Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
Some people see the Protestant Reformation as a miraculous restoration of Apostolic Christianity that God dropped into history immediately from above. This view once held sway particularly in the American Protestant mind. It was, however, effectively challenged in the mid-nineteenth century by two giants of historical-theological thinking, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff of Mercersburg Seminary in Pennsylvania. Since then, there has been no going back to the older view. True though it is that God worked mightily in the sixteenth century, He did not do so through bypassing history or human causes. (By the way, Schaff’s eight-volume History of the Christian Church is still a masterpiece worthy of our affection and attention.)
The Influence Of The Renaissance
In many ways, the Reformation was the spiritual side of the Renaissance. Renaissance thinkers in the fifteenth century reacted against huge swaths of medieval culture, calling for a return to the more ancient and, they believed, healthier culture found in classical Greece and Rome. Their well-known motto was ad fontes—”to the sources.” For some, this came to include rejecting almost all medieval theology and spirituality and returning to the original sources of Christianity, namely, the Bible and the early church fathers. The fathers were seen as better interpreters of the gospel than the medieval scholastic theologians.
This return to the Bible and the fathers was most powerfully seen in the life and work of Erasmus. He is well known for his scholarly devotion to the Greek New Testament, by which he weighed and found wanting the Latin Vulgate, the official Bible of the Western medieval church. (The Apostles wrote the New Testament in Greek.) The Renaissance rediscovery of Greek, coupled with the ad fontes drive toward the sources of Christianity, resulted in Erasmus’ printed edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516. This was a bridge across which many students traveled from Renaissance into Reformation. We find it in the first two of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” He meant that the entire life of believers should be a life of repentance. The word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance—that is, confession and satisfaction—as administered by priests.
Luther here appeals to the Greek word for “repent,” which, on account of the Latin Vulgate translation poenitentiam agite, “do penance,” was previously understood as referring to the sacrament of penance.
Erasmus’ devotion to the Greek New Testament is well known. It is perhaps less well known that he was almost as devoted, in both scholarly and spiritual ways, to the early church fathers. He edited and reprinted many writings of the fathers, inviting readers to find in them a purer Christianity than was available in medieval sources. Erasmus’ own role model was the great Jerome: the celibate scholar, consecrating his intellectual gifts to advance the cause of true faith.
The greater and more accurate knowledge of the early church fathers promoted by Erasmus led many to question contemporary Christianity. Was sixteenth-century Christianity the faith that had expressed itself in the great creeds of the church, including the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon?
In this Renaissance advocacy of the fathers as the best interpreters of the gospel, one particular father loomed very large: Augustine. In part, this was simply because Augustine towered over all the other fathers in the Western church due to his theological genius, formative influence, and prolific authorship. But many found food for their souls in Augustine’s devotional and doctrinal writings. Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli became wholehearted disciples of Augustine, notably adhering to his understanding of the sovereignty of divine grace. A generation later, John Calvin said he would be happy to have his faith expressed entirely according to the teachings of Augustine. Here, then, is another and very specific way the Renaissance flowed into the Reformation. By creating a new market for Augustine, the Renaissance fed into the Augustinian “renewal movement” that lay close to the Reformation’s heart.
Erasmus himself also stoked the fires of reformation. His disgust at the flaws of late medieval Roman Catholicism, articulated often in devastating satire, helped to create in people’s minds a readiness for drastic remedies. His Praise of Folly is generally held up as the supreme example of Erasmus’ writing in this genre. To my mind, far funnier is his Julius Excluded from Heaven, in which the soul of Pope Julius II (1503–13) arrives at the gates of heaven, only to find that St. Peter doesn’t recognize him and refuses him entry—upon which Julius threatens to excommunicate the Apostle.
