Life-bringers: the Protestant Reformation
The Reformers of the sixteenth century were a galaxy of brilliant men of high learning and deep spiritual conviction who flooded the desen wastes of the church with the precious life-giving water of the rivers of God. The greatest of them ail-probably the greatest life-bringer to (he church since the time of the apostles - was Manin Lulher (1483-1546).
Never was there a lime when the church needed a Martin Luther as it did then. Never, in all its long history, had the church sunk 10 such depths of moral obloquy and ( corruption, or worldliness and unbelief, as il had when Lulher was born. To read the diaries kepi by the secretary of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI (1493-1503), is to be introduced to a Vatican which was then a world of incest, adultery, prostitution and i drunkenness, of gambling and vice, of / cynicism and scheming, where bishoprics and cardinalships were sold to the highest bidder, even to boys of eight years old. It was a world as vulgar and vile as the basest of thieves' kitchens, alien to any kind of spirituality, to any kind of theology.
It was Lulher who, by preaching and teaching faith based on the Bible and (he gospel, gave people a vision of what the Founder Jesus Christ had intended for his : church. This clear vision captured the minds of European men and women; it awoke their consciences to how wrong filings were. Luther gave people a taste of ilieold wine of the New Testament, and none who had tasted il ever returned to the new wine of late medieval Catholicism.
History books make a great deal of his work in clearing out wickedness and corruption, yet Luther's concern was not with scandals, but with God. He gave himself to telling a lost world and a straying church what God had done for us in Jesus Christ. He was a man with the gospel. When hearts were convicted and warmed, the scandals fell aside. Lulher offered lo re-form what mankind had deformed by giving again to the world the trulh in Christ, All his re-forming work was simply to let this same Christ into the church to reform il. In this way Luther is the supreme 'life-giver' of all time. He warms (he heart of every man, woman and child who reads him.
Of course, as the previous article has established, there were life-bringers before Luther. God never leaves himself without witness. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a strong anti-papalism and anti-clericalism was simmering in Europe, which the worldliness and increasing financial exactions of the papacy brought to the boil. The German theologian, John of Wesel (1400-81), the Dutch theologian Wessel (c 1420-89) -such men, and others like them, have been called, 'Reformers before the Reformation'. The Italian Savanorola (1452-98) was gravely concerned about the moral scandals of the church, less about its theology. But .supremely it was England's John Wyclif, whom history has described as 'the morning star of the Reformation', and John Huss of Bohemia who began the work of bringing new life to a despiritualized church.
So Luther stood on prepared ground. Yet still Luther was the Reformation and the Reformation was Luther. He converted all the classical Reformers who followed him, and all Reformers, even the Radicals, look their stance in relation to his pioneer work. Europe was ready for a Luther.
How did il all happen? And what was new about Luther's protest? Why did the whole of Europe, in its political and spiritual dimensions, respond so dramatically loan unknown professor from a new and obscure university?
After graduating with a brilliant law degree at the prestigious university of Erfurt in 1505 at the age of twenty-two, Luther precipitately entered the Augustinian monastery there. He proved to he the perfect monk, and was selected by his superiors to train for a professorship, when after a short period at Erfurt, he was appointed to the new University of Wittenberg in 1511. Here he lectured on the Bible- Genesis, Psalms, Romans, Galatians.
It was his intense study of the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek thai converted Lulher from a scholastic to an evangelical theologian. He was discovering lhal for all his monastic devotions he was getting no nearer to God. None of the tried ways of discipline, confession and the sacraments gave him any certainty about God, and as he studied the Bible, a profound evangelical truth broke through into his mind and soul, and warmed his heart intensely.
Luther had been taught that God was far from mankind, and that by dint of intellect, good works and spiritual exercises men and women must struggle to him. He discovered that it is quite the other way. Mankind is far from God, and in love and forgiveness God came all the way in Christ, and continues so to come. No one has ascended to heaven, but God in Christ came from heaven to earth. When our hearts and minds realize the profundity of this truth, that in relation to God people are nothing and have nothing, we can only stand repentant, and open ourselves up to God to create faith in us. 'By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God.' So wrote the apostle Paul. As Luther says, when he saw this, he felt the very gates of Paradise open and he entered.
