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Why Was the Reformation Needed? Dr. David Hogg

Home » Why Was the Reformation Needed? Dr. David Hogg

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Hogg about the Reformation.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Some of the circumstances that led to the Reformation
  • Common misconceptions about Christianity during the Dark Ages
  • What the Reformers were responding to specifically
  • The value of learning from the Reformers’ theology
  • A brief history of Protestantism

Dr. David Hogg serves as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Church History at Phoenix Seminary. He previously taught at Beeson Divinity School and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has over a decade of pastoral experience in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and the Czech Republic. Dr. Hogg holds a PhD in Medieval Theology from St Andrews University.

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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:18):

In the early years of the 16th century, a famous preacher named Johann Tetzel roamed the German countryside raising money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He raised money by selling indulgences, which were certificates purchased to lessen one’s punishment in purgatory. Tetzel would warn his hearers of the horrors of hell, but told them that they could escape this fate through payment. His famous slogan was, “once a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzel manipulated people out of money with the threats of purgatory and hell. One humorous story demonstrates the ridiculousness of indulgences. It goes like this—after Tetzel had received a substantial amount of money at Leipzig, a nobleman asked him if it were possible to receive a letter of indulgence for a future sin. Tetzel quickly answered in the affirmative, insisting, however, that the payment had to be made at once. This the nobleman did, receiving thereupon letter and seal from Tetzel.

Brian Arnold (01:12):

When Tetzel left Leipzig, the nobleman attacked him along the way, gave him a thorough beating, and sent him back empty-handed to Leipzig with the comment that this was the future sin which he had in mind. Duke George at first was quite furious about this incident, but when he heard the whole story, he let it go without punishing the nobleman. Well, a monk around that time named Martin Luther came to hate the idea of indulgences. Having read Paul’s letter to the Romans that the just would live by faith, he sparked the Reformation to overturn practices like indulgences and remind the church of the beautiful doctrine of justification by faith alone. To help us understand why the Reformation was necessary, we have with us Dr. David Hogg, who serves as Provost and Vice President of Academic Administration at Phoenix Seminary. He has served in higher education for nearly 20 years, having taught at Beeson Divinity School, Southeastern Seminary, and as a visiting professor in the Czech Republic. Dr. Hogg has also recently served in pastoral ministry, and to my knowledge, he’s the only evangelical medievalist, at least that I know, having received his PhD in Medieval Theology from St. Andrews in Scotland. Dr. Hogg, welcome to the podcast.

David Hogg (02:20):

Thank you. It’s great to be here. Appreciate the opportunity.

Brian Arnold (02:23):

So as you remember, we ask our guests one big question, and today the question is more historical in nature—why was the Reformation needed? And maybe the place to start is to ask—why did it happen? So what are your thoughts?

David Hogg (02:36):

Yeah, no, that’s a great question. And, you know, there’s of course different opinions on this, as you might imagine—just as we have Catholics and we have Protestants, and there’s some disagreement over that, and all these sorts of things. I think for me, one of the ways of navigating these waters well actually comes from the subtitle of a book. And the book is simply entitled The Late Medieval English Church. But the subtitle is the interesting piece. The subtitle talks about the vulnerability and the vitality of the church in the late medieval period—so 1300s, 1400s, 1500s, and so forth. And the reason that’s helpful is that particular book is actually a response to another scholar who wrote. And this first scholar—a man by the last name of Duffy—wrote a book in which he argued from a Catholic perspective that, really, it’s a bit surprising that the Reformation happened, because there was such vitality in the church.

David Hogg (03:35):

And he writes a long book, basically discussing the vitality of the church. And then this other gentleman, last name of Bernard, thought, “Well, that’s not the whole story, because there’s vulnerability there—and that’s exactly why the Reformation happened.” There were…there was some vitality. We should recognize that God has always been at work in his church, that God has always had his faithful. And you know, there have always been people who have stood for what is right and true. So there is vitality in the church throughout the Middle Ages leading to the Reformation, but there are also vulnerabilities. And those vulnerabilities are what gave way to the Reformation. And so just…I’m not going to give you a long list of these things, but there are a few things that are really quite clear pointers to the vulnerabilities that led to the need for the Reformation.