More positively, Erasmus set out a program of reform for society. It involved the centrality of education, a knowledge of Greek, study of the Bible, and a spirituality that focused on the faith of the heart, not mere external ritual. So often, we find that Protestant Reformers across Europe were steeped in these Erasmian ideals. They added a theological dimension that was missing from Erasmus’ own program (such as an Augustinian doctrine of grace), but the two aspects—Erasmianism and Augustinianism—proved powerfully compatible. In some cases, we can even detect the direct influence of Erasmus’ positive ideals and writings in placing someone on the reformist path, especially Zwingli, who always claimed he owed his conversion to a religious poem by Erasmus:
In 1514 or 1515, I read a poem about the Lord Jesus, written by the profoundly learned Erasmus of Rotterdam, in which with many very beautiful words Jesus complains that people do not seek all blessing in Him, so that He might be to them a fountain of every blessing, a Savior, a comfort, a treasure of the soul. So I thought, “Well, if this is true, why then should we seek help from any created being?”
The Printing Press
Just as important as the Renaissance for the Reformation was the revolutionary new way of disseminating information—printing by movable type. Perhaps one of the basic reasons why previous movements of evangelical reform did not capture the public mind (one thinks of the Waldensians, the Lollards, and the Hussites) was that they came on the scene before the printing press had been invented. In a Europe dominated by the Roman Catholic establishment, the intellectual spread of new “unofficial” ideas was far more difficult before the introduction of movable type.
The invention of printing by movable type was the information revolution of the late Middle Ages. Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, was the great pioneer in the 1450s. By 1500, more than two hundred printing presses were churning out books throughout Europe. Gone were the days when scribes (usually monks) had to copy literary works by hand. For the first time, a publisher could make thousands of copies of a book easily and quickly and put them into mass circulation. This meant that ideas could spread much more rapidly than they could before. It also meant that the ability to read became more highly valued.
As a result, the reforming ideas of the Renaissance were able to flow across Europe relatively easily, and in their wake, the even more radically reforming ideas of Luther, Zwingli, and others. We might say that printing enabled the Reformation to “go viral” in a way that simply would not have been possible in a previous age. The new information technology turned out to be God’s gift to His people.
We can discern the alignment between the printing revolution and the spread of the Reformation in a single fact: it was cities and universities that first embraced the Reformation. In England, for example, London fast became the nation’s hotbed of Protestantism. Here were the great printing presses. Here, too, was a thriving port where merchant ships could bring in Protestant literature from Continental Europe.
A similar phenomenon greets us if we look at sixteenth-century Switzerland. The Swiss Confederacy was made up of thirteen member states called cantons. Four of these were city cantons: Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Schaffhausen. The other nine were agricultural cantons based around farm and village, dominated by five central forest cantons. Is it a mere accident of history that the Reformation was victorious in all four city cantons, whereas the forest cantons remained the strongholds of Roman Catholicism? The cities, with their centers of higher learning and their printing industries, were the ideal places for Reformation thought to be disseminated.
Likewise, in Germany, the majority of the free imperial cities (self-governing cities with no higher allegiance except to the Holy Roman Emperor) turned Protestant. This was not some superficial political conversion, as the Emperor Charles V discovered to his cost when he tried to reimpose Roman Catholicism on the cities by armed force in the late 1540s. The people of the German cities remained defiantly Protestant. The sword could conquer their territories but not their souls. Charles eventually had to admit defeat and withdraw.
We should also set Luther and Zwingli in their context as outstanding but not isolated figures of Protestant reform. Luther would have been only half the man he was without Philip Melanchthon. It was Melanchthon rather than Luther who provided the linguistic expertise of the German Reformation. His knowledge of Greek was a phenomenon, and it may very well have been Melanchthon who first saw and insisted that in the New Testament, the Greek word for “justify” means to “declare righteous” in a law-court sense, rather than to “make righteous” in a sanctification sense. This became the keystone of the doctrine of justification by faith. It was certainly Melanchthon who wrote the Augsburg Confession, which became the international Lutheran standard of doctrine. Luther was well aware of his debt to Melanchthon as his most intimate coworker:
I am rough, rowdy, and stormy, born to fight armies of devils and monsters. My job is to get rid of stumps and stones, hack away thistles and thorns, clear away wild forests. Then along comes Master Philip, gently and softly, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts that God has so amply granted him.
Other coworkers with Luther included Johannes Bugenhagen, who played a key part in helping reform the church in Denmark; Justus Jonas, who left his mark as a hymn writer; Nicolaus von Amsdorf, a professional scholastic theologian who embraced the Reformation; and several others well known in their own day, although eclipsed now in the shadow of Luther. Great as he was, Martin Luther was not a one-man band.
