The Reformers were the “Adults” of the Era

Rome was, and by extension, Roman Catholicism was an absolute cesspool at the time of the Reformation. Elsewhere, I’ve cited Heiko Oberman discussing some of the root causes:

there is much to warrant the thesis that the later Middle Ages were born in Avignon and were shaped by the uncertainty and hierarchical confusion due to the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy (1309-1377) and the succeeding period of the Schism (1378-1415). The impact of this event can scarcely be overestimated, so much that we are inclined to advocate the terms “preschismatic” and “schismatic” Middle Ages to replace the traditional terms “early” and “later” Middle Ages (“Harvest of Medieval Theology”, 323).

As I noted, “Avignon” describes both the French city and era during which the papacy moved to southern France; the “Schism” describes the roughly 50 year period when there were two and even three popes excommunicating each other and their followers. But as bad and as fundamental as that was, it wasn’t the cause of the Reformation.

medieval-european-citiesWhile the primary cause of Luther’s Reformation was doctrine (as he said, it was “to grab the goose by the neck”), there were societal causes, and the Reformers really were the “adults” of the era – not only emphasizing doctrinal correctness, but Scriptural foundations for a new social order as well, at a time when things were becoming chaotic in the cities of Europe.

As Alister McGrath explains:

The northern European Reformation was based largely in the cities. In Germany, more than 50 of the 65 “imperial cities” responded positively to the Reformation, with only five choosing to ignore it altogether. In Switzerland, the Reformation originated in an urban context (Zurich), and spread through a process of public debate within Confederate cities such as Berne and Basle and other centers – such as Geneva and St Gallen – linked to these cities by treaty obligations.

French Protestantism began as a predominantly urban movement, with its roots in major cities such as Lyons, Orléans, Paris, Poitiers, and Rouen. It is becoming increasingly clear that the success or failure of the Reformation in these cities was dependent in part upon political and social factors. By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the city councils of the imperial cities had managed to gain a substantial degree of independence. In effect, each city seems to have regarded itself as a miniature state, with the city council functioning as a government and the remainder of the inhabitants as subjects.

The growth in the size and importance of the cities of Germany is one of the more significant elements in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century history. An extended food crisis, linked with the ravages of the Black Death, led to an agrarian crisis. Wheat prices dropped alarmingly in the period 1450–1520, leading to rural depopulation as agricultural workers migrated to the cities in the hope of finding food and employment. Denied access both to the trade guilds and to the city councils, discontent grew within this new urban proletariat.

The early sixteenth century thus witnessed growing social unrest in many cities, as demands for broader-based and more representative government gained momentum. In many cases, the Reformation came to be linked with these demands for social change, so that religious and social change went together, hand in hand. We must not think that religious concerns swamped all other mental activities – they simply provided a focal point for them. Economic, social, and political factors help explain why the Reformation succeeded, for example, in Nuremberg and Strasbourg, yet failed in Erfurt.

… [S]ome common features emerge from a study of the origins and development of the Reformation in major northern European cities such as Augsburg, Basle, Berne, Colmar, Constance, Erfurt, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hamburg, Lübeck, Memmingen, Ulm, and Zurich. It is helpful to explore them.

In the first place, the Reformation in the cities appears to have been a response to some form of popular pressure for change. Nuremberg is a rare instance of a city council imposing a reformation without significant preceding popular protest or demand. Dissatisfaction among urban populations of the early sixteenth century was not necessarily purely religious in character; social, economic, and political grievances were unquestionably present, to varying extents, within the agglomerate of unrest evident at the time. City councils generally reacted in response to this popular pressure, often channeling it in directions appropriate to their own needs and purposes. This subtle manipulation of such pressure was an obvious way of co-opting and controlling a potentially dangerous popular protest movement. Existing urban regimes were often relatively unchanged by the introduction of new religious ideas and practices, which suggests that city councils were able to respond to such popular pressure without radical changes in the existing social orders.

