Category: (3) What was the Protestant Reformation?

Any study of denominationalism or church history is sure to lead, sooner or later, to the terms High Church and Low Church. Originally, these terms defined movements within the Anglican Church, but the meanings have broadened to apply to non-Anglican churches, as well.

The terms have to do with worship procedures, specifically, the use of ritual, liturgy, and accoutrements in worship. Leaders of a High Church congregation place a “high” emphasis on ceremony, vestments, and sacraments. Leaders of a Low Church congregation place a “low” emphasis on such things and follow a freer worship style.

Anglican, Episcopal, Catholic, Orthodox, most Methodist and Lutheran, and some Presbyterian churches are considered High Church. Their worship services are characterized by liturgical readings and rituals, their clergy wear special clothing, and they follow a calendar of annual religious observances.

Baptist, Independent, Pentecostal, Quaker, Amish, some Methodist and Lutheran, and many Presbyterian churches are considered Low Church. Their worship services are characterized by congregational involvement, a relatively unstructured program, and an evangelical approach.

The distinction between High Church and Low Church did not appear until after the Reformation, of course. Then, the question arose: as the Protestant Church rejected Roman Catholic doctrine, how much Catholic procedure should be retained? Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli took opposing views. Luther considered that, as long as a rite was not specifically forbidden in the Bible, it was permissible for the church to practice. Zwingli’s view was that, if a rite was not specifically commanded in the New Testament, then it should not be practiced in the church.

Luther’s position led to what is now known as High Church practice. Zwingli’s view, which led to the Low Church movement, is expressed in the Westminster Confession: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (21.1). In other words, unless a practice is explicitly prescribed in Scripture, then the church should avoid it.

John Wesley, an Anglican, was sometimes accused of being Low Church because of his open-air evangelism and his training of clergy outside of standard church channels. Wesley himself denied such charges, always emphasizing his commitment to the rituals of his church. To this day, the Wesleyan and Methodist traditions are an interesting mixture of High Church liturgy and Low Church evangelicalism.

Low Church members often accuse the High Church of being “too Catholic.” High Church members sometimes look down their noses at the Low Church for being “unsophisticated.” Both sides should guard against spiritual pride (James 4:6). In truth, neither being High Church nor Low Church guarantees the proper worship of God. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

Despite centuries of severe persecution, these Christians from the Italian Alps, through the strength of their commitment to Christ, the Bible, and a life of poverty, maintained their evangelical identity, and faithfully carried the Gospel torch from the 12th century to the Reformation.

THE LATE 12TH CENTURY in Europe was a time rich in spiritual ferment and in its various expressions of religious experience. It is in this distant, shifting period that an ancient group of evangelical Christians— the Waldensians—first appear in the regions of Lyons (France) and, slightly later, Milan (Italy). In the earliest days the members of this movement were simply called “The Poor.” From their seemingly insignificant beginnings, with the odds against their survival as a distinct group, they did survive, and their difficult journey of faith stands out in history.

More than three centuries would pass before the Waldensians would build their own church buildings and view themselves as outside of the mother church; they would eventually melt into the Protestant Reformation. But until that time in the 16th century, The Poor would live as a scattered but closely knit movement within the Roman Church, with a central devotion to Christ, the Scriptures, and a life of poverty in conformity to the example of the Apostles.

In the context of their turbulent time, the emergence of the Waldensian Movement was not exceptional. What is surprising is their survival for such a long period of time. Far from being welcomed by the Church authorities, the Waldensians were harshly repressed. (As opposed to the case, for example, of the great monastic founder Francis of Assisi [1181-1226] and his followers—whose ideas were quite similar in spirit and intention with those of the Waldensians.)

In light of this, the fact that during three centuries the movement of The Poor was able not only to survive but to expand, always attracting new adherents and bringing its testimony into new areas, merits our recognition and special consideration.

Why the Waldensians?

Where can we turn to find an explanation for this success? To the strength of the convictions of single believers? This does not seem to be the case, for in the same period there were other believers just as fervent, of whom every trace has been lost, often cancelled by repression. No, conviction of faith, courage in the face of persecution, and force of spirit do not provide in themselves a satisfactory explanation for the survival of the Waldensians.

We might turn instead (and recent historians have) to reasons of a social and economic nature. Perhaps, since they were simple believers from the most humble classes on the fringe of society, the Waldensians did not constitute a threat to the establishment. They could, therefore, conduct their underground existence without any great risk.

However, this interpretation of the Waldensian phenomenon is contradicted by the evidence: the documentation shows that the Waldensians were present and active in all social classes, in the countryside and in the cities, among farmers and among merchants.

Our answer to the mystery of Waldensian survival and growth is of a different nature: The movement of The Poor was able to survive the Middle Ages because it never closed itself with a sectarian spirit (that is, it did not see itself as an exclusive group, spiritually superior to other Christians); rather, it knew how to continuously renew itself spiritually and theologically. This was possible because, though their social structure and their way of life might change, from their time of origin the Waldensians had a clear and original message to which they held firmly, and to which they remained faithful.

We could say that the Waldensian strength can be found exactly in certain terms we have used so far in referring to them: they were a movement, and a movement of the poor.

Waldo of Lyons and Waldensian Beginnings

These essential Waldensian characteristics already appear clearly in the experience of the founder of the movement, Waldo of Lyons [see A Prophet Without Honor]. This merchant, who lived in the French city at the end of the 12th century, did not intend to give life to a new community that would oppose the Church. He did not intend to found a sect, nor to gather around himself a faithful group to carry his name and espouse his ideas. He did not present himself as a preacher with new ideas, new revelations, or particular interpretations to communicate (something which has occured frequently in the history of the Christian Church).

