Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg in 1517. In the three years that followed, Luther clarified and defended his...
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More books have been written about Luther, the great German Reformer, than about any figure in history except Jesus Christ. Martin Luther (1483–1546), born in Eisleben, studied law at the University of Erfurt. In 1505 he joined a closed Augustinian friary in Erfurt, after taking a dramatic vow during a thunderstorm. Luther was ordained in 1507, and after studying theology was sent to the University of Wittenberg to teach moral theology. In 1510–11 he visited Rome on business for his order, and in 1512 became a doctor of theology and professor of biblical studies at Wittenberg. After a long spiritual crisis, Luther finally came to understand the nature of God's righteousness. He rejected all theology based solely on tradition, and emphasized the personal understanding and experience of God's Word. Centrally, he believed justification is not by works, but by faith alone.
Luther's views became widely known when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, attacking the teaching behind the sale of indulgences and the church's material preoccupations. Luther was excommunicated in 1521, and again refused to recant before the Diet of Worms in April 1521, unless his ideas were refuted from Scripture. For his own safety, he was seized and taken to the Wartburg Castle, under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. There he devoted his energies to translating the New Testament into German, so that the Bible might be read by all. Eight months later, in 1522, Luther returned to Wittenberg and set about reforming public worship, emphasizing preaching the Word, the eucharist, and congregational singing. In 1530 Luther approved the Augsburg Confession drawn up by Melanchthon.
Luther's teaching and personal experience are closely linked. He always proceeds in the same way: from Scripture to personal conviction to declaration and preaching. For Luther, God's only communication with humankind is through his Word. Christ is the essence of Scripture, and in Christ the Word becomes flesh. God speaks only to those who have faith; faith is God’s gift, not our achievement. Luther saw God behind everything in the world.
John Wyclif (c. 1320–84) was a prominent English reformer of the later Middle Ages. Wyclif attacked some of the central doctrines of the medieval church. He opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation, claiming rather that Christ was spiritually present in the eucharist. Wyclif held that the church consisted of God’s chosen people, who did not need a priest to mediate with God for them. In 1382 Wyclif, a sick man, went to live at Lutterworth, in the Midlands, where he died in 1384. He wrote many books, including a Summa Theologica and initiated a new translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English: The Wyclif Bible.
Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415) achieved fame as a martyr to the cause of church reform and of Czech nationalism. Hus emphasized personal piety and purity of life. He was heavily indebted to the works of Wyclif. Stressing the role of Scripture as an authority in the church he consequently lifted preaching to an important status in church services. Although he defended the traditional authority of the clergy, he taught that only God can forgive sin. Hus was at the centre of lengthy struggles in Prague, and his case was referred to Rome. In 1415 Hus attended the Council of Constance in order to defend his beliefs. Although travelling under the Emperor’s safe-conduct, he was tried and condemned to be burnt at the stake, with no real opportunity to explain his views.
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536), the greatest humanist after Petrarch, made the Reformation almost inevitable, for (as the monks complained) he laid the egg which Luther hatched. Educated by the Brethren of the Common Life in Holland, he became an Augustinian canon in 1487, was ordained priest in 1492, but left the monastery because he felt himself unsuited to the life of a monk. In 1495 he went to study in Paris, but found the Nominalist theology of the schools distasteful, preferring the classics of antiquity and the circle of French humanists.
During his first visit to England (1499–1500) he enjoyed the friendship of Colet and More, who drew him towards their own form of Christian humanism. Back in Holland and France, Erasmus began to publish a series of best-selling satires, which ridiculed monasticism and scholasticism, contrasted the ‘Old Ignorance’ with the ‘New Learning’, and used enlightened common sense to examine the practice of Christianity. The first of these was the Christian Soldier’s Manual (Latin, Enchiridion militis Christiani) and the most widely read, the Colloquies, which appeared in more than 600 editions. A second visit to England (1505–06) was followed by three years in Italy, which deepened his humanist sympathies and his contempt for the corruption of Rome, expressed devastatingly in his The Praise of Folly, written in seven days while staying with More in London.
Erasmus has been called the ‘journalist of scholarship’, and certainly he wrote with easy elegance and biting wit as he spread the ideals of Christian humanism. But he was also a serious editor of Latin and Greek texts. His edition of Jerome’s works was a major piece of patient scholarship, but his most important contribution to the history of the church was his epoch-making edition of the Greek New Testament (the first ever published), printed at Basle in 1516 – the year before the Reformation began.