Second, the success of the Reformation within a city was dependent upon a number of historical contingencies. To adopt the Reformation was to risk a disastrous change in political alignment, in that existing treaties or relationships – military, political, and commercial – with territories or cities which chose to remain Catholic were usually deemed to be broken as a result. A city’s trading relationships – upon which her economic existence might depend – might thus be compromised fatally. Thus the success of the Reformation in the city of St Gallen was partly due to the fact that the city’s linen industry was not adversely affected to any significant degree by the decision to adopt the Reformation. Equally, a city (such as Erfurt) in close proximity to a Catholic city (Mainz) and a Lutheran territory (Saxony) could risk becoming embroiled in military conflict with one or other of these interested parties, with potentially lethal results for the independence of that city.

Third, the romantic, idealized vision of a reformer arriving in a city to preach the gospel, with an immediate ensuing decision on the part of the city to adopt the principles of the Reformation, must be abandoned as quite unrealistic. Throughout the entire process of reformation, from the initial decision to implement a process of reform to subsequent decisions concerning the nature and the pace of reforming proposals, it was the city council who remained in control.

Zwingli’s Reformation in Zurich proceeded considerably more slowly than he would have liked on account of the cautious approach adopted by the council at crucial moments. Bucer’s freedom of action in Strasbourg was similarly limited. As Calvin would discover, city councils were perfectly able to evict reformers from their precincts if they stepped out of line with publicly stated council policy or decisions. In practice, the relationship between city council and reformer was generally symbiotic. The reformer, by presenting a coherent vision of the Christian gospel and its implications for the religious, social, and political structures and practices of a city, was able to prevent a potentially revolutionary situation from degenerating into chaos.

The constant threat of reversion to Catholicism, or subversion by radical Anabaptist movements, rendered the need for a reformer inevitable. Someone had to give religious direction to a movement which, unchecked and lacking direction, might degenerate into chaos, with momentous and unacceptable consequences for the existing power structures of the city and the individuals who controlled them.

Equally, the reformer was someone who was under authority, one whose freedom of action was limited by political masters jealous for their authority and with a reforming agenda that generally extended beyond that of the reformer to include consolidation of their economic and social influence. The relation between reformer and city council was thus delicate, easily prone to disruption, with real power permanently in the hands of the latter.

McGrath, Alister E., Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 16-19). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

People Learned About “The Reformation” in Their Own Language

The Bible in German: Translated by Martin Luther

A lot of things contributed to the spread of the Gospel at the time of the Reformation. Pervasive knowledge of the corruption of “the Church”. The printing press. The willingness (and newfound ability) of the Reformers to reach back ad fontes (“to the original sources”). One of the most important, however, was Martin Luther’s decision to write in his native tongue, German, instead of in Latin:

Luther had learned from Erasmus the importance of the printing press in projecting intellectual influence within society. In 1520, he began to advance the cause of his reformation by appealing directly to the German people, over the heads of clerics and academics, through the medium of print. It was a tactic that would be imitated throughout Europe, as the power of the pamphlet became obvious to all.

Luther now began to have the popular impact that he knew was essential if he was to change the shape of the church, rather than tinker with academic niceties. He would do this by using the vernacular as a means of theological communication.

Why was this development so important? The language of the academy, the church, and the state in western Europe throughout the Middle Ages was Latin. There was an obvious need for a common language to allow communication across this vast and diverse region of the world. Latin was the language of the great Roman poets, rhetoricians, politicians, and philosophers, and of highly influential Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, and Tertullian.

Luther knew that anything he wrote in Latin would be understood by the educated elite across Europe. Yet Luther wanted to reach beyond an academic readership and touch the hearts and minds of ordinary people. The decision to publish in German was iconic, making a statement about the inclusive nature of the reformation that Luther proposed to pursue. To publish in Latin was to exclude the ordinary people.

From that moment onward, one of the hallmarks of Protestantism would be its use of the vernacular at every level. Most importantly of all, the Bible would also be translated into the language of the people.

An example will illustrate the importance of both printing and the use of the vernacular to the propagation of the ideas of the Reformation. A crucial turning point in the French Reformation was marked by the publication of the French-language edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1541. Suddenly, coherently expressed and carefully justified radical reforming doctrines were available within France in a language which most could understand. There was something approaching panic in official circles in Paris.

