Reformation History Unit 6(includes video on William Tyndale)

The English and Scottish Reformation


The English Reformation had some unique features all its own. The politics was unique, starting with the fact that Britain was an island ruled by only two nations, which would become one in the time of James I. Instead of many competing princes and nobles, there was essentially one court and one king in England.

The leadership was unique. There are more ‘names’ packed together in the small English reformation. Tyndale, Frith, Latimer, Cranmer, Ridley, Henry VIII, Bucer, Edward VI, Knox, etc. — it was a Hall of Fame of earth-shaking personages.

The results were unique. The Anglican Church was like no other in its retention of Catholic elements, in its seesaw religion and politics, in its mediating solution, in its Puritan party agitating for the next hundred years. The English Revolution, the beheading of the king — what element could the story have that it doesn’t already?

Of course, the English reformation is also the mother of most of our churches, at least indirectly. Anglicans – obviously. Presbyterians – they wrote the most famous confession of them all right there in Westminster, and took over Scotland. Congregationalists, Separatists, Baptists — all from England. Modern Evangelicalism comes from the earlier Protestantism purified and shaken up by the Great Awakening, then slapped down by the Second Great Awakening.

Let’s hit the high points.


Luther’s doctrines entered England early. But the Humanist tradition had been there for some years, since the late 1400′s. England’s universities, Oxford and Cambridge, had had their elements calling for reform already long before Luther. The study of Greek had also made its way to England. Erasmus had been there, and there were men like Thomas More, John Colet and others who were paving the way for a renewed study of Scripture. The young prince, crowned Henry VIII, awas known to be a friend of learning, and Erasmus had a long correspondence with him.

The Greek New Testament, published by Erasmus in 1516, entered England at almost the same time that Lutheran doctrines did. Just as at Wittenberg, it was to be the universities, especially Cambridge, which proved to the the fount of Reformed doctrines in England.

Tyndale and the Bible

William Tyndale was born around 1490-94. He seems to have been converted early to Lutheran doctrines. At Cambridge in the late 1510′s or early 1520′s, he is spreading Protestant principles in Cambridge with a group of like minded students and lecturers who met at the White Horse Inn, especially Thomas Bilney and John Frith.

He left Cambridge to become tutor to the family of Sir John Walsh. At Walsh’s house he conceived the idea to translate the Bible directly from the original languages into English. This had never been done; other existing English versions, including Wycliffe’s, had been made from the Latin Vulgate. It was also here that Tyndale had the famous conversation with the Catholic theologian who, frustrated by Tyndale’s arguments, finally replied that it would be better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s. Tyndale said, “If God spares my life, I will take care that a ploughboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.”

In the meantime Luther’s doctrines were infecting the country with “heresies.” Henry, with his unscrupulous advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, was persecuting and killing all the Protestants he could get hold of. He even wrote a book of his own against Luther, which earned him the special title “Defender of the Faith” from the pope. A wonderful source book for these stories is Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, more commonly known as Book of Martyrs. If you try to read this book, get the earliest and least edited version you can, because all kinds of books are issued under this title nowadays.

Tyndale meanwhile tried to get appointed to the Bishop of London’s staff, and to get the translation of the Bible accomplished under the authority of the Bishop. But the Bishop politely turned him down. A friendly merchant, Humphrey of Monmouth, gave him a place to live and work. He began to work with John Frith on the translation of the New Testament. But England became too hot for them, and they left for the Continent in 1524. The Bible was first printed in Cologne and Worms in 1525. Two editions were sent to England starting in 1526. These editions were siezed, burned, and bought by the minions of Henry and Rome.

Tyndale kept revising and also worked on the Old Testament until he was betrayed and captured in Antwerp. He was burned in Vilvorde in 1536. His last prayer was “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” One year later, Bibles were being sold legally in England.

Henry’s “Reformation”

Henry VIII wanted a divorce. Perhaps we don’t know why, but it was quite noticeable that wife Catherine was producing no male heirs. Only one daughter after almost 20 years of marriage. In 1527 Henry began to pursue a divorce or annulment of his marriage — a marriage that had had to have a papal dispensation to legalize — from the pope. This was not a good time. Catherine was the emperor Charles’s aunt, and the pope was under the thumb of Charles. No divorce was forthcoming. Henry decided that the marriage was not legal on the basis of Leviticus 20:21, “If there is a man who takes his brother’s wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.” Never mind that this probably refers to taking one’s brother’s wife while the brother is still living; and never mind that Deut. 5:5 specifically commands a man to take his dead brother’s wife.

Henry had advisors who were trying to do his bidding too. In August 1529 he met Thomas Cranmer, a member of the Cambridge circle which had included Tyndale. Cranmer suggested that the proposed divorce was legitimate and outlined various ways of handling it. Henry pressed him into service on the divorce case, and soon Cranmer was a close advisor.

One thing led to the other, and soon Henry was denying the pope, whom he now called the mere “bishop of Rome,” any authority over the English church. He began to derive a doctrine of national churches that remained Catholic but were independent of each other and especially of the pope.

Henry’s “reformation” can be conveniently summarized by listing the activities and decrees that proclaimed its various aspects:

  • May 1532 – “The Submission of the Clergy” – English clergy must submit to English king
  • 1532 – “Conditional Restraint of Annates” – it is illegal to pay yearly tax to the pope
  • January 1533 – Henry marries Anne Boleyn
  • February 1533 – “Restraint of Appeals” – all church appeals must terminate with the king
  • May 1533 – new archbishop Thomas Cranmer declares marriage with Catherine annulled
  • June 1533 – Anne Boleyn crowned queen
  • September 1533 – Elizabeth I born
  • November 1534 – “Supremacy Act” – the king is the supreme head of the English church
  • May 19, 1536 – Anne Boleyn executed for “adultery”
  • May 30, 1536 – Henry marries Jane Seymour
  • 1536 – Act of Parliament for the “dissolution” (i.e., royal plundering) of the first round of the monasteries
  • October 1537 – Edward VI born to Jane Seymour
  • 1539 – “Six Articles” summarize Henry’s religion – not Protestantism at all but Catholicism without the pope
    1. Transubstantiation
    2. Communion of bread only, no wine for laity
    3. Priestly celibacy
    4. Monastic vows
    5. Private masses
    6. Confession

One thing is sure – there is nothing in Henry’s religion that resembles Protestantism. However, Protestantism swirled all around him. Cranmer, Latimer, and others within Henry’s circle began to circulate Protestant doctrines, especially after Henry’s death in 1547. The court of Edward VI, who became king when he was 10, was controlled by Protestants in the doctrinal sense. The religious convictions of the true early reformers like Tyndale began to percolate through the English church.

Edward’s Reign 1547-1553

What we may call an actual Protestant Reformation took place in England under Edward VI. Only ten when he took the throne, under the thumb of powerful advisors the Duke of Somerset and later the Duke of Northumberland, he seems to have been personally devoted to Protestant doctrines himself. But his advisors wielded the more power, and they were determined to make the English church a Protestant church.

Advisers and theologians were now invited from the continent to aid in the English reformation. Most important of these was Martin Bucer, South German reformer and friend of Calvin. English Protestantism began to take a definite shape, and that shape was Calvinism.

Cranmer introduced the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and its second, more Protestant, edition in 1552. This book, a classic of the English language and English faith, had a great influence down to the present day. For instance, some of my very favorite Psalm verses are the ones in Handel’s Messiah, but in the Psalms Handel used the Psalter printed in the Prayer Book rather than the Authorized Version.

Cranmer issued the Forty-Two Articles of the Church of England in 1553. These later became the Thirty-Nine Articles under Elizabeth. They were strongly Protestant and remain in effect for Anglican churches, though they are widely ignored.

Mary’s Reign

Unfortunately, Edward died an untimely death from tuberculosis. His half sister Mary, daughter of the original wife, Catherine of Aragon, took the throne. She hated both Protestantism and the reformed English church which had cast out her mother. She determined to reverse everything that had been done by Henry and Edward.

Mary imprisoned and burned many of the leading Reformers, including Cranmer, Latimer, Bradford, Ridley, and Hooper were burned. Cranmer’s martyrdom was interesting because under duress, he recanted Protestantism. But on the day of his burning, he apologized publicly for the recantation, and declared that his right hand which was signed the recantation, would suffer first. He held the hand in the fire until it burned up.

When Latimer and Ridley were burned, Latimer’s famous line according to Foxe, was “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

Elizabeth’s Reign

Elizabeth took over when Mary died in 1558. She became Elizabeth I, “Good Queen Bess,” and reigned until 1603. Under her the greatness of England began in European affairs.

She was a Protestant, although her inner convictions are not well known. She seems to have believed in moderation in all things religious. Under her, the Edwardean Book of Common Prayer was brought back, somewhat revised. The 42 Articles of religion were passed again as the 39 Articles. These contained mostly continental Calvinism, but the church she established, which now became stable as the Church of England, was a patchwork of different doctrines and practices. Just enough Catholicism was left in the mix to encourage the later Anglo-Catholics (19th century) to reinterpret, with some success, the English church as simply a Catholic church separate from the Pope. This became the High Church movement, as opposed to the Low Church, i.e. more Protestant, Anglicans.

Elizabeth executed, but rarely burned, Catholic agitators and Jesuit missionaries during her reign. In this she was a little more justified than some Protestant leaders, for there was always the suspicion that conspiracies existed to depriver her of her throne and bring England back to Roman obedience.

All these conspiracies came to a head in the 1580′s, when Mary Queen of Scots was finally executed by Elizabeth for plotting against her, and in 1588 Philip, the Catholic king of Spain, attacked England with his armada. 130 ships and 24,000 men were sent. But the Armada was spectacularly defeated with the help of providential winds, and the air went out of Spain’s sails, so to speak. Spain’s long decline began, and England’s rise to greatness coincided with it. With England’s power went Protestant power, around the world.

By the Act of Supremacy in 1559, Elizabeth repealed Mary’s efforts to reestablish Roman Catholicism. By the Act of Uniformity the same year, Anglicanism was reaffirmed, taking features from both Henry VIII’s and Edward VI’s reigns. As Grimm says, “Clerical vestments, pictures, crucifixes, and church music were retained . . .”. Many Protestants thought that the reformation should go further. These became the Puritan party, of which we shall see more next week. In Elizabeth’s time, the House of Commons was almost always more Protestant than the Queen. The Puritans were persecuted in various ways, e.g. being forbidden to preach and being deprived of their official positions.

