What was the Reformation? (Or, how 16th century theological hipsters changed the church forever.)

Thus far, I’ve told you it’s the Reformation’s 500th birthday, and that I’m especially nerdy for it. What I haven’t done thus far is define it. 

So, what was the Reformation?


At the time of the Reformation, the European Renaissance was in full swing. Renaissance means “rebirth.” The idea was a lot of classical European culture dating back to the Greeks and Romans had been lost. Proponents of the Renaissance wanted to rediscover it and revive it. Their cry was ad fontes, “back to the sources.” They wanted to mine the past for wisdom, knowledge and beauty, and learn from it. 

And learn from it they did. That generation produced some of the greatest art, science, and literature in Western history. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Galileo: just a few names you might recognize from the time.

They mined the past, and found a couple gems along the way.

They mined the past, and found a couple gems along the way.

In many ways, the Reformation took this idea and applied it to the church and its theology. The word Reformation comes from a Latin verb that means, “to form again, mold anew, or revive.” The Reformers went back to the sources of Christianity—the Bible and early church fathers—and wanted to re-form the church in line with them. 

The Reformers: 16th Century Theological Hipsters

For as historically groundbreaking as the Reformation movement became in the 1500s, the Reformers didn’t see themselves as radical. They believed the Medieval church had left the essentials of the Christian faith behind in favor of peripheral doctrines and practices, bureaucracy, and corruption. 

In their view, the Pope and his followers had tract-homed the church and its theology, paving over the beauty and wonder of the gospel of grace. The Reformers went back to the Scriptures and realized there were unfathomable treasures there that lay neglected by the church for centuries. They were like teenagers raised in subdivisions who had never been to a magnificent cathedral or art museum, and, upon taking their first field trip to see something of real and lasting beauty, had their entire world flipped upside down. They were like present-day millennials, fleeing the suburbs for the cities, looking for something more permanent than the strip malls they grew up next to. The Reformers were like the church’s first hipsters. 

Just like the Medieval theology the Reformers fled. 

Just like the Medieval theology the Reformers fled. 

I don’t think Luther would have fit into skinny jeans. But he could be the hero of a generation intent on pickling their own vegetables, brewing their own beer, and pursuing “authenticity” in whatever they do. (Though, in his household, it was his wife who did the homebrewing.)

Luther was raised in a theological climate that was generations removed from what made the church the church. Guilt and shame and fear and superstition had come to dominate a church built on a gospel of grace, forgiveness, healing and hope. 

Luther and his followers rediscovered this glorious foundation on which the church was built and determined to re-form the church by going back to this foundation, “back to the sources.” This rediscovery of the gospel was central to Luther’s writings. And new information technology (the printing press) ensured his writings made it to every corner of his world (a World Wide Web?). Add to that his penchant for cool hats and crude jokes, and Luther really does look like a theological hipster. 

The Reformation was a movement to reform the church along theological lines. Luther summarized those theological lines in 5 slogans (proto-Tweets?), known as the “Five Solas” which I will discuss in the next few posts:

  1. Sola fidei – Faith alone
  2. Sola gratia – Grace alone
  3. Solus Christus – Christ alone
  4. Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
  5. Soli Deo gloria – To God alone be the glory! 

Obviously, hipsters aren't Luther. But, maybe, just maybe, Luther was a hipster.