Essentials of Church History - Lesson 5

Reformation in Europe

Zwingli and Calvin were influential leaders in the Protestant Reformation movement. The Anabaptists and Mennonites are movements that still have an influence on theology in the church today.

Gordon Isaac
Essentials of Church History
Lesson 5
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Reformation in Europe

I. Ulrich Zwingli

A. Everything is to be judged by scripture

B. Influence of biblical humanism on Zwingli

C. Zwingli's preaching ministry

D. Comparison of Luther and Zwingli

II. Anabaptists

A. Anabaptists threatened societal order

B. Anabapatists persecuted

C. Cultural differences in punishment for heresy

D. Melchior Hoffman

E. Fall of Muenster

F. Mennonites

III. John Calvin

A. Calvin's life

B. Calvin's writings

C. Calvin in Geneva

D. Theology of Calvin

Class Resources
  • Specific political and cultural events combined to form a setting when Jesus lived, which can be described as the "fullness of time." In the founding and development of the early church, Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 and the persecution of Christians were significant.

  • Because of Palestine's central location in the Middle East, it was important to other countries militarily and economically. The apostles and other Christians were able to travel to spread the gospel throughout the world. Constantine's conversion and his support of Christianity had a greatly affected its growth and development. The ecumenical councils met to discuss and articulate a biblical view of God, as well as Christ's divine and human natures.

  • Individuals like Augustine helped shape the theology of the church. Charlemagne and Gregory the Great expanded the political influence of the church. The monastic movement, rise of Islam and the Crusades were significant during this period of time.

  • The influence of Catholicism expanded in the 15th and 16th centuries because of the exploration sponsored by Spain and Portugal. A central figure in the Reformation was Martin Luther. His theological ideas initiated and shaped the Reformation movement and are still influential today.

  • Zwingli and Calvin were influential leaders in the Protestant Reformation movement. The Anabaptists and Mennonites are movements that still have an influence on theology in the church today.

  • The political events in the 16th century had a great impact on the Reformation movement in England and Scotland.

  • The Catholic heritage of France made it difficult for Protestant groups to thrive. The Catholic reformation spawned the beginning of several movements that still exist today. The Council of Trent clearly delineated major differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. We still struggle with some of the same political and social implications of our beliefs with which the reformers wrestled.

  • A prevailing attitude during this time was that religious tolerance was a better policy than emphasizing doctrinal disagreements that led to wars. Why be concerned about details of doctrine that produced nothing but quarrels and prejudice when natural reason, something all people have in common, can answer the fundamental questions regarding God and human nature? Political and religious leaders in England and Europe contributed to the debate between Reformed theology and Rationalism. Subjects addressed are the Thirty Years War, Puritan revolution in England, Reformed Orthodoxy, Westminster Confession, Deism, Rationalist option in the wake of the confessionalization of Europe, George Fox and the Spiritualist option, Pietism with Zinzendorf, the Moravians, John Wesley and the Methodists.

  • Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were well-known preachers in the Great Awakening in the American colonies in the early 18th century. Camp meetings were common in meetings during the 2nd Great Awakening. Preachers like Dwight Moody began a movement which resulted in urban revival. Mormonism and Jehovah witnesses were two religions that were founded. The fundamentalist vs. modernist controversy, as well as the geographic expansion of missions, still affect the world today.

  • Wesley's preaching and the holiness movement were major influences in beginning the modern Pentecostal movement. Charles Fox Parham was instrumental in the formation of the Pentecostal movement, sometimes referred to as the "first wave." The second and third waves of the Pentecostal movement, as well as the ecumenical movement, have had a significant impact on individuals and churches across the world during the twentieth century.

The people, events, and movements that shaped church history from the life of Jesus to the twentieth century. The class looks at the early church, Constantine, the church in the Middle Ages, the Reformation in Europe and Great Britain, and Protestantism in France. It then moves into more recent centuries and deals with the issues of doubt and dogma, and finally the Great Awakening with Edwards, Whitefield, and eventually Wesley. 


I. Ulrich Zwingli

Luther did his reformation work in Germany in Electro- Saxony and primarily we find Ulrich Zwingli carrying out the reformation in Switzerland, in Zurich in particular the Canton of Zurich. Whereas the German reformation was sparked by Luther’s academic theological disputation of the sacrament of penance and indulgences the Swiss Reformation went public with the so called Affair of the Sausages.

A. Everything is to be Judged by Scripture

During Lent of 1522 Zwingli was at the house of Christoph Froschauer, a printer who was laboring over the preparation of a new edition of the epistles of Paul. In order to refresh his dozen tired workers, Froschauer served sausages. Was it just a coincidence that the number of participants and the manner of distribution recalled the Lords Supper; this public breaking of the Lenten Fast flouted both medieval piety and ecclesiastical and public authority. The Zurich town council arrested Froschauer but not Zwingli who himself had not eaten the meat. Zwingli who held the immanent post of “people’s priest” at the Great Münster Church in Zurich could have smoothed everything over; instead he made a public issue out of the incident by preaching a sermon entitled, On the Choice and Freedom of Foods. It was soon enlarged into printed pamphlet.

