The Reformation Revealed: Book

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The Magisterial Reformation: Neither Evangelistic nor Evangelical

D. Stamen

Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021


Introduction  The Reason and Purpose of this Study

                     Evanglisch does not mean evangelical

                     The Protestant Reformation neither evangelistic nor evangelical

                      Luther’s version of ‘justification by faith’ and its conseqences

Chapter 1   From New Testament Times to the Beginning of the Reformation.

                    The gradual emergence of an ecclesiastical Institution

                    Emperor Constantine and the establishment of the State Church / Christendom

                    Augustine and the Donatists

                    The Holy Roman Empire and forerunners to the Reformation

Chapter 2   Introduction to the Reformation

                   The state of things prior to the Reformation

       Reasons for the success of the Reformation

                   Zwingli and he Reformation in German-speaking Switzerland

                   The rise of Anabaptism and the first Anabaptist martyr

Chapter 3   The Anabaptists and Persecution.

                   The spread of Anabaptism

                   The persecution of the Anabaptists by the Protestant Reformers

                   The teachings of the reformers justifying their persecution of Anabaptists

                   The reformers’ religious worldview

Chapter 4   The Reformers’ False Views on Conversion, Infant Baptism and the Church

                   The Reformers deny conversion experience

                   The Reformers’ false notion of infant baptism

                   The Reformers’ false notion of the Church

Chapter 5   Martin Luther, Iconoclasm and the State of Reformed Churches

                    Martin Luther up to 1522 and changes in Wittenberg

                    The emergence of iconoclasm

                    The condition of Lutheran churches

Chapter 6   Martin Luther: Continued

                   The Peasants’ War. Luther against the Jews. Colluding in bigamy

Chatper 7   The Imposition of the Reformation in French-Speaking Switzerland

                  Farel and the Reformation in western Switzerland

                  The imposition of a religion on a reluctant people

                  Bern, Neuchatel, Lausanne and Geneva

                  Background to Calvin’s arrival in Geneva

Chapter 8   Calvin.and Geneva

                  The imposition of an ‘external and disciplined religion’

                  The arrival and ejection of Calvin and Farel from Geneva

Chapter 9    Calvin’s Return to Geneva.

                    The difficulty of imposing religion on an unwilling people

                    Calvin almost gives up

Chapter 10  ‘Triumph’ in Geneva

                    The execution of Servetus and the reaction to it

                    Victory over political opponents

                    Summary and Conclusion

Bibliography and Other Sources



“Earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 1:3)

It is with this verse in mind that I have set out to write this study and evaluation of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century in Germany and Switzerland. Though this may be an unusual thought to base the study on, my main concern is to highlight the nature of the Gospel and to distinguish it from that which is not the Gospel.

Indeed, this historical survey represents just the first step towards my main purpose, which is to review the doctrines of the Reformed tradition and make an appraisal of them in the light of what the Scriptures teach. I am in the process of writing that study at the present time (2022). However, I thought it would be instructive and illuminating to have a look at the character and nature of the Reformation as a backdrop to looking at what the reformers taught. The frame of mind of the reformers and how they dealt with what they considered to be the ‘opposition’ will also help to highlight where they erred in doctrine and why. The romanticised view of the Reformation that has come down to us blurs issues that ought to be clearer regarding what they taught and how they acted – issues that relate to the undermining of the nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am not an historian, nor does this study represent a ‘new’ history of the Reformation. I have simply collated information that is already to be found in histories, biographies and sources online, but perhaps with a different aim and with different conclusions than is normally the case. There are footnotes for the quotes and a bibliography and references to other sources at the end of the study.

The aim and focus of this study is to illustrate, as far as possible, the nature and character of the Protestant Reformation under its leading figures Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon, Farel and others like them that laboured for the progress of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland. Although what I aim to present has been put forward by others in one way or another, this study will exclusively deal with the religious nature of the Reformation.

To be more precise, this study focusses on the answer to the following questions: to what extent, if at all, was the Protestant Reformation spiritual in nature, that is, in bringing salvation or life-changing spiritual renewal to the listeners through the preaching of the Gospel? Did it represent a spiritual awakening among peoples, where lives were brought out of their sinful ways and habits, such as we read, for example, in the revivals and religious awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, which touched and even changed whole communities? Was it a mass movement among ordinary people? To what extent may one say the Reformation represented a work of God, or could be explained as such? Was the Reformation truly evangelistic and evangelical in nature? Did it bring freedom of religious worship?

Or was it just a religious movement – to do with outward or nominal religion. Did the Reformation only represent a change in religious allegiance in the communities – from Catholic to Reformed? Was it just the work of men, religious men indeed, but nevertheless men of this world, using the methods of this world to gain position and power, not only to influence those under their jurisdiction, but in the end, to ensure their form of religion should be imposed on their communities to the exclusion of all others. Did the reformers simply carry on the cruel, dictatorial rule in the domains of their influence that the Catholic Church had been doing for a millennium in theirs?

This study aims to demonstrate that the truth is to be found in affirmative answers to the questions posed in the previous paragraph – and hardly at all in the paragraph before that. Namely, that the Reformation was simply a continuation of the cruel, intolerant, religious rule of Christendom under the new banner of ‘Protestantism’.

Everything that is written in this study has its focus on answering the questions posed above, so, in that sense, it is not a history of the Reformation which seeks to incorporate all the aspects and the kind of detail that a general history of the Reformation would include.

It may be thought that the nature of the Reformation cannot easily be assessed in this way. I agree. One’s appraisal can be influenced by personal and theological preferences and prejudices. Nevertheless, biographers and historians commonly use the word ‘evangelical’ to describe the Reformation, as if this movement and its belief system, by definition, was evangelical. This reasoning proceeds something along these lines: it was not Catholic; it was Protestant; therefore it must have been evangelical. However, this logic is misleading and erroneous. Many histories and biographies take the meaning of ‘evangelical’ for granted and freely use it in describing the Reformation movement.

Moreover, both Jean-Henri Merle D’Aubigne and Philip Schaff in their histories of the Reformation speak of the reformers’ work as representing something like a revival of apostolic Christianity, not seen since New Testament times. D’Aubigne wrote: “The Reformation… crossed the interval of ages, and brought back to fallen and lifeless Christendom the sacred fire that was destined to restore it to light and life… Thus the powerful doctrine that had already saved the world in the apostolic age, and which was destined to save it a second time in the days of the Reformation, was clearly and forcibly explained by Luther.”1

In making such remarks, biographers and historians are also making value judgements; they are giving an appraisal regarding the religious and even the spiritual nature of the Reformation. This study not only seeks to provide a counter-balance to this view, but to show that it could hardly be further from the truth. Furthermore, the appraisal I make will be based on the actions and writings of the reformers themselves and of their contemporaries.

Evangelisch does not mean ‘evangelical’

One reason that writers might too easily use the word ‘evangelical’ to describe the Reformation movement is because of a misunderstanding of the German word evangelisch, which was the word used by the reformers to distinguish their teaching from that of the Roman Catholics. The word Evangelisch (which derives from the Greek word euangelion for ‘Gospel’) was used by the Reformation movement to emphasize that their teaching was of the Gospel, it was Gospel-based, it was the true Gospel in contra-distinction to what the Catholic Church taught, which was regarded as not teaching the true Gospel of free salvation and justification by faith. This is the historical context of the word ‘evangelisch’. And the present day traditional or national Church in Germany that stems from the Reformation is called ‘die Evangelische Kirche’, or even Landeskirche (where the nearest translation would be ‘national church’). Thus, the word ‘evangelisch’ refers to a particular denomination which is a union of Lutheran-Reformed churches that has its origins in the Reformation. Therefore the word ‘evangelisch’ in German does not mean ‘evangelical’, since the German word for that is ‘evangelikal’. As we know, ‘evangelical’ does not refer to a specific Christian denomination, and neither does the German word, ‘evangelikal’ – they both refer to a particular outlook that can characterise any number of denominations. However, the word ‘evangelisch’ does refer to a specific denomination, and it is represented by a union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany. In Switzerland there are the Evangelisch-reformierten Kirchen der Schweiz, which have their roots more particularly in the Swiss Reformation under Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin. In Germany, the ‘Evangelische Kirche’ is generally not regarded as evangelical by those who are of an evangelical persuasion.

From the fore-going it is clear to see that ‘evangelisch’ refers to the denominations that arose in Germany and Switzerland out of the Reformation period and has its meaning and origin in the teachings of the reformers. I have given the above explanation since it would be difficult to give a one-word accurate translation of this word in English. (At the end of this Introdction I add some more comments about the meaning of ‘evangelisch’)

When biographies or histories of the Reformation automatically apply the word ‘evangelical’ to the Reformation movement because of the German designation ‘evangelisch’, they are either mistranslating this word or they are making a theological value judgement about the Reformation. Whether the Reformation was truly ‘evangelical’ is something that needs to be demonstrated from the writings and actions of the reformers and not imputed to them because of a mistranslation of ‘evangelisch’. Of course, in this study the writings of the reformers show that they were not evangelical.

(If you look up the word ‘evangelical’ online, you can find it variously described and defined, however, if we look at it more closely, ‘evangelical’ means a belief in sola scriptura, that is, that the Bible alone, as God’s word to us, is the only basis of for our teaching and conduct as Christians. Secondly, ‘evangelical’ refers to those who believe in a personal response to the Gospel, to the ‘good news’ (Greek: euangelion), leading to personal repentance and an inward spiritual change, which results in changed behaviour – what we call ‘conversion’. In this study, I use the word ‘evangelical’ as having the last two elements just mentioned as (part of) their foundation. And it is in this sense of the word that I seek to illustrate that the Protestant Reformation was not evangelical in nature.)

The Reformation has been variously praised as binging freedom of religion to people and regions in Europe, of introducing a period of tolerance and liberty. Some have gone further and heralded it as an era not seen since apostolic times, when the Gospel was again being preached in its clarity and power. What gave weight to this fable was the delight of many that the reign of the Catholic Church was overthrown in some regions and undermined in others. The Catholic Church had indeed given itself a bad name over a long period of time, with its cruel persecutions, with its opulence and corruption, with its abuse and exploitation of its citizens, with the openly immoral lives of its priestly class and with its superstitious beliefs. So, anything that could overturn such manifest wrong-doing, must, almost by definition, be good and ‘Gospel true’. Such is the kind of thinking that puts the Reformation on a pedestal. Something that was ‘bad’ was replaced by something that was ‘good’.

Thus, a romanticised version of the Reformation has come down to us. Many, like myself in the past, know about the Reformation only by the ‘hearing of the ear’ and consequently many imbibe or embrace the clichés above extolling the Reformation, and unconsciously impute substance to this fantasy of the great good that the Reformation is supposed to have brought to Europe, but many do so without having any actual knowledge about the history of it, as was the case with myself. The Protestant Reformation did not possess any of the positive attributes ascribed to it above, nor did it bear the hallmarks of any kind of spiritual awakening or renewal. As we shall see, it simply continued the cruel and intolerant rule that had been characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church and of Christendom for a thousand years and more. When their form of religion was challenged, all the leading reformers showed themselves to be men of murderous intent. This study seeks to demonstrate these things from the actions and the words of the reformers themselves, rather than being presented as an interpretation devoid of historical substance.

When I was converted at the age of twenty (1971), I knew very little about Christianity and had hardly ever been in a church building. However, when the ‘grace that brings salvation’ appeared to me, my life was dramatically changed. At that time (as now) I went to a non-denominational church. I soon started to read books on revivals and of preachers like George Whitfield, John Wesley and Charles Finney, of evangelical awakenings that, at times, changed communities themselves. I also read of the labours of missionaries abroad. I read of the Gospel being preached with the effect of radically changing the lives of people who listened to, and received it. What interested me and inspired me at that time was not so much the theology of the preachers but the amazing grace of God in changing lives and turning them completely around, of an inward change that had taken place in those that were sinners; a change that delivered and freed them from former sinful habits. This was and is my understanding of the preaching of the Gospel and the effect it has on sinners when it is truly preached and received by those that hear it.

Of course, I soon became aware of a brand of theology called ‘Reformed’, but for a good while never took the time to inform myself about it. However, eventually I grew more interested to learn about the Reformation and Reformed theology. I started with a biography of John Calvin. I was amazed. I had never read anything like it. I realised I was not reading about a spiritual awakening or renewal at all, and certainly not about a revival of spiritual religion. It was all quite different, and had to do with switching from the dictatorial rule of one form of outward religion (the Catholic) to another (the Reformed); it had to do with power politics, in both a religious and secular context. I read further biographies of Calvin and then of Luther and Zwingli. Everything I read simply compounded and confirmed the initial impression. This also held true of the histories I read on the Reformation, including the histories of those writers who hailed the Reformation as a ‘triumph’ of the Gospel or spoke of it in glowing terms (like D’Aubigne and Schaff). I continued to read much more widely about the Reformation and the writings of the reformers themselves, and this study is the fruit of my research, such as it is.

I discovered that in one very fundamental aspect the Protestant reformers were no different to the Catholic Church, and it is this aspect that determined virtually all of what the reformers did in persecuting religious dissenters, whom they labelled ‘heretics’, and also directed what they taught about the nature of the church. Namely, the Protestant reformers married into the whole concept of ‘Christendom’, that is, the notion that the State and Church are united and act as one in maintaining the State Religion as the only one religion to be taught and practised in its domains. True to its nature then, Christendom persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and even executed those that dissented to the teaching and practice of the state religion and who desired to follow their own conscience and beliefs. And this is exactly what the reformers of the 16th century did – they carried on and established the same ruthless, merciless dictatorial rule in their areas of jurisdiction just as the Catholic Church had been doing for at least a thousand years. There was no change. As religious dissenters had been persecuted by the Catholic Church, so they continued to be persecuted, imprisoned and killed by the reformers. After the execution of Servetus in Reformed Geneva, Calvin ended up writing a ‘defence’ not only of the right of the religious state to execute ‘heretics’ so called, but of the virtue and godly necessity of it doing so! The Reformation brought no tolerance for religion – except for its own brand of it – nor any liberty of worship to those who did not submit to reformed doctrine and practice. Tyranny continued under the reformers just as it had been doing under the Catholics. This was the nature of Christendom.

I said that the reformers had bought into this concept. It would be far truer to say that the reformers belonged to Christendom. They were of Christendom. They never left it; it was in their blood. Since the 4th century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the empire’s religion, and it thereafter began to be imposed upon citizens, no other version of Christian belief or practice was tolerated except that which was agreed upon and established by that organised body of leading bishops and priests that had already taken shape by that time and which had allowed itself to be absorbed into this marriage with the state. This organised network of Christian leaders soon developed into what became known as the Roman Catholic Church and worked in tandem with the secular power to impose its version of Christianity on others.

For the Roman Emperor there could only be one version of Christianity. There was one God who represented one truth, and one Church who taught this truth. This one church was the church of the empire. And it was this one Church that received the Imperial approval with all the benefits that went with it. The State could not support or tolerate two versions of Christianity – it was inconceivable. It is the religion of the state! The state would regard any rival Christian teaching and grouping as a threat to its own authority and power. To have different versions of Christianity would only destabilise both State and Church and herald the demise of both. This was the nature and outlook of ‘Christendom’ that was to last for more than a thousand years, and the Catholic Church was happy to buy into it and thus secure its own position and power. This resulted in the imposition of the Christian religion upon the citizens of the empire. And it was the baptism of infants that saw to it that multitudes were automatically incorporated into the Church, into the state religion, rendering them ‘Christians’. Thus, being a citizen of the land or region where you were born was synonymous with being a ‘Christian’. This was Christendom, which the reformers all believed in and tenaciously adhered to.

Of course, what was really happening was that this system was simply producing ‘nominal’ or ‘cultural’ Christians; in other words, no true Christians at all – it was the process of Christianisation. But the important point is that the Church and state regarded these ‘Christianised’ citizens as Christians, as God’s people.  An outward religious body imposed and outward religion on its citizens, whatever the theology of the religious body may have been – whether Catholic or Reformed.

Fundamentally, the Reformation represented an adjustment within Christendom, it did not effect a separation from it.

As we shall see, this is of the utmost significance when we come to look at the Reformation period. The leading reformers’ background was Catholic, and they brought with them this same notion of Christendom that had existed and held sway since the 4th century. So when the princes in Germany and the city councils in Switzerland supported and adopted the Reformed religion, all their erstwhile Catholic citizens were made ‘reformed’ by this decision of these secular powers. (We shall look at this process in detail in this study.) The reformers generally regarded all these former Catholic citizens as believers, as Christians who had just been misled by the false doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. So their preaching was more geared to be a doctrinal re-education programme to disabuse their congregations of the superstitions and errors of Catholicism, and bring them into an understanding of their own teachings. Basically, the reformers did not regard their newly-acquired congregations or the citizens in their regions as unconverted, as those who needed the Gospel of salvation preached to them to bring them out of their sin and darkness for the first time in lives. The reformers largely believed that this was already the case with their parishioners! They believed that not only had their own infant baptisms at the hands of the Catholic Church made them Christians, but that this held true for the new congregations if front of them. We shall be looking at all this in detail, of course.

Thus, Christendom according to own its nature and definition excluded the notion of evangelism – since Christendom could not evangelise the citizens whom, in its own eyes, it had made ‘Christians’ by infant baptism! The result of this is that the reformers did not preach the Gospel to those whom they considered already Christian.

This was the great gap and lack in the reformers’ thinking. When writing a reply to Cardinal Sadoleto’s letter to those in Geneva (1539), whom he tried to woo back into the Catholic fold, Calvin gave an account in defence of his own turning point from Catholic teaching to a belief of what was taught in the Bible. He stated:

“But at first I had no other reason for my faith than that which then everywhere prevailed.”2

This is a highly significant statement! Calvin confirms that the only reason for his faith was a cultural one; he had been a Catholic because he had been brought up as one just like everyone else. Religion had been culturally imposed on the population, making them believe they were Christians. He admits that his Christianity had, in effect, been a nominal one. It was not a genuine faith of the heart based on a personal response to the word of God. Now, if Calvin realised this about himself, how is it that he and the other reformers did not truly perceive and understand that this held true for the vast number of citizens that they now had oversight over, who had been Catholic all their lives, but who had now simply been brought under reformed teaching by the decision of the secular authority? How did they not realise that most of the people in their congregations and in their communities ‘had no other reason for their faith than that which had up to then everywhere prevailed.’? How did the reformers not perceive that, on the whole, the people in front of them, many of whom lived godless and immoral lives, were not converted and needed salvation through the preaching of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? Instead, the reformers encouraged civic laws against immorality, taught reformed doctrine, including justification by faith, but also used and emphasised the Law of Moses in an endeavour to keep the sins of their parishioners in check.

Furthermore, what does this say about the turning point in Calvin’s own life? Was his turning point, his conversion, basically a matter of seeing through the false teachings of the Catholic Church by studying the Word of God through the new lens of humanist and reformed teaching that was sweeping across the lands, with its emphasis on the Pauline epistles? Did he just have an understanding of certain doctrines that even ‘natural light’ might give to a man? And how could Calvin claim this was his spiritual conversion experience, his moment of salvation through the Gospel of Christ, without denying that it is infant baptism that makes us children of God, which he most certainly taught? Given that by their preaching the reformers largely sought to deliver the citizens from Catholic errors and to inculcate in them reformed teaching, it may be reasonable to assume that the reformers saw their own conversion in these terms, namely, they considered themselves Christians to begin with, but realised they had been deceived by certain Catholic doctrines and practices and embraced the truths they found in the Scriptures through the humanist writings of the time, which indeed they may have found liberating – but was it any more than this? Was it just a switch in doctrinal allegiance. Given what the reformers taught and how they acted, these questions naturally arise.

The conversion or turning point in the lives of Luther and Calvin

I will let the reader source the accounts of the ‘conversion’ of Luther and Calvin for himself or herself. Biographers have attempted to give a clear picture and interpretation of the turning point or conversion in the lives of these two men. To what extent these turning points represent ‘intellectual enlightenment’ regarding certain truths of the Bible that brought mental relief and a ‘liberation’ from being bound to certain Catholic false teachings and practices, and to what extent they represent a spiritual conversion and a salvation beyond it being a shift in their thinking from Catholic to Reformed, is something that the reader will have to judge. In this study I seek to answer questions from the actions and words of the reformers themselves. As Jesus said, we “shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit.” (Mtt. 7:16,17)

In this historical survey, I will use the word ‘evangelistic’ to mean that kind of preaching of the Gospel which addresses the sinner, who is without Christ and hope in this world, in order to lead him or her to repentance and a new life in Christ. In other words, the preaching of the Gospel leads to conversion to Christ. By this definition the preaching of the reformers, on the whole, was not evangelistic – it could not be because of their belief in Christendom. The reformers would have found the thought inconceivable that their newly-acquired congregations were not Christians just because they had been Catholic before the decisions of princes, noble or town councils had ‘made’ them ‘reformed’. This was just unimaginable to them, for it would deny the validity of infant baptism which they believed made people God’s children, made them Christian, whether it had been done under the Catholics or under their leadership.

The leading German reformer and close associate and friend of Martin Luther, Melanchthon, exclaimed in horror:

“Now let every devout man consider what disruption would ensue if there should develop among us two categories, the baptized and the unbaptized! If baptism were to be discontinued for the greater part, then an openly heathen mode of existence would come about – a thing for which the devil would like very much to have the way opened.”3

He is here talking about infant baptism, which the Anabaptists claimed did not save a person or make them a Christian. The idea that the Church consists only of people that have personally responded to the Gospel and being saved through its power was utterly incomprehensible to Melanchthon and the reformers. It would destroy Christendom! Melanchthon clearly considered the whole population under their care as Christian by virtue of their infant baptism. He complained that to negate infant baptism as the Anabaptists did would render society ‘heathen’, since it was infant baptism that rendered everyone ‘Christian’. The tragedy of the Reformation was the scriptural – not to say spiritual – blindness of the reformers. To all intents and purposes, they regarded the infant-baptised Catholic citizens that they had now inherited to be Christians. To question this would be to overthrow religion itself and the stability of the state. This was the view both of the reformers and of the secular authority which supported them. There could be, and in essence, there was no evangelistic effort or preaching to convert people to Christ. It would have been a denial of Christendom, which they belonged to and believed in, and the existence of which guaranteed their position and power.  There was nothing evangelistic or evangelical in their thinking and approach in these matters.

As we shall see, all the reformers held fast to the false notion that had been part of Christendom for over one thousand years. Namely, that all the people in the region over which the state religion ruled represented the people of God (German: das Volk Gottes). Just as the nation of Israel had been God’s people on earth, so too the baptised citizens that had been made reformed by decision of the secular power now represented God’s people. From the time of Augustine, who taught this falsehood, Christendom believed that the Church that was once persecuted had been shown favour by God through providentially directing the secular power (Constantine and those that followed him) to empower the Church to reign by becoming its patron and supporter. So, they that had once been persecuted, could now rule and persecute. This is Christendom. This is what the Catholics believed. This is what the reformers whole-heartedly believed. The Church and State working in tandem have the responsibility of maintaining the religious condition and standards of its people, ruling over them just as the kings, prophets and priests of Israel had ruled over God’s people in the Old Testament. None of this represents the light of the Gospel.

This was the notion, the falsehood that was embedded in the reformers’ thinking. When the regional power adopted the Reformed religion, the reformers looked on all the citizens in that region as a nation of God’s people. Did the reformers realise that many lived immoral, godless lives. They certainly did – and complained about it. But being of Christendom, the approach they took up was not to engage in evangelism in order to convert sinners, since this was against their worldview. They viewed their function as ministers of religion similar or identical to that of the priests and prophets of the Old Testament. Yes, among God’s people in Israel there were those who were godless and idolatrous, and who indulged in all manner of sinful conduct, just like there were among the congregations of the Reformed churches. But they were all God’s people, and just like the priests taught and directed the people in righteousness, and the prophets castigated and rebuked the sins of God’s people in the Old Testament, so the reformed ministers saw their function as giving godly direction and castigating and rebuking the sins of their congregations whom they regarded as God’s people. That was the analogy. That was their way of thinking. And just as the Kings and prophets of Israel used physical means and violence to destroy idolatry in Israel and to punish and even put to death those who continued in sin or who lead God’s people into idolatry, so the reformers believed that the secular authority was ordained of God to maintain the spiritual well-being of the nation, to punish those who sinned, which included the persecution, imprisonment and even execution those that they regarded as heretics, who they believed were a danger and threat to the spiritual well-being of the nation. This was the view of the reformers. There could be no separation of Church and State, since the secular power was ordained of God to use of the ‘sword’ that it wielded to impose religion and morality on its citizens and to punish evildoers and heretics.

The leading reformer in Zurich, Huldrych Zwingli, made the following comparison:

“It is apparent to all who believe that the Christian Covenant of the New Testament is the Old Covenant of Abraham, save only for the fact that Christ, who was only promised to them, has been made manifest to us… The intention of this is that the heathen ‘people’ (German: Volk) should after the rejection of the Jews come in their place as the ‘people of God.’”4 (Italics mine)

Firstly we notice here that Zwingli – along with the other reformers like Luther and Calvin – believed that there was no fundamental difference between the Old and New Covenants. Reformed theology maintains this falsehood up to the present day. All the provisions and blessings of the New Covenant were available to, and experienced by genuine believers in the Old Testament. The second point that Zwingli makes is that the heathen nations have now replaced the Jews as God’s people on earth. How was this accomplished? By the creation of Christendom! Church and State ruling together over all the people in their domain have ensured by infant baptism and other imposed rules that all their citizens are Christians and now represent God’s people and are to be treated as such.

In his commentary on Genesis chapter 17, Luther makes the following comments in support of the notion above:

“If this [justifying faith] was brought about with the Jews in the Old Testament through the medium of circumcision, why would God not do the same thing with the Gentiles through the medium of the new covenant of Baptism? The command (Matt. 28:19) pertains to all: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them….’ Hence whereas circumcision was commanded only to the descendants of Abraham, Baptism is commanded to all the nations, with the promise of salvation if they believe.”5

Instead of preaching the Gospel to individual sinners to lead them to personal conversion and salvation, thus leading to churches consisting of such converts and committed Christians, Luther believes that the infants of whole regions and ‘nations’ are to be baptised thus making the whole ‘nation’ Christian, automatically incorporating them into the Church as God’s people even as the circumcision of infants had done in the Old Testament. This is the bizarre and false viewpoint that the reformers held, that they had brought with them from Catholicism. The doctrinal deceptions and spiritual darkness of a thousand years simply continued under the reformers.

Moreover, Luther’s teaching on ‘justification by faith’ is thrown into confusion, if not contradiction, when it encounters his teaching on infant baptism. He argued that because circumcision was a seal to the righteousness that Abraham had by faith, infants therefore also somehow partake of ‘justifying faith’ at their baptism. Moreover, it is written that circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith that Abraham already had – circumcision did not impart justifying faith to Abraham. But this is what Luther taught about infant baptism.

We begin to see from all this that the Protestant reformers were not truly evangelical. They were renowned for promoting and trumpeting sola scriptura, that is, that all the teaching and practice of the church is to be determined by Scripture alone. The reformers certainly appealed to this principle when debating with the Catholic Church about its false teachings, but easily abandoned or simply ignored this principle themselves when they were challenged about their own false teachings by the Anabaptists. What the Protestant reformers taught regarding infant baptism, the nature of the church and its relation to the state, the use of force to punish, imprison and execute religious dissenters all fly in the face of the clear teaching of Scripture. The reformers were untroubled by this and held on to the most bizarre interpretations and teachings, many of which had their origin in the teachings of Augustine, who might be recognised as a ‘father’ of the Church by Catholics and Reformers, but who has a better claim to be called a father of over a thousand years of deception.

The reformers’ denial of personal conversion highlighted the fact that they were not truly evangelical. When an Anabaptist said that they had heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and genuinely repented of their sins and had a sense of the forgiveness of sins and an assurance of being God’s child, the reformers were horrified. How could this be outside the sacraments of the Church? And when they further said that it was on the basis of their personal repentance that they felt the need to be baptised in water to confirm their commitment to Christ, all this was anathema to the reformers. They believed that this teaching would bring down Christendom. They regarded such an experience as totally subjective, unreliable and a deception, and that those who claimed to have had such an experience to be arrogant and self-deceived, setting themselves on a higher plain than others. Luther said this claim of a personal conversion was of the devil. Luther raged against the Anabaptists who believed in a believer’s baptism that was based on a personal conversion:

“What, baptism rendered ineffective because I don’t believe?… What more blasphemous and offensive doctrine could the devil himself invent and preach? And yet the Anabaptists… are full up to their ears with this teaching.”6 (Italics mine)

And again:

“He who allows himself to be baptised on the basis of his faith, he is not only ignorant, but also a godless denier of Christ, because he trusts and builds on that which is his… So I let those rave who want to. I hold that the absolutely surest baptism is child baptism. Since an older person can deceive… but a child cannot deceive… So the basis of our baptism is now the strongest and surest, as God has made a covenant with all the world, to be the God of the Heathens in all the world.”7

These are extraordinary statements where all pretence to sola scriptura is blown apart. There is nothing evangelical about this. It is anti-evangelical and superstitious. Luther in effect and in practice denied the existence of a personal conversion to Christ (even though he used the words ‘born again’ to describe his feelings when justification by faith dawned upon him). The Protestant reformers all argued that one should not base one’s salvation on something so subjective as a personal experience when God had already ordained an ‘objective’ and therefore ‘infallible’ means of bringing people into the Kingdom of God, namely, infant baptism. This was the anti-evangelical darkness that the leading reformers of the 16th century were steeped in. And although the reformers charged the Anabaptists with a number of crimes, the crime that the Anabaptists were most persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and even sent to their death for was believer’s baptism based on personal conversion. Notice, too, how Luther describes infant baptism as the means by which God fulfils His covenant with the world to be the ‘God of the heathen’. To attack infant baptism was to attack the very foundation of Christendom and, according to Luther, to attack the very covenant God had made with the world to make them His people!

What is extremely revealing here is that in their disputes with the Anabaptists, at no time did any of the leading reformers – Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, Melanchthon, Bucer or Oecolampadius, Farel – show any understanding of the experience of conversion. It was something utterly foreign to them. They could not relate to it at all. The idea that someone could say, “I have repented and turned to Christ for salvation, and I know my sins are forgiven for the first time in my life” sounded like sacrilege to them. The reformers not only could not identify with such an experience, but fumed and wrote massively and incessantly against it, because, despite their efforts, the fires of Anabaptism spread far and wide over Europe for a long period of time. It was for this confession and testimony and the believer’s baptism that followed it that a person was persecuted and even put to death by the reformers. It is for these reasons – and others that we shall look at – that it is fantasy to say that the reformers were evangelical or brought religious liberty to Europe.

This study seeks to illustrate that the Protestant reformers belonged to the same entity that is called Christendom that the Roman Catholics belonged to. There was no difference between them in this. Intolerance and persecution of dissenters were the characteristic of both. Essentially, the reformers were neither evangelistic nor evangelical in their outlook and beliefs. By ‘evangelical’ I mean a true belief that it is the Scriptures alone that determines what we are to believe, and it is not a matter picking what suits your theology and ignoring the parts that do not, which the reformers did in many instances. By ‘evangelical’ I also mean a belief in the Gospel and the proper preaching of it as representing the power of God unto the conversion and salvation of any individual that hears and receives it, and that it does this without needing recourse to the official rites or ‘sacraments’ of an organised church. The reformers certainly did not view things like this, as we shall see.

Justification by faith

Luther, of course, preached ‘justification by faith’. By these words, he was supposed to have brought the preaching of the ‘evangelical Gospel’ back into Europe. The question here is what he meant by it and the way he expounded it, and what it might mean to you or me. We cannot, in retrospect, without further ado simply impute to his statement a meaning that we hold of it. At this point, I will briefly review not just Luther’s view but also the teachings of the reformers that evolve out of, or are deeply associated with their version of ‘justification by faith’, since this study represents and attempt to give a historical background to precisely such views.

The first point I want to mention has to do with the religious condition of the people to whom Luther brought this message. Prior to the region of Saxony turning Lutheran, when people came to confess their sins in the confessional, Luther was concerned that they were far more relaxed and unconcerned about their sins than before. He enquired why and discovered that they had gone to another region and procured for themselves indulgences (a certificate which you purchase that grants forgiveness of sins and (early) release from purgatory). Having been granted such forgiveness, the people did not feel obliged to carry out ‘penance’ for their sins and were generally more lax concerning their Christian obligations. Luther found them altogether too carefree about their sins. Luther’s 95 theses addressed this abuse of the indulgences in making people think that their sins can so easily be forgiven through the possession of a paper certificate.

However, when Frederick, Elector of Saxony, supported Lutheranism in his domain, Luther and the other reformers, as I have pointed out, generally did not regard the Catholic population as Christianised heathen who needed converting to Christ, but as Christian believers. Thus the reformers believed the erstwhile Catholic citizens just needed to be re-educated concerning the false teachings of Catholicism. In other words, the only conversion that was taking place was from one form of religious doctrine to another; the reformers were not aiming at the spiritual conversion of their listeners as if they were non-Christians or as unconverted. The result of this misapprehension or blindness on the part of the reformers could only have one effect on such people. A people who knew nothing of Christ’s salvation in their lives and who were formerly happy to buy indulgences to secure forgiveness of sins, these same people now rejoiced in the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ because it gave them a forgiveness that freed them from fulfilling ‘penance’ and other Catholic religious obligations, such as compulsory fasting or celibacy for priests. And whereas you had to pay for indulgences, justification by faith was free! ‘Cultural’ Christians remained ‘cultural’ Christians. Just as many had ‘believed’ their Catholic religious leaders regarding indulgences, so now they ‘believed’ their new religious leaders – the reformers – that they were free from strict religious duties in order to secure their salvation, since they were justified by faith alone, and thus they felt they could even relax into the pleasures they so much enjoyed. ‘Justification by faith’ could not be any more than a just mental concept to cultural Christians, which then bore very human and even selfish results, rather than spiritual ones. ‘Justification by faith’ is spiritual food – not a mental concept – to those who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness.

In this study, I will look in detail at the complaints regarding the lack of moral change, indeed, regarding the godless, worldly and immoral lives of those who found themselves in regions and churches that had adopted the reformed religion. But let me highlight the above with some quotes.

John Wesley, in a sermon entitled, The Mystery of Iniquity, makes this observation:

“And what is the condition of the Reformed Churches? It is certain that they were reformed in their opinions, as well as their modes of worship. But is not this all? Were either their tempers or lives reformed? Not at all. Indeed many of the Reformers themselves complained, that ‘the Reformation was not carried far enough.’ But what did they mean? Why, that they did not sufficiently reform the rites and ceremonies of the Church. Ye fools and blind! To fix your whole attention on the circumstantials of religion! Your complaint ought to have been, the essentials of religion were not carried far enough! You ought vehemently to have insisted on an entire change of men’s tempers and lives; on their showing they had ‘the mind that was in Christ’, by ‘walking as he also walked’. Without this, how exquisitely trifling was the reformation of opinions and rites and ceremonies! Now, let any one survey the state of Christianity in the Reformed parts of Switzerland; in Germany, or France; in Sweden, Denmark, Holland; in Great Britain and Ireland. How little are any of these Reformed Christians better than heathen nations!”8 (Italics mine)

This quote reflects what I aim to show in this study. How accurate it is I want to leave aside for the moment and rather consider the content. Wesley castigates the reformers for simply trying to change people’s religious opinions and for emphasising an outward religion that leaves the people morally and inwardly unchanged, and nothing more than Christianised heathen. What I seek to show in this study is exactly this, namely, that the Reformation largely involved a switch in people’s minds from one form of (outward) religion (Catholic) to another (Reformed), without a radical change having taken place in the hearts and lives of those people through the preaching of the Gospel. Whatever the reformers wrote that was good was nevertheless lost on a religious people, on a Christianised society, where many used the expression, ‘justification by faith’ as a licence to pursue their own pleasures free of guilt, since we are ‘justified by faith alone’ and not by our good works.

The second point concerning Luther’s teaching on ‘justification by faith’ is his exposition of it. Let me first quote a well-known Anabaptist at the time of the Reformation, Balthasar Hübmaier. He accused the reformers of stopping short of the true Gospel. He said they teach only two parts of the Gospel – ‘salvation by faith alone’, and that ‘of ourselves we cannot do any good’. Hübmaier totally agreed with these two statements but says the reformers stopped there, without truly addressing the fruits of righteousness that should be the result of such faith. Hübmaier went on to say:

“Under cover of these two half-truths all evil, unfaithfulness and unrighteousness have gained the upper hand completely… Everybody wishes to pass for a Christian and a good evangelical as far as taking a wife is concerned, eating meat [in Lent], making no further sacrifice, fasting not, saying no prayers any more….”9

In this writing, Hübmaier complains that all one sees among the reformed churches is immoral and licentious living, and accuses the reformers of failing to understand that ‘faith without works is dead.’

This was the constant complaint of the Anabaptists against the reformers – people’s lives were not being changed. An outwardly religious people simply exploited this doctrine to go on living as before, or even worse, with the added benefit of being freed from Catholic observances, such as penance and fasting. The reformers’ interpretation and view of ‘justification by faith’ over-shadowed, undermined and distorted the biblical teaching on sanctification. The great stress that the reformers laid on righteousness being imputed to us without works was accompanied by a virtual denial that we are made righteous through Christ (Ephesians 4:24; 2 Peter 1:3,4; Hebrews 12:10; Romans 5:19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 3:7,9,10). The reformers taught that saints are still sinners and even the very best works they do are polluted and unacceptable before God, and are simply made acceptable by the merits of Christ. Calvin put it like this:

“And since this mortal life is never entirely free from the taint of sin, whatever righteousness we could acquire would ever and anon be corrupted, overwhelmed, and destroyed, by subsequent sins, so that it could not stand the scrutiny of God, or be imputed to us for righteousness… We must strongly insist on these two things: That no believer ever performed one work which, if tested by the strict judgment of God, could escape condemnation; and, moreover, that were this granted to be possible (though it is not), yet the act being vitiated and polluted by the sins of which it is certain that the author of it is guilty, it is deprived of its merit.”10 (Italics mine)

Every thought and act of a Christian is so tainted and corrupted by sin that it could only deserve the judgement of God, and therefore our salvation hangs upon the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. This is what the reformers taught.

John Wesley, whose heart was ‘strangely warmed’ when he heard Luther’s introduction to the book of Romans nevertheless had this to say about the limitations of Luther’s doctrine on justification by faith:

“Many who have spoken and written admirably well concerning justification, had no clear conception, nay, were totally ignorant, of the doctrine of sanctification. Who has wrote more ably than Martin Luther on justification by faith alone? And who was more ignorant of the doctrine of sanctification, or more confused in his conceptions of it? In order to be thoroughly convinced of this, of his total ignorance with regard to sanctification, there needs no more than to read over, without prejudice, his celebrated comment on the Epistle to the Galatians.”11

Perhaps Wesley was referring to statements like the one below from Luther’s commentary on Galatians when he wrote about Luther being ‘confused in his conceptions’:

“Thus a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God. None of the sophists will admit this paradox because they do not understand the true meaning of justification.”12 (Italics mine)

This is Luther’s ‘justification by faith’. The expression that illustrates this teaching comes from the Latin, simul iustus et peccator, meaning ‘simultaneously righteous and sinful’. Luther views the normal state of a Christian as being an ‘enemy’ of God and a ‘child’ of God at the same time. By their actions and deeds, Christians are shown still to be sinners and enemies of God, but due to the merits of Christ they are made acceptable to God. That children of God are by nature also ‘enemies’ of God is nowhere to be found in the New Testament nor in the Old – it simply contradicts the Scriptures (Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:21).

Again, the kind of statement that Wesley and Hübmaier may have taken issue with are the following by Luther in his introduction to Psalm 32:

“In short, our righteousness is called (in plain language) the forgiveness of our sins. Or, as it says here: ‘sins not counted’, ‘sins covered’, ‘sins not to be seen’. Here stand the clear plain words: All the saints are sinners and remain sinners. But they are holy because God in His grace neither sees nor counts these sins, but forgets, forgives, and covers them. There is thus no distinction between the saints and the non-saints. They are sinners alike and all sin daily, only that the sins of the holy are not counted but covered; and the sins of the unholy are not covered but counted. One would have a healing dressing on and is bandaged; the other wound is open and undressed. Nevertheless, both of them are truly wounded, truly sinners, concerning which we in our books in other places have abundantly bore witness.”13 (Italics mine)

This is Luther’s ‘justification by faith’. It is a doctrinal palliative for the stricken conscience that does not know the witness of the indwelling Holy Spirit, giving an assurance of sins forgiven and the empowering to live free from sin. (It is no accident that ‘assurance of salvation’ is a topic that is continually addressed by reformed preachers, teachers and conferences today in an attempt to ally the stricken consciences of those in strongly reformed churches.)

According to Luther – and all the reformers – all the saints continue to be sinners and sin like other sinners, but the sins of the saints are not reckoned to them but the sins of the sinners are held against them. Both saint and sinner are wounded with the same wound of sin. The wound is not healed – neither in the saint nor in the sinner. This is how ‘justification by faith’ is distorted and any inward work of God in making us righteous denigrated and degraded by Luther’s version of this truth. Of course, Luther uses Romans 7 to validate the distortions above, but any interpretation of one passage of Scripture to contradict other passages of the Bible is unsound in every sense of the word.

John McArthur, a present-day Calvinist pastor and author picks up on this theme of Luther’s in a sermon entitled ‘Simultaneously Righteous and Sinful’, where he makes reference to Lazarus being brought back to life but still in his grave clothes. He says:

“As long as the stinking grave clothes filled with the decay and stench of death clung to Lazarus, he did stink, and he was unable to fully express his new life. In a very real sense, I think this is a graphic analogy of our predicament as regenerate Christians. We have been raised from the dead, we have been raised to new life. However, we are still stuck with the remnants of our previous existence. ‘We have been raised but we stink.’”14

Is this the resulting effect of Christ’s death on the cross in the believer’s life? Is this the Gospel – you are left stinking and a sinner? But what about the blood of the Lamb washing white as snow? But here again the Reformed tradition denies that the blood of Jesus is an efficacious, spiritual reality or that it has any present existence whatsoever. It is asserted that the blood of Christ was just an outward physical ‘symbol’ of His death, pointing to our ‘justification’. Those who hold reformed views go to great lengths to deny that the blood of Jesus has a present, efficacious spiritual reality. (See John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 179,180, where Stott methodically attempts to dismiss the truth of Christ’s blood having a present reality in heaven or in the life of the believer.) John MacArthur draws the logical conclusion of such thinking by stating that ‘His [Jesus’] blood does not save us’, since it is only a symbol of his death and of our substitutionary atonement, and nothing more!14a All these seriously false notions are the fruit of the Reformed version of ‘justification by faith’.

Now someone may think that their own experience aligns itself with the quotes from Luther and McArthur above. However, it is the word of God that should determine our experience; it is not our experience that should determine what the word of God teaches us; we are not to bend and amend the Scriptures till they fit our experience.

What is the Gospel? It is not found in the quotes above. It demeans the Gospel and Christ’s death on the cross. Reformed theology offers no real remedy to this malady of sin and hence ‘imputed righteousness’ assumes the proportions it does in their doctrinal system. The only righteousness that we have, that God can give us, is an ‘alien’ or ‘passive’ righteousness, since we can neither be made righteous or do anything that can be regarded as righteous in itself. If we refer again to Luther’s commentary on Galatians which Wesley mentioned, we find him saying this in his Introduction:

“…this passive righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness. Which if it can apprehend, then may it be at quiet and boldly say: I seek not the active or working righteousness, although I know that I ought to have it, and also to fulfil it. But be it so that I had it, and did fulfil it indeed, yet notwithstanding I cannot trust unto it, neither dare I set it against the judgment of God. Thus I abandon myself from all active righteousness, both of mine own and of God’s law, and embrace only that passive righteousness, which is the righteousness of grace, mercy and forgiveness of sins.”15

The impossibility of doing anything righteous as a Christian, according to Luther, leads to the necessity or relying solely on this ‘passive’ righteousness, a righteousness that it ‘outside’ of us and imputed to us. This version of ‘justification by faith’ and ‘imputed righteousness’ has its inevitable reverberations on the nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, what is the Gospel? Another present-day pastor and author with a strong Calvinist background is John Piper, and concerning the Gospel he has said this:

“There is a difference between imputation and impartation. Impart, impute. God does an imparting work, oh yes, and it is great – by the power of the Holy Spirit, he comes into our lives, and he begins to impart to us the fruit of the Holy Spirit… And that’s a glorious thing, but it isn’t the Gospel. This work of God by which He imparts to us gradually, holiness and love, and joy and peace, and patience and goodness and kindness and meekness and faithfulness and self-control is grounded or built upon or founded on something deeper and more fundamental and more glorious, and that is imputation.”16 (Italics mine)

Piper brings out very clearly what the essence of Reformed theology is, which is derived from men like Luther and Calvin. Piper asserts that the Gospel is not what God does in you by way of regeneration, by the indwelling Holy Spirit and bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit. No, that is not the Gospel according to him. The Gospel is what God does for you, outside of you; that which He does ‘legally’ or ‘forensically’ that changes your ‘standing’ before Him; it is that which He imputes to you – that is what constitutes the Gospel. There are many that have imbibed this kind of thinking, which, in essence represents an attack upon both the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross and its power. Let me say no more about it here, but this is what I hope to explore far more fully in my next study on the fatal logic of Reformed / Calvinist theology.

(By the way, Hübmaier and Wesley’s accusation and complaint against the reformed view regarding sanctification have remained the same down the centuries to this present day, and the reformed tradition repeatedly finds itself having to defend itself against this valid judgement, as John Stott freely admits in his book, The Cross of Christ, p. 187,188. It is not that sanctification is not taught in reformed theology; it is not that they do not teach righteous living with vigour, but the context in which this is taught undermines and annuls God’s work in us; it deprives the cross of Christ of its power – 1 Cor. 1:17)

Thus have the teachings of the magisterial reformers affected what is being taught today.  However, to go back to the 16th century and Lutheran Germany. If the above is what Luther and the other reformers taught about justification by faith and imputed righteousness, what kind of effect would it have on a Christianised society whose mental grasp of this doctrine could leave them feeling that they not only had guaranteed forgiveness of sins for the immoral behaviour that they were ensnared in (justification by faith), but that immoral behaviour itself is something they could never be from. And as we shall see, this is largely what happened.

But does this teaching not lead to antinomianism, to the idea that since sin is inevitable, let us carry on sinning that justification by faith may abound? Well, it certainly opened the door to this notion among the people in the Reformed lands of Germany and Switzerland, whatever the reformers said to the contrary. And it is here that we come up a huge contradiction in the Reformed position. Since the Reformed gospel leaves the believer ‘stinking’ and ‘wounded’ with sin and in sin (as McArthur and Luther claimed), what then regulates this sinful behaviour that inevitably drives the sinner? The answer is ‘the Law of Moses’. The Law of Moses as a fundamental guide and corrective for Christian living played a significant role in the teaching of Luther and Calvin and continues to be so in the Reformed tradition to this day. Since the Gospel and the power thereof, according to Reformed teaching, lacked the power to free us from sin and make us righteous in our living, the Law is used and applied to instruct us concerning righteous living, and to correct and rebuke us for our sinful ways. In other words, the Law of the Old Testament is used as a sanctifying agent in Lutheran / Reformed teaching. The Reformed tradition has defined three ‘uses’ of the Law, the third one being more particularly relevant to Christian believers. In the Formula of Concord used by Lutherans, it states:

“We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence, not only upon the unbelieving and impenitent, but also upon true believers, who are truly converted, regenerate, and justified by faith… Thus the Law is and remains… the immutable will of God… likewise, that the old Adam also may not employ his own will, but may be subdued against his will, not only by the admonition and threatening of the Law, but also by punishments and blows, so that he may follow and surrender himself captive to the Spirit.” (Article 6, P. 2. Italics mine)

Calvin is very clear about the use of the Law. He writes:

“The Law acts like a whip to the flesh, urging it on as men do a lazy sluggish ass. Even in the case of a spiritual man, inasmuch as he is still burdened with the weight of the flesh, the Law is a constant stimulus, pricking him forward when he would indulge in sloth.”17

And the Westminster Confession Of Faith emphasises our ongoing duty to obey the Law:

“The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (Chapt.19, V)

So according to Reformed doctrine, observance to the Law is not done away with, in and through Christ, but it is ‘strengthened’, and our obligation to it continues, since ‘the Law remains the immutable will of God’. The Law is deemed necessary for the curtailment and subduing of sin in our lives and to lead us in ways of righteousness – in other words, it is there to aid our sanctification. I do not recognise this teaching in the writings of the apostle Paul nor is it to be found in the New Covenant. It explicitly contradicts the Scriptures with the language it uses. Reformed teaching abandons sola scriptura in order to construct its own doctrinal system where the language and vocabulary used directly contradict the teaching of Paul. (Reformed theology teaches that we are not ‘under’ the Law with respect to guilt and punishment, but we are still duty bound to keep and follow the Law.)

