Tuesday, October 27

Luther, Zwingli and Calvin: The Magisterial Reformers

In the 1500s, the Church began to splinter as a result of the Protestant Reformation. There were two primary reformations: the Magisterial Reformation and the Radical Reformation. The Magisterial Reformation was led by figures such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin. This era is important in understanding today's religious context, where we came from, where we are and where we are going. Ecumenical efforts continue between different Christian denominations, and examining the roots of the Magisterial Reformation is yet another step on the road to ecumenism. What began the Magisterial Reformation? The immediate issue that led Luther to protest was the sale of indulgences. This issue led to Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses to the door of a Catholic Church, and after this point, he began to have more and more issues with the Church, and began calling it to reform. The indulgences began in the Crusade period - if you went to Crusade, you would allegedly have your sins forgiven. If you were a martyr, the belief was that you would go straight to heaven.

Unfortunately, this practice developed into a commerce. Pope Leo X wanted to finish building the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, so there were certain individuals who felt that the sale of indulgences would speed along this process. A Dominican named Johan Tetzel entered the picture, and was famous for saying - “when a coin in the coffer doth ring, a soul from Purgatory shall spring.” Luther heard about Tetzel, and became enraged. On All Hallow’s Eve (October 31, 1517), Luther nailed 95 Theses to be discussed in an academic setting to the church in Wittenberg, declaring that if the Pope had the power to free souls from purgatory, then he should do so freely, and out of love. Further, he felt that the Pope should be using the money gained by the sale of indulgences to feed the poor, even if it meant selling St. Peter’s Basilica.

After a series of back and forth with the Church, Luther was called to the Diet of Worms by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Fifth, to recant. He was accused of renewing the errors of Huss and Wycliffe. But he refused to recant, and had challenged the authority of the emperor and the pope. Frederick - who was the Elector who had gained Luther his position at Wittenberg - helped Luther escape to a castle, where - much like Wycliffe before him - he translated the Bible. But unlike Wycliffe's England, Germany did not have a ban on making Bibles. Despite its origins, it became widely popular. Backed by the elector, Luther’s Bible became common in German churches, and the liturgy was also in German. Wittenberg as a result became a very Protestant area.

Before examining further aspects of the Magisterial Reformation, it is important to know a bit more about Luther. Luther almost fell off a horse once during a thunderstorm, and fearing hell and damnation, called out to St. Anne to save him, and he would serve God. He became a religious in the Observant Augustinians in 1505, and was very much into ascetic practices of the time. Luther took flagellation quite seriously. On a personal level, he could not get over the fact that God was a just God. That is, in Luther's eyes, our sins are so bad, and God’s justice is so just, that we can do nothing about it. In fact, Luther’s confessor actually said, “go and actually do something... Then come back to confess.” He was always at confession, deeply stricken with his own anxiety.

After he began shifting away from the Church, Luther condemned many late Medieval practices. He retained baptism, communion, and for a while - confession. He rejected any practices inconsistent with what his view held - he rejected prayers to saints. He rejected the purchase of indulgences. He rejected the participants in pilgrimage. He also rejected bodily asceticism. Luther’s conception of the clergy robbed monasticism of its worth, and robbed clerical celibacy, because for him, there is no ranking among Christians. He felt that if you are saved by grace alone, this has nothing to do with your celibacy. Thus, he and a former nun, Katharina, had six children. Erasmus and Luther wrote a Dialogue on Free Will. They disagreed on the nature of Christian life and reform. Many Humanists stopped supporting Luther, as he saw a problem with free will.

Now, there was an important Swiss Reformer named Huldrych Zwingli. He was deeply impressed by the writings of Erasmus. Erasmus was really (unwittingly, he remained Catholic) the one who influenced the thoughts of Protestants. He was born in 1484 in a Swiss town. His early education took place in Basil and Burn. Zwingli’s outlook was influenced by the political experience of independence by the Swiss Confederacy. He was deeply influenced by Scripture and reform in Christian Humanism, as well as St. Augustine. Erasmus had encouraged study of the original languages (Greek and Hebrew) as Christian Humanism placed a great deal of emphasis on getting back to the original documents. Zwingli was well-versed in these languages, and he met Erasmus in the 1510s. Zwingli was ordained a priest in the Catholic tradition. When Erasmus had published his Greek New Testament, Zwingli made a copy which he carried with him in order to memorize it. Before coming to Zurch in 1519, he preached directly from Scripture in a humanist vein. Normally, the priest would preach on the text of the day. But Zwingli started his career preaching on a theme, using Christian Humanism as his background and foundation.

From 1506-1516, Zwingli was a priest in the city of Glarus, then went to a pilgrim town which contained a monastery. He declared that he could not find Pilgrimage anywhere in the New Testament. In 1518, due to his fame, he was transferred to Zurich. By this point, he began to go against Catholicism. He later clarified that this happened parallel to Martin Luther, not because of him. Two different reformers were following a similar line of thought. Between 1522-1525, he tried to eliminate Catholicism and institute Protestantism in the city. He went full-on trying to eliminate sacraments. During Lent, he decided to eat sausage - something incredibly sacrilegious. The city council decided that all religious issues were to be decided on the basis of Scripture. This took power out of the hands of the priests and into the hands of the laity.