Almost certainly influenced by Luther’s earlier treatise On Christian Freedom, Zwingli argued that Christians are free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during lent. In a word, if you fast, do so, if you do not wish to eat meat, eat it not, but leave Christians a free choice in the matter. How had Zwingli reached this point of public opposition to ecclesiastical and public authority? Ulrich Zwingli, who lived from1484 to 1531, was born into a well to do peasant family in Wildhaus, a village high in the Alps of the Toggenburg, a duchy allied with the Swiss Confederacy. His grandfather and then his father served as the local magistrate an elected position usually filled by one of the wealthier farmers. A precocious farm boy from an Alpine Village with politics in his blood, Zwingli was already studying Latin and the classics in Basel at the age of ten. After continuing his Latin studies in Baron he then went on in 1498 at the age of fourteen to the University of Vienna where he was introduced to the Humanist Movement. At the time the Poet Laureate of the empire Konrad Celtis was lecturing there, but it is not known whether Zwingli attended his lectures

B. Influence of Biblical Humanism on Zwingli

Zwingli continued his education at Basel, where he studied theology, philosophy and the new Humanistic Studies, receiving his B.A. in 1504 and M.A. in 1506. At Basel he appears to have been influenced by via antiqua, which is THOMISTIC THEOLOGY, St. Thomas Aquinas’ theology. Two of his fellow students, Leo Judd and Conrad Pelican, later became his colleagues in the Zurich reform. Upon finishing his studies Zwingli was called to be the parish priest at Glarus in the Swiss Canton of the same name. During his decade of ministry in Glarus he found time to pursue his passionate interest in the classics, the church fathers and the Bible with enough time left over for his avocational interest in women. He also learned Greek and was introduced to Erasmus and the Humanist circle at Basel. Zwingli’s fascination with humanism did not precipitate a break with scholastic theology but rather stimulated his interest in the primary sources of the Christian faith and provided the philological resources to understand them.

With Erasmus’s Greek New Testament and his own linguistic ability he was able to concentrate on the text without subservience to traditional interpretations. From Erasmus, Zwingli learned to seek the simple meaning of the biblical text and to present Jesus as the model for the Christian life. This hardly seems radical today. But the simplified Christianity of deeds was liberating in the context of the medieval religious life complicated and burdened as it was by numerous church laws and rituals. 

Over the course of his studies Zwingli became very familiar with the Greek text. He grew in his ability to preach and preach well and later on he was called to Zurich where he had his longest stint in ministry.

C. Zwingli’s Preaching Ministry

In Zurich, Zwingli began a program of reform in January 1519 Zwingli preached and celebrated mass at the Great Munster. His address marked a new departure, for instead of preaching from the text assigned in the churches calendar he began a series of sermons that went “seriatim” through the whole Gospel of Matthew. He then chose other New Testament books on the basis of what he perceived to be the need of the people and proceeded to expound each as a whole. This was not only scriptural preaching; it was education in the Bible.

Beginning in 1525 Zwingli instituted the practice of weekly bible studies known as prophesying. The name taken from I Corinthians 14 meant biblical instruction. The goal was theologically to inform and to mold the ministers and advanced students of the Latin School; a similar practice was instituted in Geneva around 1536 by Calvin and Farel under the name of “congregations.” The centrality of biblical instruction was basic on Zwingli’s conception of reform. All of one, both personal and communal is to be normed by scripture.

The reform principle that Zwingli was formulating on the basis of his humanistic and biblical studies was that everything was to be judged by scripture. What did not conform to Biblical teaching did not command obedience. The test was whether traditional ceremonies and teachings promoted the Gospel of redemption and by Christ. This test of course quickly raised questions about all areas of life beyond sex and sausages. The effort to provide biblical norms for all of life also eventually led to neighborly spying and court enforced attempts to oversee the cities moral life. But was this biblical preaching an indication that Zwingli had broken with the Roman Catholic Church? Had the banner of Sola Scriptura –that is scripture alone- displaced the authority of the church? Or was this preaching the expression of the typical humanist concern for biblical exposition?

The question of when Zwingli became a reformer and the related question of when Zurich embraced reform are controversial. If abolition of the mass is to be the criterion then the definitive step did not occur until the 13th of April 1525 when an evangelical communion service replaced the mass. If the town councils endorsement of Zwingli’s first public disputation is the criterion then the Zurich Reformation may be dated to the 29th of January in 1523. But if the crucial issue was the recognition of biblical authority over the churches claims to authority then the reform movement got under way with the beginning of Zwingli’s preaching ministry and was formally recognized with the judgment of the first Zurich disputation in January of 1523 So whenever you date the official starting of the reform movement in Zurich certainly it’s right in the early 1520’s. 1523 – 1525. The process of reformation of course for Zwingli as well as for Luther was not an easy project they were simply figuring it out as they went. The first year of his ministry Zwingli stirred many hearts both pro and con with his biblical preaching with his attacks on indulgences, criticism of the honoring of saints and images and assaults on scholastic theology. He was thrilled when he learned of Luther’s July debate with Eck in Leipzig, but although Zwingli could now hail Luther as a new Elijah and began reading Luther’s writings he did not seem to see in Luther any more than a comrade in arms in a struggle he was already engaged in.