Gasparo Cantorini (1483–1542) was a leader of reform in the Roman Catholic church. Belonging to a leading family in Venice, he studied at the University of Padua, and became well known for his scientific studies and for defending the doctrine of the immortality of the soul against Pietro Pomponazzi. He served Venice as ambassador to the Emperor Charles V and in other important posts.
Contarini was also deeply concerned with religious reform. In 1511 he underwent a religious conversion similar to Luther’s, and wrote tracts on the ideal bishop, the papacy, the sacraments, and Lutheranism. In 1535 Pope Paul III made Contarini a cardinal and the following year named him chairman of a reform commission. Contarini helped win approval for the Jesuits, and as papal legate to the Regensburg Colloquy of 1541 urged reconciliation with the Protestants, but failed to reach agreement on the sacraments. When Contarini returned to Italy, Rome refused to approve his views on justification and Luther attacked them too.
Contarini died shortly after. His life reflects – better than that of any contemporary – the political, intellectual, and religious crisis of Italy during the early sixteenth century.
Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), the Swiss Reformer, died in battle against the Catholics. Educated in Basel, Berne, and Vienna, until 1516 he was vicar at Glarus, where he learned Greek, possibly Hebrew, and studied the Church Fathers. He acted as chaplain to Swiss mercenary forces at the battle of Novara (1513) and at Marignano (1515), an experience that led him to oppose the contemporary use of mercenary soldiers.
Zwingli met Erasmus in 1515 and was deeply influenced by him. After his forced transfer to Einsiedeln, he began to develop evangelical beliefs as he reflected on the abuses of the church. In 1518 he was made peoples’ priest at the Grossmünster in Zurich. He lectured on the New Testament and began to reform Zurich, working carefully with the city council. In 1522 he secretly married Anna Reinhard, who bore him four children.
The Catholic bishop of Constance attempted to stop Zwingli, who overcame him in two public debates in 1523. When Zwingli won a further disputation at Berne in 1528, Basle, Gall, Schaffhausen, and Constance all joined the reform movement. After Zwingli and Luther reached deadlock in their debate over the eucharist at Marburg (1529), the Swiss reform movement lost the support of the German princes. The five Catholic Forest Cantons of Switzerland sent an army against Zurich, and Zwingli died at the Battle of Kappel.
Most of Zwingli’s writings were born out of controversy. His Commentary on True and False Religion (1525), a systematic theology, had considerable impact upon Protestantism. Zwingli was the first Reformed theologian. He held that Christ was spiritually present at the Eucharist, and that the secular ruler had a right to act in church matters.
Johannes Bugenhagen (1485–1558) was Luther’s pastor, friend, and colleague in reform. Called by some the Second Apostle to the North, Johannes Bugenhagen was a pivotal figure in the organization of the Lutheran movement in northern Germany and in parts of Scandinavia. His writings and diverse reforming activity made a lasting impression on church administration, education, the care of the poor, worship, and theology.
Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) was largely responsible for shaping the Protestant Church of England. Born at Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, and educated at Cambridge University, he remained a quiet scholar until suddenly summoned to Canterbury as archbishop in 1532, following advice he had given earlier about Henry VIII’s divorce. Cranmer remained archbishop throughout Henry’s turbulent reign, retaining the king’s respect to the end. He then piloted the Reformation through the reign of the young King Edward VI, but was deposed by Mary, and burnt as a heretic at Oxford in 1556.
Cranmer was Lutheran in his theology, well read in the Church Fathers, a gifted liturgist, and had a superb command of English. He was sensitive and brave, cautious and slow to decide, in a period of transition bedevilled by turbulence and treachery. Cranmer preferred reformation by gentle persuasion rather than by force, and, like Luther, believed firmly in the role of the ‘godly prince’, who had a God-given task to uphold a just society and give free scope to the gospel.
Archbishop Cranmer was responsible for the Great Bible (1538) and its prefaces, the Litany of 1545, and the two Prayer Books, of 1549 and 1552, and largely responsible for the Articles of the Church of England and the Homilies. He sought an ecumenical council with the Lutherans and Calvinists of Europe, but Melanchthon proved too timid. Cranmer’s concern was to restore a theology based on the experience of the person and work of Christ. From his doctrine of Christ came Cranmer’s theology of justification by faith and of Christ’s presence in the sacraments.
Martin Bucer, German Protestant reformer, was born 11 November 1491 at Sélestat, Alsace. He had been a Dominican friar, but left the order, and in 1522 married a former nun, Elisabeth Silbereisen. He went to Strasbourg in 1523 and took over leadership of the reform.