On 1 July 1542, the Parisian parliament directed that all works containing heterodox doctrines, especially Calvin’s Institutes, were to be surrendered to the authorities within three days. Calvin’s Institutes were thus seen as the spearhead of a Genevan assault upon the French Catholic church, mediated through the printed word in French. The reaction from the booksellers of Paris was immediate: they protested that they would face financial ruin if they were prohibited from selling such books. It seems that there was a major market for works which were considered to be dangerously unsound by the authorities – further evidence of the importance of a literate and affluent laity in promoting the ideas of the Reformation.

Indeed, Laurent de Normandie, Calvin’s friend and bookseller, found the contraband book trade so profitable that he emigrated to Geneva, in order that he might publish such books rather than just sell them.

McGrath, Alister E., Reformation Thought: An Introduction (pp. 15-16). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Book Printing as Impetus for Reformation

The Gutenberg Bible

For 1500 years, Christian texts were painstakingly copied by hand. “For, even within the letters of Paul, we witness a remarkably well-structured network for the copying and dissemination of early Christian writings. Paul sent his letters through friends or associates to be delivered to the various churches under his care and regularly asked that they be read publicly to the church” (Andreas Kostenberger, Michael Kruger, “The Heresy of Orthodoxy”, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, © 2010, pg 196).

During the middle ages, book production became an art form, and libraries thrived:

Every stage in the creation of a medieval book required intensive labor, sometimes involving the collaboration of entire workshops. Parchment for the pages had to be made from the dried hides of animals, cut to size and sewn into quires; inks had to be mixed, pens prepared, and the pages ruled for lettering. A scribe copied the text from an established edition, and artists might then embellish it with illustrations, decorated initials, and ornament in the margins. The most lavish medieval books were bound in covers set with enamels, jewels, and ivory carvings.

Many bookmakers in the Middle Ages were monks, and monasteries kept libraries filled not only with sacred texts but also with literary, scientific, and philosophical works by Greek and Roman authors. Multi-volume Bibles and huge liturgical books were housed and used in churches. Princes and emperors commissioned gospel books with many-colored illustrations and lettering in gold and silver ink. Among the most ambitious were the large books that monastic communities used daily for singing.

But in the century just prior to the Reformation, the invention of the printing press enabled the faster production and distribution of books, and the ability of more and more people to own them. Alister McGrath describes the impact that the printing press had:

Recent technological developments in the field of data processing and transfer – such as the Internet – have revolutionized many aspects of modern life. It is important to realize that a single technological innovation destined to have an enormous influence over western Europe was developed on the eve of the Reformation. This innovation was, of course, printing. It would have a very substantial impact on the development and propagation of the ideas of the Reformation.

Although originally developed centuries earlier by the Chinese, the first European printed documents which can be dated reliably originate from the press of Johann Gutenberg (c.1398–1468) at Mainz around 1454. In 1456, the same press produced a printed Latin Bible. This was followed in 1457 by the so-called Mainz Psalter, which established the custom of identifying the printer, the location of the press, and the date of publication on the title page of the work.

From Germany, the technology was taken to Italy, presses being established at Subiaco (1464) and Venice (1469). Caxton set up his printing shop at Westminster, London, in 1476. The famous Aldine Press was established at Venice in 1495 by Aldus Manutius Romanus. This press was responsible for two important developments: “lower case” letters (so called because they were kept in the lower of two cases containing type) and the sloping “italic” type (so called in English-language works on account of Venice being located in Italy; Aldus himself called the type “Chancery”).

Why would printing have such a major impact upon the Reformation? The following points should be noted.

First, printing meant that works advocating the agenda of the Reformation could be produced quickly and cheaply. The tedious process of copying manuscripts by hand was no longer necessary. Further, the errors introduced by the copying process were eliminated; once a work was set up in type, any number of error-free copies could be run off. Anyone who could read and who could afford to pay for books was in a position to learn of the sensational new ideas coming out of Wittenberg and Geneva. For example, in England it was the literate and financially advantaged classes who knew most about Lutheranism in the third decade of the sixteenth century.

Lutheran books, banned by the authorities as seditious, were smuggled in through the Hanseatic trade route to Cambridge via the ports of Antwerp and Ipswich. There was no need for Luther to visit England to gain a hearing for his ideas – they were spread by the printed word. This point is of interest in relation to the sociology of early Protestantism.

