Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers

[The following is an essay on Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Menno Simons that is based on Timothy George’s tremendous work, Theology of the Reformers.  I wrote it while a student in Dr. George’s seminar on the Reformation at the Beeson Divinity School.  I highly recommend Dr. George’s book.]


The sixteenth century was a time of massive societal and religious turbulence and upheaval.  The movement known as the Protestant Reformation would forever change the theological, ecclesiastical, and ideological landscape of the Christian church in Europe and, subsequently, around the world.  The key players in this grand drama are often grouped beneath the umbrella moniker of “reformers,” and this is not without reason.  While the leaders of the Reformation do not represent a pristinely monolithic philosophical entity by any stretch of the imagination, they nonetheless share enough overall similar characteristics to warrant the single term “reformers.”  That being said, it must be acknowledged that there were enough divergent opinions, incompatible theologies, and strong personalities among Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Menno Simons to lead to sharp disagreements and, tragically, even to bloodshed among the different “strands” of the Reformation.  Therefore, the Reformation presents a picture of unity yet disharmony, filial affection yet sometimes sharp and even deadly contentions, as well as singularity of purpose yet dissension.  To see this, it is perhaps best to see how these four representatives of the Reformation comply and dissent with and from one another on the popular theological maxims that have emerged from the Reformation:  sola Christussola scripturasola fidesola gratia.  Furthermore, the reformers’ understanding of the Church’s relationship with the state needs to be explored since these understandings helped shape the direction and history of the Reformation itself.

Before any comparisons of thought should be entered into, it is of paramount importance to realize that the reformers did not envision themselves as having revolted from the Church.  Rather, they felt that they were promoting and restoring the true Church by ridding it of the excessive, unnecessary, damaging, and superfluous elements of theological error, soteriological misunderstanding, ecclesiastical corruption and abuse, and unscriptural practices and customs that had grown up, through time, in the church to the point of blotting out the purity of the Word of God.  This becomes evident when one considers Luther’s dismay over the term “Lutherans,” Zwingli’s removal of “unnecessary” elements from the décor of the churches as opposed to building “new” churches, the social and religious structure of Calvin’s Geneva, and even the staunchly literal hermeneutic which Menno Simons employed in his effort to restore the Church to the “purity” of the apostolic model (53,131, 286-7).  While Simons was the most extreme in his rejection of the vestiges of the Roman church, it still must be noted that none of these four reformers envisioned themselves as founders of new churches on the basis of new revelations.  Rather, they all saw themselves, to some degree or another, as returning to the biblical picture of the Church.

It would appear that the maxim sola Christus was the cornerstone of the Reformation, even more so than sola scriptura or sola fide.  While the Reformation must not be seen as merely a movement of negation, a movement defined solely by what it rejected, it cannot be denied that the reformers were actively involved in the stripping away of theological excesses.  To this end, all four reformers argued for the primacy of Christ and His atoning sacrifice over and against the earthly “vicar of Christ,” the penitential system of the Roman Church which seemed to suggest that a whole host of external rites and passages were necessary in addition to the cross, and a eucharistic system which had been denigrated to a form of commerce, abuse, and popular magic.

Undoubtedly, these four reformers made their most visible and shocking arguments for “Christ alone” in their rejection of the Pope and the Roman mass.  By the sixteenth century, the church of Rome’s arguments for the papacy had elevated the pope and the necessity of adherence to his word and office to salvific proportions (32-33).  To this, the reformers reacted with a vitriol that sounds shocking to modern ears.  Luther equated the pope with “spit, snot, pus, feces, urine, stench, scab, smallpox, ulcers, and syphilis” in terms of his relationship to the Church, the body of Christ (88).  Zwingli, Calvin, and Simons would all concur with Luther’s rejection of the papal system as it stood, if not the particulars of his language.

While the reformers undoubtedly had political reasons for opposing the rule of the pope, it was primarily for theological reasons that they did so.  Luther was no doubt incensed, for example, about the funneling of German money to the construction project of St. Peter’s basilica.  Yet his nationalistic anger paled in comparison to his sense of outrage over the doctrinal illegitimacy of the theological underpinnings of the entire papal system.  The same can be said of Zwingli, who spent much of his life, including the last moments of it, enmeshed in the political struggle for the freedom of the Protestant lands of Switzerland against the church of Rome.  His wielding of the two-headed axe against the enemy Catholic soldiers was fueled as much if not more so by his rejection of the false doctrine behind the Papacy than by his desire for political independence.