So Lutheran ‘justification by faith’ has led us here where the Law and its rigours (with regard to its moral, not to its ceremonial or sacrificial aspects) are to be used and applied to believers to help them in their life of sanctification. Justification by faith is preached together with compliance to the Law of Moses, and it represents one doctrinal package. It is a bizarre combination and contradiction, but this is Luther’s justification by faith. The Reformed tradition further ‘clarifies’ this relationship between works and righteousness by stating that though works are necessary, we are not justified by our works as a Christian, but our obedience to the Law is an expression of our loving response and thankfulness to God for His grace to us. In any case, such works could never justify us since they remain polluted by our sin. This is Luther’s teaching. This is not the evangelical Gospel I read in the New Testament.

As we shall see, this use of the Law is not a surprising outcome in the Reformation. The reformers omitted the preaching the Gospel of salvation to sinners – or were inherently incapable of doing so – thus leaving their congregations essentially morally unchanged compared to how they first found them. As a consequence, the reformers resorted to the use of an outward moral code, the Law of the Old Testament, to exhort, cajole and threaten their congregations into righteous living. It is no surprise however, that they were not successful in any noticeable way.

Interpretations of the Reformers’ behaviour

In order to make the reformers’ cruel treatment of those that they considered heretics ‘less harsh’ or to render it more ‘understandable’, those who write in support of the Protestant reformers often state that they were ‘men of their’ times’. I agree. The reformers were men of their times. They belonged to that world and its system and its way of thinking. They were of this world and acted as men of this world. However, Jesus said that His Kingdom was not of this world, and it was for this reason that His servants would not use force to protect themselves. Of His disciples Jesus goes on to say that “they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world”. And it is for this reason, Jesus said, that His disciples would be hated by the world (John 15:19; 17:14; 18:36). This was certainly true of the Anabaptists in Europe at that time. They were hated and persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike. However, the Protestant reformers were received and loved by the secular authorities that embraced them and gave them power. Is there a greater judgement that one can level against the reformers than to say they ‘were men of their times’. I think not.

Saul of Tarsus was a man of his times; he was of this world and persecuted those who were not of this world, that is, the followers of Jesus. He was a deeply religious Jew and persecuted and put to death disciples of the Lord, thinking he was serving and pleasing God by doing so. The reformers followed in that man’s footsteps. However, that man Saul had a personal experience and encounter with Jesus Christ that led him to a deep repentance, thus making him a new man; a man that was not of this world and who did not follow the ways of this world. Saul of Tarsus, the religious and zealous Jew, was converted to Christ and was baptised in water and he became Paul the apostle, who would be an example of all longsuffering to all believers down the generations of the grace of God that does this work in a man. This grace, this salvation was available to Saul in the first century; it was available to the Anabaptists and to the reformers in the sixteenth century, and it is available to us today. How did the reformers miss out on this? Or does Christ’s salvation make us no better than the cruelty of the times we are born in? What kind of a Gospel do we believe in? The Anabaptists lived in the same era and yet did not behave like men and women of their times.

I cannot extol or commend the reformers any more than I could extol or commend the actions of the Pharisees against Jesus and His disciples. I say far more about this comparison in this study later on. As you read this study, you can, of course, make up your own mind.

This study is written in the hope that it will dispel the romanticised ideal of the Reformation, which seeks to extol its virtues and the supposed liberty it brought to men and women and the alleged spiritual awakening it caused in Europe.

This study is written that those who have a regard for Christ may not dishonour His followers who died for His sake alone; indeed, that we should not dishonour Christ Jesus by honouring those who killed His disciples.

At issue is the nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Fundamental to our salvation is a clear understanding of why Jesus came to die on the cross. The motivation for writing these things is to bring home to us the nature of the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation. This overview of the history of the Reformation represents just a first step by providing a historical background to Reformed doctrines. The main aim is to consider the doctrines themselves and contrast them to the teaching of the New Testament, which will be addressed in the second study.

Remarks about the text

Repetition: I have sought to quote the reformers extensively to illustrate that the opinions expressed were not limited too just one or two of them. However, the reader might find the text a bit repetitive at times because of this and should feel free to ‘jump’ over the text where this is so.

An explanation of terms: In this study I will refer to ‘magisterial’ and ‘radical’ reformers. The term ‘magisterial’ refers to the reformers of the 16th century, such as Luther and Calvin, who gained their position, authority and power by allowing themselves to be linked with the secular power and working together with them – in Germany this was represented by the Princes, nobles or councils of towns, and in Switzerland by the magistrates of the city councils. By doing this, they supplanted the status of the Catholic Church, becoming the new ‘state church’ in their respective regions. Their position was not only safeguarded by the civic authorities, but these authorities, as patrons of the ‘new’ religion, ensured that no other form of doctrine or practice was allowed in their domains. Hence, because their position and authority derived from the secular power – the ‘magistrates’ – they have become known as the magisterial reformers. And as such, they continued the persecution of any dissenters to their religion, just as the Catholic Church had done. The magisterial reformers continued in upholding the notion of ‘Christendom’.

However, there were those who believed that the reformation process of these magisterial reformers did not go far enough in changing things, and sought for a total severance from Catholic teachings and practices than the magisterial reformers were willing to concede to. The Anabaptists, for example, also believed in the separation of Church and State, which was an unthinkable step for those with a ‘Christendom’ mindset, which the magisterial reformers fiercely clung on to. As a result, the Anabaptists, as well as some others, have become known as the ‘radical’ reformers. They found themselves outside of the state church system and were therefore cruelly persecuted by the ‘magisterial’ reformers.

Difficulty of translating the German word ‘evangelisch’ continued: One could opt for the word ‘Protestant’ to translate ‘evangelisch’, which I think would be better, as it highlights its origins as being anti-Catholic, as distinguishing it as different and opposed to the Roman Church. This would also keep true its original meaning in the time of the Reformation, since it derived from a protest against Catholic control.  After the Diet of Worms in April 1521, an Edict was made in its name in May which banned Luther’s writings and condemned him as a notorious heretic and prohibited any association with him. It stipulated that Luther should be taken prisoner and turned over to the Emperor, however, due to the support and protection of the Prince Elector of Saxony this was never pursued. However, in June 1526, the first Diet of Speyer (temporarily) suspended the Edict of Worms and a principle was laid that each prince could determine the religion of his domain. But this provision was then itself over-turned in the second Diet of Speyer in March 1529, which again banned Luther and his teachings and re-instated the provisions of the Diet of Worms. In April of the same year, a formal, legal petition was made in protest at this decision to ban the Lutheran faith. The petition was signed by a number of princes, including Elector John of Saxony, and the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, as well as by representatives of 14 Imperial Free Cities. It is from this protest that the movement was given the name ‘Protestantism’ and its adherents ‘Protestants’. With this meaning the German word ‘evangelisch’ could quite comfortably be translated as ‘Protestant’. It is a pity, in my view, that the word ‘Protestant’ did not remain limited in meaning to the historical context from which it arose – or at least from one of the significant events from which it emerged, namely, as a reaction to the second Diet of Speyer.

However, the word ‘Protestant’ has gained a wider meaning than referring to one denomination with its historical roots in the Reformation. It is regarded as an umbrella term for ‘orthodox’ Christianity. In view of what the reformers actually taught, this is unfortunate, to say the least, since the teachings of the reformers were woefully unorthodox, as we shall see. This does not solve the issue of the translation of the word ‘evangelisch’ but I hope it clarifies an important issue for the reader.

I shall begin this study with a historical overview of the 1500 years leading up to the Reformation, but only commenting briefly on those events and periods that are relevant to the purpose of this study.



  1. The Gradual Emergence of an Ecclesiastical Institution
  2. Emperor Constantine and the Establishment of the State Church / Christendom
  3. Augustine and the Donatists
  4. The Holy Roman Empire and Forerunners to the Reformation


The Gradual Emergence of an Ecclesiastical Institution

In this historical survey, I want to begin in New Testament times, as this highlights for us certain important truths regarding how quickly believers can fall away from an intimate relationship with the Lord, become legalistic and formal, depart from the truth and allow sin into their midst and into their lives. These things give rise to a dead religion, to a people that have a form of godliness but have lost or deny the power thereof. (2 Timothy 3:5)

The New Testament records are clear about this. Within a few years of churches being established, and during a period where the apostles were still in their midst and teaching among them, churches and individuals descended into false teaching, into formalism and legalism and into sin. We only need to read what the apostle Paul had to write to the Corinthian and Galatian churches to get a clear picture of some of these things.

Chapters two and three of the book of the Revelation show us how zeal for religious duties and correct doctrine can supplant a believer’s personal intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus, as was the case with the Ephesian church (Rev. 2: 4-5). The Lord told them that if they did not repent He would take away their candlestick, and we are told that the candlesticks represented the churches. In other words, He was telling them that if they did not repent and change, He would not recognise them as His church. Oh yes, they could continue to meet together, but they would not be representing Him or His church! They would simply be representing dead, outward religion.

Other churches had also got things dangerously wrong. Whether it was a desire for success, or for fame and fortune, or the love of other things, the churches at Sardis and Laodicea chose a way that pleased them and suited them, probably ‘valuing the things of man more than the things of God’ (Mtt. 16:23). This brought them into a perilous condition before God, where Sardis was told it was ‘dead’, and Laodicea was threatened with being rejected totally by the Lord Jesus. (Rev. 3:1,16-17).

Another thing that troubled the churches was men who were seeking things for themselves, for their own profit, for their own status and reputation, building their own little ‘empires’. The apostle John writes about the church leader, Diotrephes, who, he says “loves to have the pre-eminence among them, receives us not… neither does he himself receive the brethren, and forbids them that would, and casts them out of the church.” (3 John 9-10). Here we have a clear manifestation of a domineering control that would not even recognise the authority of the apostles of the Lord! We see here in miniature that which would emerge, within a very few centuries, on a far wider scale through the rise of an institutionalised church which easily allowed itself to be associated and identified with the state power.

And of course, the case of Diotrephes was not an isolated incident. Paul makes this amazing statement when writing about Timothy to the Philippians: “For I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” (Philippians 2:20-21. Italics mine.) Even if, to some extent, this is hyperbole, it nevertheless underscores the reality that there were few men who had minsitries at that time who served the Lord and His people without a self-seeking disposition. Paul even saw this self-seeking nature among the elders of Ephesus, saying that even from among them “shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:30. Italics mine.)

The desire for recognition, position, authority, pre-eminence and control seemed to prevail in many men who had gained some kind of position in the church at the time of the apostles. And if this happened when the apostles were still alive and able to counteract by their teaching and interventions the selfish acts and false teachings of many who sought position and power, how much more would this be the case when there was no such recognised authority among the churches – in other words, after the apostles had departed this earth?

Furthermore, in the early church, it was not only those who gained position and power that led others into deception, but believers themselves were prone to get bored with God’s ways and thus seek for themselves, or be attracted to, preachers who preached to them what they wanted to hear! So within one generation, we find Paul writing to Timothy and saying, “Preach the word; be diligent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they draw to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto myths.” (2 Timothy 4:2-4. Italics mine.)

Within one generation, Paul recognised a tendency among some, if not many believers to depart from the truth and seek something that suits their own desires and ambitions, instead of truly and sacrificially following the Lord Jesus Christ. All this is not just academic. It is not just a revelation of what happened in the early church of the first century, but reveals features, tendencies and realities that are common to every generation – and how much more so in the absence of apostles who had manifestly been sent by Jesus Himself to guide and admonish believers.

What I am saying is this:

The idea that in the following few centuries ‘the Church’, so-called, could, by some deliberate organised strategy, develop into a spiritual Christian network of churches with a centralised control is a fantasy. Such a centralised structure could never maintain its spiritual nature, since it could only be brought about by the self-seeking desire for prestige, power and control. The autocracy and intolerance of the organised institution that eventually arose within a very few centuries only confirms this. From what we read in the New Testament, I would say that such a hierarchical organised structure with a controlling centre was never in view for the Lord’s church.

Even with the authority that Paul had as an apostle of the Lord Jesus, he demonstrated a disposition that did not seek dominate or to enforce his control over other believers and churches. The church at Corinth had a host of problems that he had to deal with as their apostle, yet he writes to them and says, “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand.” (2 Corinthians 1:24)

However, over the next couple of centuries, what we find instead is the rise of an ecclesiastical hierarchy and the development of a highly organised and institutional ‘Church’, which bore no resemblance to the churches we read about in the New Testament.

During the 2nd century we see the creation of another tier of authority through the appointment of ‘bishops’ as distinct from ‘elders’ or ‘overseers’ (which comes from the Greek word that is wrongly translated ‘bishop’) and the growth of a clerical system under the control of the bishops. Broadbent writes in his book, The Pilgrim Church, that this process “substituted a human organisation and religious forms for the power and working of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Scriptures in the separate churches. This development was gradual.” 1

When I was at university I studied ‘early church history’, and part of the course meant reading a book called Creeds, Councils and Controversies (William H. C. Frend). And truly, the immediate centuries after the New Testament period were filled with ecclesiastical infighting, mutual accusations of heresy, the setting up of councils, the strivings for dominance and power etc. It did not make for edifying reading! I quickly came to realise that what history and religious books call the ‘Church Fathers’ did not, on the whole, represent people who I could regard as spiritual guides in the Christian faith, however accurate their doctrine may have been.

Rome’s Rise to Primacy

As early as the 2nd century, church leaders would refer to their ‘apostolic succession’ to validate their control over churches and their measures to create a church that was structured in such a way that gave them this control. Thus, at the end of the 2nd century, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons was involved in writing against heresies and one of his main arguments in refuting heresies was his appeal to the ‘succession’ of bishops from apostolic times. In Against Heresies he writes the following, where the first sentence represents the heading of his text:

“A refutation of the heretics, from the fact that, in the various Churches, a perpetual succession of bishops was kept up: It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.”2

In his writings against heresies, Irenaeus wants to convince his readers that the truth and interpretation of the Scriptures is safeguarded by the present day bishops since, he says, they represent a ‘perpetual succession’ of bishops from apostolic times and therefore they incorporate the teaching of those apostles. However, it is a road to ruin to think that simply by being in some kind of ‘line of succession’ truth will be preserved. When the apostle Paul called for the elders (Greek: presbuteros) from Ephesus to meet him, he told them from among their own midst, there would be those who would elevate themselves and draw away disciples to themselves (Acts 20:30). So being ordained an elder in no way assures ongoing faithfulness in life or in doctrine. Surely a far better way to safeguard the truth and counter heretics is by referring people to the Scriptures themselves rather than to bishops, on the notion that the deposit of truth is with them because of their succession. This notion has no biblical warrant and therefore only undermines the reliability of Irenaeus himself! The deposit of truth was meant to be held by the Pharisees, but they ended up being ‘blind leaders of the blind’ who invented teachings that only led people astray.

The other major mistake that Irenaeus makes is that he promotes the concept and position of a ‘bishop’. In the New Testament there is no such position. We do not read anywhere of a church leader who has jurisdiction over other churches in a city or region. It is simply an invention. The word ‘bishop’ comes from the Greek word episkopos which means overseer, that is, someone who exercises oversight. However, that this oversight is exercised by one man and extends to several churches is not to be found in Scripture. If a comparison is made in the New Testament between the two Greek words presbuteros (elder) and episkopos (overseer and misleadingly translated bishop), then is becomes apparent that they refer to the same person and role (as in Titus 1:5-7, where they are used interchangeably), where ‘elder’ would refer more to the maturity of the person and ‘overseer’ more to their role or function. When making a study of these words, it also becomes apparent that several elders or overseers where appointed in each church (Acts 14:23, 20:17; Titus 1:5). This hardly represents the notion of a single ‘bishop’ overseeing several churches. There is no more scriptural warrant for the idea of ‘bishop’ then there is for ‘archbishop’. They are human inventions. They represent human attempts at preserving the Lord’s church by taking an unwarranted control over it. It is amazing to see how quickly men had left the New Testament pattern and how they had formalised and organised churches into a structure that bears no resemblance to apostolic times – all this within one hundred years of the original apostles passing away. These are the seeds of an apostasy that would lead to a Roman Church in bed with the State power.

In this early period, along with Rome, a few other cities had claims on the leadership of the ‘Church’. However, it was Rome that grew in importance. Again, in his work, Against Heresies, it is Irenaeus who upholds tradition and church control. Regarding Rome he says:

 “…we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil selfpleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul… For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously…” (Italics mine.)

So, according to Irenaeus, it is now tradition and its apostolic roots or succession that validate the status and authority of Rome and the newly-emerging Church structure and institution. Moreover, he maintains that because of this tradition it is to be regarded as the only possessor of biblical truth. However, all these arguments point to the fact that this organised structure had departed from its dependence on Scripture as its only foundation of truth.

Notice also the reference by Irenaeus to ‘unauthorized meetings’. This is the language of despotic control, which is something not found in the New Testament. Indeed, the church at Jerusalem dealt with matters of teaching that were troubling the churches regarding the Law of Moses, and the apostles, where they could, did have input into churches that they had founded or that were associated with them, but there was nothing like that which emerged in the developing organised structure of one hundred years later. With his language of ‘unauthorized meetings’, Irenaeus was planting the seeds of a autocratic control that would be at home in a marriage with the State power and which would also result in the violent persecution of religious dissenters for many centuries to come, both Catholic and Protestant.

Against Heresies was written in 189, and in 195, Pope Victor I, attempted to issue an excommunication against the churches in Asia Minor in a dispute over the date of Easter! Leading men of the ‘Church’, so called, had already lost their way – had lost the plot. They were trying to excommunicate each other over an argument about the date of Easter. Religious men had begun to build their religious empire on earth. Everyone had to come under the control of Rome.

According to the historian, Daniëlle Slootjes, the church had already formalised itself into a working structure, and a church power base was taking shape with meetings and synods being held well before Constantine. She writes:

“By the end of the second and early third centuries, church synods were held to discuss problems, and in Cappadocia, by the mid-third century, synods were held annually. The development of the church into an organization that covered more or less the territory of the Roman Empire, although certain regions were Christianized more intensely and faster than others, also had consequences for the existing local mechanisms of power, because bishops came to represent an institution that both covered and exceeded the local level of cities.”3

We can see from all of the above how this developing church entity was already bringing itself into a unified administrative structure of control that could easily be incorporated as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Its own desire for control over others could only render it more than happy to welcome the ‘support’ of the secular power of the State.

The church in Rome was seeing itself as the centre and defender of orthodoxy. By the end of the 2nd century, Rome’s status and primacy was also strengthened by the teaching that claimed that the apostle Peter had been designated by Jesus Christ as His representative on earth and as head of the church. Significantly, this theory claimed that Peter’s position would be passed on to his successors, thus maintaining and guaranteeing the permanent supremacy of Rome.

However, Rome’s primacy was not left without challenge. In the third century, when Pope Stephen I (254–257) tried to claim that he had doctrinal authority over all the Church, it was met with a strong challenge from Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. Nevertheless, Rome’s primacy continued to establish itself over the next two centuries, despite rivalry from the see of Constantinople, which was the capital of the Eastern Empire.

What was emerging here was a far cry from the pleadings of the apostle Paul who told the Corinthians, “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy…”. The ‘Church’ that had emerged in those early centuries was one that sought complete control over every church and individual in all matters of dogma and practice.

In those days there was no printing press, let alone social media! In other words, we know little or nothing of other groups of believers or churches that may have dissented from, and seen through the carnal and human ways of an institutional church. The writings of such dissenters have largely perished, and much of what is written comes from the pen of those that opposed them. Personally, I believe there must have been groups of Christians that were meeting in homes or other places in those early centuries, and had no association, and wanted no association with a domineering human institution, calling itself the ‘Church’.

At university, I made an extensive study of the Montanist movement, which began in the second century. It was named after its founder Montanus and began in Phrygia, Asia Minor. I was hoping perhaps to find some elements in it that were true to New Testament Christianity, as opposed to the ecclesiastical formalism and the organised control that was emerging across Europe and the Mediterranean. The Montanist movement seemed to be a reaction to such formalism and was more inspirational in nature and had a strong prophetic aspect to it. Montanus had two female adherents, Prisca and Maximilla, who likewise engaged in prophetic utterances and claims to divine revelations. They soon had quite a following and caused considerable concern to the developing ‘organised’ Church. The latter claimed that what was being taught and prophesied by the Montanists was unscriptural and not from a divine source. Eventually, the bishops of Asia Minor gathered in synods and finally ‘excommunicated’ the Montanists, probably about 177 CE. There do seem to have been some extreme excesses within this movement, which casts doubts on its orthodoxy, but most of what we know comes from those who opposed them, since the Montanist writings themselves have perished.

As mentioned earlier, we are here confronted with the problem that what we know of dissenting groups or movements outside the still emerging Catholic Church is mostly known by the writings of those who sought to quash them. This largely remains true until the invention of the printing press.

Persecution and Division

We of course know that Christian believers suffered persecution under various Roman Emperors. Believers suffered death and persecution because they had refused, under duress, to offer sacrifices or divine honours to the emperor or to the Roman gods. This was an approach used by Roman emperors, particularly against Christians, to weed out those citizens who they considered to be treasonous and a danger to the Empire. Moreover, when it suited him, a ruler could blame Christians as a scapegoat for other problems that might occur in the Empire. Christians were also subject to intermittent and sometimes fierce local discrimination in the empire.

These persecutions and the failure and denial of faith it led to by some Christians who succumbed to threats from the authorities revealed not only a difference of opinion between the mainstream Christian Church and others, but also to a debate about authority , which would have serious consequences for those that did not tow the ‘official’ line.

In the second half of the third century, under the reigns of Decius and Valerian (Roman Emperors during the period 249 to 260 AD), Roman subjects, including Christians, were compelled to sacrifice to Roman gods or face imprisonment and execution. During this persecution, some clerics denied the faith but were re-instated once the persecution had passed, but this was met with opposition from Novatian. Novation (200-258) was a noted theologian and priest who eventually set himself up with support from his followers as the ‘true’ pope, in opposition to the elected Pope Cornelius. Novatian argued that it was wrong to so quickly and easily re-instate lapsed clergy and believers. This also brought him into conflict with Cyprian, who was Bishop of Carthage. The clergy in Rome sided with Cyprian and recommended that the question should be handled with moderation and balance by a council. Cyprian called Novatian a ‘schismatic’ – someone who threatened the unity of the church, and Cyprian considered schismatics worse than apostates.

Broadbent writes:

“Writing of Novatian and those who sympathised with him in their efforts to bring about greater purity in the churches, Cyprian denounces ‘the wickedness of an unlawful ordination made in opposition to the Catholic Church’; he says that those who approved Novatian could not have communion with the Catholic Church because they endeavoured ‘to cut and tear the one body of the Catholic Church’, having committed the impiety of forsaking their Mother, and must return to the Church, seeing that they have acted ‘contrary to Catholic unity’. Cyprian said there are, ‘tares in the wheat, yet we should not withdraw from the Church, but labour to be wheat in it, vessels of gold or silver in the great house.’… Referring to Novatian he asserts, ‘He who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian… there is one Church… and also one episcopate.’” 4 (Italics mine)

We find Cyprian making free use of the term ‘Catholic Church’, and for him there is no salvation outside of it. If you disagree or oppose the Catholic Church, then you are not a Christian. Cyprian’s writings against the Novatianists eventually led to them being regarded as heretics by the Church of Rome.

Notice here what is considered the greatest of crimes, namely, causing division within the ‘Mother Church’. There is only one church, and it is the Roman Church. (A similar, if not identical argument was made by the reformers in the 16th century against Anabaptists and others in excluding and persecuting them.) Notice also the reference to ‘tares and wheat’ in Bishop Cyprian’s writing above. This reference (from Matthew 13) is one that will now constantly be alluded to by the Catholic Church and then, subsequently, in exactly the same way by the Magisterial Reformers of the 16th century in their defence of their idea of ‘Christendom’, namely that the Church encompassed virtually all the ‘Christianised’ citizens under its jurisdiction, which inevitably would include a large number who do not live like Christians. In other words, what was here emerging was the establishment of a nominal or cultural Christianity, where all the infant-baptized citizens would be automatically considered to be Christians and who represent ‘the Church’. This rise of Christendom (or of ‘nominal’ Christianity) under Roman Catholicism was carried on unaltered by the reformers of the 16th century. There was no change in this, as we shall see.

Those who down the centuries would claim that a church should consist of committed, converted believers who were leading holy lives that actually distinguished them from the world would be met with the argument that we cannot really know who a Christian is and who is not, because the Church consists of ‘tares and wheat’. Those who insisted on the ‘purity’ of the church, and that it consisted of members who distinguished themselves through changed and holy lives were castigated as being proud, idealistic, and worst of all, of being ‘schismatics’, they are those who commit the ultimate ‘sin’, so to speak, of seeking to divide the Church. Such groups were persecuted down the centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, and then by the Protestant Reformers.

So we see that early on the Church in Rome was establishing itself as the centre of orthodoxy and assuming control over all other churches. This bears no resemblance to the church of the New Testament, nor did its leading men bear any resemblance to the way the apostle Paul conducted himself among the churches and who said, “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith you stand.” (2 Corinthians 1:24). The Roman Church was establishing itself as the one and only Christian ‘denomination’ to whom all others must submit. It is difficult, I would say, impossible to see how any of this actually represented the Lord’s church. And all this was taking shape and form before Constantine started to make Christianity the prime religion of the empire.

The Diocletian persecution

At the beginning of the fourth century, there was another severe persecution of Christians under the reign of Emperor Diocletian, who came to power in 284. This is regarded as one of the severest persecutions against Christians up to that time in the Empire. In 303, edicts were issued taking away Christians’ legal rights and demanding that they comply with the Empire’s religious practices. Scriptures were to be burnt and Christians banned from meeting together for worship. Later further edicts were issued targeting the clergy and requiring sacrifice to the gods. This persecution varied in intensity across the Empire, but ultimately failed in its purpose and the edicts were rescinded in 311.

However, there were Christians who did apostatize during this persecution and it was the heated debate around their ‘reinstatement’ that led to the Donatist controversy, which we will consider shortly.

Emperor Constantine

Constantine was Roman emperor from 306 to 337. However, there were challenges to his authority and of great moment was an experience that Constantine is reported to have had before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. An account of this was given by the Greek historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265-339), who relates that before the battle, Constantine, looking up, saw a cross of light in the sky and the Greek words, ‘in this sign, conquer!’ (‘Ἐν Τούτῳ Νίκα’).

Eusebius of Caesarea relates the following about this:

“And not only so, but he also caused the sign of the salutary trophy to be impressed on the very shields of his soldiers; and commanded that his embattled forces should be preceded in their march, not by golden images, as heretofore, but only by the standard of the cross.” 5

And that is what Constantine did. He had his soldiers go into battle with this ‘Christian’ symbol (the Greek letters X and P overlapping) on their shields. Constantine’s army was victorious in this battle, with the result that Constantine was able to strengthen his power within the empire. This was supposed to be an account of Constantine’s conversion. Again, Eusebius recounts Constantine’s prayer of thanksgiving for this victory which was to be prayed by his soldiers:

“We acknowledge Thee the only God; we own Thee as our king and implore Thy succor. By Thy favor have we gotten the victory; through Thee are we mightier than our enemies. We render thanks for Thy past benefits and trust Thee for future blessings. Together we pray to Thee and beseech Thee to preserve to us, safe and triumphant, our Emperor Constantine and his pious sons.” 6

However, these accounts lack all the features of true conversion, namely, conviction of sin, repentance and faith in a pardoning God. It is hardly possible that Christ who said they that take up the sword shall perish by the sword (Mtt. 26:52) would encourage a military leader to take up the sword against his enemies in Christ’s own name!

However, now a great change would take place. The Roman Church, which had sought to establish its power and prestige would now be aided and abetted in its pursuit of these by the Roman Emperor. This institution of the Church had made herself ready and willing to join in alliance, in a ‘marriage’ with the reigning secular power – such was its miserable spiritual state. The creation of ‘Christendom’ would be sealed in this union.

Constantine now gave Christians and others the freedom to practice their religion, and in 313, toleration for the Christian religion was assured through the Edict of Milan.

Constantine took measures to ‘establish’ the Church within the empire. Property that was seized during the Diocletian Persecution was returned, and not only did Constantine then support the Church financially, but bestowed on it a host of other privileges, such as being exempt from certain taxes, giving clerics high-ranking positions as well as building many basilicas on behalf of the Church. It is no wonder then that Constantine saw himself as an ‘emperor of the Christian people’ 7, the Christian emperor within the Church. Of course, there is a debate about to what extent Constantine was truly committed to Christianity, but I leave that for others to research, but my own view has already been made clear.

Thus, during Constantine’s reign, Christianity gradually became the prevailing religion of the Roman Empire, and thus the State Church of the Roman Empire came into being. Constantine would be its great patron and protector. Before Constantine, being a Christian meant persecution – after Constantine, it would mean promotion. However, these things come with a price, as we shall see.

Broadbent writes, “The prominence of the Bishops and especially of the Metropolitans in the Catholic churches made for ease in communication between the Church and the civil authorities. Constantine himself, while retaining the old imperial dignity of chief priest of Pagan religion, assumed that of arbitrator of the Christian churches. The Church and the State quickly became closely associated, and it was not long before the power of the State was at the disposal of those who had the lead in the Church, to enforce their decisions. Thus the persecuted soon became persecutors.8 (Italics mine)

It is easy to see how this close association between Church and State, where the two become as one in upholding a Christian religion, will inevitably result in unavoidable tensions between the two. The state power (whoever that may happen to be represented by at any given time in history) can, and will only recognise and support one Christian religion or Church. The emperor, for example, cannot commend to his citizens to choose between differing or rival Christian religions! He cannot sponsor and support rival Christian groups, because he would thus be creating ‘a house divided against itself’. The peace and security of the state depends on the stability of the one ruling political power and this now also means it is dependent on the integrity and unity of the one Christian religion, that is, on the State Religion. Thus, the foundation of the persecution of multitudes of genuine Christian believers was being laid for over a millennium to come – a persecution which both the Catholic and Protestant churches alike would perpetrate.

It is now not only the state religion, but also the state’s religion, with the Emperor overseeing and ensuring the unity of the Church, since the peace and security of the state was intertwined with that of the Church. Offence against the state Religion is now an offence against the state itself. The nature of this union between church and state would have far-reaching consequences for more than 1000 years. On the one hand, it provides the opportunity and the means for the so-called Church to banish, persecute, imprison, torture and kill all those dissenters who also call themselves Christians, but disagree with, and depart from the state church’s dogma and practice. On the other hand, to continue to win such support from the state, the Church itself must in some measure concede vital authority and control to the state.

Some have called this arrangement between church and state the Constantinian or sacralist model.9 It was the arrangement that the Roman Catholic Church totally bought into, exploited and submitted to. It was also the arrangement that the Protestant reformers of the 16th century totally embraced and perpetuated, using the forces of the state power to banish, persecute, imprison and kill dissenters to Reformed dogma and practice. The brutal persecution of ‘nonconformist’ Christian believers continued under the Protestant reformers as it had done under the Roman Catholic Church. There was no change.

Constantine and who Rules the ‘Church’

Returning to the rule of Constantine, what we see in this arrangement is that when push came to shove, real power lay with the state and not the church. For the sake of the unity and peace of the Empire, Constantine took responsibility for maintaining and ensuring the peace and unity of the church.

When he was told about the Arian theological disputes and the trouble they were causing in Alexandria, he was ‘greatly troubled’ and ‘rebuked’ both Arius and Bishop Alexander for originating the disturbance and allowing it to become public.10 Constantine, in a letter to the Nicomedians, wrote the following:

“Should any of the bishops unadvisedly excite tumult, his audacity shall be restrained by the minister of God, that is, by my executive.11 (Italics mine).

If the Emperor was financing and supporting religion, he took it upon himself to ensure peace and tranquillity in the Church just as he did in the political realm. The clerics did not always take kindly to this when they felt the Emperor was actually making decisions that were the prerogative of the Church. But this was an inbuilt tension that would never really be resolved. How far can you ‘push’ the power that was responsible for your very existence?

Calvin put a more innocuous interpretation of this in his Institutes. He writes:

“…Romish clergy. They deem it unworthy of them to answer before a civil judge in personal causes; and consider both the liberty and dignity of the Church to consist in exemption from ordinary tribunals and laws. But the ancient bishops, who otherwise were most resolute in asserting the rights of the Church, did not think it any injury to themselves and their order to act as subjects. Pious emperors also, as often as there was occasion, summoned clergy to their tribunals, and met with no opposition. For Constantine, in a letter to the Nicomedians, thus speaks: ‘Should any of the bishops unadvisedly excite tumult, his audacity shall be restrained by the minister of God, that is, by my executive.’”12 (Italics mine.)

Calvin here seems to uphold the right of a pious secular authority to intervene in ecclesiastical affairs when necessary, and maintains that the Catholic Church was wrong not to be willing to submit to such authority. However, it was precisely because the ‘ancient bishops’ did not want to incur ‘injury’ from the Emperor that they answered to his summons! It is this scenario and arrangement that would cause John Calvin himself so much heartache, frustration, exasperation and nervous exhaustion during his time in Geneva. Most of his years in Geneva were spent in constant conflict and struggles with the councils and syndics (magistrates) of Geneva as each tried to assert their own authority over the other in important matters regarding the running of the church. The ‘Constantinian’ arrangement that gave Calvin his position and authority in Geneva (the civic authority) was the same power that would clip his ecclesiastical wings when it deemed he had ‘overstepped’ the mark.

Constantine’s oversight and direction of the Church is illustrated in the matter of the Council of Nicaea. Constantine organised a local church council to deal with issues that were troubling church unity, particularly the teachings of the priest Arius, who called into question the divinity of Christ, but when that failed, he called a special Council to be held at Nicaea. The Council of Nicaea was convened by Constantine upon the recommendations of a synod in 325 AD – this was the first empire-wide meeting of church leaders to discuss various doctrinal controversies and to arrive at a consensus. It resulted in a formulation of Christian doctrine concerning a whole number of doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues.

The German theologian and historian, Hans Lietzmann, summed things up in this way:

“Thus by the Emperor’s interest, the church acquired a most important precedent for decrees of universal application – in the form of the general council. She could not have called such a council into being through her own authority. And at the beginning of the fourth century, she was far from the path that could have led to such a centralisation of authority. Hence the state, itself driven by the need for political unity, had compelled the church to move in the same direction.”13

Lietzmann comments that Constantine himself took part in these debates and negotiations and even interfered in the wording of the final document. Although his interference met with some reservation and disagreement amongst the delegates, largely because the language Constantine used lent itself to misunderstanding and confusion, nevertheless, in view of his great status, it was generally acquiesced to.14

However, two bishops dissented from the wording. This angered the Emperor who took action not only against Arius and his followers but against the two bishops, as well. Lietzmann informs us that, ‘the Arians and the opposing bishops… were not only excommunicated from the Church, but also removed from their offices by the power of the State and sent into exile.”15

Here we see how the power of the state not only further consolidated the Church into one doctrinally unified body – by virtue of its own force – but also launched the Church into a sphere of power and dominion over others that it previously had not possessed. However, we also recognise the ‘price’ the Church had to pay in terms of the loss of its own authority, independence and power by being aligned to the state that was giving it this power. That this organised body of churches could so easily feel themselves at home and comfortable with such an arrangement in itself speaks volumes about their spiritual condition. They might have had a reputation for being spiritually ‘alive’ (Rev. 3:1), but then the standards and values of the Lord are very different to man’s. The way has been prepared for the creation of ‘Christendom’ – the ‘Christianisation’ of society; the creation of nominal Christianity.

The establishment of the State Church.

The Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity in AD 380. The edict, which was part of the Theodosian Code, was issued in the name of Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius 1, and it stated:

“It is Our will that all people who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans, as the religion which he introduced makes clear even unto this day. It is evident that this is the religion that is followed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria…. We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative.”16 (Italics mine)

Theodosius 1 (Roman Emperor from 379 to 395), embraced Christianity during a severe illness, and he became a strong and public supporter of the Nicene Creed. Consequently, he summoned for a council to take place in Constantinople so that the Arian heresy, which challenged or denied the divinity of Christ and which had been dogging the Church for so long could finally be quashed. At this council, the Nicene Creed was amended to make Arianism a heresy within the empire and the Creed became the only form of orthodox Christianity in it.

The Emperor now becomes, as it were, the defender of the faith, and was ready to use all the power and might at his disposal to quell and crush any religious dissent. As we can see from the quote above, the Emperor would actually see himself as God’s instrument of vengeance upon those who would seek to cause division in the church. And the Roman Church went along with all this, although to call it a church in the biblical sense would be a complete misnomer.

As the Pharisees connived with the Roman authorities, represented by Pontius Pilate, to arrest and kill Jesus Christ, so both the Catholic Church and later the Protestant Reformers would use the physical force which was at the disposal of secular power to persecute and kill dissenting believers. This feature of ruthless dictatorial rule made it self-evident that Christendom and those that aligned themselves to it had nothing to do with Christ or His Church. One just had to read the New Testament to realise the truth of this.

Formalisation of The Church by the 4th Century

Below are two quotes which reflect the increased formalism and further departure from New Testament Christianity that the Church was undergoing.

“When in the fourth century Christianity was granted the status of a legal religion, the Christian celebrations took on a more formal appearance and were embellished by the use of vestments, lights and incense. Extempore prayers by the presider gave way to texts previously approved by synods of bishops as a guarantee of the orthodoxy of the content, leading to the formation of liturgical forms or ‘rites’ generally associated with influential episcopal sees.”17

And Broadbent writes:

“Eventually, pictures, images, and icons began to be valued. Churches were built to receive relics or to commemorate the death of martyrs. The meetings of the disciples of the Lord, in simple houses and rooms, changed to the gathering of all in a given location, willing or unwilling, believers or not, in consecrated buildings dedicated to the Virgin or one of the saints, filled with images, pictures, and relics, which became objects of worship. Prayer was diverted from God to the Virgin and the saints, and the idolatry of Paganism was reproduced in the gross superstitions that grew up around the images, the priests, and the forms of religion.”18

This was an unstoppable movement of formalism and rigid control created by man for man. In the most fundamental sense, this was not the creation of the Roman Catholic Church, for, as we have seen, the seeds of what later developed had been sown quite a while before the arrival of Constantine. The Church, so called, had become a worldly institution because its leaders were worldly, and a natural outcome of this was the establishment of the Roman Church. But fundamentally it was man’s church, it was man’s doing, not the Lord’s doing. Whether they are Catholics or Protestants, they are all part of this entity of Christendom that had arisen, and both Catholics and the Protestants of the 16th century are one with this system and belong to this system and both will persecute, imprison and execute dissenters.

Let us now look at how the persecuted, that is, the ‘church’, had now become the persecutor.

The Donatist Affair

Christianity soon took a foothold in northern Africa, and by the 3rd century it was strongly represented in Carthage and other Tunisian towns. I have already previously mentioned that there were groups of Christians that emphasised and insisted on the purity of the church, namely, that it was to be a communion of committed believers who distinguished themselves from the unrighteous lives of unbelievers. This was to a significant extent true of Christians in North Africa. In particular, holiness of life was regarded as essential in validating the ministry of the priest. Where the priest was lacking in this respect – in holiness and uprightness of life – he was considered unfit to administer the sacraments. They believed that when the Church lost its holiness, it ceased to be the Church. We shall see how the now ‘institutionalised’ Roman Church would become a relentless adversary of this outlook – and later also the Church of the Reformation.

During the Diocletian persecution some believers held fast to their faith and refused to hand over the Scriptures or to make sacrifice to the gods when demanded to do so by the authorities. Consequently, they suffered for their faith. However, there were those who did surrender the scriptures, in effect, denying their faith, and among these were clerics, as well. When the persecution ended, Christians who had reneged on their faith were called ‘traditores’, which referred to their act of betrayal by handing over the Scriptures to the Roman authorities.

Division and trouble arose when in 311 Felix of Aptungi, an alleged traditor, consecrated Caecilian as a new bishop of Carthage. But many did not recognise this appointment as Caecilian allowed himself to be consecrated by a traditor bishop – or you could say a ‘traitor’ bishop.

Donatus was a Christian leader in North Africa at this time and he led the campaign against the easy re-instatement of those who had denied the faith. Many churches followed Donatus in this matter and claimed that they represented the true church, as was witnessed to through its martyrs, who were held in honour by the North African Christians. This dispute about the nature of the church resulted in a split on the part of the Donatists, as they were called, from the Catholic Church. In 313, in an attempt to resolve the schism, the Donatists appealed to Constantine to determine which group was entitled to imperial recognition.

We note here how the lines between Church and State were being blurred – who should decide in such matters? The Church or the State? It was, of course, the one who had the greater power. The Emperor cannot be seen to be funding two rival churches. Division in the Church was equated to division and instability within the Empire. It was a threat to the State and to society itself. This would be the axiom down the centuries, used by Catholics and Protestants alike.

The schism developed into a situation where there were two rival bishops – one Catholic and the other Donatist. Constantine called for arbitration and the bishop of Rome led the argument against the Donatists, and his view prevailed. However, the Donatists appealed against this decision, so Constantine summoned a council of bishops, which, in 314, again sided with Rome against the Donatists. As a result, in 316 Constantine validated the recognition of the newly-consecrated bishop whose appointment the Donatists had opposed. Constantine tried to persuade the Donatists to come back into the fold of the Catholic Church. But those attempts failed and he eventually resorted to force. This resulted in some of the Donatists losing their lives when trying to protect their churches from being confiscated.

However, coercive measures by the imperial authorities failed to curtail the expansion of Donatism in North Africa. In 321, Constantine was forced to change tack, which resulted in him granting the Donatists full liberty of faith and worship. At the same time, he urged the Catholic Church to patience and indulgence. However, such qualities were in short supply.

Here is another feature that would repeat itself down the centuries. The secular authority, though powerful, was nevertheless guided in the end by prudence and pragmatism. The Donatists in North Africa were so numerous and popular, particularly among the poorer classes, that an attempt to suppress and eradicate them only led to an unacceptable degree of social instability in the region. Constantine recognised that the ‘greater good’ for the Empire was to be found in allowing the Donatists their freedom rather than inflicting persecution on them – irrespective of what the Catholic Church felt or wanted!

However, things then changed for a little while when Julian became emperor.

Julian the Apostate: 361 to 363.

Julian was called Julian the Apostate because when he became Emperor in 361, he rejected Christianity, and it was then that the Donatists began to flourish again in Africa and become a significant movement. However, his reign only lasted 2 years.

Augustine (354 – 430)

As far as our story is concerned, it was Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (in North Africa) who now appears on the scene and takes up the fight against the Donatists – and the struggle against them took up much of his time. He had been made Bishop shortly after 395. At this time, the Donatists were more numerous than the Catholics in parts of North Africa. As we shall see with the reformers of the 16th century, this combat with the ‘seperatists’ (the Donatists) influenced his theology. In other words, in response to their teachings, Augustine had to develop a theology that countered it.

The Donatists could not be won over by persuasion – though Augustine did try through numerous writings. This failure resulted in Augustine evolving a theory that supported the right of Christian rulers to use force against heretics and those who cause division within the Church. In this way, Augustine could justify the use of the political and legal power of the Roman Empire to suppress the Donatist church – or any schismatic. This would be the stance that the Magisterial Reformers not only aligned themselves to, but also rigorously applied to stamp out the Anabaptists and other dissenters.

In seeking to resolve this impasse and bring the schism between the Catholic and Donatist parties to an end, a conference was summoned in 411 in Carthage. The conference, which was designed to settle matters once and for all, was attended by 286 Catholic bishops and 279 Donatist bishops. However, the vote went in favour of the Catholics and against the Donatists, resulting in measures being implemented that deprived the Donatists of both civil and ecclesiastical rights.

An important issue that has already been touched upon appears here again. The Donatists did not recognise the validity of sacraments administered by clerics who had been traditors. If a priest or bishop had apostatised, or been ordained by one who had, then, in the former case, they had forfeited the right to continue in ministry as priests, or, in the latter case, their ministry was not valid. However, according to Augustine, a priest or bishop who had erred or who was in sin could continue to administer the sacraments because the validity of the sacrament lay not in the spiritual condition of the priest, but in the God-ordained ministry itself. Augustine maintained that since the sacrament was ordained by God, it was ex opere operato, which, in translation from the Latin, means, ‘from the work carried out’. In other words, the moral conduct of the priest who officiates over the sacrament is not decisive since its validity comes from God and it is therefore ‘Christ who baptizes’. Thus Augustine writes:

“… when the baptizer is faithless without its being known, then the baptized person receives faith from Christ, then he derives his origin from Christ, then he is rooted in Christ, then he boasts in Christ as his head – in that case all who are baptized should wish that they might have faithless baptizers, and be ignorant of their faithlessness: for however good their baptizers might have been, Christ is certainly beyond comparison better still; and He will then be the head of the baptized, if the faithlessness of the baptizer shall escape detection.”19

So the process is valid because it is essentially presided over by Christ, making the moral integrity of the priest irrelevant. But, of course, the Donatists would have none of this sophistry and it only served to strengthen their belief that they represented the true and faithful church. The failure of the above conference led to the re-imposition of strict imperial laws and persecution against the Donatists. Augustine, who had for years tried to win the Donatists over by persuasion, now began to advocate the use of force against them in order to bring them back into the fold of the Catholic Church. In support of this stance, he appealed to the command to “compel them to come in” in the parable of the Great Supper in Luke 24:23. In other words, those who keep themselves outside the ‘Church’ should have force used against them to ‘bring them back in’. His interpretation of this text no doubt suited his ends, but it displays a complete disregard for the meaning of the passage and disrespect for the Scriptures themselves.

Augustine and the Nature of the Church

We have already noted that the Donatists maintained the idea of ‘pure’ Church, consisting of committed believers. However, in his letters to them, Augustine sought to show the Donatists that the Church is a mixed society which consists of the godly and the ungodly, and that the Church does not consist of saints alone. As we have seen earlier, Cyprian used Matthew 13:30 to maintain that the ‘visible church’ consists of ‘wheat’ and ‘tares’. It is this interpretation of the Church that provided the Catholic Church (and later the reformers) with the justification of creating and maintaining ‘Christendom’ – the Christianisation of the whole of society.

In consequence of this teaching, Augustine claimed that the Donatists had put themselves outside the one true universal Church, and that they were not a pure church at all but apostate, because they had forsaken the ‘mother’ church. Augustine also claimed that baptism administered by a sinner was no different than baptism offered by a saint because it was Christ’s ministry, not man’s. (This was also adamantly affirmed by Martin Luther and other reformers in their disputes with the Anabaptists.) Augustine goes on to say that baptism was effective only within the unity of the Church. Since the Church is the place of the Holy Spirit, in which sins are forgiven, the Donatists, who were outside the Church, lacked the Holy Spirit and thus could not be saved.

In his reactions and writings to the Donatist schism, Augustine developed his doctrine of the church. He taught that there is one universal Church in the world. For him, this was the Catholic Church. Furthermore, Augustine maintained that the church ‘visible’ will, according to the parable of the wheat and the tares, be made up of the godly and the ungodly until the end of the world.

Augustine supports violence

Earlier in his career, Augustine was not in favour of schismatics being violently coerced into communion with the Catholic Church by the force of secular power, but he developed exactly such an outlook and teaching in his controversies with the Donatists. (This is exactly the path that Luther himself went down in his fight against dissenters. He recognised that the scriptures taught that one should not use force and violence against heretics, but in trying to eradicate ‘heresy’ from Lutheran regions, he resorted to the expediency of using the brute physical force of the secular power to put down dissenters, using such arguments as were developed in the first few centuries by the emerging Catholic Church.)

Indeed, Augustine became increasingly supportive of intervention by the state in view of the Donatists’ determined resistance against the Church’s efforts to unite them with itself, and particularly since some among the Donatists, called the Circumcellions, reacted with violence against Catholics.

In the midst of all this, the Donatist bishop, Petilian, reproached Augustine that Donatists were suffering because of persecution at the hands of the Catholics. He complained that Donatists faced one of two choices – either they flee or be killed. He pointed out that Jesus never advocated killing anyone and challenged Augustine to justify his stance on the matter. Petilian says:

“You who are a most abandoned traditor have come out in the character of a persecutor and murderer of us who keep the law.”20

Augustine wrote a reply to all of Petilian’s accusations, and in response to Petelian’s question, “Did the apostle persecute any one? Or did Christ betray any one?”, he wrote the following:

“I might indeed say that Satan himself was worse than all wicked men; and yet the apostle delivered a man over to him for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. 1 Corinthians 5:5. And in the same way he delivered over others, of whom he says, ‘Whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.’ 1 Timothy 1:20. And the Lord Christ drove out the impious merchants from the temple with scourges; in which connection we also find advanced the testimony of Scripture, where it says, ‘The zeal of Your house has eaten me up.’ John 2:15-17. So that we do find the apostle delivering over to condemnation, and Christ a persecutor.”21 (Italics added.)

