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Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation | Geoffrey
Saint-Clair | IgnatiusInsight.com
Catholics trying to understand the Reformation sometimes complain about
the wide range of Protestant churches, denominations and sects. "How
can you keep them all straight?" they ask. The challenge is not as
great as it seems at first glance because the tens of thousands of Protestant
churches, denominations, and sects trace their origins back, one way or
another, either to the three major founders of the Reformation or to the
Radical Reformation movement known as the Anabaptists. Understand them,
and youll go a long way toward understanding the complex reality
But the various Protestant factions arent the only things confusing
about the Reformation era. The Catholic Reformation and the various figures
associated with it can also perplex. The various popes, prelates, and
politicians can be hard to keep track of. For this reason, I offer this
essay as a kind of introductory "whos who" of the Reformation,
Protestant and Catholic.
Three Reformers: Luther, Zwingli and Calvin
Most Catholics know the three main Protestant ReformersLuther, Zwingli
and Calvineven if they dont know much about them. Martin Luther
(1483-1546), they usually know, was a priest who broke with Rome over
indulgences. It used to be said that Luther started "the Protestant
revolt" in order to run off with a nun. And he didrun off with
a nun, that is, although "run off" is an inaccurate way of putting
it. According the Jesuit biographer Hartman Grisar, he initially refrained
from marriage precisely to avoid giving his opponents a weapon to use
against him. Eventually, though, Luther did marry Catherine von Bora,
However, Luther didnt start the Reformation in order to get married.
In fact, he didnt really start a movement called "the Reformation."
He objected to certain ideas and practices prevalent in the Church of
his day. One of those ideas was the notion that one had to merit Gods
grace through pious practices in order to be saved. Another was that indulgences
could be purchased in order to benefit the dead in purgatory. Luther was
right on both those points, yet contrary to popular opinion, that doesnt
make the Catholic Church wrong. At least not in the highest, official
expression of her teaching. The trouble was, due to a host of problems
that plagued the late medieval Church, the vast majority of Catholics
were probably unsure of exactly what the Church had taught about such
things. Add to that Renaissance popes and other prelates who were often
greedy and power-hungry and therefore disinclined to consider the finer
points of Catholic doctrine and discipline, and you have a recipe for
Martin Luther was born of peasant stock in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483,
son of Hans and Margarete Luther. His father Hans, a miner, wanted to
see his son pursue a career in canon law, but alas that was not to happen.
As a result of a vow rashly made during a thunderstorm, Luther decided
to become a monk. In 1505, he joined the Augustinians, the strictest religious
house in Erfurt. There, Luther began an intense monastic life of prayer,
study, and fasting. Two years later, he was ordained a priest and continued
his theological studies.
Unfortunately, Luther was trained in nominalist theology, a form of decadent
scholasticism that only plunged an already intense personality into despair.
He came to believe that he had to earn salvation by his own efforts. But
the more he triedthrough prayer, fasting, and other good worksthe
more unacceptable to God he felt himself to be.
Luthers study of St. Paul, through the lens of St. Augustine and
his controversy with the Pelagians, changed all that. Luther came to understand
that the "righteousness of God" (iustitia Dei), of which
Paul wrote in Romans 1:17, referred to the righteousness by which the
sinner is graciously justified by faith, not the standard of righteousness
by which God would judge sinners struggling to attain justification by
their own efforts. This understanding transformed the troubled monk, who
now found peace with God through faith. He saw his "discovery"
or "recovery" of the ancient Pauline teaching as a radical departure
from the views of the medieval "doctors." And yet this was not
so. Unbeknownst to Luther, the leading medieval commentators held the
same view of the "righteousness of God."
Luther also came to understand faith as Gods merciful gift by which
we receive the further gift of justification, in contrast to all human
efforts to merit or earn Gods favor. As a way of insisting that
human beings contribute nothing of their own to justification, Luther
insisted that man is justified by "faith alone."
Luthers "discovery" was more than a personal "breakthrough."
He was by now a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg,
where he preached this understanding of the righteousness of God to students.
Yet not until the question of the "sale" of indulgences arose
in Luthers diocese did the issue acquired "legs," as the
The "selling" of indulgences occurred in the neighboring diocese
of Mainz; it was the spill-over into the Luthers diocese and into
his confessional that brought the issue to his attention. The twenty-three
year-old archbishop of Mainz had allowed indulgences to be preached in
his diocese in exchange for a "cut" in the revenue raised. The
money was supposed to go to rebuild St. Peters Basilica in Rome.
