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an overview of sacramental change in the reformation

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As noted in the brief Reformation summary provided on the first page, Martin Luther’s critique of the Catholic church provided a real threat to Catholic clerical authority, which exceeded that of the Lollards’ heresy because of its traction. The printing press, political assistance from rulers, and other methods allowed his message to spread throughout Europe. Although Pope Leo X condemned Luther’s message, the idea of the “priesthood of all believers” undermined the ability of the Catholic Church to do so. After all, Luther noted in his address to the Christian nobility of Germany that believers were bound by Scripture to humble the Pope and the members of the clergy.

martin luther, “address to the christian nobility of the german nation,” hanover historical text project, accessed november 16, 2018,

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Luther’s movement did not immediately transform Christiandom. Many desired order, and his doctrines looked suspiciously like innovation. However, Henry VIII was negotiating his Divorce with the Pope, and realized in the early 1530s that evangelical Protestants — those subscribing to Luther — aligned well with his attack on the Church’s jurisdiction. His sympathies with temporal aspects of Protestantism assisted its spread, although he still remained spiritually Catholic.



When Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England, the split between Catholicism and the Church of England was formalized, paving the way for changes in policy. Additionally, he took actions to reduce the Catholic Church’s power, such as dissolving the monasteries. The Act of Supremacy created a precedent for English monarchs to impact religious policy and thus allowing for broad sacramental changes.

ibid., 123.

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Edward’s reign helped to codify Protestant aesthetics, and to suppress Catholic ones. These changes excluded the Catholic ideas of Christ’s physical presence during the sacraments, and churches did not function as funnels for grace. Therefore, the meaning of the sacraments shifted to symbolic rather than contributing to the covenant of works.

Ibid., 154.


Protestants believed in justification by faith, not by works, which fundamentally changed the nature of their sacraments. Instead of performing sacraments for the purpose of getting into heaven, they viewed spiritual practices such as these as a display of their inner piety. Especially when the Book of Common Prayer standardized many rituals or iconoclasm became particularly intense, their sacraments tended to be stripped down more than their Catholic counterpoints. As certain scholars maintained, worship was necessary for the expression of inner faith, but was worthless once it exceeded that necessity.

william a. dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 124.


The Catholics operated within the structure of seven sacraments, with each being important in their own right. You may read more about them here. As a whole, Catholics believed firmly in liturgy because of their covenant of works as well as that Christ was physically present during these ceremonies. Especially in the Pre-Reformation era, church services functioned to funnel grace into the recipient, as a conduit of spiritual power.

donal flanagan, "The Sacraments," The Furrow 15, no. 5 (1964): 338-42.

During the Reformation, they pushed back against Protestantism by codifying elements of their sacraments. Additionally, participation in certain sacraments became an element with which to distinguish the Protestants from the papish.


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protestant perspective

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