Augustine here flagrantly abuses verses of Scripture to justify what Scripture condemns. Augustine uses a far-fetched argument by saying that Jesus Christ physically attacked and punished people when he expelled the money traders from the temple with a whip. It is no wonder that the two parties did not see eye to eye! Unsurprisingly, Petilian reacted angrily and pointed out that love does not exercise punishment over people, nor is it involved in inciting the secular power to persecute and kill citizens or to plunder their possessions.

Nevertheless, Augustine is driven to this irrational use of the Bible in his desperate attempt to preserve the unity of the ‘mother Church’, since its survival depends on the state power, which will only guarantee its safety and give it support if such a unity is maintained – since there cannot be two State churches! For the sake of the unity of the State, the unity of the ‘Church’ is indispensable and inviolable.

So, Augustine marches on with his arguments, justifying the use of force against heretics and schismatics and is quite content that the imperial power should be called upon to exercise such force against them. Advocating such action against the Donatists he writes elsewhere:

“Why… should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction? Although even men who have not been compelled, but only led astray, are received by their loving mother with more affection if they are recalled to her bosom through the enforcement of terrible but salutary laws… Is it not a part of the care of the shepherd, when any sheep have left the flock… to bring them back to the fold of his master when he has found them, by the fear or even the pain of the whip, if they show symptoms of resistance…”22 (Italics added).

Augustine argues that physical force and the threat of violence are justified and beneficial since they bring wayward ‘sons’ back into the fold of the Church. Why this man should be considered a great Christian writer is baffling. He may indeed be of note because of the influence he has had down the centuries, but it is an influence that works against Christ’s teaching and justifies conduct that the Scriptures condemn.

Significantly and very unfortunately for later dissenters, the arguments propagated by Augustine would be avidly followed and used by the 16th century Reformers.

Vincentius, who had previously been a friend of Augustine from Carthage, later became a Donatist. He, too, fell out with Augustine because of the latter’s support for the use of the state power to force Donatists back into the Catholic Church. In replying to Vincentius, Augustine again abuses the Scriptures without embarrassment, more or less inventing things as he goes along! He argues the following:

“Truly, if past events recorded in the prophetic books were figures of the future, there was given under King Nebuchadnezzar a figure both of the time which the Church had under the apostles, and of that which she has now. In the age of the apostles and martyrs, that was fulfilled which was prefigured when the aforesaid king compelled pious and just men to bow down to his image, and cast into the flames all who refused. Now, however, is fulfilled that which was prefigured soon after in the same king, when, being converted to the worship of the true God, he made a decree throughout his empire, that whosoever should speak against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, should suffer the penalty which their crime deserved. The earlier time of that king represented the former age of emperors who did not believe in Christ, at whose hands the Christians suffered because of the wicked; but the later time of that king represented the age of the successors to the imperial throne, now believing in Christ, at whose hands the wicked suffer because of the Christians.”23 (Italics added)

From Augustine’s words, we see again that he cared nothing for the context and correct interpretation of the passages he was quoting from. It is an astonishing interpretation. He believes that the passage from the book of Daniel above is divinely prophetic in confirming the dictatorial rule of the so-called Christian Emperors over any dissenters from the state religion. He claims it is God’s providence that has raised up ‘Christian’ emperors so that the wicked now suffer because of the Christians. In justifying the use of force, Augustine goes on to say,

“We see not a few men here and there, but many cities, once Donatist, now Catholic, vehemently detesting the diabolical schism, and ardently loving the unity of the Church; and these became Catholic under the influence of that fear which is to you so offensive by the laws of emperors.”24 (Italics added.)

Augustine believed that the threat and use of violence against dissenters was a blessing in that it brought back into the fold of the Church those who otherwise were destined to eternal perdition. It is a remarkable misuse of scripture, and went towards establishing a so-called biblical basis for the persecution, imprisonment, torture and death of dissenters for many hundreds of years to come. Augustine’s writings against, and treatment of the Donatists would be quoted by the leading reformers of the 16th century to justify their violence against dissenters.

It must be added that over a period of time Augustine did seek ways to heal the rift peaceably with arguments and was hesitant about the more violent oppression of the Donatists, but without doubt, he supported and availed himself of the imperial power to suppress and persecute those who separated from the Catholic Church. His own arguments speak for themselves in this matter.

A Summary up to the 5th Century

We now have the Roman Empire supporting and representing one religion. State and Church work in tandem. A threat to one of them represents a threat to both of them. Both together tolerate only the one recognised Catholic Church. Any who dissent from the prevailing Catholic Church, from its doctrines or its practices, represent a threat to the harmony of society and the well-being of the state; religious dissent is equated to sedition and rebellion. (Again and again, this axiom is repeated during the Reformation by the leading reformers against the Anabaptists.) How can the state, the empire, support two or three different versions of Christianity? It is unthinkable. Thus the persecution, banishment, beatings, torture and death is assured to any who dissent. That persecution of Christians that heretofore was sporadic and intermittent under hostile Emperors of Rome, now became persistent, continual and unrelenting under this sacrilist regime of Church and State – and this continued for over a millennium and included the reign of Protestant States.

In addition to this, it was not only the idea that there can be only one genuine Church that held sway; but because of this ‘union’ between church and state, particularly with the emergence of the baptism of infants, everyone in a given locality was regarded as ‘Christian’ – the community became by definition ‘Christian’, or more accurately put, ‘Christianised’. This was underpinned by the baptism of infants. Thus you have the idea developing of a ‘Christian’ nation, which now represents the ‘people of God’, just as in the Old Testament. The clerics – whether Catholic or Reformed – represent something like the priests of the Old Testament, and the emperor or civic authorities the kings of Israel; and the clerics can now call on their ‘king’ to persecute and annihilate the enemies of the so-called true religion, just as the prophets and kings of Israel had dealt with false prophets in Israel. These kinds of arguments were used by the reformers who also quoted Romans 13 in order to justify the persecution of dissenters by using the force of the state.

So Europe now undergoes a process of ‘Christianization’. We now move forward to the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages: the ‘Church’ all-pervading

By now religion pervaded all aspects of society and daily life, and the church with its priests, rituals and sacraments was seen as the means of obtaining eternal life. To incur the wrath or displeasure of the Church was to put your soul in mortal danger – whether you were a beggar or a King. Belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church was not only a requisite, it was the norm. And of course, the Church could profit greatly from such control and submission to itself.

The Church found ways to charge people for all and sundry. Baptisms, burials, taxes, tithes, relics – charges were required and levied at every turn, impoverishing the people. And then of course, there was the sale of indulgences – paying for sins to be forgiven or escape from purgatory. The Church itself paid no taxes and was able to accumulate wealth that exceeded that of monarchs, and this, of course, perpetuated the tension between state powers and the Roman Pontiff. ‘Christian’ Kings were now meant to be in submission to the pope for the good of their own souls! The influence of the Church was deep and widespread. It had accumulated to itself great power, and could muster up nations to fight on its behalf against heretics at home and abroad. And we must not forget, with all this power, the Catholic Church continued ruthlessly to persecute and eliminate those who represented a threat to its dogma and practice. However, the size, wealth and power of the church led to far greater corruption in the course of the middle ages.

The Holy Roman Empire

I will only make a few brief statements about the Holy Roman Empire. It was around the 900s (CE) that saw the emergence of what would become known as the ‘Holy Roman Empire’, and which would last for about 1000 years, if you date it from then. It was not officially called by this name until the 13th century. Although, as someone has noted, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire in the strict sense. It was a veritable patchwork of different lands, states, principalities and the like, mainly in central and western Europe. This alliance between nations and the papacy was also there to safeguard and promote the Catholic faith, and it was ruthless in putting down and eliminating those who disagreed with the tenets of the Church. However, there were at times inevitable tensions – to say the least – between nations or regional rulers and the papacy.

Challenges to the Roman Church and the Forerunners to the Reformation

With power and wealth came the rampant corruption of the Church. The Church’s easy-going abuse of power though, would also, to some extent, be its Achilles heel. It gave rise to various reformers, who would not only point out and inveigh against these corruptions, but who would also write to correct the false teachings of Catholicism. The following summaries are given to show that there were those who challenged Catholic corruptions and false teachings long before the appearance of the 16th century reformers.

The Waldensians

In the 12th century, a movement began in France under the leadership of Peter Waldo, and the movement took its name from him so the followers became known as the Waldensians. Among other things, they emphasized voluntary poverty, but because of the scarcity of their own writings it is difficult to absolutely pinpoint all their beliefs. However, many of their teachings anticipated those of the later Reformers. For instance, they opposed the Catholic teaching regarding purgatory, infant baptism, the sale of indulgences and prayers for the dead. They also rejected the Catholic teaching regarding the bread and wine, regarding the emblems as more symbolic. They opposed the superstitious beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church with regard to relics, Lent and fasting and pilgrimages. They considered the Bible the only basis and authority for what the church taught.

So here we can see that the abuses, false teachings and superstitions of the Catholic Church that the reformers argued against and exposed, had already been opposed and attacked by the Waldensians 300 years earlier – and also by others later. In fact, Martin Luther’s initial attack on the Roman church was far more tentative than that of some of the others who preceded him.

It is no surprise that the teachings of the Waldensians incurred the wrath the Catholic Church, who by 1215 declared them heretical. The Waldensians then suffered intense and terrible persecution over a long period of time, with many being burnt at the stake. This led to their dispersal over many different parts of Europe. Although they survived, their existence was a precarious one, which required them to meet in secret. At the time of the Reformation, representatives from the reformers met with some of the representatives of the Waldensians, and a Confession of Faith with Reformed doctrines was formulated, thus enabling some of the Waldensians to worship openly again.

John Wycliffe

We now come to the notable John Wycliffe (born c. 1324 in Yorkshire). He was a Catholic priest and a professor at Oxford University, and had great influence as a theologian, Bible scholar and politician. He was also significantly involved in the translation of the Bible into English. However, he found himself at odds with Catholic teaching and sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church by emphasising the need to remove immoral clerics and by relieving them of their properties which he considered to be a source of corruption. He inveighed against the false beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, and exhorted all Christians to rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics. He said that the papacy and clerical celibacy had no basis in Scripture and recommended that the monasteries be dissolved. The Catholic Church was not pleased!

The pope and the English clerics moved against Wycliffe, but he had support from the nobility, particularly from John of Gaunt, the father of the future King Henry IV. Wycliffe had particularly won them to his side as he was advocating the conveyance of church properties and endowments to the state. The Roman Catholic Church was already perceived as rich and corrupt, as it owned one third of all the land in England and was exempt from all taxes, so some of the nobles had reasons other than doctrinal for protecting Wycliffe. Here emerges a scenario that would be significant in the success of the Reformation in the 1500s. Those in power would give allegiance and support to a dissenting religious voice, particularly if it exposed the corruption of the Catholic Church and weakened its authority and wealth in its domains. This aspect of things stood Wycliffe in good stead for a while and it would certainly be a decisive factor in the Reformation.

But when Wycliffe spoke against the traditional doctrine of transubstantiation, it was a step too far and he consequently lost the support of the nobles and had to retire to the rectory of Lutterworth, his former parish. Later, however, under a different King of England, and as a result of Catholic edicts against Wycliffe and his works, his body was exhumed and burnt at the stake under King Henry VI. John Wycliffe is regarded as an important predecessor to Protestantism.

How was it that Wycliffe survived his onslaught on the Catholic Church? As I said, I think that one main element in this was the fact that he exposed what was evident to many, namely, the corruption and exploitation exercised by the Catholic Church. It struck a chord not only in the hearts but also in the ‘pockets’ of the ruling classes in England. The other factor that assured his survival was the support he got from the nobility. In the end, the secular power would decide what was in its own best interests. This again is another example of the inevitable tension and jostling for power that existed from the time of Constantine and onwards between the church and the secular power.

Jan Huss  

Jan (John) Huss was born in Bohemia (c. 1370). He too was a Catholic priest and a theologian, and was active in the city of Prague. To some extent he was influenced by John Wycliffe and, like Wycliffe, is considered a forerunner of the Reformation.

The history surrounding John Huss and the Hussite wars that followed is too complex to go into here, but suffice it to say that Huss incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church when he spoke forthrightly against the sale of indulgences in a public disputation and finished by burning the papal decree authorising such sales! Eventually, he was offered safe passage by the Catholic authorities to attend the Council of Constance to offer his defence, with the promise that he would be allowed to leave afterwards whatever the outcome. So Huss came and attended the council. However, after Huss refused to recant, they had him imprisoned and burnt at the stake.

Nevertheless, by this time Huss had gained a large following and the resistance of the Hussites, as his followers were known, led to what was called the Hussite or Bohemian wars. Again, the history is complex, with different battles being fought and one side gaining the upper hand and then the other. These wars continued from 1419 to 1431. At the end of the Hussite Wars, the lands of Bohemia were left totally ravaged and hundreds of thousands were killed. However, the Roman Catholic Church could not quite eliminate the Hussites and they remained a thorn in the Church’s side for some time after.

What I want to draw attention to is this: true religion is religion of the heart, which means a change of heart, a radical change of life; an inward spiritual change that then results in a manifest outward change of behaviour. It does not matter what doctrines you hold, which doctrines you teach if your life has not been radically changed by a new birth from above. You can preach against the abuses and false teachings and practices of the Catholic Church, you can proclaim ‘justification by faith’ and you can insist on sola scriptura, but it will do you no good – or anyone else – unless your heart has been changed. The Pharisees knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out and ‘believed’ many things correctly, but their hearts were not right, and so these people who knew the scriptures so well, ended up killing Him who was the Son of God. These religious Pharisees continued to persecute and kill the Lord’s people after His resurrection – and they thought they were rendering a service to God! Jesus did not say that “we shall know them by their doctrine” but that we would “know them by their fruits”! (Mtt. 7:16)

Jesus also said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from here… for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”” (John 18:36; Mtt. 26:52. Italics mine).

His words are clear. They direct themselves specifically to the matter of fighting and taking up arms in the protection of one’s faith, and He declares it is not in the nature of His Kingdom or of His servants to do so! It certainly was not in His nature! Nothing could be clearer. All those who take up arms in His name and for His truth to defend themselves and their ‘faith’, or fight against, kill and persecute others who believe differently to them – all those who do such things do not represent Christ, they do not represent His church, they are not of His Kingdom, and they are certainly not His servants.

What is called, and written about as ‘church’ history is, by and large, not the history of His church, of the true church. That history, so to speak, is written in heaven and shall be fully revealed in a day that is to come.

In the above account I am not writing to support the Hussites against the Catholics. I see no difference between them. They were all men of war. They were religious wars. Such actions have nothing to do with Christ or His Church. Both sides believed in taking arms against one’s enemies. In the face of such conduct, in view of bearing this kind of fruit in their lives, scriptural knowledge, however ‘correct’, makes no difference. It is all dead religion; it is a useless faith that cannot beget children from above; it does not change the heart. The apostle Paul’s heart was changed by the Gospel, by Christ – and what a change the Gospel wrought in his life!  Paul gives a wonderful account of his conversion from being a persecutor who used violence – in the name of God – to becoming an example to all generations of the longsuffering, gentleness and meekness of Christ. (1 Timothy 1:12-16; 2 Cor. 10:1). A man who allowed himself to be abused and misused – and did not fight back!

Whether it is the Catholics, the Hussites, or the Puritans – or others that we shall look at shortly – they were all one and the same. They believed, contrary to the teaching of the Son of God, in using severe physical violence to kill and destroy their enemies. It is all dead religion, veiling the glory of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ from the spiritual view and understanding of people. Such religion, because it convinces people that they are in the service of God, and because they have a form of godliness and a form of correct doctrine, blinds people to the true nature of Christ and of Christianity, with the result it keeps people outside of Christ’s Gospel and Kingdom. They take up the sword, and they die by the sword (like Ulrich Zwingli), but they are none the wiser! They are not taught by God from scripture, even though they may proclaim ‘justification by faith’ and ‘eternal judgement’ from their pulpits, while they put down their opponents with the sword. As I mention elsewhere, the abuses of the Catholic Church would be apparent to the ‘natural light’ that men have. In the reading of the Scriptures, common sense and honesty of heart are able to alert the mind and conscience to such obvious abuses and corruption. But ‘natural light’ (i.e., intellectual insight and understanding) alone does not lead a person to genuine repentance and to a true conversion of the heart and life. One did not need ‘special revelation’ to discern these abuses, nor did it necessarily mean that a person with this kind of understanding was a converted Christian themselves. The abuses of the Catholic Church both in practice and in teaching was obvious to any thinking person.

We shall see all this more clearly when we come to look at the Reformation of the 16th Century.




  1. The State of things Prior to the Reformation
  2. Reasons for the Success of the Reformation
  3. The Reformation in German-speaking Switzerland
  4. The Rise of Anabaptism

Why was the Reformation ‘successful’ in the 16th century? It seems to me there were four main reasons.

  1. Major Powers were Pre-occupied

There was a continual struggle for power and dominance between the powerful Catholic countries of Europe and the papacy. The supremacy of the papacy itself was dented in the 15th century when the Catholic Council of Constance clipped the wings of the popes.

The Italian wars (1494–1559) were a series of violent wars for control of Italy, fought largely by France and Spain but involving the Pope and much of Europe. In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was allied with England and the Pope against France, and they drove the French out of Milan, defeating and capturing Francis I, the King of France in 1525, and forcing him to sign a peace treaty while he was imprisoned. When he was released, however, the Francis I reneged on the treaty, claiming he had only signed it because of the intolerable pressure put upon him. France then joined an alliance that the Pope had formed with Henry VIII of England as well as others in order to resist the growing power of the Holy Roman Emperor. In the ensuing war, Charles’s mercenary troops sacked and plundered Rome itself and the Pope came under virtual imprisonment in 1527.

We can see that all this was going on at the very time that the Reformation was breaking onto the scene! (Martin Luther had made his 95 theses public in 1517.) Catholic nations, together with the Catholic Church, were all involved in a struggle for dominance and expansion of territory, so that they were not really in a frame of mind to mobilise their forces or focus their attention completely on what initially seemed like a doctrinal dispute in Saxony.

It was during this period that King Henry VIII had asked the pope (Pope Clement VII) for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused for several reasons – one being that Emperor Charles V of Spain, who was essentially holding the Pope as prisoner, was Catherine’s nephew.

To add to their woes, there was also the threat from the east from the Ottoman Empire that was expanding westwards.

  1. Resentment towards the Catholic Church

The wealth, corruption and exploitation of the Church caused growing resentment, as did the lavish and indulgent life-style of its clerics and popes. At the beginning of the 15th century the Catholic Church and its papacy were in disarray when they found themselves with three competing popes! There were all sorts of intrigues and plots in the papal court, and the Catholic Church was trying to bleed people dry of money through the sale of indulgences in order to fund its lavish building enterprises in Rome. Matters were not helped by the fact that priests and monks were known for their dissolute lives. Many priests kept concubines in their houses, gambled, loved to sit in taverns and get drunk, and indulged in coarse language. Feeling secure in their status after so many centuries of being in control, many Catholic priests and monks disgraced themselves openly. Luther himself testified to these things.

During the latter part of the 15th century a large number of children were born to Catholic priests each year in a region of southern Germany, with as many as 1500 children being born to priests each year. The church, in effect, sanctioned such behaviour by imposing on the wayward clerics a fee for each child as well as a mistress fee.1

European states were not too happy as they watched the papacy enriching itself at their expense, and discontent was rife among many citizens of all classes. The Catholic Church’s opulence, corruption, abuses and immorality was creating discontent and resentment among the peoples of Europe, making them open and ready to embrace a movement that attacked such abuses.

  1. Renaissance Humanism

Renaissance humanism occurred from about the 14th to the 16th centuries. It was not anti-Christian or like the humanist teaching of today.

Renaissance humanism effected every single aspect of society – scientific, artistic, cultural, moral, religious, etc. To put it briefly, it was a movement that viewed the traditional mode of teaching and learning of previous centuries as a straight-jacket to free thinking and therefore a hindrance to human development. Renaissance humanists advocated a return to the reading of ancient Greek and Latin literature, and through an understanding and interpretation of this literature to develop an approach that would bring an advance in every sphere of human life. With regard to our focus, what was vitally important about this humanist approach was that it meant a return to the use of the ancient biblical texts as a source of our understanding of truth and doctrine. Renaissance humanists wanted to bring the meaning of the original texts of the Bible to the people. Their efforts in this field went towards making society more moral, Christian and cultured. They particularly wanted to break free from the teaching of the Catholic ‘schoolmen’ or ‘scholastics’, who had regarded the church’s traditional way of learning and teaching over the previous centuries as the basis on which the dogma and practice of the church should be determined. In contrast to this, the humanists believed people are best informed on Christian truth by making the Word of God available to them instead of allowing church tradition to dictate what is believed. Renaissance humanism had a profound influence on the budding reformers and provided them with the tools to launch their own movement.

This brings us to Erasmus, one of the most famous humanists of that period. He was a Catholic priest and a very notable scholar of the 16th century. In keeping with the humanist approach, he gathered together Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and eventually published a Greek New Testament in 1516. A future edition of this became the basis for the ‘received text’ on which the King James Authorised Version of the Bible is based. In 1516, in his introduction to the New Testament he writes, “If the Gospel were truly preached, the Christian people would be spared many wars.”

Throughout his career, Erasmus sought to provide Christians and the reformers with a scriptural approach that would enable them to challenge some of the practices and doctrines of the Catholic Church. The Bible was to be the standard by which to judge things. In 1516 Erasmus wrote:

“I am delighted to know that my labours, such as they are, find some favour with men of good will. Many are taking this opportunity to read the Scriptures who would never have read them otherwise, as they themselves admit….”2

What is important to point out, I think, is that Catholic men like Erasmus were genuinely interested in bringing enlightenment to people regarding scriptural truth for the benefit of their personal and Christian lives. Erasmus’s aim was not to overthrow the Catholic Church or to separate from it. He wanted to change and reform the Church from within. However, in so doing, Erasmus and other Catholic humanists paved the way for the reformers that followed by their use of the ancient texts of Scripture and by a focus on the Pauline epistles to highlight the ecclesiastical abuses and false teaching of the Catholic Church.

Moreover, although Christian humanists like Erasmus pointed out the failings of the Catholic Church, the humanist movement represented notable theologians from reputable learning centres, and their criticisms found favour among many, including at that time the Catholic King of France. It was an exciting time with exciting prospects for making advances in different spheres of learning and education. Christian humanism itself was finding favour across Europe and, initially, all this lent an air of respectability to the efforts of scholars like Erasmus and thus an immediate severe backlash from the Catholic Church was avoided – at least, initially!

What needs to be emphasized here is that before appearing on the scene, many of the leading reformers of 16th century were influenced by humanist scholars, like Erasmus. Martin Luther, Zwingli, William Farel, Calvin and others had come under the direct influence of such humanists and imbibed their teaching – not just with regard to Scriptures, but also with regard to the study of the classical Greek and Latin writings. With a nod to the Humanist movement, some of the reformers changed their names to Latin or Greek alternatives which were not always easy to pronounce. Thus Philip Schwartzerdt (right-hand man to Martin Luther) changed his surname to Melanchthon, and Johannes Hussgen (the leading reformer in Basle) changed his surname to Oecolampadius.

Another significant humanist was Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455 – c. 1536). He was a French theologian and a leading figure in French humanism, who taught at the University of Paris. He was a significant forerunner of the Protestant movement in France, and like Erasmus, he too influenced some of the budding reformers with an understanding and application of Scripture with which to challenge Roman Catholic dogma.

Lefèvre had a significant influence on Luther, who made use of Lefèvre’s writings in his lecture preparations. However, though Renaissance humanism gained a foothold in the University of Paris, the conservative Catholic element viewed this new humanism with great distrust, and Lefèvre came under suspicion of being a ‘Lutheran’ himself, or even being the instigator for the rise of Lutheran thought. The theologian Noël Béda, who was an opponent of Renaissance humanism, and of course of Lutheranism, inveighed against Lefèvre for providing the seedbed for Lutheran thought. He wrote, “Luther is a great heretic, but Lefèvre is the master and Luther the disciple… Lefèvre, Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius are men of their ilk all the same.”3

These comments clearly show the close connection between the Renaissance humanists and the development of the thinking of the reformers – at least in the eyes of their adversaries! Lefèvre was seen to be an originator of Lutheranism. There are any number of histories now that show this connection between Reformed thinking and Renaissance humanism. One such author, Greta Kroeker, suggests that a common ‘humanist theology’ is discernible in the writings of the humanists and the reformers, and she focusses on Calvin as an example. She writes:

“… a wide-ranging humanist theology developed that nourished the spiritual thirst characteristic of early the 16th century and offered a springboard for theological method, textual study, and pastoral practice for those interested in ecclesial reform and renewal… I will place Calvin and Erasmus together in the context of what should best be called a humanistic theology. Understanding this theological heritage is important because it enhances our perception of the spiritual and intellectual circumstances that gave rise to the reformations in general, and Calvin in particular… I will propose a definition that helps to explain the theological priorities that many Protestants observably shared with those humanist theologians who declined to embrace the reformations.”4 (Italics mine)

The author concedes that to talk of a ‘common’ theology among the two groups is controversial, but in reading the historical development and influence of Renaissance humanism on the reformers, there can be little, if no doubt, that the humanist approach provided the seedbed, the nurturing ground for both the methodology of scriptural investigation and also for the developing doctrines of the reformers. The Catholic humanists stayed within the Catholic Church and the reformers departed from it and developed these doctrines even further.

As I mentioned in Chapter One, a person did not need special spiritual revelation to conclude that many Catholic doctrines and practices were clearly unbiblical. In just reading the New Testament, common sense and unprejudiced thinking reveal certain Catholic teachings as totally wrong. Renaissance humanism, among other things, just highlighted what was obvious to common sense and supplied the upcoming reformers with the biblical teaching and the means by which to challenge Roman Catholic dogma, and in that sense provided them with a base and the impetus to do so. An argument could certainly be made that the reformers were born along in the ‘slipstream’ of the humanist movement. The much more controversial point would be to ask whether the reformers were truly ‘evangelical’ or just ‘enlightened’ Catholic humanists. In other words, it is clear that the reformers championed ‘justification by faith’ (or their version of it), but with regard to some of their other teachings that we shall look at and also with regard their conduct towards dissenters, the question can be asked whether a real change had taken place in them beyond that which ‘natural light’ gives to the intellect and understanding. Was it a conversion to new ideas, or a conversion of the soul? Although this may be a startling thought to the reader, I ask that it be borne in mind as we progress with this study.

So let us return to history. No doubt men like Erasmus and Lefèvre were excited and stimulated intellectually by the discoveries they were making and motivated by a genuine desire to benefit others with a better understanding of Scripture. However, one could only go so far before the Catholic Church would rise up in opposition to what it now saw as a threat to its teaching and practice, especially since those who had been caught in the ‘slipstream’ of their teachings were now overtaking them and starting to inveigh against the Catholic Church, such as Martin Luther.

Not only did Lefèvre come under fire, but also Erasmus himself started to be accused of inspiring Luther – this again shows the close connection in thought between the two groups. In fact, Martin Luther had been pressing Erasmus to change camps and join him in the Reformation movement. However, as has been noted, Erasmus wanted to stay firmly in the Catholic camp and change things from within. Moreover, Erasmus found the Reformation movement too strident and divisive and also criticised its excesses in violence and iconoclasm (i.e., the violent physical destruction of Catholic images, statutes, etc). In the end, Erasmus wrote against Luther’s notion that man has no free will to respond to God in repentance, thus sealing the division between them.

As a result of this Catholic backlash, Lefèvre had to flee Paris, though he remained a Catholic throughout his life. Like Erasmus, Lefèvre sought to reform the Church without separating from it.

While studying at Paris, John Calvin too was significantly influenced by the humanist teachings of Maturin Cordier, who himself would later be attacked for being a Lutheran. One could write a lot more about the extent of the influence of humanist teaching on the leading reformers of the 16th century, but I will let the above suffice to show the connection, though it will inevitably be touched upon again as we study the lives of the Magisterial Reformers.

  1. The growing nationalism and independence of European states and regions

For me this is probably one of, if not the most important factor that gave opportunity for the reformation to take root and spread. Resentment against the Catholic Church and its abuses had been around for some time.  As we have seen, others in previous generations, had already spoken and written against the superstitious teachings, corrupt practices and immoral lives of many of the priests of the Catholic Church, pointing out that the scriptures themselves should alone be our guide in doctrine and practice. And many had risked and given their lives in doing so. They had not succeeded because, in the end, Catholic power was too prevalent and strong, and any such individuals or movements were brutally suppressed.

Also, as I have noted, in the rise and spread of humanist teaching, the reformers found a basis and impetus for clear, biblical and reasoned attacks on the Catholic Church and its superstitions and abuses. But this in itself again would not have been enough for success.

What aided the Reformation was that certain ruling city councils in Switzerland and some notable princes in the German lands were now ready and in a position to support and protect the emerging reformation. Their motives for doing so, however, were at least to some extent mixed and related to using the budding Reformation as an opportunity to free themselves from the economic exploitation and political dominance of the Roman Church. So, it was not that the reformers were more courageous than others before them by standing up for truth against the Catholic Church. Not at all. It is the fact that the leading reformers were able to secure the backing of the secular power in their respective regions that led to their success.

Once the Reformation had got under way, in negotiations between the emerging German Protestant states and the Catholic powers at the Diet of Speyer (1526), a significant phrase was coined. In translation from the Latin it reads, “Whose realm, his religion”. In other words, it is the ruling secular authority of any given land or region that decides which religion it will follow. So, if you get the state power behind you, yours becomes the religion of the state! Though the compromise was formally rejected at the second Diet of Speyer (1529), nevertheless the principle remained true and was the basis on which the Reformation survived. Without the support of the princes and other knights and nobles, the Reformation would have been snuffed out in Germany.

The wealth, power and exploitative abuses of the Catholic Church had already created a climate where princes in Germany and city authorities in Switzerland were ready to exploit an opportunity to free themselves from Catholic domination and retrieve wealth for themselves instead of it going to Rome and the pope. So when the reformers came along with their scriptural teaching against the abuses of Rome, political reasons undoubtedly also played a part in leading a state or regional power into supporting the Reformation. The secular authorities could also benefit by freeing themselves from church taxes and confiscating church property. In other words, it is difficult to determine how much was religious conviction and how much was political expediency that led a regional power to support the Reformation.

Some Background to the Situation in Germany

So how did this change in the power balance come about? Let us look at the situation in Germany first. Jockeying for power and authority, as well as fighting over land was a feature in Europe in the 16th century as at other times, and German princes were ready to flex their muscles at this time. As mentioned, the support of the German princes and other nobles would be absolutely decisive for the success of the Reformation in Germany. It was Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, that gave Luther protection and saved him from falling into the hands of the Catholic Church and the Emperor Charles V when they sought to punish him for heresy. Frederick was an imperial prince of significance in the Holy Roman Empire. As an ‘elector’ prince, he was one of only of seven in the empire that were responsible for electing the next Holy Roman Emperor. In fact, Pope Leo X offered Frederick the Golden Rose in September 1518 in a seeming attempt to advocate him as the next Holy Roman Emperor. (The Golden Rose is an honour conferred by the pope annually to show special respect and affection.) It has been suggested that this was also a ploy to win Frederick over against Luther. Since if Frederick became Emperor, he would immediately be faced with a conflict of interests. As Holy Roman Emperor he would be expected to defend the Catholic faith, but how could he do that and protect Luther at the same time? However, Frederick instead gave his support to Charles I of Spain after securing the promise of a large payment of money from him. Charles became Holy Roman Emperor in June 1519 as Emperor Charles V. Frederick was a prince of stature in the empire and both the papacy and Emperor would need to walk circumspectly in their dealings with Luther who was under Frederick’s protection.

Another source of tension between the Catholic Church and Frederick, Elector of Saxony, was the matter of indulgences. Before 1517 when Luther publicised his 95 theses, there was a new drive for the sale of indulgences to aid the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This new campaign for selling indulgences also came with the prohibition against selling any other form of indulgences. Frederick promptly banned this Catholic effort to raise funds in his territory, not particularly for theological reasons but because he himself had a horde of relics (over 17,000 of them in 1518 in his castle church at Wittenberg), from which he himself was hoping to make a profit, and he did not want money being drained away to Catholic coffers rather than coming into his. Among Frederick’s relics were a huge number of bones, ostensibly from worthy saints, and even a surviving piece of wood from Moses’ burning bush. As was the custom with relics, the faithful would receive significant reduction in the years spent in purgatory if they came to venerate a relic – but of course, they had to pay Elector Frederick for the privilege of doing so! Frederick was not going to let his profit derived from the superstitious beliefs of the time be undermined by the pope’s new campaign for money through the sale of certificates of indulgence.

Furthermore, Frederick the Wise had begun to develop the small electoral town of Wittenberg and had founded a university there in 1502, since his territory of electoral Saxony was without one. It was at this university that Luther began to teach in 1511. The creation of this university also brought with it the establishment of a printing business which would be of significant importance later on. So, although Wittenberg was only a small town, it was now the town where the Elector Frederick had founded his German university and had Martin Luther as one of its principal teachers.

When Luther came under attack after publicising his 95 theses in 1517, Frederick’s instincts were to protect him. We have seen that the religious and political situation in Europe was complex, as were the relationships between the various rulers. Frederick’s reasons for supporting Luther may have been varied and complex as well, but the significant thing for this study is that Frederick the Wise did decide to protect Luther, and it was this fact that ensured the success of Lutheranism in Germany.

So Luther had the support and protection of Elector Frederick, but Frederick did not impose Lutheranism in his region, rather this protection for Luther and his teaching meant that the towns, or rather town councils of Electoral Saxony were free to choose which religion to follow, and most of them did adopt Lutheranism. In the neighbouring territory, however, Duke George of Saxony was vehemently against Luther and banned his teachings there. Nevertheless, from early on, Luther’s teaching did spread to some other areas of Germany where it had gathered the support of the nobility, and the imperial free city of Nuremberg also gave free rein for preaching of Lutheranism.

What is important to note here is that Luther’s teaching was able to take root and spread because of choices made by secular authorities, whether it was that of the princes, nobles or the town councils. This decision by the secular power is what initiated or gave impetus to the Reformed movement in a given region. It was not the result of a mass movement among the common people who had responded to the Gospel, convincing the authorities that a change in religion was due. It was far more that the secular authority chose – for whatever reason – the religion which the people were to follow. This is what we shall see as we proceed. It was the process by which the Reformation spread, and it is most clearly seen in Switzerland, so it is that country that we will now consider. We will return to Luther’s story in Chapter five.

Background to the Reformation in Switzerland

Switzerland was within the Holy Roman Empire but in 1499 the Swiss won autonomy for themselves after wars ending in that year. The Swiss Confederation consisted of 13 Cantons or regions, and each one of these could decide its (religious) destiny for itself. Again, this would be a crucial factor for the development of the Reformation in Switzerland. Swiss councils and their magistrates had the final word, and they could decide which direction to take without any interference from Rome.

The Reformation in Zurich

The Swiss-born theologian and historian, Philip Schaff (1819 – 1893), wrote the following on the religious conditions in Switzerland at this time:

“The Church in Switzerland was corrupt and as much in need of reform as in Germany. The inhabitants of the old cantons around the Lake of Lucerne were, and are to this day, among the most honest and pious Catholics; but the clergy were ignorant, superstitious, and immoral, and set a bad example to the laity… Celibacy made concubinage a common and pardonable offence. The bishop of Constance (Hugo von Hohenlandenberg) absolved guilty priests on the payment of a fine of four guilders for every child born to them, and is said to have derived from this source seventy-five hundred guilders in a single year (1522). In a pastoral letter, shortly before the Reformation, he complained of the immorality of many priests who openly kept concubines or bad women in their houses, who refuse to dismiss them, or bring them back secretly, who gamble, sit with laymen in taverns, drink to excess, and utter blasphemies.”5

As I point out in this study, the corruption and immoral condition of the Catholic Church and its clerics helped to give the reformers a listening ear among the people and among the ruling authorities. We shall now go on to consider Zwingli, who laboured in Zurich for the Reformation. However, we shall see again how the alliance between church and state established by Constantine played out in the same way, with the same tensions, and with the state authority having the last say in religious matters.

Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli

Zwingli was one of the leading reformers of the Reformation. It was due to his labours that Zurich was the first Swiss city to adopt the Reformed religion.

Zwingli was born 1484. He studied in Bern and the University of Vienna (1498), and then went  on to the University of Basle (1502). This University was a centre of literary activity and came under the influence Renaissance Humanism, and it seems likely that Zwingli imbibed some of this humanist teaching while there. Erasmus also spent several years actively working In Basle. Zwingli, like other reformers, was deeply influenced by humanist teachers and modern trends in scholarship.

In about 1506, Zwingli became vicar in Glarus, some 50 miles south-west of Zurich. In continuing with his studies, it was here that Zwingli started avidly to read humanist writings, including those of Erasmus. Zwingli then met Erasmus in 1515 and they continued corresponding until the late 1520s, when the religious views of Zwingli diverged from those of Erasmus, since the latter never wanted to leave the Catholic Church but reform it from within. During his time in Glarus, Zwingli became convinced that the Bible had supremacy over all other books.

However, Zwingli was forced to leave Glarus because he had involved himself in a political matter by speaking against what was perceived to be corrupt practices that related to the mercenary system. Regarding the feelings of Zwingli’s parishioners at his departure from Glarus, the historian D’Aubigne writes that ‘the friends of evangelical preaching at Glaris loudly expressed their grief.’6 D’Aubigne obviously considered that the preaching of Zwingli was distinctly ‘evangelical’ at that time, though he admits that Zwingli had some way to go in his sanctification and it was ‘not until his residence at Zurich that the power of a christian life penetrated all his being’. However, it was in Zurich that Zwingli hounded the Anabaptist Felix Manz and had him executed by drowning in 1527 for daring to baptise others! There is a fundamental contradiction here!

So, in 1516 Zwingli moved to Einsiedeln, which is about 25 miles south of Zurich, and became chaplain at the Benedictine Abbey there. During this period he continued his studies, concentrating on the Epistles of Paul and started to teach against Catholic superstitions and abuses. By this time Zwingli had resolved to preach nothing but what the scriptures taught. He afterward stated that he had developed his evangelical understanding of the Scriptures during this period. According to D’Aubigne, Zwingli dated the beginning of the Swiss reformation to this period (1516) – although D’Aubigne makes clear that it was Luther’s public pronouncements that first got the Reformation off the ground. He states:

“Perhaps Zwingli preached the Gospel a year previous to the publication of Luther’s theses, but Luther himself preached four years before those celebrated propositions.”7 (Italics mine)

We shall yet see what the Gospel meant to Zwingli both in his teaching and his conduct.

While at the Abbey, Zwingli developed a style of expository preaching – teaching from the biblical text itself rather than from set lessons laid down by Catholic custom. This was a totally new type of preaching and it very much impressed the pilgrims from Zurich, who came in large numbers to see the Black Madonna at the Abbey. As a result of his preaching, his sermons made him well known in the city of Zurich. So, in 1519 he received an invitation to be the people’s priest at the Great Minster in Zurich (1 Jan. 1519).

But why would the Catholic Church invite someone like Zwingli who was showing signs of Lutheranism in his teachings to be their lead man at the Great Minster? One of the factors in this might have been that several cantons in Switzerland were considering a break with the papacy and its clerics. In Germany things had backfired somewhat for the Catholic Church because of their strident opposition to Luther, so it is possible that the Catholic Church wanted to induce Zwingli to take up the appointment in Zürich to get him on their side, so to speak, rather than cause an open clash by opposing him.

We noted that Zwingli had already embraced reformed views by this time. However, embracing evangelical principles does not mean the same as being spiritually regenerated. This difference was to be revealed by what happened while his appointment to Zürich was being considered. Although he seemed to be getting his ‘reformed doctrine’ straight, it did not seem to reform his lifestyle.

During the election process for the appointment to the great Minster in Zürich, Zwingli’s friend, Oswald Myconius, relates to him a rumour that could jeopardise his appointment. Zwingli was being accused of sexual misconduct. Though not all the details of the accusations were true, yet there was substance to them. So on December 5, 1518, in the middle of the selection process for the appointment in Zürich, Zwingli writes a letter to Heinrich Utinger, who is one of the officials responsible for appointing a priest to the Great Minster. In this letter, though acknowledging sexual misconduct with shame and regret, Zwingli nevertheless seeks to justify himself to some extent. He even states, “I cannot ignore this slander”, which is a curious form of defence, given his guilt.

Zwingli explains that three years earlier – while he was at Glarus – he had made “a firm resolution” to “never touch a woman again”, but that it did not exactly end well. In the rumours that were going around, Zwingli had been accused of seducing the daughter of a high-ranking Zurich official. Zwingli conceded that it “does not bode well to openly vilify a woman”, but he maintained that there were good reasons for doing so. Zwingli clarifies, if not protests, that the woman was a barber’s daughter, and a very loose one at that, whose reputation was well known – “a virgin by day and a wench by night”, as Zwingli put it. He confessed that she might be pregnant by him or by someone else, but claimed the parents were not concerned about it! To defend himself against the accusation that he had dishonoured the young woman, Zwingli said that he had followed three principles throughout his life: never deflower a virgin, defile a nun or “violate a marriage”. Moreover, he maintained that thanks to his “sense of decency” he had always been highly discreet “in such matters”. Even in Glarus, in his previous position, he had done it “with such secrecy” that even “his closest acquaintances hardly noticed anything”.8

The only point in referencing the above is because it relates directly to the question posed by this study. Zwingli had declared that he had already embraced evangelical principles a few years earlier and was already preaching along reformed lines. How is it that in his letter to Utinger, Zwingli makes no mention of any spiritual change or experience in his life during those few preceding years? Can one convert to reformed doctrine without being converted? That is the pertinent question. Zwingli’s letter is a mixture of different sentiments, and if he had undergone a true spiritual conversion one would have expected him to write of his repentance in unqualified terms. There would have been not only something like an unqualified admission of guilt, but also of an experience that had now given his life a totally new direction morally. Whatever change may have taken place in his life, there is simply no mention of it. Apart from a resolve to do better – which any (godless) person can do – there is no hint of a Gospel experience in the letter. The point of saying these things is not to judge the man for his failings, but to highlight what seemed to be lacking in the Protestant Reformation, namely, a radical inward transformation which is brought about by a truly evangelical conversion and which led to true evangelical preaching.

D’Aubigne writes of the above incident in sympathetic terms: “One man even accused him of seduction. Zwingli was not blameless, and although less erring than the ecclesiastics of his day, he had more than once, in the first years of his ministry, allowed himself to be led astray by the passions of youth. We cannot easily form an idea of the influence upon the soul of the corrupt atmosphere in which it lives. There existed in the papacy, and among the priests, disorders that were established, allowed, and authorised, as conformable to the laws of nature.”9

D’Aubigne refers to the immorality that was common among Catholic priests – which has already been noted – and proceeds to suggest, probably accurately, that the tide of what was happening around Zwingli was, to some extent, carrying him with it. He seems to be correct in his assessment – but where does that leave the Gospel and the experience of it in Zwingli’s life? We are not here talking about perfection and infallibility, but the experience of the power of the Gospel in a person’s life to which they can give testimony to – a reference to a ‘turning’ point in the reformer’s life that is more than just an advance in doctrine but which leads to a change of conduct. This seems to be altogether lacking in Zwingli’s letter or conversation with others at this time. Did Zwingli experience the power of the Gospel and the radical change it produces in a life after this period? If so, we know nothing of it. Moreover, his actions toward the Anabaptists would contradict such an experience.

Nevertheless, as such failings were common among the clerics, it did not prove problematic for Zwingli to get the required votes to install him at the Great Minster in Zürich.

Zwingli In Zurich.

Zwingli’s labours made Zurich one of the main centres of the Reformation in Switzerland and his preaching caused quite a stir among the population, since he did not teach in the usual way nor follow the traditional format in teaching. He gave his first sermon on 1st January 1519, abandoning the custom of preaching from the Gospel lesson for that day and instead spoke from Erasmus’ New Testament, methodically going through the Gospel of Matthew, giving his exposition as he went along. This was something altogether new to the hearers. Zwingli’s aim was to bring the Scriptures to people in their own language so that they could reap the full benefit of what the Bible taught. Gradually, an interest in the Scriptures was aroused and led to some of the ordinary citizens of the city gathering in groups to study the scriptures to see for themselves what was actually taught there. This interest in the Scriptures among the people would also provide fertile ground for the evangelism and teaching of the Anabaptist preachers that would soon follow once Zwingli had held back from more radical reforms and aligned himself with the council authorities against the Anabaptists.

In his preaching he emphasised that salvation and forgiveness was through Christ alone and that the Bible was the only basis for determining doctrine and practice. So Zwingli certainly introduced the idea of sola scriptura to the people, but how well he himself adhered to this we shall shortly see. Moreover, as with all the reformers, Zwingli also spent much time inveighing against the moral corruption of his day and called for changes and reform in the Church. He attacked those practices and teachings which had no Scriptural basis and soon became a renowned figure in Zürich. Although he also preached in the open air on weekly market days to the people gathered there, his focus was on the abuses and false practices of the Catholic Church, such as compulsory celibacy for priests.10

At the end of 1521, Zwingli made what seemed to be a shrewd ‘political’ move. He was unhappy with the Catholic Episcopal control over Zurich so resigned his post and accepted a new authorization from the city council. The council was now his new boss, not the Catholic Church! This was a good strategy regarding the clash that was about to come.

The Radical Reformers Appear

By 1522 other men with Catholic backgrounds and a zeal for reform were drawn to Zurich to study with Zwingli. Under him, they began to study the secular Greek classics, as was typical of Renaissance humanists, but also the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. It is interesting to note, even at this stage, the extent to which the non-Christian humanistic studies relating to ancient classical Greek and Latin literature were still occupying the mind and time of Zwingli. Two of the names of those that joined Zwingli at this time were Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, who was soon to become the first Anabaptist martyr to be murdered under the reformers. Both Grebel and Manz were educated men and their fathers were notable citizens.

The Lent Affair

Tradition dictated that during Lent (March 1522), people were not allowed to eat meat. However, there was a printer by the name of Froschauer, who, with the excuse that his workforce was worn out from having to meet a deadline, served them sausages to eat! This could only cause a stir and commotion. Which it did, particularly as his motives were regarded as suspect by some, since the deadline they had to meet was for a new edition of letters of Paul. Froschauer was arrested. However, Zwingli stepped in and did so publicly. In a sermon, Zwingli came to the aid of Froschauer, defending him from accusations of heresy. The Catholic Church felt under threat by this breach of its tradition, leading the Catholic Bishop of Constance to demand of the council that they ban the teaching of Reformed doctrine in Switzerland. However, Zwingli took action and defended his position in writing and, significantly, the council took no further action. As I mentioned, Switzerland being autonomous meant that the Roman Catholic Church had no overriding say in what happened there. This was decisive in the success of the Reformation in Switzerland.

In this same year Zwingli also wrote against compulsory celibacy, which was part of Catholic dogma.

(Just a word of explanation: In Swiss cities the government normally consisted of three councils. The Small Council – which had the least number of members – being the most important, and on which the Magistrates or ‘Syndics’ sat. This was followed by the Council of the 200, and finally a far wider general council. For the sake of simplicity, in this study I will normally just use the word ‘council’ or ‘councils’ when referring to the city authorities.)

The First Public Debate

All this lead to quite a commotion not only in Zurich but in all of Switzerland, with the Catholic Church concerned that Zurich might follow Luther’s path and separate from the church. So at Zwingli’s suggestion the government – the small and large councils – ordered a public disputation to try and settle the matter. This would be the First Public Debate (29 Jan. 1523) and they would consider the whole question of reform. All this has echoes of what happened under Constantine. One religious grouping appeals to the secular power to adjudicate in matters of church teaching and practice.

So Zwingli drew up 67 theses; in these he upholds that salvation is through Christ alone, and maintains that the Word of God is the only rule of faith; he rejects and attacks the church hierarchical structure, the Catholic Mass, praying to saints, the merit of human works, fasts, pilgrimages, celibacy, and purgatory, stating they are the unscriptural commandments of men.

600 distinguished and representative citizens gathered in the city hall. The Catholic bishop declined to attend – declaring it was not a secular matter! (Another instance of the inevitable tension between Church and State.) In the bishop’s absence, Zwingli won the support of the council and he was allowed to continue “to proclaim the holy gospel and the pure holy Scripture”, and the council ordered that all preachers should teach in accordance with the same standards. Because the council had the power to do this, they used it! The civic authorities of Zurich embraced Zwingli’s ‘67 Articles’ and constituted them the official doctrine of the region. This was how the Reformation was introduced to Zurich and its peoples.

