What Is the Difference Between the Ideas of the Protestant Reformation & the Roman Catholic Church?

Martin Luther, depicted here in a portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder, initiated the Protestant Reformation.
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In 1517, an Augustinian monk and theological scholar named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, Germany. This document detailed his complaints about the Catholic Church and launched what became known as the Protestant Reformation, which spread across Europe and forever divided Christianity. Though this division rested on significant theological distinctions, in many areas Protestantism became a political tool to resist authority.

1 Catholicism

Before 1517, Catholicism was the primary religion across Western Europe. Despite the split from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054, the Roman Catholic Church was the supreme power throughout the Middle Ages, especially after the investiture controversy of 1075, when the pope claimed the right to determine the legitimacy of all kings and queens in Europe. With this immense power, however, came corruption.

2 Faith Alone

Martin Luther's initial problem with the Catholic Church was over the issue of indulgences: Essentially, believers could pay money to the Church to be forgiven of their sins. However, in his criticisms of the Church, Luther went beyond indulgences and criticized the concept of an established Church entirely. To him, all that was necessary to be forgiven by God and to be a true believer was faith alone; true believers did not need the intercession of a church.

3 The Bible

Another way the Church maintained power was through its insistence that the Bible not be translated from Latin. Because most unlearned worshippers did not speak Latin, this gave the Church a unique spiritual authority to dictate aspects of Christianity. Arguing that the Latin itself was a translation done in the fourth century, Protestant reformers translated the Bible into their own languages: Luther completed a German translation of the New Testament in 1522, and William Tyndale completed an English translation by 1526.

4 Politics and Authority

Ultimately, the Protestant Reformation became a means to resist authority more than the spiritual movement Luther had intended. In Germany, many German princes, seeking to resist the Catholic-backed authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, at that time the leader of the various German states, adopted Protestantism as a means of rebellion. And in England, King Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth helped break England away from the Catholic Church to increase England's own political power.

  • 1 Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings; John Dillenberger
  • 2 A History of the Modern World; R.R. Palmer, Joel Colton, and Lloyd Kramer

Aatif Rashid writes on international politics and culture. His articles have appeared in magazines such as "The Oxonian Globalist" and online at Future Foreign Policy and ThinkPolitic. He holds Bachelor's degrees in English and history from U.C. Berkeley and a Masters degree from the University of Oxford.