He had but one purpose: to live the Christian faith according to the teaching of the Gospel; or, to express it in terms closer to the spirituality of his time, to follow Jesus as the apostles did. He wanted to relive the experience of Jesus’ first disciples. And in this sense we can apply to Waldo and his followers the curious and fascinating definition used at a later time by an inquisitor who was intent on persecuting the Waldensians: they were Nudi nudum Christum sequentes (naked disciples of a naked Christ). The unusual (and to us probably startling) use here of the adjective “naked” can be understood in two ways: with nothing on—that is materially poor, and also, without religious extras, in the sense of Christ only. For the Waldensians, Christ was to be followed in his poverty, and also as the only reference point for faith.

Following Jesus as the apostles did involved certain things for Waldo and his followers. They emphasized the importance of hearing and understanding the Word of God—the Bible; it was from the Scriptures that men and women would know Christ as the center of their faith. They lived in voluntary poverty and were persistent in their intent to preach in public. This last activity was the one that particularly offended the religious leaders of their time, and which brought the wrath of the Catholic Church down upon them. The archbishop of Lyons attempted to stop Waldo from his public preaching. When he found he could not, he expelled him from the city. Already a group of friends had gathered around Waldo who were devoted to following his example. They did not call themselves “brothers” or “disciples,” as was commonly done in the monastic orders in those days, but referred to themselves as Waldo’s “comembers,” and to their group as a “society.” They took these terms from the business language of the time and not from the religious; it is as if they feared that other Christians would think that they were claiming to found a new religious association superior to the existing Church. They wanted only to be a group of laypersons who were collaborating for a precise goal: in this case, to preach the Gospel. This dedication to preaching provoked a strong reaction from the Church, which led to a search for The Poor of Lyons and to their excommunication as heretics.

By Whose Authority?

It will be helpful here to refer to the Church’s theology at the time. Public preaching, according to the medieval theologians, was reserved for the clergy. They were, as the successors to the apostles, and in virtue of their ordination, the only ones qualified to exercise this ministry. (This notion of apostolic authority being passed down from generation to generation by ordination in the Church is called Apostolic Succession.) So according to Church belief and practice at the time, Waldo the merchant, not being ordained, was not a successor of the apostles, and therefore did not have the right to preach.

Now this is precisely the idea that Waldo contested. He, as one who had called upon the Lord, affirmed that he was called to be a disciple of Christ, even as were the apostles. And who are the real successors of the apostles? Not necessarily those who are ordained, he argued, but rather those who respond to the Lord’s call and live like the apostles of old. What makes one a true heir to the apostles is not ordination, but fidelity to God’s word. Authority to preach did not come through the visible Church order, but by Christ himself.

The consequences of such a belief as this would have been enormous for the Church in Waldo’s time, for the Medieval Church believed that it was the exclusive channel through which God administered his Spirit. If Waldo’s idea had been accepted, the Church could not have been looked upon as the sole depository of the Spirit. Waldo believed that God’s Word and his Spirit do surely act in the Church, but are not solely administered by it.

Probably Waldo did not realize the radical implications of his affirmations, and he continued to feel in full communion with the church, with its tradition, and with all believers. However, the Roman curia (i.e., the Catholic Church government) recognized the danger and after a few years the Poor of Lyons were considered heretics, thus starting their long call to martyrdom.

Against the Donation of Constantine

In the 13th century, especially at its beginning, The Poor were present in Languedoc and Lombardy, that is, Northern Italy (where they were called The Poor of Lombardy). A century later the inquisitors found numerous communities in the Danube Valley in Austria, and in Northern Germany. Already in these periods there appeared an organization, divided into small groups with certain individuals responsible for the care of each group. (In some cases the terms of the official church were even used for these leaders, such as apostle, or prefect.) These various small groups, to a certain degree, were independent, and able to pursue their particular vision of the religious life.

Formally, however, the Waldensians continued to be a part of the Roman Church, where they baptized their children and took communion at least once a year, as was the common practice. They were still within the boundaries of the Church of Rome, and they did nothing that would highlight their criticisms of the Church.

Essentially two things distinguished them from those around them:

1) Before everything else they sought an absolute fidelity to the words of Jesus, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount. Consequently they rejected any form of violence. Not only did they oppose the violence of war and particularly that of the Crusades, but they also opposed “legal” violence, the kind practiced by the courts.

2) They refused to take oaths (based on Matthew 5:33-37), and opposed the practice of lending money at interest. These positions not only stirred reactions from the religious establishment, but the political powers also came to view the Waldensians as dangerous rebels also. What was the Waldensian motivation for such radicalism? Harsh moral standards, a desire for purity, and coherence with the Gospel? This has often been the explanation. Weren’t the Waldensians just simple people, without influential persons in their ranks, merely trying their best to interpret the Gospel and follow it as best they could? This does not appear to be the case.

To be accurate, the Waldensians were in fact not naive, simplistic interpreters of the Scriptures, but they had an acute understanding of the place of Christian faith in history. They believed that the Church, when it is faithful to its true calling, follows in the steps of the apostles. They also knew that the Church can be unfaithful—and that this infidelity shows itself when Christ’s spirit of humility and poverty are abandoned for the worldly quest for temporal riches and power. They were convinced that when the Church becomes a worldly power it loses its spirit. The strength of their interpretation came through their pinpointing the moment in history in which they believed this betrayal took place: the 4th century, when Christianity was consecrated as the state religion by the emperor Constantine. That event (which is generally considered a great victory) was in reality, according to the Waldensians, the beginning of the Church’s decline; it was a compromise with the world.

“We,” said the Waldensians, “are the true disciples of Christ because we deny the Donation of Constantine” [see “The Donation of Constantine”], that is, the compromise of the Church with the world. In this they avoided two attitudes that would have been self-destructive: 1) a feeling that they were outside, or excluded from the Church, which would have led to a sectarian spirit—a closed-group mentality; and 2) a snobbish attitude of seeing themselves as the only true examples of faith, and therefore against the Church. They certainly did have a sense of being the most faithful part of the Church, but without a sense of sectarianism, or of separatism.