By claiming that Christ alone was the head of the Church, the reformers were reacting to the office of the Roman pontiff.  To all four of these men, the Word of Christ bore more authority than any papal bull.  Furthermore, salvation was in Christ alone.  The Pope did not bear the keys of heaven and hell in regard to the eternal destinies of man.  Nor did the vestiges of the entire commercial system of salvation (relics, liturgies, chants, et al) have any place in the ordo salutis.  Christ was sufficient.  In this regard, even the magisterial reformers warrant the adjective which has come to be applied to the Anabaptists and their kin:  radical.  They were radical in their Christocentric understanding of the Church.

As clear as the reformers were on this point, it is difficult to understand why some of today’s Protestant believers, denominations, and churches are still, in essence, seeking to establish a Pope.   Be it a favorite author whose notions are slavishly adhered to, a denominational champion whose word is rarely tested by the scriptures, or a pastor who has gathered, and/or has been given, nearly incomprehensible power of the life of a congregation, many Protestants today seem to be crying out, like the children of Israel, for a king.  Against all such exaltations and near deifications of earthly figures stand the reformers’ theological arguments against the papacy.  As such, the reformers’ attacks upon the papacy still stand as crucial to the ongoing life of today’s churches.

Closely wedded to the concept of sola Christus was the concept of sola Scriptura.  In so many ways, the Reformation appears to be as much of a general intellectual revolution as a theological one.  The Reformers returned the Bible to the people and, in so doing, made a dramatic philosophical statement concerning not only the right of men to read the scriptures but even their ability to do so.  To be sure, the reformers would recoil in horror at the hermeneutical anarchism and isolationist interpretative approaches of much modern Protestantism.  In truth, that the widespread dissemination of the scriptures along with the Protestant teaching that all should search the scriptures resulted, in some cases, in such unfortunate eisegetical practices is clearly seen in the bemoanings of Thomas Hobbes as well as, tellingly, of the reformers themselves (80).  In a move that is strikingly relevant to many discussions surrounding the authority of scripture today, Calvin argued against those who were promoting individualistic experience over the Bible’s teachings (197).  The magisterial reformers were united in their condemnation of such practices among the more exotic strands of the radical reformation as was Menno Simons himself.

Yet, such individualistic interpretations are merely the opposite extreme of the hermeneutical hubris of a pontifical system which saw the scriptures as the sole property of the Pope, priests, fathers, and councils.  For all of its potential abuses, the Protestant return of the scriptures to the people, aided in wide measure by the new printing press, led not only to the moving sight of the uneducated learning to read the Word of God, but also to scenes of boldness on the part of the laity in the face of the Bible “experts” that cannot help but move even the most cynical heart (273, 291).  Thus, sola scriptura, while not itself insulated from abuses, was offered by the reformers as an essential corrective against the captivity of the scriptures to the Roman church.

The reformers argued that the scriptures stand above all human proclamations, be they by pope, council, or creed.  Luther’s own “conversion” came from his personal encounter with the Holy Spirit through the study of scripture, notably Romans 1:17 (69).  Zwingli demonstrated his belief in sola Scriptura through a homiletical move which shocked the people.  On January 1, 1519, he set aside the lectionary for good and began preaching through the book of Matthew in the Great Minster church in Zurich, thereby illustrating his conviction concerning the primacy and centrality of the Word of God in the operation and instruction of the Church (113).  Calvin likewise lashed his preaching to the Word of God and also developed a full-orbed theology of scripture.  Calvin viewed the Bible as the inspired Word of God, which had been given to men through men inspired by the Holy Spirit.  As such, it stands above all other human utterances.

In Menno Simons’ approach to the Bible, we find a consensus with the views of the magisterial reformers yet a variance as well.  It has often been said that Luther hatched the egg which Erasmus laid.  What is meant by this is that Luther took the Erasmian approach to reformation to its conclusion.  It might also be said that Simons hatched the egg that Luther laid regarding sola scriptura.  Simons agreed with the other three reformers in their emphasis on the authority of scripture above all other human utterances.  However, he developed what might be called the most thoroughgoing hermeneutic of literalism among the three.  Infant baptism proved to be “ground zero” for Simons’ departure point from the magisterial reformers.  Through his study of the scriptures, Simons became convinced that infant baptism is nowhere taught or seen in the Bible and should therefore be rejected (260).  He came to similar conclusions concerning transubstantiation.  Thus, Simons articulated a theology of scripture not only against the church of Rome, but also against Luther, Zwingli, and the other reformers.  While Simons’ hermeneutic opened the door for the abuse of hyper-literalism, he must be commended for carrying sola scriptura to its conclusions.

