The Reformation, Martin Luther & John Calvin
What is Reformed Theology?
– Part Two
When we said in part one that we would give a skeletal history of the Reformation, we really meant bare bones. The Reformation was one of the most consequential events in modern history with long-lasting effects on theology, politics, international relations, economics, and more. It was a significant movement that spanned a few centuries. Ph.D. students, historians, and theologians have yet to discover all the wealth of knowledge and repercussions of the Reformation.
We will sketch some of the Reformation’s theological footprints and leave the rest for you to discover on your own. Throughout part two, for the sake of brevity, we will be name-dropping notable Reformed theologians and moving on. Take this as an invitation to google them and dive into the richness of our Reformed heritage.
The Beginnings of Reformed Theology
The beginning of the Reformation era is popularly dated October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his charges—commonly referred to as 95 Theses—on the door of the Roman Catholic Church in Wittenburg, Germany. There is no debate that this sparked a global movement to break from the corrupted Roman Church and get Christians back to the simple truths of the Bible. However, there were rumblings of Reformation for centuries leading up to 1517.
One could write libraries on the figures leading up to Luther, but there are two men worth mentioning briefly: John Wycliffe and John Hus. They both fought for Reformation a century before Luther. During the time when the Bible was only available in Latin, Wycliffe was passionate about translating the Scriptures into English for common use. He was named a heretic and his translation of the New Testament was banned from circulation. Hus publicly condemned the practice of selling indulgences (these were “merits of favor” one could buy from the church to secure personal salvation). He preached the Bible faithfully and explained the moral failings of the Roman Church. He was executed and killed as a heretic. These men paved the way for the giants who later challenged the authority of the Pope and taught ordinary people the word of God.
We couldn’t do an overview of the Reformation without discussing the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin. These men are arguably the most influential Reformation-era theologians.
In the 95 Theses, Luther, like Hus, taught that a Christian’s salvation did not depend on the purchase of “merits of favor” from the Church but was secured through Christ alone. Luther was convinced that man could not be saved through any type of merit or effort but only by the act of a gracious God. In his most important work, The Bondage of the Will, Luther argues that man’s will is not ‘free’ to choose God because left to himself man loves sin and death. Luther firmly believed that God freely gives His mercy and Spirit to man so that he may love goodness and life. We are never left to ourselves. Luther writes,
“I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want “free-will” to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavour after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers, and adversities and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground; but because even were there no dangers. I should still be forced to labour with no guarantee of success. But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him. Furthermore, I have the comfortable certainty that I please God, not by reason of the merit of my works, but by reason of His merciful favour promised to me; so that, if I work too little, or badly, He does not impute it to me, but with fatherly compassion pardons me and makes me better. This is the glorying of all the saints in their God,” (Luther, The Bondage of the Will. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957, 313-314).
Calvin is famous for having a whole system of theology named after him. Calvinism taught that God predestined all happenings of history, including who would ‘choose’ to serve Him. Calvin never shied away from people’s concerns that predestination would imply a mean and cruel God. Instead, Calvin taught that predestination displayed God’s glory and mercy. He rightly believed that unrighteous man had no right to question the acts of a righteous and holy God.
Calvin was a lawyer and a pastor with a heart for the layman. He wrote his most famous work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, not as a theological magnum opus but as an ordinary guide to help the everyday Christian understand what the Bible teaches about what man is to believe about God and what God requires of man.
Today, Calvin’s teachings are often distilled to the five points of Calvinism. These are also known as the ‘doctrines of Grace’ acronymized as TULIP:
- T – Total Depravity – man by nature is sinful from birth
- U – Unconditional Election – man cannot earn his way into the family of God
- L – Limited Atonement – God in His wisdom and mercy chose a specific people to save
- I – Irresistible Grace – man cannot resist the call of the Holy Spirit
- P – Perseverance of the Saints – God will not lose any of His people
These doctrines are true and beautiful, but they do not begin to scratch the surface of Calvin’s teachings. During his time in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin wrote commentaries and preached through a plethora of Bible passages. He rebuked the abuses of the Roman Church. He designed and supported Christian governments, churches, and societies. And he left a treasure-trove of written work for us to plumb through.
Over and over, Calvin teaches that all of life is under God’s authority. In the Institutes he writes,
“The sum of the whole is this–since the will of God is said to be the cause of all things, all the counsels and actions of men must be held to be governed by his providence; so that he not only exerts his power in the elect, who are guided by the holy spirit, but also forces the reprobate to do him service,” (Calvin, Institutes, Book 1.18.2).
Not Just Luther and Calvin
We would be remiss if we didn’t direct you to the works of Martin Bucer, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, Petrus van Mastricht, Francis Turretin, the Puritans, and more modern theologians like Herman Bavinck and our own century’s R.C. Sproul and Sinclair Ferguson. These men are just drops in a bucket full of leaders and preachers we are blessed to stand upon.
As we said before, the Reformation was a huge movement with many branches and it’s hard to find an end date. Some date an ending at the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the so-called Thirty Years’ War of Religion, but this doesn’t account for the decades of reform that followed 1648. There is another Latin phrase from this time that you should remember: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, the church reformed, always reforming.
The Providential Age
The Reformation launched a special time of faithfulness. Some call this a Providential Age. A time when interest in proper Bible translation came at the exact moment of the development of the printing press. Bibles were translated for the first time in people’s own languages and then mass produced and distributed so that the people of God could know firsthand the promises of God found in His word.
Bible reading and literacy led churches to write biblical confessions like the German Helvetic Confessions and the Dutch Three Forms of Unity. Perhaps of most note for us, is the English Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Formed by a group of delegates known as the Westminster Divines in 1643, the WCF—along with its larger and shorter catechisms and book of church order—has become known as the jewel of the Reformation. It clearly distilled the truths of the Bible and the teachings of the Reformation into a clear and succinct guide for the aid of any church in the faithful proclamation of Christ.
But why does this all matter? Who cares what people in the 15th-17th centuries thought? Well, for one thing, no one today is unaffected by the impact of the Reformation. You cannot live in the modern world without breathing in the air left behind by this social movement. But on a deeper level, we should care because there is no such thing as an isolated Christian.
God designed us for communion with Him and other Christians. We cannot truly understand His word apart from His church. We learn more fully about Him through the study of the works of the brothers (and sisters) that came before us. The Reformation was a providential age of clarity and rich explanation of biblical truth, it is wise to sit humbly at the feet of the preachers and teachers of that time to more faithfully love God.