This, of course, was an old truth, in fact the oldest truth of all, that we are right with God only by God's sovereign grace and love, never by any intrinsic merit or worth of our own. Here is the centre of gospel theology. Yet it was wholly different both from the scholastic leaching of his day and from the church practice of his time. The scholastics taught that a man had to do 'all that in him lay'and to such a man the church ministered her sacraments giving him sufficient grace to prevail.
It was in 1517 that Luther arranged a disputation in the university on the subject olthis scholastic theology. Here he gave expression to his new evangelical theology. He spoke of the bondage of sin and deliverance by grace, of Law and of gospel, and of predestination. He put Jesus Christ in the centre of all thinking, but, at the same time, submitted the most devastating criticisms of the theology of his day. As powerful as this disputation was, it was a lesser disputation later that year on the subject of indulgences that fired the imagination of Europe.
At that time the selling of indulgences (remissions from purgatory) was a gross scandal. Apart from the fact that the indulgence in question was a money-raising bazaar to enable Luther's bishop (although too young for any office), to buy the archbishopric from the pope, the malign influence was that the simple folk were taught that they could buy their way out of purgatory, even buy forgiveness for money. It was here that Luther declared the New Testament doctrine of penitence as a total change of heart. From this moment Luther held the world stage.
The next year, 1518, there followed a remarkable chapter at his order at Heidelberg, where, free from controversy, a theologian among believing monks, he opened his heart and declared his new biblical and evangelical theology. The pope sent emissaries 'to quieten down the man', and there followed in 1519 a remarkable debate in Leipzig with the brilliant and redoubtable Catholic controversialist John Eck. This debate showed the irreconcilable split that was emerging between the evangelical Luther and the Catholic church.
When Luther returned home he wrote, among others, three world-shattering books which showed Europe what the coming reformation was concerned to clarify. The first was his Appeal in German to the German laity. He struck at the quasi-divine power of Rome, restored the priesthood of all believers, and called for the religious and moral reform of all Christendom. The second was addressed in Latin to the clergy. The Babylonian Captivity, wherein Luther severed the tap-root of Romanism, the sacramental system, by which it controlled the laity from the cradle to the grave. The third was a fine, spiritual book on The Freedom of a Christian Man. That year h.e was condemned by a papal bull, which he publicly burned on the town's refuse pit. That deed, on 10 December 1520, when a humble monk, with no more behind him than his faith in God. publicly burned the Pope's bull, proved the firing signal for emancipation throughout Europe: the modern era began at 9 a.m. that day.
He was summoned in April 1521 to the Diet of Worms to recant, but he stood his ground. He was outlawed and excommunicated. On the way home he was captured by friends and imprisoned for his own safety in the Wartburg. There he translated the whole of the New Testament into pure and sublime German within a matter of weeks.
When Luther broke through into the New Testament world of being justified by faith alone, he went through the overwhelming experience of reconciliation with God. He found peace with God, a total explanation of this life and the certainty of joyous life with God for ever. Luther wagered his all on God, and would not be silenced unless proved wrong or shown to be wrong. It was Luther's faith, a faith which throws itself on God, in life and in death, which brought new life to Christendom. Not a speculative or man-centred faith but a faith 'given him by God'. 'Faith is the "Yes" of the heart, a conviction on which one wagers one's life, but it does not arise in us or from us, it is wholly the gift of God . . . On what does faith rest? On Christ. . .' Having faith we have everything: without faith we have nothing.
Christ first and last
It was from such faith kindled by God that Luther was re-created. All his theology derives from this experience. He virtually restored men and women to the place of those who first heard Jesus. Here lay the profound challenge to the Roman Church, to turn to Christ rather than the church, arrd to stand firm in the priesthood of all believers. He gave the Bible to the people, and opened their eyes not to see it as a mere book, but to read it as a continuous confrontation by God himself. Here was a new (and ultimate) authority, the Word of God, beneath which we all stand, pope and priest alike, princes and peasants too. It was to concede again the ultimate authority of Christ, and to find in him God's love undying for fallen and lost mankind, and to know the joy, the freedom of life in Christ, in his kingdom. Not least, his rediscovery of the church, less as an institution, but as that communion of the faithful, called of God, known only to God. People who knew Luther and lived with him, the students who heard him teach, the Wittenberg folk who heard him preach, the people who received his letters, the folk who read his Bible translation, the people who read his books, all knew that a great prophet and man of God had been given them.
