2.2 Luther and the Protestant Reformation

6 min readdecember 31, 2022

Minna Chow

Minna Chow

Sharii Liang

Sharii Liang

AP European History 🇪🇺

335 resources
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This topic and 2.3 Protestant Reform Continues both cover the major focus of this unit: the Protestant Reformation. Compared to 2.3, however, 2.2 is more about the causes of the Protestant Reformation. Although what truly caused the Protestant Reformation is a deep, complex topic, we’re going to be looking at an aspect of it: the major reformers of this era and the beliefs they would come to be associated with.
We'll be starting with the most well known of all: Martin Luther.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk. Records depict him as a dedicated religious scholar, who took questions of faith, especially on the topic of salvation, extremely seriously.
In 1517, while working as a lecturer in the German city of Wittenberg, Martin Luther published his soon to be famous 95 Theses and posted them on the door of the Wittenberg Church. The 95 Theses were meant to start an academic debate on the sale of indulgences, documents that were supposed to allow one to buy their way out of purgatory.) The key word here is academic: contrary to the popular depiction of events shown below, Luther was not "throwing down the gauntlet," nor did he intend at the time to break with the Catholic Church. Indeed, documents were often posted on the door of the Wittenburg Church.
However, despite his intentions, his 95 Theses would go on to permanently change the religious landscape of Europe forever. The document soon spread thanks to the power of the Printing Press, and by 1518 Martin Luther found himself embroiled in controversy. At the same time, Martin Luther himself had a series of religious revelations that solidified his thoughts on salvation being by divine grace alone: humans could not earn salvation (or pay for it through indulgences.)
In 1521, Martin Luther was called to the Diet of Worms to explain himself. (Note that this event had nothing to do with eating grubs: a Diet was a term for assembly and the town the meeting was held in was called Worms.) There, he was given the opportunity to recant his now-deemed-heretical works, and he refused.
Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

Martin Luther, speaking at the Diet of Worms (apocryphal)

With that, the Protestant Reformation was in full swing.
🎥 Watch: AP European History - Martin Luther and Reformation

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

John Calvin

Unlike in Catholicism, there isn't a "Protestant Church" structure that unites all Protestants. As a result, modern Protestantism has many different branches as people followed Martin Luther's footsteps and began to interpret the Bible and faith in their own ways.
One person who followed in Luther’s footsteps was John Calvin (1509—1564), a French theologian. He founded Calvinism, a sect of Protestantism. (Today, Martin Luther's teachings are associated with Lutheranism, another sect of Protestantism.)
A key tenet of Calvinism, and one of the beliefs that sets it apart from other Protestant sects, is predestination. Calvinists believed that God already knew who was going to heaven and hell. Those that were going to heaven were called the elect. There was nothing anyone could do to change their status, and further you could not know if you were elect or not.
As you can imagine, this belief caused a great deal of anxiety in Calvinists. People wanted to know if they were truly elect. Over time, they came to view money and wealth as signs of God’s favor, and potentially as signs that they were part of the elect. Centuries later, a German philisopher called Max Weber would call this the roots of the Protestant Work Ethic, a relationship with work that he argued would lead to the rise of capitalism as the economy of the world.
🎥 Watch: AP European History - Reformation 2.0
Calvin wasn't the only one who came to develop new thoughts about religion.

Responses to Luther and Calvin

Martin Luther's ideas would spur many others to break away from the Church. Ulrich Zwingli was an influential Swiss reformer who helped spread the Protestant Reformation there.
Luther and Calvin's work also influenced popular movements. Some were groups like the Anabaptists, whose main belief was that only adults could be officially baptized. This belief, as well as their dislike of authority, made them religious radicals and targets of persecution in their day. Luther also influenced the peasants of the German Peasant's Revolt, a religious crisis we'll talk about more in 2.4 Wars of Religion.

Protestant Beliefs

As our discussion of predestination suggests, Protestants didn't just break away from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, although that is a big part of what happened. They came to have some fundamentally different tenets of religious belief.
We'll be discussing three main beliefs that went on to be core tenets of Protestantism: sola fide, sola scriptura, and the priesthood of all believers.
  1. Sola fide means only faith in Latin. It refers to the belief that faith in Jesus Christ is the sole requirement for salvation. Therefore, good works and other forms of human effort have no bearing on one's salvation. (Once again, no paying for salvation!)
  2. Sola scriptura means only scripture in Latin. It refers to the belief that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice. This means that Protestants who follow sola scriptura place a strong emphasis on reading and studying the Bible in order to understand God's will and teachings. For example, Protestants generally do not believe in the worship of saints or in the idea of praying to them for intercession, unlike Catholics who do. This is because they do not believe that the Bible teaches this practice, so they don't do it.
  3. Finally, the priesthood of all believers is the idea that all believers have direct access to God through faith in Jesus Christ, and that they do not need to go through a clergyman or any other intermediary in order to have their prayers heard or to receive God's grace. The clergy (people such as Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, etc.) do not have any special spiritual authority or power. This is in contrast with the beliefs of Catholics, who generally hold that the clergy have a special role in mediation between God and the laity (people who aren't part of the clergy.)

Compare and Contrast: Age of Reformation Religious Beliefs






1. Faith
2. Good Works
1. Faith alone
Predestination: God alone chooses who goes to heaven
Salvation is rejected to those who have heard the Gospel and rejected it

Source of Authority

1. Bible
2. Church teachings and hierarchy
1. Christ alone in the Scripture
1. Christ alone in the Scripture
1. Christ alone in the Scripture

Position on the Eucharist

The priest literally transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ
Christ’s body and blood are present in the bread and wine because of God’s mystery, not the priest
Partake in the bread and wine on Earth; be nourished by the blood and body of Christ in heaven
Bread and wine are symbolic of Christ’s body


Hierarchical; clergy have a special relationship with God
Priesthood of all Believers
Priesthood of all Believers
Priesthood of all Believers

Spiritual Life

Monastic Orders
Serve God through your individual calling
Serve God through your individual calling
Serve God through your individual calling
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