That the reformers posited a theology of the primacy of scripture over all other human utterances is evident.  Yet, it is important to note that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli did not thereby shun the importance of the historic witness of the church as it was articulated in the patristic writings, creeds, and councils.  On the contrary, it is clear that Augustine contributed heavily to the harmatalogy and soteriology of Reformation theology and was widely esteemed among most of the reformers (48, 74).  Luther called for and practiced a renewed study of patristic writings, used the Apostle’s Creed, and spoke in the language of Nicea and Chalcedon (57, 82).  Zwingli likewise showed an affinity and appreciation of the Church’s historic statements of faith (128-129).  Calvin also made frequent use of the early fathers and appears to have been heavily influenced by Anselm (197, 220-223).  Even Menno Simons, who chastised Luther and Zwingli on their mingling of patristic and creedal statements with the statements of scripture, could not avoid, on occasion, using the theological language of the councils or even appealing to the patristic sources when it would support his own position (275).

Thus, while the reformers argued for the primacy of scripture, they were not arguing that the historic witness of the church was without merit or that it could not be used to the edification of the Church.  Rather, they were arguing that this witness should not be granted the authority which is rightfully afforded only to scripture.  This is important not only because it brings the maxim of sola scriptura into sharper focus, but also because it stands as something of a corrective to much modern Protestantism.  The magisterial reformers especially would have found the widespread modern denigration of the importance of knowing the historical witness of the church to be tragic.  They would rightly point to the scandalously fragmented horizon of Protestantism as the result of fostering an almost arrogant hermeneutic in which the modern believer approaches the Bible as if their individual  experience with it is what is most important with no recourse to the historic witness of the church.  They would perhaps be suspect of any extreme anti-creedalism which divorces itself from the history of God’s people and their articulations of doctrinal and theological verities as well.  To be sure, the magisterial reformers would point out to many Protestant denominations and churches that simply ignoring the wisdom of our fathers is almost as scandalous as elevating their writings to the stature of holy writ.

What is more, there is evidence that the reformers would have issued clear rebukes of any types of theological narrowness concerning specific theories of the inspiration of scripture.  While all of the reformers argued for the authority of the Bible, Luther and Calvin show evidence of having read the scriptures with a critical eye.  This is seen, for example, in Luther’s relegation of James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation to an appendix of his Bible and in Calvin’s emphasis on the humanity of the biblical writers as well as his occasional conclusions concerning scribal errors and copyists’ mistakes in his discussion of seeming contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical text (84, 195).  Menno Simons took issue with Luther’s view of James, yet he accepted the full inspiration of the apocrypha (277).  Thus, the reformers showed a unity on the authority of the scriptures, but, with the possible exception of Menno Simons, they further revealed that they were able to approach the scriptures with some measure of freedom and openness concerning issues of canonicity and inspiration.  It is not too presumptuous to assume that they might find our occasionally stupefying arguments concerning the subtleties of differing theories of inspiration to be a little pedantic.

If the reformers all shared some affinity for the concept of sola scriptura, the same can certainly be said of the idea of sola fide.  Perhaps more than in any other reformer, salvation by “faith alone” looms over all of Luther’s works.  Luther’s rite of passage from a monk desperately trying to please a God of wrath through obedience to a variety of legalistic tenets to a champion of grace who argued that Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to believers who put their faith in Him has perhaps been oversimplified at times, but is, in essence, a matter of history.  In many ways, sola fide stands hand in hand with sola Christus as the cornerstone of the Reformation.  In his formulation of a forensic view of justification, Luther argued that Christ’s righteousness was imputed to the believer not through the purchasing of indulgences, or severe acts of penance, or an austere life of mortification, rather, believers were proclaimed righteous on the basis of the finished work of Christ.  He even argued that the sacraments were not salvific in nature (93).