Prophets and messengers from God are welcomed by few. The papists began a long and contrived attack, which eventually culminated in the Council of Trent (1545- 63), where a solid basis for the renewal of discipline and spiritual life in the Roman Church was laid, a clear doctrinal basis established and a new religious strength born. The Protestants were anathematized. The Jesuits were ready to roll back the Reformation. Luther was never answered: only condemned. The radicals attacked
Luther for being too conservative, a movement which ultimately expressed itself in the tragic Peasants' War of 1525 which caused grave harm to the Reformation. The humanists were unhappy about the vigorous New Testament theology of Luther, and eventually Erasmus came out against Luther in 1525 with his book On the Free Will, in which he attacked Luther's Augustinian theology of grace and the bondage of the will, in favour of humanist doctrine.
Confined to Saxony as an excommunicate and outlaw, Luther worked at Wittenberg to the end of his days, lecturing, writing, preaching and guiding the Reformation. (He wrote a book a fortnight during his last twenty-five years.) He, with others, reorganized the Church of Saxony on evangelical lines, writing catechisms, new liturgical services, composing hymns and educating the ignorant clergy, many of whom could not read. There was nothing he touched, church, university or the common life, but he brought new life into it. He died travelling across Germany in the depth of winter reconciling two squabbling brothers (in February 1545), and was brought home and buried in the church on whose door he had nailed the Ninety-five Theses some twenty-five years earlier.
The new movement burst into life all over Europe, sometimes spontaneously and independently of Luther, as in Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), a Swiss patriot of Erasmian leanings, was elected minister at Zurich in 1518, where he remained until his death. In this democratic and independent city Zwingli was warmly received by the populace, who liked the young scholar in his search for simplicity of religion. One of the first things he did was to clear out Samson the indulgence seller, when he associated himself with Luther's theology. His first impact was his preaching, which he began at Matthew's Gospel, chapter one, verse one. He virtually moved the congregation of the 'Grossmunster' cathedral from the mass and medieval tradition to the living Word of God expounded by Jesus, the apostles and the prophets. This was the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland, when Zwingli expounded the New Testament: it was from this unfailing source that Zwingli brought new life into the church. He preached against tithes supporting an excess of clergy, against his countrymen fighting other people's wars as mercenaries. There soon followed attacks on purgatory, the invocation of saints and monasticism.
The papists resisted, but Zwingli called them to two public debates in 1523, where they were ignominiously silenced and routed. The sole basis of truth was the gospel, and once this was granted, the authority of the pope, the sacrifices of the mass, the invocation of saints, times and seasons of fasting, and clerical celibacy were rejected.
It was at this stage Zwingli developed his characteristic eucharistic teaching (sometimes called Zwinglianism). He rejected both the Roman teaching and Luther's ideas, adopting a more radical position. This theology produced a tragic break with Luther in 1529.
In his Commentary on True and False Religion (1525) Zwingli revealed his full theology. He first established the source of all true religion as the Word of God. Any other religion is false and mere superstition. Central to all his evangelical theology is Christ. He treats of forgiveness and penitence, of Law and sin, and of the true gospel. He handles church and sacraments: the church is not the hierarchy but the community of called and believing people; the sacraments are signs and symbols of God's loving relation to humanity. Confession, marriage, vows, invocation of saints, images, prayer, purgatory are all critically examined in the light of his evangelical theology.
The movement began to spread through Switzerland. In a public debate at Berne (1528), Zwingli successfully held his ground and the city joined the Reformation. Basel, St Gall and others followed. In Constance the bishop and his clergy ignominiously withdrew and left it all to the Reformers.
Nevertheless, the movement met fierce resistance, particularly in the Forest Cantons. Unable to win by debate, the Catholics turned to the sword. They captured and burned a Zurich pastor. Zwingli saw war on the horizon. The Lutherans would not recognize him. The Emperor refused to listen to him. He found little material support anywhere. The Catholics attacked. Unprepared for war, and heavily outnumbered, Zwingli perished on the field of battle at Kappel in 1531, as chaplain to the Protestants: he fell with their standard in his hand. His helmet, with the horrible gash caused by that fatal blow, may still be seen in the museum at Zurich, together with his New Testament which he was carrying in his belt as he fell. Yet the cause did not fail. It was taken up in Geneva by the learned and austere Calvin, the reluctant Reformer, quite literally seized by God and established in Geneva.