It was late in Elizabeth’s reign that Richard Hooker wrote the classic defense of Anglicanism, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. It was a learned and moderate book.


The Scottish Reformation was a totally different story than the English, and it has great impact on us as Americans. The Scotch-Irish who settled Northern Ireland were fiercely Protestant as a result of their Reformation heritage, and they became an important part of the American immigration.

Remember that at this time the government of Scotland was not united with that of England. Rather, the Scottish kings were a separate line, dominated by the French. Although James VI of Scotland ended up being the heir to the English throne, in the Reformation period they were two nations.

James V of Scotland, who had persecuted some Protestants, had died in 1542, leaving an infant daughter Mary, and her mother, Mary of Guise, a French Catholic, in charge.

John Knox

We must study Knox if we wish to study Scotland’s reformation. Little is known of his early life. By 1540 he was a priest and by 1545 he is an associate of George Wishart, and early reformer who preached Protestantism up and down Scotland. After Cardinal Beaton, a powerful ruler in Scotland, had Wishart burned in 1546, events really sped up. As he died, Wishart exhorted the spectators to teach the bishops the word of God.

But Protestants murdered Beaton and then holed up in St. Andrews Castle. Knox went to them under orders from his nobleman employers, to whose sons he was tutor. By 1547 he had become, reluctantly, the spokesman for the movement.

In June 1547 French armies arrived and the St. Andrews castle had to surrender. Knox and the other leaders became galley slaves in the French fleet. Knox was freed after 19 months by intervention from England, which was now Protestant under the control of Edward VI and his ministers.

Until 1553 Knox was an agent of English Protestantism, like so many other Reformed luminaries who lived in England during this period. He was influential in the 2nd prayer book’s insistence that there was no Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper. In many ways he became the model which English Puritans were to follow for the next hundred years. But in 1553 when Bloody Mary came to the throne, Knox fled England. He spent most of the following years in Geneva, learning from John Calvin.

In 1559 came his last return to Scotland. He was now preaching a doctrine of resistance to Catholic rulers – armed if necessary. Protestant nobles in Scotland were resisting Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary Queen of Scots, and French armies threatened to secure Scotland for Catholicism. Elizabeth of England finally decided that it was to her best interests to aid Scotland’s Protestants, and in 1560 her armies were the deciding factor in eliminating the French threat. The Treaty of Edinburgh enabled a committee of Lords to rule Scotland. The Lords moved in a Protestant direction.

Now, under Knox’s leadership, papal authority was abolished and the Scots Confession was adopted. The young Queen Mary (Mary Queen of Scots, or Mary Stuart) arrived from France in 1561 and for many years was in battle royal with Knox. But in 1567, Mary abdicated (after bearing a son, the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England), and Protestantism eventually triumphed through many other tribulations. Knox died in 1572. Mary was executed in 1587 in England after having been convicted of conspiring against Elizabeth I.

More than in other countries, through his efforts the Reformation in Scotland was truly the rising of the commoner. In most other countries, Protestantism was imposed through the conversion of the ruler; in Scotland, it was imposed by the people and their representatives against the will of their rulers. In addition, Protestantism brought education, literacy, and other benefits to the whole country. Scotland had been a much more backward country than most of Europe, but under the Presbyterian system established in the 1600′s, Scotsmen became leaders in the United Kingdom in her glory days, and through her, leaders in much of the world’s business.

Character of the Scottish Reformation

If John Calvin was the inventor of what we now know as Presbyterianism, it was surely Scotland which gave it its character and fleshed out its implications. While buffetted by history during the next hundred years, it gradually established the most pure form of Protestantism (doctrinally speaking, that is) that a national church achieved.

The local church was governed by a Session (i.e. the pastor and the elders). Sessions from several churches in an area were grouped into Presbyteries which met periodically; larger meetings were later called Synods, while the meeting of the leaders of the whole nation was called the National or General Assembly. These structures are still used by Presbyterians today. Discipline was adopted which in some ways went beyond even Geneva. A particularly strong feature of Scottish Presbyterianism (and later English Puritanism) was strict Sabbath observance.

Ultimately the highest literary expression of the faith of Scottish Presbyterians was an English document, the excellent Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), and its Catechisms, to which we shall return next week.




Reformation History Unit 5(includes video on the Anabaptists and other Radical Reformers)

The Anabaptists and other Radical Reformers

This lesson is structured a little different from the others. I have given each section its title in the form of a question. Where Luther and Zwingli have been summarized, dissected, and rejoiced in, the Anabaptists, I believe, stand in judgment upon history. Rather than being summarized and studied, the Anabaptists rise up and judge me and all my love of the Reformers and their followers. Can I get to the end of this lesson and still love the Reformers? It will be a challenge.

I should also say that there is hardly an assertion below that cannot be questioned and contradicted. The Anabaptists, the most persecuted people of the Reformation, were not allowed the luxury of extensive written records. They were known to history for centuries mostly from the writings of their enemies, and Calvinists have been among the worst offenders in this regard.

1 – Who Were the Anabaptists?

The Anabaptists are hard to define because it depends on how you look at them. If you take the view (see below) that says they are simply the continuation of centuries of underground Christianity, then you are not going to agree with the following definition, which is an approximate view of current thinking:

The Anabaptists were one of several branches of “Radical” reformers (i.e. reformers that went further than the mainstream Reformers) to arise out of the Renaissance and Reformation. Two other branches were Spirituals or Inspirationists, who believed that they had received direct revelation from the Spirit, and rationalists or anti-Trinitarians, who rebelled against traditional Christian doctrine, like Michael Servetus.

The Anabaptists, on the other hand, were characterized generally by believers’ baptism, refusal of infant baptism, an emphasis on piety and good works, an aversion to the state-run churches whether Catholic or Protestant, a policy of nonviolence and nonresistance, believing that it was not right to swear oaths, and other beliefs. They mostly held to a soteriology that resembled Protestantism, with an emphasis on the reality of free will and the necessity of good works to accompany faith.

The evangelical Anabaptists that we are concerned with, originated in Zurich in the 1520′s as a result of the teachings of Zwingli. Zwingli did not go far enough, they believed, and so George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel, and Felix Manz began to agitate for truly biblical reform, including believer’s baptism and a “gathered” church, i.e. a church where members were there because they had believed and been baptized, not because of State intervention or mandatory church attendance.

The Anabaptists, as well as the other groups named above, were persecuted cruelly by the Catholics and Protestants alike. Historic Protestant literature, with which I am passing familiar, treats them as scandalous groups who always preach false doctrine and lead people astray. Outside of Anabaptist circles, it has only been in the 20th century that the rest of the world has begun to give the Anabaptist movement its due place in church history.

Did they always exist?

According to Estep, this discussion has not been settled definitively. “Almost everything that could be said has, at one time or another, been said–and by competent scholars at that” (The Anabaptist Story, 2nd ed., p. 16). You will find every kind of claim out there. Let’s stake out the possibilities.

  • Baptists or their close cousins have always existed. They went underground when Christianity became the official church of the Roman empire, and preserved an unbroken line of the true Church always. This means that the gates of hell have never prevailed against the Church. The public, Roman, church was the false church, a church in which salvation did not dwell.
  • Or: Christianity is just too big a truth for it to all be contained in one basket, namely the Roman church. Just as it took centuries to clearly state the doctrine of the Trinity, and a millennium to come up with a decent theory of the Atonement, we should not be surprised that there were contending parties and various “heretical” groups which understood truths not validated by the Roman church (remember that the Roman church was never the only church, not even before the East-West split). Even at the Reformation, all truth was not known. It was only in the 1800′s that voluntarism became a standard part of the normal Protestant’s beliefs. This does not mean that the true church was absent from either party. If persecution of other believers was the mark of the unpardonable sin and lack of salvation, then I’m sorry — most of us are going to hell. Jesus said it was the state of our hearts that matter, and in our hearts we still have hate and intolerance all too often.

There is ample evidence of several outbreaks of evangelical “heresy” in medieval times. See the classic Leonard Verduin book, The Reformers And Their Stepchildren. This doesn’t mean we have to accept Verduin’s unsubstantiated claims about a continuous line of underground believers, although the book opens one’s eyes to that possibility.

Advocates of the view that Baptists have always existed need to deal with the fact that the church before Constantine in no way resembled any Baptist or evangelical church. In fact, the pre-Constantinian church looks a lot like the post-Constantinian church, only without the political power.

What names did they go by?

The Anabaptist name was not taken by themselves. It is a term of abuse and means “rebaptizers.” Of course an Anabaptist would not think of believer’s baptism as “rebaptism,” only Baptism properly administered for the first time. There were many other terms of abuse. Some were:

  • Enthusiasts – referring to their supposed lack of sensible thought
  • Cathars – a reference to an older medieval heresy; also criticizing their supposed holier-than-thou attitude towards the professing Church
  • Heretics – but this was nothing but the continuation of the medieval church’s idea that anyone not in union with it was a heretic. The main Anabaptists disagreed with few established Protestant doctrines.
  • Revolutionaries – more about this later. Generally Anabaptists were opposed to the use of the sword.
  • Donatists – another reference to an ancient heresy, or rather schism (see our studies of the early Church). The Donatists had held that ungodly bishops were not worthy of being leaders in the church. They were cruelly persecuted by the Empire and by Augustine, who was the godfather, if not the father, of all the religion-by-government-coercion theology.

The Anabaptists had their own names for themselves: brethren and believers and Christians.

What was their theology?

It was not often that the Anabaptists were enough at peace in their environment such that they could write theology. We must not deny that there were some very strange people who were at times associated with Anabaptist thinking, but they were not the majority. Anabaptist theology is basically Protestant, and it is easier to define it by listing where the differences were between them and the mainstream Reformers. Indeed, the Anabaptists themselves seemed content to do so; where they listed articles of faith, they usually consisted only of their differences with their surrounding neighbors. Two examples will suffice here.

