France; the Dutch Reformed; and the Pilgrims and Puritans. While he agreed with Luther on the basic Protestant tenets of sola scriptura, salvation by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers, he went even further on such issues as predestination and the sacraments. George Fox, the son of Puritan parents, founded the Quakers in England in 1647.

King Henry VIII wrote a defense of the seven sacraments, but when refused an annulment from Catherine of Aragon, he had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1533. The new Archbishop Thomas Cranmer married Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn that same year. St. Thomas More refused to attend the wedding, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and later beheaded in 1535. Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, and then destroyed the Shrine of the martyr St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170) at Canterbury Cathedral in 1538. The Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549 and the Anglican Church of England was established. Two major sects that split off from the Anglicans were the Baptists, founded by John Smyth in 1607, and later the Methodists, founded by John Wesley and his brother Charles.

Our anonymous author is a physician and a Masters graduate in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio. He teaches Sunday Bible Class at St. James Catholic Church and serves both Pastoral Care and the Medical Staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

The Reformation’s Legacy in the Birthplace of Calvinism

by Casey Chalk | Yet another descendant of Calvinism and its rejection of traditional ecclesial, episcopal authority is the aggressively secularist, globalist moralism of such international institutions as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the International Organization for Migration, all of which have offices in Geneva. (image: Wikicommons, Cathedral Saint Pierre in Geneva, Switzerland)

I got to Geneva too late. I should have gone ten years earlier, back when I was what is called in the Calvinist world “TR”—“Totally Reformed”—meaning a diehard, uncompromising Calvinist. I was once a student at a prominent Reformed seminary, reading the brightest lights in the Calvinist world, including, of course, the great Genevan theologian himself, John Calvin. Professors at my seminary and pastors of Presbyterian churches sang praises of Geneva, that great homeland of Calvinism that lies only a stone’s throw from the original L’Abri Fellowship, founded by twentieth-century Reformed thinker Francis Schaeffer. I yearned to see Geneva. Yet that anticipation and excitement has long since dissipated, or perhaps it drowned when I swam the Tiber for Rome. What I found, as I wandered historic Old Geneva, is a void and colorlessness reminiscent of a Reformation-era church stripped of every last embellishment.

My first stop during my pseudo-pilgrimage was the Cathedral of St. Pierre, built in the twelfth century upon the ruins of earlier cathedrals dating back to the fourth century. Presumably at one time it was full of color, imagery, and statues. Now, post-Reformation, the interior of the cruciform, late-Gothic church structure is eerily vacant, stripped of every vestige of Catholicism. There is no rood screen, no side chapels, and no decorative art apart from simple images on a few stained glass windows. All is vast, sparse, whitewashed silence—there is nowhere to aim one’s genuflection and nothing to draw the eye’s attention but empty crosses. In an irony that cannot be lost on those responsible for the building’s upkeep, one of the few extraneous items is Calvin’s personal chair, situated prominently near the pulpit where he preached. One wonders what pronouncements the Frenchman, who rejected the Chair of St. Peter, offered ex cathedra.

Next to St. Pierre is the International Museum of the Reformation. The gift shop where I purchased my ticket sold, among various history and theology texts, copies of Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” comic books. The various rooms featured a summary of the successive generations of the Reformation and post-Reformation. Oddly, each exhibit included a summary noting that the epoch in question featured many who questioned traditional Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, miracles, or the infallibility of Scripture. If each sequential generation was defined by doubts regarding the core tenets of the Christian faith, no wonder there are so few Calvinists left! It would seem that an unavoidable consequence of the early Reformers’ rejection of Church authority is a skepticism towards any authority, Holy Scripture included.

Maybe the museum curators are simply being introspective and honest about the consequences of the Reformation. This certainly appeared to be the case in the final exhibit, which charted the fruits of sixteenth-century Protestantism in the modern era. Various placards attributed a broad diversity of theological and ecclesial movements as well as theologians and evangelists to the first Reformers, including Aimee Semple McPherson, the Crystal Cathedral, Joel Osteen, charismatic movements, process theology, feminist theology, Death of God theology, Unitarians, biblical criticism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich among many others. In Catholicism, it is joked that “here comes everybody.” In Protestantism, one might instead say, “Here everybody chooses.”