Apparently, the concept of sola fide was fairly quickly abused by those who used it as a cloak for licentiousness, for Luther himself spoke clearly against such misuses of the doctrine (61).  Zwingli seems to have felt some uneasiness about the abuses of this concept.  Therefore, while he did not dispute sola fide, he defined “faith” in such a way that it could not claim authenticity if it did not produce fruits of righteousness.  For Zwingli, faith was a way of living (133).  Calvin agreed with the Lutheran concept of sola fide but did also stress that faith did not mean mere intellectual assent to a series of theological and historical propositions.  Rather, it meant an acceptance of Christ into one’s very life which resulted in the outworking of the Holy Spirit (225).  Menno Simons quite clearly felt that Luther’s emphasis on sola fide had opened the floodgates of loose living among those who claimed it and attempted to create a synthesis between faith and works that would hold the believer morally responsible for his life (270-272).  Even so, however, Simons did not teach salvation through works or return to the yoke of legalism.  He still attempted to appeal to the grace of God as it is accepted in faith as the basis for salvation.

A perusal of the writings of modern evangelicals shows that the tensions among the reformers on this point have been carried down to the modern day.  This is most clearly seen in the “lordship salvation” debate.  It would appear that many Protestants are still quite uneasy about oversimplified statements ofsola fide which almost everybody agrees have been used as licenses for loose living among many believers while at the same time they are equally uneasy about lapsing into “works righteousness” and legalism.  Perhaps one should find in the reformers’ own struggles in articulating the particulars of sola fide an important sensitivity concerning the dangers of “works righteousness” on the one hand and cheap grace on the other.

The concept of sola gratia stands in close soteriological proximity to the concept of sola fide.  Sola fidewas adhered to as a corrective against the entire system of works righteousness which formed the presuppositions undergirding the Roman eucharist and penitential system.  Sola gratia represents the magisterial reformers’ conviction that salvation was all of God, from beginning to end, and could not be bought or earned in any fashion.

Luther and Calvin stood closest to one another in their expressions of sola gratia.  Luther expressed a thoroughly Augustinian understanding of providence and predestination in his famed debate with Erasmus.  Luther argued that the will was bound and destroyed in the fall and so faith itself was a gift of grace (75-76).  Thus sola gratia stands behind sola fide in the ordo salutis.  Calvin, of course, is most well known for his statements on providence and predestination.  He essentially agreed with Luther, and, before him, Augustine, though he placed his discussion of providence within the context of creation and God’s purposes and continuing work in it.  Calvin argued that God has decreed before the foundations of the world the elect and the reprobate, that the will is not free, and that man is yet morally responsible for his life (208-209).  His purpose in doing so was not to argue theological intricacies, but rather to stress that all of the glory belongs to a God who is not absent or distant from us.  Zwingli also agreed in essence with Luther and Calvin and posited predestination within his discussion of the providence of God (124).

On the point of sola gratia, Menno Simons departed from the overall consensus of the magisterial reformers.  Arguing that Luther’s doctrine of double predestination impugned the righteousness of God by making Him the author of sin and leads to antinomianism, Simons argued that God has allowed free will to survive in man (271-272).  One must be cautious to say that Simons did not believe in sola gratia.  Undoubtedly he would argue that it was solely through God’s grace that human beings are created and given free will in the first place, but certainly such an argument would be a variance with the understanding of sola gratia expressed by the magisterial reformers.

Again, it is not difficult to see that a thorough reflection and interaction with the reformed concept ofsola gratia would be more than helpful for the modern Protestant church.  On the one hand, the magisterial reformers’ emphasis on the initiative of God’s grace would serve as a sorely needed corrective to a prevalent soteriology which seems to be more anthropological in nature than theological.  Regardless of where one stands on the questions of election, predestination, and reprobation, it must be admitted that salvation in too many churches has been reduced and diminished into a sort of contract agreed upon between God and man, who presumably stand on equal footing at the time of negotiation, and which is largely non-binding on the believer’s life.  The sheer and utter hubris of such an understanding must be encountered with a theology which sees God as the author and finisher of our faith.  It must somehow be communicated again that God is not our “pal” or “buddy.”  Rather, He is the holy God of eternity past, present, and future to whom we owe great praise for all of His works, including our salvation.  On the other hand, even if one disagrees with Menno Simons, his views in this regard offer a much-needed caution against an excessive fatalism and an antinomianism which is no more honorable to God than arrogant theological humanism.

