Tracing the Origins of the Reformation

In his “The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation” (Malden, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, ©1987, 2004), Alister McGrath writes, “the intellectual origins of the Reformation are such that it cannot be thought of as a single coherent movement, whatever consolidation may have arisen through developments in its second phase. The two major streams of the Reformation – Lutheran and Reformed – have quite distinct and independent intellectual provenances” (pg vii, from the Preface).

My hope, over the coming year, will be to try to fulfill the promise of this blog – to discuss the Reformation, from the point of view of the need for Reformation. In the past, when I thought of the history of the church, there were certain “black holes” in my knowledge that I tried to fill. Like many people, I had a kind of skeletal knowledge of church history. But I wasn’t really aware of the details – the people and the ideas and the political currents of those years, that first of all, helped to pile on the powder of that powder keg, and then the unified sparks that set them off.

In reality, the Middle Ages, and particularly the Medieval years, were a period of particular growth and understanding. But in the process, there were also forces of poison and rot. And most importantly, the slow pace of the time in that era enabled these combining forces almost literally to explode at a time when the spark was applied.

McGrath does a very fine job in tracing the history of some of these movements and understandings. So as the Lord provides the means and the time, I’ll walk through some of the things that he outlines, and I’ll be able to bring to bear things that other writers have said in some of those same contexts. In the end, my hope will be to show both the context of and the need for “the Reformation”, at the time that it finally occurred.

It’s no secret that I’m a firm believer that the Reformation needed to occur. Rome, the official Rome of the papacy, in the era of the Middle Ages, and particularly its boastfulness, had grown to immense proportions. It needed to be challenged. It was challenged. It responded like an arrogant teenager.

I’m going to use McGrath’s work as a kind of rough framework for working through some of these “micro-Reformations”, as he works to discuss the beginnings of what he calls the “macro Reformation”.

This book is primarily concerned with one crucial question: how may the religious ideas of the first generation of mainline reformers – especially Luther and Zwingli – be accounted for? What factors – intellectual as well as social – brought them into being? The quest for the intellectual origins of the Reformation involves the detailed analysis of the continuities and discontinuities between two eras in the history of thought, raising questions of fundamental importance for the historian of ideas and the theologian. It is hoped that this book will go some way toward identifying those questions, and providing provisional answers to them (pg viii).

And as I said, I’ll bring other resources to bear, both upon these questions as he describes them and his answers as well. And in the process, I’ll hope to put some meat onto the bones of the skeletal history of the Reformation.

As I write this, we’re approximately one year away from the time when Martin Luther applied the spark that set off the powder keg of the Reformation. It is my hope that this new series will shed light for both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.

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The existence of God as an article of reason – Stephen Charnock

The English Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628–1680), in his famous work The Existence and Attributes of God, said the following about God’s existence and the proper objects of reason and faith:

Men that will not listen to Scripture, as having no counterpart of it in their souls, cannot easily deny natural reason, which riseth up on all sides for the justification of this truth [the folly of atheism]. There is a natural as well as a revealed knowledge, and the book of the creatures is legible in declaring the being of a God, as well as the Scriptures are in declaring the nature of a God; there are outward objects in the world, and common principles in the conscience, whence it may be inferred.

For God in regard of his existence is not only the discovery of faith, but of reason. God hath revealed not only his being, but some sparks of his eternal power and godhead in his works, as well as in his word. (Rom. 1:19, 20), “God hath showed it unto them,”—how in his works; by the things that are made, it is a discovery to our reason, as shining in the creatures; and an object of our faith as breaking out upon us in the Scriptures: it is an article of our faith, and an article of our reason. Faith supposeth natural knowledge, as grace supposeth nature. Faith indeed is properly of things above reason, purely depending upon revelation. What can be demonstrated by natural light, is not so properly the object of faith; though in regard of the addition of a certainty by revelation it is so.

The principal objects of faith are those truths above reason (e.g., the Trinity), not the truths discoverable by reason, though faith provides certainty on matters of reason, such as the existence of God. Faith therefore is supplemental for truths discoverable through reason and not the necessary epistemic ground for knowledge of such truths.