In 1529, Michael Sattler and others put forth the Schleitheim Confession. Its main points were:

  1. Baptism was to be administered to believers only. Infant baptism, “the greatest and first abomination of the pope,” is not to be practiced.
  2. The “ban” should be observed by local churches against those who fall into sin, after a first and second private warning.
  3. The bread and wine should only be broken with baptized believers, and no others.
  4. True Christians should be separated from the world system, including its “church attendance”, oaths, the sword, etc.
  5. There should be shepherds among the flock, who will preach, etc., and will be supported by the church. If a pastor is taken from the flock, another should be ordained in his place.
  6. The “sword,” i.e. the magistracy or rulership, is outside of Christ’s perfection and is to be left to the world to exercise. Christians should not exercise self-defense nor become magistrates, nor use the secular sword against spiritual offenses.
  7. Christians should not make an oath, but let their yes be yes and their no be no.

In 1524, when the disputations at Zurich were still very recent, Balthasar Hubmaier (living in Catholic territory) published several articles representative of his theology. Those below are taken from Estep:

  1. Faith alone makes us holy before God.
  2. This faith is the acknowledgment of the mercy of God which he has shown us in the offering of his only begotten son. This excludes all sham Christians, who have nothing more than an historical faith in God.
  3. Such faith can not remain passive but must break out to God in thanksgiving and to mankind in all kinds of works of brotherly love. Hence all vain religious acts, such as candles, palm branches, and holy water will be rejected.
  4. Those works alone are good which God has commanded us and those alone are evil which he has forbidden. Hence fall away fish, flesh, cowls, and tonsures.
  5. The mass is not a sacrifice but a remembrance of the death of Christ. Therefore, it is not an offering for the dead nor for the living. . . .
  6. As often as the memorial is observed should the death of the Lord be preached in the language of the people. . . .
  7. As every Christian believes for himself and is baptized, so each individual should see and judge by the Scriptures if he is rightly provided food and drink by his pastor.

And so forth. Hubmaier, had he been allowed to continue in this vein in Waldshut (not in Zurich territory, but rather in Austria), would have simply created an evangelical church worthy of the name. And so desired most Anabaptists. We must not confound the biblical evangelical Anabaptists with the other anti-Reformer groups, which the mainstream Reformers always did.

What was done to the Anabaptists and by whom?

It is important to note that the Anabaptists were first persecuted by the Protestants under Zwingli. They had arisen on his watch, in his town, and were his former disciples. Perhaps he was afraid that the existence of several rival versions of Protestant would irreparably harm his chances of accomplishing any reform. Perhaps… but nothing can justify his actions. He had the magistrate’s ear; he was in charge of Reform. The council declared that rebaptizing was a capital crime. Well, then let’s enforce that.

Felix Manz became the first Anabaptist martyr in 1527, ten short years after Luther had nailed up his theses. He was drowned in the river right in the middle of Zurich. Other Anabaptists were beaten or banished. These became standard practices in Protestant territories.

On May 20, 1527, Michael Sattler, the author of the Anabaptist Schlietheim Confession, was executed by Catholic authorities. Even though the Catholic King Ferdinand had declared drowning (the “third baptism”) the best antidote to Anabaptism, Sattler was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, his flesh cut with hot irons, and then to be burned at the stake. Others were burned or drowned by Catholic authorities. Burning seems to have been favored by Catholics, less by Protestants.

In addition to the above, Protestant and Catholic nations alike resorted to torture and other forms of abuse. Estep estimates that thousands died in Europe in the sixteenth century, but hard numbers will never be available.

Did they go too far and invite the hate that they received?

The Anabaptists were often far from the stereotype of a quiet people who just wanted to worship God accurately and privately. In the early days, which is when they established their reputation, they often challenged the Reformers publicly. They used the usual sixteenth century names for their opponents. They publicly denounced the reformers in their preaching to the people, attempting to draw them away from the public worship that was being established and reformed. Estep records one incident: “Like the first English Quakers, Blaurock’s zeal sometimes exceeded his judgment. He even disrupted the worship services of the Reformed churches. An event that took place on the first Sunday in February at a church in Zollikon is typical of Blaurock’s methods. As the minister was making his way to the pulpit, George asked him what he intended to do. ‘Preach the word of God,’ was the reply. ‘You were not sent to preach, it was I,’ declared Blaurock. Thereupon he proceeded to the pulpit and preached.” (The Anabaptist Story, 2nd ed., p. 34)

Another thing that will always be mentioned in this connection is the events at Münster. In this city, where the Lutheran minister repudiated infant baptism, several other radicals arrived, certainly not all Anabaptist in belief. The congregation determined to expel the godless from the city and create a pure realm. Communism was instituted in 1534, about the same time a prophet named Jan of Leyden arrived. The people believed that the Second Coming was about to happen, and proclaimed Münster the New Jerusalem. They sent missionaries into the surrounding areas. Jan of Leyden took the name King David on August 31, 1534. The city was taken and crushed by combined besieging Protestant and Catholic troops sent by neighboring rulers. From that day, unjustly, Anabaptist theology has been held to result in revolutionary upheaval.

But most Anabaptists were not like this. When we compare Felix Manz’s actual actions to the punishment meted out to him, or Michael Sattler, or most any other Anabaptist, we must say with the utmost conviction that the Reformers were wrong and the Anabaptists were right. (The Roman Catholics were even more severe with the Anabaptists, but I didn’t expect any better from them. They were busy burning any kind of Reformer they could get their hands on.)

2 – Who are We in relation to the Anabaptists?

Who are today’s Anabaptists?

Historically, they have operated under several “denominational” names:

  • Mennonites
  • Hutterites
  • Brethren
  • Amish

What is the heritage of the Anabaptists?

We are indebted to the Anabaptists for many things. They were the first large body of believers to proclaim that church and state should be separate. By sticking to their guns, by being willing to die for their faith, and by continuing to do the same for decades and even centuries, they constantly challenged the Protestant church and even the Catholic church to move towards toleration of all types of Protestants. As mainstream Protestants themselves began to fragment under the influence of Puritanism, Pietism, and the two Great Awakenings, to say nothing of migration of groups to different countries, the Anabaptist challenge began to be taken up. Far too slowly, those of the Reformed faith began to realize what a devil’s bargain they had made with the State. Toleration became common, if only because so many different types of Protestants were now clamoring for it. So-called “voluntarism,” i.e. that the only reason a person would affiliate with Christianity is because of his unforced desire to do so, turned out to be the key that unlocked everything — for instance world missions (started by a Baptist Calvinist, William Carey).

We also should not overlook the Bible-only emphasis which the Anabaptists bequeathed to history. They were not impressed by the Reformers’ insistence that they were properly reforming the church. Anything that seemed to contradict the Bible, they rejected, whereas the Reformers seemed to be looking for excuses to keep certain aspects of the church not found in Scripture, e.g. infant baptism. This Bible-alone emphasis became a mark of the free churches everywhere, even those who still practice infant baptism.

Did we get these insights directly from the Anabaptists? Not always, but they laid down the challenge, and the Reformers knew it. When we say that the Reformers persecuted heretics because “that’s how it was done and they didn’t know any better,” the fact is that they did know better. They just didn’t like the consequences of choosing the new (or New Testament) way.

Are the Baptists the Anabaptists?

Not really. What we know as Baptists — and this includes most Baptists in the world since they are largely the result of English and American missions — are a different group which started in English-speaking countries as an offshoot of Puritanism and congregationalism. Out of the many groups which agitated for further reform in England during the 17th century, almost all of whom agreed on Reformed (i.e. Calvinistic) doctrines, some believed in remaining in the Church of England, some believed in Independent infant-baptist churches, and others came to believe in believers’ baptism.

Actually the General (i.e. non-Calvinistic) Baptists were formed slightly earlier (around 1608), who arose from Separatism (akin to the Pilgrims who came to America), and one of their congregational leaders, John Smyth, applied for membership in the local Mennonite church in Holland where they were exiled. These separatists, upon their return, formed the first known Baptist congregation in England. (They incidentally had repudiated John Smyth for his Anabaptist theology.) But the main stream of English Baptist life, and the stream from which most of today’s Baptists arose, was called the Particular Baptists. These were Calvinistic Baptists who first arose in the 1630′s. From them came John Bunyan and his mighty ministry of writing, including The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Even the founders of the American Baptists pretty much converted to Baptist theology after coming to these shores, so they don’t really come from either the English Baptists or the Anabaptists. None of this is to say that there weren’t influences in various directions via the spread of writings. But Anabaptist writings generally weren’t spread around too much, since they were still being persecuted in most countries during the American colonial period.

Also, Baptists all immerse for baptism (but only since about 1633 in England1), whereas historically the Mennonites practiced pouring.

Are Evangelicals all Anabaptists now?

This is an interesting question to me, because I am a lover of the old Reformers and especially the Puritans. But in my studies I have come to the conclusion that the Reformed thinking as expounded in Calvin’s Institutes, the Puritans, and the Westminster Confession, sound though it was, was inadequate for the world until finally supplemented by the insights of the Great Awakening under George Whitefield and John Wesley. It was they who said to the stone-cold church members of their day that “ye must be born again.” Their theologies were Calvinistic and Arminian respectively, but they shared a belief and a ministry that amounted to “your infant baptism and upright life are not enough. You must personally trust in Christ.” This trust in Christ was no more and no less than the justification by faith taught by Luther and Calvin, but now the sons of the Protestant Reformation had to hear it again! They had to hear it again because for two hundred years, infant baptism had deadened the church, and Protestantism had degenerated into the belief that a proper baptism plus an outwardly upright life was sufficient to hope for the mercy of God. This was a twisting of the original Protestantism which asked for believers to look for signs of God’s election of them (cf. 2 Peter 1:10).

The English-speaking church was never the same after the Great Awakening. Even in infant-baptist circles, the necessity for the new birth was preached. Of course, Arminianism made its inroads, and Charles Finney definitively corrupted revival theology with a new semi-Pelagianism that is now the reigning evangelical doctrine, but the outline of the truth was and is clear – YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN. This is what the proponents of the State church believed, but could not preach effectively because of their illicit relationship with the magistrate. The doctrine of the Anabaptists, even if not the churches or the practices of the Anabaptists, that a man must personally and voluntarily and consciously be in relationship with God, and should build churches likewise, became the doctrine of Evangelical Protestantism.

