In understanding the history of Protestant Church and the Reformation, it is important to first understand that one of the claims that the Roman Catholic Church makes is that of apostolic succession. This simply means that they claim a unique authority over all other churches and denominations because they claim the line of Roman Catholic Popes back throughout the centuries, all the way to the Apostle Peter. In their view, this gives the Roman Catholic Church a unique authority that supersedes all other denominations or churches. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, this apostolic succession is only “found in the Catholic Church” and no “separate Churches have any valid claim to it.”
It is because of this apostolic succession that the Roman Catholic Church claims a unique authority to interpret Scripture and to establish doctrine, as well the claim of having a supreme leader in the Pope who is infallible (without error) when speaking “ex cathedra”—that is, in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians. Therefore, according to the Roman Catholic view, the teaching or traditions of the Roman Catholic Church as they come from the Pope are equally as infallible and authoritative as the Scriptures themselves. This is one of the major differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants and was one of the foundational reasons for the Protestant Reformation.
Of course, the Roman Catholics are not the only ones who try to claim unique authority through apostolic succession or by tracing the roots of their church back to the original apostles. The Eastern Orthodox Church also claims apostolic succession, although their claim is very similar to the Roman Catholic view. The split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism did not occur until the “Great Schism” in A.D. 1054. There are also some Protestant denominations or groups that will try to establish a “Trail of Blood” that can be traced back through the centuries to the first century church and the apostles themselves. While these Protestants do not hold to apostolic succession in order to establish the authority of a “Pope” as an infallible leader, they still look to that connection to the early church in at least some small degree to establish the authority of their doctrines and practices.
The problem with any of these attempts to trace a line of succession back to the apostles, whether it is Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, is that they all are attempts to derive or support the authority of what they believe and teach from the wrong source, that of some real or perceived connection with the apostles, instead of deriving it from the Word of God. It is important for Christians to realize that direct apostolic succession is not necessary in order for a church or denomination to have authority. God has given and preserved the supreme authority for all matters of faith and practice in His Holy Word, the Bible. Therefore, an individual church’s or denomination’s authority today does not come through some tie to the first century church and the apostles. Instead, it comes only and directly from the written Word of God. A church or denomination’s teachings are authoritative and binding on Christians only if they represent the true meaning and clear teaching of Scripture. This is important in order to understand the connection between Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church, and the reason that the Protestant Reformation took place.
In regards to the history of Christianity and the claims of apostolic succession, as well as the Roman Catholic Church’s claim of being the one true Church with unique authority, it is important to understand a couple of key points. First, we must realize that even in the days of the apostles and the first century church, false teachers were a significant problem. We know this because warnings against heresies and false teachers are found in all the later New Testament writings. Jesus Himself warned that these false teachers would be like “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15), and that there would be both “tares and wheat” that would exist together until the day of judgment when He separates the saved from the lost, the true “born again” believer from those that have not truly received Him (Matthew 13:24-30). This is important in understanding church history, because from almost the very beginning false teachers and false teachings have been invading the church and leading people astray. Despite this, there have also been true “born again” believers who held fast to the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, throughout all ages, even in the darkest period of the dark ages.
The second thing to realize to correctly understand church history is that the word catholic simply means “universal.” This is important because in the early Christian writings of the first and second centuries, when the term catholic is used, it is referring to the “universal church” or “body of Christ” that is made up of “born again” believers from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). However, like many other words over time, the word catholic began to take on new meaning, or came to be used in a new sense. Over time, the concept of a “universal” or “catholic” church began to evolve into the concept that all churches formed together one church, not just spiritually, but also visibly, extending throughout the world. This misunderstanding of the nature of the visible church (which always has contained both “wheat and tares”) and the invisible church (the body of Christ which is only made up of born again believers) would lead to the concept of a visible Holy Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation. It is out of this misunderstanding of the nature of the universal church that the Roman Catholic Church evolved.
Prior to the Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in A.D. 315, Christians had been persecuted by the Roman government. With his conversion, Christianity became an allowed religion of the Roman Empire (and later became the official religion), and thus the “visible” Church became joined with the power of the Roman government. This marriage of church and state led to the formation of the Roman Catholic Church, and over time caused the Roman Catholic Church to refine its doctrine and develop its structure in a way that best served the purpose of the Roman government. During this time, opposing the Roman Catholic Church was the same as opposing the Roman government and carried with it severe penalties. If one disagreed with some doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, it was a serious charge that often resulted in excommunication and sometimes even death.
Yet throughout this time of history, there were true “born again” Christians who would rise up and oppose the secularization of the Roman Catholic Church and the perversion of the faith that followed. Through this church-and-state combination, the Roman Catholic Church effectively silenced those who opposed any of its doctrines or practices, and truly became almost a universal church throughout the Roman Empire. There were always pockets of resistance to some of the unbiblical practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, yet they were relatively small and isolated. Prior to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, men such as John Wycliffe in England, John Huss in Czechoslovakia, and John of Wessel in Germany had all given their lives for their opposition to some of the unbiblical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
The opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and its false teaching came to a head in the sixteenth century, when a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 propositions (or theses) against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s intention was to bring reform to the Roman Catholic Church, and in doing so was challenging the authority of the Pope. With the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to heed Luther’s call to reformation and return to biblical doctrines and practices, the Protestant Reformation began. From this Reformation four major divisions or traditions of Protestantism would emerge: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. During this time God raised up godly men in different countries in order to once again restore churches throughout the world to their biblical roots and to biblical doctrines and practices.
Underlying the Protestant Reformation lay four basic doctrines in which the reformers believed the Roman Catholic Church to be in error. These four questions or doctrines are How is a person saved? Where does religious authority lie? What is the church? And what is the essence of Christian living? In answering these questions, Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox established what would be known as the “Five Solas” of the Reformation (sola being the Latin word for “alone”). These five points of doctrine were at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and it was for these five essential Biblical doctrines that the Protestant Reformers would take their stand against the Roman Catholic Church, resisting the demands placed on them to recant, even to the point of death. These five essential doctrines of the Protestant Reformation are as follows:
1-“Sola Scriptura,” or Scripture Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that the Bible alone is the sole authority for all matters of faith and practice. Scripture and Scripture alone is the standard by which all teachings and doctrines of the church must be measured. As Martin Luther so eloquently stated when asked to recant on his teachings, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."
2—“Sola Gratia,” Salvation by Grace Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is by God’s grace alone and that we are rescued from His wrath by His grace alone. God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary, but is the sole efficient cause of salvation. This grace is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ by releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life.
3—“Sola Fide,” Salvation by Faith Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. It is by faith in Christ that His righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice.
4—“Solus Christus,” In Christ Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is found in Christ alone and that His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification and reconciliation to God the Father. The gospel has not been preached if Christ’s substitutionary work is not declared, and if faith in Christ and His work is not solicited.
5—“Soli Deo Gloria, For the Glory of God Alone: This affirms the Biblical doctrine that salvation is of God and has been accomplished by God for His glory alone. It affirms that as Christians we must glorify Him always, and must live our entire lives before the face of God, under the authority of God, and for His glory alone.
These five important and fundamental doctrines are the reason for the Protestant Reformation. They are at the heart of where the Roman Catholic Church went wrong in its doctrine, and why the Protestant Reformation was necessary to return churches throughout the world to correct doctrine and biblical teaching. They are just as important today in evaluating a church and its teachings as they were then. In many ways, much of Protestant Christianity needs to be challenged to return to these fundamental doctrines of the faith, much like the reformers challenged the Roman Catholic Church to do in the sixteenth century.