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Why Christians Can Support Tighter Immigration Restrictions

My essay on immigration is up at Mere Orthodoxy. I argue that Christians can and in most cases ought to support tight immigration restrictions.

See the essay here.

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Pagan Civil Righteousness

The following are quotes from Reformed theologians on the possibility of pagans achieving civil righteousness (see my previous post on the subject).

“In political life even an infidel may be called just, innocent, and upright because of [their external and civil life of words, deeds and works], since they have “natural knowledge of and inclination towards the Decalogue.” Althusius, Politica pg. 147 (Liberty Fund)

“The excellent virtues and deeds of renown, which are found among
heathen nations, belong, indeed, to the vestiges or remains of the image of God, still preserved in the nature of man; but there is so much wanting, to constitute that true and perfect image of God, which was at first apparent in man, that these virtues are only certain shadows of external propriety, without the obedience of the heart to God, whom they neither know nor worship. Therefore, these works do not please God, since they do not proceed from a proper knowledge of him, and are not done with the intention of glorifying him.” Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism

“The difference which exists between the works of the righteous and the wicked, goes to prove that the moral works of the wicked are sins, but yet not such sins as those which are in their own nature opposed to the law of God: for these are sins in themselves, and according to their very nature, while the moral works of the wicked are sins merely by an accident; viz., on account of some defect, either because they do not proceed from a true faith, or are not done to the glory of God.” Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism 91.1

“Proof that there is a natural law is found in the “consent of the nations, among whom (even the most savage) some law of the primitive nations obtains, from which even without a teacher they have learned that God should be worshipped, parents honored, a virtuous life be led and from which as a fountain have flowed so many laws concerning equity and virtue enacted by heathen legislators, drawn from nature itself. And if certain laws are found among some repugnant to these principles, they were even with reluctance received and observed by a few, at length abrogated by contrary laws, and have fallen into desuetude.” Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (IET), 11.1.13

“We do not deny that some strength still remains in man after the fall as to those external and civil good works, so that he can exercise justice and temperance, put forth acts of mercy and charity, abstain from theft and homicide, and exhibit the operations of similar virtues, with the antecedent concourse and general help of God, to which the virtues of the heathen belong.” Turretin, IET, 10.4.3

“Although some of the heathen (comparatively considered and in relation to each other) may have been better than others; although their works civilly and morally speaking may be called virtues, and so followed by the double reward of a well-regulated life, both positive (as productive of some temporal good and peace of conscience in this world) and negative (as making their punishment more tolerable), nevertheless (theologically speaking and relatively to God) their works best in form were nothing than more splendid sins and in the sight of God worthy of no reward.” IET, 1.4.17

“With respect to the moral commandments of the second table of the law there is always much agreement among the nations, inasmuch as the work of the law continues to be written on their hearts.” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatic (RD),. 3.134

The doctrine of the incapacity for good is a religious confession. In light of the standard people usually follow in their daily life or in philosophic ethics, one can wholeheartedly admit that much of what people do is good and beautiful.” Bavinck, RD 3.123

“Since after the fall people have remained human and continue to share in the blessings of God’s common grace, they can inwardly possess many virtues and outwardly do many good deeds that, viewed through human eyes and measured by human standards, are greatly to be appreciated and of great value for human life. But this is not to say that they are good in the eyes of God and correspond to the full spiritual sense of his holy law.” Bavinck, RD 4.257

“The denial to man of all ability, whether natural or moral, to turn himself to God or to do that which is truly good in God’s sight, does not imply a denial of man’s power to order his external life in many particulars conformably to moral rules, or even to attain the praise of men for virtue.” A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 642

“This inability is asserted only in reference to ‘the things of the Spirit.’ It is admitted in all the Confessions above quoted that man since the fall has not only the liberty of choice of self-determination, but also is able to perform moral acts, good as well as evil. He can be kind and just, and fulfill his social duties in a manner to secure the approbation of his fellow-men. It is not meant that the state of mind in which these acts are performed, or the motives by which they are determined, are such as to meet the approbation of an infinitely holy God; but simply that these acts, as to the matter of them, are prescribed by the moral law.” Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology II.8.15.5