The Influence of Hus

This view of being a movement to return to the true apostolic example within the Church, without being separatistic, helps us see why, at the start of the 15th century, the Waldensians became followers of the renewal movement within Christian theology guided by the great Bohemian (Czech) preacher and theologian John Hus.

Hus was condemned and burned at the stake in 1415 for his teachings. He was a devoted Catholic, but taught that the Catholic Church’s authority was secondary to the Bible’s (not equal, as the Church taught), so even laypeople could judge the Church’s actions by Scripture, and therefore the Bible should be translated for public use. He also taught that the real spiritual Church of Christ was not equivalent to the earthly Catholic Church; this implied that even the highest Church officials might not be part of the true spiritual seed of Christ.

Hus argued that the corrupt and extravagant lives of many Church leaders, as opposed to Christ’s life of poverty, made this clear. Though Hus was martyred for his stand, his ideas later had a large influence on Luther and others, and pointed the way, along with the teachings of John Wycliffe, towards the Protestant Reformation. Hus’s followers became known as the Bohemian Brethren. It is not hard to see how the ideas of the Waldensians lined up in many ways with the teachings of Hus, and why they became associated with the movement of the Bohemian Brethren.

The Age of the Barba

The 15th century represents a noteworthy moment in the vitality of the Waldensians. A particularly fascinating characteristic of this vitality was the barba. The term is significant in itself. In the Provencal dialect, in the Alpine area, this term meant “uncle,” but, in its corresponding feminine form, it referred also to a leader who merited respect and obedience. The Waldensians used this term to refer to their pastors, perhaps in deliberate contrast to the Catholic practice of calling priests “father.&rdquo:

We do not have a lot of information about the barba, but what we have is sufficient to give us an idea. The young persons who decided to respond to this calling were aware of the risks. They prepared for their ministry in two ways. First, there was a fixed period of time in a “school.” These were not only places of study and research, but places where one acquired a familiarity with Scripture, and culture in general. Above all they were places of training, retreats where one experienced life in community with others, young and old, to arrive at that spiritual and moral maturity that are essential in a life full of risk.

A barba received still deeper training, however, by accompanying an older barba in his missions of contact with the dispersed faithful. This on-the-job, practical work gave them the experience necessary to carry on the effort.

The activity of the barba was evidently, in the light of the little we know, prodigious—they accomplished a great deal. They traveled from Northern Italy to Provence, from Bohemia to the Alps, preaching, instructing, receiving the confessions of the faithful, following precise itineraries. They were almost always disguised, for example as religious pilgrims, or travelling merchants, in order to avoid being identified by the Inquisition [the Catholic Church’s organization for exposing heretics]. They have often been presented as simple folk, with a great experience of faith and life, but of little learning.

The truth is quite different. We know this from numerous manuscripts in their Provencal tongue that have been found. These writings were obviously used by the barba. The minute, pocket-sized volumes containing sermons, tracts, poems, and grammar lessons are only the tip of an iceberg, revealing to us the vast cultural world of the Waldensians. Many of them are theological works coming from Hussite sources, which were not only translated, but adapted and elaborated. These accomplishments required sensibility and competence beyond that of the simple and uneducated.

Around the barba there was a well-organized clandestine world [see The Pearl]. In twos (according to the biblical model) they visited the faithful on well-defined itineraries, held assemblies to discuss their problems, and gathered and administered donations. The fact that in the course of the century very few barba were arrested, among the many that were active, is testimony to the perfection of their system.

Waldensian Theology

The Waldensians, probably in part due to the Hussite influence, experienced a growing consciousness of themselves and a new sensibility, which renewed their traditional spirituality. Their consciousness grew of being the “true church,” the authentic community of Christ, in contrast to the Church of Rome, which always seemed to them to take on the form of Antichrist, not only in its compromise with worldly powers, but also in the violence with which it crushed the spiritual renovation in Bohemia.

A second characteristic is related to their concern for individual salvation. From this, the Waldensians showed a particular interest in penance, the Sacraments, and Christian virtue. The barba had the power to hear confessions. They were believed to be the only persons capable of doing so because, in contrast to other corrupt and immoral clerics, they were authentic ministers of Christ. (Waldensians believed, it should be mentioned, that as it says in one of their early poems, “It is God alone who pardons, and no other.”)

Also, for these generations of Waldensians, salvation was clearly and certainly the work of Christ. It was the fruit of his sacrifice, but also the finality of a pure and consistent Christian life; a life of faith could not be separated from a life of obedience. Therefore, we can understand why in the 16th century a central point of debate among barba and the reformers was justification by faith, and how faith related to works.

The Waldensian position was looked upon from a Lutheran perspective as being too influenced by Catholic tradition. In reality, however, barba doctrine was plainly in contrast with the Catholic theology of that century, for it dismissed the major Catholic teaching on purgatory. The Waldensian rejection of purgatory was radical.

One of the most well-known and significant poems of the barba, La Nobla Leiczon (a possible translation is “The Teaching of Profound Things” [included in our From the Archives section]), is constructed entirely on the comparison between the two ways, that of salvation and that of damnation. It formulates a radical criticism of those Christians who expect to resolve their problem of salvation with purgatory and its corollary of mass, indulgences, and good works (teachings that Martin Luther would later challenge in Wittenberg).

These things represented for the Waldensians a negation of the Christian faith, and the triumph of the Constantine Church, that is, of a church which utilizes power and riches to govern the world. What more radical comparison can one imagine than that between the pilgrim barba, messenger of forgiveness to his clandestine communities, and the popes of the Renaissance with their sales of indulgences, claiming their “power of the keys,” the power to forgive sins and grant entrance to heaven? It is clear that these are two very different approaches.

The Great Reformation

To the scattered Waldensians concentrated mainly in the Alps in Provence and in Calabria, and greatly reduced through persecution, but having a solid theology and organization, news of the work of Martin Luther arrived in the period between 1518 and 1520.