There is little evidence of deep theological influence from Luther and later Zwingli was to assert that he developed independently of Luther. Luther himself affirmed this later when he asserted that Zwingli is of a different spirit.

D. Comparison of Luther and Zwingli

Comparisons of Zwingli with Luther and Calvin of course are inevitable but we need to be careful that we don’t subordinate Zwingli to these others; he had his own space to fill. In the comparison’s that follow the intention is not to present Luther as the norm of reform by which all others are to be judged. Zwingli’s own claim to independence should be respected. But that does not mean that it ought not to be examined in its varying contexts as to whether it was more tactical than substantive. For the name Lutheran became a synonym for heresy in the early 1520’s. In this regard there’s very interesting art that one can find in the time period.

There is a wood cut entitled The Godly Mill. It was a woodcut for a pamphlet printed by Froschauer in Zurich in the spring of 1521. The description of the Godly Mill which operates by the grace of God was reinterpreted as an allegory or a symbol for the reformation dissemination of the pure Word of God. The flame of the Holy Spirit descends from God the Father and propels the mill wheel by grace. Christ pours the four evangelists and Paul with sword into the hopper as the material to be ground. Erasmus whose edition of the New Testament was so helpful to Luther and whose humanism was influential upon Zwingli is the miller. Erasmus shovels the meal marked by the banners of the biblical virtues of hope, love, faith and strength into the sack. Behind Erasmus stands Luther as an Augustinian Monk at the kneading trough, kneading the dough. The bread of Evangelical teaching is distributed as books by an unnamed figure in academic garb. The representatives of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who stand at the right of the woodcut from left to right a Dominican monk, a cardinal a bishop and pope; refuse the gospel and let it fall to the ground. Above their heads is a flapping bird croaking out, bahh bahh. The symbol of the peasantry and the common man, Hans the hoe man looms large with his flail protecting the proclamation of the gospel and threatening the enemies of the reformation.

It is presumed that the figure distributing the gospel, the only figure without a label or specific attribute is Zwingli. So it is very interesting that these are the kinds of pamphlets that were being produced down in Zurich.

It is noteworthy, given Zwingli’s stated independence of Luther, how freely and impartially he presents Luther as the mediator of the evangelical message, as the baker of the reformation. How did Zwingli come to reform? It appears biblical humanism was the predominate influence. For him the whole matter of coming to the text of scripture and in his case the Greek text without the glosses from the medieval theologians is really how he perceives his own reformation trajectory. Zwingli, by the time of the Affair of the Sausages had personally and theologically matured. Luther had been publically condemned yet Zurich was still relatively calm. Zwingli had gained the confidence and support of Zürich’s common folk through his exposition of the text of the bible and his separation of the chaff of ritual externalization from the wheat of an internally appropriated gospel. His preaching ministry in Zurich began with the exposition of Matthew a text that powerfully indicates the dead tradition of the Pharisees and the Scribes. Well before the conflict over fastings Zwingli would have preached on Matthew 15 “hear and understand, not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man but what comes out of the mouth this defiles a man.”

In Zurich people took their “esteemed priest” preaching very seriously and began to put it into practice. Discussion of Zwingli’s more radical followers we’ll come to a little bit later on; they actually become the Anabaptists. For in their reading of Scripture they saw no evidence of infant baptism in the New Testament so they throw that over and become quite radical in the way they held that. Zwingli never did that and remained within the church and affirmed infant baptism. The growing controversy that was developing because of Zwingli’s preaching led the town magistrates to call a public disputation between the advocates and opponents of reform in the Zurich town hall and this took place in 1523. Zwingli himself may have requested this opportunity but it is also clear that the city government felt compelled to defend its honor against the charges of heresy and to develop a principle for regulating the evangelical preaching in the city. An invitation was sent to the other Cantons of the Swiss Confederacy, but in light of their disapproval of events in Zurich none of them sent any delegates.

Just to back up just a moment here. One of the things that began to take place the intercession of the saints was set aside also issues of fasting became matters of freedom; clerical celibacy were also raised. These things all threatened to break company with traditional medieval piety and so these were important issues and so when invitations were sent out there really was consternation in the town council. An announcement was also sent to the Bishop of Constance so that he might be represented at the disputation. The Magistrates referred to dissension and disagreement about the gospel and requested debate on the bible in German in order to determine the content of the preaching. If anyone disregards our regulation and does not cite the Holy Scriptures we will proceed against him according to our knowledge in a way that would gladly be believed. Well the invitation was clearly weighted in favor of Zwingli’s position. The discussion was to be in German not Latin and the basis for judgment was to be Scripture. The boldness of the council’s assumption that it could serve as a local council of the church is evident in that it only informed the bishop of its action and in its prejudgment of the outcome by positing scripture as the only norm.