If it is the case that fallen, unregenerate man can attain civil righteousness (worthy of praise among men, even from the regenerate) and if regeneration necessarily effects a radical change in the one regenerated, then the principal effect of regeneration cannot be civil righteousness, political, social, or anything related to the basic elements of civil or domestic life. The principal effect must be something else. It must be, then, the restoration of one’s immediate relationship to God, one’s orientation to the spiritual (yet-to-be-visible) kingdom of God, and true worship of God. In short, the principal effect is the adventitious infusing of heavenly gifts and the outward change in religion. The Gospel then is not essentially political, social, or anything earthly other than the true public worship of God.

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Is Voting Trump Worthy of Church Discipline?

After Ted Cruz suspended his campaign last week, a flurry of blog posts from evangelical and Reformed Christians massed on the internet both denouncing Trump’s evangelical supporters and calling for a radical renewal of Christian political participation. donald-trump-incapable-of-embarrassment-r_0

Russel Moore, for example, links support for Trump to “nativism” and “white supremacy.” He says that there is “bigotry all over the country” with “not-so-code messages denouncing African-American and immigrants.” And he reiterates that voting for Trump is to “embrace nativism or white supremacy.” That’s a pretty serious charge. To vote for Trump is to support white supremacy, bigotry, the hatred of immigrants, and “nativism” (whatever that means to him).

Matthew Anderson stated that “voting is, and always has been, a moral act,” which presumably means that one’s vote can be immoral. In an earlier essay, he calls Trump a charlatan, huckster, a con-man, and shameless.  He calls for evangelicals who support him to “repent.” He says that they are trying to defeat “political correctness through wickedness” and supporting him is tantamount to divorcing “our political commitments from our interest in the Gospel.”

Pastor Steven Wedgeworth argues that “politically-engaged Christians” need to stand against both Trump and the Republican Party, and he agrees with most of Anderson’s arguments. Voting for Trump, he argues, “will be a total abdication of Christian moral witness.”


These are serious charges. Voting for Trump is a serious moral failure. So I wonder: what about church discipline? Consider the following:

(1) All immoral actions are possible matters for church discipline.

(2) One’s vote can be an immoral act.

(3) Therefore, immoral voting can be a matter of church discipline.

As for (1), the emphasis is on possible, since there are important considerations here. The first is we must distinguish between gray areas and obvious sins. You might judge the eating of Sonic burgers to be gluttonous and irresponsible, but that conclusion is not obvious, making a confrontation questionable. The obvious sins are violations of principles and clear and demonstrable moral failures—the type that would cause the pious to flee, denounce (e.g., call wicked) and call for repentance.

As for (2), Moore, Anderson, and Wedgeworth do not explicitly call voting for Trump “sinful,” but palling around with white supremacists, taking part in “wickedness,” and abandoning “Christian moral witness” would seem to be sinful. If not, I wonder what is sinful.

And (3) follows necessarily from (1) and (2). Hence,

(2a) Voting for Trump is an immoral act.

(3a) Voting for Trump can be a matter of church discipline.

The immediate response is, “but censuring political voting isn’t something the church should do.” But this is special pleading. If a few people in your congregation are willing to vote against the “Christian moral witness,” which would dishonor Christ (an end of church discipline Calvin identifies), shouldn’t the church be involved? The Trump voters take part in a “cynical” party that alienates moderate and leftists (says Wedgeworth). They take part in “wickedness,” says Anderson. And all three present their judgment as an obvious one—so obvious that they call for a break from the Republican Party. If voting is a “moral act,” then one would have to show some non-ad hoc justification for keeping this type of act out of church discipline. Would this justification give a pass to voting for Stalin or Hitler?