What was to be done? Certainly the believers around Luther expressed themselves similarly to the Waldensians, but were the motivations the same? Could the Waldensians safely associate with the new communities coming together as a result of the reform movement, or would it be more prudent to keep a distance and maintain autonomy? It was not the first time that the problem arose for The Poor of collaborating with groups judged heretical by the official church. It had happened before with the Hussites and with the Albigensians. [The Albigensians were a radical group, which originated in southern Italy, and taught that all material things, including the human body, were evil. Among other things, the Albigensians rejected the Sacraments, Hell, the Resurrection, and marriage, and taught a life of extreme denial. They were a part of a much larger worldversus- spirit “dualist” movement in the Middle Ages called Catharism.]

Beginning in 1526 the barba, at their annual reunions in Piedmont and Provence, examined the news which came from Germany with the result that a group was sent to evaluate the situation at first hand, and to question major representatives of the new theology. On the journey a meeting occurred with William Farel, the fiery Swiss reformer who would play an instrumental part in the Waldensians’ future; contact was also made with Oecolampadius, the reformer in Basel, and Martin Bucer of Strasbourg. From these contacts it was clear that a fundamental unity of purpose did exist, especially in reference to a belief in Scripture as the only rule for faith. However, at the same time the approaches the two groups took to Scripture were different: the Waldensians, on the one hand, emphasized the moral demands made by the Bible, and its teaching on the climactic end of history—its apocalyptic message; the reformed group, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of deep, academic study of the Bible, and the system of theology founded upon such study—”dogmatics.”

The consequences of these emphases on the different groups were shown in the way they applied their faith to their lives in society. The fact that those promoting the Reformation in the cities of the Rhine were the city councils, and in Germany it was the princes, profoundly baffled the Waldensians. Could the men of the world, whose daily lives were given over to the use of riches and power, now be the defenders of the apostolic faith?

This was hard to comprehend. Was this not the process of Constantine renewed—a new mixing of the spiritual with the worldly? Was it possible to transform a local parish (a church district set often by geographical boundaries and determined by men), the typical form of “imperial” Christianity, into a community based on the Gospel?

The Synod of Chanforan

The solution to these questions arrived in 1532 during an assembly held at Chanforan in the Angrogna Valley in the Piedmont Alps. 140 barba participated along with leaders of the Reformation in Switzerland, including William Farel. After days of debate the assembly decided to accept substantially the principles of the new reformation, and to apply them internally to the Waldensian movement itself.

The Waldensians in this way were as integrated into the world of the Reformation. It is necessary, however, to be precise. It must be remembered that in 1532 Protestantism did not yet exist as a confessional and cultural phenomenon. The Reformation at that moment was a movement of opinion, it was not a church.

By declaring themselves in line with the reformers, the Waldensians simply acknowledged their unity with the reformers’ protests for a faith based on the Gospel, for a return to the origins of the Church, and for an abandonment of the compromises with the world. The reformers were rejected by the official church for these beliefs even as the Waldensians had been for generations.

It is also significant that the decisions agreed upon at Chanforan by the barba and the reformers were not limited to the religious dimension, but had social and political importance also. The return to the Gospel meant not only a rediscovery of the purity of the faith, but also a liberation from the burden of economic slavery, of ecclesiastical taxation, and of the dependence which the Medieval Church had placed on the shoulders of the Christian populace.

By adhering to the Reformation the Waldensians expressed in new form the spirit of independence and autonomy which in the Middle Ages had characterized the Alpine peoples in the face of central powers. It was a realization of their sense of independence.

Furthermore, the meeting at Chanforan was but the beginning on a long journey that would lead the Waldensians to eventual organization as Protestant churches. In the face of a Roman Catholicism that assumed the characteristics of unbending worldly control, and that readily used the Inquisition and political power to repress whatever it declared heresy, the Waldensian communities developed increasingly along reformed lines according to the ideas coming from Calvin’s Geneva.

A New Church and the First War of Religion

This difficult search for a specific Waldensian identity culminated around 1555 (twenty years after Chanforan) in the decision to build facilities for preaching and the administration of the sacraments. For years services in the local dialect had been conducted in the open air or in private homes, with the singing of hymns and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. However, the absence of buildings for these services underlined both the temporary, provisional nature of the situation, and the continuing hope for an agreement with the Church of Rome.

Once these hopes vanished it was necessary to recognize the existence of two churches, even from the point of view of architecture: two churches, two bell towers, two services, two theologies, two ecclesiastical organizations, two forms of piety, and two cultures. In the middle of the 16th century these two identities (the Reformation and the Catholic, or Counter- Reformation) began a conflict that would last 150 years, and have in the area of the Alps where the Waldensians lived, a particularly violent character.

The first battle took place in 1560. The Duke of Savoy, who had recently regained possession of his region, forced the Roman Catholic religion on all his subjects. He based this on the principle established a few years previously at the Diet of Augsburg and accepted by all the rulers of Europe, according to which the religion of the prince must be that of his subjects.

While all the followers of the Reformation in the plains and cities moved to Protestant areas, particularly to Geneva, the Waldensians in the Alpine Valleys stayed put and rejected the imposition of Catholicism. They continued to profess their reformed faith—even against the edict of their ruler. As a consequence the Duke intervened militarily to restore order. This action spurred a response of armed rebellion. Under this severe trial, the Waldensians, who had always opposed violence, had reached the point where they decided they must defend themselves, and fight for their faith.

This was the first war of religion in Europe, and also the first case in which subjects of a ruler rebelled to defend their religious freedom. The conflict lasted several weeks and concluded incredibly with the victory of the Waldensian farmers, who benefitted from a series of complex strategical, political, and geographical elements.

The Duke, taking an historic position unique in Europe at this time, conceded to his Waldensian subjects the right to profess their religion within a specified territory, with the number of worship centers and ministers defined by law.