In fact, the archbishop needed the money to pay a fee to the Roman Curia
for a dispensation allowing him to hold three dioceses at once.
How did something spiritualan indulgence is after all a remittance
of temporal punishment due to sincome to be "sold"? The
theory was that monetary offerings could count as a form of penance, when
the donor truly gave sacrificially from his heart, with the proper motive.
Unfortunately, the practice easily degenerated into "buying"
remittance of punishment for sin. Worst yet, "selling" of indulgences
got linked to a misapplication of the principle of praying for the dead
in purgatory. Catholic teaching was that one could offer ones penitential
acts to God through Christ as a sort of "petition" on behalf
of those who had died and were being purified in purgatory. Such a "petition"
was supposed to be understood as efficacious per modem suffragito
the extent God hears the prayer of the Church. There was, in other words,
nothing automatic about it. Since "donating" to obtain an indulgence
could be penitential, it was concluded that one could "donate"
to obtain an indulgence on behalf of a soul in purgatory. In the popular
mind, though, you "bought" an indulgence to get a soul or souls
out of purgatory, plain and simple. Johann Tetzel, the Dominican who preached
indulgences throughout the diocese of Mainz, had this "advertising
jiggle": "As soon as a coin in the coffer clinks, a soul from
Luther rightly protested this abuse. In late 1517, he published ninety-five
theses to dispute various things he regarded as abuses of the day. This
was standard academic practice at the time. But other factorssuch
as politics (civil and ecclesiastical) and human egos (including Luthers)enter
into the calculus. Soon things were out of hand. Luther quickly went well
beyond the issues raised in his Ninety-Five Theses.
Rome initially ignored what Pope Leo X dismissed as a "monks
squabble." Some of Luthers opponents argued that it was all
or nothing when it came to indulgences. You either accepted them as they
wereincluding the practice of trafficking in indulgencesor
you rejected them altogether. Luther wasted no time in jettisoning indulgences
and a host of other beliefs. His justifiable objections to abuses quickly
mixed with unjustified doctrinal innovations, not to mention his bullheadedness,
to make compromise impossible. Initially, Luther thought the pope merely
uninformed and misguided about the situation in Germany. But very quickly
he was attacking the papacy itself as the Antichrist and envisioning himself
as raised up by God to restore the Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Luthers opponents also dug in their heels. General confusion about
what the Church officially taught made things worse. Many of the German
princes saw a chance to strike at the Catholic Emperor and the Italian-dominated
papacy, and so they transformed an essentially religious debate into a
political and economic struggle. Luther didnt agree with this but
he had little choice but to support those who supported him. The dividing
of Christendom into warring theological and political factions had begun.
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Swiss Reformer, was quite different
from Luther. Luther had been a monk and a priest; Zwingli, a mercenary
solider and political activist. Luther was a biblical theologian by training;
Zwingli was a Christian humanist. Luther stressed justification by grace
through faith and the persistence of sin in the believers life,
even after justification; Zwingli, though never denying justification
by grace through faith, stressed moral and social transformation. Luther
was pessimistic about Christianizing the state; Zwingli sought to fuse
Church and State in Zurich.
The major dividing line between Luther and Zwingli, however, concerned
the sacraments. Zwingli drew from his military experience to explain the
sacraments. He argued that the Latin term sacramentum meant "oath."
From this he concluded that the sacraments (he counted only Baptism and
the Eucharist as sacraments) are signs or pledgesoathsof Gods
faithfulness to his people. Later, Zwingli began explaining the oath-nature
of the sacraments in terms of Gods peoples pledge of fidelity
to the community of the Church. In neither case, though, did Zwingli understand
the sacraments as efficacious signs or as really communicating what they
signify. They were at best signs of our association and identification
with the Church. It was the Word of God proclaimed that was the source
of the Christian life; the sacraments merely provided an opportunity publicly
to demonstrate ones faith.
Nowhere is the difference between Luther and Zwingli regarding the sacraments
clearer than in their views of the Eucharist. While Luther denied transubstantiation,
he nevertheless affirmed a form of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Zwingli rejected such a notion. For him, the Eucharist was a mere memorial
of Jesus death, a ritual sign Jesus left his Church by which to
remember his act of self-surrender. The bread and wine of the Eucharist
did not change in their being; at best, they changed in their significance
because of the context in which they were received.