In both England and France, for example, the first Protestants were often drawn from the upper strata of society, precisely because these strata possessed the ability to read and the money to pay for books (which, as they often had to be smuggled in from abroad, were generally rather expensive). Similarly, the greater influence of Protestantism at the University of Cambridge than at Oxford partly reflects the former’s proximity to the continental ports from which Protestant books were being (illicitly) imported.

Second, the Reformation was based upon certain specific sources: the Bible and the Christian theologians of the first five centuries (often referred to as “the Fathers,” or “the patristic writers”). The invention of printing had two immediate effects upon these sources, of considerable importance to the origins of the Reformation.

It was now possible to produce more accurate editions of these works – for example, through the elimination of copying errors. By comparing the printed text of a work with manuscript sources, the best possible text could be established and used as the basis of theological reflection.

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, humanist scholars rummaged through the libraries of Europe in search of patristic manuscripts which they could edit and publish. As a result, these sources were made much more widely available than had ever been possible before.

By the 1520s, just about anyone could gain access to a reliable edition of the Greek text of the New Testament or the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354–430), a patristic writer particularly favored by the Reformers. The 11 volumes of the collected works of Augustine were published at Basle by the Amerbach brothers, after an editorial process lasting from 1490 to 1506. Although only 200 copies of each volume seem to have been published, they were widely used to gain access to the most reliable text of this important writer.

Erasmus of Rotterdam produced the first published text of the Greek New Testament in 1516. Entitled Novum Instrumentum omne, the work had three main sections: the original Greek text of the New Testament; a new Latin translation of this Greek text, which corrected inadequate existing translations, especially the Vulgate; and, finally, an extended commentary on the text in the form of annotations. The work was widely used by those sympathetic to the cause of the Reformation.

For the reformers – especially Luther and his colleagues at Wittenberg – the religious ideas of the Reformation drew largely on the Bible and Augustine. The advent of printing, linked with increasingly effective bookselling methods, meant that accurate and reliable texts of both these sources were widely available, thus facilitating both the initial development and the subsequent spread of these ideas.

The importance of printing in spreading the ideas of the Reformation cannot be overstated. Surveys of the personal book collections of French bourgeois families point to the religious implications of this trend. Jacques Lefèvre’s French New Testament of 1523, pointedly addressed “to all Christian men and women,” along with his French Psalter of 1524, were read widely through­out France, and were even distributed free of charge within the reforming diocese of Meaux.

Copies of these works, along with the New Testament commentaries of Erasmus, Melanchthon, and Lefèvre himself, are frequently to be found jostling for space on the shelves of bourgeois libraries in the late 1520s. If these books were ever read by their owners – and the evidence strongly suggests that they were – a considerable head of pressure for reform would have developed.

McGrath, Alister E., Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 12-14). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

“The Catholic Reformation”

Erasmus was “the bastard son of a priest”, illustrating a major problem at the time of the Reformation.

Desiderius Erasmus, who first compiled the Greek New Testament in 1516, was probably one of THE most influential figures leading to the Reformation, in several ways. The circumstance of his birth is one way you may not have heard about. There are, in fact, somewhat conflicting (but non-contradictory) accounts of his early life.
The Encyclopedia of World Biography” says: “Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, probably on October 27, 1466, the second son of a priest, Roger Gerard, and Margaret, a physician’s daughter. His parents were unmarried at the time of his birth.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica says: “Erasmus was the second illegitimate son of Roger Gerard, a priest, and Margaret, a physician’s daughter.”

An older version of the “Catholic Encyclopedia” gave this: “The most brilliant and most important leader of German humanism, b. at Rotterdam, Holland, 28 October, probably in 1466 … He was the illegitimate child of Gerard, a citizen of Gouda, and Margaretha Rogers, and at a later date Latinized his name as Desiderius Erasmus. Eventually his father became a priest.”

Whether his father was already a priest, or a young man who later became a priest, the story supports Paul Johnson’s contention:

…he was the bastard son of a priest, by a washerwoman. This was the common fate of a vast number of people at the time. It testified to the unwillingness of the Church to sanction clerical marriage and its inability to stamp out concubinage. Probably as many as half the men in orders had ‘wives’ and families. Behind all the New Learning and the theological debates, clerical celibacy was, in its own way, the biggest single issue at the time of the Reformation. It was a great social problem and, other factors being equal, it tended to tip the balance in favour of reform. As a rule, the only hope for a child of a priest was to go into the Church himself, thus unwillingly or with no great enthusiasm, taking vows which he might subsequently regret: the evil tended to perpetuate itself. Paul Johnson, “A History of Christianity” (©1976, pgs 269-270).