Puritanism, stripped in Anabaptist style of its Anglican and state-church overtones, and preached to the “Christian” populace, was what made Protestantism into more than a parochial, local, ethnic religion. Baptists, although not the leaders of the Great Awakening, were by far its greatest beneficiaries, at least in America. The explosion of modern missions took place soon after, and it is not too much to say that, with the vast majority of missionaries having come from the English-speaking world, almost every non-Catholic Christian worldwide owes their existence (historically, that is) to the merging of traditional Protestantism with the Anabaptist emphasis on the “gathered” church of believers.

No, we are not all Anabaptists yet. But we are grateful for their testimony to these truths.

Can we love both the Reformers and the Anabaptists?

I believe so. I have recommended and have been challenged by the book, The Reformers And Their Stepchildren; however, I think Verduin goes too far in some of his analysis. As a Reformed scholar who converted to Anabaptist views, he is a little like an ex-smoker, rampaging about the evils of the Reformers in their persecution of the Anabaptists. Specifically, I worry about his contentions that:

  • Church discipline is impossible in the Magisterial Reformation, because to excommunicate someone from the church is ultimately to desire to remove them from society. He doesn’t deal with Calvin’s Geneva fairly. Surely the glory and also the tragedy of Geneva is that it combined a Constantinian view with a high view of church discipline?
  • The Reformers were not the true church, but rather a continuation of the “fallen” church. But surely this goes too far? Individual groups of Reformed believers were just as persecuted as any Anabaptists in all countries where the magistrate did not take Reformed views. Verduin would imply that when the Reformed party took over a territory, that most of the true believers were somewhere else.
  • The pre-Constantinian church was the pure church, which met in secret and from which the true believers seceded upon the finalization of the Constantinian compromise. In reality, Christian churches were very public and in some places had large buildings, up until the great and final persecutions which started in 303.
  • The church fathers acted qualitatively different about heresy before Constantine. Not at all. They were just as intolerant about deviations from the one true Catholicism before Constantine. They just had more power after Constantine.


Reformation History Unit 2(including video on John Wycliffe)

John Wycliffe was born into this world of calm; but the waters would soon be stirred and Wycliffe would join the fray. England was soon plunged into the 100 Years War with France (from 1339 to 1453). This struggle was waged because some Englishmen were tired of the outrageous taxes they had to pay the Church; and France was the arm of the Church in the region. Between 1/3 and 1/4 of the land in England was Church Land! This desire to retain money and regain land that the English viewed as theirs brought them into direct conflict with the Papacy. The Pope wanted to retain the land and money and so the French were called to service; and they served well.

Wycliffe was born in 1320 and studied Theology in Oxford (he died in 1384).

His training and disposition led him to oppose the ownership of English land by the Papacy, on religious and theological grounds rather than merely economic. From 1376 onward Wycliffe published tracts which decried the secularization of the Church. This secularization, he maintained, was beneficial neither to the Church or the State.

In 1377 the Pope issued a Bull (an official document which prohibits the publication of certain writings) condemning in 18 theses the writings of Wycliffe.

Wycliffe’s reaction was violent. He began to denounce the Pope (though, contrary to Luther, not the Papacy) in vehement and incredibly harsh writings.

From 1378 to 1379 Wycliffe published his theological system in a series of tracts.

The main thesis of these works was that the Scriptures are the foundation of all doctrine.

This was the turning point of doctrinal history. To this point Tradition was placed alongside Scripture as a source of doctrine; but Wycliffe disputed this notion and John Hus of Prague and Martin Luther as well as Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin would adopt the view of Wycliffe.

Wycliffe’s doctrine of the Church was likewise revolutionary. He saw the Church as a spiritual institution and not a political one. Thus the pre-reformation work of Wycliffe lay in his doctrines of Scripture and the Church. It would be these precise doctrinal controversies which would later fuel the “Reformation”of Luther and Zwingli.

The significance of Wycliffe cannot be overlooked. His movement towards Scripture and Church as spiritual society were the foundation stones on which the later Reformation would be founded. He, nevertheless, did propose ideas that were very controversial. He suggested that human freedom was non-existent; to the point that everything that a person did was predetermined. His great animosity towards the Pope led him to make some outrageous personal statements; and his distrust of human nature very nearly led him to completely dehumanize humanity.

Yet without Wycliffe, there could not have been a Reformation. Or, for that matter, an English translation of the Bible. Wycliffe’s translation is well known. He did his work from the Latin Vulgate; thus giving the English people the first translation of the Scriptures in their own language. His translation was consulted by Tyndale, Coverdale, the Bishops, and of course the Authorized translators. He was a translator before Luther; a theologian before Calvin; and a reformer before the Reformation.

After the death of Wycliffe there would not appear another Reformer before the Reformation until John Hus (1369 – 1415) In 1414 the Papacy attempted to put an end to the approaching schism by calling the council of Constance where Hus was condemned (and executed on July 6 1415) and Wycliffe again (though long dead) was reviled. But the tide would not be stemmed. The floodgates opened by Wycliffe would reach fruition in Zwingli and Luther. But the nagging question remains to this day: was the result worth the price? Was the fragmentation of the Church worth the result? A result which day by day grows more profoundly disturbing; for Church life is on the decline, and a sense of personal responsibility as a member of the Church is losing ground each day. One can say, at any rate, that when Rome was the only game in town everyone knew their duties.

When freedom was granted without responsibility the only result could be and was the laying aside of responsibility. (As a parenthesis, the reader should read Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazovfor a literary discussion of this fact).

One other event which took place before the Reformation; and which was absolutely essential for it, was the inventing of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450.

Without the press, the Reformation would not have been able to spread its message with any success.



Reformation History Unit 1(including video on John Hus)

Reformation Introduction


We will attempt to define the Protestant Reformation. We will outline the principal movements, people, and doctrines which comprise the Reformation. In the time available to us, we have the ability to introduce and outline the topic, spend one or two class periods on each of the main characters or movements, and try to look ahead to the post-Reformation time period and relate the Reformation to the state of the Church today, and to our local church. Regrettably, since we are teaching from the Protestant perspective and time is limited, we will rarely explore the rich history of the Catholic or Counter-Reformation, and we will find this limitation increasing as we approach the modern period. It is difficult enough for modern evangelical Protestants to self-identify within the Protestant tradition, because of our ignorance of history and anti-intellectualism within our ranks. Attempting in a Sunday School class to follow the strands of Catholic or Orthodox history into the modern period would be beyond me right now.

What is the Reformation?

The Reformation is the movement in history, beginning in 1517, which broke up the institutional unity of the church in Western Europe and established the third great branch of Christianity, called Protestantism, which was and is centered on the absolute and sufficient authority of the Bible and on justification by faith alone.

Other important terms

This term refers to the leaders of the revolt against Catholicism. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Bucer, Cranmer, and others would merit this title, as would Anabaptists such as Menno Simons
Any member of the original group that “protested” against the Catholic Church and actually separated from it, and any member of that group of churches or their modern descendants. The term was first used in 1529 when a group of German noblemen “protested” at the Diet of Speyer.
A member of the churches that descend from Luther’s original followers
A member of the churches that descend from the non-Lutheran Protestants such as Knox, Calvin, Bucer.
Magisterial Reformers
The Reformers who believed that the civil magistrate should enforce the correct religion. There was no difference on this point between the magisterial Reformers and the Roman Catholics.
A member of the “radical Reformation” – those who went beyond the magisterial reformers and restricted baptism to adult believers. This also implied that not everyone was expected to be a Christian. Therefore the government was out of the picture and should not be used by Christians to impose the true religion on others. Nor should Christians participate in civil government.

How Should We Think Of The Reformation?


It is normal within evangelical churches to present the Reformation as simply the recovery of the truth of the Bible after hundreds of years of false teaching, which had increased as the medieval period went on. From a religious perspective, there is much to commend this view. Never before were so many people brought to read and study the Bible for themselves. Seldom before had God’s grace been so magnified rather than man’s ability. The people turned from pilgrimages and indulgences to a simple worship of God and relied on his grace implicitly. And the results of that truth worked in society powerfully to create a new kind of people — literate, dynamic citizens whose work ethic changed Europe and churches which eventually spread the Gospel across the globe.


A theological interpretation of the Reformation is that it was the final outworking of the tensions within Roman Catholic theology itself, personified in the great father of Western theology, Augustine (354-430). Augustine had solidified the foundations of the medieval reverence for “holy mother church,” but

. . . Augustine was both the founder of Roman Catholicism and the author of that doctrine of grace which it has been the constantly pursued effort of Roman Catholicism to neutralize, and which in very fact either must be neutralized by, or will neutralize, Roman Catholicism. Two children were struggling in the womb of his mind. There can be no doubt which was the child of his heart. His doctrine of the Church he had received whole from his predecessors, and he gave it merely the precision and vitality which insured its persistence. His doctrine of grace was all his own:it represented the very core of his being . . . it was inevitable, had time been allowed, that his inherited doctrine of the Church, too, with all its implications, would have gone down before it, and Augustine would have bequeathed to the Church, not “problems,” but a thoroughly worked out system of evangelical religion. . . . The problem which Augustine bequeathed to the Church for solution, the Church required a thousand years to solve. But even so, it is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church. (Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, 321-22)


Unbelievers have sought other reasons for the Reformation’s success and its placement in history. It has been commonplace to point out that Luther gave German princes the weapons they needed to do battle against the Pope in their constant jockeying for power. Variations on this pattern were repeated in other countries, such as the opportunistic “Reformation” of Henry VIII when he wanted a divorce. It is true that the progress of reformation was intricately bound up with politics in many ways, as was true of any religious question since Constantine. And it is true that at critical points, different Reformers enlisted the help and protection of the State (whether electors of the Holy Roman Empire or city councilmen). But this was the way religion was conducted back then. It was left to the Anabaptists to point out the biblical incongruity of this way of doing business, and the Reformers normally weren’t ready to reform quite that much. But the integrity of the message remained. And it was never compromised for the sake of the nationalistic powers. It was up to the secular state to toe the line to the Gospel, not vice versa.