The council designated itself formally and juridical as judge of both parties. It must not be forgotten the issue for evangelical side was whether God’s Word or human tradition would be the authority of the church. The disputation was the occasion for Zwingli’s preparation of the 67 Articles which was the charter of the Zurich Reformation. The Articles affirms salvation by grace alone, insisted upon the full and final authority of scripture and rejected the pope, the mass, good works for salvation, the intercession of the saints, monastic orders, a celibate clergy, penance and purgatory. Zwingli’s proposals meant nothing less than the dismantling of medieval ecclesiology.

From the outset the church is made dependent upon scripture rather than vice versa. All who say the Gospel is nothing without the approbation of the church err and slander God, that is Article I. Six hundred people crammed the town hall for the debate. After a brief welcome and the sharing of formal pleasantries Zwingli was permitted to speak. Zwingli declared that he was willing to defend his preaching and his theses and Johann Favor, representative of the bishop and a Doctor of Theology, replied in conciliatory terms that the Episcopal delegation was there to hear the causes of the dissension, not engage in substantive debate over matters that properly belonged to the impending ecumenical council promised by the recent Diet of Nuremburg; “For as I think such matters are to be settled by a General Christian Assembly of all the nations or by a council of bishops and other scholars as are found at universities.” When Favor suggested as judges, the University of Paris or Cologne, all bastions of orthodoxy, Zwingli suggested instead, to the audiences amusement, Erfurt or Wittenberg . Favor supposedly responded that these were too close to Luther and that all bad things come from the North, a reference to Jeremiah 6:1, but Zwingli’s basic point in response was that those presently assembled constituted a Christian Council who’s only judge was the infallible Scripture.

There are in this Assembly many Christian hearts taught doubtless by the Holy Spirit and possessing such upright understanding then in accordance with God’s Spirit they can judge and decide which party produces scripture on its side. Right or wrong or otherwise does violence to scripture contrary to proper understanding. Zwingli carried the day against the old order and the Zurich clergy were ordered by the council to confine their preaching to Scripture. What took place on the 29th of January 1523 in the town hall on du Levant before the open Bible was a profound religious communal experience, comparable in the highest degree, psychologically as well as sociologically to the medieval sense of fellowship, the renewal of the catholicity of the church in the small territory of Zurich. This first disputation was incredibly important as you can begin to see one of the principles for the reformers had this cry. This was the result of the emphasis on humanism, that emphasis on the return to classical training. Remember that back in 1453 with the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks there were a large number of Greek speaking scholars that made their way into Europe so in 1453 there was this dispersion, as it were, of Greek scholars, Greek speaking scholars that entered Europe, and on the basis of that influx there was renewed interest in the humanistic sources; there was also the source of some of the new scholarship that resulted in the new translation of the Greek New Testament.

So this was really an impetus for the humanistic enterprise and Zwingli was really very in touch with that movement. So Zwinglis’ reform in Switzerland was incredibly important. It had scripture at its very center and it became critically important in that part of the world. Now the Swiss Reformation was different than the German reformation, Zwingli did have some differences with Luther theologically speaking. They differed on the nature of the Lord’s Supper and some other matters but none the less we see in Zwingli an important counterpart to the reformation that was taking place in Germany.

II. Anabaptists

Now let’s move in our thinking to the Anabaptists. These are an important set of groups actually because there is no one Anabaptist group. We have to talk about the Anabaptist movement as different Anabaptist groups. The first Anabaptists actually immerged out of Zurich. In terms of the academic study of Anabaptism there are some who say that the Anabaptist movement actually sprang up spontaneously in a number of places simultaneously. But as the story, it is most often told the first Anabaptists are seen to come out of the prophesying of Zwingli’s’ Zurich. There was a small group of men who had studied the Bible with Ulrich Zwingli in these prophesying meetings and they gathered together in order to understand Scripture. There were a group of men who became a little bit frustrated with Zwingli because they thought that he wasn’t moving fast enough in terms of his reforms. They, in reading the New Testament noticed that there were no great indicators in the texts of infant baptism, but in the medieval church infant baptism was almost the exclusive form of baptism. As a matter of fact, in Switzerland at the time, infant baptism was not only a religious rite, but it had also become the means by which the civil government kept their census records. These men continued to urge Zwingli to say “we need to make this reform” and even as Zwingli had taken the lead in taking other reforms he says you know we have to reform worship and Zwingli was convinced that nothing external could produce an inward spiritual good so he began to discard certain kinds of external forms.