Among other things, the Roman Catholic Church – its hierarchy, not only popes, bishops and cardinals, but the priests who lived and worked among the people, were visibly and even hopelessly corrupt. Part of the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation involved not only etching its “doctrines” in stone, but cleaning up its own messes. Those efforts have been known in various seasons as the “Catholic Reformation” and the “Counter Reformation”.

What follows is McGrath’s introduction of this phenomenon; as time goes on, I’ll certainly make evident some of the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation:

This term is often used to refer to the revitalization of Catholicism in the period following the opening of the Council of Trent (1545). In older scholarly works, the movement is often designated the “Counter-Reformation”: as the term suggests, this refers to the strategies that the Catholic church developed as a means of combating the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic church countered the Reformation partly by reforming itself from within, in order to remove the grounds of Protestant criticism. In this sense, the movement is to be seen both as a reformation of the Catholic church, as well as a critique of the Protestant Reformation. The same concerns underlying the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe were channeled into the renewal of the Catholic church, particularly in Spain and Italy.

The Council of Trent, the foremost feature of the Catholic Reformation, clarified Catholic teaching on a number of confusing matters, and introduced much-needed reforms in relation to the conduct of the clergy, ecclesiastical discipline, religious education, and missionary activity. The movement for reform within the Catholic church was greatly stimulated by the reformation of many of the older religious orders and the establishment of new orders (such as the “Society of Jesus,” often referred to as “the Jesuits”). The more specifically theological aspects of the Catholic Reformation will be considered in relation to its teachings on Scripture and tradition, justification by faith, the church, and the sacraments.

As a result of the Catholic Reformation, many of the abuses that originally lay behind the demands for reform – whether these came from humanists or Protestants – were removed. By this stage, however, the Protestant Reformation had reached a point at which the mere removal of malpractices and abuses was no longer sufficient to reverse the situation: the demand for the reformation of doctrine, religious ideology, and the church was now regarded as an essential aspect of the Protestant–Catholic controversies. This point highlights the need to consider the religious ideas lying behind the “magisterial Reformation,” which became of increasing importance to the Protestant–Catholic debate as the sixteenth century progressed.

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (pgs 11-12). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Anabaptism, or “the Radical Reformation”

amish-vs-mennoniteWe know the heirs of the communities that were formed as part of the “Radical Reformation”, or “Anabaptists”, as “Mennonite” and “Amish”. While these communities, while visible, have had relatively little influence in either doctrine or culture, some of their ideas are with us today.

The term “Anabaptist” owes its origins to Zwingli (the word literally means “re-baptizers”), and refers to what was perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Anabaptist practice – the insistence that only those who had made a personal public profession of faith should be baptized. Anabaptism seems to have first arisen around Zurich, in the aftermath of Zwingli’s reforms within the city in the early 1520s. It centered on a group of individuals (among whom we may note Conrad Grebel, c.1498–1526) who argued that Zwingli was not being faithful to his own reforming principles … [that] he preached one thing and practiced another.

Although Zwingli professed faithfulness to the sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) principle, Grebel argued that he retained a number of practices – including infant baptism, the close link between church and magistracy, and the participation of Christians in warfare – which were not sanctioned or ordained by Scripture. In the hands of such radical thinkers, the sola scriptura principle became radicalized: reformed Christians came to believe and practice only those things explicitly taught in Scripture. Zwingli was alarmed by this, seeing it as a destabilizing development which threatened to cut off the Reformed church at Zurich from its historical roots and its continuity with the Christian tradition of the past.

The Anabaptists had good reason to accuse Zwingli of compromise. In 1522, Zwingli wrote a work known as Apologeticus Archeteles, in which he recognized the idea of a “community of goods” as an authentic Christian ideal. “No-one calls any possessions his own,” he wrote, “all things are held in common.” But by 1525, Zwingli had changed his mind and come round to the idea that private property was not such a bad thing, after all.

