I think Philip Schaff's "History of the Christian Church" is a fabulous work. I'm not sure where it stands with respect to other histories, but Schaff certainly put the Reformation into perspective in church history:
Schaff, "History of the Christian Church," Volume 7, § 1.
The Turning Point of Modern History.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.
The age of the Reformation bears a strong resemblance to the first century. Both are rich beyond any other period in great and good men, important facts, and permanent results. Both contain the ripe fruits of preceding, and the fruitful germs of succeeding ages. They are turning points in the history of mankind. They are felt in their effects to this day, and will be felt to the end of time. They refashioned the world from the innermost depths of the human soul in its contact, with the infinite Being. They were ushered in by a providential concurrence of events and tendencies of thought. The way for Christianity was prepared by Moses and the Prophets, the dispersion of the Jews, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the language and literature of Greece, the arms and laws of Rome, the decay of idolatry, the spread of skepticism, the aspirations after a new revelation, the hopes of a coming Messiah. The Reformation was preceded and necessitated by the corruptions of the papacy, the decline of monasticism and scholastic theology, the growth of mysticism, the revival of letters, the resurrection of the Greek and Roman classics, the invention of the printing press, the discovery of a new world, the publication of the Greek Testament, the general spirit of enquiry, the striving after national independence and personal freedom. In both centuries we hear the creative voice of the Almighty calling light out of darkness.
The Reformation was like a big chiropractic "adjustment" on the back of the Body of Christ. It straightened out things that had really gotten out of whack.
Certainly there was resistance to it. The church had developed many problems, and it had become complacent in many ways. Those are all certainly worth exploring, but I think it is very important these days to bring to the front some of the most positive aspects of the Reformation.
James has spent a good bit of time tracking down and setting straight many of the things falsely attributed to Martin Luther. But to put it into perspective, Steven Ozment, the Harvard historian who believes that the Reformation was ultimately not successful, nevertheless believed that Martin Luther was the "most brilliant theologian" of the Reformation era. "He led the revolution against Rome and traditional religion not as a visionary spiritual reformer, but as a skilled doctor of theology." (Steven Ozment, "Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe" pg. 231).
Under the heading of "Luther and Scholasticism," Ozment wrote:
Between 1509-10, when he wrote his commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences, and the indulgence controversy of 1517, Luther was an exceedingly active scholar. He read deeply in Aristotle's Physics, Metaphysics, and Ethics. In addition to sermons and letters, he wrote lectures on the Psalms (1513) and on St. Paul's letters to the Romans (1515-16) and to the Galatians (1516-17). Preparation for these lectures required extensive reading in medieval biblical commentaries. He further annotated works by St. Augustine (1509-10), the Psalterium Quincuplex of Jacques LeFebre d'Etaples (1513), the sermons of Johannes Tauler (1515-16), and Gabriel Biel's Exposition of the Canon of the Mass and Sentences commentary. He edited a portion of an anonymous mystical treatise, which he entitled the German Theology (1516), and later published the full manuscript of his work (1518), calling it a precedent for the new "Wittenberg Theology." (232)
His last work prior to the ninety-five theses against indulgences was a broad attack on the whole of late medieval theology: the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology of September 4, 1517. Here Luther joined the classic medieval debates over the nature of religious justification and the extent of man's natural knowledge of God. (233)
The date, October 31 1517, is a kind of anchor point by which we remember the beginning of the Reformation. Our minds naturally look to these "anchor points" as a way to remember things. For me, history has been a framework on which to hang the knowledge of more substantial doctrines that developed over the centuries. And I think that 500 years is a nice round time-frame to look back on an anniversary.
But from the dates that Ozment gives, Luther himself was already fully involved with the course of study that would lead him to the momentous events of the next decade.
