Six spheres

The Reformation led to major changes in Europe in various respects. We still see the effects of this today.

That is why our focus spotlights six spheres:

  • historical
  • theological
  • religious
  • political
  • social
  • cultural

What is the significance and influence of the Reformation on these spheres?

1. The significance and influence of the Reformation for the historical sphere

Why do more Roman Catholics live in the southern Netherlands and in Flanders than Protestants? Why is Luther considered a national hero in Germany? Why were people in the sixteenth century afraid of Muslims? Why is the king of England also the head of the Anglican Church? Why are there so many Protestant churches and only one Roman Catholic Church? Society and culture in Europe have been strongly influenced by the Reformation and the reaction to it. So if you want to understand more of what you see today in Europe, then it would help to know something about the Reformation. This is also true of the Church, which broke into two parts in the sixteenth century and then into even more parts. If you simply want to understand, or if you want to make the church whole again, or if you have contact with people who believe or think differently, then you should also know how all these things happened.

2. The significance and influence of the Reformation for the theological sphere

Theology is about God and about God in relation to human beings. This was the central point in the debate between Catholics and Protestants. What options do you still have as a human being after the fall? Is God especially a judge or more of a father? Are you happy as you live following the Bible or as you know that God is your father? What do you hold on to when everything else around you fails? And what role does the Church play in this? Is the church a body, a community, a mother, or just a building? Theologically, in the 16th century all the questions of the previous centuries came together. Decisive views were expressed regarding the baptism of children, heaven and purgatory, celibacy and divorce, Mary and saints, life and death, a person’s status before God, and how you should practice your life to demonstrate that you are a Christian. These are certainly issues as well for today, where now more than other theological questions count; can relations between the church of Rome and those from the Reformation be repaired? If so, how?

3. The significance and influence of the Reformation for the religious sphere

How can you finally go to heaven? Should you fear God? Do you need the church to believe? Who has the final say in the church? These are questions from people in the 16th century, when everyone was a member of the church. Martin Luther was afraid of God and believed that the relation between you and God can only be repaired as you live sufficiently Christian enough. But he did not know what it was to live sufficiently Christian enough, he could not and he even hated God. Only when he came to read the Bible in a different way and became convinced that faith is not something from yourself but a gift of God, did it go well with him. Another reformer, John Calvin, asked who God actually is and where is he in the midst of the chaos of this life on earth. Calvin sometimes could not quite follow God, but he endeavored anyway to believe that God directs everything and designs it well. The questions and answers of Luther, Calvin, and many other significant people from the Reformation resulted in a new way of believing. A faith that comes from the heart, in which you do not have to fear God, untroubled and with direct lines of communication between God and human beings. The result was that the Catholic Church as well was again considering what faith really is. As a result of the Reformation, God could be experienced as being close to the people. Belief became attractive and the church was a community again. Today people are searching, and especially young people, for some way of believing and some kind of church. They are also inquiring about God. These were in essence the questions then and are again those for today.

4. The significance and influence of the Reformation for the political sphere

In the world of the sixteenth century there were only three people who called the shots: the pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the king of France. Princes and dukes might have some say, and even some major cities and citizens had a certain amount of power, but they were all still under the authority of the other three. Residents of other towns and villages, workers and peasants had no say at all. With the Reformation, many of these people finally saw their chance to be independent. Therefore, many of these people also supported Luther’s message. They wanted freedom and independence, and this was sometimes sought forcibly, but generally speaking, it was peacefully attained. These developments created a new political map of Europe, but foremost a different distribution of power: ordinary people had more say. But it also raised the question of how politics should be Christian. Can theocracy (God rules) and democracy (the people rule) be joined together? How far should the government go in the imposition of norms and values? How can people of differing faiths live together in the same city or country? What is the relationship between church and state? Can a government use force? In the time of the Reformation different answers were given to these questions in different lands. Today, these are questions for the whole western world, in which politics search for limits and possibilities in which laws and regulations may be found for all the different religions in a society. Europe is incomprehensible today without the Reformation. Perhaps the questions facing contemporary Europe are unanswerable without the (knowledge of) the Reformation.

5. The significance and influence of the Reformation for the social sphere

Cohabitation is now common among many. Divorce is a means to liberate women. The salaries of teachers must be raised. Workers must have more rights. The beggars and homeless should get out of the city. These are not statements from people in the 21st century but quotes from reformers. The Reformation changed so many things in the social sphere that a few sentences can hardly capture it all. So in the case of marriage, till then seen as inferior when compared to single life, it gained more respect. The relationship between husband and wife became more equal. The education of boys and girls received a tremendous boost. According to Luther, since you do not have to earn heaven, for example by helping beggars, it was better to abolish begging and ensure a fairer distribution of money and property. Also, the valuation of work and income changed, now the spiritual life was no longer placed on a higher level than the everday life. Earning money was no longer suspect. Orphanages, schools, and businesses shot up like mushrooms out of the ground. Love, sexuality, and parenthood regained the attention that they deserved. The Catholic Church, however, did not fall behind and also went to work on these topics. Thus, in the social sphere, the Reformation almost led to a revolution. With the Reformation, all the established axioms in this field fell away and many issues had to be completely reconsidered. Church and society are in that situation again today. This is precisely why the Reformation could serve contemporary reflection on social issues.

6. The significance and influence of the Reformation for the cultural sphere

Art and culture were, if not directly connected with the church, for the Reformation under criticism, from the old distinction between everyday life and spiritual life (nature and grace). Although the Reformation ensured that images and art disappeared from the church, outside of the church, this was not the case. There artistic expression was no longer on a lower level than the church. This gave an enormous boost to painting (Cranach, Rembrandt), literature, and to architecture. Not only did the design of church buildings change dramatically, but also other buildings had a different look and in many cases the whole cityscape changed. On the other hand, it is from certain Anabaptist currents that set the Bible and culture in opposition. Simultaneously, the Catholic reformation resulted in a revival of art, including painting and sculpture that were made in the service of the church (Rubens).

These developments are relevant because the questions and answers of the past can assist the current debates about the relationship between culture and Christian faith as well as in the importance of culture for society. What is the value of culture? What is culture, properly speaking? What should it cost? What should church and society be within various forms of culture? Can culture be utilized for a better society?



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