“A more sophisticated version of what might be called the pathological account of late medieval Catholicism is associated especially with the historian Jean Delumeau, who drew on the collective findings of a group of French historical sociologists of religion. In this perception, late medieval Europe, especially in its rural heartlands, remained a very superficially Christianized society, waiting not so much for a change of religious orientation as for its primary conversion to an informed, disciplined religion worthy of the name of Christianity. This was the task undertaken (with varying success) by both Reformation and Counter-Reformation movements. This thesis is doubtless too condescending to the intellectual and moral capacities of late medieval Europeans and probably exaggerates the stregnth in an at least nominally Christian society of irreligious forms of instrumental magic” (McManners 247).

But really, this is not so absurd as it may sound. The German tribes were still being “converted” up into the 800′s, and the conversions were, to put it mildly, not always spritually sound. Christianity was by no means 1500 years old in the Reformed and Lutheran countries. In many ways, northern Europe’s popular religion may have resembled Latin American Catholicism of today, where the grossest forms of idolatry are combined with Tridentine Roman Catholicism to create a semi-pagan religion which has not much in common with what an educated American Catholic believes. Could the Evangelical reform have swept across Europe in the same way Protestantism is sweeping Latin America today — a reaction, Biblically based, to the partial Christianity of the past, never fully taught to the people?

Major Players and Outline of Contents

Our exploration of the Reformation must cover at least the following:

  • Introduction. Preconditions to Reformation. (this page)
  • Martin Luther and his associates
  • Ulrich Zwingli and associates
  • The Anabaptists or Radical Reformers
  • John Calvin and associates
  • The English Reformation
  • Overview of the progress of Reformation in Europe through 150 years
  • “Protestant Scholasticism” or orthodoxy. The English Puritans
  • Review and synthesis. The Reformation and us

Preconditions to Reformation

The New Europe

Europe was changing. What we now know as nation-states were arising from the old feudal kingdoms. Newly powerful kings in many countries had been flexing their muscles for years, testing the limits of the Church’s power. Especially in the area of revenues, nations tried various ways of limiting the Pope’s ability to collect money, but secular rulers also tried to interfere in the government of the Church as well, often to institute reforms that the Papacy seemed powerless to enforce.

The Black Death had decimated Europe in the 1300′s, and by the mid to late 1400′s society was recovered from its effects. The plague had increased the preoccupation with death among all classes of people, but there was also a renewed optimism in the late 1400′s across various human endeavors. The middle class was rising on a new wave of trade. Money had taken its place alongside land as a form of wealth.

The Turks had expanded their empire into Europe and were always feared. They threatened Austria itself during the reformation period, causing the Holy Roman Emperor to go slower than he wished to when punishing heretics, whose sympathetic leaders he needed to aid him against the Turks.

The printing press had just spread throughout Europe when Luther appeared. The Gutenberg Bible had been printed in 1456, and printing technology had advanced rapidly. Luther had a ready made mass media available to him.

Humanism and the Renaissance

The influence of Humanism cannot be overestimated. Humanism was the movement, starting in the 1300′s, which called for a new scholarship based on the study of the classics, often unknown and neglected in monastery libraries, plus the study of the original Greek and Hebrew when interpreting the Bible. Erasmus’ first Greek New Testament, the first ever printed, was published in 1516, just one year before Luther’s 95 Theses.

The Renaissance, in its manifestation as art, was greatly loved by the debauched Popes of the period, who spent untold sums to have the new art installed everywhere. The prime example was St. Peter’s church itself, which was being financed partly by the sale of indulgences in Germany.

The Pre-Reformers

We have already studied Wycliffe (1330-1384) and Hus (1370-1415). There were also the movements of various schismatics and heretics in the medieval church, such as the Waldenses (from the 12th century onward). Most of the others that existed long enough to have a name (such as the Albigensians or Cathars) were truly heretical, and abandoned some fundamental Christian doctrines, but the Waldenses were quite orthodox (in the Nicene sense) and seem to be a sort of Protestants before the Reformation. They criticized the Roman view of the sacraments, rejected prayers to the saints, rejected worldly pomp for the church, prayers for the dead, etc. When the Reformation arrived, they accepted Protestantism and became in effect a Protestant church.

Conditions in the Church

Let’s recap some of the other previous developments in church history. The Middle Ages are by no means the “dark ages.” Many achievements of the medieval church are to be admired and adopted. Anselm, for instance, began to teach the first clearly acceptable doctrine of the atonement (in 1099). On the other hand, Anselm was one of the most extreme admirers of Mary, and was influential to increase Marian devotion.

The monastic movement had now been a powerful influence for over 1000 years. The monks and nuns preserved for all time a vision of devotion to God and personal relationship with him which has become instructive to all believers. Yet, again, this was in a context of vows and celibacy that was artificial and not related to everyday human life. The medieval church didn’t really believe that everyday believers would or could have this kind of life with God.

An interesting corollary to this is that almost all the good theology starting with Augustine and all through the Middle Ages was written by unmarried, celibate men. What effect, I wonder, did this have?

By the time of the Reformation, we have a Catholic church that

  • believes that everyday devotion and Bible reading are for monks.
  • believes that our approach to God is increasingly through saints, Mary, and the “miracle” of the Mass.
  • believes that the church should be a large, wealthy, and worldwide institution, as powerful as an emperor.
  • is threatened by the new “humanism” of the Renaissance, at least in some quarters. Some leaders, including powerful bishops and cardinals, were anxious to promote this new learning.

At the same time, we have a population, as we have outlined in previous lessons, that was influenced by

  • wandering preachers who in some cases offered a piety that was superior in morals to the local clergy
  • mystic teachings such as Thomas a Kempis’s book The Imitation of Christ, which called for a closer walk with God
  • superstitious practices such as indulgences, pilgrimages, images of saints, etc.

There was no clear indication that a crisis was approaching, or that current efforts to reform the church from within could not continue peacefully.

Reformation History Unit 4(including video on Ulrich Zwingli and Zurich)

The Reformation in its Swiss expression took on different forms than the German Lutheran Reformation. The Zwinglian Reformation was German-speaking, too, but as we shall see, the road to reformation was different for Zwingli than for Luther.

Ulrich Zwingli and Zurich

Early Life

Ulrich (or Huldrych or Huldreich) Zwingli was born January 1, 1484 in Wildhaus, Switzerland. His father was a free peasant and magistrate. Early scholarly gifts caused him to be sent to school, especially at Basel, and he learned to love the classics. He attached himself to the Humanist learning that was sweeping Europe.

He was invited to become priest at Glarus in 1506. He was learning to be a lover of Scripture, but was not so much of an example. Both here and at his next appointment, he was known for liking the ladies. At this time he began to be involved in military matters, and observed firsthand how the Swiss practice of becoming mercenary soldiers for foreign powers (including the pope) was damaging to the nation’s morals and a killer of its young men. He began to denounce the practice in his preaching.

In 1516 he took a position in the pilgrimage town of Einsiedeln, where he was to have great influence. There were always out of town visitors, and the convent there had a fine library for continuing his studies. He began to study Greek. He was now a moderate reformer in the style of Erasmus, pointing people toward Christ and away from Church abuses. But he was not yet a Protestant reformer.

Beginnings as a Reformer

In Glarus he began to be noticed by many in that part of Switzerland, and in 1518 he was invited to Zurich to become “people’s priest” at the Great Minster. He arrived in town with the announcement that he would begin to preach right through the Gospel of Matthew. This was a departure from the fragmentary reading of Scripture that had prevailed in the medieval Church. After Matthew he preached through Acts and then turned his attention to Paul’s epistles.

In 1519, a bout with the plague, and the introduction of Luther’s writings into Switzerland, brought Zwingli to a clearer understanding of his mission. He became bolder in his denunciation of, not only abuses, but false practices that he felt cut into true Christianity.

In 1522 came a real break with the past. A group of people gathered at the printer’s house on Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent for you Protestants out there), and ate a sausage. It was a ceremonial breaking of the fasting laws which was directly brought about by Zwingli’s teaching. Zwingli was present but did not eat the meat, although he preached in favor of the eating three weeks later.

The City Council imprisoned and fined some of the meat-eaters, and initiated an inquiry into the subject of fasts, and many writings flew back and forth. The council announced a disputation to be held in January 1523. In the meantime they forbade the breaking of fasts. Zwingli wrote “67 Conclusions” as the basis for the disputation, and defended them against the representative of the bishop of Constance at the meeting. The council, perhaps by prearrangement, decreed after the diputation that Zwingli was to keep preaching the “Gospel and the pure sacred Scriptures, until he is instructed better. Furthermore, all people’s priests, curates and preachers in their towns, territories, and dependencies, are to preach nothing but what can be proved by the Gospel and the pure sacred Scriptures . . .” (Hillerbrand, The Reformation, p. 143)

In October 1523 a second disputation was held, with more far-reaching results. This was truly a Reformation time for Zurich. The council abolished relics and images, and also church organs and singing. But it determined to go slowly and deliberately, with no riotous upheaval. Already there were rumblings in that direction. But, for instance, the council waited eight months to remove the images from the churches.

On Easter in 1525 the first Protestant communion service was held. “Following as closely as possible the observance of the primitive Christian Church, Zwingli took his place at the head of a simple table that was covered with a white linen cloth and on which were placed Communion cups and plates of wood. After praying and reading in German the words of institution and pertinent Scripture passages, Zwingli and his assistants partook of the bread and wine and then distributed these sacred symbols among the people, going from pew to pew” (Grimm, p. 153).

In 1522, eight Zurich ministers had applied to the bishop of Constance for permission to marry. This was denied, but the marrying began, and Zwingli took a wife secretly in that year. On April 2, 1524, Zwingli announced his marriage publicly.

In 1525, the difficulties with the Christians who wished to go further came to a head. It was in that year that the first adult “rebaptism” took place in Zurich. Conrad Grebel, a former admirer of Zwingli, baptized priest George Blaurock. Glaurock then baptised the rest of the little group. By March, 1526, adult rebaptism was a capital crime in Zurich, and four persons were put to death. Parents who did not want their children baptized were banished from the territory.

Political Difficulties and Zwingli’s Death

By 1530, Zwinglian reforms had spread through Switzerland and south Germany. But not all of Switzerland rallied to Zwingli. The so-called Forest cantons, the original heart of old Switzerland, resisted and reaffirmed their ancient Catholic faith. In this time period religious reform was a political issue, so the Protestant cantons organized into an alliance. The Catholic cantons allied themselves with Austria.