The sin of Trump-voting, as presented, is a serious sin, and not merely a private one, but a public sin—one that affects the well-being of minorities and immigrants (says Moore). It is an unloving act towards one’s neighbor. How could support for white supremacy be excusable? How could that escape church discipline?

I ask this to the three: how can the sin of supporting Trump be so dishonorable to Christ and yet not a matter for church discipline?

Denying that it is a matter of church discipline undermines the charge that voting for The Donald is a serious sin—a modus tollens. And if it is not a serious sin, then is it hard to find support for leaving the Republican Party and propping up an opposition candidate. Indeed, an unwillingness to make it a matter of church discipline, undermines most of their arguments.


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Virtuous Pagans in Reformed Thought (1)

Many Reformed theologians acknowledged the virtue of pagans and their ability to know the natural law as it relates to human social relations—even to the point of acknowledging a sort of natural sociability. Reformed theologians “have always fully acknowledged,” writes Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck,

the existence and moral value of [the virtue of pagans.] Since after the fall people have remained human and continue to share in the blessings of God’s common grace, they can inwardly possess many virtues and outwardly do many good deeds that, viewed through human eyes and measured by human standards, are greatly to be appreciated and of great value for human life. But this is not to say that they are good in the eyes of God and correspond to the full spiritual sense of his holy law.[1]

Calvin affirms a distinction between “earthly” objects (“matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts, and liberal studies”) and “heavenly” objects (“true righteousness and future blessedness”), and when man is focused on the former he can achieve “some result,” proving that “some principle of civil order is impressed on all. And this is ample proof that…no man is devoid of the light of reason.”[2] Though man “lost all understanding”[3] on matters related to heaven,[4] not all was lost on earthly matters. Man can still be “very acute and sagacious” on earthly matters, but not on heavenly matters.[5] Man’s “supernatural” virtues—those which relate to heaven and the eschaton, such as “the light of faith and righteousness”—were “withdrawn,” but the natural gifts were only “corrupted,” ensuring that there is still “civil order impressed on all.”[6]


Seneca the Younger

Hence, within the Reformed framework there is potential great optimism concerning man’s ability to reach sound conclusions on natural duties. This is why the Reformed political theorist, Johannes Althusius can consistently state, “But in political life even an infidel may be called just, innocent, and upright.[7] Turretin argues for the existence of the natural law by citing the “consent of the nations, among whom…”

some law of the primitive nations obtains, from which even without a teacher they have learned that God should be worshipped, parents honored, a virtuous life be led and from which as a fountain have flowed so many laws concerning equity and virtue enacted by heathen legislators, drawn from nature itself. And if certain laws are found among some repugnant to these principles, they were even with reluctance received and observed by a few, at length abrogated by contrary laws, and have fallen into desuetude.[8]

More evidence and analysis to come…


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation Translated by John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 256-7.

[2] Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.13.

[3] Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 44:18.

[4] See Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.13.

[5] Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Isaiah, 44:18.

[6] See Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.12, 13.

[7] Johannes Althusius, Politica: An Abridged Translation of Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples, ed. and Trans. Frederick S. Carney (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1964), 147. The Canons of Dordt (1619), a major statement of Reformed theology, states that fallen man “shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior” (3/4.4).

[8] Turretin, 11.1.13. Emphasis mine.

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Winthrop’s “City upon a hill” in Context

You can’t avoid city-on-the-hill talk in American elections. Every presidential election season since Reagan must include numerous references to Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” by those advocating a “return” to American greatness and those complaining about those “dominionist” or theocratic Christian Rightists. winthrop

Much could be said on the use of the sermon over the last few decades, but I think it would be useful to place Winthrop’s sermon in his context and see what the text actually says.

1. The sermon was not published, nor widely known, until the mid-19th century. The New York Historical Society first published it in 1838. Between 1630 and 1809, the Winthrop family had possession of the only known manuscript, and it received little attention in the 19th century. So the sermon did not directly influence the development of New England puritanism, colonial politics and society, and the American founding. It had very little significance until Reagan’s appropriation of it. This calls into question John Fea’s recently claim in Christianity Today that “Ever since the Puritan John Winthrop said that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a ‘city on a hill’ Americans have seen themselves as God’s chosen people—a new Israel with a special destiny.” The American belief in some special destiny did not come from Winthrop’s sermon, at least not until very recently.