On 29 January, 1523, the council authorities proclaimed the following:

“… the aforesaid  burgomaster.  Council, and  Great  Council  of  the  city  of  Zurich,  in  order to  put an  end  to  disturbance  and  dissension,  have  upon  due deliberation  and consultation  decided,  resolved,  and  it is  their  earnest  opinion,  that  Master  Zwingli  continue and  keep  on  as  before  to  proclaim  the  Holy  Gospel  and the  pure  Holy  Scripture  with  the  Holy  Spirit,  in  accordance with  his  capabilities,  so  long  and  as  frequently as  he  will  until  something  better  is  made  known  to  him.  Furthermore,  all  your  people’s  priests,  curates,  and preachers  in  your  cities  and  canton  and  dependencies, shall  undertake  and  preach  nothing  but  what  can  be proved  by  the  Holy  Gospel  and  the  pure  Holy  Scriptures; furthermore,  they  shall  in  no  wise  for  the  future slander,  call  each  other  heretic,  or  insult  in  such  manner.”11

So a city that had been Catholic in practice and doctrine became ‘Reformed’ by a vote at the council meeting. Is this spiritual renewal or is it just people adopting a different religious outlook for reasons that might not be altogether religious – switching from one form of (nominal) religion to another? Whatever the case may be, here we have a hugely significant example of how the civic authority not only can interfere with, but decide on matters of religious doctrine and practice in a given region. This afterwards became a decisive factor throughout Switzerland and aided the Reformation there. It was by the decision of Swiss city councils through public disputations of this kind that Swiss regions became Reformed. Not only did they become Reformed, but working in tandem with the councils, the reformers made sure that no other brand of Christianity would or could exist in their regions except that taught by the reformers.

This was the nature of the Reformation and its spread – whether it was in Switzerland or in Germany. There was no preaching in the churches that led to people turning to Christ for the first time in their lives; there was no weeping over their sins and being converted and witnessing to a changed life, as one might read in accounts of spiritual awakenings. There is no record of anything like this that I have come across. Reformers like Zwingli preached to their congregations a new form of doctrine, but there was no evangelism carried out by any of the reformers in the market places, house to house or in open fields. It was all to do with influencing citizens from the pulpit against Catholicism and persuading those who held the secular power to change the religious status of the region by a vote of the council. And this vote did not lead to any kind of fresh ‘evangelism’ but instead imposed on all peoples in that region a form of religion that had been foreign to many of them up to that time, though others indeed welcomed the change away from Catholicism. We see from the proclamation above that all the Catholic priests in the region now had to preach what Zwingli preached whether they believed it or not! I shall be highlighting this vital aspect as we go along in this study.

At this time, the zealous reformers Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were working side by side with Zwingli for reforms, but there were signs of a divergence between Zwingli’s more cautious approach in bringing about change and the approach of some of his more zealous associates, who wanted things to move on more swiftly.

Signs of tensions between the reformers in Zurich

In 1523 Zwingli wrote his initial and tentative proposals for the revision of the Mass and published them in his Essay on the Canon of the Mass (De Canone Missae Epichiresis) on 29 August. At this time, the Mass was still being celebrated according to Catholic tradition even though the Zurich authorities had declared in January that in all things the Scriptures should be followed. It would take time for the council to appreciate what that would mean, but in the end it would be they and not the clerics and theologians who would decide how far to take things. However, Zwingli’s essay on the Mass met with some criticism from his more zealous fellow reformers, who objected to the retaining of clerical vestments, Latin chants and set prayers. In acknowledgement and in deference to these objections, Zwingli added an Apology to his Essay which was published 9 October. In this Apology he concurred with the need to do away with vestments and Latin chants but gave reasons for retaining the liturgical prayers. What is significant here is that Zwingli and other reformers considered those among the ‘former’ Catholic congregations who still adhered to Catholic modes of worship and idolatrous practice as ‘weak brethren’, as those who were truly already converted. For these worshippers Zwingli wanted to adopt a policy of ‘dutiful forbearance’ until they could understand why Catholic rites and symbols had to be done away with. Zwingli, in defending his approach of ‘forbearance’, writes the following in his Apology:

“For there are those who fear that certain people… will more stubbornly adhere to those elements which I, with a certain dutiful forbearance, have allowed to the weak.”11a

Zwingli believes it is right to exercise patience with those who are still steeped in their Catholic ways – whom he calls the weak in the faith – as though they could be educated out of Catholicism and into and understanding of Gospel truth. The question arises, how is it that through the preaching of the Anabaptists later on there seemed to be no need at all for a prolonged period of ‘re-education’ out of Catholicism for those that were converted? Their preaching and the effect it had on the hearers made such instruction redundant. One fundamental difference between the two messages (the Reformed one and the Anabaptist one) is that the leading reformers regarded their new congregations as ‘weak brethren’ in Christ, whereas the Anabaptists preached the Gospel believing their hearers were nominal Christians and who needed converting. Zwingli thought people simply needed ‘educating’ out of Catholic belief. He wrote:

“But if any peril threatens, then let the weak first be taken in hand and clearly taught what vestments have to do with the case and what the consequences will be if they are not abolished.” (Italics mine)

However, the removal of the outward signs of Catholic worship and putting Catholic believers through a doctrinal re-education programme will not change their hearts! The Anabaptists understood this; the leading reformers did not. Zwingli, though, was persuaded in the end that waiting for people to ‘see the light’ was not leading anywhere. He continued with these words:

“For I myself (to speak the truth), when I was undertaking to write this about vestments, had been exceedingly wearied of permitting the use of vestments to the weak. But lest I grant nothing, I then permitted those vestments which I now, in my concern, consider ought to be done away with, as I realize that they open a window to vain rites.” (Italics mine)

Zwingli found, at least to some extent, that many people were resistant to simply being persuaded by doctrinal expositions and ‘dutiful forbearance’ out of their Catholic mindset. People had been brought up as Catholics for many generations. They did not have Bibles to study on their own. They were told what to believe by the priests. Their ‘faith’ was a matter of following tradition; it was not the result of a personal heart response to the Gospel. Unfortunately, the reformers did not change this situation, nor the condition of the hearts of the people by simply continuing to instruct their congregations about what they were now to believe. They had believed the Catholic priests; now they were to follow what the Lutheran / Reformed preachers said. However, the Gospel is more than just the communication of certain doctrinal truths – it is meant to be the profoundest challenge to the condition of the human heart, exhorting men and women to repent and be converted.

We noted that back in January 1523 the council of Zurich had declared that ‘all  your  people’s  priests,  curates,  and preachers  in  your  cities  and  canton  and  dependencies, shall  undertake  and  preach  nothing  but  what  can  be proved  by  the  Holy  Gospel  and  the  pure  Holy  Scriptures.’ However, Catholic practices and the veneration of images and statues were still well embedded in the minds and worship of people towards the end of that year. People cannot be made Christians by the vote of a council!

But the changes, such as they were, continued to create divisions and tensions among the people. Those that found the rate of change too slow started to take matters into their own hands, since the symbols of Catholic worship were still very much present in churches. On 1 September, 1523, after the pastor (Leo Jud) of St. Peters preached against the presence of Catholic symbols of idolatry in churches, an assistant priest with one or two others tore down paintings and statues of the saints in the church a week later. This resulted in the assistant priest being put in prison for a week by the council. Pamphlets were also being distributed, denouncing Catholic idols and images, which led to further acts of iconoclasm and to those responsible being imprisoned for wanton destruction of Catholic symbols of worship.11b It was a confusing situation. On the one hand, symbols of Catholic idolatry and ritual were being preached against and denounced, but as yet the council itself had not sanctioned these changes to Catholic practices. However, such violent actions and divisions are not the result of people having being converted by the Gospel, but were the sectarian fruit of the anti-Catholic teaching of the reformers. The Reformation engendered sectarianism with all its intolerance and violence right across Europe, as we shall see.

These disturbances and the acts of iconoclasm now led the Zurich authorities to call for a second disputation, where the issues regarding images and the Mass were to be considered. From the councils’ point of view, it was to be a process of seeking biblical clarification on these issues without necessarily making decisions about changes. As was customary, the council regarded it as its own prerogative to make decisions regarding any changes – though this would become a matter of contention during the debate. The precedent of this prerogative dates back to Constantine, where the secular power has the final decision on what constitutes acceptable Christian doctrine and practice in the region under its jurisdiction, and Zwingli would have to align himself with this system or lose his position. He chose the former.

The Second Disputation

The Second Disputation took place on 26 October, 1523, and lasted 3 days. 900 were present, with the Roman Catholics in attendance this time to fight their corner. The main discussion related to the nature of the Eucharist, and the use of images in churches. As the debate on the Mass seemed to reach its end without any decisions being made against it by the council authorities, Grebel pleaded for further discussion and that steps should be taken ‘to stop this great abomination to God’. He wanted instructions given to the priests that were present on how to proceed with doing away with the Mass. The council’s hand was not going to be forced on this matter and it was here that Zwingli himself intervened, to the astonishment of his close associates, in support of the council and against Grebel, saying:

“Milords will discern how the mass should henceforth be properly observed.”11c

Zwingli realised that the council was not going to be pressurised into making changes it was not ready for, and since it was the one that wielded the power in the Canton (i.e., Swiss Region) his statement was an acknowledgement of their authority and status.

However, this met with a counter-response from another reformer called, Simon Stumpf, who said:

“Master Huldrych! You have no authority to place the decision in Milords’ hands, for the decision is already made: the Spirit of God decides. If therefore Milords were to discern and decide anything that is contrary to God’s decision, I will ask Christ for his Spirit and will teach and act against it.”

So, this was a rebuke from a fellow reformer, who believed that Zwingli was allowing the secular authority to decide on doctrinal matters. Some books include the exchanges that are quoted above with the suggestion that Zwingli was compromising the truth and abandoning to the whim of the council. However, Zwingli’s response to the last quote was the following:

“That is right. I shall also preach and act against it if they decide otherwise. I do not give the decision into their hands. They shall also certainly not decide about God’s Word – not only they but the whole world should not. This convocation is not being held so that they might decide about that, but to ascertain and learn from the Scripture whether or not the mass is a sacrifice. Then they will counsel together as to the most appropriate way for this to be done without an uproar…”

Zwingli points out that they were only meant to discuss the Mass as not being a sacrifice and nothing more. He asserts that he too will preach the truth whatever the council decides but that it is for the council to decide how changes are to be brought about without causing an uproar, in other words, without it leading to protests from those who still adhered to Catholic traditions. Zwingli realised the reality of the situation. He understood that he was dealing with ‘Christendom’. The tragedy is that he would soon become very much a part of it, and his assertion that he would ‘preach the truth’ whatever the council decides would be undone by his actions that were soon to unfold.

At the debate, no decision was made concerning the Catholic Mass and images and the homage paid to them. Although the council remained open in principle to the idea of changing the Catholic Mass, it continued to be celebrated under Zwingli’s supervision. The council not only had to take into account the feelings of the more ardent Catholic citizens, but also needed to walk circumspectly regarding this matter since the neighbouring Catholic cantons might be provoked into taking military action against them.

To his close associates, however, it seemed that Zwingli was playing politics and abandoning his convictions. Zwingli, for his part, could see that the council was not prepared to be pressurised into a change regarding the Eucharist. His position and status – and that of the Reformation – could certainly be jeopardised if he pushed too hard on this issue. He probably felt that discretion was the better part of valour on this occasion.

Arnold Snyder, in his work, The Birth and Evolution of Swiss Anabaptism (1520-1530), sums the situation up like this:

“The tableau for a complex reforming dance in Zurich thus begins to take shape in the spring of 1522: the city council would direct the orchestra and dictate the tune and tempo of change, cautiously measuring the political effects relative to other Swiss Confederates and foreign powers (especially Austria), as well as the potential for conflict at home… while tentatively (at first) granting Zwingli and reform-minded preachers the right to preach ‘biblical truth’”12

This nature of this ‘dance’ and who would orchestrate it was all decided many centuries before when Constantine started to make Christianity the religion of the state. The same deference to the secular power that characterised the beginnings of Christendom were evident in the behaviour of Zwingli.

However, Zwingli’s continued submission to the city council in order to maintain his position would not only result in a compromise of his former convictions but would also have disastrous and deadly results for his erstwhile colleagues. These events now led to a separation between Zwingli and some others who had been closely associated with him, in particular Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, and others that I shall shortly mention. These radical reformers – as they will also now be called – became increasingly frustrated with Zwingli’s hesitancy to implement further reformed changes in Zurich, and also disillusioned with what they considered Zwingli’s abandonment of evangelical principles. Conrad Grebel believed that Zwingli’s failure to stand firm on the word of God in this Second Disputation and immediately afterwards resulted in the collapse of the Reformation in Switzerland. He wrote the following to his brother-in-law, Vadian, less than two months later, on 18 December 1523:

“On that occasion, the Word was overthrown, setback, and bound by its most learned heralds.”13

That an irreparable breach had occurred between Zwingli and the radical reformers is made clear in the same letter:

“Now I shall report how in dealing with the matter of the mass both councillor bodies assigned this knot to be unknotted to eight councillors, Zwingli the introducer, the abbot of Cappel, the provost of Embrach, and I know not what other tonsured monsters. They have disregarded the divine will on not celebrating the mass, and have prescribed a middle ground with diabolical (I know) prudence…. Whoever thinks, believes, or declares that Zwingli acts according to the duty of a shepherd thinks, believes, and declares wickedly.” (Italics mine)

Conrad Grebel kept up a writing campaign on behalf of the radical brethren to the Zurich Council but it was all in vain. It was not just that Zwingli disagreed with these radical reformers in the stance they were taking – he now became their opponent and deadly enemy. Since all their efforts in negotiating with, and writing to Zwingli and the council had failed, the radicals started now to meet together informally in houses for bible-study, particularly in the home of Felix Manz.

Third Private Discussions

During the course of the next year, 1524, more private consultations were held in the council to allow additional reforms to be undertaken against medieval Roman Catholic devotion and practices. Images, pictures, candles and altars were disposed of, frescoes were whitewashed and saints relics buried. Eventually, in April 1525 the council did abolish the Catholic mass. Thus many outward signs of Catholic worship and practice had been removed, but this is still a far cry from saying that the citizens of Zurich had become evangelical in their belief or experience.

Moreover, the rift remained between Zwingli and the radical reformers, and by this date of 1525, the radicals had been meeting together for some time and had gone far beyond just wanting to reform Catholic practices and false teaching – they had progressed to a preaching of the Gospel that would result in an inward spiritual change of the individual, through personal repentance, conversion and a baptism that witnessed to that repentance and to their commitment to a Christian life.

However, this new understanding inevitably impinged on infant baptism, which was very much regarded as a sign of being incorporated into the Christian community, and even into the beginnings of Christian life and salvation. One pastor in a neighbouring village to Zürich (Wilhelm Reublin) was among the first to preach against infant baptism, resulting in some families withholding their children from being baptised. This met with an immediate reaction from the authorities. Reublin was imprisoned and then forced to leave Zürich in August 1524. He is the one who would later baptise Balthasar Hübmaier, who was to become one of the most energetic Anabaptist evangelists in southern Germany.

The rejection of infant baptism and the adoption of believer’s baptism would become a major reason for the persecution of Anabaptists on the part of the magisterial reformers, as I will now also call them, since they aligned themselves with and colluded with the civic authorities – the magistrates. Baptism was the issue that now arose between the radical reformers and Zwingli (the magisterial reformer) together with the civil authorities. Grebel and Manz insisted that they had learned their views from Zwingli himself and reminded him that he had once rejected infant baptism. He responded by saying that there had been a misunderstanding! The radical reformers maintained that there was no scriptural basis for infant baptism. They believed in a personal repentance leading to that individual’s conversion which was demonstrated by a changed life – and it was upon such a testimony that the individual was to be baptised. These radicals, or Anabaptists as they would be called (‘anabaptism’ meaning ‘to be baptised again’), rejected the teaching that infant baptism was a means of becoming a child of God and a member of the church.

As we shall see, these ideas were strenuously opposed by all the reformers, particularly as these teachings of the radical reformers directly and fundamentally touched on the nature of the church. The radical reformers believed in a church composed of committed believers, not in the idea of a church made up of the mixed multitude of so-called wheat and tares of the whole community, which was the view of all magisterial reformers, such as Luther and Calvin. The radicals, however, wanted to base their teaching on the Scriptures alone, and they could see that the church was not represented by a ‘Christianised’ community, a community of all those who had been born and baptised as infants in the parish, irrespective of their subsequent conduct! The true church, like in the apostles’ day, was to be made up only of those confessing Christ as Lord, and then followed by believer’s baptism.

There is an irony here, in that the radical reformers took up the banner of ‘sola scriptura’ (the Scriptures alone) against the arguments of the magisterial reformers, which the latter were using against the Catholics in their arguments with them!

This radical ‘reformation’ did not stop with just changing a number of Catholic doctrines and superstitious practices; it had at its foundation the total ‘reformation’, or transformation, of the inward spiritual state of the individual and of his or her conduct, leading to believer’s baptism! This is what represented the great dividing line.

If anyone deserved the designation of being ‘evangelical’, it was the Anabaptists, not the Protestant Reformers.

This teaching of the radicals struck at the heart of the idea of ‘Christendom’, of the ‘Christianised’ community or nation. Both the secular powers and the magisterial reformers were wedded to the idea that the community is already ‘Christian’ by virtue of infant baptism and by participation in the traditions of the Church. It is certain that the magisterial reformers were aware that this would be the immovable positon of the civic authorities, and to what extent they knowingly compromised previously held convictions or genuinely subscribed to this viewpoint can be a matter of debate. What is certain is that in the ensuing debates the reformers developed teachings that totally supported infant baptism and that opposed believer’s baptism, and that in fact, denied the notion of a ‘conversion’ experience.

The Anabaptists believed that the church consists only of believers who are committed to Christ and whose lives demonstrate that. This logically leads to the understanding that church and state are completely separate, with the state having no say in church matters! There is no way the secular power, the council in Zurich, would tolerate a teaching that threatened the church state model that had been reigning and ruling for nearly 1200 years! In the eyes of the political rulers – the city council – and the magisterial reformers, this was tantamount to schism, sedition and treason, and threatened to overthrow both church and state.

What the radical reformers believed and taught was explosive, revolutionary stuff – to the magisterial reformers, to the secular authorities and to the Catholic Church! It would not be tolerated by any of them, since it represented a threat on the citadel of Christendom that had ruled for more than a millennium.

Zwingli communicated in a writing the exchanges that he had had with the radical reformers about this divergence of opinion. Zwingli’s responses to the radicals are highly significant and represent the outlook adopted by all leading Protestant reformers. The radicals sided with the Scriptures. Zwingli sided with Christendom. Zwingli quotes the radicals as putting the following to him.

“According to the Acts of the Apostles those who had believed separated from the others, and then as others came to believe, they joined those who were already a new church. That is just what we must do.”

The radical reformers believed in a church of genuinely converted and committed believers. Zwingli related his response to this with these words:

“To this we responded in the following way; ‘It is indeed true that there would always be those who would live unrighteously and hold all innocence and even piety in contempt, even though they confess Christ. Yet when they declare and contend that they are Christians, and are such by their deeds which even the church can endure, they are on our side. For who is not against us is on our side.’ Christ… had also commanded us to let the tares grow with the grain until the day of harvest, but we boldly hoped that each day more would return to a sounder mind who did not have it at present. If this should not happen, still the most devoted should always live among the least devoted.”

Zwingli’s words here embody the outlook and define the nature of the Protestant Reformation. It is the argument that all the leading reformers used. There would be no change. Christendom would continue unabated. There is no separation between Church and State. The argument dating from the third century regarding the ‘wheat and tares’ continues to be used by the reformers to consider as Christian those who have been simply ‘Christianised’. The citizens of the state were made ‘Christians’ by their infant baptism and as long as they declare themselves Christians (which they would) they should be regarded and treated as Christians by Church and State. Zwingli avoids dividing the citizens between the converted and unconverted, between Christian and heathen, between believers and unbelievers. It was not his view, nor was it the view of any of the reformers. There are ‘good’ Christians and there are ‘bad’ Christians, but they are all Christians insofar that they confess themselves to be such based on their infant baptism and it is wrong not to regard them as such. This was the view of the Protestant Reformers and in this outlook, by definition, there was no place for evangelism of the unconverted! Zwingli – and Luther’s – hope was that those that still clung to Catholicism could somehow be ‘won over’ by patient doctrinal instruction, but where this failed the ‘most devoted’ would simply have to live among the ‘least devoted’.14

During this time, the radical reformers continued to make various representations to Zwingli and the council in writing concerning the scriptural validity of believer’s baptism, but it was to no avail – neither Zwingli nor the council would give any ground. In fact, as I said, Zwingli turned against his erstwhile friends, argued against them to the council, wrote against them, and in a short time, under his leadership, it would lead to laws being passed to punish, imprison, banish and even to kill the radical reformers – the Anabaptists.

The commotion that was now being caused led to another public disputation.

The Public Disputation of Jan. 1525

On January 17, 1525, a public disputation was held in Zurich. Zwingli, together with others, including his colleague Heinrich Bullinger, who would become the leading reformer in Zurich after Zwingli, faced the radicals, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and those associated with them. Though the radical reformers defended their views well in denying that infant baptism had any sanction in the Scriptures, it was Zwingli who argued against them, with the city council ruling in Zwingli’s favour and for infant baptism. Earlier in his career as a reformer, Zwingli found it difficult to accept the baptism of infants. He wrote:

“Nothing grieves me more than that at the present I have to baptise children, for I know it ought not to be done.”14a

He stated that infant baptism had no foundation in Scripture and to follow Scripture means not to baptise anyone until they reach the age of discretion. However, he recognised that the religious culture he was in would not accept such a change, and he was not willing to incur the displeasure or hostility of the council. Zwingli writes:

“If however I were to terminate the practice, then I fear that I would lose my prebend.”15

In other words, if Zwingli pressed the council to change their stance on infant baptism, he would be ousted – and any further reform with him. Infant baptism was regarded by the religious secular powers as an indispensable foundation to the ‘Christian’ state.

As we shall later see, like Luther, Zwingli was quick to compromise on infant baptism and to abandon the principal ‘by scripture alone’ in the face of opposition from those keeping him in power. It was in this conflict with the Anabaptists that both Zwingli and Luther developed ideas contrary to their original outlook. To begin with, Luther had not believed in the persecution of schismatics or heretics. It was the conflict with the Anabaptists that pushed him in this direction. As it was with Augustine, so it was with these men.

In this third public disputation with the radicals, Zwingli claimed that infant baptism in the New Covenant took the place of circumcision of the Old Covenant. And as circumcision was a seal to becoming part of God’s people in the Old Covenant so, by extension of the comparison, it would mean that infant baptism makes the child a part of God’s people – the child is incorporated into the Church, into the body of Christ by baptism. And of course, this is exactly the position that Luther and Calvin took in their writings. The Anabaptists regarded this comparison as unbiblical, pointing out that infant baptism is nowhere taught or found in the New Testament. Zwingli responded by quoting Augustine, saying that he is sure that infant baptism had begun at the time of Christ and the apostles, although he concedes that no mention is made explicitly in the New Testament.

It was a hard choice for the magisterial reformers. If they held to their original convictions on infant baptism, they would so alienate the secular authorities that they, the magisterial reformers, would not only lose their position and status, but the Reformation itself would be halted if not banned, throwing the secular authorities back into the lap of the Catholic Church. Should one hold on to the power one has to change at least some things, or lose all such power and influence by holding on to one’s convictions – if such convictions were held? Magisterial reformers like Zwingli and Luther chose the former. Only they would know if their ‘turn around’ on the subject of infant baptism was the result of genuine reconsideration and conviction, or just political expediency. Luther acknowledged that society was not ready at all to do away with infant baptism.

One could wonder if this verse in Hebrews ever crossed their minds in these circumstances: “Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a time.” (Hebrews 11:25). Or to make it more relevant, we could change some of the words in the following: “Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy position and power for a season.” However, this position and power included them becoming the persecutors of believers (the Anabaptists) and the cause of much of their cruel suffering. The Anabaptists were willing to die for their convictions, which sprang from an inward change wrought by a personal repentance – and they did so without fighting back (except for a ‘lunatic fringe’ which I will mention later).

On the other hand, was Zwingli a person who was religiously and zealously devout but lacking the courage and conviction that comes from such an inward transformation – and thus willing to compromise on the basis of political expediency? Is Zwingli just adjusting and reforming the ‘religious worldview’ of a ‘Christianised’ community, just disabusing them of the superstitions and false teaching of the Catholic Church without bringing about a change of heart in his listeners that would lead to their conversion – a conversion that would make redundant the years it was taking of trying to persuade people to change their religion from Catholic to Reformed? Were the reformers like Zwingli, Luther and Calvin just ‘intellectually enlightened’ through Renaissance Humanism concerning some aspects of the Gospel and the false teachings of the Catholic Church? Were they just using the New Testament to preach a higher morality to their listeners, rather than preaching the Gospel in a way that caused their congregations to know they had never known Christ’s salvation in truth? This latter approach was certainly true of the Anabaptists.

What we can say is the following: This decision of the magisterial reformers on infant baptism did result in them retaining power and position and securing safety for themselves, but it also turned them into the persecutors of those that disagreed with them, subjecting them to the most unspeakable sufferings!

So Zwingli sides with the secular authorities and keeps his position, which allows reforms to continue at a pace and to the degree that the city council allows. Reforms could be implemented in Zurich because the Catholic Church had no overriding power or threat of physical force in the Swiss confederation to oppose or stop it. This was a decisive factor in the success of the magisterial Reformation in Switzerland. But now it was the civil power that had supremacy, and reform could only progress as far as this civil authority allowed it to. After the public disputation of January 1525, the council issued measures banning the meetings of the Anabaptists and parents were ordered to have their infants baptised within eight days if they had not already done so, on pain of expulsion from the city for not doing so. The Anabaptists had either to conform, leave Zurich or face imprisonment.

However, the Anabaptists were undeterred; they were going to follow their conscience and convictions. On January 21, 1525, about a dozen men met at the house of Felix Manz, and in a solemn manner Conrad Grebel, a layman, baptised George Blaurock, an ordained priest. By now George Blaurock had joined the radical reformers in Zürich. After this, they baptised all the others present. Thus on January 21, 1525, as one historian writes:

“Anabaptism was born. With this first baptism, the earliest church of the Swiss Brethren was constituted. This was clearly the most revolutionary act of the Reformation. No other event so completely symbolised the break with Rome… The Brethren emphasised the absolute necessity of a personal commitment to Christ as essential to salvation and a prerequisite to baptism.”16

This was a huge challenge to the state-patronised Reformation promoted by Zwingli, Luther and others.

The Anabaptists Begin their Work of Witnessing and Evangelisation

We will now have a closer look at the radical reformation by following the lives of some of its prominent figures.

Conrad Grebel

In the following month, February, Grebel and Manz set on their work of evangelising in the area with the result that people were converted and baptised. They also held meetings to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This evangelisation soon spread to neighbouring villages and towns and even further afield in Switzerland. Some of these converts then started to witness in and around another the city (St. Gall) in Switzerland with marked success, so Grebel joined them there. At St. Gall he preached and found great response among the people. This preaching resulted in about five hundred people being baptised in the Sitter River by the Anabaptists on April 9, 1525. All the Anabaptists emphasised the necessity of repentance and a changed life in their preaching. However, eventually the authorities in St Gall followed the lead of Zürich and suppressed the movement. From the latter part of April until June, Grebel, fearing capture and imprisonment, was forced into hiding in Zurich because of his activities.

In fact, during this period the Anabaptists were in and out of prison, as they simply kept on preaching and witnessing, whether from house to house, in fields or even in churches that initially happened to be open to them. Grebel then started to evangelise in his home town just east of Zurich, where his father had been a magistrate, with his labours bearing much. At this time Grebel, Manz, and a fiery man called George Blaurock, who I mentioned earlier, were preparing for a service when Grebel and Blaurock were arrested by the magistrate and imprisoned in the castle. Three weeks later Felix Manz was seized and thrown into the same prison.

They were put on trial, where Zwingli spoke against them, accusing them of sedition. As it was in Augustine’s day, so it was here. To teach or practice something different from the state religion was regarded as a threat to both state and church – it was schismatic, seditious and represented rebellion against state and church.

But Zwingli’s charges were based on hearsay accounts rather than on evidence and fact. They were charged with being opposed to all civil government, believing that all things should be held in common, and holding that those who had received believer’s baptism could not sin. This last charge against them was certainly not true. And of course, the charge of sedition, rebellion and threatening to overthrow the state was an accusation labelled against all dissenters from the time of Constantine! Concerning the other charges mentioned, I will not take time at the moment to expand upon these as it is rather involved. But it would be generally true to say that in their attempt to discredit the Anabaptists, the magisterial reformers would exaggerate or misinterpret (wittingly or unwittingly) the writings of these radical reformers. An excellent book on this topic and on the radical Reformation is Leonard Verduin’s book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. The basis for this book was a series of lectures sponsored by the Calvin foundation in 1963.

As a result of the trial, on November 18, 1525, the Anabaptists were condemned to lie in the tower on a diet of bread and water, and no one was permitted to visit them except the guards. In the course of the following months, more Anabaptists were caught and imprisoned in Zurich. In a letter to an acquaintance, Zwingli wrote:

“It has been decreed this day by the Council of Two Hundred that the leaders of the Catabaptists shall be cast into the Tower, in which they formerly lay, and be allured by a bread-and-water diet until they either give up the ghost or surrender. It is also added that they who after this are immersed shall be submerged permanently: this decision is now published… I would rather that the newly rising Christianity should not be ushered in with a racket of this sort, but I am not God whom it thus pleases to make provision against evils that are to come, as He did when in olden time He slew with a sudden and fearful death Ananias who lied to Peter, so that He might cast out from us all daring to deceive…”17 (Italics mine)

It is amazing that he who was called a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland could write with such coldness and murderous intent about those who believed in believer’s baptism! And he writes as though God is on his side and wills the death of such dissenters. So this was no vain threat. It would not be long before reformed Zurich would have its first martyr at the hands of Zwingli. Zwingli belonged to Christendom. No change had taken place – except in the (intellectual) appreciation of certain doctrines. He who was praised for bringing the ‘Gospel’ to Zurich in particular and to Switzerland at large, has turned out to be just as ruthlessly dictatorial and suppressive as the Catholic Church had been for more than a thousand years. It is one system, one unchanged mindset and outlook.

After five months of imprisonment, starvation had not worked, so a second trial was held in March 1526, which led to all the defendants being sentenced to life imprisonment. Moreover, the state now made believer’s baptism a crime punishable by death. However, two weeks later all the Anabaptists managed to escape through the help of a friend. Hounded by the authorities, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz continued their itinerant ministry in various regions of Switzerland, but Grebel eventually died of the plague that was hitting the region at that time. However, the preaching of these Anabaptists drew in vast numbers of converts. The academic Tudor Jones in his book ‘The Great Reformation’ writes:

“Their preaching was accompanied by spiritual effects of the kind that were to characterise the revivalism of later generations. They created a profound conviction of sin, followed by repentance, conversion and believers baptism. So baptism of these converts was not an academic theological matter; it was deeply embedded in profound spiritual experience.”18

If true, this is quite a contrast to what was happening under the magisterial reformers. As I have noted briefly before, it was not the custom of the magisterial reformers to go out in the highways and byways, preaching the Gospel. They did not preach in the marketplaces or go from house to house exhorting people to faith and repentance so that they might be converted and receive new life. Essentially, neither did they do this from their pulpits, since they regarded their congregations as wayward in doctrine and even in conduct, but nevertheless as Christians because of the infant baptism. Their preaching was far more doctrinal and moralising than evangelistic, as we shall see. To bring about a change in religion in Switzerland, the magisterial reformers sought to occasion public religious disputations in the councils through which they could exploit any disaffection with Roman Catholicism and thus influence the civic magistrates to impose upon the city the doctrines and practices of the Reformation. It was a change of religion ‘from the top’. It was by a vote of the city council that the whole region was declared ‘Reformed’ – not by conversions among the people. Those whose preaching was leading people to repentance and conversion were being hounded and imprisoned by the magisterial reformers.

The people sitting in the pews who had been Catholic before the vote, were, after the vote, ‘Reformed’ in doctrine and practice. Indeed, there were those who were glad of the change and could see through the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church and so welcomed the Reformation. Priests in the region who did not ‘embrace’ the Reformed traditions normally found themselves without a job.

Felix Manz

But let us return to our story. With Conrad Grebel now dead, we will now consider some of his fellow Anabaptists who had been working with him; one of these was Felix Manz, mentioned earlier.

Manz had in vain tried to explain to the Zürich authorities the Anabaptists’ view on believer’s baptism before the great division that happened after January 1525. In referring to Paul’s baptism by Ananias, Manz argued that the passage made clear that baptism was only to be administered to those who had been converted by the word of God and who had had their heart changed, leading to a new life. He argued that a change in the traditional baptism of infants would in no way threaten the stability of the government. Zwingli and the magistrates would not give that thought the time of day!

Manz was a notable, popular figure and a leader who wrote a hymn which is still sung today by some Amish Mennonites and Hutterites. As we saw, Manz managed to continue with his itinerant ministry after escaping from prison – but he was eventually imprisoned and tried again. The Anabaptist movement was a huge thorn in the side of the reformers both in Switzerland and in Germany. A lot of time and energy was taken up in opposing them and writing against them. Now the time had come to enforce the new law.

Death by Drowning for Anabaptists

On January 5, 1527, Manz was sentenced to death by the council, “because contrary to Christian order and custom he had become involved in Anabaptism, had accepted it, taught others, and become a leader and beginner of these things because he confessed having said that he wanted to gather those who wanted to accept Christ and follow Him, and unite himself with them through baptism, and let the rest live according to their faith, so that he and his followers separated themselves from the Christian Church and were about to raise up and prepare a sect of their own under the guise of a Christian meeting and church; because he had condemned capital punishment, and in order to increase his following had boasted of certain revelations from the Pauline Epistles. But since such doctrine is harmful to the unified usage of all Christendom, and leads to offense, insurrection, and sedition against the government, to the shattering of the common peace, brotherly love, and civil cooperation and to all evil, Manz shall be delivered to the executioner, who shall tie his hands, put him into a boat, take him to the lower hut, there strip his bound hands down over his knees, place a stick between his knees and arms, and thus push him into the water and let him perish in the water; thereby he shall have atoned to the law and justice… His property shall also be confiscated by my lords.”19 (Italics mine.)

Manz, was bound and taken from the prison to the boat. But on the way he witnessed to his faith to those lining the way and praised God that he was dying for the truth. His mother too, was encouraging him to stay faithful to Christ. As he was then put into a boat and his arms and legs were tied, he cried out with a loud voice, Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”. He was then plunged into the waters of the river to drown. The budding Reformation in Switzerland was making its impression!

Felix Manz was the first Anabaptist to suffer martyrdom at the hands of the magisterial reformers.

The above quote shows that nothing had changed since the time of Augustine. The same accusations of separating themselves from the one true church, and of a sedition that undermines the stability of the state was brought against the Anabaptists as it had been against the Donatists and others over 1000 years. Christendom continued unabated in its suppression of all dissent. The city councils, in the name of the Reformation and with Zwingli as the religious head, carried on the tradition of suppressing dissent, even if it meant killing their opponents. Some of the reformers’ doctrines may indeed have been different to those of the Catholics, but their deeds and methods of dealing with other Christians who dissented from their beliefs and practices were the same as the Catholics. Later, in November 1527, the council brought in the death penalty for anyone listening to Anabaptist preaching. And Zwingli was presiding over all this!

A chameleon can change its colour for whatever reason, but it remains a chameleon. Although its colour has changed, its nature remains the same – it has not turned into another creature! So too with the reformers – they had a change of religious outlook and conviction, but were their hearts changed in a way that distinguished them from their Catholic predecessors? This is the question that lies at the heart of what we are considering. In the end, people act according to their nature, not according to their doctrine, and what kind of nature is it that is content to see others killed in order to secure their own form of religion? As we have seen, when push comes to shove, Sola Scriptura has to take a backseat!

George Blaurock

We come now to look at George Blaurock. He had been a catholic priest and it was he who asked Conrad Grebel to baptise him on that momentous occasion in January 1525. He could be rather hot-headed though, more than once entering a church and stepping into the pulpit just as the parish priest was about to do so! However, as we shall later see, the reformer William Farel did much the same thing a few years later in the west of the country.

Blaurock was involved with the others in itinerant preaching, being in and out of jail several times as an Anabaptist. On one occasion, after being imprisoned in Zurich (1525) and then released again, he continued witnessing from house to house. One householder, Ruedi Thomann, relates the following:

“After much conversation and reading, Hans Bruggbach stood up weeping and crying out that he was a great sinner and asking that they pray God for him. Then Blaurock asked him whether he desired the grace of God. He said he did. Then Manz rose and said, ‘Who will forbid that I should baptise him?’ Blaurock answered, ‘No one.’”20

Then Manz proceeded to baptise him. Before they left the next morning the whole household turned to Christ and were baptised, except for Rudi’s brother. Eventually, however, Blaurock was imprisoned with Felix Manz, but as he was not a citizen of Zurich he was not subject to the death penalty. Instead, on the same day that Felix Manz was executed by drowning, Blaurock was stripped to the waist and beaten with rods publicly till the blood ran down his back. Blaurock then went with other Anabaptists to the Swiss city of Bern, which at that time was strongly leaning towards the Reformation. A Disputation was held in the council at which Zwingli appeared and argued against the radical reformers. The magisterial reformers did all they could to put out the fires of Anabaptism. As a result, the Anabaptists were expelled from Bern. Blaurock continued to labour successfully but kept getting banished and so left Switzerland. He then entered Austria and became a pastor there (in the Adige Valley). He witnessed in the region and his preaching attracted large numbers of people. Believers were baptised and congregations formed up and down the river valleys. On 14 August, 1529, Blaurock and another layman were arrested by the Catholic Innsbruck authorities. Three weeks later Balurock and Langegger were burned at the stake.

As was often the case, the persecution of Anabaptists by the reformers sent them into the hands of the Catholics, who did not hesitate to burn them at the stake.

Balthasar Hübmaier

Lastly I will mention Balthasar Hübmaier (1480 – 1528). Hübmaier was among the other radical reformers who were in Zurich about this time. He was a Catholic priest and a noted theologian. While in Basle, he had come under the influence of Erasmus and began to change his thinking along reformed lines. On returning to his parish in Regensburg he started to preach and teach directly from the Scriptures rather than follow the set readings of the Catholic Church. Under his teaching, images and pictures were removed, and not long after, priests were allowed to marry. In other words, he was starting his own Reformation in Regensburg. But he too went further than the magisterial reformers and witnessed to a change of life and started to preach repentance, conversion and believer’s baptism. However, he had to flee his town because the Catholic Archduke of Austria threatened to invade Regensburg. He wrote to some close friends in Regensburg about the change that had occurred in him:

“Like others, I was blinded and possessed by the doctrine of men. Therefore I openly confess before God and all men, that I then became a doctor and preached some years among you and elsewhere, and yet had not known the way unto eternal life. Within two years has Christ for the first time come into my heart to thrive. I have never dared to preach so boldly as now by the grace of God. I lament before God that I so long lay ill of this sickness.”21

In April 1525 Hübmaier was baptised by Wilhelm Reublin, who had been driven out of Zürich and sought refuge in Waldshut where Hübmaier was then working. 60 others were also baptised with him. On the following Easter Sunday, Hübmaier baptised 300 people and on the Monday they observed the Lord’s Supper in a simple New Testament manner.

In 1524 Hübmaier wrote an important little tract entitled Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them. This is regarded as the earliest work that called for religious toleration. He argued that one should only use the Scriptures to convince others of their errors, and that those who burn heretics were the greatest heretics of all. One would have thought this was clear enough from the Scriptures. Hübmaier pleaded the case that true Christians should not use force and the death penalty against heretics, but it was Anabaptists like Hübmaier that were persecuted, beaten and even killed by the magisterial reformers. The magisterial reformers obviously did not agree with his writings.

In January 1525, Hübmaier wrote against infant baptism as having no basis in Scripture. Zwingli responded by writing a pamphlet entitled ‘On Baptism, Anabaptism, and Infant Baptism’. In it he attacked the teaching of believer’s baptism. Hübmaier then published a response entitled ‘The Christian Baptism of Believers’.

Afterwards, Hübmaier arrived in Zurich with his wife at the end 1525, fleeing from the Catholic forces that were about to descend on his town. After their arrival, he and his wife were seized and imprisoned. Zwingli maintained he was arrested to keep him from stirring up an insurrection. Hübmaier requested a disputation but the arguments of the magisterial reformer prevailed. The council called on Hübmaier to recant, which, under threat of further punishment, he did before the Small Council and the Council of 200. He was then told to read the recantation in church before the congregation after Zwingli’s sermon on Friday, December 29. However, once Hübmaier was in the pulpit, he found himself in great anguish, and declared that there was no way he could recant, and actually proceeded to defend believer’s baptism. Hübmaier was immediately placed back in prison. While in prison he wrote the 12 Articles of Christian Belief.  

During this second imprisonment, Hübmaier was stretched on the rack and brutally tortured, which led to him giving the recantation that Zwingli wanted. Zwingli then mocked him for betraying his own beliefs. This cruelty was supervised and perpetrated by the leading reformer in Switzerland in the name of the Reformation and he saw nothing wrong in it. To so torture and mock a man seemed normal and natural to him. Zwingli was comfortable using the torture tactics of the Spanish Inquisition.

This was heart-breaking for Hübmaier and resulted in a genuine repentance and confession as witnessed by his eventual death when he was burnt at the stake by Catholic authorities for his beliefs and for his refusal to recant. Hübmaier went to Nikolsburg in Moravia. Here Hübmaier’s work thrived. Converts were rapidly made, including a Moravian baron who was baptised by Hübmaier. It is said that several thousand people were baptised in one year alone through Hübmaier’s work at Nikolsburg. He also continued writing and particularly inveighed against the moral laxity of the Lutherans – something that we shall address later. But when Moravia came under the jurisdiction of Catholics, Hübmaier was taken prisoner, tortured on the rack once again, and this time burnt at the stake for his refusal to recant. His wife was murdered three days later by drowning. If one were to give the designation, ‘of whom the world was not worthy’, to which group of people would this designation best fit – the reformers, the Catholics or the Anabaptists?

We will finish our study of Zwingli with a look at how things ended for him.

The Kappel Wars

Zwingli had been canvassing for an alliance of reformed cities in Switzerland, and in January 1528, eight of the 13 regions of the Swiss Confederation which had become reformed joined in an alliance called ‘the Christian Civic Union’. In April 1529 the five other Catholic regions felt encircled and isolated, and formed an alliance with Catholic Austria (under Ferdinand), called the ‘Christian Alliance’. So the Swiss confederation of 13 regions broke into two camps – Protestant (8 regions) and the Catholic (5 regions).

At this time, a reformed preacher, Jacob Kaiser, was captured in one of the Catholic regions and executed. This put Zwingli on a war footing. He recommended to the government that they should go to war against the Catholic regions and gave reasons to justify such an attack. However, Bern, which was also Reformed by this time, was very uneasy about such a hasty violent reaction and urged a more diplomatic approach. They were concerned that such a war could bring in other neighbouring Catholic forces. But Zwingli was adamant and so, along with the Zurich authorities, they continued with plans to invade the Catholic regions. As the two armies met at Kappel in June 1529, the Catholic forces were significantly outnumbered. However, war was averted through the intervention of a relative of Zwingli, who managed to get the two sides to negotiate a peace.

So the First Peace of Kappel was agreed on 26 June 1529. Nevertheless, tensions remained with the imposition of a food blockade against the Catholics, but which was then later withdrawn.

However, on 9 October 1531, the Catholic Five States suddenly declared war on Zürich. This caught Zurich unprepared and they could not gather sufficient men in time. The battle lasted not more than an hour and the Catholic forces were victorious. Many pastors, including Zwingli, were part of the army from Zurich. Among the 500 casualties was Zwingli, who died of his injuries. Having taken up the sword, Zwingli died by the sword.

Zwingli seemed to feel quite at home carrying on the kind of wars that the Catholic religion had waged against dissenters and its foes. As someone who believed in ‘the Scriptures alone’, did it not occur to him that Jesus had said that His servants would not fight because His kingdom is not of this world – and that neither are His servants of this world (John 18:36; 15:19)? By his life, Zwingli contradicted the words quoted here and placed himself clearly in this world and of its kingdom.

Final Thoughts to this Chapter

Should the Anabaptists have known better than to challenge the State?

Some might suggest or even maintain that the Anabaptists were unwise if not foolish to ‘challenge’ the authorities in this way. I think it is a legitimate question but it treats the issue far too simply and ignores a number of factors that are involved in the historical context. As was the case with Luther in Germany, so it was in Reformation Switzerland. There were those who started out with the reformers, more or less sharing the same values and outlook. The expectation was growing that there would be great change and liberation on the religious scene. However, once the leading reformers aligned themselves with the authority of the secular power, the rate at which things changed, significantly slowed down or stalled completely. More than that, from the point of view of those who had been working together with the reformers, the reformers were now backtracking on certain key points of Scripture. This caused a rift between the emerging ‘magisterial’ reformers and those who had been working with them, who we then came to know as the ‘radical’ reformers.

What we have seen so far, and shall continue to see, is that it was not just a case of the secular government persecuting nonconformists. The magisterial reformers not only disagreed with Anabaptist teachings, which would have been one thing, but they themselves became active opponents and persecutors of the Anabaptists, to the point of even urging and inciting the secular power to put down all religious dissent. They had fully bought into the idea of Christendom with all its cruel intolerance of religious dissenters and nonconformists.

Did some Anabaptists at times act unwisely? Yes, there certainly seem to be instances of that. Was there a lunatic fringe who were also given the name ‘Anabaptists’ who acted in a violent and appalling way, and who erred wildly in doctrine? Yes there was, but this chiefly occurred in Germany and such groups could hardly be compared with the large number of true Anabaptists who neither shared the nature or the teachings of such extremists. I write about this in more detail in Chapter 3.

But much more than all this, a fire had been lit in the hearts of men and women! They had experienced a radical change in their lives. The life-changing power of the Gospel had turned their lives around, and such was the change that they could not forbear but to preach this life-changing Gospel to others. This fire was unstoppable and unquenchable. For all the unspeakable atrocities against them, the Anabaptists continued to flourish and spread.

If laws were passed to make home bible-study and prayer meetings illegal; if laws were passed to make the preaching of the Gospel from house to house, in marketplaces or in the fields illegal; if laws were passed to punish and execute those who baptised others or were baptised by others, what were such believers to do, whose lives had been changed by the Lord Jesus Christ and whose hearts were on fire for the Gospel? Were they now to sit at home and keep quiet? Hardly! No doubt in their own hearts the same words echoed that were spoken by Peter and the apostles to the Pharisees who were persecuting and punishing them, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).

Let me also add that the main purpose of the above, and of this whole study, is not to support the Anabaptists in all that they taught and did – though I find much to agree with and admire – but to reveal the nature of the Reformation through a consideration of how they treated those that held different religious views to them, and the reasons they gave for doing so. So whatever the views and practices of the Anabaptists may have been, it is how they were treated by the magisterial reformers that is the focus and purpose of this study.

Finally one might ask, but what if the reformers had stuck to their guns and held to their original convictions at the start of their alliance with the secular powers, would not the Reformation have collapsed altogether? One presumes that it would have. But the question is hypothetical. As we shall increasingly observe, in their thinking and outlook the reformers were part of Christendom. They belonged to that entity that is called by that name. They naturally fitted into that type of ‘Christianity’ and state church model that arose at the time of Constantine.

And if it had failed, what difference would it have made to the many thousands of Anabaptists who were persecuted and killed? Presumably, very little difference. Instead of being cruelly persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike, they would have been persecuted alone by the Catholics – and indeed, the Catholics might have excelled in cruelty. However, where is the gain in adding one cruel intolerant regime to another?

However, it does seem that the emergence of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland did provide a window of opportunity for the rise and spread of Anabaptism. But if we go back to root causes, one could say that it was the Humanist movement that opened the door to both the reformers and the Anabaptists. For the Anabaptists, though, this door was ajar for the briefest of periods. Nevertheless it was enough for the fire to get lit and spread far and wide.

