The Reformation

Reform to 1546 + Reform to 1564 + Reform to 1572 + Reform to 1622

The Reformation was the defining period for Presbyterianism. It is from here that we get a theological focus on the Lordship of Christ and justification by faith, of authority in Scripture alone, of leadership by teaching elders and ruling elders, of decisions by a hierarchy of church courts not of individual leaders, of nervousness about authority, symbol, and sin, and confidence that God's blessings are in the midst of change in this life as well as in the gift of the life to come.

The heroes of the Reformation as well as their theological convictions are still very much with us, even as the tradition continues to change in different cultural contexts globally and in the West. The "DNA" from the 16th century is critical to Presbyterian identity as the church today seeks to discern with greater clarity and relevance what are our enduring beliefs and values, and what are those things that need to change with context and circumstance.

Reformation Studies are debated, at times quite fiercely. Because the Reformation was political not just religious, many debates are often about historical viewpoint more than theology. People argue the relative merits of social and narrative history, and whether the period before the Reformation was as dark as traditionally portrayed, whether the changes took place fast or slow, from above or below, from the centre or from the periphery. Some assume that the theological debates were just a way of people trying to get spiritual power, real or imagined, on their side when the "real" argument was about something else. Depending on a writer's own convictions, at times there is a "subtext" historical agenda about the significance of religion as a causative, irrelevant or harmful influence in society.

The fact that people's lives were at stake, not just their opinions, helps explain the intensity of theological debate and the nature of conflicts which saw heroism, faith, violence and dirty tricks on more than one side in the maelstrom of change. Nationalism and the need for national alliances for protection contributed to the violence. Scotland's historic relationships with England, France and Rome were not irrelevant - in medieval times Scotland looked to Rome for help against the English. If the English invaded Scotland, the Scots also invaded England. However the defeat of the Scots at Flodden in 1513, suggested to some at least that future power lay with England more than France. The relationships of cousins on the thrones of England and Scotland may have been troubled, but increasingly a Scottish relationship with England meant Reform, and one with France meant the maintenance of the old religion. The future seemed to be more about peace with England than support from France - the later possibility being finally put to rest by the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1745. However the French connection still mattered: Jean Calvin was French (not Swiss), and elements of Scot's law today still have a French not an English basis.

One of the questions still debated by some is whether the Protestants were interested in missions or not. There are some comments on the page linked on the left.

A question for our own reflection is to think about how Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and others went about their “job” as Reformed theologian-ministers.  It can be interesting to think how much the tradition we inherit lies in what they concluded and how much it owes to how they went about getting there. Do you think their method may be as important for us as their conclusions?

Heroes, Villains and Ordinary Folk

Conflict with its winners and losers lends itself to seeing history in terms of heroes and villains. One of the distortions of history is that the story is generally, though not always, written by the winners, and it can be difficult to be fair to those who lost out. This is all true of the Reformation where there is a strong history (Foxe's Book of Martyrs for instance on the English Protestant side) emphasising just one side of the story. There were courageous saints and slippery rogues in most groups.

Who and what we see in the story is affected by our own values and interests as is only natural. The Ecumenical movement and a different view of history now encourage us not only to seek to be fair to the various groups involved at the Reformation and in other conflicts since, but also to think about who tried to hold things together. It can be helpful to think who we gravitate towards as the heroes of an era like this. For example which of the following do we find more interesting or attractive?

These concerns continue to surface in the story of the church. People are often criticised for staying loyal to an old system when others changed. We still regard being out of date as some how morally wrong - something I have problems with. It is also often assumed that ministers who changed their churchmanship to stay in the job, like the Vicar of Bray in a later century, were necessarily people of no faith or conviction. Those who sought a middle way have usually been depicted, from all sides, as weak.

I do not believe Christian character is necessarily measured in the way these assumptions suggest. There are "strong" and "weak" characters in most places on the theological map. Although we have time only to look at some of the more well-known names, there are other people's stories from the Reformation, that are also worth discovering.

Key Text

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation. Europe's House Divided 1490-1700, Penguin, 2004.

Online Resources

Some of the links and the articles below refer to the Reformation in England or Europe rather than Scotland. They also provide an introduction to questions of historiography as well as to the focus of our concerns with the Reformation in Scotland and the growth of the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions. As with the links above there is a great variety of quality and viewpoint in what is available online. We might note the difference in the style of debate between those who argue over the religious issues and those who debate the more secular ones and perhaps ask whether one or the other does better justice to what the era was about.

See also the following pages on this website:

John Roxborogh