He went so far as to take the organ out of the Great Munster there in Zurich because music, and that organ music is something he said really is not necessary for true biblical worship So he was a bit of a reductionist in that way. And his friends around him were saying, we’ve taken a look at the New Testament and it does not seem to indicate anyplace for infant baptism and so they began to break with him. When it became apparent that Zwingli was not going to follow their course of action, some of these brethren decided it was time to found a congregation based on their new understanding George Blaurock, a former priest asked another of the brethren Conrad Grebel to baptize him stating that infant baptism was invalid so he needed to be re-baptized as a believer. On January 21, 1525 the fountain that stood at the square in Zurich Grebel baptized Blaurock who then did the same for several others. They did not then baptize by immersion for their main concern was not the manner in which the rite was administered but rather the need for faith before receiving baptism. Later as they sought to conform to the New Testament they began baptizing by immersion.

Their enemies soon began calling them Anabaptists which means re-baptizers. Such a name was not quite accurate for the supposed rebaptizers did not hold that one should be rebaptized but rather that infant baptism was not valid and therefore the first real baptism takes place when one receives the rite after having made a public confession of faith. In any case history knows them as Anabaptists a title which has lost its earlier pejorative connotation.

The Anabaptist movement drew great opposition from Catholics as well as from other Protestants. Although that opposition was usually couched in theological considerations in fact they were persecuted because they were considered subversive. Well think about it, one of the things you have to recognize about medieval Europe and this 16th century time period in particular is that authority and the consistent use of authority regulated authority was one of the most valued principles of the time and they saw their society as being the corpus christianum-that is the body of Christ. And there is one body of Christ that ought not to be rent. So if there were those in their vicinity who believed differently than that was cause for great concern because the unity of their body was being broken. In the case of the Anabaptists, who rejected infant baptism, they were considered to be subversive because they had withdrawn their children from the census and thus threatened to undermine the civil authority which was wed very closely with religious power and religious authority.

A. Anabaptist Threatened Societal Order

So these early Anabaptists were considered to be subversive. In spite of their radical views on other matters both Luther and Zwingli accepted the notion that the church and state must live side by side and supporting each other and both refrained from any interpretation of the gospel that would make it a threat to the established social order. The Anabaptists without seeking to do so did threaten the established social order. Their extreme passivism was unacceptable both to those who were in charge of maintaining social and political order; particularly amid the upheavals of the 16th century. Also by insisting on the contrast between the Church and the civil society the Anabaptists implied that the structures of power for that society should not be transferred into the church and even though Luther’s original goals did not intend it, Lutheranism was now supported by the princes who had embraced it and such princes enjoyed great authority in matters both civil and churchly. In Zwingli’s Zurich, the council of government had the final word in religious matters. The same was true in Catholic lands where medieval traditions prevailed.

This certainly did not preclude repeating clashes between church and state but there was at least a body of common presuppositions that provided the framework for the solution of such conflicts. All this the Anabaptists undid with their insistence on the church as a voluntary community totally distinct from the civil community.

Furthermore many Anabaptists were radical egalitarians, in most of their groups women had the same rights as men and at least in theory, the poor and the ignorant were as important as the rich and the learned. One thing that should be added here is that the Anabaptists in their understanding of the church understood it as a voluntary community of the saved. Whereas if you compare Luther and Zwingli, both Luther and Zwingli and even after, Calvin would say that the church is that public gathering where the Gospel is spoken. In that gathering you may have the saved and the unsaved; like Augustine had used the parable from scripture to say that there is both wheat and tares in the church and we need to recognize that fact. The Anabaptist said no, no way, the church is not both saved and unsaved; it is the community of the saved.

And so in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 written by Michael Sattler one of the admonitions given in that Confession is that a good Anabaptist will not go to a Roman Catholic Church or even to a Lutheran Church. Neither Catholic nor Protestant because to do so would be to participate in the kingdom of the devil for these churches did not have the true gospel and so Anabaptists were urged to be separate and to keep themselves pure from those other church groups.

B. Anabaptist Persecuted

Now all this appeared highly subversive, the Anabaptists had to face severe persecution. In 1525 the Catholic areas of Switzerland began condemning them to death in the following year the council of government in Zurich followed suit. In a few months persecution spread to the rest of Switzerland. In Germany there was no uniform policy for each state followed its own course, generally applying to Anabaptists various ancient laws against heretics.

In 1528 Charles 5th ordered that they be put to death on the basis of an ancient Roman law directed against the Donatist’s that established the death penalty for all guilty of re-baptizing. The Diet of Spires in 1529 the same in which the Lutheran princes protested when they were first called Protestants approved the imperial decree against Anabaptists. The only German prince who followed his conscience and refused to apply this edict was the Landgrave Phillip of Hesse. In some areas, including Luther’s Elector-Saxony, Anabaptists were accused of both heresy and of sedition.

Since one was a religious offense and the other a crime both ecclesiastical and civil courts had jurisdiction to judge those accused of being Anabaptists. The martyrs were many, probably more than those who died during the three centuries of persecution before the time of Constantine. The manner of their death varied from region to region and even from case to case. With ironic cruelty many were drowned. Others were burned to death as had become customary with heretics centuries earlier. Some were tortured to death or drawn and quartered. The stories of heroism in such difficult circumstances would fill several volumes, and still the more fiercely it was persecuted the more the movement grew.