In 1529 came, as we have seen, the Marburg colloquy, at which Zwingli and Luther failed to come to any agreement about the Eucharist. Religious disagreement meant political fragmentation. The Protestants could not unite militarily unless they united theologically. The Swiss were left hanging, but kept applying pressure to the forest cantons, including a blockade, in the belief that this would keep them with the upper hand. But in 1531 the forest cantons attacked. At the battle of Cappel, October 11, 1531, the Zurichers were defeated, and Zwingli, in military armor, was killed. Hillerbrand says:But more had died at Cappel than Zwingli and the soldiers. Militarily the battle was an insignificant affair, but politically it was of the utmost importance. For the first time the unsettled questions of religion were to be solved on the battlefield — a sad event repeated again and again during the next century. At Cappel, Protestants had been defeated at the hands of Catholics. And all of Europe had watched as spectators. When peace was concluded, the advance of the new Protestant faith in Switzerland came to a halt. Protestantism did not have to retreat, but it was kept from advancing further, and thus lost its chance of spreading the Reformation throughout he Swiss confederation. Switzerland was divided into two religious camps. This foreshadowed the future, for such a division was to be the fate of Germany, and indeed of Europe. (Hillerbrand, The Reformation, p. 109)

Zwingli’s Theology and Influence

The Lord’s Supper

Zwingli’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper differed from Luther’s, as we saw in the Luther lesson. They attempted, but failed, to work out their differences at the Marburg Colloquy. Zwingli rejected not only the doctrine of transubstantiation (Christ’s body and blood replace the substance of bread and wine), but also the Real Presence as held by Luther (Christ’s physical body and blood are present in, with, and under the bread and wine, which remains bread and wine).

Instead, he believed that the Lord’s Supper was a memorial or remembrance of Christ’s death which increased the faith of believers (“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes,” 1 Cor 11:26). When Jesus broke the bread and said, “This is my body,” Zwingli believed it was absurd to believe that his body was present in the bread, since Jesus sat before them alive as he spoke the words. Similarly, Jesus is physically now in heaven, having ascended bodily, and while he fills the earth as God at all times, his body remains a human body and is not omnipresent.

This difference was never resolved, and while Calvin was able to move somewhat towards the Lutheran position, the difference remained that Lutherans believed in the Real Presence while Calvinists did not.

The Anabaptists

Anabaptists as a movement are probably older than the Reformation, since they embody ways of looking at Christ and the Christian life which were very present in medieval dissident groups. They are the Protestant version of the medieval sects which were persecuted by Rome, only now they arose in Protestant lands.

Remember that the mainstream Reformers and Rome agreed on one thing: there is only one Church, and it is to find expression as exactly one body in any locality. This often confuses Protestants who believe that liberty of conscience arose full-blown from the mind of Martin Luther. Luther indeed contended for liberty of conscience, but he meant that the individual believer should not be under the power of Roman bishops and the Pope when reading the Bible, which was God’s very word. But neither Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin had any intention of there being more than one church in a local jurisdiction. Instead, the rulers — be they Prince, Duke, or republican body — were to be won over to the Reformation by preaching, and then the rulers (if they were to be good Christians) should see to the reformation of the church in their area.

At the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which won final tolerance of Lutheranism in the Empire, the concept of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose the region, his the religion”) was made the legal standard. Each part of the Empire could only be one religion, either evangelical or Roman Catholic. At least it was stated that if a person disagreed with the religion of his ruler, he was to be allowed to emigrate to a region which practiced his own religion. Again, there were only two legal religions, and in any one region there would be only one.

This being true, there could be only one response to the rising of an Anabaptist movement in a Protestant (or Catholic) region. It must be eliminated. Some localities chose to enforce only the “mild” punishment of banishment, but most employed some form of death penalty. Only a very few places like Strasbourg attempted to find a more humane solution to the problem.

“Reformed” Christianity

Zwingli was the first example of a Swiss reformer, and he was a Swiss German, not a Frenchman like John Calvin. There were differences! Nevertheless, even though Calvin’s name will always be connected to Reformed Christianity, it was Zwingli who was the archetype. He was the first to publicly deny the Real Presence; he was the first to bring “Puritan” influences and thorough reform of all outward ceremonies. “The Wittenberger would allow whatever the Bible did not prohibit; Zwingli rejected whatever the Bible did not prescribe” In many ways, Lutheranism was defined by justification by faith, which limited it, but Reformed Christianity was defined by adherence to Scripture. The type of Christianity that Zwingli discovered in the Bible became, although with much variety, the faith of most Protestants. Through Zwingli and then Calvin, the Reformed theology became the greatest branch of Protestantism, even though fragmented into many movements. When it merged into the Moravian/Wesleyan/Great Awakening strains, and gave up its love for the Constantinian state church, it became modern Evangelicalism in all its strength.


John Calvin

Biographical details

Birth and Youth

Born in 1509 in Noyon, France

Destined for Theology, then Law, by his father. Having been well schooled in the humanists and the classics, his first published work was a commentary on the book On Clemency, by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca.

Sometime around 1533 he underwent a conversion and became known for his Protestant beliefs. He was influential in the giving of a Protestant-tinged lecture by his friend Nicholas Cop in 1533, which caused Cop and Calvin to be accused of heresy, and after the Affair of the Placards in 1534, he left town. By 1536, he found himself leaving France to avoid further persecution.

In 1536 he also published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was a brief statement of the Protestant faith (much smaller than the final 1559 edition), and was accompanied by a bold preface addressed to King Francis I of France. This ruler, who figures so prominently in Reformation history but whom we don’t have time to study, had a sister devoted first to the humanist and later to the Protestant cause. She was Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, a truly noble name in church history. Calvin might have believed that someday Francis would come over to the side of the Gospel. But it was not to be. Nevertheless, the book catapulted Calvin into public consciousness both as a thinker and as a French reformer.

His Program in Geneva

The beginnings

Calvin arrived in Geneva “accidentally” — he was headed for Strasbourg and had to take the long way around because of war-closed roads. It was July, 1536.

William Farel, the Protestant minister in recently-Protestant Geneva (according to Britannica, a town of 10,000 at this time), visited Calvin as he passed through town. He became convinced that Calvin was the man he needed in Geneva to consolidate the fledgling Reformed movement there. He threatened Calvin with God’s judgment if he ignored God’s leading in the matter. Geneva at this time beset with political and religious difficulties. It was only in February of that year that the “syndics,” or councilmen, were elected that were fully supporters of Farel’s program. But the job was too large for him alone.

Calvin reluctantly agreed to stay. Within a short time he had devised Articles Concerning the Government of the Church. According to Hillerbrand, these articles “proposed a systematic discipline among all the citizens; a confession of faith on the part of all, because only ‘worthy members’ of the church could participate in the Lord’s Supper; a thorough instruction in the fundamentals of faith to prepare the young for the confession and for a useful Christian citizenship; the singing of Psalms as an embellishment of the divine service; and the establishment of a civil commision to judge matrimonial questoins according to the word of God” (Hillerbrand, The Reformation, p. 269).

We should note the differences between Calvin’s belief’s here and those of the Anabaptists. Calvin believed in church discipline — there were certain marks which a Christian should have, and those who flagrantly violate these should be excommunicated. Here he differs from both the Lutherans and the Anabaptists: from the Lutherans because he believes, like the Anabaptists, that the church should have outward marks of godliness; from the Anabaptists in that he not-so-subtly hints that the unrepentant man or woman can and should come under the eye of the magistrate. The end result would be, if possible, a Christian society in which everybody outwardly conforms to the truth, and inwardly the maximum number of people are encouraged to believe savingly in Jesus Christ. For instance, in Calvin’s system, if a citizen is excluded from the Lord’s Supper, he is not thereby excused from mandatory attendance at the sermons, because he must continue to be instructed if he is to repent of his wayward lifestyle.

Another important difference in Calvin’s thinking versus the Lutherans was his strict insistence that the church was to govern itself without any interference from the state. It was all fine if the government approved of what the church was doing, but they were certainly to have no veto power or any influence on the ministers, other than in the maintenance of normal lawful functions.

Calvin wrote the first Genevan Catechism at this time, for instructing the youth of the city.

It wasn’t Calvin’s theology that got the reformers in trouble. His and Farel’s program for the discipline of the community was too much for the city. He and Farel encountered great resistance from the community and the city council, and the two men were forced to leave town in 1538, after only two years of effort. Calvin made his way to Strasbourg where he had been headed in the first place.


Here Calvin was under the influence of Martin Bucer, the master Reformer of south Germany, who inclined to Zwinglian (i.e. Reformed) views rather than the Lutheran style. The government there was especially tolerant for that time period. For a while the Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Catholic parties all coexisted in this district.

Calvin’s theology did not change in Strasbourg, but he learned many things from rubbing shoulders with other major figures of the Reformation. He achieved the life of study he so desired, he pastored the French-speaking Protestants in the city, and he attended theological conferences where he met such people as Melanchthon. It was the good life, the life he had desired above all others. But his concern for Geneva continued, and he now believed he had a duty to go back if possible. When Cardinal Sadoleto wrote a book to the citizens of Geneva extolling the Catholic way and inviting Geneva to come back to the fold, Calvin was asked to write a reply, even though still exiled. His reply was published and gained him further attention in Geneva. It was “highly commended by Luther” (Hillerbrand, The Reformation, p. 274).

In August 1540 Calvin married a widow, Idelette de Bure. Her first husband had been an Anabaptist but was converted to Reformed Christianity by Calvin’s persuasion. She only lived until March 1549, and their only child died in infancy.


On September 13, 1541, Calvin, having been invited back, entered Geneva, his residence for the rest of his life.

He established a church order in Geneva over the next twenty years, not without serious opposition, especially for the first ten years. He never held a government office, but became the most powerful figure in the city.

His church had four offices: pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. New pastors were elected by the existing pastors after approval of the candidates by the government. This last feature was due to Calvin’s doctrine that no church leader should ever be installed without the consent of the people. Of course, since “the people” were synonymous with “the citizens,” a government review by the elected representative officials was able to function as a congregational review. Thus the clear mixing of the two, even though Calvin insisted on church independence.