David Hogg (04:20):

Perhaps one of the great ones is what we call the Great Schism. And the short version of this story is that in 1378, there was a need to elect a new pope. And there were two sides. There were those who were supporting the Italian candidate, and there were those who were supporting the French candidate. And that essentially ended up—as I say, this is the short version of the story—it ended up dividing the church. And for the first time in history, the papal court—so the pope and all of his various aids and others who worked in the papal household—were moved from Rome to a place called Avignon in what is now southern France. And so that was just…that was monumental. And it began to lead to all sorts of questions. Later on, that fractured.

David Hogg (05:13):

And what we end up with is two popes. We end up with a pope—a French pope—and then…we call it antipope. Now don’t worry, there are no such things as uncle popes. Well, we can talk about that later if you want. But an antipope is a rival pope who’s been elected by a different group in the church. And so with two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, the question was raised—well, who is God’s choice? Like, where’s God in this? You could imagine it, you know, for people listening—if in your church you had the pastor and then you had the anti-pastor. Like who’s the…<laugh>? Different groups say, “We don’t recognize the first guy, so we’re choosing another guy.” And they’re both trying to operate the same congregation. It’s something similar.

Brian Arnold (05:57):

And some listeners are probably thinking—that sounds like my church right now! Listener, find a new home <laugh>.

David Hogg (06:02):

Yeah, exactly. A reformation is needed. An absolute reformation is needed. So that created…that was sort of a seed bed of—wait a minute, what is God doing? And what is the leadership doing? Now add to this the fact that around the same time we have something called the black death, which of course so many of us now know a bit more about simply because of covid, and notions of plagues and pandemics and epidemics and so forth. Well, the black death swept through Europe in the mid-14th century. And when it did, of course people were dying at an alarming rate. About one third of the entire population of all Europe died within about a two year period, Absolutely devastating.

David Hogg (06:38):

But for the church, what this meant was the priests weren’t going around giving the last rites. Which at death, the church had said—you need to call a priest, a priest comes, hears your final confession, anoints you with oil, and prepares you to enter into the presence of God. But they weren’t doing that, and priests were refusing to do this, because they didn’t want to die of the plague. And so the church said—well, okay, it’s fine. You don’t have to. You know, you can actually simply pray to Jesus. Well, okay. If I can pray to Jesus, and I don’t need the priest to absolutely be this extra mediator between me and God, and he—Jesus—is the mediator between me and God, why would I go back to the priest after the plague has passed? So that again, created a lot of confusion in people’s minds, and they began to think—well, why don’t we just go straight to Jesus? This doesn’t make sense.

David Hogg (07:28):

And then, you know, John Wycliffe wanders through history. And here’s a guy who over time begins to ask these very questions, and he’s influenced by a lot of this stuff. And so he begins to rethink the way for his own self, his own personal reflections, thinking new thoughts about—well, maybe the church isn’t just everybody who’s born. Maybe the church is for those who are saved. You know, maybe the Lord’s Supper isn’t about, you know, transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. Maybe everyone should have a chance to read the Bible. So I could go on and on. But those are some examples, at least to begin the conversation, of why the Reformation did happen, and some of the things that caused people to question. But through it all, I’d want to emphasize once again, there is a…we shouldn’t assume that during the Middle Ages everything was dark and bleak and there were no Christians, and then suddenly the dawning of the Reformation came and everyone is saved. It’s really more a question of reorienting loves and priorities and understanding the truth and what it is. And oftentimes those who were in leadership in the church were leading people astray, and others who were not in leadership were actually following the truth. Does that make sense?

Brian Arnold (08:44):

It does. I think you’ll appreciate this story—I was a PhD student in Southern Seminary and we had our Church History Colloquium, which is where all the professors are together, and all the students are there, and a student has to lead from time to time. And it’s very…I’d like to say thrilling, but terrifying is probably a better word for that, as you’re getting grilled by your church history professors. And I just opened up in prayer, and part of my prayer was thanking the Lord that, you know, he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And even when times may have seemed bleak, that the church was still present. And I ended my prayer, and one of my professors said, “do you believe that?” And I said, “yeah.” He said, “Well, some people think the church went out of existence during that time, so I just wondered if that’s what you really thought.”

Brian Arnold (09:23):

And I…it’s one of those moments where you think—yes, I do. And I do. I agree with everything you just said. I mean, there is vitality, even in this period. You know, one of the things I think trips people up is this idea of darkness, which you had mentioned. We call it the Dark Ages. And one of the things I try to do as I teach church history is remind students that it really wasn’t. There was a lot of advances during the medieval period. In fact, the Queen of England recently died, Queen Elizabeth II, and they do this incredible ornate funeral service in Westminster Abbey, which is nearly a thousand years old. That alone is a testament to the creative abilities of those in the medieval period.