C. Cultural Differences in Punishment for Heresy

This really is a dark chapter in church history. The Anabaptists clearly had stepped over certain sociological and had even crossed certain theological boundaries for the time but the persecution of the Anabaptists is really a sad chapter. One of the things that make it so very difficult for us to understand in our time frame is that we come after the age of toleration. We must recognize that in that 16th century time period, heresy was viewed very differently than how we might view it in our own time period. And of course I am not assuming that the hearers of this lecture necessarily have my point of view, but certainly here in the United States in this 21st century putting someone to death for their religious beliefs would be, really is quite unconscionable. But in the 16th century and this is what I try to, I tell my students this, I try to help them understand why this could happen, how this could happen. In the 16th century it was believed that if someone was heretical, they were a threat to the Corpus Cristianum. That if one allowed a heretic to retain their false belief, their anti-god beliefs, that they would corrupt society and that one would be complicit in their sin. Therefore it could not be ignored; we could not simply say let bygones be bygones.

One had to face the matter and really raise the issue and so in this particular case the Anabaptists were viewed as theological heretics and as civil subversives. Their crossing of these two lines within 16th century thought forms became very very difficult. There is a book entitled The Martyrs Mirror in which many of the accounts of the Anabaptists are recorded and there are some incredible stories. There is an account of one fellow who was being chased by Catholic authorities and it was winter time, the dead of winter and there was a river that was frozen over and the Anabaptist ran across the river and his Catholic pursuer followed him but did not follow in his footsteps and indeed found a thin spot in the ice and actually had fallen into the ice cold river and was clinging to the edge of the ice for his life the Anabaptist went back and helped his pursuer to get out and saved his life and as a result the Anabaptist was captured and he was executed. There are many examples of heroism of the Anabaptist and those stories are stirring as well as being difficult to understand in our own time period.

D. Melchior Hoffman

Now many of the leaders of the movement were scholars and almost all were pacifists but soon that first generation succumbed to persecution. The movement then became increasingly radical and became an expression of the popular resentment that had earlier resulted in peasant rebellions. The original pacifism was then forgotten in hopes of violent revolution took its place. Even before the heyday of Anabaptism, Thomas Munster had brought together some of its tenets with the peasants hopes for social justice. Now many of the Anabaptists did likewise. One of them was Melchior Hoffman a leather dresser who had first been a Lutheran and then a Zwinglian before becoming an Anabaptist. In Strasbourg where a measure of tolerance had allowed Anabaptism to become relatively strong, Hoffman began announcing that the day of the Lord was near. His preaching inflamed the multitudes that flocked to Strasbourg in hope that the New Jerusalem would become a reality. Hoffman himself announced that he would be imprisoned for six months then the end would come. He also rejected the initial Anabaptist pacifism on the grounds that as the end approached it would become necessary for the children of God to take up arms against the children of darkness. When he was imprisoned (thus fulfilling the first half of his prediction) even more people went to Strasburg there to await a sign from heaven for the time to take up arms but the growing number of Anabaptists in the city provoked repressive measures by the authorities and in any case Hoffman was still in prison after the predicted day of the second coming.

E. Fall of Munster

There were also a number of Anabaptists in Munster, a city of the North which saw the development of one of the most horrific events in the reformation time period. One of their leaders Jan Matthys a Dutch baker and his main disciple John of Leiden led a group of Anabaptists who, over the course of some time, grew in civil power in the city and finally took the city over. Immediately they set up a theocracy and they instituted polygamy according to Old Testament laws and they confiscated the goods of rich people in the city many of whom already had taken the cue and left town and soon outside the city Protestants and Catholics were saying this cannot go on and forces were gathered and the city was put under siege. Although the besieged city suffered increasing deprivation the bishop lacked funds to keep an army in the field, John of Leiden then led his followers in what seemed a successful sortie out to the city and they in response proclaimed him King of New Jerusalem. But, shortly after these events some of the inhabitants of the city, tired of the actions of the visionaries opened the gates to the bishop. The king of New Jerusalem was captured and exhibited throughout the area jointly with his two principle lieutenants then they were tortured and executed.

The rest of Europe looked on in horror and the events of this takeover of Munster by the Anabaptists and that was another reason why the Anabaptists continued to create deep suspicion regarding their movement.