2. Most of the sermon is a discussion on social harmony, brotherly affections, rich/poor relations, lending, forgiving debts, and obligations in community emergencies. What ties the people together, claims Winthrop, is love. The irony is that despite the almost exclusive recent use of the sermon by Republicans, the sermon could be used (though wrongly, I think) by left-liberals to argue for robust government programs for distributive justice. Here’s example:

All the parts of this body being thus united are made so contiguous in a special relation as they must needs partake of each other’s strength and infirmity, joy and sorrow, weal and woe. (1 Cor. 12:26) If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one be in honor, all rejoice with it.

The primary focus of the sermon is internal, not external. There is no call for foreign interventionism, nothing about making the world safe for puritanism, and nothing about some inherent superiority over other nations. Winthrop’s concern throughout the sermon is the relationship of the people in the community. He hoped that the community, by displaying social harmony in mutual love, would serve as an example for future “plantations” and not be a “by-word through the world” due to any false dealing with God.

3. Many misunderstand what Winthrop meant by “city upon a hill.” He never used the word “shining” in the sermon. He did not say “shining city upon a hill.” Here is what he said in context:

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

First, notice that brotherly love is what ought to be on display, not power, wealth, or international control. But more important is that being a city on a hill simply means that the “eyes of all people are upon us.” It does not mean that the city is shining; it could be dark. Winthrop’s point is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony could be either an example to follow for future plantations or an example of what to avoid. So Winthrop is not claiming that as a city upon a hill that the colony has a special divine destiny. The whole point is that “the eyes of all people are upon you.” They are a spectacle to others, good or bad. Be an example for others who attempt this experiment, he commands the people.

And what is interesting about the experiment is that it is not socially radical. The first few paragraphs of the sermon affirm natural social hierarchy (and see here). There is nothing radical in the discussion on lending and debt forgiveness either. The exceptional nature of the experiment is something else, which I discuss next.

4. Some people accuse Winthrop of a type of puritan arrogance. After all, he thought that their socially harmonious and godly colony would be the example for others to follow and that the eyes of the world are fixed on them. However, simply reading the sermon would temper, I suspect, any charge of arrogance. True, Winthrop says that the people have covenanted with each other and God to be a godly people (which would not be considered arrogant among Calvinists of his time), but let’s consider also the historical context. Winthrop is giving a sermon to a people who are truly doing something unique. They are traveling to settle in a land largely unsettled by Europeans. It is an incredible opportunity. So what would you say to such a group? “Ok guys, we know that this will likely fail. So let’s be realistic about things and not set a high standard for ourselves. We don’t want people in the future to think we’re arrogant puritans.” The critic of Winthrop would be a terrible coach for the underdog team. When leaders begin something momentous and dangerous, they seek to inspire people to do their best. They are not always realistic, nor ought they be.

Perhaps Winthrop thought of it all as realistic, but it doesn’t matter. The sermon marked the beginning of a momentous event, and for that reason whatever unrealistic standard Winthrop set is perfectly justified. Just imagine a pastor of a new church and new congregation, fully aware that many, if not most, established churches in history went apostate or at least liberal, being realistic: “yes, congregation, your great grandchildren will probably be liberal apostates. So let’s not have high hopes here. Let’s keep it real.” Would any of us accept that? Wouldn’t we rather want to hear a pastor say, “Let us, through our mutual service and love for one another, be an example for existing churches and new churches. Their eyes are upon you.” Yet we can’t accept such optimism from Winthrop.


We need to place Winthrop in context. Regardless of the antipathy you might have towards “American exceptionalism” don’t blame Winthrop for it. He had nothing to do with it. Winthrop did his duty as a Christian leader. He sought the best from his people, and he deserves our praise for it.

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