Bucer became one of the chief statesmen among the Reformers, and was present at most of their important conferences. In an effort to unite the German and Swiss Reformed churches, Bucer tried to mediate between Zwingli and Luther. Bucer also took part in unsuccessful conferences with Roman Catholics at Hagenau, Worms, and Ratisbon. Bucer also wrote a large number of commentaries on the Bible.
Bucer resisted the Emperor’s religious settlement, the Augsburg Interim. In 1549 he was forced to leave Strasbourg for Cambridge. While in England, he advised Cranmer on the Book of Common Prayer. He had a considerable impact on the Church of England, pointing the way towards Puritanism. He died in 1551, but his body was exhumed and burned during the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary.
Ignatius of Loyola
Ignatius of Loyola founded the dedicated and powerful Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). A Spanish nobleman, Ignatius was born in 1491 at the castle of Loyola, near the Pyrenees. His career as a professional soldier was ended by a leg wound in 1521, but, through reading lives of Christ and the saints while convalescing, he resolved to become Christ’s soldier. He hung up his sword at the altar of Mary in Montserrat and then spent a year (1522–23) in prayer and meditation at Manresa Monastery, seeking total consecration to Christ. Here he drafted his Spiritual Exercises.
Between 1524 and 1534 Loyola studied at Barcelona, Alcalá, Salamanca, and Paris, preparing for service. Then he and six friends vowed to practice poverty and celibacy, to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (this never came off), and to devote the rest of their lives to apostolic labours, in this way initiating the Society of Jesus. ‘Jesuits’, as its members were called, vowed total obedience to the pope as, in effect, commander-in-chief, and under him to the general of the order. Ignatius, a fine organizer, was general till his death in 1556.
All Roman Catholic ordinands still go – at least once – through Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, which form a four-week retreat programme of devotional meditations and instructions. Week one is on sin, week two on Christ’s kingship, week three on his passion, and week four on his risen life, with the aim of achieving complete consecration, appealing to the will through understanding, imagination, and conscience.
William Tyndale (c. 1492–1536) is celebrated for his English translation of the New Testament. He was educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and possibly later at Cambridge, and then became tutor to the family of Sir John Walsh. While living in his household, Tyndale saw at first hand the ignorance of the local clergy. To one cleric he is reported to have declared: ‘If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.’ This task became his life’s work.
The bishops had banned the English Bible since 1408 because they feared the Lollards, who had their own translation, the Wyclif Bible. This translation had been made from the Latin Vulgate and was inaccurate, so Tyndale set out to make a translation from the Hebrew and Greek. He hoped to win the support of the learned bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, but the bishops were more concerned to prevent the spread of Lutheran ideas than promote the study of Scripture. Instead Tyndale obtained financial backing from a number of London merchants, especially Humphrey Monmouth.
It was clear that England was no safe place to translate the Bible, so Tyndale left for Europe, never to return. By early 1525 his New Testament was ready for the press. Tyndale narrowly escaped arrest at Cologne, but managed to have the book published later the same year at Worms.
Tyndale’s translation had an immense influence, and rightly earned him the title of the ‘father of the English Bible’. It could almost be said that every English New Testament until the twentieth century was simply a revision of Tyndale’s: some 90 per cent of his words passed into the King James Version, and about 75 per cent into the Revised Standard Version. Tyndale also translated parts of the Old Testament, including the first five books. He was unable to complete the Old Testament because he was betrayed and arrested near Brussels in 1535, and in 1536 strangled and burnt.
Upon Luther’s death Philipp Melanchthon (1497– 1560), born at Bretten, near Karlsruhe, took over the theological leadership of the movement he had begun. Melanchthon taught Greek, first in Tübingen, then at the University of Wittenberg. There, in 1518, he met Luther – a decisive encounter that changed Melanchthon from a humanist into a theologian and reformer. With his gift for logical consistency and wide knowledge of history, Melanchthon’s influence on Protestantism was in certain ways even greater than Luther’s.
Melanchthon publicly supported Luther at the Leipzig Disputation (1519), and when Luther was away from Wittenberg, he represented and defended him. In 1521, he wrote the Commonplaces (Loci communes), the first book to describe clearly the teachings of the Reformation. He also contributed to Luther’s German translation of the Bible. At Marburg (1529) Melanchthon opposed Zwingli, claiming the service of holy communion was more than a memorial. He was also responsible for the Augsburg Confession (1530), which remains the chief statement of faith in the Lutheran churches.
Melanchthon, however, often seemed prepared to concede matters of doctrine to the Roman Catholics for the sake of peace, believing reunion was essential. The theological struggles in his own camp, with other Lutherans, deeply troubled him.
