Life-bringers: the Protestant Reformation

THE REFORMERS OF THE 16TH 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 time when the church needed a Martin Luther as it did then. Never, in all its long history, had the church sunk to such depths of moral obloquy and corruption, or worldliness and unbelief, as it had when Lulher was born. To read the diaries kept 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 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 Luther 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 things were. Luther gave people a taste of the old wine of the New Testament, and none who had tasted it 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 to reform 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 it. In this way Luther is the supreme ‘life-giver’ of all time. He warms the 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 15th and 16th 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 it 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 to an 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.

Luther’s breakthrough

It was his intense study of the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek that 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.

Ulrich Zwingli

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.

John Calvin

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. CH

By James Atkinson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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