Brian Arnold (10:01):

And yet, there is a monument in Europe with one of the famous slogans of the Reformation etched in stone—post tenebras lux, which means “after darkness, light.” So in some ways these are not the Dark Ages, in terms of advances made in the medieval period for society. But theologically, there were places of darkness. So what is…you’ve mentioned a couple of these, but then kind of maybe juxtapose them with what’s happening in the Reformation area. What is Martin Luther and John Calvin, as a second generation Reformer, what are these guys responding to in the medieval period that gave them such consternation?

David Hogg (10:38):

Yeah, I think…well, I mean, you know, to refer back to how you began with that great story—which I absolutely love—indulgences for Luther was…it’s amazing to me to think that here…an indulgence is, just for anyone who doesn’t know, you pay the church money, actual money. That money represents a kind of spiritual investment in drawing on a bank of righteousness or, you know, sort of…well, righteousness that is applied to your account, applied to you, because you’ve paid this money for it. And you get a letter, you know, that actually says, “Yes, this is true.” And so that reduces your time in this imaginary place called purgatory. So those are indulgences. Well, you know, Luther began to recognize that this is really, really bad.

David Hogg (11:27):

And part of the reason he thought it was really, really bad is pastorally—this is how he came at it, not necessarily first and foremost as a great theologian or a biblical scholar, or any of these things; he was those, but his main concern and perspective was pastorally—what we’re encouraging is cheap grace. So that, you know, kind of like the funny part of your story, a guy comes along and says, “Hey, can I buy an indulgence for the future?” “Absolutely you can.” He buys the indulgence. Now he’s apparently covered for sin in a very sort of cheap way. And then he goes and beats the guy up and says, “Well, that’s what I bought the indulgence for—so really I haven’t sinned at all.” And so that your story, I think is not only humorous in a certain sense, but it also highlights why Luther was moved so much to engage the church on this, because salvation didn’t come cheap.

David Hogg (12:13):

Grace did not come cheap. Yes, grace is free. But it did not come at no expense. It came at the expense of the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. So that’s, you know, that’s for Luther, I think that’s the real trigger. And what amazes me is that had the church, the first time he published his 95 Theses in October—or the end of October 1517—when he published that 95 Theses about indulgences, had the church recognized, “You know what, he’s right.” And had the humility to say, “We need to review this, because this is encouraging cheap grace.” I think there still would’ve been some version of a reformation, but it would’ve looked incredibly different. It wasn’t…it was just when those guys…well because these guys would not budge that he realized—you know, we need to do something more, because people are actually being led away from a gospel of grace, and away from salvation that is in Christ alone, rather than in, you know, some sort of purchase. So I’ll pause there—you may want to pick up on something else.

Brian Arnold (13:16):

Yeah, it may have been revival, not reformation. I think to your point is it could have been an opportunity of the spiritual vitality to return. And we see that in the medieval period. So there’s preaching orders that come along, where people think—we’re not giving people access to God, even in preaching in the vernacular of wherever we’re at. So you get these preaching orders beginning, that they are trying to preach the gospel. Now we may have some quibble here and there on things, but I think people were genuinely converted during those times. And, you know, Luther, one of his big points in the 95 Theses that you referenced is—if the Pope could simply just grant an indulgence, why wouldn’t he just do it out of love? Instead of making people pay for it. So like—can you imagine Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount saying, “You may know peace with God, so long as a coin in the coffer rings.” Right? <laugh> It simply is not the case. But you said—grace isn’t cheap, in that it cost the Lord his life.

David Hogg (14:12):


Brian Arnold (14:13):

And yet at the same time, we offer salvation, because the Lord has by faith alone, grace alone…which is really the recovery of the gospel that Martin Luther came to. So, you know, that seems to be the hinge point of the whole discussion is—how is a person made right with God? And Luther even says at one point, “If I could really believe that God was not angry at me for sin, I would stand on my head with joy.” And when he rediscovers the gospel, and he recognizes that just by simply having faith he is now just with God. God is not angry with him, there’s no more condemnation, sin is taken care of—he is free in joy to walk in the Spirit. And that’s really the story of Martin Luther. And that’s the story of many of us who have come to know Christ by faith, and have this brand new experience in life.