I told a museum employee that there was no mention of Protestants who had judged the Reformation a mistake and thus returned to Catholicism. He looked perplexed, as if this was preposterous. “In this part of the world,” he declared, “one would not see such a thing.” I cited Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, with whom he was unfamiliar. I suppose I could have offered Swiss-born Adrienne von Speyr or French-born Louis Bouyer, though I doubt it would have mattered. He simply shrugged his shoulders and remarked: “Well, anyway, all these faiths are so close together—there’s little difference.” It is a sentiment quite common in the West. Though, if true, why was a Reformation required, and what purpose does this museum serve? Is it akin to some roadside historic marker, meant less to instruct than to note “The Reformation happened here”?

In truth, the first Reformers confronted legitimate crises. The Catholic Church of Luther’s and Calvin’s day suffered under the weight of tremendous corruption and theological confusion. The Reformers, though I now perceive them mistaken, earnestly believed they were doing Christendom a great favor. Indeed, it was a time of tremendous spiritual fervor and anticipation. Yet it soon devolved into bloody conflict. The Thirty Years War took the lives of approximately one third of the population of the German states (though one cannot ignore the political motivations of both sides); the eight Protestant-Catholic wars of France resulted in the deaths of three million people. The intellectual and spiritual exhaustion that must have enveloped Europe in the aftermath of these conflicts helps explain, though it does not justify, the Enlightenment and its cynicism towards institutional Christianity, be it Protestant or Catholic.

Nevertheless, a visit to Geneva makes the legacy of Calvin and his cohorts painfully clear. There is the disturbing diversity of beliefs and traditions that stem from the Reformation (made illuminatingly clear in an ever-expanding ecclesial family tree available in the gift shop for ten Swiss francs!). One may also visit the International Monument to the Reformation in a nearby park, where, included with Calvin and other early Reformation figures, there is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, the English Puritan butcher who committed genocide against a fiercely independent Irish people who refused to abandon their Catholic faith. Ironically, few Calvinists (or even practicing Christians) remain in the city that once served as the center for Reformed missionary activity.

This is not to say that religion is absent from Geneva. Yet another descendant of Calvinism and its rejection of traditional ecclesial, episcopal authority is the aggressively secularist, globalist moralism of such international institutions as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the International Organization for Migration, all of which have offices in Geneva. In a way, they carry on the unique character and mission of Calvin—who, while lauding the individual conscience, demanded fealty and obeisance to his unquestioned supremacy—by arrogantly demanding the world accept their own moralistic, individualistic, tradition-eschewing worldview. I am not suggesting that Calvin would be proud of modern Geneva, though his own repudiation of tradition and authority (he even banned Christmas!) inevitably set this course in motion. What was once a spiritually vibrant city is now as spiritually impoverished as the cathedral in which Calvin once preached.

Casey Chalk is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.

The Time Has Come for A New Counter-Reformation

by Duncan G. Stroik | We need an architecture today that can do the same in response to the second reformation. It must symbolize the antiquity, universality, and beauty of the Church, as Vignola’s Gesu and Palladio’s Redentore did in the sixteenth century. This will mean an employment of art and architecture that is evangelistic and catechetical. (image from Pixabay: Dresden Elbe Historic Center Along the Saxony River)

We need a new Counter-Reformation in sacred art and architecture. What was the Reformation’s effect? First, it preached iconoclasm, the rejection of the human figure in religious art. Second, it reoriented worship, so that people gathered round the pulpit rather than the altar and the baptismal font became more important than the tabernacle. At the same time, it lessened the distinction between the clergy and the laity, creating more equality and decreasing hierarchy.

Third, the Reformation taught a functionalist view of worship, rejecting anything “unnecessary.” The altar should not have anything on it, for example, and churches should be designed according to seating capacity, with sight lines like a theater. Fourth, it elevated the quotidian over the sacred. Churches are thought of more as meeting houses than sacred places. They’re designed to be intimate rather than awesome.