Although Anabaptism arose in Germany and Switzerland, it subsequently became influential in other regions, such as the Lowlands. The movement produced relatively few theologians – the three most significant are generally agreed to be Balthasar Hubmaier (c.1480–1528), Pilgram Marbeck (died 1556), and Menno Simons (1496–1561 [whose name the “Mennonites” bear today]). This failure partly reflects the forcible suppression of Anabaptism by the secular authorities.

Yet it may also reflect the fact that the movement did not have any substantial common theological basis. A number of common elements can be discerned within the various strands of the movement: a general distrust of external authority, the rejection of infant baptism in favor of the baptism of adult believers, the common ownership of property, and an emphasis upon pacifism and non-resistance.

To take up one of these points: in 1527, the governments of the cities of Zurich, Berne, and St Gallen accused the Anabaptists of believing “that no true Christian can either give or receive interest or income on a sum of capital; that all temporal goods are free and common, and that all can have full property rights to them.” It is for this reason that “Anabaptism” is often referred to as the “left wing of the Reformation” (Roland H. Bainton) or the “radical Reformation” (George Hunston Williams).

For Williams, the “radical Reformation” was to be contrasted with the “magisterial Reformation,” which he broadly identified with the Lutheran and Reformed movements. These terms are increasingly being accepted within Reformation scholarship, and the reader is likely to encounter them in his or her reading of more recent studies of the movement [emphasis added].

Probably the most significant document to emerge from the movement is the Schleitheim Confession, drawn up by Michael Sattler (1490–1527) on 24 February 1527. The Confession takes its name from the small town of that name in the canton of Schaffhausen. Its function was to distinguish Anabaptists from those around them – supremely from what the document refers to as “papists and antipapists” (that is, unreformed Catholics and magisterial evangelicals).

In effect, the Schleitheim Confession amounts to “articles of separation” – that is to say, a set of beliefs and attitudes which distinguish Anabaptists from their opponents inside and outside the Reformation, and function as a core of unity, whatever their other differences might be.

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 9-10). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

As a movement, the Anabaptists did not have the intellectual heft to have much of a lasting influence. Their doctrine of “believer’s baptism” is very much alive today. But unlike the “Magisterial Reformers”, whose “doctrinal intention … was confessional orthodoxy, [and] its academic motivation was certainly intellectual adequacy”, the Anabaptists stressed behaviors and lifestyle, in ways that had neither solid intellectual underpinnings nor a broad popular appeal.

Zwingli and the Beginning of the Reformed Reformation

cities-of-switzerlandThe Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli developed his religious ideas in the town of Zurich, Switzerland, at a time that was parallel to but separate from the religious development of Luther:

What was wonderful to him and his generation was that they had before their eyes the original Greek, and Hebrew texts. The very words directly inspired by the Holy Spirit were there for them to read, and the printing press made possible an exactness unknown previously. It was in 1516 that this great treasure had been delivered into Zwingli’s hands, and early 1519 allows exactly the right length of time for assimilation and cogitation….

Zwingli must have brought with him to Zurich one of the best libraries possessed at the time by a simple secular priest, and his books he esteemed all his life. Many threads were now being drawn together in 1519-1520 – memories of rather barren university scholasticism with no desire on his part to return to Aristotle, Peter Lombard, Aquinas, Scotus and the rest, yet he knew them well and was therefore suitably equipped to meet his opponents in verbal-logical Latin discussions, each knowing that the other side was well trained in the formalities of logical thought….

Bold and even corrosive as some of [his] preaching was, it was already, as it always remained, basically and fundamentally Christ-centred. The Cross, and all that it meant, was never absent: the tidings were of eternal salvation. (G.R. Potter, “Zwingli”, Cambridge University Press, ©1976, pgs 64-65).

Zwingli is often a forgotten character in the Reformation, where Luther and Calvin are the best known among the Reformers. But Zwingli set the stage for later Reformers in Switzerland, including Heinrich Bullinger and John Calvin. McGrath places him in context:

The origins of the Reformed church lie with developments within the Swiss Confederation. Whereas the Lutheran Reformation had its origins primarily in an academic context, the Reformed church owed its origins more to a series of attempts to reform the morals and worship of the church (but not necessarily its doctrine) according to a more biblical pattern.