John Calvin (1509–64), the Genevan Reformer, created and systematized the Reformed tradition in Protestantism. He was born at Noyon, Picardy 10 July 1509. In contrast to Luther, Calvin was a quiet, sensitive man. He said little about his inner life; he was content to trace God’s hand controlling him. Calvin was always a conscientious student – at Orléans, Bourges, and the University of Paris. He soon took up the methods of humanism, which he later used ‘to combat humanism’. In Paris, the young Calvin encountered the teachings of Luther. Around 1533 he experienced a sudden conversion: ‘God subdued and brought my heart to docility. It was more hardened against such matters than was to be expected in such a young man.’ He next broke with Roman Catholicism, left France, and lived as an exile in Basle. He began to formulate his theology, and in 1536 published the first edition of The Institution of the Christian Religion (better known as the Institutes), a brief, clear defence of Reformation beliefs.
William Farel (1489–1565), the Reformer of Geneva, persuaded Calvin to help consolidate the Reformation there. But Genevans opposed Calvin’s efforts, and disputes in the town, together with a quarrel with the city of Berne, resulted in the expulsion of both Calvin and Farel. Calvin went to Strasbourg, where he made contact with Martin Bucer, who encouraged and influenced him. In 1539 Calvin published his commentary on the book of Romans, followed by many other commentaries. Calvin also produced a new, enlarged version of the Institutes. The French Reformer also led the congregation of French refugees in Strasbourg, an experience which matured him for his task on returning to Geneva. Calvin was invited back to Geneva in September 1541. The town council accepted his revision of the city laws, but many bitter disputes followed. Calvin tried to bring every citizen under the moral discipline of the church, and many resented such restrictions – especially when imposed by a foreigner. He now set about attaining his aim of a mature church, by preaching daily to the people.
Calvin was in a sense trying to build a more visible ‘City of God’ in Europe – with Geneva as a startingpoint. In his later years, Calvin’s authority in Geneva was less disputed. He founded the Geneva Academy, to which students of theology came from all parts of western and central Europe, and particularly France. Calvin was the great systematizer, taking up and reapplying the ideas of the first generation of Reformers. His work was characterized by intellectual discipline and practical application. His Institutes have been a classic statement of Reformation theology for centuries, and he was also a careful interpreter of the Bible. For Calvin, the church was supreme: it should not be restricted in any way by the state. He gave greater importance than Luther to the organization of the church, and regarded only baptism and the eucharist as sacraments. Baptism was the individual’s initiation into the new community of Christ. Calvin rejected Zwingli’s idea that the sacrament of communion was merely a symbol – but also warned against a magical belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.
Pope Leo X
The Medici Pope Leo X (1513–21), ascended the papal throne in 1513 with the quip: ‘Now that we have attained the papacy, let us enjoy it!’ Leo was in many ways a typical Renaissance pope: elegant, worldly, sophisticated, intelligent, consumed with political and family ambition, more of an administrator than ‘a servant of the servants of God’. An enthusiastic patron of Renaissance art and ideals, Leo aimed to advance the fortunes of his own family – the Medicis of Florence – and to increase the political power of the Papal States in central Italy, of which he was ruler. He revelled in Renaissance activities – spending a great deal of money on the arts and on gambling – while the day-to- day routine of managing the large and corrupt papal bureaucracy took much of his time and energy. All of this sapped his ability to give any kind of moral leadership over Christian Europe at a critical point in its history. When Leo first saw a copy of Luther’s Theses in 1518, he is supposed to have made two comments; probably neither of them is authentic, but both are in keeping with his known initial response to Luther. The first was: ‘Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober.’ The second: ‘Friar Martin is a brilliant chap. The whole row is due to the envy of the monks.’ He concluded that it was probably ‘only a monks’ quarrel’.
John Knox (c. 1514–72) continued the work of reform in Scotland, but Knox was taken prisoner by the French in 1547, and forced to serve as a galley-slave. When freed, he studied under Calvin in Geneva and Bullinger in Zurich.
In 1557 Scottish Protestants covenanted to effect reformation, and wrote urging Knox to return home. Arriving in Scotland in 1559, he launched the Reformation, attacking the papacy and the mass in his sermons at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. At the request of Parliament, he drew up a Confession of Faith and Doctrine (1560, replaced in 1647 by the Westminster Confession), emphasizing evangelical doctrine and urging the necessity of discipline. A General Assembly of the church was called in 1560, which settled the Reformation in Scotland. The Book of Discipline (1561), was followed by a new liturgy, in the Book of Common Order (1564), and a translation of Calvin’s Catechism. Knox had now consolidated the Reformation in Scotland.
