Foundations of the faith: sixteenth-century European reformers and their texts

Bernard of ClairvauxDesiderius ErasmusMartin LutherUlrich ZwingliPhilipp MelanchthonJohn CalvinTheodore BezaJohn Knox

Early Humanist Influences:
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) | Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)

Martin Luther (1483-1546) | Ulrich Zwingli (1487-1531) | Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560)
John Calvin (1509-1564) | Theodore Beza (1519-1605) | John Knox (c. 1513-1572)

In western Europe, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church remained largely unquestioned until the Renaissance in the fifteenth century. The invention of the printing press in Germany, circa 1450, made it possible for common people to have access to printed material including the Bible. It also enabled many to discover religious thinkers who had begun to question the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

The term Reformation has been used to describe the series of changes in Western Christendom between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, most focused in the sixteenth century. The early sixteenth century brought divergences from Catholic doctrine, concentrating on the financial excesses of the Papacy and the Curia.

John Calvin, title page detail
Calvin, John, 1509-1564
Institutio Christinanae religionis nun uere demum suo titulo respondens
Strasburg: Vuendelinus Rihelius, March 1545
Title page detail; click for enlargement

When Martin Luther protested against the corruption of Rome and the great abuses attending the sale of indulgences, he was not breaking new or controversial ground. Luther, a German priest and professor, is credited with starting the movement know as the Protestant Reformation when in 1517 he posted his ninety-five theses against the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Some twenty years later, a French/Swiss theologian, John Calvin, further refined the reformers’ new way of thinking about the nature of God and God’s relationship with humanity in what came to be know as Reformed theology. This theology proved to be the driving force of the Reformation, particularly in W. Germany, France, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland.

Reformed churches are those that are influenced by the theology of Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, and others in contract to the Lutherans. Designation of these ‘protestant’ churches as eglises reformees, reformierte Kirchen, ecclesiase reformatae, was already common before the end of the sixteenth century.

John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, took Calvin’s teachings back to Scotland. The Presbyterian Church traces its ancestry back primarily to Knox in Scotland and to England.

Of a necessity this exhibit reflects both the riches and the gaps in the holdings of the Presbyterian Historical Society. It is designed to provide an introduction to some of the source works of the Reformation, the Reformed tradition, and the Presbyterian faith.

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