It is a strange and dramatic story how John Calvin (1509-64) was thrust into the leadership of the Reformation. Compelled f to leave the University of Paris in 1533 for his Lutheran views, an exile from his native land, he settled in Basel, a city peopled by learned humanists and theologians of the reformed persuasion, such as Erasmus, Myconius and Bullinger. Here he published his Institutes, and here he intended to pursue a quiet life of scholarship and writing.
Passing through Geneva to settle his father's estate, the fiery Reformation preacher, Guillaume Farel, called on Calvin. He carried the startling news that Calvin was sent by God to teach and preach, and that if he disobeyed the divine commission, he would have to face God on the day of judgment and answer him. Calvin was greatly disturbed, and after a night of anguish, realized that Farel had simply told him the truth. Calvin took over the Reformation in Geneva. He converted the rabble of the Reformation into a disciplined army. Whereas Luther's liberating genius was restricted to Saxony, from Geneva Calvin was to influence Europe. The Reformation needed a Calvin. His was a genius as great as Luther's, but of a totally different kind. Luther, a warmhearted extrovert, full of humour and homely wit, was free and open to everyone, a great liberator and communicator; Calvin was dark, close, silent, with a genius for organization and systematization. Luther did what Calvin could never have done: Calvin did what Luther could never have done.
In Geneva he faced his master problem. How could the church be made not simply an institution for worshipping God.butan agency for making people tit to worship him? He established a regime based on the rule of God. He realized that the reformed faith could live in a democratic and free city only by an enlightened pulpit speaking to enlightened citizens, and that an educated ministry needed an educated laity. He created both.
Nevertheless, in all essentials he stood at one with the other Reformers: though he had different emphases, he was always biblical and evangelical. One marked difference between him and Luther, a difference which comes out in their theology, is that whereas Luther approached God and found him gracious, Calvin started with the sovereignty of God. Calvin felt mastered by God, that his will was God's, to do with him as he pleased or needed. He was God-possessed, God-mastered, even God-intoxicated: Calvin's theology arises from this passionate God-centeredness.
A consequence of this was his emphasis on humanity's hopeless corruption, and God's work in election and predestination; on God's mercy and not mankind's merit or effort. This was a direct challenge to Rome's claims to authority and finality. The basis of everything was not Rome, but the objective fact of God's decree in Christ; certainly and assurance lay in God alone and not in the church at all.
He held the same high doctrine of the Bible as all the Reformers did. Scripture to him was inerrant, in that no more was included than was required, and no less given than was needed. It was also sufficient, in that all that was required was in the Bible. The corollary was true: what was in the Bible needed to be known. The Scriptures revealed all that a person can know about God, and all that he must know. Calvin did not mean this as some kind of passive assent. There must be a change of mind and heart before approaching the Bible; we must allow God to give us the right understanding through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. In regarding Scripture as this self-authenticating unity, Calvin was providing an authority beyond reason, conscience or the secular power, all of which may err.
When Calvin came to formulate an evangelical doctrine of the church there were three views abroad. The Roman view was hierarchical: to be a Christian was to be in communion with Rome, the guardian of truth and morals. Luther saw the true church as the elect of God: a community known only to God, though manifest in the worl(l nevertheless, and which had for its head Christ alone. The Anabaptists conceived of the church as a society of the redeemed, gathered out of the world, and keeping itself pure by excommunicating the disobedient. An important aspect was how these three views saw themselves in relation to social authority. The Roman position was rather ill-defined; its authority was closely allied with the civil authority, but in fact superior to it. Luther rested authority not in the church but in the prince: there were two kingdoms, never to be confused. The Anabaptists repudiated any and every relation with the state or with secular society.