But would it not have been a terrible loss if the Reformation had ‘failed’? I have already answered this in short but will elaborate more. There a number of things to consider in answering this question. Firstly, as we have already seen, the Reformation was much more a matter of substituting one form of (outward) religion for another. The reformers continued to perpetuate the notion of ‘Christendom’, of the Christian nation, which, for example, is reflected in their teaching concerning the necessity of infant baptism, as well as regarding their Catholic congregations as already part of the Lord’s flock. Secondly, the Protestant Reformation partook of the same religious intolerance that was characteristic of the Catholic Church. This creation of two ‘Christendoms’ – one Catholic and the other Protestant – led to the most terrible ‘religious’ wars with millions of casualties over a period of more than a century, with Catholics executing Protestants and Protestants executing Catholics and both imprisoning or executing dissenters. So, but for a very brief spell, dissenters and non-conformists continued to be cruelly persecuted in the Reformed lands just as they had been before the arrival of the Reformation! There was little difference. How much gain did those that dissented from the state religion receive with the coming of the Reformation? Essentially, the answer is none. It is not really intolerant Catholicism and Protestantism that would bring religious freedom to the peoples of Europe, but changes in the outlook of society itself. I touch on this again at the end of this study.

Let me finish this chapter with a verse from the Bible. The apostle Paul suffered persecution and was even bound in chains, yet in all this affliction he said, ‘The word of God is not bound’ (2 Timothy 2:9). And neither is the Gospel bound. This is the truth. There have always been those who declare it and adhere to it, and there always will be, right to the end. No matter what opposition is encountered or what trials faced, the word of God is not bound and shall have those who declare it, as we discover among the Anabaptists of the 16th century.



  1. The Spread of Anabaptism
  2. The Persecution of the Anabaptists by the Protestant Reformers
  3. The Teachings of the Reformers Justifying their Persecution and Execution of Anabaptists
  4. The Reformers’ Religious Worldview


The Anabaptists and their Teachings

Anabaptist means ‘rebaptiser’, and it was definitely not a term that the Anabaptists used for themselves. It was used by their opponents, which included the Protestant Reformers, who used it in a completely derogatory sense. It was a term that expressed their contempt, because ‘rebaptism’ was regarded as a crime that undermined both Church and State. This bitter opposition to believer’s baptism in itself highlights the incomprehension that the reformers had regarding the idea that anyone could so respond to the Gospel that they would want to be baptised ‘again’, having already been ‘baptised’ as an infant.

In the Swiss regions, the name the Anabaptists commonly used to describe themselves was ‘brethren’, or ‘Swiss brethren’. But the Anabaptists did not begin as some kind of unified movement. There was no centralised leadership or base. Different groups started to spring up in different places with no unified teaching, which in itself is a remarkable feature. However, in February 1527, a group of Anabaptists met in the Swiss town of Schleitheim, near the border with Germany, and there they formulated a document that became known as The Schleitheim Confession, which started to consolidate things for the Anabaptist movement and heralded a step forward. They did not come up with a complete confession of faith, but rather sought common ground upon which they could agree. The Anabaptists also warned against and criticised the ‘state’ religion of the reformers, and deemed it nothing more than nominal Christianity, as a ‘dead’ religion that allowed its adherents to continue in licentious living and immoral conduct. In the Confession, the Anabaptists wrote against this form of nominal Christianity and the self-indulgence and immoral living that the superficial preaching of ‘justification by faith’ resulted in:

“A very great offence has been introduced by certain false brethren among us, so that some have turned aside from the faith, in the way they intend to practice and observe the freedom of the Spirit and of Christ. But such have missed the truth, and to their condemnation are given over to the lasciviousness and self-indulgence of the flesh. They think faith and love may do and permit everything, and nothing will harm them nor condemn them, since they are believers… But you are not that way. For they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts.”

Their main articles of faith consisted of the seven points, which I have summarised briefly below:

  1. ‘Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ… This excludes all infant baptism, the highest and chief abominations of the pope.’
  2. ‘The Ban’ – This refers to the only act of discipline that the Church can exercise. It consists of admonishing believers up to two times if they fall into some sin and then being banned from the fellowship of believers if they persist after the second warning. This to be done in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17.
  3. ‘Breaking of bread’ – only for genuine baptised believers, in remembrance of the death of the Lord.
  4. Separation from the world: not unequally yoked with unbelievers. Living righteously.
  5. Pastors must be blameless and supported by the church.
  6. ‘Use of the Sword’: The church does not use force. Its only means is the ‘ban’. The Confession acknowledges that ‘the sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good. In the Law the sword was ordained for the punishment of the wicked and for their death, and the same [sword] is [now] ordained to be used by the worldly magistrates. In the perfection of Christ, however, only the ban is used for a warning and for the excommunication of the one who has sinned, without putting the flesh to death’. Therefore the Anabaptists deemed it not appropriate for a Christian to be a magistrate.
  7. Christ forbids swearing, that is, taking the oath.”

It is clearly here demonstrated that the genuine Anabaptists did not believe in coercion or in the use of force.  Also, as we saw in Chapter 2, the issue that particularly incurred the wrath of the reformers and the magistrates was believer’s baptism. It was an obnoxious idea to the reformers, who wrote profusely against this teaching in the severest terms. Christendom existed and survived on the inviolable axiom and understanding that all infant-baptised citizens in a given area already belong to the ‘Christian’ community.  The teaching of a personal ‘conversion’ that led to a believer’s baptism – in ‘addition’ to infant baptism – was viewed by the reformers as something that would completely fracture the religious, social and political structure of the Christian State and lead to its overthrow. Its proponents were therefore regarded as blasphemers and guilty of sedition and subversion, and who, therefore, needed to be appropriately punished as criminals of the State.

And there was nothing new about this. The imperial code from the time of Justinian on (A.D. 529), made rebaptism punishable by death – the other crime with the same sentence was denying the Trinity. Another term and ‘accusation’ that the reformers would bring up from the past is that of calling the Anabaptists, ‘Donatists’ (which I mentioned in Chapter 1), and they would appeal to Augustine’s writings and actions against the Donatists to ‘validate’ their own persecutions of the Anabaptists.

However, apart from the issue of baptism, two of the other main accusations levelled against the Anabaptists by the reformers were points 6 and 7. While acknowledging the use of ‘sword’, that is, the use of physical punishment by the secular powers against evil-doers in society, the Anabaptists believed that true believers should not allow themselves to be voted onto the magistracy. They believed it was not a Christian’s duty to judge in other men’s matters. This may seem somewhat extreme, but it must be remembered that the secular power, that is, the magistrates, ruled over what they regarded as a ‘Christianised’ society. So there is a blurring of issues between church and state, between civil and religious matters, since the magistracy worked to ensure religious orthodoxy in their territory as well as being responsible for the punishment of criminals. The pastors would teach ‘sound’ doctrine to their congregations, which represents the ‘use the word’, and the magistrates were responsible for ensuring the purity of doctrine in their domains, so they would issue warrants of arrest against, and mete out punishments to dissenters like the Anabaptists, including the death penalty, which is represented by the phrase, ‘use of the sword’. Thus, it is no wonder that the Anabaptists did not feel that they could function as magistrates! They did not believe that ‘the sword’ should be used in matters of religion to persecute and kill their own brethren or any other dissenters. In other words, if an Anabaptist sat as a magistrate, he would have to put in effect laws that involved the persecution of his Christian brethren. Nevertheless, the reformers used this refusal to serve as a magistrate as a clear indication of sedition.

The other of these issues was point 7 – the Anabaptists refusal to take the oath – mainly based on Matthew 5:34-37. This point was also eagerly picked up on by the reformers in an attempt to show that the Anabaptists were rebels of the state. However, the historical context may again provide some explanation. Generally, an oath is given to emphasise or to validate the truth of something, but as we saw in Chapter 1 of this study, oath taking was a means of securing allegiance and subjection to the reigning power, as was the case in Roman times, when oath-taking was a means of weeding out Christians who were considered a threat to society. So again, since the reformers perpetuated the idea of Christendom, oath-taking still had the flavour of an oath of allegiance to the reigning power and all it stood for, which is something the Anabaptists could not do. They would not take an oath of allegiance to a government that persecuted religious dissenters. Moreover, as we shall see, citizens were obliged by decree to inform on any Anabaptist preachers or meetings they held in their locality. To underline their obligation to do this, citizens were reminded of the oath of allegiance they had taken to the state. It would hardly be possible to take an oath that obliges you to inform on your fellow believers to have them thrown in prison or worse! Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Anabaptists’ arguments in this matter, the reformers were very happy indeed to seize upon this custom of the Anabaptists as evidence that they were rebels against the state and a danger to society.

The teaching that it is not in the nature of the Lord’s Church to use the arm of the secular authorities to persecute, punish and stamp out religious dissenters in the name of the Christian religion, horrified the reformers – and the ‘Christianised’ secular authorities! That was tantamount to saying that anyone can set up their own sect and believe and teach what they want. It was considered a teaching that would sink Christendom.

Persecution of the Anabaptists

In Chapter two we followed the origins of the persecution of Anabaptists in Switzerland. However, such persecution was simultaneous across the countries of Europe. As well as the Catholic states, all the regions that had become Reformed engaged in the ruthless persecution of the Anabaptists. We will now consider the reformers’ involvement in this and their justification of it.

The Martyrs’ Synod

A meeting took place in Augsburg, Southern Germany, in 1527 (August 20 to 24). This meeting was attended by about sixty representatives from different Anabaptist groups, and its purpose was to iron out differences between the Swiss and south German Anabaptists regarding the central Anabaptist teachings. Despite persecution, the city of Augsburg had become an active centre of the Anabaptist movement, where, by 1526, the number of Anabaptists had grown to many hundreds, though they were largely forced to meet in secret.

However, on the Protestant side, Urban Rhegius was the head of the local clergy in Augsburg. He was a close associate of Luther, who called him his ‘bishop’ of Lower Saxony. Once the Augsburg authorities had learned of the synod, they wasted no time in trying to squash it. Within days of the Synod starting (24th August), the city council arrested and tortured Anabaptists and used the forced confessions to warn other governments to be on the lookout for them. Just a couple of weeks after the Synod, Urban Rhegius wrote against Anabaptism in a booklet entitled ‘Against the new Baptismal Order’ (Wider dien Neun Tauforden). Eventually, most of the Anabaptist leaders from Augsburg were caught and suffered torture and banishment, with the city authorities prohibiting their meetings and baptisms. The Anabaptist Hans Hut was tortured horribly (over 4 months) and accidentally died in the Augsburg prison in December 1527 because of a fire which resulted in his death by suffocation. However, the authorities immediately retrieved his body, ‘sentenced’ him to death and burned him. This Synod became known as the ‘Martyrs’ Synod’, because most participants were killed for their faith soon afterwards. It was during this period that persecution against the Anabaptists increased in Germany and Switzerland, with Protestant leaders writing profusely against them and inciting the secular authorities to punish and banish them.

In 1527 and 1528 decrees and mandates were continually being issued by rulers and authorities against the Anabaptists. The Swabian League (a defensive force in southern Germany, which was principally a Catholic alliance of states) passed a cruel decree at Augsburg on 22nd February 1528, which authorized a band of four hundred armed horsemen to hunt down, arrest and bring to trial the Anabaptists. Those who did not recant suffered being burnt at the stake without trial. Even those that did recant simply received the more speedy punishment of being beheaded, while women were executed by drowning. Joachim Helm, a citizen of Augsburg, wrote during this time: “It is such a misery, that the whole city of Augsburg is saddened. They are daily beheading some, at times four or six, and at times ten persons.”1

However, these Anabaptists did not resort to violence. Violence and the use of force had no part in authentic Anabaptist teaching or practice. There would be others who did resort to violence and insurrection and who would be called Anabaptists, especially by the reformers, but who both in practice and principal differed greatly from the great many Anabaptists who simply endured persecution and death. The Anabaptists continued to be hunted down ruthlessly like animals. They were forced to meet in secret, and the persecution of them was constant and merciless, with many being hauled before magistrates, interrogated, imprisoned and tortured. The reformers banned its adherents and hounded them out of their regions, sending them into Catholic territories, where the Catholic Church had no compunction about torturing and burning them at the stake. To read about their sufferings is to read about prolonged and unspeakable cruelties.

Philip Melanchthon and the Punishment of Anabaptists

Philip Melanchthon was a leading and prominent figure in the Reformation. He was Luther’s right-hand man and successor in Wittenberg. In 1527, Melanchthon was commissioned by John, Elector of Saxony, to inspect the churches in the region of Thuringia. With him were two other Lutherans, Friedrich Myconius and Justus Menius. As a result of this visit, he wrote his Visitation Articles, which he later expanded in 1528 into a refutation of the beliefs of the Anabaptists in his Adversus Anabaptistas Iudicium (German: Unterricht wider die Lehre der Wiedertäufer; Englsih: Against the Teachings of the Anabaptists.) Two years later, in a letter to Myconius, he defended the death penalty for Anabaptists who would not recant:

“At first when I began to become acquainted with Storch and his following, to whom the whole family of Anabaptists owes its existence, I was possessed by a foolish tolerance. Others were also of the opinion that heretics are not to be destroyed with the swordNow I regret this lenience not a little. What disturbances, what heresies did he not stir up afterward?… All the Anabaptists, even if they are blameless in all other respects, reject some part or other of their civic duties. Though the matter in and for itself may be insignificant, yet at this time and in so many crises it is extremely dangerous… Therefore it is my opinion concerning those who hold beliefs that are, to be sure, not seditious, but still obviously blasphemous, that the government is under obligation to kill them.”2 (Italics mine.)

In this passage, Melanchton deeply regrets his earlier ‘foolish tolerance’ in hesitating to destroy heretics with the sword. Now he is of the firm opinion that they should be killed.

Later on, the execution of six Anabaptists in 1530 (January 18) at Reinhardsbrunn in Saxony caused a great stir. The Elector John now wanted the Lutheran Wittenberg theologians to give a written clarification and basis for dealing with the Anabaptists. It was put together by Melanchthon and submitted to the Elector in October 1531, entitled Gutachten an den Kurfürsten Johann von Sachsen (Eng. Document to the Elector Prince John of Saxony). This writing addressed the matter of appropriate punishments for Anabaptists, and Melanchthon distinguishes between three kinds of Anabaptists in this writing. There are those that are ringleaders and proclaimers of Anabaptism. Secondly, there are the followers and those who have been misled, and finally there are those who may be weak in their belief and who could possibly be persuaded to recant. Melachthon writes:

The first class is to be killed with the sword, because they persisted contrary to the electoral mandate in holding meetings; for they have thereby shown themselves disobedient to the government. But the second class who hold obviously seditious articles of faith and persisted in them in spite of warning and instruction, should as revolutionaries also be put to death. . . . Finally those of the third class, who have erred because of ignorance, should be shown mercy after they have been instructed and have recanted their error, after they have made public confession and have been warned not to repeat the error. But if they do not desist from their error – ‘for many of them are possessed by the devil’ – they should be expelled from the country, provided that no seditious beliefs or malicious intentions are found in them, or be punished by some other mild penalty.”3 (Italics mine.)

These are the words of one of the principal reformers of the 1500s, but they reveal a cold, murderous intent in the name of religion that made them scarcely any different to their Catholic counterparts, and certainly far removed from the teaching of Jesus Christ and conduct of the apostles in the New Testament. In fact, the reformers by their words and actions stand in opposition to what is taught there. It is staggering that such men as these reformers could be considered champions of the Gospel. Luther signed this document and added his own comments upholding the death penalty for the worst offenders.4 What is ‘Gospel’ or evangelical about this kind of thinking and action?

A few years later, on 20th November 1535, Jobst Möller and his wife, Ursula Wedekind, were arrested along with other Anabaptists in the home of Hans Peissker at Kleineutersdorf in Saxony. In all, sixteen people were arrested and taken to Leuchtenburg where they were interrogated. Among them were also Heinz Kraut who had baptised Jobst and his wife in July 1535. For logistical reasons to do with available space, the women remained at Leuchtenburg and the men were split between different locations (Jena, Kahla and Neustadt and the Arnshaugk castle). At Jena, Jobst Möller, Heinz Kraut and Lorenz Petsch were interrogated concerning their beliefs during the first week of December 1535 by Melanchthon and others in the presence of the city council. Lorenz Petsch was separated from the others as he seemed to be a very recent convert and more liable to recant.5

Melanchthon also later sent a report of the interrogations of Anabaptist prisoners held at Kahla and Leuchtenburg to John, Elector of Saxony on 19th January 1536, which included advice about what he considered to be suitable punishment. Regarding the father who seemed more pliable, he wrote: “With this one I beg you not to hasten punishment. For I hope that when his master Heinz Kraut, who lies in Jena, and a few other stubborn ones are executed, he will let himself be instructed. On the obstinate ones it is necessary to inflict serious punishment. And even though some may not be otherwise untractable, nevertheless this harmful sect must be resisted, in which there are so many terrible, dangerous errors. But with the poor obstinate women I think it is not necessary to hurry, but first deal earnestly with their husbands.”6 The Elector of Saxony wrote a letter on 23rd January, stating his agreement with Melanchthon’s advice.

Accordingly, the ‘obstinate’ ones in Jena were questioned further but eventually put on the rack to induce them to recant, but they refused to be thus ‘persuaded’ and were condemned to death and beheaded. Their condemnation was that they were Anabaptists and were responsible for ungodly, seditious views and had held meetings at Kleineutersdorf. The wives of those executed (Jobst and Heinrich Möller) were being held at Leuchtenburg, and had held out against the attempts to make them renounce their beliefs, for which reason Melanchthon had called them ‘stubborn’. However, learning of the death of their husbands broke the resolve of the women, and they were finally induced to recant, just as Melanchthon had anticipated. To finish this process the women were forced to make a public recantation in the church at Kahla by order of the Elector John Frederick.7

During the trials of the Anabaptists in Jena, Melanchthon wrote to the Elector John, stating that it would be good to have public warnings against the Anabaptists:

“Perhaps it would be advisable for your Excellency to have a public writing issued, which would show what coarse, seditious, and dangerous articles the Anabaptists have, wherefore such earnest measures must be taken against them.”8.

This was agreed to and Melanchthon was commissioned by the Elector to compose such a writing to submit to him for approval. Following this, Melanchthon wrote more articles against the Anabaptists, and as the executions had caused such a stir in this region of Germany, he engaged his pen again in defence of the severe sentences in a writing entitled, ‘An Account of several unchristian Articles which the Anabaptists promote’ (Verlegung etlicher Unchristlicher Artikel welche die Widerteuffer furgeben), which was published in Wittenberg in 1536.

However, the more the Anabaptists were persecuted, the more they seemed to grow and flourish. As early as 1531, just 4 years after Felix Manz’s execution by drowning, an opponent of the Anabaptists, Sebastian Franck, wrote:

“The Anabaptists spread so rapidly that their teaching soon covered the land as it were. They soon gained a large following, and baptized thousands, drawing to themselves many sincere souls who had a zeal for God…. They increased so rapidly that the world feared an uprising by them though I have learned that this fear had no justification whatsoever.”9

In The Anabaptist Vision (1944), the author Harold Bender writes the following concerning the reactions of some of the reformers to the impact of Anabaptism on the population:

“In the same year Bullinger wrote that ‘the people were running after them as though they were living saints”. Zwingli was so frightened by the power of the movement that he complained that the struggle with the Catholic party was ‘tub child’s play’ compared to the conflict with the Anabaptists.”10

Indeed, a huge amount of time and energy was spent over many years by the authorities, both Catholic and Protestant, through their numerous writings, mandates and persecutions in trying to oppose and stamp out the Anabaptists. Bender writes of this:

“The dreadful severity of the persecution of the Anabaptist movement in the years 1527-60 not only in Switzerland, South Germany, and Thuringia, but in all the Austrian lands as well as in the Low Countries, testifies to the power of the movement and the desperate haste with which Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian authorities alike strove to throttle it before it should be too late. The notorious decree issued in 1529 by the Diet of Spires… summarily passed the sentence of death upon all Anabaptists, ordering that ‘every Anabaptist and rebaptized person of either sex should be put to death by fire, sword, or some other way’… and as late as 1551 the Diet of Augsburg issued a decree ordering that judges and jurors who had scruples against pronouncing the death sentence on Anabaptists be removed from office and punished by heavy fines and imprisonment.”11

Thus, the Lutheran and Swiss Reformers joined in and perpetuated the cruel religious dictatorship that had been going on for centuries under Roman Catholic rule. However, despite being ruthlessly persecuted from every side and in every region, the Anabaptists just seemed to spread and increase. It seemed unstoppable. In my Introduction, I said that by this historical survey I wanted to discern – as far as such a thing is possible – whether the Reformation could in any way be described as a work of God. I understand the difficulty in this, but to help us, let me take as a definition the following: an event that simply cannot be explained solely in terms of human agency, effort and ingenuity. If we apply this to the progress of the Reformation, then this definition does not fit, in my opinion. The reformers had as their origins and impetus the teaching of the Catholic Renaissance humanists and the opportunities that it created. They consciously sought or deliberately aligned themselves with the secular authority in order that their reformed doctrine became the religion of the state. To gain acceptance among the authorities and the people, their preaching was heavily anti-Catholic. It was due to the secular power’s decision that regions became ‘reformed’. It was a ‘top down reformation’ – imposed on the community by the authorities. Foundational to all this was human agency, ingenuity and power. Although right at the beginning some radical reformers worked in tandem with the reformers, the emergence and spread of the Anabaptist movement was far more spontaneous, without any ‘strategy’ or central organising body or leadership. Men just started to preach in the highways and byways or anywhere they could. It was a movement that had its effect among the people, with many thousands responding to the message of the Gospel. The preaching of the Anabaptists was evangelistic, aiming at the conversion of souls to Christ. The reformation survived and became established through the agency and support of the civic authorities and by their power; the Anabaptist movement thrived despite continuous and brutal persecution. So the question is: which is more difficult to explain in human terms alone?

An interesting aspect to the issue of persecution was the attitude of one of the princes of Germany, namely, Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who supported Lutheranism. Anabaptism had a strong base and following in Philip’s territory, but he was more sympathetic towards the Anabaptists and sought a milder approach in dealing with them. However, his approach caused frustration to John, Elector of Saxony and to the Lutheran theologians in Wittenberg, which resulted in tensions between the two parties. The Elector of Saxony demanded that Philip inflict the death penalty on Anabaptists who were persistent in their activities in his region. To add weight to this persuasion, the Lutheran reformer, Justus Menius, dedicated a book that he had written against the Anabaptists to Philip. Moreover, John of Saxony reminded Philip that his demands for severer action, including the death penalty against the Anabaptists issued from arguments given by the Lutheran reformers in Wittenberg.  However, Philip of Hesse repeatedly resisted calls for a harsher treatment and punishment for the Anabaptists. He did not believe in the use of the sword in these matters and certainly could not bring himself to pass the death sentence on someone on the grounds of their faith alone if no other crime had been committed. Furthermore, since the Anabaptists in question here were caught in territory within Philip’s jurisdiction, there is nothing the others could do, despite their persistent attempts.

Now, Philip of Hesse was no ‘saint’, as we shall later see, but it is noteworthy that such a man of the world as he was had more humanity, common sense and even a better appreciation of the Bible and what constitutes a Christian than the reformed theologians of Wittenberg, who were clamouring and insisting on harsher treatment, including the death penalty, for Anabaptists.

How did the reformers justify the use of force against the Anabaptists?

The reformers believed that the magistrates were ordained of God to ensure religious orthodoxy and to punish blasphemers and heretics.

The reformer Henry Bullinger, who was the successor to Zwingli in Zürich, complained about the teachings of the Anabaptists and wrote the following

“They say that one cannot and may not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, seeing that faith is the free gift from God. It is wrong, say they, to compel anyone by force or coercion to embrace the faith, or to put anyone to death because of erring faith. It is an error, they assert, that in the church any other sword is used than that of the divine Word. The secular kingdom, they hold, should be separate from the church and no civil ruler ought to exercise his authority there. The true church of Christ, according to them, has this characteristic that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict it upon any.”12 (Italics mine)

What was totally reasonable to anyone with common sense, let alone scriptural knowledge, was baffling and objectionable to Bullinger. The reformers used the expression ‘sola scriptura’ in order to battle against Catholic false teachings, but easily abandoned its principle when defending their own unscriptural stance. The incomprehension of the Protestant Reformers, whose outlook was still determined by, and rooted in Christendom, is obvious here. Christendom is upheld by the ‘Church’ working in tandem with the secular authority and imposing its own form of religion on people and punishing and executing those who do not conform. The correct doctrines that the Pharisees did hold had no effect on changing their nature and conduct. Correct doctrines did not make them followers of Jesus Christ. They ended up killing Christ and persecuting His disciples. I fail to see the difference between the Pharisees and the Protestant Reformers. Furthermore, from the above quote, who is revealed as being truly evangelical – it is certainly not Bullinger.

John Calvin ended up writing a notorious work, justifying the persecution of, and death penalty for ‘heretics’. For Calvin, the government and the church are one in upholding ‘pure’ religion; they together represent Christendom and godly rule over the nation. But he maintains that the proper, true position of the government is that of subjection to the church. Calvin states:

“For the magistrate, if he is pious, will have no wish to exempt himself from the common subjection of the children of God, not the least part of which is to subject himself to the Church, judging according to the word of God… For, as Ambrose says, “What more honourable title can an emperor have than to be called a son of the Church? A good emperor is within the Church, not above the Church.”13 (Italics mine).

The reformers loved the idea of ‘Christendom’ as much as the Catholics did. We can see that, in essence, Calvin did not believe in the separation of Church and State at all – both work together to uphold the integrity of religion, with the secular power being directed in such matters by the Church. Commenting on Psalm 82:6 (‘I have said, You are gods…’), Calvin writes:

“When those who bear the office of magistrate are called gods, let no one suppose that there is little weight in that appellation. It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority, and, in fact, represent the person of God.”14 (Italics mine).

As we shall see, Calvin is saying nothing different to what Luther had said in his exposition of Psalm 82. Calvin quotes from Romans 13, stating that the “rulers are the ministers of God, not a terror to good works, but to the evil,” (Rom. 13:1, 3). He then continues:

To this we may add the examples of saints, some of whom held the offices of kings, as David, Josiah, and Hezekiah; others of governors, as Joseph and Daniel; others of civil magistrates among a free people, as Moses, Joshua, and the Judges. Their functions were expressly approved by the Lord. Wherefore no man can doubt that civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.” (Italics mine).

Calvin has here elevated and equated the civil authority in a so-called Christian nation to that of the Kings, prophets and judges of Israel. In other words, the magistrates are not only divinely appointed, but appointed as being subject to the church and an instrument of the church. Such an interpretation is not enlightenment, but a reveals a deep deception at the heart of the Reformation, which is devoid of a true understanding of Scripture and of spiritual truth. Here we see how Calvin perpetuates and develops the idea of a ‘Christian nation’, of Christendom, which is to be modelled on the theocracy of the Old Testament. He says that just as Kings, prophets and judges ruled over Israel in the Old Testament, exhorting to goodness and righteousness, and punishing and killing the wicked, so too now a city, region or nation which has embraced the Reformation, is regarded as ‘the people of God’, and the so-called ‘Christian’ magistrates of such a nation or region rule over the inhabitants – who are regarded as God’s people – upholding righteousness and punishing, persecuting and killing the wicked heretics! Undoubtedly, Romans 13 refers to the truth that the secular authority is in place to safeguard society from criminals and their activities. The notion that they are supposed to work in tandem with the Church in persecuting heretics, so called, is an invention that the reformers fully bought in to.

The consequences of this outlook, and modifications or extensions of it, have reverberated down the centuries. The Puritans would go to war against a Catholic king, regarding themselves as the soldiers of Christ and on the mission of God to purify the land of heresy and heretics, and reclaiming the country for God. Multitudes across Europe were brainwashed by this kind of outlook into the religious delusion that they were doing God’s work and fighting His cause by persecuting the ‘enemies of God’ and waging war against Catholic forces.

Calvin simply upheld the model created under Constantine. He also took up his pen in writhing against the Anabaptists. His ideas concerning these matters become clearer in his attacks on them. He writes:

“Those who are desirous to introduce anarchy object that, though (in the OT) ancient kings and judges presided over a rude people, yet in the present day, that servile mode of governing does not at all accord with the perfection which Christ brought with his Gospel. Herein they betray not only their ignorance, but their devilish pride…”15 (Italics mine).

Here Calvin pours scorn on the teachings of the Anabaptists who maintain that civil magistrates have no sanction from Scripture to persecute and punish religious dissenters. Calvin claims that it is only their ignorance and devilish pride that makes them think thus! What should we say about what makes Calvin think the way he does?

Even though there was a violent fringe who were also called Anabaptists by their opponents (e.g. the Münsterites), our focus here is on Calvin’s arguments in defence of the use of force against the Anabaptists. And whether out of ignorance or out of expediency, it was certainly part of the attack of the reformers against the Anabaptists to tar them all with the same brush that was exemplified by the worst cases, who, as I have mentioned, on closer inspection could not be regarded as genuine Anabaptists.

Calvin continues to show his contempt of the Anabaptists’ teaching in his treatise against them by saying:

“… finally with full throat, they do spew out exceeding deformed blasphemies. The governance, say they, of the Magistrates, is after the flesh: and that of Christian men, is after the spirit... But this is nothing, compared to that which followeth, The habitation of Magistrates, say they, is permanent in this world: but the habitation of the Christians is in heaven. And such like. I beseech you, by the name of God, all faithful men, and I admonish you, well to consider those things, which Peter and Jude have written of certain corrupters, which in their time perverted the faith of the simple; and by their words I pray you make comparison with those things which I will recite of the Anabaptists.”16

Calvin castigates the Anabaptists as deceivers and perverters of the truth. At the beginning of the sixth article quoted above of his treatise against them, Calvin argues against the Anabaptists’ claim that in the ‘perfection of Christ’ the only ultimate punishment is excommunication from the church, not the use of the sword. Calvin denies this with great vigour. And as in the case earlier, Calvin’s invective against the Anabaptists stems from his adherence to the idea of Christendom. He states:

“First I ask, whether it is a state repugnant to the vocation of a faithful man to exercise the office of the sword, or worldly superiority: seeing that the judges of the old testament as also the good Kings as David, Hezekiah, Josiah, and also some of the prophets as Daniel, have used it? To say that it was a vicious imperfection in them, is to no purpose: seeing that the holy Ghost witnesseth of the judges, that God raised them up to deliver his people: and this singularly appeareth in Moses, the which having express commandment, would gladly have withdrawn himself, if he could have.”17

Only someone who had wholeheartedly bought into, or been deceived by the false notion of Christendom could have agreed with Calvin. For Calvin the comparison was clear and valid. The civil authorities were to protect the flock by punishing, ‘with the sword’ if necessary, all heretics just as the kings and prophets of Israel had done. They punished even with death those who led Israel into idolatry and apostasy, and the magistrates should not shy away from it even as Moses could not shy away from his duty. This is Calvin’s viewpoint and logic. This is Christendom.

Because of the tremendous spread and impact of the Anabaptist movement, many of the reformers were constantly engaged in writing against them. Martin Luther wanted his close associate Urbanus Rhegius (of Augsburg, if you remember) to undertake a written work attacking the Anabaptists. In this work, Rhegius praises Constantine for creating the state church model and for applying the use of force. He wrote:

“The truth leaves you no choice; you must agree that the government (magistracy) has the authority to coerce his subjects to the Gospel... to get people to the services with fine words and admonitions is the preachers duty, but to keep them there with recourse to force if need be and to frighten them away from error is the proper function of the rulers… What do you suppose ‘Compelle intrare’ means?”18 (Italics mine)

In the last sentence Rhegius is echoing the sentiments of Augustine when he quoted the scripture, ‘Compel them to come in”. Here you have the mindset of the reformers – they believe it is obvious that the magistrates have the authority to force their citizens to the Gospel. The ruthless religious dictatorial rule of the Catholic Church of many centuries is here subscribed to and supported by the Protestant Reformers. What motivation was it in the hearts of these reformers that could so blind them to the simple clear meaning of Scripture? Sola Scriptura perished in their hearts a long way back, if it was ever theirs to own. Such things could have been written by the Catholics from whom they had separated themselves.

Ulrich Zwingli, it is no surprise, was in full agreement. Writing of Zwingli, the historian Philip Schaff states:

“Zwingli… occupied the theocratic standpoint of the Old Testament, as did Calvin. The preacher is a prophet: his duty is to instruct, to exhort, to comfort, to rebuke sin in high and low places… his weapon is the Word of God. The duty of the magistrates is to obey the gospel, to protect religion, to punish wickedness. Calvin took the same position in Geneva, and carried it out much more fully than Zwingli.”19

According to the outlook of the reformers, Christendom is the new Israel, where the magistrates and the preachers work together as the prophets and priests of old to correct, punish and if necessary to eliminate the ‘wicked’ from the land.

The Execution of Heretics.

In the 1518 version of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, “The burning of heretics is against the will of the Holy Spirit.”19a In fact, this was one of his ‘errors’ that the Catholic Church mentioned when denouncing him as a heretic in 1520. In the early days Luther believed that the proper spiritual means to change people’s view was through the preaching of the word of God and that the secular authority should not be involved in coercion in the matters of religion. In 1523 he wrote:

“But the thoughts and intents of the heart can be known to no one but God; therefore it is useless and impossible to command or compel any one by force to believe one thing or another. It must be taken hold of in a different way; force cannot accomplish it… Since, then, belief or unbelief is a matter of every one’s conscience, and since this is no lessening of the secular power, the latter should be content and attend to its own affairs and permit men to believe one thing or another, as they are able and willing, and constrain no one by force. For faith is a free work, to which no one can be forced.”20

Very good indeed! But due to disturbances in Germany, and with the spread of Anabaptism, by 1530 he had declared that the Anabaptists were to be condemned by the state for sedition and blasphemy. From then on, for a number of years he supported the death penalty for them, and it was through his and Melanchthon’s advice to the princely rulers, based on ‘theological’ grounds, that Anabaptists were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and put to death in the German regions. As it was with Augustine, so it was with the reformers. Political expediency trumped their original convictions. Luther’s seemingly commendable and charitable views regarding freedom of conscience evaporated and turned into cruel persecution of those that he perceived as his opponents.

The idea that Luther began a process of introducing liberty of conscience and freedom of religion in 16th century Europe is false, as many Anabaptists who were imprisoned, tortured, banished and martyred for their faith by the Protestants could bear witness to. The idea of ‘tolerance’ was as foreign to the Protestants as it was to the Catholics.

Supporting the Death Penalty

John Calvin wrote to his close friend Farel, saying, “I am struck with horror when I hear with what cruelty the godly are persecuted in France.” (Letter to Farel; May, 1540).

It is a strange contradiction that Calvin could express horror at the cruelty of the persecution of Protestants in France, while he justified the persecution and death of those that dissented to his religion! Calvin writes in defence of magistrates punishing heretics, “…how can magistrates be at once pious and yet shedders of blood? But if we understand that the magistrate, in inflicting punishment, acts not of himself, but executes the very judgments of God, we shall be disencumbered of every doubt.”21 (Italics mine)

Of course, included in this for Calvin is the punishment and death of ‘heretics’. Calvin might have been ‘disencumbered of every doubt’, but that did not hold true for everyone who lived in his day.

In one notorious case, John Calvin orchestrated the procedures that would lead to the death penalty for Michael Servetus, who, among other things, was accused of attacking the doctrine of the Trinity. Calvin compiled the charges against Servetus and after the trial Servetus was burnt at the stake in Geneva. There was such an outcry against it that Calvin immediately wrote a Defence of this punishment! There are those, of course, who would argue that Calvin was not really responsible for the death of Servetus. However, the facts prove otherwise. But then again, for those who want to distance Calvin from Servetus’s death, how do they justify Calvin’s writing that defends the death penalty for heretics that followed Servetus’s execution?

In his letter to his close associate Farel in 1546 (13th Feb.), Calvin writes concerning Servetus, “He takes it upon him to come here, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word of safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” (Italics mine.)

These words were written to Calvin’s friend, Farel. He did not mince his words nor were they just hyperbole. If Calvin had anything to do with it, Servetus would not leave Geneva alive. These are the words of a man considered to be a great Christian leader and theologian!

Writing again to Farel in 1553 (20th August) about the trial of Servetus, Calvin writes, “He (Servetus) intended perhaps passing through the city… But after he had been recognised, I thought he should be detained. My friend Nicholas summoned him on a capital charge. On the following day he had used against him 40 written charges. He had first sought to evade them. Accordingly, we were summoned… At length the Senate pronounced all the charges provenI hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon; but I desire that the severity of the punishment may be mitigated.” (Italics mine.)

It was Calvin who spotted Servetus in the church service when he arrived in Geneva, and then immediately notified the authorities to have him detained. Calvin got his associate Nicholas to bring the charges which no doubt he, Calvin, had framed against Servetus, and it was to be upon a capital charge, in other words, a charge that incurred the death penalty. Servetus was found guilty and burnt at the stake in Geneva in 1553, October 27.

At no time whatsoever did Calvin ask for the death penalty to be commuted to something less. He only asked the council to change the manner of death to hanging rather than being burnt at the stake. The medieval mindset and disposition of Calvin is further revealed in 1555, when some of his political opponents in Geneva were arrested, tortured and executed for conspiracy and insurrection – though it is debated how great a crime it was that they had actually committed. Calvin played no part in the judicial process, but expressed his ‘satisfaction’ at the suffering and execution of those that had been his political opponents in Geneva. The two Comparet brothers were sentenced to death – one by having his head cut off, the other by having his body chopped into pieces and displayed in different locations. Unfortunately for the latter victim, the executioner botched up the execution and thereby prolonged the suffering of the victim, for which the council dismissed the executioner. Calvin, however, commenting on the extended suffering of the victim, says in a letter to Farel:

“And assuredly I am convinced that not without the judgement of God they suffered, contrary to the sentence of the judges, a long torture under the hand of the executioner.”22

In other words, Calvin expressed his conviction and satisfaction that this ‘accident’ that horribly prolonged the victim’s suffering in contravention to the judges’ instructions was actually an act of God. There were others also who were to be interrogated about their part in the ‘conspiracy’, and in the same letter Calvin states:

“Now, those who are kept in fetters have pretty clearly revealed their misdeeds, though these also grossly mislead the judges… Before two days we shall see, I hope, what the rack shall wring from them.”

Though he played no part in deciding these men’s fate, Calvin nevertheless felt quite at home with the use of torture to extract information from those that had been opposing his endeavours in Geneva.

Let us now, however, return to the case of Servetus. His burning at the stake caused a public outcry from many quarters. But Calvin immediately produced a writing called, ‘Defence of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus, in which he defends the death penalty for heretics.

Calvin writes in his Defence of the Orthodox Faith:

“That humanity, that is advocated by those who are in favour of a pardon for heretics, is greater cruelty because in order to save the wolves they expose the poor sheep.  I ask you, is it reasonable that heretics should be allowed to murder souls and to poison them with their false doctrine, and that we should prevent the sword, contrary to God’s commandment, from touching their bodies, and that the whole Body of Jesus Christ be lacerated that the stench of one rotten member may remain undisturbed?”

These are the same arguments that were used by Augustine, whom Calvin loved to quote. He advocates killing heretics in order to safeguard the Lord’s flock! We find no such instructions from Jesus or the apostles. But then again, we must remember that both the Catholics and Reformers believed that God had turned things around after the time of the apostles, so that, whereas at the beginning Christians did not ‘rule’ but were the persecuted, now however, God had put power into the hands of the Church through ‘pious’ secular rulers such as Constantine and others that followed – be it emperors, princes, councils or magistrates. As we saw in Chapter One, Augustine had ‘explained’ this ‘turnaround’ by using the passage in Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar changed from forcing his people to the worship of idols, to imposing the worship of the God of Daniel on everyone in his kingdom!

Calvin continues:

Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church.” (A Defence. Italics mine.)

There you have it. According to Calvin, whoever argues against the punishment of death for heretics, argues against God, and incurs the guilt of the heretics. But it was Calvin who taught that the ministers of the church had no right to tell the magistrates how to go about their business in dealing with law-breakers, as we noted above. However, here he is putting divine obligation on them regarding how to deal with and punish heretics. It is ‘God’ who has spoken, according to Calvin.

Much of Reformed doctrine is built on the writings of such a man as this. There is a contradiction here, namely, that a man who could get things so dangerously long – not least for his own soul – should become a pillar of Christian theology for many down the centuries. However, this disposition of murderous intent found a home in the hearts of many of the leading Reformers. It is noteworthy, that as voices were raised in opposition to the burning of Servetus, the leaders of the Reformation across Europe flew enthusiastically to Calvin’s defence. They were all of one mind – ‘it is good to kill heretics.’ Here are some quotes that illustrate this.

Letter of Bullinger to Calvin (Bullinger was successor to Zwingli of the Reformation in Zurich):

“In all places there are good men who are of the opinion, that impious and blasphemous heretics are not only to be admonished and imprisoned, but also capite esse mulctandos, to be punished with death. Be not therefore discouraged that you have undertaken this labour. The Lord will assist your holy endeavours and studies. I do not see how it was possible to have spared Servetus, that most obstinate man, the very hydra of heresy.”23 (Italics mine.)

Here Bullinger is comforting and encouraging Calvin with regard to the writings against heretics. Whatever else the Protestant Reformers may have ‘broken free from’, they certainly did not break free from the apostate culture of Christendom.

Letter of Melanchthon to Calvin (Melanchthon was Martin Luther’s right-hand man and succeeded him in leading the Reformation in Germany):

“Reverend and dear brother, I have read your book, in which you have clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus ; and I give thanks to the Son of God, who was… the awarder of your crown of victory, in this your combat. To you also the church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after a regular trial, this blasphemous man.24 (Italics mine.)

The burning at the stake of Servetus, according to the reformer Melanchthon, is a matter of thanksgiving to the Son of God, and for which future generations will be grateful! What depths of darkness of heart and mind these men lived in.

John Knox (1514-1572), the Scottish theologian and preacher and founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, wrote fervently in defence of the execution Servetus, giving it the unambiguous title: The Execution Of Servetus For Blasphemy, Heresy, & Obstinate Anabaptism, Defended. In it he defends Calvin against those that criticise him for Servetus’ execution, claiming that it was not murder but God’s own judgement upon Servetus! Knox states that according to Leviticus 24 (v.16) ‘it is evident’ that God has appointed death without mercy to blasphemers, and he cherishes the hope that Calvin’s writings concerning the execution shall prove profitable to posterity:

“You will not easily admit that Servetus was convicted of blasphemy; for if so be, ye must be compelled to confess (except that ye will refuse God) that the sentence of death executed against him was not cruelty; neither yet that the judges who justly pronounced that sentence were murderers nor persecutors; but that this death was the execution of God’s judgment, and they the true and faithful servants of God, who, when no other remedy was found, did take away iniquity from amongst them. That God hath appointed death by his law, without mercy, to be executed upon the blasphemers, is evident by that which is written, Leviticus 24… John Calvin hath besides committed to writing the Examination of Servetus, and the Cause of his miserable death. Which books, albeit to you they be a perpetual memory of cruelty, yet I have good hope, that to our posterity they shall be profitable.25 (Italics mine)

Such is the incredible blindness of those that were leaders of the Reformation in the 16th century.

In the following century, the 1600s, John Owen, who is considered the Prince of Puritans within the Calvinist tradition, sought to defend the burning at the stake of Servetus by the reformers, claiming that it was ‘far different’ to the same kind of execution perpetrated by the Catholics. He states that, “I know that generation of men retort upon us the death of Servetus at Geneva; but the case was far different”. He then proceeds to justify the reformers of the 16th century for their killing of Servetus by saying:

“To this height of atheism and blasphemy had Satan wrought up the spirit of the man; so that I must say he is the only person in the world, that I ever read or heard of, that ever died upon the account of religion, in reference to whom the zeal of them that put him to death may be acquitted.”26 (Italics mine)

So, even into the 1600s, a leading man of the reformed tradition would seek to justify this kind of murder of heretics.

Theodore Beza was Calvin’s successor in Geneva and an important Reformation figure. He is also known for having issued an edition of the Greek New Testament. He writes in the same vein as other reformers:

“Shame upon that contradictory charity, that extreme cruelty, which, in order to save (Lord knows how) many wolves, exposes the whole flock of Jesus Christ!… For the sake of the salvation of the flock use that sword righteously against those monsters disguised as men.”27

Beza uses the same arguments as Augustine, as other reformers and as the Catholics themselves had been doing for centuries, namely, it is wrong to allow heretics to survive when they are responsible for deceiving and leading people to eternal judgment. Nothing has changed in this respect.

In his The Right of Magistrates, Beza writes the following:

Shall we proclaim that freedom of conscience should be granted? Certainly not in the sense it is usually taken that each could adore God in his own fashion. That is simply a diabolical dogma.  It pretends that everyone is at liberty to perish if he wants to.”28 (Italics mine)

Beza thought it was the devil’s work to allow freedom of conscience and freedom to worship God according to one’s own beliefs. He maintains this was tantamount to being responsible for people eternally perishing by allowing ‘heretics’ to go unpunished. On the foundation of such misguided notions, the reformers allowed themselves to impose their own form of religion on people, and banish, imprison or even execute those who did not submit to it.

The Reformers’ Religious Worldview

Here we need to recognise a very important point that was common to both Catholics and Protestant reformers alike, namely, that freedom of conscience and toleration of dissenting religious views were regarded as a betrayal of the proper social and spiritual oversight and duty of both Church and State. The state acknowledged and supervised the one religion. This was integral to the nature and cohesion of this beast called ‘Christendom’. Plurality of religions was equated with division and threatened the overthrow of both the State and the Church. It was regarded as an unacceptable threat to the very existence of both. It was simply taken for granted by those that ruled that the extermination of ‘heretical’ teaching was the proper and responsible course of action. It was the mindset of Christendom that had existed for centuries, and the reformers belonged to this tradition and outlook.

Thus the notion of toleration was utterly foreign to the reformers, just as it had been and was for the Catholics. This intolerance, this Christendom, had started to form even before Constantine, as we have already seen. The seeds of ‘Christendom’ had already been sown in the hearts of ecclesiastical men – many of whom are called ‘Church fathers’ – and were sprouting well before Constantine came on the scene. This religious man-made entity and structure was already firmly taking shape and was totally ready to be absorbed into, and embrace the worldly system of state control when Constantine came along. The Church’s desire for dominant control over others only received greater and ultimate fulfilment by joining forces with the imperial power of the Emperor. In a fundamental sense, I believe history shows that Constantine did not create ‘Christendom’. He did not have to crack a whip to get a disparate and unorganised group of clerics into something that resembled a unified body. It was there in embryo, waiting for the event that would give it birth. He did not, in that sense, give birth to it; he just put a strengthening seal on it by incorporating it into the imperial system. A framework for orthodoxy was already taking shape among ecclesiastical figures who sought to exclude and excommunicate those whom they regarded as heretics. Constantine simply gave this fledging entity the power that it lacked for total dominance over others in matters of faith – though, of course, Constantine himself made sure he had the last word in these matters, as would all the other secular powers after him.

Catholics and the Protestant reformers alike belonged to this entity called Christendom, this man-made system, this citadel of spiritual blindness and despotic rule, that had its infancy before Constantine and would last up to the 17th century and even beyond; that believed in intolerance towards others for the sake of what they deemed to be the preservation of the flock of Christ. This was the norm. It was the norm in the 1500s. Christendom was a religious worldview, a spiritual entity that infected everyone in it and made them persecutors of them that disagreed with them. Essentially, it did not matter at all whether they called themselves Catholics or Protestants, they were all of one in mind and one disposition; they all belonged to the one and same entity. There was no difference. And this is exactly what, for example, the Anabaptists discovered – if you were baptised on the basis of a personal conversion and believed the Church should consist of committed believers whose lives had been changed; if you believed that the Church and State should be separate, then you would be hounded and persecuted even unto death by both Catholics and Protestants. Neither would countenance a baptism based on personal conversion or a separation between Church and State, because it would herald the end of their religious dominance and existence. Yes, the Catholics and Protestant reformers differed in doctrine, but that made no difference to those who wanted to worship in a different way to them; it made no difference to those being imprisoned and tortured by both alike for daring to disagree with them and live according to their own conscience.

In this context, one thing the reformers were not unaware of was the accusation from the Catholic Church that the Reformation allowed and harboured heretics in their regions. The Catholics seized on any such opportunity to brand the reformers themselves heretics who threatened Christendom by allowing religious anarchy that undermined the Christian religion itself. The reformers were sensitive to this charge and did not want to show themselves negligent in upholding religion through a ‘soft’ treatment of ‘heretics’. This was another factor in the scenario of persecution that we have been considering – but hardly a justification for killing dissenters. The reformers were sensitive to this charge exactly because they came from, and were of the same mindset as the Catholics.

