From Wittenberg to Global Church: The Reformation Belongs to the World

Bruce Gordon

Anniversaries, our private and public rituals of remembrance, tell us a great deal about our identities. They shape our lives. Looking at the past we often see ourselves. So it is hardly surprising that such rituals cast in relief not only what we choose to tell but what we omit.

As we reflect on how remembrance changes over time, let us remind ourselves of how the Reformation was cast in a different age. In his 1873 The Reformation, my predecessor, George Park Fisher, the first to hold the Chair of Ecclesiastical History at Yale, wrote with confidence, “Hence intellectual liberty, freedom of thought and inquiry, was a consequence of the Reformation, that could not fail to be eventually realized.”1 Across Germany in the 19th century, statues of Luther were erected to mark the triumphant Protestantism of Bismarck’s empire: Luther was the first modern German.

Several generations later, the last year of World War I defined the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in 1917, which was marked across Europe and North America – and I mean Europe and North America. The optimism of 19th-century Liberal Protestantism was annihilated in the trenches of France, taking with it the belief that Protestantism was the historical and rational fulfillment of Christian history, a myth soon finished off by the young Karl Barth.

At the time of the 1917 anniversary, the image of the average Protestant would have been educated, American, British or German, middle class, and white. Certainly there were many rural, poor Protestants, and the African-American churches were vibrant, but for the most part the faith was seen as largely middle class, or perhaps better described as bourgeois. A century later, statistics tell us that that average Protestant is more likely to be Ugandan, Chinese, or Brazilian, and possibly quite poor. There are more practicing Anglicans in Africa than in Britain, the USA, Canada, and Australia combined.

Exile and Persecution

It may have begun in Wittenberg, Zurich, and Geneva, but with the extraordinary growth of Christianity across the world the legacy of the Reformation is no longer solely a European or North American possession. Indeed, while the West has largely valorized Protestantism as the source of some of our most venal inclinations, such as capitalism, the defining Reformation experiences of exile and persecution are better known to our sisters and brothers in China and Africa. What does the Reformation mean for a global Protestant culture that is at best loosely connected to the churches of Europe and North America?

The Reformation was a revolution, a radical break that created a distinctive form of Christianity that had never previously existed. Its claim to continuity with ancient Christianity lay not in the institution of the church, nor in traditions, but in fidelity to the Word of God. Where the Gospel has been truly preached, claimed John Calvin, the light of truth has been preserved through the ages. That light, according to Protestants, was kept lit by God, not by any human means. Protestantism, if the term is to mean anything, has its focus firmly on adherence to the Word of God, but that makes it a large tent in which there was considerable diversity in outward practices and forms of worship. Because its hallmark is a firm belief that one is saved by faith alone, Protestantism as it emerged necessarily took a variety of manifestations and could not, and cannot, be described as one thing or entity.

Unmediated Grace

But if Protestantism, in all its disparate forms, can be characterized as having a shape, it lies in the conviction that God’s grace is received unmediated by the believer. In Christ each person encounters God individually, and the Bible is the means by which God’s message of salvation is received. Although the nature of grace has been formulated in strikingly different ways – from the spiritualists of the so-called Radical Reformation to the teaching of the magisterial reformers in Wittenberg, Zurich, and Geneva – the direct encounter with God’s grace unmediated by any human-made institution remains the essential mark of Reformation Protestantism.

Yet we must guard against definitions of Protestantism that simply provide mirrors for the West. In our secular world, the growth of Christian churches in the majority world is frequently treated with bemusement or disdain. Many, including those among the Northern liberal churches, regard the emerging Christian movements with deep suspicion and almost embarrassment, often suggesting that they reflect an unhealthy mixture of the Gospel with traditional religions. The generally conservative theologies of the Southern hemisphere churches have caused bitter divisions within the Anglican communion, to give one example. In short, many in Europe and North American imply that those in the South are not real Christians – they’re not like us, people who have fully embraced the principles of the modern world. In 2001 Kenneth L. Woodward’s article in Newsweek, “The Changing Face of the Church,” makes the point:

In fact, much of what Western missionaries once opposed as tribal witchcraft and idol worship more tolerant churchmen now regard as the spadework of the Holy Spirit – a tilling of the soil for the planting of an authentically African church. The idea isn’t new: Some early fathers of the Western church saw “pagan” Greek philosophy as divine preparation for the truths of Christian revelation. In the same way, many African theologians insist that the old tribal religions are more Christian because they are less skeptical of the supernatural than the post-Enlightenment Christianity of the modern West. “Africans are much closer to the world of Jesus” than are Western Christians, argues Protestant theologian Kwame Bediako of Ghana. What is really happening in Africa today, he believes, is “the renewal of a non-Western religion.”2

In the global world we are experiencing a new Reformation, one that is transforming Christianity. God’s Word is taking root, not in our image, but in new ways. The Protestantism of the South shares the Reformation’s deepest convictions, but in very different cultural settings.

You may have recently read in Christianity Today that the Lutheran World Federation just held its 500th-year remembrance of the Reformation not in Wittenberg, but in Namibia, in southwestern Africa. The country is mostly Christian and mostly Lutheran on account of its German colonial past. The president of Namibia, Hage Geingob, himself a Lutheran, welcomed the world congress with the words that in Namibia Luther’s “rebellion against Rome was also an inspiration to us during our country’s liberation struggle against the injustices of apartheid and occupation.”

In his sermon to the federation, Zephania Kameeta, a Lutheran pastor and currently the Namibian minister of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare, concludes:

Dear sisters and brothers who are commemorating 500 years of the Reformation, let us go out from here with this liberating TRUTH, our Lord Jesus CHRIST, to be reformed and reformers, renewed and renewing, liberated and liberating and to live lives in which people see and experience grace, love, justice, unity and peace.3

In the West we have thought of the Reformation as our story, debating its role in the genesis of secularism, liberalism, and modernity. Such discussions should and must continue as the 500th anniversary comes at a moment when the place of religion in the contemporary world is an urgent topic.

The Reformation, however, cannot remain in the past, the preserve of a few in academia and churches. Its principles of a radical challenge to authorities, the constant questioning of established doctrines, and adherence to the Word are vibrantly evident in the exponential growth of Protestantism in Africa, Asia, and South America. As in the 16th century, new models of churches, faith, and worship are emerging with head-spinning speed. Serious problems and controversies abound, just as for centuries disputes, rivalries, and growth pains beset the Reformation.

Nevertheless, as we reflect on the 500th anniversary it should be in the humble recognition of our small place in what is now a global story. The Reformation, we can now see clearly, belongs to the world.

Bruce Gordon is Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at YDS. His books include John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Princeton, 2016), Calvin (Yale, 2009), and The Swiss Reformation (Manchester, 2002). He has edited books and written widely on early modern history, biblical culture, Reformation devotion and spirituality, and the place of the dead in pre-modern culture.


  1. George P. Fisher, The Reformation (Scribner’s Sons, 1896), p. 10.
  2. Kenneth L. Woodward, “The Changing Face of the Church,” Newsweek, April 14, 2001.
  3. “Sermon by Dr. Zephania Kameeta on the Occasion of the Global Commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation,”, May 17, 2017.