Teresa of Avila
Teresa of Avila (1515–82) was one of the most famous mystics of sixteenth-century Spain. Born in Avila into a Spanish noble family, as a young woman Teresa committed herself to converting the heathen and healing the division with Protestants. In 1536 she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila. Although her religious career was interrupted for a time by severe illness, she was able to return to the convent in 1540.
Teresa was persuaded of the need to reform the lax – often scandalous – condition of Spanish monasteries. Supported by wealthy relatives and friends, she founded a reformed Carmelite convent, St Joseph’s (San José), in Avila, followed by sixteen more religious houses, and travelled the length and breadth of Spain inspecting monasteries, encouraging monks and nuns, and preaching reform.
Teresa was familiar with the great religious literature and epics of the Spanish Golden Age, and herself wrote an autobiography, El Camino de Perfección (The Road of Perfection), and El Castillo Interior (The Interior Castle). The theme of her best writing is the mystical life. She sought oneness with God through contemplation and prayer, which led to a profound experience and personal knowledge of God through love which she described as ‘mystical marriage’. She spoke of a second conversion, and of union through love. In her Life Teresa describes an ecstasy – which can appear embarrassing, and even erotic – in which a seraph appeared to her carrying a spear tipped with fire. He plunged the spear into her heart, piercing to her innermost being and leaving her aflame with a great love for God. This experience, she says, was both painful and sweet beyond description, and symbolized the mystical union of the believer with God.
Teresa and her companions represent the Catholic Reformation’s emphasis on emotion and religious passion.
Theodore Beza (1519–1605), succeeded Calvin in Geneva as leader of Reformed Protestantism. He had been trained as a lawyer, and a book of lovepoetry gained him a reputation as a Latin poet. In 1544 he was secretly engaged to Claudine Desnoes, whom he later married, but they had no children. After a severe illness, in 1548 Beza went to Geneva and announced he had become a Protestant.
In 1559 Beza became the first rector of the Genevan Academy. He remained in Geneva, intimately involved in its affairs, and became Calvin’s successor and one of the leading advisors to the Huguenots in France. He participated in their conferences – Poissy, 1561, La Rochelle, 1571 – and defended the purity of the Reformed faith. He produced new versions of the Greek and Latin New Testament, a source for the Geneva and King James Bibles. Theodore Beza also completed the translation of the psalms begun by Marot and wrote a biography of Calvin, De jure magistratuum (‘The Right of Magistrates’), an important Protestant political work, as well as other political, polemical, and theological tracts.
Beza was an important figure for the Reformed churches; under his leadership Geneva became the centre of Reformed Protestantism. His political activities aimed to establish the Reformed faith throughout Europe, and particularly in France. Beza’s theological method made the Reformed position more rigid.
Katharina von Bora
Luther married his wife, an escaped Cistercian nun, Katharina von Bora on 13 June 1525 and, by his own admission (via letters and Table Talks), the couple enjoyed a loving relationship and an equal partnership with distinct duties. In his testament, Luther even nominated his wife as the sole guardian of their children and possessions, a radical move that the Saxon lawyers immediately modified; Luther’s colleague and family friend Philip Melanchthon was named as her guardian, which was a happy arrangement and allowed the widow the (semi-) autonomy Luther had intended. Katharina and Martin had several children: Hans, Paul, Martin, Margaretha, and two other daughters who died young, Magdalena and Elisabeth, in addition to several foster children.
In 1534 King Henry VIII proclaimed himself the Head of the Church of England, though his quarrel with the pope was not on religious grounds, but merely because the pope would not sanction Henry’s proposed divorce of Queen Catherine. Henry himself remained a Catholic; the pope entitled him ‘Defender of the Faith’ for a book he wrote opposing Luther in 1521, and in 1539 Henry issued the Six Articles, aiming to restore the traditional Catholic faith. Henry destroyed the authority of the pope and ended monasticism in England, but among his people a powerful religious movement towards reform was occurring.
Jacobus Arminius, born October 10, 1560, professor of theology at Leiden, rejected the logical conclusions of the doctrine that the elect were determined by the sovereign will of God alone, as Calvin taught. He insisted it was possible to believe in God’s sovereignty while allowing for real free will in an individual. God willed all to be saved – not merely the chosen. Arminius insisted that his views were biblical and not mere speculation, but his doctrines were condemned at the Synod of Dort (1618–19), tolerated later in the seventeenth century, and officially recognized in 1795.