Although most of the early Reformed theologians – such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) – had an academic background, their reforming programs were not academic in nature. They were mainly concerned with reforming the practices (such as the worship) of the churches in the Swiss cities, such as Zurich, Berne, and Basle.

Whereas Luther was convinced that the doctrine of justification by faith was of central significance to his program of social and religious reform, the early Reformed thinkers had relatively little interest in doctrine, let alone this one specific doctrine. Their reforming program was institutional, social, and ethical, in many ways similar to the demands for reform emanating from the humanist movement. … for the moment it is important simply to note that all the major early Reformed theologians had links with the humanist movement which were not shared by Luther, who regarded it with some suspicion.

The consolidation of the Reformed church is generally thought to have begun with the stabilization of the Zurich reformation after Zwingli’s death (in battle, 1531) under his successor, Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75), and to have ended with the emergence of Geneva as its power base and John Calvin (1509–64) as its leading spokesman, in the 1550s.

McGrath, Alister E., “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (pp. 7-8). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation

luther-nailing-theses-560x538Alister McGrath spends some time summarizing the individual “Reformations”. Probably the most well-known is (as you may have seen some articles on the upcoming 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation) is the Lutheran Reformation, which began when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses (primarily dealing with the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of “Indulgences”) to the castle church at Wittenberg.

The Lutheran Reformation is particularly associated with the German territories and with the pervasive personal influence of one charismatic individual – Martin Luther (1483–1546). Luther was particularly concerned with the doctrine of justification, which formed the central point of his religious thought.

The Lutheran Reformation was initially an academic movement, concerned primarily with reforming the teaching of theology at the University of Wittenberg. Wittenberg was an unimportant university, and the reforms introduced by Luther and his colleagues within the theology faculty attracted little attention.

It was Luther’s personal activities – such as his posting of the famous Ninety-Five Theses (31 October 1517) and the Leipzig Disputation (June–July 1519) – which brought the reforming ideas in circulation at Wittenberg to the attention of a wider (though not always appreciative) audience.

Strictly speaking, the Lutheran Reformation really began in 1522, when Luther returned to Wittenberg from his enforced isolation in the Wartburg. Luther had been condemned by the Diet of Worms in 1521. Fearing for his life, certain well-placed supporters removed him in secrecy to the castle known as the “Wartburg,” until the threat to his safety ceased. (Luther used his enforced isolation to begin translating the New Testament into German.)

In his absence, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486–1541), one of Luther’s academic colleagues at Wittenberg, began a program of reform at Wittenberg which seemed to degenerate into chaos. Convinced that his own presence was needed if the Reformation was to survive Karlstadt’s ineptitude, Luther emerged from his place of safety and returned to Wittenberg. At this point, Luther’s program for academic reform changed into a program for reform of church and society. No longer was Luther’s forum of activity the university world of ideas – he now found himself regarded as the leader of a religious, social, and political reforming movement which seemed to some contemporary observers to open the way to a new social and religious order in Europe.

In fact, it should be noted that Luther’s program of reform was actually more conservative than that associated with his Reformed colleagues, such as Huldrych Zwingli. It also met with rather less success than some anticipated. The movement remained obstinately landlocked within the German territories, and – the kingdoms of Scandinavia apart – never gained the foreign power bases which had seemed to be like so many ripe apples, ready to fall into its lap.

Luther’s understanding of the role of the “godly prince” (which effectively ensured that the monarch had control of the church) does not seem to have held the attraction which might have been expected, particularly in the light of the generally republican sentiments of Reformed thinkers such as Calvin. The case of England is particularly illuminating: here, as in the Lowlands, the Protestant theology which eventually gained the ascendancy was Reformed rather than Lutheran.

McGrath, Alister E.. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 6-7). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Martin Luther is probably one of the most vilified men in history – thanks to the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits, and the “Counter-Reformation”. Much error was spread about him during that time, and much of that error persists even today. My friend James Swan and his Beggars All Reformation blog site has done much to research those individual vilifications and to set the record straight. I highly recommend his work to you.

The “Protestant” Reformation

Today, October 31, 2016, is the 499th anniversary of the start of what is known as “the Protestant Reformation”. As Alister McGrath explains, however, the use of the word “Protestant” regarding the events of October 31, 1517 is anachronistic:

The term “Protestant” … requires comment. It derives from the aftermath of the Second Diet of Speyer (February 1529), which voted to end the toleration of Lutheranism in Germany. In April of the same year, six German princes and 14 cities protested against this oppressive measure, defending freedom of conscience and the rights of religious minorities. The term “Protestant” derives from this protest.