Luther and Zwingli disagreed vehemently regarding Jesus words at
the Last Supper. Luther understood "This is my body" to refer
to the Real Presence. For Luther, "is" meant "is,"
so that when Christ had said "This is my body," he meant to
affirm that something had happened to the Eucharistic elements. Zwingli,
on the other hand, understood "This is my body" to mean "This
signifies my body." He didnt believe anything happened, other
than a change of meaning in the minds of the congregants.
The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli represented a first major
division among the various wings of the Reformation. Calvin would later
disagree with both Luther and Zwingli on the nature of the sacraments,
especially the Eucharist. But for Luther, it meant backing away somewhat
from his idea that the Bible was perspicuous to the average reader. Scripture,
it seemed, was plain to every manprovided he was a trained exegete
and agreed with Luther.
Disagreement over the Eucharist posed a major problem for the Reformers,
so much so that notables such as Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and
Oeclampadius met at Marburg in 1529 to iron out their differences. But
the factions could not reach final agreement and the division among them
resulted in substantial political setbacks, as the Catholic Emperor Charles
V was able to exploit the differences among the Reformers.
In the end, Zwinglis contribution to the Reformation was cut short,
as was his life. He was killed at the Battle of Kappel (1531), with the
army of Zurichs defeat due in large measure to German Lutheranisms
refusal to support it. And that, partly the result of the disagreement
between Luther and Zwingli at Marburg.
In many respects, John Calvin (1509-1564) was the founder of world
Protestantism. He was the real brain-power of the Reformation, the synthesizer
and, to a certain extent, its theological systematizer, despite the fact
that he was a quarter-century the junior of Luther and Zwingli and of
the second generation of the Reformation.
Calvin was a French layman, who had studied theology in Paris with the
intention of the priesthood before changing to law. He also studied classical
languages and received a thorough humanist education.
About two years after Zwingli died (1533), Calvin publicly embraced the
cause of the Reformation. I say "publicly embraced" because
no doubt for some time before he had been privately ruminating over Reformation
ideasthough he wrote little about the process by which his religious
views developed. In a sense, Calvin had grown up on Reformation ideashe
was eleven years old when Luther was excommunicated.
France was hostile to the Reformation, so Calvin fled to Basel. There
he made his first major contribution to Protestantism with his Institutes
of the Christian Religion, the initial edition of which appeared in
Latin in 1536 and which made Calvin famous. He would later translate it
into French and revise it many times. Calvins Institutes of the
Christian Religion isnt a work of systematic theology as much as
an introduction to the Christian faith as Calvin understood it. It became
something of a theological compendium for later generations of Reformed
Protestants, with far reaching effects on the shape of Western culture.
Calvins contribution to the Reformation was practical as well as
theoretical. As Zwingli had had Zurich, so Calvin had his base of operationGeneva.
Invited by his friend Farel to help promote the Reform there, Calvin made
the city his home and sought to establish it as an authentic, model Christian
community, as the pattern to be followed throughout the Protestant world.
Calvin has been criticized for establishing a theocracy in Geneva, but
that puts it too strongly. The civil and ecclesiastical orders were, in
his mind, not identical, but parallel. Each had its immediate jurisdiction
and ordinarily would carry out its own business. On the other hand, it
would be wrong to say Geneva had a strict separation of Church and State.
Calvins view was at best one of interdependence, with the Church
ultimately calling the shots and the civil authority serving the community
of the Church. Where Luther had essentially given over the Church to the
dominance of the State (provided the State was controlled by those who
shared his theological convictions), Calvin sought to maintain the medieval
institutional distinction between Church and State, while essentially
allowing the Church to dominate the State indirectly by insisting it operate
according to highly specific Christian legislation and norms.
As the Institutes of the Christian Religion greatly influenced
the theology of the Reformation, Calvins Ecclesiastical Ordinances
greatly affected the structure of many Reformed churches and their relation
to the community. One major element of the Ecclesiastical Ordinances
was the Consistory, the central church governing apparatus, composed of
ministers and elders. Its purpose was to maintain ecclesiastical discipline
and theological orthodoxy, but when the social community of the city is
identical to the church community, the result is that ecclesiastical discipline
and religious heterodoxy have social implications. Very quickly church
offenses become civil offenses or at least offenses with civil consequences,
as the medieval Church came to see.