These remarkable events were enough to assure the Waldensians’ survival. But in subsequent decades the battle would continue, and proceed with tragedies, varying successes, and great risks.

Credits: Dr. Giorgio Bouchard is currently President of the Protestant Federation of Italy. He is a Waldens-pastor and serves a congregation in Naples. From 1979 to 1986 he was moderator of the Waldensian Church.


The five solas are five Latin phrases popularized during the Protestant Reformation that emphasized the distinctions between the early Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. The word sola is the Latin word for “only” and was used in relation to five key teachings that defined the biblical pleas of Protestants. They are:

1. Sola scriptura: “Scripture alone”
2. Sola fide: “faith alone”
3. Sola gratia: “grace alone”
4. Solo Christo: “Christ alone”
5. Soli Deo gloria: “to the glory of God alone”

Each of these solas can be seen both as a corrective to the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church at the start of the Reformation and as a positive biblical declaration.

Sola scriptura emphasized the Bible alone as the source of authority for Christians. By saying, “Scripture alone,” the Reformers rejected both the divine authority of the Roman Catholic Pope and confidence in sacred tradition. Only the Bible was “inspired by God” (2 Peter 1:20-21) and “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Anything taught by the Pope or in tradition that contradicted the Bible was to be rejected. Sola scriptura also fueled the translation of the Bible into German, French, English, and other languages, and prompted Bible teaching in the common languages of the day, rather than in Latin.

Sola fide emphasized salvation as a free gift. The Roman Catholic Church of the time emphasized the use of indulgences (donating money) to buy status with God. Good works, including baptism, were seen as required for salvation. Sola fide stated that salvation is a free gift to all who accept it by faith (John 3:16). Salvation is not based on human effort or good deeds (Ephesians 2:9).

Sola gratia emphasized grace as the reason for our salvation. In other words, salvation comes from what God has done rather than what we do. Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Solo Christo (sometimes listed as Solus Christus, “through Christ alone”) emphasized the role of Jesus in salvation. The Roman Catholic tradition had placed church leaders such as priests in the role of intercessor between the laity and God. Reformers emphasized Jesus’ role as our “high priest” who intercedes on our behalf before the Father. Hebrews 4:15 teaches, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus is the One who offers access to God, not a human spiritual leader.

Soli Deo gloria emphasized the glory of God as the goal of life. Rather than striving to please church leaders, keep a list of rules, or guard our own interests, our goal is to glorify the Lord. The idea of soli Deo gloria is found in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

The five solas of the Protestant Reformation offered a strong corrective to the faulty practices and beliefs of the time, and they remain relevant today. We are called to focus on Scripture, accept salvation by grace through faith, magnify Christ, and live for God’s glory.

First Baptist, Second Baptist, American Baptist, Southern Baptist, General Baptist, Independent Baptist, Primitive Baptist – the list goes on and on. Just who are these groups, and where did they all come from? Do they believe the same things or get along with each other? Depending on whom you ask, the Baptist church can be the oldest of all traditions, or a newcomer hanging on the coattails of the Reformation. It can be the standard-bearer of old-time, orthodox doctrine or the breeding ground of heresy. The truth is that the answer depends on whether you are examining a particular group or the fundamental doctrines of that group. Each Baptist group can trace its history to a particular starting point as an organization, but the roots go back to the very beginning of the Christian faith.

Tracking down the origins of the Baptist Church in general is an exercise in ancient church history. From the days of the apostles, there was one Church of Jesus Christ, with a single body of doctrine taught by the apostles. The various local churches preached repentance and confession of sins, along with baptism by immersion as an outward sign of the new life in Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Under the authority of the apostles themselves as to doctrine, each church was independently governed by the leaders God placed in them. There was neither denominational hierarchy, nor distinction of “us/them” within the various churches. In fact, Paul soundly rebuked the Corinthians for such divisions (1 Corinthians 3:1-9). When disputes over sound doctrine arose, the apostles declared God’s teaching based on the words of the Lord and the Old Testament Scriptures. For at least 100 years, this model remained the standard for all churches. Thus, the characteristics that defined the earliest churches are the same that most Baptist churches identify with today.

Starting around A.D. 250, with the intense persecutions under Emperor Decius, a gradual change began to take place as the bishops (pastors) of certain notable churches assumed a hierarchical authority over the churches in their regions (e.g., the church of Rome). While many churches surrendered themselves to this new structure, there was a substantial number of dissenting churches who refused to come under the growing authority of the bishops. These dissenting churches were first called “Puritans” and are known to have had an influence as far as France in the 3rd century. As the organized church gradually adopted new practices and doctrines, the dissenting churches maintained their historical positions. The consistent testimony of the church for its first 400 years was to administer baptism to only those who first made a profession of faith in Christ. Starting in A.D. 401, with the fifth Council of Carthage, the churches under the rule of Rome began teaching and practicing infant baptism. As a result, the separatist churches began re-baptizing those who made professions of faith after having been baptized in the official church. At this time, the Roman Empire encouraged their bishops to actively oppose the dissenting churches, and even passed laws condemning them to death. The re-baptizers became known as Anabaptists, though the churches in various regions of the empire were also known by other names, such as Novatianists, Donatists, Albigenses, and Waldenses.

These Anabaptist congregations grew and prospered throughout the Holy Roman Empire, even though they were almost universally persecuted by the Catholic Church. By the Reformation, Martin Luther’s assistants complained that the Baptists in Bohemia and Moravia were so prevalent, they were like weeds. When John Calvin’s teachings became commonly known, many of the Waldenses united with the reformed church. Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonites, organized the scattered community of Dutch Baptist churches in 1536. From this point on, the various Anabaptist churches gradually lost their ancient names and assumed the name “Baptist,” though they retained their historic independence and self-rule. The first English Baptist church was founded in 1612 by Thomas Helwys and John Murton, who had come under the influence of the Dutch Puritans in Amsterdam. This group became known as General Baptists, for their Arminian belief in general atonement. Another English Baptist church was formed after a schism from Henry Jacob’s congregation in London in 1633. This group held a Calvinistic theology of particular atonement and became the main influence in the English Particular Baptist movement.