F. Mennonites

Now the fall of Munster put an end to revolutionary Anabaptism. Soon the explanation given for the tragedy of Munster was the abandonment of pacifism. Like the first Anabaptists the new leaders of the movement held the reason why Christians are not willing to follow the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount is not that the precepts are impossible but rather that they require great faith. Those that have great faith will practice the love that Jesus taught leaving the consequences in God’s hands. So the principle figure in this later generation was Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest, who embraced Anabaptism in 1536, the same year that John of Leiden and his cohorts were executed. He joined a Dutch Anabaptist fellowship and eventually his followers came to be known as Mennonites. Although Mennonites suffered the same persecutions as other Anabaptists Menno Simons survived and spent years traveling through Holland and Northern Germany preaching his faith and encouraging his followers. He was convinced that pacifism was an essential part of true Christianity and therefore refused to have anything to do with the revolutionary Anabaptists. He also felt that Christians ought not to offer any oaths whatsoever and they should not occupy positions requiring them; but they should obey civil authorities as long as what is required of them is not contrary to scripture. Baptism which he performed by pouring water over the head should be administered only to adults who confessed their faith publically. Neither that rite nor communion confer grace or are a means of grace but are rather are outward signs of what takes place inwardly between God and the believer.

Finally following Jesus’ example Menno and his followers practiced foot washing. The Anabaptist movement of course is a profound one that has had a significant effect in the history of Christianity. The Mennonite central committee today does lots of very good social work and foreign mission work in various places. So the Mennonite communities took refuge in Holland, later on there were.

III. John Calvin

We now need to turn to the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland and consider John Calvin. He was born on July 10, 1509 in France He was the most important systematized person of protestant theology in the 16th century. While Luther was the daring trail blazer for the movement, perhaps the more brilliant mind and more dialectical in his thinking, Calvin bound the various protestant doctrines into a cohesive whole. Also his quest for salvation and his discovery of justification by faith dominated his theology. Calvin as a theologian of the second generation had different kinds of emphases. Where Luther might be called the Doctor of Faith, Calvin might be called the Doctor of Patience. John Calvin learned a great deal from Luther, one letter he sent to Luther calling Luther his father in the faith. But Calvin was an original thinker in his own right. By that time, Luther had delivered his first lectures.

A. Calvin’s Life

Calvin’s father was part of the rising Middle Class and served as secretary to the Bishop and Procurator of the Cathedral chapter. He obtained the income from two minor ecclesiastical posts to defray his expenses as a student. Calvin studied in Paris where he became acquainted with humanism as well as with a conservative reaction against it. The theological discussion that was then taking place made him familiar with the doctrines of Wycliffe, House and Luther. But as he later declared that he was stubbornly tied to the superstition of the papacy. In 1528, he received the degree of Master of Arts; his father thought that he should pursue a career in Law. With that in mind, Calvin studied at Orleans under two of the most famous jurists of the time, one who followed the traditional methods of study and interpretation of law whereas the latter was an eloquent humanist with a reputation of being somewhat pompous. When there was a controversy between the two men, Calvin would take the side of Listrol because he felt no admiration for the eloquence of the most famous humanist. We don’t know how Calvin eventually broke with Rome; he most likely became familiar with some of the Luther’s writings. He had a profound conversion experience, but according to his own personality, he kept this somewhat to himself. He felt that he must leave France and so he traveled to Bosal, Switzerland where he spent his time in study of literature. He only wanted to settle in a calm environment and write about this faith.

B. Calvin’s Writings

Shortly before that he had written a treatise on the state of the souls of the dead before the resurrection. So what he wanted was to write other treatises to help clarify the faith of the church in those confused times. His main project was a short summary of the Christian Faith from a protestant’s point of view based on the Apostle’s Creed. Until then, most protestant literature drawn by the urgency of polemics had dealt exclusive with the points at issue, saying little regarding either of basic doctrines such as trinity, the incarnation, etc. He proposed to fill this vacuum with a short manual he called The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The book was successful with the first edition in Latin, thus could be read in different countries and was sold out. From that point on, Calvin continued to work on additions of the institutes which grew in volume over the years. The controversies of the time, the opinions of various groups that Calvin believed to be in error and the practical needs of the church contributed to the growth of the work and thus to follow Calvin’s theological development, it would suffice to compare the successive additions of the institutes. Calvin had no particular interest in becoming a leader in the reformation, so he began to try to find a place for himself where he could do his work. After he had finished the first addition of the Institutes, he set out on a brief trip and in passing through Geneva in 1636; Calvin was visited by the local pastor, William Farrell. Farrell asked Calvin for help him. The previous Seer had become formally protestant where political factors placed a large point in this transformation. The people wanted to be independent from the Duke of Savoy and the Bishop who had formally ruled them jointly. No moral or spiritual change had come over the community which had been notorious for its licentious behavior.  Immoral doctrine was entering in the disguise of liberty. William Farrell appealed to Calvin to settle this. Calvin agreed as it seemed that this was a call from God. Farrell actually told him that it was from God and if he left and turned his back on them, then God’s anger would fall upon his head.