It is therefore not strictly correct to apply the term “Protestant” to individuals prior to April 1529 or to speak of events prior to that date as constituting “the Protestant Reformation.” The term “evangelical” is often used in the literature to refer to the reforming factions at Wittenberg and elsewhere (e.g., in France and Switzerland) prior to this date. Although the word “Protestant” is often used to refer to this earlier period, this use is, strictly speaking, an anachronism.

McGrath, Alister E.. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 6). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

A Number of Different “Reformations”

b45e3-unity-away-from-romeThe term “Reformation” is used in a number of senses, and it is helpful to distinguish them. As used in the historical literature, the term “Reformation” generally refers to reform movements in different areas, each of which had different roots:

  • Lutheranism: This is probably the earliest and best known among the Reformation movements; sparked publicly by Martin Luther when he posted his “95 Theses” for discussion at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, this “reformation” spread quickly and even provided cover for the other “reformations”.
  • The Reformed movement: (often referred to as “Calvinism”) Had its origin in Ulrich Zwingli, the near contemporary of Martin Luther, in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1518. Zwingli was a priest who became enamored with the Scriptures, and from 1519 onward, he began preaching regularly from the Scriptures and pointing out discrepancies with Roman Catholic doctrine.
  • The English Reformation: This particular reform movement did have its roots in the political dispute between Henry VIII and “Pope Clement VII” over an annulment; nevertheless, some of the finest (primarily Reformed in their persuasion) theologians came out of the English Reformation.
  • The “Radical Reformation”: Still referred to as “Anabaptism”. Anabaptism literally means “re-baptism.” Oddly, the heirs of this movement are not today’s Baptists, but rather are seen in the Amish and Mennonite movements.
  • The Counter Reformation: There were Reform movements even within Roman Catholicism that worked to correct abuses and defend “traditional” Roman doctrines.

Adapted from Alister McGrath, “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (p. 5). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Throughout this work, McGrath makes the point, then, that what we know now as “The Reformation” was actually a loosely connected set of distinct reforming movements, rather than a single coherent movement with local adaptations.

As the illustration above shows, all of them had one thing in common, and that was, Rome is corrupt, and we need to do something about it. For the four branches of the Protestant Reformation, that meant leaving.

We’ll go into more detail regarding each of these movements.

Alliances of Church and State

As popes in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s became more evil and self-absorbed, their ability to even try to reform the church diminished. Given the corruption in Rome, the Reformers turned to their own civil governments for help:

It is therefore important to notice the manner in which Protestant reformers allied themselves with regional or civic powers in order to effect their program of reform. Luther appealed to the German nobility and Zwingli to the Zurich city council for reform, pointing out the benefits which would accrue to both as a consequence. For reasons we shall explore …, the English Reformation (in which political factors tended to overshadow theological issues, which were generally treated as being of secondary importance) is not typical of the European movement as a whole.

The continental Reformation proceeded by a symbiotic alliance of reformer and state or civic authority, each believing that the resulting Reformation was to their mutual benefit. The reformers were not unduly concerned that they gave added authority to their secular rulers by their theories of the role of the state or the “godly prince”: the important thing was that the secular rulers supported the cause of the Reformation, even if their reasons for doing so might not be entirely straightforward or praiseworthy.

The mainstream reformers were pragmatists, people who were prepared to allow secular rulers their pound of flesh provided the cause of the Reformation was advanced. In much the same way, of course, the opponents of the Refor­mation had little hesitation in calling upon the support of secular authorities which felt that their interests were best served by a maintenance of the religious status quo. No study of the Reformation can overlook its political and social dimensions, as secular authorities in northern Europe saw their chance to seize power from the church, even at the cost of thereby committing themselves to a new religious order.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that certain distinctive religious ideas achieved widespread circulation and influence within western European society in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was about theology, not just social and political change. These theological ideas cannot be ignored or marginalized by anyone concerned with the study of the Reformation.

Alister McGrath, “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (pp. 4-5). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Was this a good move or a bad move? The answer is unclear.

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