The most notorious feature of the Genevan church, at least to its modern detractors, was the consistory, made up of the elders and ministers. This body met once a week to deal with questions of church discipline. “Citizens guilty of opposition to the accepted doctrine, or absence from church services, and of conduct unbecoming Christians were summoned to appear before that body for admonition, reprimande, and correction. In serious cases involving civil jurisdiction and penalties, the accused were turned over to the councils for judgment and punishment” (Hillerbrand, p. 279).

In 1551, the council banished Jerome Bolsec, who had repeatedly attacked Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. This controversy, according to Hillerbrand, led Calvin to emphasize the doctrine more than he had been accustomed to. The doctrine was the heritage of all Protestantism (Luther was more Calvinistic than Calvin on this matter), but dissenting voices were beginning to be heard.

Without question, the most notorious event in all of Calvin’s time in Geneva was the burning of Michael Servetus, the anti-Trinitarian. He was already condemned in Catholic lands, and had escaped. He had known Calvin 20 years before, and for some reason came to Geneva, even though Calvin had warned him not to. He was recognized and arrested. He was held for some time while other Protestant leaders were consulted. They all agreed that he should receive the death sentence because of his well-known writings against the Trinity. Calvin agreed, even though he recommended another sentence besides burning. Servetus was burned on October 26, 1553, one of the few burnings conducted by Protestants in all the Reformation.

The effect in Geneva was to dramatically increase Calvin’s prestige and power. Most political opposition ceased after this time. The effect on history was quite the opposite. Many voices, including Calvin’s former pupil, the liberal Sebastian Castellio, condemned Calvin across Europe. Among the proto-Enlightenment thinkers over the next two hundred years, Calvin’s name blackened for this act. Nothing demonstrated the superiority of freedom more than this one execution, which was thought to show that even the most enlightened Protestants would stop at nothing if they gained power. The Anabaptists, of course, were not impressed either.

Geneva went on to many great achievements under Calvin. Perhaps the most interesting fact, from our English-speaking perspective, is its role in the English Reformation. When Edward VI died and Queen Mary took the throne in England in 1553 (see next lesson), English Protestant leaders had to flee the country or be burned. Many of the best of them arrived in Geneva, where over the next five years they produced the Geneva Bible, the first really standard English version. Not only did their Bible translation become the standard for the next 75 years, but their theology was carefully refined under the tutelage of Calvin. When the exiles returned to England after Mary’s five year reign, they became leaders in various reform efforts in England and Scotland. John Knox, father of Scottish Presbyterianism, was one of these. His comment on Geneva: “The most perfect school of Christ since the days of the Apostles.”

Geneva became a scholarly powerhouse. The Geneva Academy was founded, refugees from Europe expanded the scholarly atmosphere, book publishing flourished. The watchmaking trade began late in that century.

Calvin himself died in 1564. As requested, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

His Theology

Calvin’s theology was a full-orbed one. It did not consist of the “five points of Calvinism” or any other slogan. He was possibly the greatest Protestant theologian, but his mighty powers were exercised in defending the whole doctrine of the Bible rather than simply a narrow view of predestination. In fact, he was as powerful a Bible commentator as he was a theologian, if not more so. His commentaries are some of the few from the pre-Enlightenment period that modern scholars, liberal and conservative, still benefit from.

His Institutes are a timeless classic that I believe every Christian should attempt to read. Far from being some ivory tower speculations, they are down to earth and powerfully gripping explanations of basic Bible doctrines. In fact, rather than exalting logic to some high position, as Calvinists are often accused of doing, we find Calvin time and again refusing to go beyond the clear teachings of Scripture. His chapter on the Trinity (100 pages) is a miniature masterpiece.

Of course, as we have seen, we do not agree with all his positions. Great as he was, we believe his blind spots are especially in his embracing the Constantinian vision of the established state church with its persecution of heretics, the one true church encompassing all in the community, a now discredited view, with its illegitimate child, infant baptism. But let’s not be blind to the oneness of all true theology. What is true in Calvin — and there is much — we should embrace. Nor should we be fooled by prejudice or labels. We must investigate him for ourselves and let the clear air of good teaching into our minds.

His Influence

Calvin’s influence — how can that be described in a simple Web page? We have already seen, or guessed for ourselves, his powerful influence on theology. When we divide the early Protestant church into Lutheran and Reformed, we should remember that the great thinker and organizer of the Reformed church was Calvin. When we realize that most later evangelicalism was simply refinements of Reformed theology, we should recognize that we are all indebted to him.

Nor does it stop with theology. Many scholars hold that Calvin and Calvinism were powerful agents in the rise of republican government. With their emphasis on representative bodies – boards of elders – spread throughout Northern Europe, Calvinists became change agents to overthrow the divine right of kings. Not that this was their original intention. But often our influence goes beyond our original design. Generations of people were on the move to create a new society in Northern Europe, a society which culminated in the United States Constitution, with its deep distrust of human nature, its division of powers and its provision for the rightful and orderly succession of rulers.

What about economics? Again, a popular theory holds that Protestants, especially Calvinists of the Dutch, Scottish and English varieties, were the players in the rise of modern capitalism. With the “Protestant work ethic,” capitalism thrived in northern Europe, generally rolling over all competing theories either by its superior worth, or simply by the economic power generated by the type of people subscribing to a Calvinist view of work and man. Even when the original religious and theological vision of Calvin was long lost, as it was in men like the Unitarian New England Yankees, the spirit of hard work and duty lived on for hundreds of years. Not until Marxism was a theory found to be as powerful as the Protestant-inspired capitalistic view.

Of course Calvin did not teach or intend these things. But Biblical truth, once discovered and taught, is powerful. It does not just loose the soul from bondage to sin, it also reopens the mind to the exploration of that original dominion mandate that was given in the Garden. Paradoxically, the version of Christianity which is the most supernatural in that it gives all glory and power to God and leaves none to men, is also the version that unleashed the most powerful, sustained, mastery of the world and its knowledge, that has been seen yet on the earth.



Reformation History Unit 3(including video on Martin Luther)

Martin Luther

Luther’s early years

Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, now part of former East Germany. His father was prosperous enough to send him to school and aim him at the study of law. He graduated with a BA and MA from the University of Erfurt. But just when he would have entered the study of law, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and made a vow to St. Anne that he would enter a monastery if his life was saved. He duly entered the order of the Augustinians and their monastery at Erfurt in 1505.

The Augustinian Friars or Hermits were a preaching order whose name was based on their following the monastic Rule of St. Augustine, not because of any other particular connection with Augustine. But the name was perhaps ironic, for Luther was to derive much benefit from the study of Augustine as an antidote to the current theology of his day.

Luther advanced in knowledge according to the prevailing order of things, and was appointed to lecture at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in 1508. He was made Doctor of Theology in 1512 and joined the theological faculty at Wittenberg.

His growing understanding

Two experiences seem to have been important in the development of young Luther. In 1507 he became a priest and said his first Mass, and in the view of the church, he was now able to create the body and blood of Christ. This was one of many experiences which terrorized him in view of the majesty and justice of a holy God.

Secondly, he traveled to Rome in 1510 on monastery business. He was shocked to find Italy a breeding ground of corruption and secularized clergy. This was the time of the Renaissance Popes, and Pope Julius, the current occupant of that chair, was one of the worst of them all. (Erasmus later wrote a satirical tract called Julius Exclusus, which told the story of how Julius was excluded from heaven after he died.) This was the time period of the rebuilding of St. Peter’s and the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — wonderful works of art, but from a Pope void of Christianity.

But the biggest influence on Luther was his continuing struggle over his salvation. He could not understand how a holy God could accept a sinful man, especially Luther, into heaven. He was told to take comfort in the sacraments, especially Penance (i.e. confession and absolution), but even the Roman church was not so doctrinally corrupt as to remove all personal repentance from the sacrament of Penance, and Luther doubted that he had the proper inward repentance and love and godliness to partake of the grace that was offered through the sacrament.

He also could not understand how, in Romans 1:17, it was said that the “righteousness” of God was revealed in the Gospel. If God’s righteousness was revealed, how could it be good news, since God’s righteousness could do nothing but condemn man’s lawlessness? At last, in a flash of insight (or grace or faith), he understood that the righteousness in the verse was not the righteousness God displayed in judgment, but the righteousness he bestowed on a man through pure grace on account of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. “As it is written, the just shall live BY FAITH.”

Now he understood that faith was the key. Faith was not a work. Rather, it was the empty hand receiving the gift of God offered without strings attached. Faith was utterly opposed to works. No works, not even the sacramental acts commanded by the church, could add to the free gift of God. For this reason, Luther added the word ALONE to his later German translation of Romans 3:28.

Luther was not reacting against a full Pelagian (or Judaizing) heresy of justification by works rather than faith. Rather, he was reacting to the seemingly reasonable Catholic teaching that our faith, which is required, works together with our use of God’s sacraments and good works, which are also required. It was all of God’s grace to offer such paths to salvation, but no man could be totally secure because such a life must be maintained before God lifelong.

Some of these insights actually came after the next item in our tour of Luther’s life, the 95 Theses.

The Indulgences and 95 Theses

In 1517, Johann Tetzel appeared in Germany selling a special indulgence issued by the Pope. Luther’s ruler, Elector Frederick, kept Tetzel out of his dominions, but Luther’s parishioners were crossing the border and buying the indulgences anyway. According to Tetzel, the indulgence went further than previous indulgences, procuring not only release from earthly penance and Purgatorial punishment, but also full forgiveness of all sins.

Even by medieval standards, this was going too far. Technically, an indulgence only offered remission of the “temporal penalties,” or satisfaction, associated with a sin. It did not affect God’s eternal judgment, which was in theory left up to God alone. Rather, since the sufferings of Purgatory were thought to compensate for sins not confessed, absolved, and satisfactions performed on earth, which were imposed by the church, the indulgence, which remitted the penalties of the church, could not reach beyond Purgatory.

What Luther did not know at the time was that Tetzel’s entire indulgence sale was worked up as a combination money-raising scheme for St. Peter’s church (which was public) and debt repayment for Albert of Brandenberg, Archbishop of Mainz, to repay the Pope’s hefty fees for installing him in a third archbishopric, and underage at that.

Complicating Luther’s position was the fact that Frederick the Wise was a major collector of relics in his Castle Church at Wittenberg. If a pilgrim “venerated” all the relics in the Elector’s collection, he would reduce his time in Purgatory by 127,799 years (Grimm, p. 91). The major festival which drew pilgrims to Frederick’s collection in Wittenberg was the feast of All Saint’s Day on Nov. 1.