C. Calvin in Geneva

Apparently after praying about it, he agreed to stay. One of the first things he did was to prepare articles of faith for the church, a form of church government and a catechism for the children. He attached the roots of Licentious which was a disgrace to Geneva. Long before he had arrived, there were laws against gaming, drunkenness, dances and dress. As there was no change of heart, these laws proved unavailing. These laws were set in place by medieval legislation, not by Calvin. Calvin insisted that church members should live in accordance with the demands of the New Testament so he asked the church to exercise its own discipline and debar unworthy members from communion. The town council was unwilling to give him that authority and the fact that he ask for it, made the council so angry that they ask him to leave town. So he left town to live in Strasburg and pastored a church of French refugees where his name is still honored today. He became aquatinted with Luther’s writings in a greater way while he was there; he was also a neighbor of Martin Buetsar who eventually became professor of theology at Cambridge in England.

In Calvin’s absence, matters worsened sadly in Geneva. It was then that a Roman Catholic Cardinal wrote a letter to Geneva asking them to return to the Roman Catholic fold. There was no one in Geneva with the eloquence or theological background to give answer to that letter. So they called Calvin back from Strasburg to accomplish this task. Calvin returned to Geneva and gave answer to this letter which turned out to be a beautiful piece of Reformation Literature. It basically said that those in Geneva did not leave the church; we have simply tried to reclaim that apostolic teaching that has always been there. It is you in the Roman Catholic Church through your corruption, through you willingness to embrace indulgences and prayers to the saints and other kinds of non-biblical practices that have moved from the true apostolic faith. It is a wonderful piece, brilliantly written by marvelously educated mind and a heart inflamed by the Gospel. So his career in Geneva continued and for twenty four years, he labored in the city of his adoption. His work included several sermons a week, a lecture every day and a vast amount of correspondence with people all over Europe. He was undoubted leader of the protestant cause. No person had more realistic conception of the needs of Europe in that day than Calvin. Faced with the opposition of the Catholic Church, he longed for a general council of all protestant churches; however, this was not obtainable owing to racial and theological disagreements.

Calvin stood up strongly for the principle that church members should elect office bearers to carry on the government of the church and that in spiritual matters, the church must be independent of the state. He maintained, however, that the civil government was also a divine institution and that church and state should co-operate while respecting one another’s separate spheres. It was Calvin, Zwingli and Luther that are all part of what we call the magisterial reformation because of their reliance upon the leaders of governments; the magistrates and their conviction that church and state need to work hand-in-hand in order for there to be a full civil society. This was quite different than the Anabaptists who on their part said that there were two kingdoms, the kingdom of Christ in which Scripture rules through persuasion and peaceful means. There is the kingdom of the devil which is ruled by the evil one through force and coercion and where war and arms are to be found; so civil government was outside of this kingdom of Christ.

D. Theology of Calvin

One of the central thoughts in Calvin’s theology was the sovereignty of God. All things therefore which had to do with our salvation was founded on the will of God. We are saved only through the grace of God, ministered to us by the Holy Spirit. God alone saves, not we ourselves. Hence, Calvin taught the doctrine of predestination and election. These are profound mysteries and were treated as such by Calvin himself. They are also very perplexing to many outside the Calvinistic traditions. One thing that needs to be said is that Calvin believed that the will is bound; the only way that a person can come to saving faith is through the unilateral action of God. So the preaching of the Gospel with the administration of the sacraments is that which convey the powerful message of the mercy of God. In all things, God is sovereign, even in our faith. Therefore, it is possible for Calvin to say that God is the one who saves us and even more particularly, he would say that God has elected us before the foundation of the earth in Christ Jesus. So when confronted with the question of why are some saved and some damned, he would say that God is Sovereign. He has ordained it so. So in Calvin’s theology, there is what one might call a double predestination. God predestined those whom he has elected to salvation and he has also predestined those for damnation. This is rather different than Luther who says that it was a mystery that we ought not to approach. While Luther also believed that God was sovereign in all regards, he simply allows the contradiction to remain. For Luther would say, with Scripture, God does not desire that any should be lost, that all might be saved as well as recognizing that one’s will is bound and it is only through God’s gracious preaching and administration of the sacraments that one comes to a saving faith.

So where Luther allows that to be the strong line of the Gospel, something that is discussed only after one really understands the doctrines of grace in the Book of Romans. For Calvin, it really is something of a logical deduction from the fact that God is sovereign.   But Calvin doesn’t operate with this kind of dialectic law of the Gospel that Luther did. He has unified his understanding of the nature of God under this rubric of God’s sovereignty. So as such, that does have an effect on his theology. Calvin always realized the importance of sound education. He founded the College of Geneva with many very able followers. Calvin was a marvelous teacher. The Institutes which he wrote were a brief introduction to the reading of Scripture. And Calvin’s commentaries in addition to that become a wonderful library for the Christian pastor. Calvin was quite a careful exegesis of Scripture.  He was also a person who was concerned about social justice. At one point in Geneva there was a tremendous influx of refugees and it was Calvin’s job to oversee the care of widows and children and the refugees. There were a group of English speaking refugees that had come over to English because of Queen Mary had attained the throne. He found an empty church building for them to use for their services. He was also concerned about the distribution of food to the poor and also brought to the town council certain forms of legislation which made life in over-crowded Geneva safer.  

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