Calvin took over elements of all three. With Luther he emphasized the true church as hidden, made up, as Augustine had taught, of the chosen people of God. With the Catholics he held that the visible church is of vital importance; but he argued further that it must show forth the principles of Reformation theology, and that its relation to the state was definite and independent. With the Anabaptists he insisted on a rigorous public discipline of all members of the church, though rejecting the idea of a 'gathered' community: Calvin would not separate the elect from the visible church as a distinct community. Calvin is sometimes described as seeking to establish a 'theocracy': a community based on the rule of God. It is nearer the truth to say that he sought independence of the state in the government of her own affairs, yet made the highest demands on the temporal authority. His views on church and state were complementary.
With Calvin the Reformation movement was finalized and given a system. Simple and austere, sometimes intolerant, even vindictive, he lacked all the humanity and warmth' of Luther. Nevertheless, his influence was and is enormous. His theological insight, his exegetical talents, his lucid and pithy style, his extraordinary capacity to systematize and expound, have made him the most influential of all the Reformers. He was a great life-bringer to the church, and remains so to this day.
The English Church
As far as England was concerned the Reformation at first was a Lutheran movement which brought life to the suppressed Wycliffites. Barnes, Tyndale, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, and all the early Reformers, learned their theology from Luther. A strong Luther society existed in Cambridge. In Oxford, as early as 1520, Luther's books were on sale. Henry VIII's theologians held conversations in Wittenberg, mainly (but not only) in 1535-36. Certain advances were made during his reign: articles of an evangelical nature were written in 1536 and 1538; the Bible set up in churches in 1538; evangelical injunctions promulgated by Thomas Cromwell in 1538; the Institution of a Christian Man drawn up in 1537. Many other changes came about such as the destruction of shrines and images and a more evangelical organization of church life.
It was not until the reign of Edward VI (1547-53) that the great change took place. Cranmer's Homilies appeared, Erasmus' Paraphrases were set up in the churches, and further Injunctions issued to the clergy, and Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer. Many other changes were made such as the dissolution of chantries, the setting up of schools and hospitals, the destruction of images and the abolition of catholic devotional practices. Cranmer was clearly looking to reform Catholicism.
When the young king died, Mary (1553- 58) repealed all reform laws and sought to restore Roman Catholicism. She actually burned some 300 Protestants, including Cranmer and all the leading theologians who did not escape her. Her desperate and unhappy reign lasted only for five years. She was succeeded by Elizabeth (1558- 1603) who, with her theologians, gave Britain the Protestant religious settlement. She had a desperate struggle both against treasonable Catholic plots and intrigue many centring round the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, as well as against Puritanism (a rigorous form of Calvinism), but she prevailed. Here two theologians played a leading part: John Jewel and Richard Hooker.
John Jewel opposed both the Roman Catholics and the Puritans, taking his stand on the early Church Fathers of the first six centuries. In 1562 he published his famous Apology of the Church of England, where he showed the necessity of reform and the justification of provincial reformation when Rome will not reform. Among a number of poor boys whom Jewel maintained was one Richard Hooker who, when he grew up to manhood, completed his patron's work in his masterly Ecclesiastical Polity 1594-97. He was the most accomplished advocate Anglicanism has ever had. He opposed the Puritans for their biblical literalism. He argued that the church was a living not a static institution, and that its government and administration at any time must change according to historical necessity. He argued that the Anglican Church, now reformed, had continuity with the medieval church, even the early church. He accepted the non-episcopal orders of Continental Protestantism: the succession may have been regretfully broken, but he saw apostolic succession as a succession of apostolic doctrine not as a matter of lineage.
This was and has remained the definitive Anglican position. In respect of comprehension it finally broke down in the Act of Uniformity of 1662, when Anglicanism was imposed on the country by law, and when the Presbyterians and Independents, with all their fine theology and religious conviction, were finally and tragically lost to the national church. Nevertheless, the Church of England stands by its Reformation Formularies, its Articles and its Prayer Book, in which our Anglican divines reformed the historic catholic church of this realm. This idea of reformed Catholicism, wholly independent of the papacy, was based on Scripture, tradition and reason, allowing all matters of government and administration to national custom and natural law.
For four and a half centuries Rome has fulminated against the Protestants and anathematized all its theologians. It is only since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that Roman Catholic scholars (and to some extent church leaders), are beginning to see that the Reformers were the great life-bringers to the church. They are not to be condemned and excommunicated. They should be seen as men sent by God to reform a church desperately in need of reformation. They brought and still bring life to the church, fresh life from God.
Copyright © 1986 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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