The first Baptist church in America was founded by Roger Williams in 1639. During the colonial and federal periods, the Baptist churches prospered and spread, while being only loosely organized as a fellowship. The first clear national organization was the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in 1814. This was called by Luther Rice to address the need of raising funds and workers to carry out the missionary mandate in foreign countries. Some Baptist churches resisted this missionary emphasis and became known as Primitive Baptists. When the Civil War broke out, the Baptists in the North and the South broke their fellowship and formed separate denominations. Today, there are at least 65 different Baptist associations or denominations in the United States. Some retain a strict autonomy for the local church, while others have more of a denominational structure. Some have very conservative views of doctrine and practice, while others are quite progressive and liberal. Even within some groups there is a wide divergence of practice, so it is hard to pin down exactly what they believe.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a denomination comprised of over 16 million members in over 42,000 churches in the United States. Individual church membership is typically a matter of accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior and submitting to believer’s baptism by immersion. The SBC is considered to be an evangelistic, mission-minded church with a generally conservative doctrine which focuses on the fact that Jesus died for our sin, was buried, and then rose from the grave and ascended to heaven. Unlike some other denominations, the churches in the SBC generally identify themselves as independent, autonomous congregations which have voluntarily joined together for mutual support.

The American Baptist Church, USA, has roughly 1.3 million members and was formerly known as the Northern Baptist Convention, which formed after the split with the Southern Baptists. A key distinctive of the American Baptists is the freedom of the individual churches to have differing beliefs. The denomination’s unity is based on functional cooperation rather than doctrinal agreement. This practice led to a split in 1932, which resulted in the formation of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). The GARBC holds a conservative doctrine and emphasizes evangelism and missionary work.

The name “Baptist” has come to mean many things to many people, and so can sometimes cause confusion. As with any other church, the name above the door isn’t as important as what is taught within. As we examine any church, we would do well to follow the example of the Berean believers in Acts 17:11, who “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (KJV).

The name “Presbyterian” applies to a diverse group of churches that adhere in some degree to the teachings of John Calvin and John Knox and are led by representative elders (presbyters) of their congregations. Within the broad category, there are some which can be considered conservative or fundamental, and some which would be called liberal or progressive. On the conservative side is the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), with about 335,000 members in 1,700 congregations, while the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), with 2.3 million members in 10,000 congregations, is more liberal. Several smaller groups have formed over the years and cover the spectrum of beliefs and practices.

The Presbyterian Church was first organized in Scotland under the leadership of John Knox. The Church of Scotland was affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, even though it maintained an attitude of independence. John Knox was a priest in the Church of Scotland and was fed up with the abuses he saw in the Catholic leadership. He was exiled to England after his involvement in the murder of Cardinal Beaton in 1546. While in England, he was licensed to preach in the Church of England and was instrumental in reforming the Book of Common Prayer. When Mary Tudor ascended the English throne and started her bloody persecutions of the Church of England, Knox fled to Europe, where he met John Calvin and began to study Reformed theology. In 1559, Knox returned to Scotland and became a vocal proponent of Reformed theology and the concept of presbyterian leadership in the church. A number of Scottish lords had already been promoting religious reformation, and they gladly supported John Knox’s teaching. Under Knox’s leadership, these “Lords of the Congregation” wrote the Scottish Confession of Faith in 1560, which ended papal rule in Scotland and outlawed the Mass. The Scottish Confession remained the primary doctrinal guide for the Church of Scotland until the Westminster Confession in 1647.

In the early 1600s, King James I sent many Scotch Presbyterians to Northern Ireland in an effort to displace the Irish and establish British control there. By the early 1700s, these Scotsmen were ready to migrate to America because of the economic trials they faced in Ireland. The first Presbytery in America was formed in 1706 in Philadelphia, and Presbyterianism spread rapidly in the colonies. One distinctive of the Presbyterian Church has been their emphasis on the education of their ministers. In the colonial period, the Presbyterian Church required advanced theological training for its ministers, whereas the Methodists and Baptists often allowed untrained men who were zealous for the gospel to carry on ministry. The result was fewer Presbyterian frontier preachers, but more theologians and seminary teachers. Even today, more theologians come from Presbyterian or Reformed backgrounds than from other groups, and Presbyterian theologians have made significant contributions to theological issues.

Throughout the history of the Presbyterian Church, there have been splits and mergers based on theological and practical issues. In the colonial period, there was an “old side/new side” split over the acceptance of the revivalist preachers in the Great Awakening. In 1810, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which supported revivalist preachers, split from the main church. From 1837 to 1869, there was a split between “old school” and “new school” churches, with the “new school” teaching a modified understanding of sin and holiness. When the two groups merged again in 1869, it was with an increased tolerance for doctrinal diversity, which led to greater changes in the early 20th century.

Until the 1930s, Presbyterians held a leading role in the various debates over doctrinal integrity. Some of the key men in supporting the Bible Conference movement were C.I. Scofield (1843-1921), James Brookes (1830-1897), William Erdman (1834-1923), Billy Sunday (1863-1935), William Biederwolf (1867-1939), and J. Wilbur Chapman (1859-1918). With doctrinal liberalism creeping into their seminaries, Presbyterians such as Louis Talbot (1889-1976), Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), and William Anderson (1889-1935) helped start new Bible colleges. As men like these saw the Presbyterian Church continue to tolerate doctrinal diversity, they led their churches to form new groups. In 1936, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed. In 1938, the Bible Presbyterian Church was organized. In 1973, the Presbyterian Church of America came about. In 1981, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was formed.