The reformers of the 16th century – and beyond – were ‘born into’ this mindset, or to put it in another way, they just naturally and easily ‘bought into it’. No spiritual experience, no biblical understanding was theirs that delivered them from such delusions. They, like the reformers that would follow them in the next century, believed it was their solemn religious duty to act thus. This helps to put things into context, but it does not mean it was right! It simply confirms that unlike many Anabaptists, the reformers were ‘men of their times’, they were of this world. Nothing had happened to the reformers, nothing had happened in the reformers that changed this darkened mindset. There was a thick dark veil over their eyes blinding them from knowing the truth. This is Christendom.

A Note about the Accusations brought against the Anabaptists

In their zeal to deal with and eradicate the Anabaptists, the reformers did not always represent their teachings accurately. In their writings against them, the reformers easily incorporated misinformation about the Anabaptists as facts.  That misrepresentation of their beliefs was an easy tool in the hands of the reformers in order to justify labelling them as heretics and as being seditious. There are many examples of this. For example, the Anabaptists were accused of claiming to be sinless or that they wanted a church in which there was nothing but perfection. All this is simply false. The truth is that the reformers simply could not comprehend that an individual could have a sense of sins forgiven through the personal experience of conversion. (We shall be looking at this later on.) This is what the Anabaptists meant – not that they were made perfect or sinless by their conversions. In their writings and answers, Anabaptists do not make the claims imputed to them by the reformers and actually counter them.

It may indeed be the case that there were certain individuals who erred in this matter or expressed themselves badly. In the records of the interrogations of Anabaptists, some did express strange or erroneous views. However, among the thousands that were being converted in towns and villages, it is not easy to know how much teaching some had received or what teaching they had imbibed. The presence of various splinter groups may also account for this. Moreover, many Anabaptists were poor and uneducated and, under interrogation by the learned reformers, may have expressed themselves in a way that gave ammunition to their interrogators, particularly if the Anabaptist was a new convert. Nevertheless, the writings of Anabaptists amply refute the false allegations brought against them regarding this matter. However, as I have mentioned elsewhere, it is not my purpose to support what every Anabaptist group taught and did, but to determine the nature of the Reformation by how they handled and responded to dissidents.

It is also true that during this period a number of diverse radical leaders sprung up who were not representative of ‘mainstream’ Anabaptism. Some of these movements had outlandish views or views differing from the Anabaptists, or were notoriously violent. Two traumatic events that caused reverberations around Europe at this time were the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) and the Münster rebellion, which involved the violent seizure of the German city of Münster (1534-1535). Both involved terrible violence and bloodshed and the reformers would indiscriminately attribute these events, particularly the latter, to the spread of Anabaptist teachings, without distinguishing between things that were essentially different.

However, as early as 1524 (Sept. 25) the Anabaptist Conrad Grebel, whose life we considered in Chapter 2, wrote to Thomas Müntzer, who was initially involved in the Reformation in Wittenberg, but who would become a revolutionary leader in the disastrous peasant’s uprising of 1525. In this letter he exhorted Müntzer to follow the pattern of Matthew 18 in dealing with those whose life-style was contrary to the Gospel. He stressed that the ‘ban’ from the fellowship of the saints was the only recourse of action that the church had. His message was that a heathen man was not to be put to death but must be left alone, and that the believers should not protect the Gospel with the sword.29

Pacifism was the trait of the genuine Anabaptist. Such Anabaptists had nothing to do with violent attacks on others or of using the sword to defend themselves. We also saw that in the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession their teaching was that the church does not use the ‘sword’; it does not use physical force or violence against anyone. This is what distinguished the mainstream Anabaptists. However, there were others who did not follow the Anabaptist Confession but were radical and demonstrated their radicalism with outlandish teachings and violent methods. These radicals were easily given the name of ‘Anabaptists’ by the reformers and others.

The term ‘Anabaptist’ was used of all and sundry at this time so that the errors of the worst (the ‘lunatic fringe’, as we may call them) were applied and imputed to all. Indeed, in the turbulence of this period, it may not have been easy to distinguish between radical groups, but it was a great convenience to the reformers not to distinguish between them so that they could banish and exterminate all those who they chose to call Anabaptist.

The idea that is held by some that the severe reaction against the Anabaptists was to do with the Münster incident (1535) is not supported by the historical facts. We have clearly seen that already earlier on, in the 1520s, the reformers were writing against Anabaptist ‘heresies’ and to the German Princes, urging them to persecute, punish and execute Anabaptists.

Striking Parallels between the Pharisees and the Reformers

In view of what was said above about the reformers’ religious world view, I think some interesting comparisons can be made between them and the Pharisees.

  1. Zeal. The apostle Paul says of the Jews, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:2-3). Here Paul is talking about Jews generally but we can easily see how these verses are particularly true of the Pharisees. The Pharisees certainly had a zeal for God, and in their eyes, it was very much based on the holy Scriptures. This was likewise true of the Protestant Reformers. Both believed correctly in certain passages of Scripture but were utterly blind to other truths clearly stated there – or even to the truth of the scriptures they were quoting – which led them into conduct and actions that manifestly contradicted the religion they claimed to believe in. The blindness of their spiritual condition led them to misunderstand and oppose the essence of the Gospel. Both had, in fact, developed their own brand of religion, which they claimed to be God’s. And like the Pharisees, the reformers had a fanatical zeal for their brand of true religion. This hardened fanaticism made them cruelly intolerant of any deviation from what they regarded as orthodox faith.

Both believed they were doing God a service by persecuting and putting to death those that they regarded as heretics.

The irony of this comparison though, is that despite the reformers’ emphasis on justification by faith, they had, in fact, set up a religion of their own that opposed the righteousness of God, in that they cruelly sought to eliminate all their religious opponents. If love is the fulfilling of the Law (Romans 13:10), and therefore of righteousness, then the reformers seemed to be ignorant of this love and this righteousness.

  1. Position and Power: We read in John 11:48 these words spoken by the Pharisees concerning Jesus: “If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.”

This clearly demonstrates that the Pharisees were concerned about their position and authority, and how letting another brand of religion thrive would threaten their position. So we see that at least part of their motivation in opposing Jesus and his followers was the desire to maintain the position they had with respect to the secular power. This was undeniably true of the Protestant Reformers. They understood very well that the unity and peace of the state – as well as their own position – depended on not tolerating any other form of religion. If the reformers allowed divergence from the doctrine and practice of the state religion, the state would regard that as a threat to its well-being and the reformers themselves would be in danger of being ousted and be regarded as a threat. This most likely explains why Zwingli changed his views on infant baptism and sided with the councils against the radical reformers – and turned into their persecuting opponent.  Of course, with the Pharisees, the Romans were the occupying force, but during the Reformation, the reformers were incorporated into the state church system – but the principle of persecuting others so that one could remain power remains the same.

  1. Persecuting the threat: We read this in John 19:12: “And when pilot wanted to release Jesus the Jews cried out these words, “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend: whosoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.

This is exactly the charge that the Protestant Reformers used against the Anabaptists – they declared that teaching a different doctrine to the state-recognised religion is heresy, and heresy represents rebellion and insurrection against the state. This is precisely the argument the reformers would use to incite the civil authorities to mercilessly persecute and kill Anabaptists. Just as Pharisees made reference to the secular Roman power where they could to put down what they considered to be the new religion – represented by Jesus – so too the Protestant reformers used their association with the state to put down any dissent.

Just as the Pharisees persecuted, imprisoned, beat and even killed the disciples of the Lord to maintain the ‘purity’ of their teaching, so the reformers likewise persecuted, imprisoned, beat and killed the Anabaptists – and who can deny that many of the Anabaptists were disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ?

As were the Pharisees, so were the reformers. In these matters there was no difference. Am I comparing the spiritual condition of the Pharisees to that of the Protestant Reformers? I cannot see how we can avoid the comparison or fail to raise the question. The Pharisees were filled with murderous intent towards dissenting believers – and so were the reformers. We have seen it in the accounts above.

Jesus said, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

How blind the reformers were to the simplest and most basic teachings of Scripture.

The greatest judgement against the reformers

The greatest judgement against the reformers comes from their own modern-day supporters or sympathetic historians and biographers. The common explanation for the monstrous persecution and murder of many Anabaptists and others by the reformers is this statement: “They were men of their times.” With this I whole-heartedly agree. They were of ‘their times’, they ‘belonged’ to their time; they were part of that generation; as that generation was, so were they. They were of this world. However, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from here.” (John 18:36). Jesus said His servants would not fight to maintain their cause. The Protestant Reformers called upon the use of the sword to kill others – in particular on other believers! Had the reformers not read the words of Jesus? Had they not read that ‘all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword?’ (Mtt. 26:52). Had they not read that it is the godly who would suffer persecution, and not that the godly would persecute and kill? (2 Timothy. 3:12). By their writings and actions the reformers showed themselves to be ‘of this world’, not of the Kingdom that Jesus Christ died to bring men and women into.

How could the Protestant Reformers be so blind to the most basic truths of the word of God? What good is there in proclaiming ‘justification by faith’ when you go around killing people and teaching the flocks under you that such persecution and killing of religious dissenters is not only justified, but also demanded by the word of God? What kind of spiritual condition were they in? Do Calvinists who seek in some way to explain or ameliorate this violent and even murderous conduct of the reformers by the statement that they were ‘men of their times’, do they believe that the Gospel and new birth cannot change a man, raise a man out of the murderous intent and butchery of his times? What do they believe about the new birth? I hope to show what they believe about that in the next series of studies, where will consider the doctrines of the reformers.

But against this ‘sympathetic’ concession to the reformers there are many witnesses.

Firstly, there is the testimony of the New Testament itself, which witnesses to the truth and against the actions of the reformers. But as we have seen, the reformers were as blind men when reading an interpreting the many Scriptures they used to justify the persecution of dissenters. However, in addition to the Scriptures, there were the writings of others of their time that clearly expressed the biblical truths on these matters. The Anabaptists had referred the reformers to passages of scripture, and Hübmaier, in particular, had written clearly against the use of force by religious leaders. How was it that the reformers remained ‘men of their times’ and ‘of this world’, but many of the Anabaptists showed themselves to be ‘not of this word’ and even to be those of whom ‘the world is not worthy’ (Hebrews 11:36-38)?

Thirdly, therefore, in addition to the Scriptures and the writings of others, there was the witness of the lives of the Anabaptists – they were a living testimony to what God could do in a man to make him altogether different from the times he lived in! The Anabaptists put into practice what they preached. The genuine Anabaptists were not violent and did not use violence. They accepted persecution and martyrdom at the hands of the reformers. There was tangible evidence before the reformers’ eyes that there was a faith that could change a life completely and make it totally different to the spirit of the age that they lived in. The reformers were not left in ignorance concerning a different way, and a different life.

Fourthly, there is the superlative example in the New Testament of Saul of Tarsus. He had been like the Protestant Reformers – in his zeal to maintain and protect the purity of his religion, he persecuted the saints and was an accomplice to their executions, just like the Protestant Reformers were. However, Saul had an encounter with Jesus Christ that totally changed his life and his outlook. He was born from above. He was made a new man in Christ. Whereas before he wanted to terrorise people and dominate their faith, he now tells them that he has ‘no dominion’ over their faith, but is ‘helper of their joy!’ (2 Corinthians 1:24). He who had been a persecutor of the believers was now, by God’s wonderful grace, made to be an example of ‘all longsuffering’ to all future generations of believers’. (1 Timothy 1:12-16). Why did the reformers fail to learn from his example? Why did they choose to remain in the category of the Pharisees who set up a kingdom of an outward religion, and persecute those who testified to a religion of the heart, indeed, that changed a person’s heart.

Intellectually, the reformers may have been able to discern some of the teachings of the apostle Paul in opposition to certain Catholic doctrines, and even put it in wonderful religious language, but did they know Christ as Paul did, or even as the Anabaptists did? Did they show signs and demonstrate conduct that an inward change had taken place in them?

Yes, the reformers were men of their times, and they stood in stark contrast to men who were not of their times, who were not of this world, men of whom the world was not worthy; men whose conduct acted as a judgement upon the conduct of the Protestant reformers themselves. For these reasons noted above, I suggest there is no greater condemnation of the Protestant reformers than to say that they were ‘men of their times.’

Concluding question

If the conduct, mentality and writings of the reformers were such as we have seen and read up to now, how can their overall theology represent pure or true Christian doctrine upon which the faith of many should depend? If they were so blinded to the obvious meaning of important scriptures, if their conduct and actions were so contrary to the teaching of the Bible and the Spirit and nature of Christ, how can they, on the other hand, be enlightened regarding the meaning of the fundamental passages of scripture that relate to our great salvation, and develop a theology that is supposed to be a foundation for all believers?

That men of murderous intent should be endued with a spiritual insight and understanding to teach multitudes of others down the centuries what to believe and how to live, seems a contradiction. Can you walk in darkness and give light to others?

Appendix to Chapter Three

Below is summary of Luther’s exposition of Psalm 82, in which he, like Calvin, depicts the secular authority as ordained by God to root out heretics in the land, exhorting these princely rulers to exercise the severest punishment against them. It is quite lengthy and is included here for those who may be interested in reading the worldview of this reformer in more detail.

Luther’s Exposition of Psalm 82

In his exegesis of the 82nd Psalm (1530), Luther declares that the Anabaptists were both seditious and blasphemers, and deserving of the severest punishment. In this exposition he repeatedly states that blasphemers are worthy of death. I have read through the whole exposition in German – which is quite long – and the translated excerpts below are my own. (Source: Luther, Martin, Sämmliche Werke, Band 30, Erlangen, Carl Heyder, 1846.)

Luther’s exposition consists entirely of seeking to demonstrate two points. First, that those in secular authority (German: Obrigkeit; e.g. Princes, rulers, magistrates) have been placed there by God, and that they equate to the ‘gods’ mentioned in the Psalm. Secondly, he highlights the responsibilities of the divinely appointed secular authorities, which he summarises under three principal ‘virtues’ (Tugunden). The first of these is to protect and promote ‘the word of God’ and to support the ministry of the Church. Luther declares that one of the chief responsibilities of the Princes and noblemen in the matter of religion is to ensure that only the ‘true’ Gospel is preached and that the Princes are failing when they allow ‘false’ teachers to propagate their views and remain in their regions. He states of this failure, “But who can furthermore tell what horrendous vice and harm such a Prince or Lord causes by chasing so many souls into hell and robs them of eternal bliss. He should rather be called a Devil than a god…”

These words of Luther leave the Princes in no doubt about their duty to eradicate false teachers in their regions, just as the Kings of Israel should have eradicated the false prophets of Baal, as he later intimates. Luther, in his comments on verse four of this Psalm, devotes more time to the issue of the suppression and persecution of religious dissenters than to any other specific topic in his whole exposition. Luther introduces his commentary on verse four by giving an answer to the question whether, along with promoting God’s word, the ‘gods’ or ‘authorities’ (these are the same for Luther according to Psalm 82) should oppose and punish false teachings and heresies, since, it is argued, that one cannot and should not force anyone to believe. Luther then proceeds to give his answers in support of the authorities acting to suppress religious dissent. He says,

“Firstly, some heretics are revolutionaries, who openly teach that one should not tolerate any authority.”

It is true that there were violent elements at that time among those that may have been called Anabaptists by some, but then he gives a list of subversive activities that may apply to some but would be a misrepresentation if applied to all Anabaptists in the way that he does. Luther mentions the refusal to sit as a magistrate, and the idea of the ‘communal sharing of goods’ as seditious activities, which were taught by the Anabaptists but not by all in the same way. (I dealt briefly with these accusations earlier in this Chapter, and shall elaborate towards the end.)  But his conclusion is clear,

“These ones are immediately and without doubt to be punished by the authority, because they openly fight against the worldly government and authority (Rom. 13:1f).” (Italics mine.)

As I have said, the reformers grossly misinterpreted the views of the Anabaptists so that they could make them look like revolutionaries. Luther then mentions a number of heresies which he claims are taught by Turks and Anabaptists alike, and then states,

“…neither should one tolerate these but punish them as those who blaspheme openly. Since they are not only heretics but open blasphemers. Now, it is certain that the authority is responsible for punishing these public blasphemers, even as one punishes swearing, revilers, blasphemers…etc.” (Italics mine.)

Luther’s message is clear, heretics and blasphemers are not to be tolerated but punished and banished. He accepts that no one can be forced to believe, but to publicly teach heresy and to blaspheme is forbidden, and with such people one should not even dispute and argue but they are to be condemned out of hand once their heresy is revealed, just like the Arians were at the council of Nicaea. He then adds,

“Moses also in his Law commands that all such blasphemers and, indeed, all false teachers are to be stoned. So, in this matter, one should not dispute much, but condemn such public blasphemers without being heard or answered.”

He pointedly makes his case to the German Princes regarding the need to punish heretics by referring to the custom of stoning blasphemers in the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant. From all he said previously, it is difficult to imagine that this allusion is just hyperbole! He was writing in the 16th century, after all. Luther then goes on to mention ‘clandestine sermons’ (German: Winkelpredigten), which is a reference to the Anabaptists, whom he calls ‘clandestine preachers’, because they ‘sneak’ into people’s homes and in secret places teach their doctrines. (Winkel in German means ‘corner’, so the idea is of things being done ‘in a corner’, in other words, secretly.)

“But what I say about public preaching, I say that much more about ‘clandestine sermons’ (Winkelpredigten) and secret ceremonies; because these are altogether not to be tolerated.”

He continues to hold forth the against the Anabaptists: “In all this no one is to be forced to believe, but the community is to have peace secured from the stubborn heads, and from the rubbish of the ‘clandestine preachers’ (Winkelpredigern), who repeatedly sneak into houses and pour out their poison before the pastor or authority knows anything about it. These ones are robbers and murderers of whom Jesus speaks in John 10.”  (Italics mine.)

In his fervour to have Anabaptists punished and banished, Luther now puts obligation on all citizens to inform on Anabaptists and their activities, referencing the oath of allegiance they made to the civil authority:

“And a citizen is guilty when one such ‘corner sneak’ (Winkelschleicher) comes to him and he does not immediately – before he actually hears him or allows himself to be taught by him – inform the authorities and also his pastor, whose parish child he is. If he does not do this, then he should know that he acts contrary to his oath and that he is being disobedient to the authorities… (he) acts against God and makes himself guilty, and becomes a thief and a rogue like those who sneak about.” (Italics mine.)

Christians have suffered such persecutions in the past and suffer them today, where the regime is so set against them that you do not know who to trust, since even your next door neighbour could inform on you to the authorities. What a climate of fear and mistrust this creates! What hardships for the Christians who want to meet to pray and study the word of God. And it is this kind of religious ‘police state’ that Luther was exhorting and compelling the German Princes and their citizens to establish – or simply to continue what had been happening under the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.

I mention elsewhere that the Anabaptists generally refused to take the oath. Here we can see one clear reason for it. The oath is an oath of loyalty to the State. An Anabaptist is hardly going to take an oath that morally obliges him or her to inform against other believers! Yet the reformers were to pick on this point to ‘prove’ that Anabaptists were seditious.

Luther builds up his argument to an ominous threat. He continues to rail against them, exhorting pastors and the authorities to warn their people with all diligence to have nothing to do with those rogues who ‘sneak around’ (Schleichern) with their deadly sermons, and to avoid them as if they were the devil’s agents (“des Teufels gewisse boten”). Indeed, unless they can show proof of their calling and their commission from God to preach in the parish (which he has just denied them above!), they are “not to be allowed entry or to be heard even though they want to teach the pure Gospel, indeed, even if they were an angel or…Gabriel from heaven…If he wants to preach or teach, so let him prove his Call and Commission, which drives and compels him to do this, otherwise let him keep quiet. But if he does not, then command the authority to hand such a rogue over to the Master (German: Meister), who is called ‘Meister Hans’”.

‘Master Hans’ was a designation for the man who was appointed by the local authority to carry out the executions of criminals and public offenders. There would be no point in referencing ‘Master Hans’ unless the death penalty was in view. However, with or without this last reference to ‘Master Hans’, Luther’s exposition of this Psalm and his many words decrying the Anabaptists as heretics, blasphemers and seditious could hardly be less severe.

That Luther himself was aware of this is shown in his answers to objections that he says might be raised against what he has so far written in his exposition. Luther defends himself against one of the objections by saying:

“Moreover, perhaps someone will want to be clever and imagine against me that I will strongly encourage tyrants who oppose the Gospel [ed. presumably, the Catholic Church] and will open the window and door to them by my teaching, and that because our Gospel is regarded as heresy and blasphemy by them…their own conscience and authority will compel them to punish us as blasphemers etc. Answer: what is that to me….” (Italics mine.)

Luther realises that some people will complain that if we thus punish heretics, we will encourage and justify the Roman Catholics in their persecution of us – which certainly included executions. Luther dismisses this objection out of hand. Apart from ‘what is that to me’, he says that their (the Lutherans’) teachings cannot be determined by what the other side do, otherwise they would have had to abandon the Gospel long ago. Luther continues with this extraordinary comparison when referring to the Catholic Church and to the killing of heretics:

“It is no wonder that they do wrong since they are like the blind that cannot see and as the senseless that cannot hear our teachings. In like manner the Kings of Israel killed the true prophets. Nevertheless, one could not remove or hide the command to stone the false prophets. But pious authority will punish no one, unless it first hear, establish and be certain that they are blasphemers.”

Luther claims that the Catholic killings of Lutherans equates to the evil Kings of Israel killing the true prophets of God, but that the Protestant killings of heretics represents the pious Kings of Israel killing the ‘false’ prophets of Baal! Taking his cue from the OT, Luther says that no pious authority / government will execute a blasphemer arbitrarily, but only after careful examination! Presumably following the format of the Spanish Inquisition.

Luther does devote time in his exposition to writing about the two other virtues he mentions, which include works of compassion for the poor and the sick. Nevertheless, Luther’s exhortations and directives to the Princes and Nobles of Germany regarding the suppression, banning and punishment of the Anabaptists and all religious dissent do not represent some passing comment or digression, as some have suggested. They are an integral part of the first of the three virtues that Luther refers to, the responsibility for which Luther firmly places on the shoulders of the ‘gods’ – the Princes and Nobles of Protestant Germany.

That this so is underlined by Luther himself when writing again in 1530, when he not only emphasised the same point, but also clearly stated that part of the purpose of his exposition of Psalm 82 was to warn the authorities against the Anabaptists and to ensure their suppression and banishment. He states that people “should understand that the devil had sent them (ed., Wiedertäufer, the Anabaptists);…and it is certain that they come from the devil, as Christ says in John 10, ‘All that came before me are thieves and murderers’…Thus have I previously warned both the authorities and those under them in Psalm 82… that on no account should such secret preachers (‘Winckelprediger)’ be tolerated.”30 (Italics mine.)

Luther’s exposition of Psalm 82 gives a good perspective on the thinking of the reformers. The reformers readily abandoned their earlier moderate and even scriptural views concerning the use of force against dissenters – from toleration and freedom of conscience to cruel persecution and the death penalty – once they were confronted with a movement that threatened their status and authority!

Another Lutheran Reformer, Urbanus Rhegius (Luther’s ‘Bishop of Lower Saxony’), is uncompromising. He states:

When heresy breaks forth then the magistrate must punish not with less but with greater vigour than is employed against other evil-doers, robbers, murderers, thieves, and the like….God raises up the magistrates against heretics, faction makers, and schismatics in the Christian church in order that Hagar may be flogged by Sarah (here referring to an allegory made by Augustine)…All who know history will know what has been done in this matter by such men as Constantine, Theodosius and others.”31 (Italics mine)

According to Rhegius, religious dissenters must be punished with greater vigour than murderers. It is a bizarre rant from the pen of the Reformer. The minds of the reformers are already made up, and any scripture (Sarah flogging Hagar, for example) that seems to serve their purpose is simply corrupted to validate their murderous intent.

Earlier in his Institutes, Calvin had written that the magistrates should not intervene in matters of the Church, and that the Church should not assume the role of the magistrates in persecuting of punishing evil-doers and heretics. He wrote:

“For the Church has not the right of the sword to punish or restrain, has no power to coerce, no prison, nor other punishments which the magistrate is wont to inflict… The two things, therefore, are widely different, because neither does the Church assume anything to herself which is proper to the magistrate, nor is the magistrate competent to what is done by the Church.”32 (Italics mine)

This is rather disingenuous. Yes, on the one hand, Calvin certainly did not want the council and its magistrates to interfere with his running of the church in Geneva – as we shall later clearly see when we look at that period of his life. However, from the above quotes, including his own, it becomes obvious how the reformers not only deemed it a moral and spiritual obligation for the secular authorities to act – ‘on behalf of God’ – in persecuting and punishing heretics, but actually goaded them on to do so. The supposed ‘separation’ of church and state that Calvin alludes to, is one that works in his favour. Yes, the magistrates and councils must not tell the church what it is to teach and do, but it is clear by the reformers’ actions and writings that he felt they could direct the ‘Christian’ authorities in how to handle dissenters. After all, they all were bound by the one purpose to maintain Christendom!

So, given the quotes above, we may again ask, are the leading Reformers among those who have been converted and transformed by the Gospel of Christ, or are they just ‘enlightened Humanists’ with regard to certain biblical truths like justification by faith? However, regarding the treatment of others, Erasmus, the renowned humanist, was far more ‘enlightened’ than them, for he would have nothing to do with the reformers’ violent measures and actually wrote against them.

It is an amazing phenomenon that such brutish, blind men as these leading Reformers could have created a doctrinal system that is believed and adhered to by millions!



  1. The Reformers Deny Conversion Experience
  2. The Reformers’ False Notion of Infant Baptism
  3. The Reformers’ False Notion of the Church


In the last chapter we considered the reformers’ arguments justifying their persecution of dissenters. Before we look at Luther and the Reformation in Germany in Chapter Five, I shall continue to explore the teachings of the magisterial reformers, since they provide us with an understanding of how they reacted to and dealt with those they called heretics.

The Reformers Deny the Validity of Personal Conversion. Personal Faith not to be Relied on.

Some background

The Protestant Reformers wrongly attributed to infant baptism a divine agency of regeneration and incorporation into the church. Added to this is the reformers’ view that man’s nature is so bound and corrupted by sin that not only he is totally incapable of anything good, but that this inability extends to him being utterly unable to personally repent and believe the Gospel when he hears it.  To say that a sinner can hear the Gospel and respond in repentance and faith by his own choice, is regarded by the reformers as the utmost pride and self-delusion, and it is to be rejected as a work of self-righteousness. The reformers maintained that man is so sinful that it is God who has to start the work of faith and repentance in man. And how does God do that, according to the reformers? It is by firstly regenerating that person by His Spirit, without that person’s will or choice being involved in any way. Then, once a person is born again by the sovereign act of God, to which the person has contributed nothing, it is then that the person finds the ability to respond to the Gospel and to begin to believe and repent. This is standard reformed teaching to this present day. It is on this subject that Luther and Erasmus opposed in other in their writings. I shall be reviewing this teaching in the next study when we will look at the doctrines of the reformers.

Zwingli highlights this point in his writing, ‘Refutation of the Tricks of the Anabaptists.’ Zwingli argues against the First Article of the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession, which Zwingli quotes and then attacks:

“Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death that they may rise again with Him… By this all baptism of infants is excluded.” (Italics mine.)

To this Zwingli strongly objects. He labels this justification by works (just as Luther does). Zwingli says, “For if it is in our own choice or power to walk in the resurrection of Christ, or to be buried with him in death, it is open to anyone to be a Christian and a man of perfect excellence. Then Christ spoke falsely the word, ‘no one can come to me except the Father who sent me draw him.’”1 (Italics mine)

This is the doctrine of ‘predestination’ at work. Zwingli protests at the idea that anyone can just ‘choose’ to repent and become a Christian! He accuses the Anabaptists of imputing free will to man, as if a person by their own free choice can believe and repent. He and other reformers viewed this as ‘justification by works’, since it implies that God would then be ‘honouring’ my choice to believe in Him. Reformed theology denies this ability. Luther wrote a work entitled ‘Bondage of the Will’ to defend this view of our total inability as sinners to respond to God – and it is a view that Erasmus then wrote against. If we are saved solely by God’s grace through no effort or choice of our own, Zwingli argues, why should we not baptise infants just as circumcision was performed on infants as a sign of their participation in the first Covenant of God? Zwingli continues by saying:

“But since infants are of the people of God, they are not excluded because they cannot hear or understand. For that they are members of one and the same body of God’s people is clear from this, that circumcision, the sign of the covenant, is given them, so ought baptism to be administered to infants.”2 (Italics mine)

It is clear that the reformers believed baptism incorporated infants into the Church. The Anabaptists would say that it was a person’s faith and repentance that brings about their conversion, which is then confirmed by the person’s commitment to baptism. The reformers found all this too subjective and too dependent on ‘fickle’ man. They claimed such an ‘experience’ could not be trusted and was no basis for faith; God had already provided infant baptism as an ‘objective’ source for our faith and therefore a sure means of incorporating us into His Church and making us His children. Luther would go on to say that yes, we should have faith, but faith in God-ordained infant baptism, not faith in our own experience.

It becomes clear that the argument revolves around the very nature of conversion and salvation. It could not be more crucial. The reformers imputed to the religious ceremony of infant baptism God’s grace and saving power, thus excluding the need, or even the existence of a need for a personal conversion subsequent to that. The reformers believed that infant baptism renders any ‘further’ experience of salvation not only completely redundant, but also condemned the claim to such an experience to be a denial of faith and of their original baptism!  By their false teaching, the reformers were thus depriving people of ever knowing God’s work of salvation in their lives through a personal experience of salvation, since the reformers claimed that infant baptism, not personal experience – which is far too subjective and unreliable – is the sufficient foundation of our faith and salvation.

Thus Martin Luther attacks what he regards as the purely subjective and insubstantial nature of repentance and conversion as advocated by the Anabaptists. Writing concerning the person who wants to be baptised on the confession of their faith, Luther writes:

“You may indeed have his confession [of faith], but you still do not know his faithbecause all men are liars and only God knows the hearts. So, he who wants to base baptism on the faith of the candidate will never be able to baptise anyone at all, because even if you baptise a person a hundred times in one day, you will never know if he believes.”3 (Italics mine)

Luther simply could not comprehend the notion or truth of a personal conversion! He could not identify with this experience in any way!  He cannot conceive of an experience that results in an assurance of faith and of forgiveness of sins that does not evaporate with hours or days and thus requiring multiple and continuous baptisms! Neither, it seems, could Luther distinguish between a repentance that leads to conversion and salvation and that makes the sinner into a Christian believer and the repentance over an individual sin that the believer may commit. (We have already noted that Calvin falsely taught that infant baptism is the guarantee of forgiveness of all the future sins of the believer.)  Moreover, in the above quote, Luther says, you cannot trust such a person’s testimony since all men are liars. These are incredible statements and represent a direct attack on evangelical truth. He continues:

“Yes, it is true that one is to have faith in baptism, but one is not to base baptism on one’s faith… He who allows himself to be baptised on the basis of his faith, he is not only ignorant, but also a godless denier of Christ, because he trusts and builds on that which is his…”4 (Italics mine)

A person’s confession of faith is of no value whatsoever, according to Luther. It is far too subjective and insubstantial a basis on which to be baptised, he claims. One is not to be baptised on the basis of one’s faith but to have faith in the rite of infant baptism, or at least in the baptism conducted in church according to the rubric of the church! What a baptism into darkness and superstition this teaching is. The reformers were a million miles away from being evangelical in their belief. Those who are baptised on the basis of their faith are now condemned by Luther as being ‘godless deniers of Christ’. Those who profess a conversion through repentance and faith, Luther decries for being arrogant and superior, as if they had been given some special gift which puts them above others! In other words, Luther does not believe in a personal experience of salvation to which the Anabaptists gave witness to.

Luther believed and taught that the Christian believer remains a sinner all his life and is not only bound to sin (he quotes Romans 7:14-17 for this) but that every act and thought of the Christian is polluted by sin (this remains standard Calvinist / Reformed teaching to this day.) As we shall see, Luther regarded infant baptism as the continuing God-given source of comfort and assurance of sins forgiven – our infant baptism is the ground on which we can be assured of God’s forgiveness and salvation. Because of this utterly unevangelical belief, it was totally incomprehensible to Luther that someone could say that God had given them a sense of sins forgiven because of their present repentance and faith in Christ. Both Luther and Calvin objected that such converts were claiming ‘sinless perfection’. That you can have a sense of sins forgiven outside of the sacraments of the church is something they did not know and bitterly condemned. The idea that there could be a conversion experience after infant baptism horrified Luther, since it totally undermined and threatened his own assurance which was at least partly founded on infant baptism.

Not having entered into such an experience, Luther and the other reformers now sought to prevent others from entering into it.

We can see how the reformers’ views made them deadly opponents to the Anabaptists. They regarded Anabaptist teaching and practice as something that deprived people of God’s gracious means of salvation and that threatened to overturn Christendom. Luther is adamant in his defence of infant baptism:

“So I let those rave who want to. I hold that the absolutely surest baptism is child baptism. Since an older person can deceive… but a child cannot deceive… But he who is baptised according to God’s word and command, even if there were no faith, nevertheless the baptism would be true and sure because it is done as God has commanded… So the basis of our baptism is now the strongest and surest, as God has made a covenant with all the world, to be the God of the Heathens in all the world.”5 (Italics mine)

Personal testimonies of conversion are to be discounted, as people simply cannot be trusted! We have the thought clearly expressed again that even if the person being baptised has no faith, yet if it is done as God has ordained, the baptism is valid and effective. And the last sentence represents one of the foundations of Christendom – it is through infant baptism that God makes the ‘heathen’ to be His own people. Just keep baptising the infants born in the parish and you create your own little Christian nation!

So, Luther rejects totally the idea of a personal conversion outside of baptism – he certainly rejected all the testimonies that the Anabaptists gave of their repentance and faith. In other words, no one can be saved based on their personal testimony of what God has done in their lives. Therefore, our trust needs to be in our baptism, not in any personal feelings or experiences. We see that it was not just the Catholic Church, but that the Protestant Reformers as well perpetuated teachings that kept people out of the Kingdom of God, that deprived them of knowing God’s salvation. For Luther, you are just a godless denier of Christ if you claim to have been converted through your own faith and repentance! The institutional church, with its infant-baptised community represented the Christian church, represented Christendom. To seek salvation outside of her and her procedures, even if it’s through personal conversion, was simply blasphemy and rendered you outside of the church and outside of its salvation – and an enemy of the state.

John Calvin writes of the Anabaptists the following:

 “I allude to great numbers of Anabaptists… Such are the fruits which their giddy spirit produces, that repentance, which in every Christian man lasts as long as life, is with them completed in a few short days.”6

It is clear from the statement above that neither could Calvin personally relate to the idea or experience of a personal repentance that leads to an assurance of sins forgiven through the witness of the indwelling Spirit of God. (Hebrews 10:1-3; 15-17). The Anabaptists were not claiming sinlessness or sinless perfection – they were just giving witness to what the Scriptures themselves declare and to their experience of it. It is also completely false to impute to the Anabaptists the belief that one only needed to repent once in one’s life; this is completely untrue. Calvin’s failure was the same as Luther’s – he could not distinguish between a repentance that leads to conversion and to the assurance that follows such a repentance, and a repentance for individual sins that a believer may commit. They could not make the distinction because they did not recognise the validity of such a personal conversion. Their misrepresentation of the Anabaptists issues out of his failure to understand personal conversion.

Calvin’s theology keeps a person perpetually repenting because it is a theology which results in that kind of experience since it lacks the power and the sense of assurance that the Gospel and the indwelling Holy Spirit bring into a person’s life. I will look at this issue when I come to review the doctrines of the reformers in the next study.

What is noteworthy is that there was nothing in Calvin’s life – or in any of the other reformers’ lives – that in any way could help them identify or have sympathy with the kind of experience that the Anabaptists were testifying to. It is a remarkable revelation of the state of their own hearts, of their own spiritual condition. The conclusion that must be drawn is that Calvin had never had an experience anything like it. The reformers could not even reply with a “Yes, I know what you mean, but….” Calvin could only testify to a continual sense of sin which needed continual repentance. Calvin, together with Reformed teaching in general, believed that every word, thought and deed of the Christian believer was, without exception, at least to some extent polluted and corrupted by remaining sin, and would be worthy of eternal judgement but for the Atonement in Christ. The reformers teach that yes, the Holy Spirit inspires, stirs and motivates us unto good works and we make progress in sanctification, but nevertheless remaining sin renders every work imperfect and requiring the forgiveness of Christ. Nothing we do as Christians can please God (fully) because it is always polluted or corrupted by us in some measure, so requiring unceasing repentance from us and the application of Christ’s merit to make them acceptable.  It is no wonder that Calvin speaks of a relentless, perpetual repentance in the whole of the believer’s life. (Others have called this ‘the miserable sinner syndrome’.) It seems he had never known a ‘happy day’ when he knew that ‘Jesus had washed his sins away’. If he had, he would have at least to some extent been sympathetic to, or shown some understanding of the experience of the Anabaptists.

The reformers gave no indication that they had had an ‘evangelical’ experience of the Gospel – certainly not anything like compared to what the Anabaptists had, or that is recorded in the New Testament, as with the apostle Paul, for example. Their outlook and the views they express here are not ‘evangelical’ at all. They may correct Catholic teaching and seek to clarify certain biblical truths, such as justification by faith, but insofar as this remains in the realm of the ‘doctrinal’ and the ‘intellect’, it does not make them ‘evangelical’. An evangelical conversion changes your heart – being intellectually convinced about certain biblical truths does not constitute conversion or new birth. Compelling people by the power of the civil authority to switch from one form of religion to another does not represent a spiritual awakening or a resurgence of apostolic times!

Writers make reference to, and seek to explain what Luther and Calvin wrote about the turning points in their lives. However, their subsequent conduct does little to clarify the nature of such turning points and simply beg further questions – that I hope are here being addressed!

There was little or nothing evangelistic about the Protestant Reformers. You do not see them going from house to house, or in the marketplaces or fields, preaching the Gospel of salvation from sin to those that they considered lost. How could they possibly do this without denying the validity of the infant baptism of everyone in the empire? To deny the validity of infant baptism would be to render nearly everyone, if not everyone in the whole community as spiritually-dead heathen. But such thoughts had no room in their thinking. They regarded their communities not as Christianised, but as Christian. For them, this society of religious people still represented Christendom. Yes, many were bad and many had been deceived by the false teaching of the Catholics, but nevertheless they were the people of God, and to be instructed as the people of God – just like the people of God in the OT had to be instructed and turned back to God by the kings, judges and prophets. This was the reformers’ approach and thinking.

The Anabaptists had no such difficulty in distinguishing between a Christianisation that does not and cannot convert and change people, and the preaching of the Gospel which leads people to a genuine repentance and a true conversion, which changes the life of that person. No doubt the reformers would agree that the Gospel is God’s power unto salvation, but by the teachings and actions we have looked at, they show little or no understanding about the true content of the Gospel and how it is to be preached to bring salvation to sinners; they lacked a message that lead sinners in their communities to a genuine conversion.

What real spiritual change could this bring about in the people they were now preaching to? We will have a look at this in the next chapter.

Defending Infant Baptism

We will now consider what the reformers taught more particularly about infant baptism, and what we shall discover here is as startling as what we have already reviewed. This issue was central to the debate between the reformers and the Anabaptists, particularly regarding the nature of conversion and the nature of the Church.

As we have already seen, the Protestant Reformers were convinced that God ordained the ritual of infant baptism as the means of imparting grace and making them members of His church. Because they believed that infant baptism itself was of divine origin, the reformers believed that it was a valid ritual if conducted properly – irrespective of who does it or to whom it was done! It did not matter if the pastor was living immorally or if the recipient had no faith, the procedure itself was an effective means of imparting divine grace and had the ability to make the infant a child of God. This was the argument that Augustine used against the Donatists and it was the one the reformers used against the Anabaptists.

The reformers complained that believer’s baptism represents a rejection of God’s way of incorporating someone into the Church and making them a child of God. They objected that the Anabaptists were supplanting God’s gracious means of infant baptism with their own subjective experience, which the reformers deemed to be an utterly fallible basis for baptism. You can preach ‘justification by faith’ – and we most certainly ought to – but this in itself does not make you an evangelical!

Zwingli accused the Anabaptists of a double baptism, which of course they denied, stating that the only valid baptism is the one based on a person’s repentance and faith. However, Zwingli now had to defend his stance because he had received his infant baptism at the hands of the Catholic Church. He does this in the following extraordinary way:

“If baptism were of the pope alone, I would not object to their calling the pope’s baptism either ‘not Christ’s’ or a demon’s. But the baptism of Christ is not the pope’s, even though the pope were the archdemon himself and used Christ’s baptism… so when the pope baptized not in his own name, but in that of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost, it could in no way be vitiated so as not to be the baptism of Christ’s church. In the second place Christ himself said: ‘He that is not against us is with us.’ The pope therefore has this much of good, that he baptizes in no other name than that in which we were baptized.”7 (Italics mine)

It is the ritual itself, which the reformers claim is graciously God-given, that validates infant baptism when performed in the correct way – irrespective of who performs it. When performed using the correct phraseology, it is effective in incorporating the child into the Church. Both Luther and Zwingli argued that the rite of infant baptism is valid, not because of the character of the priest, but because it is ordained of God, and it is therefore the surest foundation for our faith. Such infant-baptised communities had no need for evangelism, or to be evangelised, since they now ‘belonged’ to the Church. They just needed instruction and teaching regarding how to live as Christians. How could these Reformers believe and say such things? It is not enough to say that they were ‘men of their times’, but rather that their minds were blinded to the nature of Salvation because their hearts had not been changed by the light of the Gospel. Since he did not seem to understand the nature of conversion, Zwingli castigates the Anabaptists by accusing them of requiring a ‘second baptism’ from people before they can partake of the Lord’s Supper. For Zwingli, any infant-baptised person had a right to the Lord’s Supper since that baptism had made them a child of God. He clearly did not understand what the Anabaptists were talking about when witnessing to a personal conversion.

Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, when writing on ‘Holy Baptism’, states: “For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own work. From this fact every one may himself readily infer that it is a far higher work than any work performed by a man or a saint. For what work greater than the work of God can we do?8 (Italics mine.)

Again in the Large Catechism, commenting on Infant Baptism, Martin Luther states: “Further, we say that we are not so much concerned to know whether the person baptized believes or not; for on that account Baptism does not become invalid… Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting… For even though a Jew should today come dishonestly and with evil purpose, and we should baptize him in all good faith, we must say that his baptism is nevertheless genuine. For here is the water together with the Word of God. Thus you see that the objection of the sectarians is vain. For (as we have said) even though infants did not believe, which however, is not the case, yet their baptism is now shown to be valid, and no one should rebaptise them… How dare we think that God’s Word and ordinance should be wrong and invalid because we make a wrong use of it?…”9 (Italics mine.)

Luther and Zwingli find themselves in full agreement in this matter. However, all this is mere superstition. How can we say that these men were bringing the light of the Gospel to the world? Here again we meet the concept that the presence of ‘the word of God’ together with the ‘sacrament’ in a church building represents the authority of God and validates the divine nature of the ministry of the church in the locality, and defines the community around it as Christian. As long as the right phrases are used, the child is incorporated into the Church even if the rite of baptism were performed by the ‘archdemon’ pope, even if the person on whom the rite was performed had no faith!

All this was foundational to the reformers’ teaching, and Calvin agrees. He follows in the same superstitious vein,

“Moreover, if we have rightly determined that a sacrament [of baptism] is not to be estimated by the hand of him by whom it is administered, but is to be received as from the hand of God himself, from whom it undoubtedly proceeded, we may hence infer that its dignity neither gains nor loses by the administrator…. so it ought to be sufficient for us to recognise the hand and seal of our Lord in his sacraments, let the administrator be who he may. This confutes the error of the Donatists, who measured the efficacy and worth of the sacrament by the dignity of the minister. Such in the present day are our Catabaptists [Anabaptists], who deny that we are duly baptised, because we were baptised in the Papacy by wicked men and idolaters; hence they furiously insist on anabaptism. Against these absurdities we shall be sufficiently fortified if we reflect that by baptism we were initiated not into the name of any man, but into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’10 (Italics mine)

Here we see that Calvin takes the same view as Luther and Zwingli. Calvin claims that the baptism that he – and that everyone else – received at the hands of the Catholic Church is valid in initiating them into the body of Christ and making them God’s children. It does not matter who performs the baptism – as long as it is done in the proper way, it is effective in its purpose because it is divinely appointed. The reformers were still steeped in a Catholic mindset that not only blinded them to the truth, but made them oppose the truth of the Gospel. Calvin calls the Anabaptist arguments against his teaching ‘absurdities’. There is nothing evangelical in the approach of the reformers here. Their minds are indeed fortified, but with the darkness of a thousand years of Christendom.

Through this one quote above, Calvin illustrates and confirms very clearly what this study sets out to show, namely, that the reformers considered all the Catholic regions, and the Catholic  communities and citizens in them as already ‘Christian’. There was no need of an evangelistic mission to convert people out of their sin and darkness since they were already God’s children who just needed re-educating in matters of certain doctrines and church practice. For the reformers, if they believed that the Catholic baptism of their countless citizens was invalid and did not make them Christians, then they would have to believe that all their communities, though having a form of religion, were nevertheless basically godless heathen who needed converting! The Anabaptists could clearly see this truth. The Protestant reformers were blind to it, and it was the Anabaptists who therefore preached a Gospel that led to conversions, not the magisterial reformers.

Luther raged against the Anabaptists as he defended infant baptism:

“How can baptism be more grievously reviled and disgraced than when we say that baptism given to an unbelieving man is not good and genuine baptism… What, baptism rendered ineffective because I don’t believe?… What more blasphemous and offensive doctrine could the devil himself invent and preach? And yet the Anabaptists… are full up to their ears with this teaching.”11 (Italics mine)

Luther calls all those who would disagree with his view on infant baptism blasphemers and inspired by the devil. The reformers were neither evangelical nor evangelistic in changing the spiritual state of their listeners and congregations when they already regarded them as having been incorporated into the church as God’s children by the baptism that they had received in the Catholic Church. The Reformation was not evangelistic in its nature or in its outlook. How could it have been, given the words of Calvin and of the other reformers above?

Although the reformers did admit there many of their ‘flock’ lived lives that were hardly Christian at all, they nevertheless had no true insight into the spiritual condition of the congregations they were taking over from the Catholic Church – they could only recognise that they had been taught doctrine wrongly by the Catholic priests, and so addressed themselves to the matter of correcting the religious thinking of their parishioners together with their superstitious and idolatrous practices. This failure in the thinking and insight of the reformers inevitably led to a failure in changing the behaviour of their congregations. This then led to their use and ‘elevation’ of the Law of Moses as a means of correcting, subduing and rebuking the worldly and sinful conduct of their parishioners. Why did this happen? For one thing, preaching ‘justification by faith alone’ to a largely nominally Christian congregation could only result in such unconverted people believing that the need for godly self-discipline and self-denial simply constituted ‘works’ which could not save them, and that now they were ‘free’ to indulge in those pleasures that up to then Catholic teaching had told them was wrong and sinful. (We shall be looking into this aspect of things in due course.) It was not just the critics of the Protestant reformers who said that the reformed churches lacked any improvement in moral conduct and had in fact got worse, but even the leading reformers acknowledged this, at least in part. This emphasis on the Law of Moses as a means of sanctification and directing moral conduct continues up to this present day.

Baptism, Circumcision and Baptismal Regeneration

Calvin, like other reformers, identified baptism very closely with circumcision, and he asserted infants could be regenerated. Referring to the Anabaptists, Calvin writes:

“But how, they ask, are infants regenerated, when not possessing a knowledge of either good or evil? We answer, that the work of God, though beyond the reach of our capacity, is not therefore null and void. Moreover, infants who are to be saved (and that some are saved at this age is certain) must, without question, be previously regenerated by the Lord… what I have said again and again I now repeat, that, for regenerating us, doctrine is an incorruptible seed, if indeed we are fit to perceive it; but when, from nonage (infancy), we are incapable of being taught, God takes his own methods of regenerating.”12 (Italics mine)

It is clear that Calvin believed that infants were regenerated by God at their baptism and made partakers of Christ and incorporated into His Church. Calvin claims that to attack his teaching on infant baptism is a device of the devil because it deprives the baptised person of the assurance that they are God’s:

“Doubtless the design of Satan in assaulting pædobaptism with all his forces is to keep out of view, and gradually efface, that attestation of divine grace which the promise itself presents to our eyes… For it is no slight stimulus to us to bring them up in the fear of God, and the observance of his law, when we reflect, that from their birth they have been considered and acknowledged by him as his children.”13 (Italics mine)

Calvin is here teaching that infant baptism is actually the beginning of Christian life. It is their spiritual birth into the body of Christ, and by it, they are born and fed mysteriously until they are old enough to understand solid teaching. Here again we can clearly see how the foundation of Christendom depends upon the continuation of infant baptism and in their minds any attack on it is a device of the devil. It is infant baptism that Christianises a whole nation, or in the eyes of the reformers, safeguards Christianity within its territory.