In October of 1523, the council agreed to abolish Masses at the churches. Zwingli deferred to the magistrates as to the timing of the changes. Those critical of his position included future Anabaptists. In 1525, the council mandated infant baptism. The council also established an evangelical communion service, a marriage institution, and a center for studying languages. But Luther and Zwingli still had no problem reading Latin. You could teach in Latin (that was the “English” or lingua franca of the day). Zwingli wanted every aspect of life to be guided by Christian teaching. The Canton of Bern and Basel accepted Zwingli’s ideas. As early as 1524, five Swiss disagreed with Zwingli and defended the traditional faith, banding together in a Catholic Alliance. This led to war in 1531 - but Zwingli was not a pacifist. He died leading soldiers into the battle of Kappel, on November 11, 1531. Zwingli, during his life, was a priest - but did not observe clerical celibacy.

Lastly, we come to John Calvin. Born in 1509, Calvin was significantly influenced by Humanism. He started out as a Catholic (his father sent him for Law and Theology). He studied at the University of Paris. By the time that Calvin is a student, Christian Humanism had become a standard way of looking at things. Humanism had a deeper influence on Calvin than it did on Luther. In his theology we see a more positive role of the Law than we did with Luther. For Luther, God’s law functioned only to drive souls to Christ and restrain the wicked. The Council of Trent, of course, had issues with that. For Calvin, the Law is a guide to Christian practice. For him, Scripture was God’s last will and testament notarized by Christ (notice the legal language). After his conversion to Protestantism in 1536, he departed and passed through Geneva - and met William Farel. Farel begged Calvin to stay. They tried to establish a perfect Protestant society in Geneva. This did not go over well - the people tried to throw things at Calvin’s house, they named their dogs after Calvin and sent dogs after him - so Farel and Calvin were exiled two years later. There was a kind of religion police, so if you did not believe correctly, you could be executed.

In 1541, Calvin accepted an invitation to return to Geneva as they were having a difficult time and they saw his potential. He remained in Geneva until his death in 1564. During this time, Calvin wrote a large tome: Institutes of the Christian Religion, a six chapter book detailing the ideas of Protestantism. It is comparable to the Catholic Catechism. He was a hyper-Augustinian on certain doctrines. He would emphasize God’s sovereignty, and he argued for Predestination (which also came from Augustine). In Calvinism, you do not ultimately know whether or not you have been predestined to heaven or hell - this creates a great deal of anxiety. In 1541, Calvin wrote the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, in which he organized the ministry of the church into four orders - pastors, teachers, elders and deacons. He felt these represented New Testament organization. Calvin died at the age of 54 from an illness.

Bearing their various backgrounds in mind, where did Luther, Calvin and Zwingli agree and disagree in their views of theology? Zwingli’s theological difference over the Lord’s Supper with Luther was highly influential in the history of Protestantism. They sharply disagreed and refused to compromise. Zwingli taught that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist was only spiritual, whereas Luther affirmed the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Luther had a doctorate in Scripture, and was teaching at the Augustinian school (built by Frederick the Elector). When Luther met with Zwingli, there was a particular table they would sit at. Now, Zwingli and Luther vehemently disagreed on the nature of the Eucharist. As a result, before Zwingli arrived, Luther carved on the table “this is my body” so that when Zwingli disagreed, Luther would lift the table cloth and show him the Scripture passage. Various evidences show us that Luther likely never truly meant or wanted to leave Catholicism.

In fact, when Frederick the Elector took him into hiding, there was a man named Karlstadt that came around. He took over Wittenburg theologically and became an iconoclast. He inspired his followers to take the body off the cross, and to tear down statues or the saints and Mary. Luther was vehemently against this - he was not an iconoclast. Luther held on to most Catholic practices, but he had to find a basis in Scripture. Luther felt he could only find baptism and Eucharist in the New Testament, though he Luther believed in the Real Presence, and did not like the word “transubstantiation,” but did believe in “consubstantiation.” Essentially, consubstantiation is the notion that the presence of Christ is there, but there is not a change of substance. Christ is only present in the worshiping assembly, so that once the assembly has completed its worship, the presence is no longer in the elements. Luther held that good works were important as an expression of Christian love - they gained you merits (time off in Purgatory, and so forth). Luther rejected the notion that the Mass was a re-sacrifice of Jesus.

Calvin shared many central Protestant convictions with Luther, such as justification by faith alone. Scripture was the basis of legal precedent. He also rejected many Catholic teachings and practices. A profound sense of reverence for God as Lawgiver is found in Calvinism. Calvin's theology is less apocalyptic than Luther’s, and more optimistic about the future. Zwingli and Luther on the other hand both sought to restore biblical faith and practice, but went about it differently. Although Luther retained all traditions not contradicted by Scripture, Zwingli insisted that all that had no Scriptural support must be rejected. He got rid of organs, for example, as they were not in the Bible. He also banned music and other practices not found in the Bible, so as not to take away from hearing the Word of God. Even communion should not be celebrated too frequently, as it could take away from Scripture. Instead, Zwingli held that the Eucharist should only celebrated four times a year, and that people must remain seated.

It is clear that there was a difference of theological opinion among the Magisterial Reformers, but it was primarily figures such as Luther, Zwingli and Calvin who laid the groundwork for the Protestant movement as it continues today. In today's denominations, although there remain many who prefer to debate, there is a growing number of Christians who seek to dialogue over doctrinal differences and similarities, similar practices and so forth. This can lead to not only fruitful discussion but also a growing sense that although our history as Christians has been varied at best, we all remain branches of one tree rooted in the same soil - that of Christ.

“The Radical Reformation” by R. Emmet McLaughlin.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Volume I. 407-445. Print.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Volume II. 7-161. Print.

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