While most Presbyterian churches will agree on general themes such as the depravity of man, the holiness of God, and salvation by faith, there is wide divergence in how they define and apply those themes. Some churches treat sin as a disease and essentially erase any personal responsibility, while others hold a firm line that sin is a violation of God’s unchanging law. Some teach that the Bible is verbally inspired of God, and therefore infallible, while others teach that it is man’s book and therefore subject to error. As with any other church, a person would be well advised to carefully examine not only the formal statements of doctrine, but also the practical implementation of those doctrines to determine whether a church is conforming to Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

The Lutheran Church is actually many different bodies, all of which base their teachings and practice to some degree on the work of Martin Luther. There is such a wide variance in their particular beliefs that it would be difficult to address them all, but this article will attempt to outline those most commonly held.

Martin Luther was born and raised in Germany and studied philosophy and law as a young man, but soon became discouraged by those studies. He became an Augustinian Monk in 1505, but the isolated lifestyle only led him to further despair as he spent countless hours in meditation and contemplation. In 1507, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and later began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. During his years teaching theology, Luther grew increasingly frustrated at the excesses and abuses which he saw within the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. On October 31, 1517, he posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, which was the accepted practice for anyone at the university who wanted to engage in theological debate. The majority of Luther’s theses addressed the lack of biblical knowledge, practice, and accountability among the leaders of the church, and were intended to point them back to Scripture. Martin Luther was not the first to address these issues; in fact, most of them had been pointed out by other men within the Roman Catholic Church for nearly 100 years. Despite the steady stream of critics, the Catholic Church refused to admit error or make any substantial changes.

As with the other Reformers, who were all born, baptized, confirmed and educated in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had no intention of starting a new church, but only wanted to correct what he saw as violations of clear biblical teaching. Part of the problem was a widespread ignorance of the Bible, even among ordained priests. Carlstadt, an older peer of Luther, admitted that he was made a Doctor of Divinity before he had even seen a complete copy of the Bible. One of the driving factors in Luther’s work was the desire to have clear teaching for the common questions of the people, such as, “What must a man do to be saved?” and “How shall a sinner be justified before God and attain peace for his troubled conscience?” After a series of meetings in which Luther refused to recant his views, Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther in 1521. Many of the common people and German nobility followed Luther’s teaching, and the Lutheran Church began to be organized as a separate body in 1525. In recent years, most Lutheran bodies have made efforts to mend the breach with the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1530, the German lords were requested by the Pope to give an accounting of their beliefs (as well as reconfirm their fidelity to the Holy Roman Empire), and they gave their reply in the Augsburg Confessions. This was the first detailed confession of faith by German Lutherans, and it is still the primary document used by Lutherans to describe and guide their faith. In 1580, the Book of Concord combined 10 documents which were considered authoritative for guiding the Lutheran faith. That book is still used today, but has a different degree of authority within the various Lutheran bodies.

Though there are quite a few organized Lutheran groups around the world, the two main bodies in America are the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). The ELCA has roughly 5 million members in 10,500 churches, and the LCMS has roughly 2.3 million members in 6,167 churches. The ELCA was formed in 1988 by a merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America. The LCMS was formed in 1847 by Saxon (German) Lutherans who came to America to escape persecution and the detrimental effects of German Rationalism on their faith. Both churches hold to the Augsburg Confession, which teaches that all men are born in sin, and therefore need to be justified through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Along with faith in Christ, baptism is “necessary for salvation” and therefore “children should be baptized, for being offered to God through baptism they are received into his grace” (Art. IX). The church teaches that all men have some measure of freedom of the will—which is ironic considering Luther comes to the opposite conclusion in one of his most famous books, The Bondage of the Will. Lutherans also believe that, without God’s grace and help, given by the Holy Spirit, man is incapable of fearing or believing in God.

Many of the ceremonies and liturgies of the Catholic Church have been carried over into the Lutheran Church, with modifications to reflect their distinct doctrines. Some of the differences between the ELCA and LCMS stem from their divergent views on the Bible. While the LCMS affirms that the Bible is infallible in all areas (Psalm 19:7; 2 Timothy 3:16), the ELCA states that it is possible for the Bible to be in error concerning some areas, like science or history. In general, all Lutheran churches teach salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, but the manner in which that faith is lived out can vary from an empty participation in ceremonies to a very personal relationship with God.

In understanding the history of Protestant Church and the Reformation, it is important to first understand that one of the claims that the Roman Catholic Church makes is that of apostolic succession. This simply means that they claim a unique authority over all other churches and denominations because they claim the line of Roman Catholic Popes back throughout the centuries, all the way to the Apostle Peter. In their view, this gives the Roman Catholic Church a unique authority that supersedes all other denominations or churches. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, this apostolic succession is only “found in the Catholic Church” and no “separate Churches have any valid claim to it.”

It is because of this apostolic succession that the Roman Catholic Church claims a unique authority to interpret Scripture and to establish doctrine, as well the claim of having a supreme leader in the Pope who is infallible (without error) when speaking “ex cathedra”—that is, in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians. Therefore, according to the Roman Catholic view, the teaching or traditions of the Roman Catholic Church as they come from the Pope are equally as infallible and authoritative as the Scriptures themselves. This is one of the major differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants and was one of the foundational reasons for the Protestant Reformation.

Of course, the Roman Catholics are not the only ones who try to claim unique authority through apostolic succession or by tracing the roots of their church back to the original apostles. The Eastern Orthodox Church also claims apostolic succession, although their claim is very similar to the Roman Catholic view. The split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism did not occur until the “Great Schism” in A.D. 1054.  There are also some Protestant denominations or groups that will try to establish a “Trail of Blood” that can be traced back through the centuries to the first century church and the apostles themselves. While these Protestants do not hold to apostolic succession in order to establish the authority of a “Pope” as an infallible leader, they still look to that connection to the early church in at least some small degree to establish the authority of their doctrines and practices.