The Consistory oversaw the conduct of the believers-citizens of Geneva
down to the minutest detail, intervening with disciplinary measures such
as public rebuke and excommunication. But because the civil and the ecclesiastical
authority were so closely intertwined, condemnation by the Consistory
could lead to civil punishments such as public fines and even exile and
execution. People were brought before the Consistory for every sort of
offense, including petty ones such as singing jingles critical of Calvin,
card playing, dancing, and laughing during a sermon. The Consistory also
sent out members to each parish to look for transgressors, who, if discovered,
were tried by the Consistory. Every household was visited annually, before
Easter, to ascertain the status of prospective communicants. If Geneva
was the "Rome of the Reformation," the Consistory was its Inquisition
and Calvin its Pope. Geneva under Calvins influence controlled its
citizens lives, including their private lives, well beyond what
the medieval Church did. The individual Christian in the Church of Geneva
was "free" to interpret the Bible for himself, provided he interpreted
it exactly as Calvin did.
Was Calvin a "dictator"? Surely not in the conventional sense.
He held no elected office, nor did he exercise direct political power
in Geneva. He was mainly a pastor, not a politician. And yet we mustnt
go as far as some of Calvins supporters, who say he was "simply"
a pastor. He possessed tremendous influence in the political community,
well beyond that of a mere civic leader. And that influence translated
directly into civil law strictures and punishments. Geneva was not an
absolute State, in the modern sense, but neither was it a free state,
except perhaps for those who already accepted its rigid norms of conduct.
A prime example of Calvins influence in Geneva is the case of Pierre
Ameaux, a member of the city council, who had criticized Calvin as a preacher
of false doctrine. The council told Ameaux to retract his statement, but
Calvin wanted a harsher punishment. Ameaux was forced to go through town
dressed only in a shirt, with a torch in hand.
Ameaux fate was a mere embarrassment; the embryonic freethinker
Jacques Gruet was executed for criticizing Calvin, for blasphemy and for
protesting the stringent demands of Calvins Geneva. He was torture
and beheaded. Calvin also got Jerome Bolsec banished for the Frenchmans
disagreement with Calvin regarding predestination, thus proving that,
while Geneva was a haven for Protestants throughout Europe who agreed
with Calvin, it could be oppressive for those who did not.
But the most celebrated case is that of Michael Sevetus, who didnt
get off as lightly as Bolsec. The Spanish physician-writer took it upon
himself to reformulate the doctrine of the Trinity in what were essentially
Gnostic categories. But Sevetus made the mistake of sending Calvin an
advance copy, which led, by a rather Byzantine route, to Calvin tipping
off the Catholic magistrates in Vienna that the heretical Sevetus was
practicing medicine in their city. That brought the apparatus of the Inquisition
down on him. Sevetus managed to escape and wound up, in all places, Geneva,
en route to Naples. Calvin had him arrested, tried and sentence to death.
As an act of mercy, Calvin requested that Sevetus be beheaded, instead
of burned, but in this case Calvins request was not honor.
Theologically speaking, Calvin took over Luthers twin principles
of justification by faith and the supreme authority of the Bible, but
he added distinctive twists, especially to the former. Calvin made a systematic
distinction between justification and sanctification. Both were the work
of grace through faith, according to Calvin, and inseparable from one
another. Justification involved the imputation of the righteousness of
Christ to the believer, which meant that God related to him differently
but didnt change him. Sanctification, on the other hand, was the
work of the Holy Spirit within man to change him according to the pattern
of Christ. In effect, what Catholics considered justification, Calvin
divided into justification and sanctification.
Predestination is often erroneously thought to have been Calvins
central theme, but in fact the glory and absolute sovereignty of God are
at the center of his theology. Nevertheless, predestination is closely
related to these ideas and consequently important to Calvins thinking,
even if less so than subsequent Calvinist theologians made it out to be.
The issue concerns Gods sovereignty and his graciousness. Gods
sovereignty will not allow anyone to compel God to save him and his graciousness
saves people without regard for their deeds. Similarly, Gods sovereignty
requires that he decide in advance the fate of all, even of the wicked,
consigning them to damnation.
2 of "Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation"
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