These churches did not, to put it another way, express the Terribilità, the awesomeness of God. What have we been living through for the past sixty years? A second reformation, only this one came from within. All four of those points characterize mainstream Catholic church building since 1960.

And what do we need in response? A second counter-reformation. One that learns from the first Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries how to make a creative and serious response to the iconoclasm, functionalism, egalitarianism, and “quotidianism” of our time.

The New Counter-Reformation
And not just in our church-building and our ideas of church architecture. In the Counter-Reformation bishops were commanded to return to their dioceses and to take care of their flock, to become the chief teachers of the diocese. Priests were to celebrate mass daily, laity go to mass and receive Communion more often, and better preaching and more confession were promoted. Eucharistic adoration was emphasized through the joining of the tabernacle to the altar, as well as the forty-hours devotion. There was a new emphasis on catechesis and education, including the invention of the seminary for the training of priests.

These developments pushed the Church to renew her commitment to making her churches and her liturgies as beautiful as the Faith itself. She employed art, architecture, music, and liturgy to draw all to the church and then to uplift their minds to those things that are eternal. Elizabeth Lev brilliantly tells the story of Counter-Reformation Art in her new book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art.

We need an architecture today that can do the same in response to the second reformation. It must symbolize the antiquity, universality, and beauty of the Church, as Vignola’s Gesu and Palladio’s Redentore did in the sixteenth century. This will mean an employment of art and architecture that is evangelistic and catechetical. Buildings that are icons on the outside, large and beautiful, with warm yet awe-inspiring interiors that are foci of the community. Churches must express for modern people the Terribilità.

We need a recovery of ancient principles and a restoration of what is timeless and classic. The basilica form and the baldacchino, for example, as well as altar rails, side altars and shrines, solemn confessionals, a place set aside for baptism, and saints buried beneath the altar or relics visible for veneration.

The sanctuary should be set apart, raised up to be the most beautiful part of the church. It should be the focus and the identity, liturgically and devotionally.

We need to revive the iconographic program, the creation of a narrative within the whole building. We can’t settle for the “America formula” of a crucifix above the altar, Mary on the left, and Saint Joseph on the right. Churches need to be like a good book that can be re-read, like a good symphony listened to over and over, with new things always seen or discovered.

That means the commissioning of custom art should be a priority: durable and high-quality materials shaped by highly skilled craftsman and top-quality artists and architects who can employ inventiveness in developing the tradition. No copies or regurgitation. No off the shelf statues. New paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and murals push the artists to develop new and authentic ways of expressing the timeless truths.

Not Antiquarian
This does not mean antiquarianism, employing a particular style, or trying to go back to a golden age, whether the 1950s or a Romantic notion of the Middle Ages, as wonderful as those times were. It means creating churches that are traditional yet contemporary, universal yet local, Roman yet catholic – both/and, not either/or. Churches that combine unity with diversity and learn from the local character, express modern saints, and inventively develop the tradition. Like the great artists and architects of the Counter-Reformation, we must defend the faith of the Catholic Church through beauty.

Duncan G. Stroik

Duncan G. Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame where he helped implement a new curriculum in classical architecture in 1990. He played a central role in the revival of interest in sacred architecture that led to the formation of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and the journal Sacred Architecture, of which he is editor. He is the author, most recently, of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal (2012).

How Martin Luther Gained the Faith for Supernatural Miracles

by Eddie Hyatt | Do you feel a need for faith, courage and boldness? There is a gift of faith that God can manifest in your heart that will result in miracles or enable you to face a trying situation with unshakable faith.

Martin Luther saw miraculous answers to prayer and experienced courage in the most excruciating situations that can only be explained as a manifestation of the gift of faith, as mentioned in I Corinthians 12:9. This gift of faith is not the faith for salvation, nor the faith by which we live out our daily lives. It is, rather, a supernatural manifestation of God’s own faith in our heart for a particular situation.