Of course the entire doctrine was absurd and offensive, but Luther, in his initial stages, approached the matter cautiously. He wondered: why would not the Pope simply release all souls from Purgatory out of his sheer kindness, if such a thing were possible? Why demand payment first? Luther reexamined the entire structure of the sacrament of Penance and wrote out 95 debating points, intended for fellow scholars to debate with him. This was a common method of beginning a debate, not a Reformation of the church. He posted them, tradition says, on the door of the Castle Church the day before All Saint’s, October 31, 1517.

Even though the theses were written in Latin and were only meant for academic debate, they looked like dynamite to others, who began running copies off on the printing presses, both in Latin and in German. Seemingly overnight, the theses were everywhere. Instead of a scholar’s debate, the German people became involved. The theses by no means contained an expression of fully developed Reformation doctrine, but the challenge to the Pope’s actions was lively enough that Germany was interested.

Text of the 95 Theses

Reactions of Church and State

Initially, the Pope wrote the whole issue off as a quarrel among monks. But local church officials were not so confident. They urged action. Three months after the Theses appeared, Pope Leo directed the Augustinian Order to quiet Luther. In April 1518 Luther was given the opportunity to defend his case at a meeting of the Augustinians. One of his hearers (and converts) was the Dominican monk Martin Bucer, who later became a great Reformer himself.

On August 7, 1518 Luther was given 60 days to appear in Rome to recant his heresies. Here Frederick intervened on the side of his university professor. He arranged a meeting with the papal legate, Cajetan, in Germany. After three days things were worse than ever. Cajetan threatened him with all kinds of papal punishment, and would not budge on any points. Meanwhile Luther had been developing and clarifying his thinking, but still believed that the Pope would take his side once he understood the issues. By November 28 he had lost this confidence and appealed publicly for a general council of the church to correct the Pope and the errors of the church.

In 1519 it was arranged for the great Dr. Eck to debate Dr. Carlstadt, Luther’s senior colleague at Wittenberg. Luther was at first not invited (not given an imperial safe conduct), and attended only as a spectator, but he rose to the defense of the new evangelical doctrines after Carlstadt had faltered in the debate. This debate, which lasted three weeks, was very important for the future development of the Reformation. For it was here that Eck charged Luther with the errors of the acknowledged heretic John Hus. Thus challenged, Luther considered the question and finally declared that some of Hus’s doctrines were true, that he was unjustly condemned by the (reformist) Council of Constance, and that both the Pope and a general council may err.

The next two years were filled with activity. After the rejection of Rome, Luther began his reforming appeals in earnest. He still was not trying to create a new church, just reform the old one. But this was not a time in Europe for compromise and discussion, much to the distress of peaceful leaders on both sides. Luther wrote three major works which consolidated both the direction of reformation and his theology: the Address to the German Nobility, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. The Babylonian Captivity, in particular, was the text in which Luther publicly taught against transubstantiation, although he never ceased teaching the Real Presence.

Meanwhile, in June 1520, the long-awaited bull of excommunication was issued, the famous Exsurge Domine, “Arise O God, plead thine own cause….” Luther was now officially excluded from the ancient Catholic church. But he was the beginning of a new branch of the Catholic church, not a sectarian heretic, but a true reformer, calling the church to return to first principles. He had gone far beyond justification by faith, which was the seed; he and his colleagues were reexamining the entire structure of Christendom, weighing each doctrine and practice, and finding that much that had grown up in the past 1000 years was anti-Biblical and not in agreement with the early church.

In December, Luther publicly burned the Pope’s bull.

Repercussions Throughout Europe

In 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms, summoned by the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Charles needed the support of every part of his splintered empire, and wanted to heal the church for the sheer sake of political unity, if for no other reason. He was a loyal son of the Roman church, and it was clear where his sympathies lay. Nevertheless Luther, like John Hus before him, trusted in God and in the Emperor’s safe-conduct and came to the Diet.

At the Diet he was commanded once more to recant his teachings. He had expected an opportunity to defend his teachings before the Emperor and all the princes of Germany, but instead he was simply asked to recant. He asked for a day to consider his answer, and appeared the next day to defy the empire and replied, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience” (Schaff, vol. 7, p. 304). According to some accounts, he ended by saying “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Luther was able to get out of town under the Emperor’s safe conduct before Charles could change his mind and seize him. Frederick was concerned for Luther’s safety, since he was now declared an outlaw by the Empire as well as the Pope, so he secretly arranged to have him “kidnapped” and taken to the Wartburg castle for safekeeping. Here Luther worked for almost a year, and translated the New Testament into German from Greek — the first modern translation from Greek into a vernacular language. He also wrote against monastic vows while in the Wartburg. By the time he returned to Wittenberg, the monastery there was entirely dissolved.

Luther and the Radicals

“Radical” reformers in his own home town (led by Carlstadt, his former friend), which caused him to return to Wittenberg to calm things down, were the foreshadowing of many such splits among the Protestants. Even though the differences in Wittenberg amounted mostly to (1) going too fast in the right direction, and (2) disagreement over using violent means to overthrow the old traditions, soon there was much more in the larger Germany, and Luther was distressed that the predictions of his enemies might come true in which he became the cause of the dissolution of society.

Luther soothed the radical elements in his own town, and some arranged for some people actually to leave town, but as he got older, Luther became more bitter and violent towards other elements of the Reformation which seemed to go too far. He approved of the suppression of the peasants in the Peasants’ War, and his enmity towards Anabaptists, “enthusiasts,” and other radicals only increased. He lumped Zwingli in with Carlstadt (who became more and more radical), and was utterly suspicious of any reformation other than the conservative German version.

We will deal with this topic more under Zwingli, and again in a special Anabaptist lesson.

Luther’s Marriage

Luther’s famous marriage to a former nun, Katherine von Bora, took place in 1525. Luther became the father of six children, and his views upon marriage, like those on everything else, were eagerly devoured by his students and became the basis for the Protestant interest in good marriages and families. Remember that up to this point, all godly literature was written by the unmarried who were under vows of chastity. A whole body of tradition entered Christian thought and literature at this point, and Luther’s house, as is often stated, became the model for the “parsonage.” But Luther didn’t just speak on marriage, he lived it. He was well known to be devoted to his wife and family. His views were totally traditional, but within the tradition of Biblical patriarchy came Luther’s humor and good will. He often referred to Katie as “my Lord.”

Luther and Free Will

Erasmus had taken a mediating position for much of the early Reformation. He never identified himself with Protestantism even though he was friends with many of the Reformers, some of whom had been humanists before reformers. When he was finally induced to write against Luther, he chose a theological topic, free will, as the theme of his controversy. Luther replied with what he considered his best book, The Bondage of the Will. This book represents a more Calvinistic theology (by today’s standards) than a Lutheran one. It is quite a joy to read. Luther’s contemporaries, such as Melanchthon, never subscribed to the full predestination theology that Luther appeared to hold, and it disappeared from Lutheranism immediately upon Luther’s death. Calvinists often refer to the book, however, and it was published in 1957 with a modern translation, and is still in print. It is one of the great books of the Reformation.

Luther and the German Reformation

After a while, the various German princes who had adopted Lutheranism began to take steps to systematize and regularize the reforms found within their various dominions. One such effort was the reformation of public worship according to non-Roman principles, via the “Visitations” commissioned by the various German rulers beginning in 1527. These were heavily influenced by the Wittenbergers and began the process of constructing a truly Protestant church system.

Another major undertaking for Luther was the introduction of congregational singing, and the consequent writing of new Protestant hymns. Like many other innovations of the Reformed period, all Christians take congregational singing for granted today (even Roman Catholics), but this was yet another blessing that had been withheld from the people until the Reformation.

Colloquy of Marburg

In 1529, representatives of the German and Swiss reformers met together at the instigation of Philip of Hesse, who wished a common Protestant political and confessional front. Luther and Melanchthon were there, as were Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Bucer. If at any time there was a chance for Protestants to get together, this was it. Of course no Anabaptists were invited.

Luther wrote with chalk upon the table, “This is my body.” Immediately the heart of the matter was clear. Could the reformers agree on the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper)? Luther’s party believed that the “Real Presence” was essential, that is, even though the bread and wine were still physically present (contra the Roman church), nevertheless the physical presence of Christ’s body and blood was still true. The reformers agreed that there was a “spiritual” presence of Christ (which actually was compromise on Zwingli’s part, since he had taught a memorial Supper only), but they could not come to agreement on the physical presence of Christ.

Bainton’s Here I Stand presents the argument this way:

Oekolampadius insisted that these words must be taken metaphorically, because the flesh profits nothing and the body of Christ has ascended into heaven. Luther inquired why the ascent should not also be metaphorical. Zwingli went to the heart of the matter when he affirmed that flesh and spirit are incompatible. Therefore the presence of Christ can only be spiritual. Luther replied that flesh and spirit can be conjoined, and the spiritual, which no one denied, does not exclude the physical. They appeared to have arrived at a deadlock, but actually they had made substantial gains because Zwingli advanced from his view that the Lord’s Supper is only a memorial to the position that Christ is spiritually present. And Luther conceded that whatever the nature of the physical presence, it is of no benefit without faith. Hence any magical view is excluded.

No final agreement could be reached. Even though the reformers agreed on 14 other articles of faith, they could not on this one. The Protestants remained divided both confessionally and politically. There was to be no consistent reformed witness to one faith.

The Augsburg Confession

In their relations to the Holy Roman Emperor, an important milestone was the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. At this meeting the famous Augsburg Confession was submitted by the Lutherans to the Emperor Charles. Its author was Melanchton, who was accused of giving away too much in his desire to remain united to the Roman church. But it remained a reformed document, and became one of the primary confessional statements of all Lutherans.


Luther is much more complicated than can be presented here. The best advice is to continue studying him with a book like Bainton’s Here I Stand, and to continue comparing his and other reformers’ doctrine with Scripture. You will find that Reformation study will provide an inexhaustible supply of challenges to your thinking and living.

Luther provided the Reformation with a beginning, not an ending. By his death in 1546, Reformation was established, but its greatest fruits were yet to come