Martin Luther teaches along the same lines in his Large Catechism. He says that what takes place at baptism, at infant baptism, is the putting to death of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man. Then he states, “Where this (infant baptism), therefore, is not practised, but the old man is left unbridled, so as to continually become stronger… Therefore the old man goes unrestrained in his nature if he is not checked and suppressed by the power of Baptism… For those who are without Christ cannot but daily become worse” (LC, IV, 68).

Calvin and Luther pay no attention to sola scriptura. These leading reformers make up fantasies as they go along. This is a remarkable statement from Luther where he teaches that ‘our old man’ with his sinful tendencies is dealt with in infant baptism, and that the ‘old nature’ of those who are unbaptised as infants will have greater power over them to lead them into sin. Baptised infants have Christ, but unbaptised people are ‘without’ Christ. This teaching has nothing to do with the grace of God but rather seems to be the influence of Luther’s Catholic background.

In Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) in answer to the question, “What gifts or benefits does Baptism bestow?”, the answer given is that “it effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare.”

So Luther believes that it is baptism that effects salvation in a person’s life. Needless to say, the Anabaptists dismissed these arguments of the reformers as having no foundation in the Scriptures.

Baptism as Assurance and Comfort in later Life!

For both Calvin and Luther infant baptism is a great source of comfort and encouragement when facing trials and difficulties as a Christian.

When writing on ‘Holy Baptism’ in his Large Catechism, Luther states:

“Thus, we must regard baptism and put it to use in such a way that we may draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and say: ‘But I am baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body…’ No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than baptism, for through it we become completely holy and blessed, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire.” (LC, IV, 44‒45. Italics mine.)

Calvin echoes this bizarre thought as well. He writes:

“We ought to consider that at whatever time we are baptised, we are washed and purified once for the whole of life. Wherefore, as often as we fall, we must recall the remembrance of our baptism, and thus fortify our minds, so as to feel certain and secure of the remission of sins. For though, when once administered it seems to have passed (ed. He is talking about infant baptism), it is not abolished by subsequent sins. For the purity of Christ was therein offered to us, always is in force, and is not destroyed by any stain: it wipes and washes away all our defilements. Nor must we hence assume a licence of sinning for the future…”. (Bk. 4, Ch.15, P. 3.)

Firstly, we notice that Calvin believes that infant baptism purifies for the whole life. The forgiveness of sins imparted at baptism is an effective foundation for all sins committed later on in life. Moreover, it is a strange if not superstitious concept of these reformers to teach that our present comfort and encouragement should be based on an outward act, a procedure that was performed long ago in the past when we were but infants. According to their teaching, we are to cling on to that for comfort and assurance rather than on Christ Himself, rather than from a present ongoing relationship with God, on a present faith in God and His word, and to be comforted by the consequent witness that is brought to us by the Holy Spirit. This latter context of a present faith in God rather than in a rite performed in the past testifies to a living relationship with God, where His word and Spirit are the source of our comfort and joy. Although the reformers might indeed have agreed with this latter idea, their emphasis, and even just the notion, that infant baptism is of supreme value in bringing present comfort in trials, very much indicates a lack of personal relationship to God, and a superstitious belief in a religious rite.

If Calvin and Luther could write the statements above, how much of the witness of the Holy Spirit within their hearts did they really know? All these things impinge on the very nature of the Gospel and of Salvation in Christ. Were the reformers bringing people to the Gospel and to Christ, or barring people from knowing God and the power of His salvation in their lives because of their religious traditions. It could not be more serious. And we are about to look at how serious things become regarding the nature of the Gospel.

After having read Reformed teaching, it came as no surprise to me that one of the perennial topics among certain reformed churches and conferences today is the question of the assurance of salvation. This lack of assurance is the inevitable result where reformed doctrine takes root in the heart and deprives the person from knowing the power and witness of the Spirit in their lives.

The reformers’ false view of the church. The idea of the church as a ‘mixed multitude’ of wheat and tares.

We have looked at the views of the reformers regarding the relationship between the church and state, and how they firmly believed that the authority and force of the government should act as a divine arm of the church in suppressing and eliminating heresy from its regions. We will now consider in more detail what has been mentioned before, namely, what the reformers’ view was on the nature of the church, and in this matter, the reformers’ view of infant baptism certainly played a central role.

I have already mentioned that believer’s baptism was vigorously and hotly opposed by the reformers because this one teaching in itself directly struck at the heart and foundation of a system that had lasted for over 1000 years – it impinged on the concept of Christendom, on the nature of the relationship between Church and State, indeed, on the nature of the Church itself. The reformers were entrenched in the view that the Church consisted of all those within the territory of the governing ‘Christian’ government – and this was underpinned and secured by infant baptism. Whereas the Anabaptists were clear in their understanding that the Church was made up of members who could testify to a personal repentance and faith – a personal conversion – followed by baptism, and leading to a changed life. Who can doubt that this latter view was the scriptural one?

This inevitably represented a clash of two mutually exclusive views.

We will start our survey of this debate by looking at some of the statements of Luther, who, in what he says, also misrepresents the Anabaptists. He wrote:

“From the beginning of the church, heretics have maintained that the church must be holy and without sin. Because they saw that some in the church were the servants of sin, they denied forthwith that the church was the church, and organised sects… This is the origin of the Donatists… and of the Anabaptists in our times…It is the part of wisdom not to be offended when evil men go in and out of the church…The greatest comfort of all is the knowledge that they do no harm but that we must allow the tares to be mixed in… By this zeal for only wheat, and a pure church, they bring about, by this too great holiness, that they are not even a church, just a sect of the devil.”14

‘Holy and without sin’ is not what the Anabaptists taught. To live in a ‘holy’ manner, yes, but that they believed they were ‘without sin’ is a teaching he wrongly imputes to them. Luther simply could not comprehend that a person who had just been converted, who had just experienced salvation through Christ could have a sense of sins forgiven. Anabaptists believed that Christ’s salvation and the grace that it brought with it enabled the believer to live righteously, not that they themselves were sinless. Luther’s remarks raise the question again regarding what kind of ‘conversion’ the reformers had experienced in their lives when they could not conceive of a church made of ‘committed’ members whose lives had been radically changed by the power of the Gospel. They could only perpetuate this nebulous, indistinct mixture of the ‘wheat’ and ‘tares’. The pursuit of holiness among the flock is simply dangerous, Luther claims. Those who oppose his doctrine, Luther calls a ‘sect of the devil’.

In this writing, Luther picks up on Augustine’s persecution of the Donatists. Luther claims that the ungodly within the church do no harm, that the godly and ungodly are meant to live side by side without really being able to tell who the godly ones are! However, Luther’s statement stands in direct contradiction to what Paul writes to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 5:6, 7, 9-13; 2 Cor. 6:14). In this passage, Paul also clearly writes about those who are ‘outside’ the church and those ‘within’. The ability of the reformers, who trumpeted the phrase, ‘the Scriptures alone’, to ignore and contradict the clear meaning of biblical passages is amazing. Calvin does actually mention the Corinthian church in this context, but the point he makes is that the passage in the Corinthian letter proves that the Church is made up of sinners and saints!15 Calvin ignores the context of the letter, which simply confirms that Paul was dealing with the sins of some of the believers who were part of a church, but a church that was distinct and separate from the world.

The Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession declares: “For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who [have come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other. To us then the command of the Lord is clear when He calls upon us to separate from the evil and thus He will be our God and we shall be His sons and daughters.”

It is obvious that the Anabaptists had a far better understanding of the nature of the church than the reformers. However, to this the Protestant pastors in northern Germany objected and wrote the following:

“When men talk about the marks of the Christian church, the characteristics by which men may find it, so as to be joined to it, then we call the church, that mass of people among which the word of God is purely preached and the sacraments are administered according to the institution of Christ. Where these two marks are in evidence, then we are not to question it, but that God has more certainly, among this unwieldy mass of called ones, his own little group of true believers, let them be few or many… The kingdom of God is like a man who sowed good seed in his field but….”16 (Italics mine)

Here is the religious ‘worldview’ of the reformers. It is significant. The reformers now found a view that enables them to contradict the Scriptures – not by appealing to the word of God, but by an argument outside of it. The mass of people who have in their midst a church building, where the Bible is taught and the sacraments administered, are now all considered as incorporated into ‘the church’, and are part of it. The church encompasses all those in the given locality. Both Calvin and Luther held exactly the same view. This is one of the foundational teachings of the Reformation.

John Calvin takes the same view as Luther and asserts that, “…because oftentimes no difference can be observed between the children of God and the profane, between his proper flock and the untamed herd… But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation.” (Italics mine). Calvin proceeds to assert that, “we are not enjoined here to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate, this belongs not to us, but to God only…”. (Italics mine). Calvin then goes on to agree with Luther and the German pastors quoted above that, “wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence…”.17

In other words, the presence of a state-recognised Church building in a location defines the locality and its citizens as ‘Christian’, and Calvin bizarrely asserts that we cannot know, and it is not our place to know who God’s children are in the church community, and that you cannot generally pick them out anyway, but he admits that “in this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious, avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men…”.18 To validate the existence of such a ‘Church’, Calvin defines this mixture, where the ungodly outnumber the godly, and the latter can scarcely be identified, if at all, as the ‘visible church’. The ‘invisible’ Church is that group of believers from all ages who are known only to God. Thus, the reformers’ doctrine of the Church was constructed to be ‘inclusive’ of all infant-baptised citizens in the community, city or country.

What kind of religion were the reformers in? They show no understanding of scriptural truths regarding the nature of the Church.

If Calvin is saying that the number of true godly believers is very few in the midst of the so-called ‘visible’ Church, one wonders that this did not cause a problem for the reformed ministers in deciding what to preach and teach in churches! If you genuinely believe that the Church is a mixed multitude where the false or ungodly believers predominate, should not the thrust of the preaching be evangelistic? Should your preaching not be adapted and targeted to cater for both? Should you not labour for the conversion of souls? But then you come up against another issue, namely, that the reformers believed that their listeners, having been baptised as infants, were already Christians, or at least on the Christian path. It would seem to me that this kind of outlook and approach would neither build up any true Christians nor convert the sham ones – it just perpetuates the process of Christianisation; it results in dead religion and nominal Christians, however much they may assent to the dogma of the church and to justification by faith.

Justus Menius, was one of Luther’s trusted associates and was ardent in his persecution of Anabaptists. He wrote at length against them, declaring:

“This is an intolerable blasphemy that they reject the public ministry of the word, and teach that one can be saved without the sermon and the ministry of the Church. From this would ensue the destruction of the churches and rebellion against the ecclesiastical order, for which they should be punished just like for any other insurrection.  And it is these two reasons that were brought against the Donatists by the old Emperors in inflicting painful punishments on them…”19 (Italics mine.)

All the leading Reformers sang from the same song sheet, either quoting Augustine’s or the Roman Emperors’ persecution and punishment of the Donatists to justify their actions against the Anabaptists. It is obvious that the Anabaptists did believe in the ministry of the word, but did not believe that the state-sponsored Church had a Gospel that could change peoples’ lives! On the other hand, Menius could not conceive of anyone obtaining salvation through the preaching of a layman in a home or in a field rather than in a state-designated church building.  The impenetrable citadel of ‘Christendom’, which represented their worldview, would not, could not tolerate Anabaptist teaching. Scripture had nothing to do with it, except to be misused and abused by their (the reformers’) interpretations of it.

Calvin expresses the same points, inveighing against the Anabaptists in his Institutes:

“Such of old were the Cathari and the Donatists, who were similarly infatuated. Such in the present day are some of the Anabaptists, who would be thought to have made superior progress… Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they, through hatred of wickedness, withdraw from a genuine church, while they think they are shunning the company of the ungodly… the Anabaptists, who, acknowledging no assembly of Christ unless conspicuous in all respects for angelic perfection, under pretence of zeal… ensnaring the weak… attempt to draw them entirely away, or at least to separate them; swollen with pride… turbulent in sedition.”20 (Italics mine.)

It was wholly unjust of Calvin to completely distort the teaching of the Anabaptists by claiming they sought or required an ‘angelic perfection’ and thus to accuse them of claiming a ‘superior progress’. He is creating false alternatives. This is simply a strategy to easily dismiss what they actually did teach in order to justify his idea of Christendom. The Anabaptists in their writings did not lay claim to angelic perfection but testified to a repentance and faith that brought them into the salvation offered by Christ, which resulted in a different lifestyle to that of the world. This was an offence to the reformers as it contradicted their view of the church consisting of tares and wheat, where it is nigh impossible to tell the difference between them. And if this latter view is not correct, then Christendom falls apart! Like Menius, Calvin accuses the Anabaptists not only of separating themselves and others from the ‘true’ Church, but also of threatening it with division and sedition, and labels them as agents of Satan.21

The reformers repeatedly accused the Anabaptists of blasphemy and sedition, the overthrow of the established order – both of which were punishable by death. In what esteem the State-sponsored Church was held by the reformers is expressed by Calvin in the following words:

“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels. For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the bosom of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for…”22 (Italics mine)

What could be more Roman Catholic than the sentiments above? According to the reformers, the established state-sponsored Reformed Church is the one true Church, and forgiveness and salvation is not to be found outside of this ‘Mother’ Church. One is ‘born’ into it through infant baptism and one is nurtured by it until one dies. There is nothing evangelical in this outlook. Moreover, how do these arguments hold water when the Reformed Church separated itself from the Catholic Church and created its own Communion and Church? Which one is the ‘Mother Church’ now? Were they not castigating the Anabaptists for doing exactly what they had done, and for the same given reason, namely, the claim that they were only being true to scriptural teaching?

Despite the claims that the Church consists of ‘wheat and tares’, Calvin did concede the woeful spiritual condition of the established Church when writing against the Anabaptists. He states:

“Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists. The offence is indeed well founded, and it is one to which in this most unhappy age we give far too much occasion. It is impossible to excuse our accursed sluggishnessWoe then to us who, by our dissolute licence of wickedness, cause weak consciences to be wounded!… This I admit to be a vice, and I have no wish to extenuate it…”23 (Italics mine.)

This assessment is true and will also be illustrated shortly below and later when we look at Calvin’s time in Geneva. However, Calvin inevitably tries to justify the unjustifiable. He holds on to this idea that the ‘mixed multitude’ of largely nominal believers does still represent the ‘Church’ and that one should not separate from it:

“But although the Church fail in her duty, it does not therefore follow that every private individual is to decide the question of separation for himself… it is one thing to shun the society of the wicked, and another to renounce the communion of the Church…”24 (Italics mine.)

Calvin has no biblical understanding of the Church. His understanding is Catholic and darkened by a ‘Christendom’ that he is part of and promotes.

The Protestant Reformers did not recognise, would not acknowledge that the territory over which they ruled together with the secular authorities was divided between two classes of people, namely, Christians and unbelievers, converted and unconverted. This was not their worldview. The reformers took their cue from the Old Testament and the idea of imposing a ‘theocratic’ rule over the whole community or nation. We will now consider this aspect of their teaching in more detail.

A ‘Christian Nation’, Modelling Itself on Israel of the Old Testament

Fundamental to this issue, and closely related to the above, was how the reformers made use of the Old Testament (OT) to build their notion of the Church. As we have seen, the reformers had an OT view of the church – they viewed the church not as a gathering of called-out ones from every kindred tribe and nation, but that the church now takes on a national character, incorporating everyone who finds themselves under the territorial jurisdiction of the state church.

The Anabaptists did not for a moment go along with this, believing that God had done something new and had changed things completely through Jesus Christ. They believed in a New Covenant that was essentially and substantially different to the Old Covenant. On the other hand, the reformers saw in Israel of the OT a model of how the Church should be under the New Covenant. What darkness and blindness must have possessed the hearts and minds of the Protestant Reformers to think like this! They were no different to the Catholics in this – and in many other matters also.

Zwingli in arguing against the Anabaptists wrote:

“It is apparent to all who believe that the Christian Covenant of the New Testament is the Old Covenant of Abraham, save only for the fact that Christ, who was only promised to them, has been made manifest to us… The intention of this is that the heathen ‘people’ (German: Volk) should after the rejection of the Jews come in their place as the ‘people of God.’”25 (Italics mine)

As the Jews had been a nation of God’s people, now the Gentiles were to be a nation of God’s people. The Church is not a congregation of called-out ones from among the Jews and Gentiles and distinct from them, but the Church has taken on a national dimension; this whole mixed multitude in a given area now represents a nation of God’s people. We should also note that Zwingli makes no difference in substance between the Old and New Covenants. This doctrine is assiduously maintained up to this day in Reformed theology.

The leading reformer, Melanchthon, is in full agreement with this worldview when writing against the Anabaptists:

“Now let every devout man consider what disruption would ensue if there should develop among us two categories, the baptized and the unbaptized! If baptism were to be discontinued for the greater part, then an openly heathen mode of existence would come about – a thing for which the devil would like very much to have the way opened.”26

This is an utterly extraordinary statement, and it expresses in clear terms what I have been pointing out in this study. He believed that the baptised community is already a Christian community. Did he not realise that the ‘ex-Catholics’ who were now under his teaching and care were largely themselves not very different to heathens; that they were, by and large, unconverted people, just nominal Christians? Also important to note here is the assumption that infant baptism by itself makes people Christians.

These comments clearly and beyond any shadow of a doubt reveal that the reformers viewed their infant-baptised communities en masse as Christian believers, without any need of any conversion experience. Moreover, the vast majority of the people they were now teaching in their churches had been baptised as infants within the Catholic Church! To suggest that there should be a later experience (i.e. after infant baptism) that would lead a person to want to be baptised ‘again’ is, according to Melanchthon, only something the devil would advocate! The Reformed outlook was a horror house of heresies. According to his words, Melanchthon could not remotely conceive of how people who were not baptised as infants could then claim to have become Christians later, as a result of a personal conversion!

It seems that Melanchthon has no idea what it means to preach the Gospel to people, to evangelise the unconverted. For him, apparently, to do away with infant baptism would simply leave society with a vast number of heathen people, without him knowing what to do with them. Apart from baptism, he shows no indication of knowing how to bring people to Christ through the preaching of the Gospel. In contrast, we have seen that the Anabaptists knew what to do, and did it with great success and effectiveness.

The outcome of the reformers’ approach was that it could only perpetuate a nominal Christianity, where many of the citizens were just as much in their sins as before. Moreover, ‘justification by faith’, which was now preached to them, only helped to serve as an antidote to any doubts they might have that their wrong conduct stood in the way of them being Christians, and where it was, the reformed preachers would harangue them with the Law in an attempt to subdue their manifest sins. We will look at this aspect of things later on.

Martin Luther’s Exposition of Psalm 82

I have already reviewed Luther’s exposition of Psalm 82 when referring to his exhortations to the authorities to persecute heretics, but it also contains material relevant to this topic. In his interpretation of Psalm 82, Luther provides his rationale for the perpetuation of the concept of ‘Christendom’ and the religious intolerance that belongs to it. He affirms not only the right, but also the duty of those who wield secular power to maintain the purity of religious doctrine in its domains. I include it here for those who may wish to follow Luther’s reasoning on this subject in more detail. (As before, the translations below from the German of Luther’s comments on Psalm 82 are my own.)

Luther’s exposition consists entirely of seeking to demonstrate two points. First, that those in secular ‘authority’ (German: Obrigkeit.) have been placed there by God and that they equate to the ‘gods’ (whether they be Princes, Noblemen or Knights) mentioned in the Psalm. Secondly, to highlight the responsibilities of the divinely appointed secular authorities, which he summarises under three principal ‘virtues’ (Tugunden)..

Luther states that there are two authorities, the spiritual and the secular, and uses this Psalm to emphasise the point that the worldly authority of the secular powers has a divine origin: “…that the worldly authority is of divine arrangement that everyone should obey and honour.”

This may seem fair enough in the light of Romans 13:1-4. However, like Calvin in his Institutes, Luther goes much further than this, much further than the apostle Paul. He applies the term ‘gods’ in Psalm 82 to the secular authorities, to the German Princes and Noblemen / Lords (Fürsten und Herren), and that it is God that reigns and judges over and through them. In talking about the Emperor’s or Prince’s duty of protecting society from evil and violence, he says of the secular Rulers that “they have golden crowns in order that they should recognise that they have been made gods by God, and that they have not come to this status of themselves, and so should be His helpers.”

So, like Calvin, he claims that since the secular power is ‘from’ God, they are therefore to be subject to God’s rule of righteousness and to the instruction of the Church, and to administer righteousness through supporting the ministry of the Church and promoting the word of God. Among the three ‘virtues’ that secular rulers should possess, the first he mentions and emphasises is the responsibility to promote and to protect the ministry of the word of God and to look after the pastors. In his introduction (Vorrede) to Psalm 82, he freely criticises the Princes and noblemen for not heeding their responsibilities and exhorts them to a proper use of their power, but he also castigates the immoral and self-indulgent clerics.

Luther exhorts rulers that they should keep the first three verses of Psalm 82 with them at all times to remind them of their responsibilities under God: “Because in these (three verses) is found how the high princely and noble virtue can find its place, so that truly the worldly authority – after the ministry of the Word – is the highest form of Godly service and the most useful ministry on earth.” (Italics mine.)

Writing of the greatest virtues that a ruler can exercise, Luther says, “what greater treasure can be in the land than when God’s word is protected and administered…and false teachings are given no room. That is the place where God indeed must be dwelling as in His own temple.” (Italics mine.)

He continues by claiming that a pious Prince or noble can “partake (of this virtue), by feeding or protecting the pastor. Indeed, this whole work and all its fruit are in essence his (the Prince’s), because the pastor could not remain / survive without his protection and provision. (“…weil der Pfarrherr ohne seinen Schutz und seine Kost nicht bleiben kann.”)

This is not the teaching of Romans 13! This is not what the apostle Paul was saying. By his teaching, Luther continues to prop up the system that had begun more than 1000 years earlier. The State and Church working as one, where the State supports the Church and is informed by the Church concerning what teachings and religious practices are to be allowed in the land. Did Paul have this in mind? Did Jesus have this in mind, namely, that the secular government should protect God’s Church and provide for it financially? Did Jesus teach that the church and its ministry could not continue and survive without the protection of the State?

The history of the Church of Jesus Christ is one of not only surviving but, at times, thriving under the persecution from the State. Luther and Calvin, blind to obvious truths of the Scripture, chose to place themselves among the many down the centuries that used the notion of Christendom to persecute Christian believers and any who dared to hold different views to the reigning State Church.

Luther sees the secular power as divinely appointed, not just as security against criminal activity (Romans 13:1-6), but as a divinely appointed agent to promote and secure the ministry of the word of God in the land! In Romans 13, the apostle Paul did not make the false quantum leap in logic that the reformers made. The latter started with the idea that the civil powers are ‘of God’ and ‘ordained of God’ (be it from Psalm 82 or Romans 13), but then took up these words to incorporate the State power as a divine agent in promoting and safeguarding religion in the land. The worldview of Christendom was as a citadel in the minds of the reformers that did not let the light of the Gospel shine into their hearts. It imprisoned them in its darkness. It also physically imprisoned any Christian believer who had views that significantly differed from those of the State Religion!

Luther goes on to berate the secular authority for failing in their exercise of the first ‘virtue’. In what way are they failing? Luther explains that the Princes and Lords “instead of promoting the word of God as they should, they are promoting the false harmful teachers, which is what we read regarding the Kings of Israel and Judah. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel nourished the eight hundred prophets of Baal and banished instead the prophets of God…”

What is Luther’s complaint against the princes? It is that they are failing in their duty to eradicate out of the land false teachers just as Ahab and Jezebel had allowed and promoted false prophets to thrive in Israel. We notice again how the reformers carried on the delusion that the nation in which there is a recognised State Church with pious Rulers now represents not only a Christian nation, but that the nation (das Volk) itself represents the people of God (das Volk Gottes), just as the nation of Israel did.

Luther vigorously stresses the prohibition that no one should preach or hold meetings who has not been officially commissioned and sent by the Church, and he makes it clear that the Anabaptists have no such commission. He then proceeds in his exposition to inveigh against them for ‘sneaking’ around and ‘creeping’ into people’s houses secretly without being ‘sent’. This leads him on to make these extraordinary observations about preaching and teaching from house to house.

“True it is that the apostles at first went to people’s homes and preached, for they had the commission and were ordained, called and sent to that work, that they should preach in every place, as Christ had told them… (Mark 16:15). But thereafter no one has such a common apostolic commission any longer. Instead, every Bishop and pastor has his diocese or parish, which Saint Peter also in 1 Peter 5:3 calls ‘kleros’ (kleros is the Greek for heritage, lot, part), that is, ‘Part’ / ‘Lot’, because to each one (bishops and pastors) is assigned his ‘part’ of the people, as Saint Paul writes (1 Tim. 1:5), so that no one else or a stranger can undermine him [i.e. the bishop or pastor] without his knowledge or teach his parish children, whether secretly or openly. And no one should in any wise listen to such a one but inform and notify his pastor or the authority.”27

This again is remarkable. Yes, says Luther, in the apostolic times of the New Testament, the apostles were commissioned to preach from house to house, but now dioceses and parishes have been established – as witnessed in the NT, Luther claims – and it is the bishops and pastors who now preach and teach their flocks from the pulpit. There is now no need and no commission to preach from house to house – the flock is safeguarded against false teaching by the oversight and supervision of the only delegated authority, which is represented by the bishops and pastors of the State Church, and so no ‘stranger’ should be allowed to enter in to preach or teach. This underscores what I have been saying in the course of this study. The reformers regarded their dioceses and everyone in them as a Christian community, as the ‘flock’ and therefore not needing any kind of further evangelism; there is no need to go from door to door or house to house, preaching the Gospel, let alone to preach in a market place or field. The bishops and pastors work from their pulpits to instruct the people in the ways of righteousness, rebuking those that err.



  1. Martin Luther up to 1522 and Changes in Wittenberg
  2. The Emergence of Iconoclasm
  3. The Condition of Lutheran Churches

In this chapter we will consider how the Reformation started to develop in Wittenberg under Luther, and the iconoclasm that attended the spread of the Reformation. Lastly we will look at accounts that give a flavour of the moral and spiritual condition of Reformed churches.

It is interesting and revealing to see how Martin Luther handled the progress of the German Reformation in its birthplace of Wittenberg, and that’s what we shall look at shortly. However, let us first catch up on some of the important details regarding Martin Luther’s life up to the period of 1522.

Martin Luther up to 1522

A significant event occurred while he was studying law at Erfurt University. One night in 1505 he was caught up in a terrible storm while returning to university from a visit home. During the thunderstorm a bolt of lightning struck near him and fearing for his life he made an impulsive vow to St. Anne to become a monk if his life were spared. To the great displeasure and upset of his father, who was in the mining business, this is exactly what he did. (According to Catholic tradition St. Anne was the mother of Mary and, among other things, patron saint of miners.) So, at the age of 21, Luther joined himself to a strict Order of Augustinian monks in Erfurt. However, this turned out to be a most miserable time for him. He ardently pursued all the religious duties of a monk with great zeal, exhausting himself with praying, fasting, doing vigils and performing penance. However, the more he tried to improve himself, the greater his sense of failure and self-condemnation. All this led to a distorted view of God as being unjustifiably strict and angry with him – and also leaving him angry with God. His accounts of this time help us understand why the truth of ‘justification by faith’ was such a tremendous mental and emotional release for him. When this turning point took place historians cannot pinpoint with accuracy, but in an account of it that he gave in 1545, he says that when reading Romans 1:17, the revelation of the truth of this verse dawned upon him: “At this I felt myself born afresh and to have entered through the open gates into paradise itself.” This has become known as his tower experience (Turmerlebnis). However, nothing was written by him about this experience at the time. Historians variously identify this experience as happening as early as 1512 or some time after 1517.

Not long after joining the Augustinian Order, Luther was ordained a priest and eventually studied theology, obtaining a Doctorate in that subject. In 1511 he was sent by his Order to teach at the university at Wittenberg. I had already mentioned that it was in October 1517 that Luther published his 95 Articles (Theses). This was in protest at the new campaign for the sale of indulgences among the people. One of the things that had angered Luther was the commercial peddling of them by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, who had been appointed as Grand Commissioner for indulgences by Albrecht, the archbishop of Mainz. The purchase of indulgences granted a reduction in time in purgatory through the bestowal of the forgiveness of sins. The teaching regarding indulgences was therefore directly linked with the notion of purgatory, which represented temporal punishment for sins that had not or could not be remitted on earth, and which Luther at this time still believed in. It was Tetzel who was supposed to have attracted people into buying indulgences with his little jingle, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” This commercial use of indulgences not only angered Luther but also caused concern among the princes and nobles in Germany because they saw that money was being drained out of their territories and going into Italian coffers in Rome. Religion, politics and money were all mixed up together, and it is in this context that we should understand the support that Luther subsequently received from the princes and nobles.

Regarding the publication of Luther’s Articles, there is no evidence that he posted these articles on the castle church door in Wittenberg. Nor can it be maintained that he saw the publication of these Articles as the start of a new reform movement outside the Catholic Church. It seems he was simply using the normal channel of invoking a theological ‘disputation’ regarding what he considered to be the misuse and misinterpretation of indulgences. As a good priest of the Church he was hoping that a formal discussion of his articles would make people see good sense and rectify the abuses. It was an attempt to change an understanding of these things within the Church, not an attempt to bring down the Church. Indeed, the Articles did not particularly say things that had not been said by others before nor was the document wildly radical. There was no evangelical content to it. Luther acknowledged the right of the pope to issue indulgences, but his criticisms of them in effect denied their validity in general. However, in the Articles it is clear that he still very much believes in purgatory. Three of them state the following:

“17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.

  1. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
  2. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.”

Regarding the legitimacy of papal indulgences, which he also upheld, Luther wrote:

“38. Nevertheless, papal remission and blessing are by no means to be disregarded, for they are, as I have said (Thesis 6), the proclamation of the divine remission.

  1. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of papal indulgences with all reverence.
  2. Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.”

His articles also validated the Catholic teaching regarding confession to the priest and penance:

“3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

  1. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.

40.A Christian who is truly contrite seeks and loves to pay penalties for his sins; the bounty of indulgences, however, relaxes penalties and causes men to hate them — at least it furnishes occasion for hating them.”

This hardly represents a radical evangelical agenda! Of course, there is nothing evangelical in it at all, and the criticisms of the abuse of indulgences would be the common sense perception of any thinking person. Luther did not challenge the pope’s right to issue indulgences nor did he challenge the pope’s authority as such. Luther still believed in purgatory and continued to believe in it at least until 1930. And this represents a point in time by which Luther’s influence had waned considerably in Germany. How is it that his understanding of justification by faith could live side by side with his belief in purgatory, since purgatory represents the place of punishment for sins committed that have not yet been remitted? This leaves any true understanding of ‘justification by faith’ dead in the water! There is intellectual enlightenment regarding statements written on a page in ink, and then there is spiritual revelation. The former remains in the realm of the intellect and is subject to change; the latter inexplicably changes our understanding deep within and even our whole outlook in that sphere of revelation. Whether ‘justification by faith’ was no more than a mental concept for Luther is the question that arises from these statements of his.

Confession to the priest and the penance that should follow it are also upheld by Luther in his Theses. Even later, in his book, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, written in October 1520, he upheld this notion, designating penance as a sacrament along with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He wrote:

“As to the current practice of private confession, I am heartily in favour of it, even though it cannot be proved from the Scriptures. It is useful, even necessary, and I would not have it abolished. Indeed, I rejoice that it exists in the church of Christ, for it is a cure without equal for distressed consciences… I must deny that there are seven sacraments, and for the present maintain that there are but three: baptism, penance, and the bread (Italics mine)

How was Luther going to bring evangelical reform to the world with beliefs like this? He fervently claims that confession to the priest by believers was a means of curing their distressed consciences. What about justification by faith? What about a Gospel of repentance and salvation that brings us into a personal relationship with the Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom we are exhorted by Scripture to come as the only mediator between us and God, and through whom we can receive an assurance of sins forgiven and that makes obligatory confession to the priest redundant?

Nevertheless, the 95 Articles were to be the catalyst for the Reformation in Germany. How did this come about? Well, Luther sent this disputation document to the significant and powerful figure of the Archbishop of Mainz, Abrecht by name, who was also an ecclesiastical Elector. Luther was hoping for a proper theological debate about the issue. However, Albrecht stood firmly behind this new drive for the sale of indulgences, since he had accrued a sizeable debt in the process of acquiring his various ecclesiastical titles, and he was hoping to make a profit through this new campaign in order to reduce his own debts. There was no way he wanted this campaign to be undermined by a theological debate and decided to send the document to the Pope. The Pope had a lot of things on his plate at that time and initially was not over-concerned about a theological squabble that was going on in Germany.

However, the 95 Articles were soon published and circulated far and wide, causing a great stir among people of all ranks, since it struck a chord with them regarding the misuse of indulgences. This, of course, drew a concerted response from the Catholic ranks, but the focal point was changed. The question of indulgences was side-lined, since it was a thorny issue that would touch on delicate matters, and the debate focussed instead on the authority of the Pope. In May 1518 Luther had a summons to appear before the Pope in Rome, since he was now being changed with heretical behaviour for challenging the Pope’s authority. It was a precarious situation for Luther. But Frederick of Saxony stepped in and obtained a deferral – Luther would appear at the Diet of Augsburg in October instead and face questions from the notable Cardinal Cajetan, who was the Pope’s representative for this case. Cajetan showed no interest in debating indulgences and instead called on Luther to recant and to recognise the Pope’s authority. Of course, Luther would do nothing of the sort. In the ensuing heated debate, Luther retorted, “His Holiness abuses Scripture… I deny that he is above Scripture.” [Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950), Chapter V, p. 96] With these words he handed his opponents the victory they had sought. He had challenged the authority of the Pope. Luther made a quick escape at night before anything else could happen to him, and remained safe within the borders of Electoral Saxony. Without the protection and assurances of safety from Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, Lutheranism would have been snuffed out at its inception. The Pope simply could not antagonize such a significant and powerful a figure, who was giving his protection to Luther. In fact, it was at this stage that the Pope conferred the honour of the Golden Rose on the Elector of Saxony in an attempt to win him over to Catholic causes – against the threat from the Turks and the threat from Luther. The tactic did not work.

In November 1518, Luther then formally appealed to the Pope (Leo X) for the matter to be discussed at a General Council of the Church. This was never going to materialise, but his appeal clearly indicated that at this stage Luther was still seeking to amend things within the Catholic Church. In July of 1519 Luther went to a public disputation held at Leipzig university to engage in debate with the brilliant theologian, Johann Eck. Eck’s triumph was that he pushed Luther into making statements that totally did undermine the authority of the Catholic Church. In the heat of the debate Luther, in part, defended John Huss and his teachings as being Christian and evangelical. Luther said this of a man that the Council of Constance had condemned and the Catholic Church had burnt at the stake for heresy! Luther had now called both wrong and thereby denied the infallibility of both the Catholic Council and the Pope. Luther’s opponents seized on his comments. There was no going back now. In Catholic eyes, Luther was clearly an outrageous heretic, and Luther found himself in a situation that he had not deliberately sought, namely, of becoming the head of movement against the Catholic Church. He had wanted to serve the Church faithfully but had been rejected and cast as an enemy – and an enemy of the Church he became.

In June 1520, a papal Bull was issued against Luther, condemning a number of his propositions (41 of them, as well as his 95 Articles) and giving him sixty days to recant or else be excommunicated. But by then Luther’s attitude had progressed considerably, so in December of the same year, Luther’s response was to burn the Pope’s Edict along with some of Eck’s works and books of canon law at the gates of Wittenberg!

Luther now started to develop his thinking and wrote prolifically on a number of subjects. In the second half of 1520 he wrote three books, the first was being the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. This was the most popular of the three, as it addressed the common complaints of people against the Church. In it he seeks to influence those who hold secular power in the nation not to allow themselves to be brow-beaten by the Catholic Church, claiming the Church should have no power over emperors but rather be subject to the secular powers as indicated by Romans 13. He urges the princes and nobles of Germany to take matters into their own hands in dealing with the corrupt practices and false teachings of the Church. He complains that the Church has created three impenetrable ‘walls’ to safeguard its infallibility and position of power and exhorts the princely nobles to overthrow these walls. He even exhorts them to abolish the tax that is levied for the Church in Rome. And he could hardly cast the papacy in a more evil light, stating:

“All these excessive, over-presumptuous, and most wicked claims of the Pope are the invention of the devil, with the object of bringing in antichrist in due course and of raising the Pope above God, as indeed many have done and are now doing. It is not meet that the Pope should exalt himself above temporal authority, except in spiritual matters…”.

Although this book may do very well in exposing the abuses and false practices of the Catholic Church, there is nothing especially evangelical about this work. He is calling on the secular power to bring change to the Catholic Church as those who have been ordained by God to do so. Luther’s thinking was completely enslaved to the notion of Christendom. I refer to this aspect of Luther’s teaching elsewhere in the study and particularly when reviewing his exposition of Psalm 82 in the Appendix to Chapter four

The second book was entitled, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In it he attacks the Roman Catholic teaching of seven sacraments and states his belief that there are only three – as well as baptism and the Eucharist, he includes the Catholic notion of penance as the third. He also vigorously upholds his teaching on baptism, declaring that through infant baptism the child is born again and that the promise of God’s salvation is conferred on the child through baptism, making the infant a Christian and a member of the Church.

“When the minister immerses the child in the water it signifies death, and when he draws it forth again it signifies life…. This death and resurrection we call the new creation, regeneration, and spiritual birth.”

Luther castigates the Roman Church for devaluing infant baptism. Luther maintains that infant baptism too represents a form of penance, and that this has been lost sight of. He asserts that when the believer falls into sin, one significant source of comfort (of sins forgiven) is to remember one’s infant baptism and to have faith in it as a source of God’s promise of forgiveness and salvation. Luther regarded a person’s infant baptism as a great source of comfort and assurance in times of personal failure, and exhorted people to always look back to it and to put their faith in it.

“What is the good, then, of writing so much about baptism and yet not teaching this faith in the promise?… Yet these godless men pass over it so completely as even to assert that a man dare not be certain of the forgiveness of sins or the grace of the sacraments. With such wicked teaching they delude the world, and not only take captive, but altogether destroy, the sacrament of baptism.”

What is utterly lacking here is a present faith in a present Saviour, who gives those that come to Him an inner assurance of sins forgiven. Luther’s treatment of baptism represents a superstitious belief in a past ritual. Its value for the forgiveness of sins he claims is negated by Catholic inventions that grant forgiveness of sins by other means (such as indulgences):

“But Satan, though he could not quench the power of baptism in little children, nevertheless succeeded in quenching it in all adults, so that now there are scarcely any who call to mind their own baptism, and still fewer who glory in it; so many other ways have been discovered for remitting sins and getting to heaven.” (Italics mine)

Luther regards infant baptism as God’s work of salvation in a child that even Satan cannot undo, and is angry that adults are not directed to look back to it as a source of assurance of sins forgiven. This is a far cry from ‘justification by faith’, from the teaching of Scripture and from what we call ‘evangelical’.

Luther’s third work, addressed to the Pope himself, is called, The Freedom of the Christian. In this he addresses the issue of ‘good works’ and ‘justification by faith’. Taken in isolation, any number of his statements seem commendable, but in the context of the flow of his argument it ends up being his version of ‘justification by faith’, which denies the truth that God makes the believer righteous (Eph. 4:24, 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 3:7,9), and that believers bear the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ living in us (Philippians 1:11, 21). One problem with Luther’s exposition on this subject is that he is not as direct and clear as he could be regarding what he actually means. This is a difficulty that can leave some of his teachings ambiguous, with some writers claiming he meant one thing and others that he meant something else, or even the opposite. Here is one statement that is clearer from the book:

“They are rather to be taught that they have been so imprisoned in ceremonies, not that they should be made righteous or gain great merit by them, but that they might thus be kept from doing evil and might more easily be instructed to the righteousness of faith.”

Luther’s dismissiveness of God’s provision in salvation for believers to live righteously by the empowering of the Spirit of Christ within is the great fault of his work and teaching – and of the Reformation as a whole. (See my Introduction for more on this.) All the reformers urged ‘good works’ as an expression of our thankfulness and love to God for His great mercy towards us, but taught that none of our works as Christians are actually acceptable to God since they always corrupted by sin and fall short of what God could accept.

A clear sign that Luther was keen, if not desperate, to totally distance believers from God’s own righteousness – from being made actually righteous by a spiritual rebirth – is demonstrated by his deliberate mistranslation, not to say corruption, of several verses in the New Testament, four of which are in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans 1:17 declares that the ‘righteousness of God’ is revealed through the Gospel of Christ. Luther simply could not bring himself to translate the Greek text correctly. His deeply-ingrained, false fear of God’s own righteousness as something that could only condemn us, which was due to his experience as a monk,  compelled him to change the words ‘righteousness of God’ to ‘the righteousness that is valid before God’ (German: ‘die Gerechtigkeit, die vor Gott gilt’, which is incorrect, instead of ‘die Gerechtigkeit Gottes). Without any textual justification, he makes the same change to the Greek text in the following verses: Romans 3:21; 10:3; 2 Cor. 5:21. With these changes in the text he created a new theology of his own – his own version of ‘justification by faith’, as though what he was teaching was a return to Biblical truth. It was not. It was the creation of another gospel.

As quoted in my Introduction, John Piper reflects the reformed tradition by emphasising that the Gospel does not consist of what God does in us by regenerating us, but what He does for us, outside of us – a forensic, legal act that changes our standing before God; it consists in justification by faith, in an imputed righteousness. This is the Reformed gospel. Justification by faith is the clear and wonderful teaching of the Scriptures, but it should not be hijacked in order to deny what God does in the believer through regeneration.

Luther endeavours to eradicate any notion of what is called imparted righteousness as belonging to our salvation in Christ, and relegating and limiting all the verses above and other verses to refer only to imputed righteousness. In his introduction to Galatians, Luther states than we can no more bring forth a heavenly righteousness than the earth can become fruitful of itself without rain from heaven.

“… even so much are we men able to do by our strength and works in winning this heavenly and eternal righteousness; and therefore we shall never be able to attain unto it, unless God himself by mere imputation and by his unspeakable gift do bestow it upon us.”L

The only righteousness we can possibly partake of is an imputed one. Luther is not saying that we can live righteously only by the aid of God’s Spirit; he is saying such active righteousness can never be attained in any degree by a believer, and that here on earth only a passive righteousness (imputation) can be our portion and salvation. In his commentary of Galatians and other works Luther claims that no believer is able to fulfil even one commandment of God acceptably, since it is polluted by inward sin. Since we continually sin and even our best ‘works’ are all our contaminated by sin, the only thing that remains is an ‘imputed’ righteousness. This is Luther’s teaching on ‘justification by faith’.

He endeavours to eliminate the idea that God can make us righteous. He was both horrified and terrified at the idea that God could actually require of us or could do something spiritually in us that would produce and exemplify His righteousness in our lives; he denied that God by His Spirit could work in us an ‘active’ righteousness that was acceptable to God. Had he not spent years tormenting and punishing himself as a monk to improve himself and to make him acceptable to God? Had it not been a terrible failure of condemnation? He did not want to go back there! For him, if God’s righteousness were revealed through the Gospel (Romans 1:16,17) it could only herald an awful judgement on all of us – since we are so far from it, and even as believers could never attain to such a thing but be crushed under the burden of it. That the Gospel represents the power of God unto salvation to make us righteous and partakers of God’s holiness or of His divine nature here on earth (Hebrews 12:10; 2 Peter 1:4) is something opposed vigorously in all his works. He could not bear the thought of such an ‘obligation’ being put on us. (Not that it is an ‘obligation’ in that sense, but the fruit of Christ’s Spirit within us.) Therefore he changes the meaning of the verses mentioned above claiming the only righteousness that we can take part in is an imputed righteousness – representing our ‘legal’ standing before God.

Luther’s teaching on imputed righteousness seems to derive from the distorted image he had about God and God’s anger towards him, and from the terrible condemnation he suffered as an Augustinian monk. His utter failure was understandable given that he did not know the Gospel of God’s grace. However, this crushing failure and his mistaken understanding of the anger of God blinded him to what God has done through the Gospel and to the change that God does create in the believer in empowering him or her to live righteously. However, the only solace for him, given his background, was a gospel that consists solely of an imputed righteousness, so that the inevitable failure and sin of our Christian lives could be made acceptable to God through what has been called by reformers, an ‘alien’ righteousness, an imputed righteousness. Luther’s teaching is not scripture led – it is an extreme and exaggerated reaction to his extreme and severe experience as a monk. He needed to be free from a sense of obligation to actual righteousness – as he saw it – lest the rigours, turmoil and anguish of his past monastic life should only be repeated in a different context. In creating his own version of the Gospel, the question arises whether he ever knew or experienced the true Gospel.

Let us return to the three books of Luther referred to above, written in 1520, and to our story. There is no clear or great leap forward into evangelical truth represented in these writings, but his attack on Catholic teachings and his denial of the Pope’s infallibility led to his excommunication on 3 January 1521. However, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V agreed to give Luther a hearing at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. This was as a result of advice from Frederick, Elector of Saxony, and against protests from Rome. Luther was guaranteed safe conduct, but that did not mean much when given to Huss to attend the Council of Constance – he was burnt at the stake for refusing to recant!  At the Diet, there was no theological debate, which was what Luther was hoping for. Instead, he was presented with his books and asked to confirm that they were his writings. When he answered in the affirmative, he was simply asked if he would recant, upon which he asked for a day’s grace to consider his answer. The next day Luther gave a very reasoned answer why he could not recant, finishing with the words attributed to him by an editor of his works, ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ Although Luther was then allowed safe conduct to leave, Frederick the Wise thought it wise to have Luther secretly ‘abducted’ (by his own soldiers) during his journey back home to shield him from any Catholic surprise attacks! Frederick had him whisked to the castle of Wartburg above Eisenach for his own safe keeping, and that’s where he stayed for the rest of the year, out of sight. However, he busied himself with a massive amount of writing, which included the translation of the New Testament into German. Those left at Worms deliberated until May regarding a verdict. In the end, Charles V issued the Edict of Worms, condemning Luther as a heretic and banning his writing and stipulating that Luther was to be captured and handed over to the Emperor. However, due to the support from Frederick the Wise, this was never going to be enforced.

In all his endeavours to reform religion up to now, we note that Luther made his appeal firstly to the ecclesiastical class, and when that failed, to the princely class. In both cases it was an attempt to change religion ‘from the top down’ – it could in no way be characterised as an evangelical proclamation of the Gospel to citizens in the towns, resulting in many souls turning to Christ. It did not arise from a spontaneous abandoning of Roman Catholicism from among the population because of conversions that were taking place – as happened through the preaching of the Anabaptists. Although Luther gained considerable support from ordinary citizens because of his attacks against the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, this simply represented the harnessing of anti-Catholic sentiment that already existed among the population. The many that became followers of Luther among the population became such not because of the positive preaching of the Gospel leading to their conversion. As I show in this study, the many thousands who were converted through the preaching of the Anabaptists, generally had no difficulty in immediately abandoning Roman Catholicism and also quickly demonstrated changed lives. Neither the former nor the latter was true of the populations under the care of the reformers. They spent years trying to ‘re-educate’ their erstwhile Catholic congregations away from and out of Catholicism and into some semblance of Christian conduct.

Changes in Wittenberg

During the period of about four years from 1517 to the spring of 1521, Luther had been writing and teaching in Wittenberg, but after the Diet of Worms, he had to be kept hidden in Wartburg Castle, where he continued writing. So what changes had the Reformation under Luther brought about in Wittenberg during these 4 years? Philip Schaff writes the following:

“The Reformation during its first five years was a battle of words, not of deeds. It scattered the seeds of new institutions all over Germany, but the old forms and usages still remained…. The Protestant soul dwelt in the Catholic body. So the Protestants remained in external communion with the mother Church, attending Latin mass, bowing before the transubstantiated elements on the altar, praying the Ave Maria, worshiping saints, pictures, and crucifixes, making pilgrimages to holy shrines… etc. The outside looked just as before, while the inside had undergone a radical change. This was the case even in Saxony and at Wittenberg, the nursery of the new state of things. Luther himself did not at first contemplate any outward change. He laboured and hoped for a reformation of faith and doctrine within the Catholic Church under the lead of the bishops, without a division, but he was now cast out by the highest authorities, and came gradually to see that he must build a new structure on the new foundation which he had laid by his writings and by the translation of the New Testament.”1 (Italics mine)

In other words, according to Schaff, outwardly there was little, if any real change in Wittenberg to the Catholic traditions and practices which Luther had preached against. Luther had urged changes to these, and although people seemed to embrace them on one level, apparently there was no radical change implemented, and outwardly things carried on much as before in the congregations. This seems to be a strange anomaly if it is claimed that Luther brought the life-changing Gospel to Wittenberg. Whatever the case was, there certainly was a total absence of any evangelistic activity or preaching in all this. It was nowhere to be seen. Not now, not later on. People’s lives were not being changed through the Gospel. I would have to disagree with the comments above where Schaff claims that ‘the Protestant soul dwelt in the Catholic body’ and that the ‘inside had undergone a radical change’. If there is a radical change on the inside of the person, then that will manifest itself on the outside, as it did with the Anabaptists – and with them outward change immediately followed upon an inward transformation. As we shall see, for the Reformed churches it was a slow, arduous process of change, where even the nature of the change was questionable.