Faith for Healing

An example of such faith in the life of Luther occurred when he received word that his friend and colleague, Frederick Myconius, lay dying in the last stages of tuberculosis. When Luther read this report, a supernatural and bold faith rose up in his heart. He then penned a letter to Myconius in which he said, “I command you in the Name of God to live because I still have need of you in the work of reforming the Church. The Lord will never let me hear that you are dead but will permit you to survive me. For this I am praying, this is my will, and may my will be done because I seek only to glorify the Name of God.”

Myconius said that when he read the letter it seemed as though he heard Christ say, “Lazarus, come forth!” Luther’s words were fulfilled. Myconius was healed and outlived Luther by two months.

On another occasion, Luther’s close friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon, became extremely ill and was at death’s door. Luther is said to have fervently prayed, using all the relevant promises he could repeat from Scripture. As he prayed, a supernatural faith rose up in his heart. He then turned, and taking Melanchthon by the hand, said, “Be of good courage, Philip, you shall not die.”

Melanchthon immediately revived and soon regained his health. He later said, “I should have been a dead man had I not been recalled from death itself by the coming of Luther.”

Faith to Face a Thousand Goliaths

When Luther stood before the tribunal at his trial for heresy in the city of Worms, it was a setting that would strike fear into any heart. There sat the emperor in all his royal dress and entourage and around the room were bishops, cardinals, personal delegates of the pope, dukes, princes and counts, all in their splendid garb and titles. The historian, Philip Schaff, called it “a fair representation of the highest powers in Church and State—a numerous array of dignitaries of every rank.”

They were there to demand that this insignificant monk, Martin Luther, from the insignificant town of Wittenberg stop preaching and writing those “heretical” doctrines about faith and the priesthood of all believers.

In contrast to the tribunal he faced, Luther was dressed in his simple monk’s cowl. It was David versus Goliath multiplied a hundred times over.

A table had been placed in the room with Luther’s books on it. He was first asked if these were his books. He looked them over and replied in the affirmative. He was then ordered to recant.

Luther seemed overwhelmed by the imposing authorities assembled before him, and in a voice that could barely be heard, he asked for more time to consider their demand. The emperor gave him one day.

Backing in his lodging place, Luther poured out his heart to God. As he prayed, there came a bold, unshakable faith into his heart. Later in life, he wrote about that moment, saying, “I was fearless. I was afraid of nothing. God can make one so desperately bold.”

Luther returned the next day and was again ordered to recant. He clearly and unequivocally stated that he was willing to recant, but only if he could be shown by Scripture and reasonable arguments that he was wrong.

The medieval church was not in the habit of discussing its demands with accused heretics, and they angrily demanded that Luther recant then and there. Knowing his life was on the line, Luther did not flinch, but quietly and confidently stated:

I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus, I cannot and will not recant anything, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand! I can do no other! God help me! Amen!

This was a significant turning point in church and world history. From that moment, there was no stopping the Reformation. Luther’s boldness unleashed a groundswell of support that spread across Europe and eventually around the world.

He was so bold, in fact, that some of his friends thought he was too bold. Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, in giving a report of Luther’s performance, said, “How excellently did Father Martin speak before the Emperor and Estates. He was bold enough, if not too much so.”

This Gift of Faith Is for You

Do you feel a need for faith, courage and boldness? There is a gift of faith that God can manifest in your heart that will result in miracles or enable you to face a trying situation with unshakable faith. Look to Him now and yield to His Holy Spirit. Faith from heaven will flow!

From Dr. Eddie Hyatt’s latest book, The Charismatic Luther, with the subtitle Healings, Miracles & Spiritual Gifts in the Life of the Great Reformer, now available from Amazon in Kindle, and soon to be available in paperback. Check out his website at

Enemies of Christianity at the Time of the Reformation

by Benjamin D. Wiker | Catholics and Protestants have been the object of persecution by radical secularist political regimes for the last hundred years, beginning with the rise of the atheistic communism with the Russian Revolution of 1917 (Prints, Huguenots Fleeing by Jan Luykens).