Brian Arnold (15:06):

I mean, this conversion. This is Luther really coming to know the Lord before that. So we have this kind of period that we’re coming up out of the Middle Ages. You mentioned the Great Schism, the Black Plague, indulgences…there’s some other things that you mentioned—John Wycliffe and there’s Jan Hus we could talk about that are about a hundred years before Luther calling for some of the similar types of reform. But I want to focus too on this question—and I get this a lot—there’s some retrieval happening right now of medieval theologians, and some people are saying, “no, no, no—that’s what the Reformers were reacting against, or responding to.” So how do we take somebody like, let’s just say Thomas Aquinas, because he is kind of the epicenter of the debate right now. Because people would say, “Well, if we disagree with him on some soteriological pieces, then we can’t retrieve them on the Trinity or something like this. And we have students even at our own seminary who struggle with this kind of idea of—can we retrieve people in the medieval periods? What would you say to them?

David Hogg (16:00):

So yeah. Well, I would say we absolutely can. You know, first of all, I think there needs to be a humility looking at ourselves. Like, in other words, if I look at someone else—like a Thomas Aquinas—and I say, “Okay, I disagree with Thomas Aquinas’s theology or theological development of the Lord’s Supper,” does that mean that he is untrustworthy in every way? No. Just as I might be wrong about something in my own thinking, but would I want people to say of me, “Well, we can’t trust anything, you know, David Hogg does, because, you know, he’s made one mistake, or we disagree on one particular point.”? So I think a degree of humility needs to be maintained that, you know, just because we disagree on one point doesn’t mean we just get rid of somebody.

David Hogg (16:45):

Perhaps a way to get at this would be…actually refer to an experience I had some years ago when I was…I had the opportunity to go to a service. It was a chapel service where Father Cantalamessa was preaching—only Catholic listeners will know who Father Cantalamessa was—Father Cantalamessa was the only person in the world who was allowed to preach to the Pope. He’s since retired, but for those of you who don’t know, the Pope does get preached to every week. It’s in a private service, and there’s only one person who’s actually commissioned by the Pope to be the preacher to the Pope. And I was invited to this. And so I went, and of course I went thinking—well, you know, this is somebody with whom I’m going to have a lot of disagreements. He then preached, and he preached a sermon that was just chockablock full of gospel, and grace, and mercy, and Christ. And when he got to the end of it, I thought—

Brian Arnold (17:48):

Where am I <laugh>?

David Hogg (17:50):

Yeah. Where am I? I could totally have preached that sermon, and I would’ve thought it was a Protestant, evangelical, Bible-believing, Jesus-exalting, mission-sending, you know, et cetera. This was fantastic. And then, having the opportunity with another group of people afterwards at lunch to just interact with them for a bit, I thought—yes, we do disagree on some aspects of doctrine of church and so forth, but this is actually a brother in Christ. This is somebody who is clinging on to Jesus. Now we would disagree over various doctrines, but he understands that he is justified by Christ alone. Now, not every Catholic does believe that. I, you know, want to hasten to add. But I think that’s a modern day example of how we might think about Christians back in the late Middle Ages and into the Reformation period. We shouldn’t assume a monolithic approach, as though they’re all believing the same thing.

David Hogg (18:38):

And whatever I think a Catholic believes today, that’s got to be—you know, negatively—that’s got to be what they believed back then. No. So I think if we hold both the humility of being willing to listen to somebody on all that they have to say, as opposed to just one point and judging them completely on that. And then second, being willing to recognize—you know, there are brothers and sisters in Christ who, yeah, they do belong to the Catholic church—and quite I’ll speak quite frankly, and this is just my own personal position—I really wish they weren’t in the Catholic church, because I do think the Catholic church, broadly speaking, does have some very serious problems doctrinally. But even in that context, there are still some who would say—yeah, I don’t actually believe…I’m not required to believe everything that everyone thinks is going on in the Catholic church. And so this is where I actually stand. I don’t know if that confuses things, but…

Brian Arnold (19:31):

Well, and I hope it doesn’t for our listener, because I think there’s some really important points to draw out there. We obviously, as you know, speaking for David and myself, we’re evangelicals. We’re Protestants. And we have some significant differences with Rome, particularly on the doctrine of justification, on the monarchical episcopacy and what that means for the Pope, and even things like mariology that are pretty big differences. So there’s a big ecumenical movement right now to try to bring evangelicals or Protestants and Catholics back together. But there’s some real serious doctrinal challenges there. Now, I agree with you that there are some in the Catholic church who are trusting Christ alone for salvation, and they are brothers and sisters in the faith, and others who haven’t. So you and I had a conversation previously, and I like how you had said this point. We were talking about the Council Trent in 1546.

