The Protestant Reformation: A Divorce for Christianity

With a split-up this epic, it’s a good thing kids or alimony wasn’t involved.

The Protestant Reformation, as it is with many great stories of history, began with one character. In this case, a monk named Martin Luther.

Martin Luther as an Augustine monk

Most Christians recognize Martin Luther and his famous “The Ninety-Five Theses,” however what may come as a surprise is the nature of the movement’s eventual break from the Catholic Church.

His objections began in October of 1517 when Martin Luther, a monk at the time, heard from local parishioners that they no longer needed to repent for sins due to “plenary indulgences” they had purchased. Turns out earlier in the year prior, then Pope Leo X needed extra cash to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, so he came up with a plan: sell indulgences and use the proceeds to fund construction. To make matters even more sketchy, Albert of Mainz, Archbishop of Mainz in Germany at the time, permitted the sale of these indulgences in his territory in exchange for a kickback to help settle his debt for securing the Archbishop position.

But what is an indulgence? Well, according to the ol’ Catechism…

The remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven(1471).”

In this way, God forgives us of our sins, however the temporal damage of such sin remains and can effect our daily lives. Indulgences from the Church call upon the merits of the communion of saints to clear these damages.

And so it was, that Martin Luther flipped out. He was livid that the Church was selling what was offered free to mankind through God’s grace (the Church had not sold these indulgences before).

Contrary to popular belief, the nature of the letter and Martin Luther suggests that he did not nail his famous objection to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. The letter was written to the Archbishop of Mainz and the bishop of Brandenburg, not as a threat of rebellion, but as a scholarly objection to church practices (Hans Hillerbrand, “Martin Luther: Indulgences and salvation“).

Although Luther disagreed, he never intended (until much later) to break away from the Church and begin his own movement. Indeed, Luther wanted the Church to return to simple orthodoxy. The simple debate however, soon turned into a bitter and protracted battle of will and theological maneuvers. Within only two generations, all of Europe was divided–Protestant vs. Catholic. The reformation Luther initially envision turned into a full division in the church.

That said, Pope Paul VI said in the Second Vatican Council during the 1963…

“…in humble prayer, we beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Pope Paul VI

The Protestant Reformation initiated nearly 500 years of splintering within the Church. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are roughly 38,000 denominations within the Protestant umbrella. Most of them claim to have Christianity all figured out.

At the very heart of the matter, the Protestant Reformation represents the cost of corruption and egotism. As Pope Paul VI implied in his apology in prayer, fault rest on both sides. Like a married couple locking horns in an argument, neither side was willing to budge or even listen. The fight escalated until the original conflict festered and rebounded until there was little hope for reconciliation.

Who are the “kids” in this situation, the ones who often suffer the most in any split-up? I say it’s the Christians and searchers of the faith lost between denominations. It’s the folks who look left and right in search of the “true way” amidst all the fighting and debates. Some Protestants have converted to the Catholic Church and vice versa, but which one is correct?

I wonder, due to Luther’s original intent, if he would have done anything differently had he known the repercussions of his reform movement 500 years later. Would he be happy with the 38,000 denominations all claiming the truth? What id the Church at time would have corrected its sale of indulgences? Would there be a Protestant split today? We may never know.

What do you think about the Protestant Reformation? Is there any hope of a unified Church in the future?

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mary Holley

    Aloha Andrew and Happy New Year to you and your Ohana (family)…I have followed your journey as you know and give you so much credit but the journey is just starting…’ve just wet your appitite. I have been waiting for this moment to humbly ask you to investigate the Urantia Book. Most libraries have it and lots on the web…Wikipedia has a pretty good overview. I too am a seeker and this book stopped me in my tracks in 1974 and a daily reader ever since…It’s mind blowing with truth, beauty and goodness…Aloha, Mary aka “Tootsie”

    • abowen


      Yes, I remember your invitation to read the Urantia Book and I certainly plan to do so. Thank you!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Isa

    I think both Protestant and Orthodox religious movements (not just in Christianity) have some “good” aspects and “bad” aspects. Orthodoxy makes it possible for “authentic” teachings to be preserved, by having the tools to study and live out the scriptures. Whereas Protestant movements allow for personal freedom of interpretation. But that also has a downside, too. For example, if anyone can become a preacher, than that means it is possible for someone who has not been trained in interpreting the scriptures to deliver sermons based on their own theories, some of which may be horribly wrong. However, the same could be said of an Orthodox preacher. He may have the credentials, but could have bad motives or a mental illness, and no one would be able to say anything against him because he has authority over them, etc.

  • Alexandria Skinner

    You ask a very important question, and I wish more people would think about it. I grew up not only Protestant, but in a denomination that has itself become sub-fractured by conflict. My concern over how this conflict was handled led me to become a professional mediator for Christians and for congregations in conflict. I’ve linked to a blog post on my web site with more detail, but how we respond to our fellow Believers is of paramount concern. If we cannot be reconciled to one another, among whom the differences are so small, how can we dare approach the throne of God and ask to be reconciled to Him? I quote Matt. 5:23 – 24: “And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Serious food for thought.

    • abowen


      Truly inspiring. A professional advocate of reconciliation. You are following in the footsteps of Christ, for was reconciliation not his main purpose? Bless you, and I wish you much success.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Steve Skeete

    On the Protestant Reformation I believe that there are times when one definitely has to part company with another in the interest of “truth”. Indulgences apart, there were another dozen areas where Luther could have sought to “reform” Catholicism.

    On the second question, there is such a thing as a “unified Church”, since the true “Church” comprises all who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and are part of his body.

    If the real question is “will we ever all agree, or agree not to agree, then the easy answer is no, we won’t.