Nearly everyone knows the basics of the Reformation, the first being that 500 years ago, it began with Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg castle door on October 31, 1517—except that scholars now think that what probably happened was that Luther mailed them, not nailed them, to his archbishop, Albrecht of Brandenburg. A much less dramatic beginning, perhaps.

But this is a rather trivial historical point. There are much larger and more important things that regularly get overlooked in basic histories of the Reformation, things all Christians need to know.

The first is that, after 500 years, the Reformation is coming to an end. Christians both Protestant and Catholic are finding out, more and more, that what they have in common is more important than what divides them. The impetus for focusing on what is common arises largely from a rather unpleasant set of sources: the persecution of all Christians by radical secularism and by radical Islam.

Catholics and Protestants have been the object of persecution by radical secularist political regimes for the last hundred years, beginning with the rise of the atheistic communism with the Russian Revolution of 1917. More Christians were martyred in the twentieth century, than all other centuries combined. The turn into the twenty-first century has brought a new wave a persecution, with 100,000 Christians martyred every year, largely at the hands of radical Islam, and an ever more aggressive secular attack on Christian morality and faith. The good that God is bringing out of this evil is that Christians are uniting against these common enemies, and thereby bringing, slowly but surely, the Reformation to an end.

But something else you may not realize about the Reformation is that radical atheistic secularism and radical Islam were there 500 years ago at the time of Martin Luther, and were aiming back then at the extermination of Christianity.

We think that radical atheism is our problem, something that Christians didn’t have to contend with way back then in the “age of faith.” Not true, as it turns out. Modern atheism arose in the 1300s and 1400s with the Renaissance rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman pagan atheists such as Epicurus, Lucretius, and Lucian. Reading these pagans produced what may rightly be called neo-pagans, the first modern atheists, a large number of whom were Italian, such as Marsilius of Padua (1275–1342), Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457), Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525), Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), Cesare Cremonini (1550–1631), Lucilio Vanini (1585–1619), and of course, Italy’s most famous atheist, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), who believed that all religions were bunk, but should be used by clever unbelieving rulers to better control the credulous masses. The next generations of atheists counseled a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy against Christianity, taking advantage of the Protestant-Catholic divisions to weaken the cultural hold of faith.

You can see the problem this spate of Italian atheists would cause from the vantage point of the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther: Italy looked like a seedbed of atheism, and the luxurious and very worldly papacy was in Rome. Had the seat of St. Peter been taken over by a secret atheist? Many Reformers had their suspicions.

And what of radical Islam? Islam had been conquering Christians since the latter 600s. At the time of the Reformation, it looked as if triumphant Islamic armies were going to overrun Europe. The Holy Roman Emperor, Catholic Charles V, was unable to deal with Luther in Germany because he was largely absorbed in fighting back the Muslim advance. On his part, Luther proclaimed that the looming victory of Islam over Christendom was a divine punishment for the sins of the papacy, and that this impending grand battle was a sign that the prophecies of the book of Revelation were coming true (with the pope, of course, playing the part of the Anti-Christ).

Speaking of Islam, while you probably know that Luther published his own German translation of the New Testament, you aren’t aware that he ensured that a translation of the Koran was done (1543), and he provided the preface for it. The reason? He believed knowledge of Islam would undermine the papacy, showing how similar a religious aberration it was to Roman Catholicism. More accurately, he considered Islam to be superior, even though it was erroneous.

Ironically, Luther’s (muted) trumpeting of the virtues of Islam and his translation of the Koran contributed to the cause of radical secularism. While atheists in the century following Luther believed that all religions were bunk, they also asserted that Islam was superior—to all Christianity, not just Catholicism. This was the historical origin of the secular Left’s notion, today, that Christianity is an evil to be removed, and Islam a beneficent religion to be welcomed.

These are just a few of the things you need to know about the Reformation 500 years later.

Benjamin D. Wiker

Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know. His website is, and you can follow him on Facebook.