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Arts & Culture

The Reformation: This Changed Everything

"Holy Orders" by Nicolas Poussin.
Courtesy of American Public Television
"Holy Orders" by Nicolas Poussin.

Airs Mondays, Aug. 28, Sept. 4 & Sept. 11, 2017 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Almost 500 years have passed since Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses and launched the Protestant Reformation.

Narrated by British actor David Suchet (AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT), the three-part documentary, THE REFORMATION: THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING, explores the history of the Reformation, its impact on 16th century Europe, and its continuing influence on modern Christianity.

Shot on location at key Reformation sites throughout Europe and featuring more than 20 notable scholars representing a broad range of historical and theological perspectives, this fast-paced series takes a journalistic look at the major characters and ideas of an incredibly tumultuous era.

EPISODE GUIDE:

Episode 1 airs Monday, Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. - This episode introduces us to Martin Luther and describes the context of the 16th-century world into which he was born: a world of rampant disease where the threat of death was ever-present, and, in which the Church was the center of both religious and civic life.

We learn how the Medieval Church ruled in tandem with kings and princes in a rigid feudal system, and how, in the eyes of many, this power led to the Church's moral and doctrinal corruption.

We see how opposition to this political structure grew, spreading with the advent of the Renaissance, Christian Humanism and the invention of the printing press -- an invention that revolutionized communication.

When in 1517, Pope Leo X decided to sell indulgences as a scheme to raise funds for the building of St. Peter's Basilica, the world was ready for Luther's protest - his 95 Theses- which sparked the Protestant Reformation.

THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING - Martin Luther's 95 Theses

While Luther was inciting a revolution in Germany, a Swiss priest named Ulrich Zwingli was starting his own reform movement in Zurich.

Luther had introduced the concept of sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible alone should be the authoritative measure of the Church's teaching. This premise rejected the idea that scripture and church tradition are equally authoritative.

Although Zwingli's and Luther's movements shared many ideas in common, Zwingli's reading of scripture differed from Luther's on some fundamental Christian doctrines.

The most notable difference was focused upon the doctrine of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, ironically, a word that means "to share in common."

These disagreements led to the first rift in the growing Protestant movement, a rift that set the precedent for the suspicion and disunity that continues to plague Protestantism to this day.

"Eucharist," 1637 by Nicolas Poussin.
Courtesy of American Public Television
"Eucharist," 1637 by Nicolas Poussin.

Episode 2 airs Monday, Sept. 4 at 10 p.m. - This episode opens as the English Reformation is beginning. The series of changes are sparked not so much by religious conviction as by King Henry VIII's desire to secure the Tudor line of succession.

We meet the key players in the sordid saga of Henry and his many wives and learn how his petition to divorce Catherine of Aragon led to his break with Rome.

Henry VIII of England.
Courtesy of American Public Television
Henry VIII of England.

While King Henry's motivations may have been purely political, reform-minded members of the King's inner circle, including his chief minister, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and, even his mistress and soon-to-be second wife, Anne Boleyn, steered the King in directions that brought about significant religious and social change.

Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII.
Courtesy of American Public Television
Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII.

From the English Reformation we move to a very different stream of the Reformation: the Radical Reformation.

Here we see how Luther's doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture alone) continued to have unintended consequences, as several splinter groups — known collectively as the Anabaptists — interpreted scripture in ways that challenged the medieval social order.

THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING - Sola Scriptura

The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, a belief that had significant political ramifications as baptism was inextricably linked to citizenship.

The Anabaptists were rejecting the very basis of Christendom. Their refusal to baptize their children, to join the military or to pay taxes, marked them as hated enemies of both Protestants and Catholics.

THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING - Anabaptists vs infant baptism

The radicals would pay the price for their temerity. But the Anabaptist's ideas led inexorably to some of the most cherished concepts in Western democracy, namely the separation of church and state and the doctrine of religious liberty.

From the Radicals we move to the Counter-Reformation. While the Protestant movement continued to grow and splinter, the Catholic Church officially responded to the movement in 1545 at the Council of Trent.

The council took on the issue of church corruption as well as the doctrinal questions raised by the Reformers. Though there had been some signs of rapprochement between the two sides in the years leading up to Trent, the council decisively rejected key Protestant ideas, labeling them anathema (literally accursed).

Thus, the rift in Western Christianity was solidified for the next 500 years.

“Council of Trent” by Pasquale Cati.
Courtesy of American Public Television
“Council of Trent” by Pasquale Cati.

Episode 3 airs Monday, Sept. 11 at 10 p.m. - Episode three introduces us to French theologian John Calvin who represented a new generation of Protestant reformers.

His intellectual clarity enabled him to coalesce the central tenets of the Protestant faith in one of the movement's most important documents, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

John Calvin and the Institutes of Christian Religion

Calvin also led the controversial reform movement in the city-state of Geneva. His ideas have had a profound effect in the areas of theology, politics and economics.

We then turn our attention back to England where Henry VIII has left a muddled political and religious legacy.

His young Protestant son Edward VI follows his father to the throne and he and his advisors waste no time instituting Protestant reforms.

Edward VI of England.
Courtesy of American Public Television
Edward VI of England.

But, Edward's short reign was only the beginning of the upheaval as power switched back and forth between Protestant and Catholic monarchs.

Finally, solidifying during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I, whose "via media" (middle way) would appease most of her Catholic and Protestant subjects.

Queen Elizabeth I.
Courtesy of American Public Television
Queen Elizabeth I.

Most subjects, that is, except for the Puritans and Separatists, whose disgruntlement would lead them to flee to North America where they hoped to establish a new social order.

The series finally closes with recent events that some believe signal a new era in inter-Christian relations.

The ecumenical movement of the early to mid-20th century is discussed, as are the radical changes in Protestant-Catholic relations brought about by The Second Vatican Council.

Vatican II

Our scholars deal with questions about the fractured identity of Christianity in the world as they discuss the successes and continuing challenges of ecumenicism.

The Reformation's lamentable legacy of violence and division is weighed by our scholars against the remarkable social progress spurred at least in part by the ideas of the Reformers.

THE REFORMATION: THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING is on Facebook.

CREDITS:

Produced by Vision Video and Christian History Institute. Distributed by American Public Television.