Neither was Zwingli. He was ably assisted by men such as Leo Jud, Oswald Myconius, and Johannes Oecolampadius. After Zwingli’s early death in 1531, he was succeeded by the brilliant Heinrich Bullinger, who became the “grand old man” of the Reformation, dying in 1575.
Other parts of Europe had their own great Reformers. Martin Bucer in Strasbourg (now in France, but then in Germany) tried to combine what was best in Luther’s Reformation with what was best in Zwingli’s. The result proved highly attractive to a certain young Frenchman named John Calvin, who as a second-generation Reformer was a disciple of Bucer. Today, we may argue about who is a genuine Calvinist, but Calvin himself was nothing if not a true Bucerian.
In Denmark, we find Hans Tausen, the “Danish Luther” whose preaching spread the gospel like wildfire from 1524 onward. In Sweden, the brothers Olaf and Lars Petersson had a similarly impactful evangelistic ministry. In England, William Tyndale unleashed his English translation of the New Testament in 1525; neither English religion nor the English language were ever the same again.
And so we could go on. Luther and Zwingli may have led the way, but they were not alone. Across the face of Roman Catholic Europe, inspired by the ideals of Erasmus and the theology of Augustine, a whole generation detached itself from the corruptions of a church that had gone astray. We could do worse than invest some time and energy in finding out about these lesser-known Reformers.
Modern historians also rightly emphasize that the Protestant Reformation was only one of the reformations experienced by sixteenth-century people. The larger context compels us also to consider the Radical Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. Radical Reformers were a very diverse crowd; these days they are commonly divided into Anabaptists, Rationalists, and Spiritualists, while some historians add Apocalyptic Millennialists. They often started out as followers of Luther and Zwingli who then broke free and took their own course.
Amid their diversities, Radical Reformers were at one in rejecting the Protestant view of Scripture and justification by faith alone. The most enduring of the evangelical Anabaptist groups, the Mennonites, had a Roman Catholic understanding of the canon of Scripture (accepting the Apocrypha). All Radical Reformers repudiated infant baptism but were not agreed on what to put in its place (believers’ baptism? Spirit baptism?). Any connection between church and state, however tenuous, they also disowned—perhaps one area where most modern Protestants empathize.
The Counter-Reformation was the internal reform undertaken by the Roman church, partly in response to the Protestant Reformation. Some of the reform currents within Rome were (from a Protestant standpoint) very positive, notably the Catholic evangelical movement, which embraced justification by faith. However, what finally emerged was a Roman church solidified into a stance of militant anti-Protestantism. Theologically, this took place through the Council of Trent, where over a twenty-year period Roman doctrine was codified with a new anti-Protestant precision and clarity. At a more grassroots level, this militant hostility to the Protestant Reformation was championed with unbounded vigor by the new monastic order known as the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits.
By the time the dust settled, Europe found itself split down the middle along religious lines, with (roughly) a Protestant north facing a Roman Catholic south. Radicals, scattered on both sides of the divide, were persecuted wherever they lived. One hundred and fifty years of religious “cold war” lay ahead, sometimes heating up into devastating military conflicts that ravaged the soil of Europe and drenched it in blood. At least in Britain, the cause of Protestantism became allied to the cause of constitutional government, with far-reaching effects on the future of America.
A proper study of the Reformation, then, shows us that far from being an inexplicable bolt from the blue, it was at every point immersed in the history of its times. It had roots and antecedents; it had identifiable channels of influence; and it became deeply entwined with the politics and culture of its own unique day (now five hundred years distant from us). If I may, in conclusion, dare to quote something I once said:
In many ways, the Protestant Reformers were profoundly people of their own times, as we are of ours. We shouldn’t expect perfection of them, any more than a future generation will discover perfection in us. We will certainly find, though, as we immerse ourselves in the Reformation era, that (as Hollywood used to claim of its films) “all life is here.” We may also find that this life—so fresh, boisterous, and daring—has much to give us today, in our own comparative jadedness and superficiality.