No discussion of these four reformers would be complete without a consideration of their respective approaches to the question of the relationship between the Church and the secular government.  Obviously, the “magisterial” reformers bear some common characteristics.  The term derives from the magisterial support granted to, and solicited by, the reform movements of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin (20).  Yet, there was great variety in their views of Church and state as well.  Menno Simons would represent the most serious departure from the views of the magisterial reformers.

Luther argued that the Church and the state were the “right hand” and “left hand” of God.  They were separate entities.  The Church should not lord over the state nor the state over the church.  Yet they were not radically separate entities.  Civil power, after all, was established by God as a concession to the fall.  Leaders should even protect the Church.  Christians, on the other hand, should obey the state insofar as the state is not asking them to disobey God (98-101).

Zwingli rejected Luther’s distinction between Church and state and argued for and sought to institute a societal order in which the Church and state worked in harmony with one another.  The Kingdom of God was visible and extended to every facet of society in Zwingli’s mind.  Thus, in Zurich, politicians and clergymen worked together.  While there were checks and balances of a sort, Zwingli sought to wed the two entities together.

Calvin argued that the rule of Christ should extend to society as a whole, including the Church and the state and encouraged believers to pray for godly magistrates.  He did not argue that leaders within the Church held any authority over civil leaders.  Yet, he stated that it was the responsibility of the magistrates to protect and aid the church in its task of transforming society along the dictates of God’s word.  However, if civil leaders did not do so, and if indeed they were wicked, Calvin urged the Church to submit to their rule and be willing to suffer in obedience (244-246).  In this regard, he differed from Zwingli who allowed for the overthrow of tyrannical rulers.

Menno Simons established the most radical dichotomy between the Church and the secular government.  For Simons and the Anabaptists, the Church was a separate entity.  Christians were to obey the civil rulers insofar as they could do so without being disobedient to God.  Yet, where the state would have the Church disobey God, as in baptizing infants as opposed to believers, the Church must obey God even if it meant, as it often did for the Anabaptists, death and torture.  Furthermore, Simons did not look to the civil authorities to help or aid the church in any way (286-287).

In truth, it is difficult not to see the position of the magisterial reformers as extremely problematic in light of the sordid and often bloody scenes which seem to have resulted from close unions of the Church and the state throughout history.  It would seem that such unions almost always end in the corruption and misuse of the church.  Yet one is right to wonder if the sometimes extreme separatism of the Anabaptism is not equally problematic.  An examination of the reformers’ positions and our own social and political context suggests that the church should be “involved” enough with the state so as not to abandon wholly hope for godliness among civil authorities yet distant enough so as to avoid the lure of political intrigues and power and the distraction of the Church from its central task of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  As such, there should be a tension in the relationship between the state and the Church.

The magisterial reformers’ use of the civil authorities in killing dissenters on theological issues stands as one of the truly dark chapters of the Reformation.  This is difficult to understand in light of the New Testament.  Whatever else Christ must have meant by it, He certainly presupposed some degree of separation in his admonition that we “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).  Whether it be the state’s coercion on matters of Church teaching in the official church of Hitler’s Germany or today in the official church of modern China or the Church’s false assumption that the hearts of men can somehow be changed by legislation, as in the assumptions behind the intense flirtation between some parachurch or denominational groups and secular political parties, close unions between the Church and the secular government almost always lead to the corruption of the Church and almost never to spiritual renewal in the government.  In this regard, the Anabaptist vision of the Church in the world is perhaps closest to the New Testament design.

In the final analysis, it might just be proven that the greatest lesson the modern Church can learn from the reformers is that it is incumbent for the Church of Christ to live in theological integrity.  It was on the basis of their theological convictions that Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Simons sought to reform Church and society alike.  Thus, theological conviction stands as the fountainhead for practical church and social life.

It is scandalous that the modern Protestant churches seem, with some exceptions, to have forgotten this fact.  Theology has been sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism, and doctrinal fidelity has been substituted with a minimalist theology of reduction.  As a result of this lowest common denominator theology, churches are not seeing themselves, or the lives of their parishioners, changed.

In this regard, we might even find a lesson in the schisms of the reformed churches from the Roman Church and even among the Protestant churches themselves.  For all of their excesses, which we must truly lament, it must be admitted that men willing to separate, suffer, and risk life and limb for theological convictions are preferable to an excessively permissive ecumenism that sees theology as somehow secondary to external harmony.  The reformers were above all men of conviction concerning God and the truths He has bequeathed us.  To this end, they stand united as examples of that type of conviction which the Church is in desperate need of today.

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