The problem with any of these attempts to trace a line of succession back to the apostles, whether it is Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, is that they all are attempts to derive or support the authority of what they believe and teach from the wrong source, that of some real or perceived connection with the apostles, instead of deriving it from the Word of God. It is important for Christians to realize that direct apostolic succession is not necessary in order for a church or denomination to have authority. God has given and preserved the supreme authority for all matters of faith and practice in His Holy Word, the Bible. Therefore, an individual church’s or denomination’s authority today does not come through some tie to the first century church and the apostles. Instead, it comes only and directly from the written Word of God. A church or denomination’s teachings are authoritative and binding on Christians only if they represent the true meaning and clear teaching of Scripture. This is important in order to understand the connection between Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church, and the reason that the Protestant Reformation took place.

In regards to the history of Christianity and the claims of apostolic succession, as well as the Roman Catholic Church’s claim of being the one true Church with unique authority, it is important to understand a couple of key points. First, we must realize that even in the days of the apostles and the first century church, false teachers were a significant problem. We know this because warnings against heresies and false teachers are found in all the later New Testament writings. Jesus Himself warned that these false teachers would be like “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15), and that there would be both “tares and wheat” that would exist together until the day of judgment when He separates the saved from the lost, the true “born again” believer from those that have not truly received Him (Matthew 13:24-30). This is important in understanding church history, because from almost the very beginning false teachers and false teachings have been invading the church and leading people astray. Despite this, there have also been true “born again” believers who held fast to the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, throughout all ages, even in the darkest period of the dark ages.

The second thing to realize to correctly understand church history is that the word catholic simply means “universal.” This is important because in the early Christian writings of the first and second centuries, when the term catholic is used, it is referring to the “universal church” or “body of Christ” that is made up of “born again” believers from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). However, like many other words over time, the word catholic began to take on new meaning, or came to be used in a new sense. Over time, the concept of a “universal” or “catholic” church began to evolve into the concept that all churches formed together one church, not just spiritually, but also visibly, extending throughout the world. This misunderstanding of the nature of the visible church (which always has contained both “wheat and tares”) and the invisible church (the body of Christ which is only made up of born again believers) would lead to the concept of a visible Holy Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation. It is out of this misunderstanding of the nature of the universal church that the Roman Catholic Church evolved.

Prior to the Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in A.D. 315, Christians had been persecuted by the Roman government. With his conversion, Christianity became an allowed religion of the Roman Empire (and later became the official religion), and thus the “visible” Church became joined with the power of the Roman government. This marriage of church and state led to the formation of the Roman Catholic Church, and over time caused the Roman Catholic Church to refine its doctrine and develop its structure in a way that best served the purpose of the Roman government. During this time, opposing the Roman Catholic Church was the same as opposing the Roman government and carried with it severe penalties. If one disagreed with some doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, it was a serious charge that often resulted in excommunication and sometimes even death.

Yet throughout this time of history, there were true “born again” Christians who would rise up and oppose the secularization of the Roman Catholic Church and the perversion of the faith that followed. Through this church-and-state combination, the Roman Catholic Church effectively silenced those who opposed any of its doctrines or practices, and truly became almost a universal church throughout the Roman Empire. There were always pockets of resistance to some of the unbiblical practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, yet they were relatively small and isolated. Prior to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, men such as John Wycliffe in England, John Huss in Czechoslovakia, and John of Wessel in Germany had all given their lives for their opposition to some of the unbiblical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

The opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and its false teaching came to a head in the sixteenth century, when a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 propositions (or theses) against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s intention was to bring reform to the Roman Catholic Church, and in doing so was challenging the authority of the Pope. With the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to heed Luther’s call to reformation and return to biblical doctrines and practices, the Protestant Reformation began.  From this Reformation four major divisions or traditions of Protestantism would emerge: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. During this time God raised up godly men in different countries in order to once again restore churches throughout the world to their biblical roots and to biblical doctrines and practices.

Underlying the Protestant Reformation lay four basic doctrines in which the reformers believed the Roman Catholic Church to be in error. These four questions or doctrines are How is a person saved? Where does religious authority lie? What is the church? And what is the essence of Christian living? In answering these questions, Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox established what would be known as the “Five Solas” of the Reformation (sola being the Latin word for “alone”). These five points of doctrine were at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and it was for these five essential Biblical doctrines that the Protestant Reformers would take their stand against the Roman Catholic Church, resisting the demands placed on them to recant, even to the point of death. These five essential doctrines of the Protestant Reformation are as follows:

1-“Sola Scriptura,” or Scripture Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that the Bible alone is the sole authority for all matters of faith and practice. Scripture and Scripture alone is the standard by which all teachings and doctrines of the church must be measured. As Martin Luther so eloquently stated when asked to recant on his teachings, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

2—“Sola Gratia,” Salvation by Grace Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is by God’s grace alone and that we are rescued from His wrath by His grace alone. God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary, but is the sole efficient cause of salvation. This grace is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ by releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life.

3—“Sola Fide,” Salvation by Faith Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. It is by faith in Christ that His righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice.

4—“Solus Christus,” In Christ Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is found in Christ alone and that His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification and reconciliation to God the Father. The gospel has not been preached if Christ’s substitutionary work is not declared, and if faith in Christ and His work is not solicited.

5—“Soli Deo Gloria, For the Glory of God Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is of God and has been accomplished by God for His glory alone. It affirms that as Christians we must glorify Him always, and must live our entire lives before the face of God, under the authority of God, and for His glory alone.

These five important and fundamental doctrines are the reason for the Protestant Reformation. They are at the heart of where the Roman Catholic Church went wrong in its doctrine, and why the Protestant Reformation was necessary to return churches throughout the world to correct doctrine and biblical teaching. They are just as important today in evaluating a church and its teachings as they were then. In many ways, much of Protestant Christianity needs to be challenged to return to these fundamental doctrines of the faith, much like the reformers challenged the Roman Catholic Church to do in the sixteenth century.