Dr. R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, has a blog (that many of you probably already know about) called The Heidelblog. He recently put Luther's work into perspective:
Reformation Day, as we know it, is misleading. It creates the impression that the Reformation was about "cleaning up" the church. It wasn’t. There were moral reform movements about in the late middle ages and early 16th century but the Reformation wasn’t one of them. The Reformation was a theological event that was intended to have moral consequences, but it wasn’t first of all about moral self-improvement and tidying the ecclesiastical house. Beware all the various “Reform” movements in our churches today that want to turn the Reformation into moral renewal (and that’s most of them). Beware when folk invoke a "new" Reformation who don’t understand the old one. Beware when folk call for a Reformation that requires a repudiation of the first Reformation. Those movements abound.
Reformation Day, as we know it, perpetuates the pietist myth that the Reformation happened suddenly and in one-fell-swoop of religious experience (the so-called Turmerlebnis). It wasn’t and it didn’t. The Reformation doctrines developed gradually between 1513-21. In succession, and with fits and starts, Luther gradually realized the great Reformation solas. There are some Reformation solas with which we’re not all familiar. Luther’s first breakthrough happened during his lectures on the Psalms when he realized that Scripture teaches that we’re not just a little sinful but that we’re completely sinful, i.e., that the effects of sin are radical and affect every faculty. We’re not able to "do our part" or to "do what lies within us" toward justification because, as a consequence of the fall, all that lies "within us" is sin and death. Therefore the first Reformation sola was "solely unable." This is the essential assumption behind sola gratia, the claim that justification is by grace alone. Grace, is no longer to be reckoned a sort of medicinal stuff with which we are injected, with which we cooperate toward eventual justification. Luther came to understand that grace is God’s attitude of favor toward sinners. Grace isn’t something with which we are infused. Rather, God is gracious toward us. He shows us favor. He gives to us what we do not deserve: righteousness and life.
Only then did Luther realize, as he next lectured through Romans that it was only by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ that we are justified. The entire medieval system was about interior moral renewal. The Reformation is that the gospel is outside of us. The Gospel is that Christ has done it all for us. Justification is solely on the ground of imputed righteousness.
During his next two sets of lectures in Galatians and Hebrews Luther gradually realized that the medieval definition of faith as "formed by love" (fides formata caritate) is false and a misreading of Gal 5. Faith doesn’t justify because it produces sanctity (holiness) in internal moral renewal. Faith justifies because it apprehends Christ and his obedience and death for us (pro nobis). This is solus Christus. Faith is an open, empty hand. Faith is a beggar. Faith looks outside of itself and one’s self to Christ. Faith has no power except Christ its object. Faith is receiving and resting on Christ and his finished work for sinners. Faith is a certain knowledge and a hearty trust in Christ and his gospel. That’s sola fide.
With these breakthrough conclusions came others. During this period Luther came to a new hermeneutic. Where much of the patristic and all of the medieval church had read the Bible to contain two kinds of law, old and new, Luther came to see that the Bible had throughout two kinds of words: law (do) and gospel (done). The gospel is not: here is more grace so you can keep the law. The gospel is not: Christ will approve of you if you do your part. The gospel is: Christ has done it. This turn to the law/gospel hermeneutic was a foundation stone of the entire Reformation and it was adopted by all the Protestant churches and confessions Reformed and Lutheran. One of the great tragedies is that today there are congregations that will celebrate Reformation Day or who celebrate a nearby Reformation Sunday who will look you straight in the eye and tell you that the Reformed don’t use a law/gospel hermeneutic.
Another global change that occurred at the same time is the turn to Scripture as the magisterial and unique authority for faith and life (sola scriptura. There’s no one point at which this view developed, but it’s certainly symbolized by Luther’s stand for the sole and unique magisterial authority of Scripture at the Diet of Worms in 1521.) (emphasis supplied)
So we are already in the thick of the time when we can start remembering the 500th anniversary of the great events leading up to the Reformation. We can and should work to understand the theological muddle that the medieval church had become, and we can and should look not only to Luther's work, but to the work of Wycliffe, Huss, Zwingli, and all of the many others who stood firmly on the Truth, in spite of threats to their lives. In doing so, they really did create a turning point in modern history. We are the heirs of that effort.