I have read a couple books on Reformation history this year. I just finished the huge book (900 or so pages) about the Reformation by Carlos Eire, professor of history at Yale. Eire is the author of a memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, which won the National Book Award. This history professor can write. The title of his book is Reformations with an "s" because there was so much going on during this time that Reformation with no "s" doesn't begin to cover it all. He writes about the main guys like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and a whole bunch of other reformers no one has ever heard of unless they are Reformation history majors. It makes a great story. Eire tells about what the Roman Catholic Church was doing during this time, too. The Reformation was the date Protestantism got it's start but it wasn't like the Catholics were not doing any reforming on their own.
Before Luther stuck his 95 theses up on the Wittenburg Church door (Eire says it never happened that way but he probably sent them to his superiors), there was only one Church and there had been only one for a long time. Luther who was a Catholic monk and a life long admirer of Augustine had his fill of what he saw as corruption and deficient theology in his church He was especially peeved about the sale of Special Indulgences by the Pope to raise money for the St Peter's building project. That triggered the writing of the theses. The theses by themselves were not revolutionary but Luther was not done. His writings and sermons sparked controversy until the Pope excommunicated him from the Church, the one and only Church at the time. He would have been executed if he didn't have friends in high places. He spent a good bit of his life hiding out, and writing and translating the Bible into German.
John Calvin was a Catholic, too. All the Reformers were. He was a little later than Luther and from another part of Europe. Calvin was the systematizer and wrote several editions of the Institutes of Christian Religion which lay out the Reformed faith. Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, each important in his own right, did not get along together. And none of them liked the Jews, Catholics or Anabaptists very well either. Their followers fought each other for years. Eire says that one of the main take-aways from the Reformation was the fragmentation of the Church. There was little agreement on what needed to be reformed and the Catholics weren't seeking suggestions. The idea at the time was an entire region would be the same religion. So, Germany would be Lutheran, and the Swiss would be Reformed and so on. Of course, the Catholic Church was not giving up any territory so they kept the pressure on. Whoever controlled the government controlled the state religion. The state backed up the reforms of the religious leaders with force. This was a brutal age with Christians fighting for their lives as well as their beliefs.
What were those beliefs? Faith or works was one. The Reformers believed the Catholic system of salvation was based on works. Luther and Calvin argued for faith. They believed most of the rituals and practises of the Catholic church had to go. There was a tendency especially in Reformed territories to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In Eire's masterful account it can be difficult to see what the Reformers really gained. The Protestants got rid of the monks and monasteries, most of the priests and a good bit of the Catholic ritual, the art and the religious icons. The Calvinists got rid of the organs and the music, too. The Anabaptists got rid of infant baptism, and cooperation with the government. They all got rid of purgatory, and the saints, and the veneration of Mary so much of the mysticism and mystery of faith was gone. The various theological positions hardened over time and the followers of the Reformers often were more extreme than the founders were. There was little appreciation for the strengths of each point of view. Charles Williams in his biography of the Holy Spirit in history, The Descent of the Dove, notes that Luther, Ignatius, Xavier and Calvin lived about the same time, "Our Lord the Spirit violently convulsed those souls with himself" is the way he put it. Sadly, they never knew they were on the same team.
The laypeople were in a tough place. Their lives had been turned upside down so they clung to what they knew even if it was their folklore and mythology. They did not know what to think or believe. They often had to change their thinking as fast as their historical situation changed.
There were reforms needed in the Catholic Church but there was great art and music. Great thinkers like St Gregory, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, St. Theresa of Avila, to name a few. Great followers of Christ like St. Francis of Assisi. And many other spiritual treasures. There was no need to start all over from scratch. The Reformers had insights that the Church needed like Luther's emphasis on grace and Calvin's systematic theology. The Anabaptists who were persecuted without mercy gave us the separation of church and state and a steadfast focus on the Jesus of history. Each one had ingredients that a healthy church needed but each one presumed their insights were all the church needed. People began to think of themselves as followers of Luther, or Calvin or Zwingli or the Pope and not of Christ. They fragmented and fought, argued and cursed each other, they even tortured and killed each other for the sake of Christ's Church. Sadly, their theological differences hardened until they became impermeable.
You can say what you want about the Catholic Church but there was one church before the Reformation and afterward there were an increasing numbers of churches, most of whom did not get along with each other. Today in our little town which is like towns across America there are lots of churches. Some are known denominations but many are independents. That means they are on their own preaching the truth they know and trying to win the others over to their side. They are not killing each other, at least not literally, but they have drawn very small circles of salvation. And, of course, the Catholics are no where near those circles.
We have a great heritage in the Church. Our fathers and mothers who have gone before us have all contributed to our knowledge of God and what it means to follow Christ. Tertullian and Origen, Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Barth and Bonhoeffer, the Wesley brothers, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King among many, many others. The reform of the church will not happen by drawing smaller circles and making bigger walls between Christ's followers. Reform happens as we appreciate and learn from our diversity and use it as a force for unity. In Christ.