Brian Arnold (20:21):

So for those who don’t know, Martin Luther comes with these list of grievances, these 95 Theses, in October of 1517. Well, the Catholic church is going to take a couple decades to really give a full-throated response to Martin Luther. And they do that at the Council of Trent that we date around 1546. And it was there that they came out with the very clear declaration of faith for them—that justification is not by faith alone, it’s by faith and works. Which seems like a deviation from the book of Galatians. So it’s a serious point of departure, but I think after that moment, people know where that line in the sand is. Where before 1546—take Aquinas, take Anselm, take Johann von Staupitz—you know, whoever you want to take in that medieval kind of period is not even at that same doctrinal place, because it hasn’t been, if you will, set in stone. Right? Through some sort of an official declaration of the Catholic church. So I actually date the Roman Catholic Church to 1546, and say that it’s pretty fair game before that for Catholics and Protestants. The Catholics do not own the first 1500 years of church history. It was not—the Apostle Paul died, and then let me tell you about this guy named Martin Luther. Right? <laugh> There’s a lot of history that’s valuable for us there.

David Hogg (21:32):

Yes. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, I do think that when somebody asks me—usually either a student at the beginning of a church history class, or perhaps more commonly in congregations and so forth—people will say, “Well, you know, when did the Catholic Church start?” And my response is to say, “Actually, after the Reformation.” I think the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century drew a line in the sand and said—we’re now actually going to formally define some things that we’ve never formally defined. And so, you know, things like what—as you said—what is justification and…but what I find interesting about the Council of Trent is that they ended up…the very first thing they actually discussed was the doctrine of Scripture. And they thought it would be the easiest place to start.

David Hogg (22:22):

And they began by saying, okay, we affirm—obviously paraphrasing here—but we affirm that our authority is the Bible, is the Pope, and is tradition. And these are three equal authorities. And they discovered that a significant minority absolutely vehemently disagreed. And they said, we actually…and some of them actually spoke up and said—we agree more with Luther than with you. And it got…I mean, it was a long…I think it took them six months or something to have this long debate that finally they forced to a vote, and there was a majority that passed it. But that’s an example of the…and they had the same issues with justification. People who said—no, I…you know, we agree with what’s going on—and they didn’t call it the Reformation—but what’s going on in the wider context, that we are justified by faith in Christ, period.

David Hogg (23:11):

And those who are, again, the majority of the leadership, said—”Well, too bad. We’re voting on this, and the majority has spoken. So you’re either in the church, meaning now I think the developing Catholic Church, capital C Catholic Church, or you’re out.” And of course that has lots of implications when your whole livelihood is attached to it, and your history is there, and all the rest of it. But I think Trent was really a landmark—I don’t know if you call it a moment, it lasted for about 12 years—but a landmark period when what people now think of as the Catholic Church really was properly defined. And so, yeah. When people ask, “Is there really a history to Evangelical Protestantism?” I say, “Yes, there is. And it stretches all the way back to Acts.”

Brian Arnold (23:58):

It’s actually older than the Catholic church.

David Hogg (24:00):

It’s actually old. Yeah.

Brian Arnold (24:01):

Yeah. That’ll be a shock to many people listening. Yes.

David Hogg (24:04):

Yeah. So it is kind of ironic, but I do think there’s a bit of a line in the sand there to say—okay, now you’re defining yourself as distinct from…in many ways, I would argue as distinct from the rule of faith, and in some respects, what was going on in the very ancient church, as the church is beginning to define itself in different ways.

Brian Arnold (24:21):

Well David, this has been, I think, just such a helpful, fun conversation for me to have. I love the history of the church. I love seeing what the Lord has done. And there were some areas of vulnerability in the medieval period, even though there was some vitality. But I, for one—and I know you would say this too—I’m thankful that the Lord used Martin Luther to reawaken the church to the beautiful and glorious doctrine of justification by faith alone. That the Reformation was a needed thing. And we have this rich, beautiful heritage now behind us. So thank you so much for the conversation today.

David Hogg (24:50):

Yeah, absolutely. I enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me.

Outro (24:53):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

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