The Beginning of Iconoclasm

This brings us to the element of violence and iconoclasm that accompanied Reformation teaching. Philip Schaff writes:

“The first disturbances broke out at Erfurt in June, 1521, shortly after Luther’s triumphant passage through the town on his way to Worms. Two young priests were excommunicated for taking part in the enthusiastic demonstrations. This created the greatest indignation. Twelve hundred students, workmen, and ruffians attacked and demolished in a few days sixty houses of the priests, who escaped violence only by flight. Similar scenes of violence were repeated during the summer.”2

As the initial, if not main thrust of Reformed teaching was against Catholic rituals and superstitions – rather than an emphasis on a life-changing Gospel message – it often resulted in anti-Catholic campaigns and violence against the symbols of Catholic idolatry. It simply stirred up the latent anti-Catholic feeling in communities. Here we have a huge number of Luther-supporters reacting violently to the ex-communication of two priests, who had shown support for Luther. To go about demolishing the houses of Catholic priests is not a witness to spiritual awakening, but rather of religious fanaticism. But this was the result of four years of Lutheran teaching in Wittenberg and it was characteristic of the Reformation as a whole.

However, after the Diet of Worms Luther was ensconced some distance away in Wartburg Castle and absent from Wittenberg. This left something of a power vacuum, since neither Frederick the Wise, nor the town council nor the university theologians felt they could step in as torch-bearers of the new movement to carry it forward. And according to Schaff, nothing much had changed outwardly in reforming Catholic traditions among the people. However, Luther’s close associate Andreas Karlstadt stepped into the gap and took it upon himself to set the wheels in motion of bringing about those changes in the churches which Luther himself had advocated.

Again to quote Schaff; he states:

“Carlstadt preached and wrote against celibacy, monastic vows, and the mass. At Christmas, 1521, he omitted in the service the most objectionable parts of the Canon of the mass, and the elevation of the host, and distributed both wine and bread to a large congregation. He also denounced pictures and images as dumb idols. He induced the town council to remove them from the parish church; but the populace anticipated the orderly removal, tore them down, hewed them to pieces, and burnt them. He encouraged theology students to give up their studies and work on the land.”3 (Italics mine)

What Schaff writes about Wittenberg is the kind of thing that would happen in many cities and towns as a result of Reformed preaching. As has been pointed out, resentment against the opulence, exploitation and immoral living of the Catholic Church and its clerics was already simmering under the surface, and the reformed preachers gave seemingly legitimate ground for this resentment to express itself in violent backlashes against Catholic churches.

In response to Karlstadt’s preaching, monks began to leave monasteries by the hundreds. Priests and monks were starting to marry. It is important to note that Luther had already promoted these changes and preached against Catholic practices, and so many believed that Karlstadt’s teaching was a continuation of the reform started by Luther. It is also revealing that although Luther had taught these things himself, he had allowed these Catholic practices to continue in churches up to the middle of 1521. But all this resulted in confusion and pandemonium, as some people were exultant that at last changes were being implemented, others hesitant and confused at the rate and nature of the changes, and others extremely upset. Rather than the ‘Protestant soul’ emerging with joy out of the ‘Catholic body’, there were zealots for change, the Catholic faithful who were upset and in the middle the confused.

In January 1522, as a result of the mounting pressure to respond to the demands for reform by those zealous for it, the council and the University of Wittenberg changed the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to comply with Karlstadt’s directions. It was a confused state of affairs. Without Luther there, neither the town authorities nor even the Prince Elector felt they could intervene against these rapid changes being brought in by Karlstadt, lest they be regarded as opposing the Protestant Reformation. So Karlstadt gained influence over both the university and the town.  The religious situation in Wittenberg was in tumult and near anarchy reigned.

The church historian D’Aubigne writes,

“To judge by the language of these enthusiasts, there were no true Christians in Wittenberg save those who went not to confession, who attacked the priests, and who ate meat on fast days. If anyone was suspected of not rejecting all the rites of the Church as an invention of the devil, he was set down as a worshipper of Baal… The citizens of Wittenberg laid before the council certain articles which it was forced to accept. Many of the articles were conformable to evangelical morals. They required more particularly that all houses of public amusement should be closed.”4 (Italics mine)

Significantly, we notice here how, according to D’Aubigne, ‘converts’ to the new religion of the Reformation liked to identify themselves, namely, by their zealous rejection of Catholic traditions – by not going to confession, by not eating meat on fast days, etc. So it had nothing to do with a radically changed life, but conversion was measured by one’s renunciation of Catholic false teachings and practices. Secondly, we observe how this zealous throng of people forced the council to impose legislation that would seek to control public behaviour. This would be another feature of the Reformation, particularly in Switzerland, as we shall see. However, people are not ‘sanctified’, let alone converted by closing houses of public amusement.

This again illustrates how the reformers saw ‘the Gospel’ as delivering people from Catholic false practices and teachings rather than delivering them from sin and darkness by the preaching of a life-changing Gospel. Abandoning Catholicism seems to have been the marker of a true Christian – not conversion. We see that the fruit of this was violent antagonism towards the old religion and vigilantism. It seemed it was not too difficult for Reformed ministers to whip people up into a frenzy of anti-Catholic destruction.

A chameleon can change its colour, but it remains very much a chameleon. The Christianised ‘heathen’ remained Christianised ‘heathen’ – before they were called ‘Catholics’, but now they call themselves ‘Reformed’ or ‘Protestant’.

Karlstadt not only went beyond Luther’s measures in what he did, but in a manner and at a rate that Luther would in no way approve of. Moreover, he was joined by two other unusual and extreme characters, called the ‘Zwickau Prophets’, who certainly did not help matters.

Luther’s Compromise

Luther was grieved and very upset by what was happening so he secretly returned to Wittenberg on 6th March 1522. He wrote to the Prince Elector:

“During my absence, Satan has entered my sheepfold, and committed ravages which I cannot repair by writing, but only by my personal presence and living word.”5

Luther easily labelled as ‘Satan’ anyone who hindered or jeopardized his reformation. Luther preached eight days against all of Karlstadt’s ‘excesses’ and taught that people should have patience and forbearance. Luther believed one must wait for people to understand why some things needed to change, otherwise they might ‘lose their faith’ or be incited to violence. In the meantime, he claimed that those who do not believe in the mass will not be harmed by it! One must not use force but preach the word of God, he insisted. Luther taught that his followers must exercise moderation towards the people who were finding the change from Catholic ways too fast – this is after four years of Reformed teaching. Luther stated:

“It is with the Word that we must fight… by the Word must we overthrow and destroy what has been set up by violence… What does a mother do to her infant? At first she gives it milk, then, some very light food. If she were to begin by giving it meat and wine, what would be the consequence?… So should we act towards our brethren. My friend, have you been long enough at the breast? It is well! But permit your brother to drink as long as yourself.”6 (Italics mine)

It is clear to see and important to recognize that Luther regarded those still steeped in Catholicism as young in the faith, as ‘brethren’, whom one needed patience with until they could ‘understand’ the new teaching and bear ‘strong food’. Conversion had not made them Christians; for Luther it was their infant baptism that had done that and now they just needed patient doctrinal re-education to make them ‘stronger’ Christians. This stance represented the failure of the Reformation. It is a tragedy of the time that Luther and other Reformers did not realise that their audiences generally did not have true faith at all, but needed converting. From all the accounts that I have read, the people did not need ‘strong meat’; they needed to be confronted with the Gospel, which would expose them not as ‘weak brethren’ but as those who needed salvation.

In his sermons over those eight days, Luther continued by saying,

“The mass is a bad thing; God is opposed to it; it ought to be abolished; and I would that throughout the whole world it were replaced by the Supper of the Gospel. But let no one be torn from it by force. We must leave the matter in God’s hands. His Word must act, not we… We have a right to speak; we have not the right to act. Let us preach: the rest belongs unto God. Were I to employ force, what should I gain? Grimace, formality… human ordinances, and hypocrisy… But there would be no sincerity of heart, nor faith, nor charity. Our first object must be to win men’s hearts; and for that purpose we must preach the Gospel. Today the Word will fall in one heart, tomorrow in another, and it will operate in such a manner that each one will withdraw from the mass and abandon it.”7

Although Luther here acknowledges that the Mass is a bad thing, he believes, one by one, slowly, people will abandon Catholic rituals and beliefs by the preaching of the word. But what word? Among the Anabaptists there was no need for a long period of several years of ‘religious re-education’ to ‘wean them away’ from the love of Catholic traditions. Luther was overestimating both the spiritual condition of his community and the effect that his message was having on them.

It is no doubt commendable that Luther exhorted people to forbearance and taught that religious change should not be imposed on others, and neither should force be used in such endeavours. However, his approach of preaching to his congregation as if they represented ‘one Christian flock’ was destined to fail in bringing about the change he sought in people. Luther realised that some of his fellow Reformers would say he was compromising the Reformation with these steps, but he did not want to coerce anyone. He was right not to force things on anyone, but his preaching seems to have changed things very little in Wittenberg. As far as not using force is concerned, Luther soon changed his mind when he perceived that his reformation might be under threat. Luther would not only support, but exhort others to the violent persecution and execution of those who he did not deem to be his brethren or believers, namely, the Anabaptists. As with Augustine over a thousand years before him, when he saw that persuasion would not convince the people who opposed him, he resorted to urging the secular authority to persecute and punish them.

It is a revealing contradiction. Luther could bear with those he called ‘brethren’, who were still stuck in Catholicism – because they continued coming to his churches – but he could not bear the Anabaptists, against whom he incited the authorities to eliminate them.

In what I have said, I am not supporting Karlstadt against Luther. In my view, both were still very much steeped in that mindset and culture of‘Christendom’. Karlstadt thought he could bring the Reformation to Wittenberg, bring the Gospel to that community by eradicating the idolatrous and unscriptural elements of Catholicism and introducing new simpler outward modes of living and behaviour which he regarded consistent with the Bible. We saw that instead of bringing a spiritual awakening, he simply awakened and stirred people into anti-Catholic acts of violence. People may have followed his radical reformed teaching in an outward way – they demolished symbols of Catholicism, monks left monasteries and married, and Bible students left the university and started to till the soil like Adam according to the teaching of Karlstadt – but again, all this was far removed from representing a spiritual awakening among the people, or of people being converted to Christ.

Those biographers or historians with a reformed background talk about Luther and the other reformers of the 1500s bringing the Gospel to their communities. This is wishful thinking; it represents a romanticised interpretation, at best. The Pharisees believed in angels; they believed in the resurrection of the body; they believed the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and they were ‘waiting’ for Him – none of these beliefs made them true believers in Christ. Just because someone believes in and teaches justification by faith, this does not mean he is bringing the Gospel to people, or that people are being converted. It is an error to retrospectively apply to the men of the 1500s what you understand to be the Gospel today and what you understand by conversion. It is not only a romantic view of the Reformation, but also a false one. The historical details that we have looked at so far in this study, I believe, underline this perspective and view of things.

We will now look at incidences of iconoclasm in other reformed regions.

Iconoclasm in Basle

I would recommend the reader follow the whole story below of how the Reformation came to Basle, since it encapsulates in graphic detail the main points of this study. It shows that the Reformation was a movement of outward religious reform, not of spiritual renewal or awakening.

In our final example of iconoclasm in this chapter – though other examples will follow later – we look at what happened in Basle, an important city north of Bern, which is the city Erasmus felt he had to flee from.

The Reformation had been progressing slowly in Basle in the 1520s. Zwingli’s friend, John Oecolampadius, was leading the cause of the Reformation in Basle, where he was having significant influence. However, the town council avoided taking sides in the growing conflict between the reformers and the Catholic Church. Philip Schaff writes:

The civil government of Basle occupied for a while middle ground, but the disputation of Baden, at which Oecolampadius was the champion of the Reformed doctrines, brought on the crisis. He now took stronger ground against Rome and attacked what he regarded as the idolatry of the mass. The triumph of the Reformation in Berne in 1528 gave the final impetus.”8 (Italics mine)

The change in Bern was giving momentum to the Reformation movement in Basle. In the short extract above, Schaff puts his finger on the decisive feature or strategy which lead to the advance of the Reformation in Switzerland. It represents the modus operandi of the Reformation not only in the Swiss regions but in the German as well.

As I have stated, the reformers did not engage in evangelism. Their teaching and preaching focussed on what they perceived to be the false teachings, idolatry and abuses of the Catholic Church and the immorality of its clerics. Whenever opportunity afforded, they taught and preached their doctrines from church pulpits until there was a groundswell of anti-Catholic feeling among a sufficient number of the citizens and council members. Their preaching was bitterly anti-Catholic, rather than being positively a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those that needed salvation. It inevitably stirred up hostility towards the Catholic Church instead of leading people to genuine repentance and a commitment to Christ. Having created such a stir and sufficient support, they would then call for a public disputation, at which they would seek to change the minds of the council members to reject Catholicism and impose Reformed teaching and practice not only in the respective city, but on the whole region that fell within its jurisdiction, including the countryside villages. This feature was consistent throughout Switzerland. It could be, and has been characterised as a ‘top-down’ Reformation. In other words, convincing the city authority to change religions from Catholic to Reformed inevitably meant that the city council would impose the Reformed religion not only on all its citizens but on all the clerics who had been Catholic up to that moment.

The reformers worked within the confines of ‘Christendom’ to perpetuate ‘Christendom’. If you can convince the religious civil government that Catholicism is contrary to Scripture, then they will accept your Reformed religion and impose it on the citizens of its territory, just like it had imposed Catholicism. Essentially, this is the story of the Reformation and how it spread. The Reformation was a tremendously significant event in Europe because it changed the religious and political landscape of the continent, not because it brought spiritual awakening to the many who were in sin and darkness.

We will see these things unfold as we follow the story in Basle and I wish to give the reader a ‘flavour’ of the nature of the Protestant Reformation and an insight into exactly how it took root in the Swiss cities. I will therefore quote quite extensively from the narrative of events without summarising much, as I believe the narrative brings greater enlightenment to and gives a clearer impression to the reader than any summary that I can make about it. Not all Swiss cities experienced the tumult and violence described below, but the practice and strategy of stirring up anti-Catholic feeling in the community and then pressing the council for a public disputation in order to convince them to switch to the Reformed religion was characteristic of the Swiss reformation in particular and of the Reformation in general. This is how the Reformation took hold on communities, cities and regions.

D’Aubigne relates about the groundswell of support for the Reformation in Basle:

“The return of Oecolampadius [from Bern] had still more important consequences for Basle than it had for himself. The discussion at Berne caused a great sensation there. ‘Berne, the powerful Berne, is reforming!’ was passed from mouth to mouth. ‘How, then!’ said the people one to another, ‘the fierce Bear has come out of his den… he is groping about for the rays of the sun… and Basle, the city of learning – Basle, the adopted city of Erasmus and of Oecolampadius, remains in darkness!’”

In other words, the move towards reformation in the significant Swiss city of Bern was having its repercussions in Basle and giving encouragement to those who wanted to see the same change take place in Basle. D’Aubigne continues with the story:

 “On Good Friday (10th April 1528), without the knowledge of the council and Oecolampadius, five workmen of the Spinner’s Company entered the church of St. Martin, which was that of the reformer, and where the mass was already abolished, and carried away all the idols. On Easter Monday, after the evening sermon, thirty-four citizens removed all the images from the church of the Augustines… The council met hastily on Tuesday morning, and sent the five men to prison; but, on the intercession of the burghers, they were released, and the images suppressed in five other churches. These half measures sufficed for a time… On a sudden the flame burst out anew with greater violence. Sermons were preached at St. Martin’s and St. Leonard’s against the abominations of the cathedral; and at the cathedral the reformers were called ‘heretics, knaves, and profligates…‘ The fatal hour approaches,’ says Oecolampadius, ‘terrible for the enemies of God!’”9 (Italics mine)

This is not a description of a spiritual awakening among the people! The citizens were being worked up into an anti-Catholic frenzy, with the reformer Oecolampadius railing against the ‘abominations’ of the Catholic Church. He did not incite violence, but as we can see, this anti-Catholic rhetoric simply bore fruit that expressed itself in (violent) vandalism. People were not responding individually and personally to a Gospel message – they were reacting corporately, as a mob who wanted to enforce their brand of ‘new-found’ religion on the whole city. However, the city council continued to seek a compromise, feeling itself caught between pressure from the Catholics on one side, and from the reformers and their followers on the other. However, the tensions and strong feelings precluded any comprise.

D’Aubigne continues by relating how the Catholic contingent felt threatened by the reformers:

“Filled with terror on learning that mediators were expected from Zurich and Berne [now Reformed], they ran into the city, crying that an Austrian army was coming to their aid, and collected stones in their houses. The reformed did the same. The disturbance increased hourly, and in the night of the 25th December the Papists met under arms: priests with arquebuse in hand were numbered among their ranks. Scarcely had the reformed learned this, when some of them running hastily from house to house, knocked at the doors and awoke their friends, who, starting out of bed, seized their muskets and repaired to the Gardeners’ Hall, to rendezvous of their party. They soon amounted to three thousand.”10 (Italics mine)

Both sides were ready to use (lethal) force – the Catholic camp and the Reformed camp. There was no difference between them. Both grabbed their guns. As I say elsewhere, a chameleon remains a chameleon whatever colour it adopts. Thousands had gone over to the Reformed cause, but they were no different to the Catholics they were confronting – both took up arms against the other. This is a manifestation of intolerant religious fanaticism which leads no one to Christ.

The council, however, still tried to steer a middle course, appealing to both camps for compromise and moderation. But the Lutherans, who met together and who numbered about two and a half thousand cried out, “We will not put up with the mass, not even a single one! No mass, no mass, we will die sooner!” And the Catholics who were gathered together protested to the council officials, “If they reject the mass – to arms! to arms!”11

These religious zealots were not giving up their lives for the sake of Christ, but rather they were ready to die on both sides over whether to keep the Catholic Mass or not! But not only ready to die, but ready to kill. Large crowds now demanded the dismissal of all Catholic members of the city council, but again the civil government continued to stall matters, with the Reformed camp growing anxious and restless. About twelve hundred of them gathered in the market place and the senate took precautionary measures, placing guards at important buildings and artillery in front of the town hall. Armed men were patrolling the streets. Rumours abounded about Austrians troops coming to aid the Catholic camp. It was a volatile, dangerous situation, verging on civil war, with both sides arming themselves and the government calling a state of emergency. In the absence of a final decision from the council, a group from the Reformed camp went into the Cathedral and started smashing Catholic images to pieces and were soon joined by many others. This was just the beginning of their violence, and D’Aubigne describes what happens in detail:

“A rumor, however, having spread that a disturbance had taken place in this church, three hundred men came to the support of the forty. ‘Why,’ said they, ‘should we spare the idols that light up the flames of discord?’ The priests in alarm had closed the gates of the sanctuary, drawn the bolts, raised barricades, and prepared everything for maintaining a siege. But the townspeople, whose patience had been exhausted by the delays of the council, dashed against one of the doors of the church: it yielded to their blows, and they rushed into the cathedral. The hour of madness had arrived. These men were no longer recognizable, as they brandished their swords, rattled their pikes, and uttered formidable cries: were they Goths, or fervent worshippers of God, animated by the zeal which in times of yore inflamed the prophets and the kings of Israel? However that may have been, these proceedings were disorderly, since public authority alone can interfere in public reforms. Images, altars, pictures — all were thrown down and destroyed. The priests who had fled into the vestry, and there concealed themselves, trembled in every limb at the terrible noise made by the fall of their holy decorations… The people next piled up the fragments in the squares and set fire to them; and during the chilly night the armed burghers stood round and warmed themselves at the crackling flame. The senate collected in amazement, and desired to interpose their authority and appease the tumult; but they might as well have striven to command the winds. The enthusiastic citizens replied to their magistrates in these haughty words: ‘What you have not been able to effect in three years, we will complete in one hour.’ In truth the anger of the people was no longer confined to the cathedral. They respected all kinds of private property; but they attacked the Churches of St. Peter, St. Ulric, St. Alban, and of the Dominicans; and in all these temples ‘the idols’ fell under the blows of these good citizens of Basle, who were inflamed by an extraordinary zeal.”12 (Italics mine.)

Anti-Catholic hostility had reached such a fever pitch in the Reformed camp that nothing could now stop it; not even the civil government! Even D’Aubigne, with his Protestant background, called it ‘an hour of madness, when men were no longer recognisable’ when referring to the mood and actions of the Reformed camp. They were a wild, angry mob, brandishing their weapons and destroying every last vestige of Catholic worship in the city. This was the fruit of Reformed teaching. Their preaching and teaching of ‘justification by faith alone’ was leading no one to Christ or to being converted. ‘Justification by faith alone’ was not bringing peace – neither to the hearts of men and women nor to their communities. Quite the opposite! D’Aubigne’s own religious sympathies are revealed when he dares, though hesitantly, at one point, to liken this wilful violent destruction of Catholic imagery to the destruction inflicted on the idols of Israel by the kings and prophets of the Old Testament! However, this violent vandalism and religious fanaticism cannot be compared at all to what happened in Israel under the Old Covenant, and it certainly has nothing to do with the Gospel or the church of the New Testament; these are not the marks or traits of spiritual revival or the fruit of a people who have just been converted by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. But D’Aubigne’s analogy with the kings of Israel destroying idolatry in Israel is exactly what the reformers would invoke to justify their oppressive measures when imposing the Reformation in a region.

Having called the Lutheran camp who had carried out this destruction, ‘good citizens’, D’Aubigne continues to romanticise and create a fiction around the nature of the Reformation. It is the kind of romanticism and fiction that lingers on to this day. D’Aubigne writes:

“The senators now perceived the necessity of giving a legal character to this popular movement, and of thus changing a tumultuous revolution into a durable reformation. Democracy and the Gospel were thus established simultaneously in Basle.13

However, what had actually occurred was that one form of religious dictatorial rule was supplanted by another. That is all. No democracy was brought in, and the Gospel was far from being established in anyone’s heart. Quite the opposite. As people had been deceived about the nature of true religion and of the Gospel under Catholicism, so they continued to be deceived by the reformers. It was basically a matter of switching from one form of outward religion to another. The council had had its hand forced and now issued rules that banned the mass and use of Catholic images from the whole canton with immediate effect. D’Aubigne concludes this particular narrative with these words:

“The people, delighted at having obtained these conditions, which secured their political and religious liberty, returned joyful to their houses.” (Italics mine.)

Of course, in reality this had little or nothing to do with genuine religious liberty. It was all right if you belonged to the Reformed camp, but it meant suppression, banishment or worse if you belonged to the Catholic camp and would not submit. And of course, it would mean a lot worse for the Anabaptists who were beginning to emerge, who would be persecuted, imprisoned and executed under this new ‘religious liberty’ introduced by the Reformation!

By mid-February 1529, Basle had become Reformed, and the council removed all its Catholic members from the seat of power. Once the council had declared Basle for the Reformation, the effect of this reached to the furthest villages of the canton. Citizens and farmers in outlying villages, who for centuries had been steeped in Catholicism, were now abruptly told that everyone in the canton would worship according to the dictates of the Reformation. It was neither democratic nor the Gospel. One form of religious dictatorship had supplanted another – that was the reality for anyone who wanted the freedom to worship God according to their own belief and conscience. It was a top-down revolution – the Christendom of Constantine simply continued. But now there were two Christendoms. One Catholic and one Protestant.

The inevitable result of having two mutually exclusive Christendoms was, of course, centuries of the most terrible and cruel religious wars in Europe, with genuine believers in Christ who wanted to worship God according to Scripture and their consciences being unwelcome and hounded in both!

Above is the historical account of a historian who enthused about the Reformation, and to finish this part I will leave you with the account that Erasmus wrote of these same events to his friend Bilibald Pirckheimer. As with the above, it gives a flavour of nature of the Reformation.

“While the rabble were in arms in the market-place, where they had their guns regularly arranged, everybody who had anything to lose at home, was in terror. For some time it looked as if there would be an armed encounter. The better part supported the cause of the Church [Catholic], but they were numerically weaker, for the others [the Reformed camp] had many strangers among them, besides a number of acknowledged ruffians whose only object was destruction. They began this tragedy close upon winter, when it was not easy either to take flight or to send for assistance. The Church party, finding that conventicles were held contrary to the order of the Council and the prescribed oath, took up arms, and soon the others followed their example, even bringing guns and other engines into the market. By the authority of the Council the Church party were made to lay down their arms, which the others also did reluctantly, but time enough; for on the order being issued for the destruction of the images, they assembled in the market, got their engines into order, built an immense pyre, and passed some nights there in the open air, amid the universal alarm of the citizens; however, they broke into no house, nor did they attack any person, though the chief magistrate, my next-door neighbour, a good speaker, and, as was proved on many occasions, an excellent public servant, was obliged to fly by night in a boat, and would have been killed had he not done so.

Many others also fled through fear, who, however, were recalled by the Council if they wished to enjoy their rights as citizens, but all who favoured the old religion were removed from the Council, so as to put an end to all disunion there. So far the Council had kept the mob under control, and everything that was allowed to be removed from the churches was removed by smiths and workmen employed for the purpose; but they heaped such insults on the images of the saints, and the crucifix itself, that it is quite surprising there was no miracle, seeing how many there always used to be whenever the saints were even slightly offended. Not a statue was left either in the churches, or the vestibules, or the porches, or the monasteries. The frescoes were obliterated by means of a coating of lime; whatever would burn was thrown into the fire, and the rest pounded into fragments. Nothing was spared for either love or money. Before long the mass was totally abolished, so that it was forbidden either to celebrate it in one’s own house or to attend it in the neighbouring villages

I was rather afraid too that they would try to stop me on my departure, and accordingly I had procured from King Ferdinand two certificates, one inviting me to his court, and the other securing my safe passage through his own and the Emperor’s entire dominions… I loaded two waggons with my books and papers, quite openly, and on this account Oecolampadius and the preachers are said to be incensed against me.”14 ( Italics mine)

The Condition of Reformed Churches

In this study I endeavour to show that what was happening under the Reformation was not a spiritual renewal or awakening, but that its message was fundamentally anti-Catholic, anti-ritualistic and anti-images rather than being the clear and direct declaration of the Gospel in order to convert sinners and to bring salvation to them. The preaching was to ‘save’ them from Catholic false teachings and idolatrous practices and to inculcate in them Reformed doctrine. It brought ‘new’ doctrines to the people, such as justification by faith, but the aim was a conversion from one form of religion to another. In this sense, it represented more of an ardent religious re-education and moralising venture. And as such, it lacked the power of the Gospel in transforming lives and left multitudes in a ‘Christianised’ state (i.e. as nominal Christians), leading lives that were far from Christian. This latter aspect is what we shall now consider.

To begin with, let me re-iterate a couple of points. Firstly, the reformers did not dismiss the Catholic congregations that they had inherited as being unconverted, as those who did not belong to Christ. We will see this when considering how Luther exhorted his fellow believers to have patience with their ‘brethren’ among the Lutheran churches who could not and would not abandon certain Catholic practices and beliefs. Luther deemed all those who had been ‘made’ reformed by decree of the secular authorities as brothers and sisters in Christ. Luther believed that these ‘weaker’ brethren could gradually be educated out of their Catholicism through a period of Bible instruction. However, this did not work too well, as we shall see.

Secondly, how could the reformers truly evangelise people that they regarded as already being Christians by virtue of the infant baptism they had received at the hands of the Catholic Church? If they evangelised or sought to convert the people who had now come under their care, this would have been a denial of the effectiveness of the infant baptism in making them part of the Church – and as we have seen, to deny the effectiveness of infant baptism in this respect was anathema to the Protestant Reformers.

However, the above did not make the reformers blind to the wayward and sinful behaviour of many in their congregations, who continued to enjoy worldly pleasures. Nevertheless, the reformers’ religious background and outlook mentioned above left them with no insight or means to effectively address the actual spiritual condition of their parishioners. Preaching ‘justification by faith’ to a Christianised society did not bear any fruit in terms of their ‘sanctification’. The outlook of the reformers left them attempting to improve the woeful moral and spiritual condition of their congregations by a rigorous preaching and application of the Law. It is no wonder that little was affected in the lives of their congregations, and this is what we shall look at now.


As I have noted earlier, Erasmus initially had had some sympathy for the Protestant movement under Luther. In fact, at the outset of the movement, Erasmus was being attacked from both sides – by Luther, for not being ‘true to his convictions’ and joining the Lutheran cause; and by the Catholics, who were accusing him of being a secret Lutheran! However, the doctrines that Luther then shortly afterwards openly espoused (denying free will) and the manner in which Lutheranism was propagated turned Erasmus against the movement. He was also appalled at the iconoclasm (i.e. the violent destruction of church images, statues, etc.) that was a feature of the Reformation.

In 1524 Erasmus wrote to the leading Lutheran reformer, Philip Melanchthon:

“I know nothing of your church; at the very least it contains people who will, I fear, overturn the whole system and drive the princes into using force to restrain good men and bad alike. The gospel, the word of God, faith, Christ, and Holy Spirit – these words are always on their lips; look at their lives, and they speak quite another language.15 (Italics mine)

In this passage, Erasmus makes reference to two things; namely, the violent measures that the reformation were adopting or the violence it was resulting in, on the one hand, and the disparity between what was preached or confessed to and the actual conduct of those who belonged to the Reformation movement, on the other. Erasmus elaborates on these two points when writing to Melanchthon:

“They have always in their mouths ‘The Gospel, the Word of God, faith, Christ, and the Spirit’; if you look to their manners, these speak a very different thing… I have known certain very excellent men who through this affair have deteriorated in character… Here (Basle), especially, I see many to be such, that even if I approved all that Luther writes, I should be unwilling to give my name to this faction… How can I persuade myself that those men are led by the Spirit of Christ, whose manners are so much at variance with the teaching of Christ? Formerly the Gospel made those that were fierce become gentle; those that were rapacious, benignant; those that were turbulent, peaceful; those that were abusive, affable: but these men are rendered furious; they snatch by fraud what belongs to others – they everywhere excite tumults, and speak evil even of those who deserve well of them. I behold new hypocrites, new tyrants, but not a particle of the true spirit of the Gospel.”16

In this passage, Erasmus indicates that the Reformation message is not really changing people but rather making many worse. He touches on the tendency of the Reformation movement to make men ‘furious’ and to ‘excite tumults’. He is here undoubtedly speaking of the iconoclasm that was a feature of the Reformation in Europe. This refers to the vandalism and violent destruction – often spontaneous – of churches and the symbols of Catholic worship and idolatry, such as statues, images, relics, etc. Usually this would happen after the sermon of a Protestant Reformer, in which he would inveigh against Catholic superstitious traditions and castigate Catholic clerics, thus whipping up anti-Catholic feelings, if not hatred. This would not infrequently result in a large crowd or mob violently descending on a church and violently destroying any symbols of Catholic tradition, sometimes leaving the place in ruins. We shall be looking at this aspect of things shortly. It was because of the violent nature of the Reformation movement that Erasmus left Basle in 1529.

In that year he wrote ‘An epistle against those who falsely boast they are Evangelicals’ (Epistola contra quosdam qui se falso iactant evangelicos). He also wrote a letter to Vulturius Neocomus, wherein he states:

“Look around on this ‘Evangelical’ generation, and observe whether amongst them less indulgence is given to luxury, lust, or avarice, than amongst those whom you so detest. Show me any one person who by that Gospel has been reclaimed from drunkenness to sobriety, from fury and passion to meekness, from avarice to liberality, from reviling to well-speaking, from wantonness to modesty. I will show you a great many who have become worse through following it…. The solemn prayers of the Church are abolished, but now there are very many who never pray at all…. I have never entered their conventicles [assemblies], but I have sometimes seen them returning from their sermons, the countenances of all of them displaying rage, and wonderful ferocity, as though they were animated by the evil spirit… Whoever beheld in their meetings any one of them shedding tears, smiting his breast, or grieving for his sins? … Confession to the priest is abolished, but very few now confess to God…. They have fled from Judaism that they may become Epicureans.”17

Now, Erasmus may have been prejudiced in his comments as one who remained a Catholic, but he is far from alone in making these observations and pointing out the discrepancy between the teaching of the reformers and the moral state of the Reformed churches. This was a constant theme in the complaints of the Anabaptists against the Reformed churches. The Anabaptists claimed that the teaching of the reformers did nothing to change the immoral lives of their churchgoers. They considered the vast mass of churchgoers to be just ‘nominal’ Christians, and they complained that the Reformation simply gave these nominal Christians an excuse to be carefree in their sins, since they were now ‘justified by faith alone’.18

Let us look at some quotes from the reformers themselves. Luther wrote the following, years after the start of the Reformation in Germany:

“Our Germany, after so great light of the Gospel, seems to be all but possessed by the devil. Our youths are impudent and unruly, and will no longer submit to education; the old men are loaded with sins of avarice, usury, and many others that may not be told.”19

Calvin wrote: “But a few years had elapsed since the glorious beginnings of our renascent Church displayed themselves, when straightway we see them reduced to a heap of ruins. When so many thousands of men, having thrown off the Papal authority, eagerly, as it seemed, enrolled themselves under the Gospel, how few, think you, have repented of their vices? Nay, what have the majority shown to have been their desire, than that, having shaken off the yoke of superstitions, they might launch out the more freely into every kind of lasciviousness?”20

 The leading Reformer, Martin Bucer, laments: “The greater part of them [the Reformed] seem only to have sought from the Gospel of Christ the following advantages, to wit: first, that they might free themselves from the tyranny of the Roman Antichrist and his bishops \ next, that they might cast off the yoke of every kind of discipline and penance, and of all that religion which remained under the Papacy, and might live and do all things according to the dictates of their carnal lusts and appetites; and lastly, it was by no means displeasing to them to hear that we are justified by faith in Christ, and not by good works, for which latter they had no relish… Not a few of them only received the preaching of the Gospel – of whatsoever kind it might be – in order that they might plunder the goods of the Churches.”21

These quotes all give testimony to the same thing, namely, that many simply used the teachings of the reformers to feel freer to do as they pleased, after feeling themselves liberated from Catholic practices and restrictions. It is interesting how this agrees with the statements of Erasmus and others.

Again, Martin Bucer, in a letter to Calvin in 1549, says:

“Our followers preferred appearing to be Christians to being so in truth… What pleased them was their liberation from the superstitions and tyranny of the Pope, and the license to live according to their own will.”22

The point that I am making in this study is clearly expressed in the quote above by a leading reformer. As we review the spread of the Reformation in Switzerland, it will confirm the views stated above. The Reformation did little, if anything, to change the moral or spiritual condition of all the churchgoers who had been Catholic before the town council decided by a vote to ‘convert’ their region to the Reformed religion. Many – but not all – were happy to throw off Catholic traditions and to rid themselves of Catholic abuses and their licentious clerics, but were resistant to having their personal life-style changed. Calvin was to discover this to his great grief.

Melanchthon visited churches in Thuringia (central Germany) with Luther ten years after the posting of the 95 Theses.  It was a visit that left him deeply distressed at the condition of the churches.23 In his Life of Philip Melanchthon, the biographer Joseph Stump writes:

In the year 1527, Melanchthon took part with Luther in the visitation of the schools and churches of Saxony. It was high time for such a step. Affairs were in a wretched condition. In many places no religious instruction was given at all, because there were either no pastors and teachers stationed there, or those who were stationed there were grossly ignorant themselves. The greatest disorder imaginable reigned nearly everywhere. In one instance, it was found that in one congregation the pastor preached the Gospel, but that in another part of his parish he read the Romish mass… It was the object of the visitation to bring order out of this chaos. Melanchthon was charged with making a beginning in Thuringia. The spiritual distress which he discovered rent his heart, and he often went aside and wept over what he saw.”24

A contributing factor in all this was that fact that the Reformation in Germany did not spread at a grass roots level among the clerics and citizens in a way that changed their lives through the preaching of the Gospel, but as the secular authorities in individual towns and regions chose to switch their allegiance from the Catholic to the Reformed religion, bringing all the clerics and citizen under Reformed teaching to which they had to comply. It is no wonder that there was a dearth of competent ministers who could lead and teach their flocks aright. For years Calvin had to work against the grain of his own clergy in Geneva who baulked at his control.

Ambrosius Blaurer (an influential Protestant reformer in southern Germany) reported similar conditions, and blamed the reformers themsleves for them. Blaurer wrote:

“We ourselves carry a great part of the blame. There is so little appetite among us to hear of true repentance that our teaching itself is becoming suspect because of it. I get tired of work and life itself when I observe the condition of many weak evangelical cities, in which hardly a trace of true conversion makes itself known. ‘Christian freedom’, through a godless interpretation, is made into freedom to sin.”25

All these comments underline the same thing – little change among the Reformed congregations; and in some cases things are worse, since ‘Christian freedom, through a godless interpretation, is made into freedom to sin’. In the course of this study this is what I endeavour to show: The inevitable result of preaching ‘justification by faith’ to a largely nominally Christian congregation with a Catholic background will result in the churchgoers rejoicing in being liberated from ‘religious observances’ so that they can more freely and easily give themselves to their pleasures.

The Anabaptists certainly confirmed the assessments above.

The Anabaptist Conrad Grebel wrote to Thomas Müntzer in September 1524, concerning what was happening under the Reformation:

“Just as our forefathers had fallen away from the true God and knowledge of Jesus Christ and true faith in him… and from the godly practices of the Christian love and way, and lived without God’s law and gospel in human, useless, unchristian practices and ceremonies and supposed they would find salvation in them but fell far short of it, as the evangelical preachers have shown and are still in part showing, so even today everyone wants to be saved by hypocritical faith, without fruits of faith, without the baptism of trial and testing, without hope and love, without true Christian practices, and wants to remain in all the old ways of personal vices and common anti-christian ceremonial rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, dishonoring the divine Word, but honoring the papal word and the antipapal preachers, which is not like or in accord with the divine Word.”26

Grebel indicates that both the ‘papal’ and ‘anitpapal’ (reformed) preachers fail to preach the Gospel of salvation, and leave people with false hopes and unchanged lives.

The leading Anabaptist, Balthasar Hübmaier, commended the teaching of the reformers regarding justification by faith and that of ourselves we are not capable of doing anything good, but said they failed in preaching the true Gospel because they stopped short at these two points, and did not address the fruits of righteousness that should be the result of such faith. In other words, their preaching largely left their congregations as they had found them without the change in moral behaviour that the preaching of the Gospel and its power normally results in. Hübmaier goes on to say,

“Under cover of these two half-truths all evil, unfaithfulness and unrighteousness have gained the upper hand completely… Everybody wishes to pass for a Christian and a good evangelical as far as taking a wife is concerned, eating meat [in Lent], making no further sacrifice, fasting not, saying no prayers any more….”27

Hübmaier complains that all one sees is immoral and licentious living and accuses the reformers of failing to understand that “faith without works is dead.” The history and tragedy of the 16th century Reformation is that the reformers were aware of the immoral lives of their citizens but, in an attempt to rectify this situation, resorted mostly to preaching the Law of Moses and the regulation of bad conduct (e.g. swearing, dancing, drinking) through laws passed by the religious secular authority rather than acknowledging the need of people to truly repent and be converted.

It is striking and unmistakable how all the above quotes, whichever source they come from, give witness to the same things, namely, that a change of religious confession occurred, but no radical change of heart or lifestyle. What churchgoers were before the Reformation came to their region by vote of the council or decree of the Prince, that is what they essentially were after the vote – except ‘justification by faith’ suggested to them that there was no need for moral rigour; though this was not the intention of the reformed preachers. That things were equally bad everywhere was probably not the case, but the general picture seems to be the same.

Moreover, these comments of Hubmaier’s seem to be justified, since Luther dubbed the letter of James as an “epistle of straw” in his preface to his German translation of the New Testament, first published in 1522. (This designation of James’s epistle though, was removed from editions after 1537). One of the reasons that Luther was rather dismissive of the letter of James was that he considered it contradicted Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. This reaction highlights the danger of Lutheran theology – his view of justification by faith was not balanced and biblical. Luther was very wary of any emphasis on ‘works’, lest it bring people back, as he thought, into the bondage of thinking that they are in any way justified by their works. Luther may have been dismissive of the Anabaptists’ emphasis on righteous behaviour because of his reaction to the Catholic focus on earning merit through different observances. However, his emphasis created and still creates its own serious difficulties.

Indeed, it seems to me that Hübmaier puts his finger on one of the fundamental problems that runs through Reformed theology. The emphasis and false interpretation of ‘justification by faith’ focusses on what Christ has done (‘forensically’) for us, to the great neglect, if not denial, of what Christ does in us by His death on the cross. But the consideration of this will have to be left for the next study, which will deal with the doctrines of the Reformers.

So, the reformers may indeed have preached justification by faith in Christ, and that Christ alone is the object of our faith, but to teach this as a doctrine to a people who were essentially nominally religious and not spiritually alive would generally only result in a mental affirmation of the truth without it affecting their lives, except that it leads such people into believing in ‘easy’ grace – ‘it does not matter how we live now, because Christ has done it all for us.’ All these testimonies seem to bear out the truth of this appraisal.

This is an account of one of the Anabaptists of 1538:

“While we were still in the national church we obtained much instruction from the writings of Luther, Zwingli and others… Yet we were aware of a great lack in regard to repentance, conversion, and the true Christian life. It was on these things that my heart was set. I waited and hoped for a year or two, since the minister had much to say about amendment of life… But I could not close my eyes to the fact that doctrine which was preached… was not carried out; no beginning was made towards true Christian conduct… True repentance and Christian love were not in evidence… Then God sent his messengers, Conrad Grebel and others, who have surrendered themselves in the doctrine of Christ by conversion. With their assistance a congregation was formed in which repentance was in evidence by newness of life in Christ.”28

I believe this represents a good summary of the Reformation. Of course, the Protestant reformers sought to defend themselves against these accusations, and how widespread and common such ‘unchristian’ behaviour was in the Protestant world would be difficult to gauge, but it seems such conduct was not too difficult to find among the Reformed communities. And as we saw in Chapter 4, the reformers always fell back on the parable of the wheat and the tares to confirm and justify the predominating presence of the ungodly in their congregations.

Thus, Calvin wrote:

“…because oftentimes no difference can be observed between the children of God and the profane, between his proper flock and the untamed herd… But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation… in this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious, avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men…”.29

So, Calvin’s doctrine of the ‘visible’ church allows for the presence of many ungodly people in the church. Nevertheless, even Calvin was forced to lament the state of things:

“Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists. The offence is indeed well founded, and it is one to which in this most unhappy age we give far too much occasionWoe then to us who, by our dissolute licence of wickedness, cause weak consciences to be wounded!”30 (Italics mine)

Another line of defence that Luther took up was the following:

“Doctrine and life are to be distinguished, the one from the other. With us conduct is as bad as it is with the papists. We don’t oppose them on account of conduct. Hus and Wyclif, who made an issue of conduct, were not aware of this . . . but to treat of doctrine, that is to really come to grips with things.”31 (Italics mine)

There seems to be no end to the abandonment of biblical teaching among the reformers. Luther concedes they will not win the argument by debating conduct, so he comes up with the answer that what is essential is doctrine, not conduct. He actually blames Wycliffe for basing reform on a change of conduct rather than focusing on doctrine! However, the Scriptures are very clear on this point: “You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16).

In 1538 Martin Bucer wrote:

“They are forever accusing us that things are getting worse instead of better. Now is this our teaching: ‘Repent and improve your way of life.’ It is not the doctrine’s fault that nothing happens. In the Old Testament as well as in the New, God’s Word has always had this quality that it makes worse those who do not embrace it… They who do not accept the doctrine after they have been sufficiently taught, these fall daily deeper; and these give occasion for the saying that ‘Since the new doctrine has been preached, many people have gotten progressively worse.’32 (Italics mine).

These comments are revealing and significant. Bucer is saying that it’s not the reformers’ fault that the people do not follow their exhortations to live righteously. However, as I mentioned earlier, to treat an essentially ‘Christianised’ population, however religious they were, as if they were genuine believers is bound to backfire. The Protestant reformers did not challenge the fundamental spiritual state of their listeners, of their congregations, so inevitably there was little or no transformation of lives, nor widespread conversions. All this again raises the question regarding the spiritual state of the reformers themselves.

As a consequence of all this, much of the preaching of the reformers was moralistic or legalistic – it was not Gospel based; it sought to apply an outward code represented by the Mosaic Law to force people into conformity. The reformers together with the authorities made laws against dancing, partying, swearing, drunkenness, etc., and sought to restrict people’s behaviour accordingly. Those who broke the rules found themselves in court, and could be fined or sent to prison – or worse, depending on the nature of the misconduct. The immoral behaviour of unchanged lives needed to be restrained and legislated against by the reformers.

Let me quote John Wesley again from his sermon, The Mystery of Iniquity, where he concurs with all the above:

“And what is the condition of the Reformed Churches? It is certain that they were reformed in their opinions, as well as their modes of worship. But is not this all? Were either their tempers or lives reformed? Not at all. Indeed many of the Reformers themselves complained, that ‘the Reformation was not carried far enough’… Ye fools and blind!… You ought vehemently to have insisted on an entire change of men’s tempers and lives; on their showing they had ‘the mind that was in Christ’, by ‘walking as he also walked’. Without this, how exquisitely trifling was the reformation of opinions and rites and ceremonies! Now, let any one survey the state of Christianity in the Reformed parts of Switzerland; in Germany, or France; in Sweden, Denmark, Holland; in Great Britain and Ireland. How little are any of these Reformed Christians better than heathen nations!”

Wesley’s view is that people were reformed in their opinions, but their heart was not changed, resulting in no change in their behaviour.

The message that the reformers were bringing was not like refreshing living waters to people who had been deeply convicted of their sin and who felt that they needed salvation from it! The preaching of the Protestant reformers did not induce this kind of conviction in its listeners. The result of such spiritual confusion and blindness resulted in the quotes we have just looked at above. For many of the churchgoers, liberation from Catholic ritual and religious requirements seemed to represent the new religion of the reformers.

Integral to the failure of the Reformers’ endeavours to improve the outward conduct of the citizens was their unscriptural use and application of the Law which has continued down to this day.

The Failure of the Law in Changing People’s Conduct

As I have mentioned before, the self-contradiction of Reformed teaching is that it proclaimed ‘justification by faith’ and yet resorted to the rigorous and constant application of the Mosaic Law (in its moral sense) as a ‘sanctifying’ tool in preaching. It was particularly doomed to failure in improving the moral conduct of nominal Christians. The Law cannot improve not change the spiritual condition of a person, and if you do not change the person’s spiritual condition there can be no great change in the moral condition (Galatians 3:21). Both Luther and Calvin devoted a significant amount of space in their teaching and catechisms to the exposition and application of the believer’s life.

Of the many quotes that reveal this emphasis on the Law of Moses are the following by Calvin:

“By the word Law, we understand what peculiarly belonged to Moses; for the Law contains the rule of life, and the gratuitous covenant of life; and in it we find everywhere many remarkable sentences by which we are instructed as to faith, and as to the fear of God. None of these were abolished by Christ, but only that part which regarded the ancient priesthood.” (Calvin on Hebrews 7:12)

Notice what Calvin says about the Law, namely, that he regards it as the ‘rule of life’. This elevates it to a status that is not given it in apostolic teaching and can only lead people to think that adherence to external laws will change their behaviour and sanctify them. It is a recipe for failure. Calvin also erroneously claims the Law represents the ‘free covenant of life’. The New Testament teaches otherwise concerning the Law of Moses. Incredibly, contrary to New Testament teaching, Calvin states that the Law of Moses and its application in our lives remain the same today as they did under the Old Covenant – he maintains that the Law has not been abolished in respect of believers today. This teaching also remains integral to Reformed theology to this day, as well as the false teaching that, in essence, the Old and New Testaments are one in what they offer to people – there is essentially no difference between the two Covenants. It is taught that the saints in the Old Testament partook of the new birth, the baptism in the Spirit and every other spiritual blessing that is now ours today through Christ’s death on the cross. Whether it is Calvin, Luther or modern-day Reformed writers and preachers, this is what is taught. I go into these matters in the next study that I hope to undertake regarding the fatal logic of Calvinism,

Concerning the relevance and application of the Law of Moses, Calvin goes on to say:

“The substance is, that we are freed from the rigour of the law in order that we may adhere to Christ, and that the office of the law is to convince us of our depravity, and make us confess our impotence and wretchedness.33 (Italics mine)

According to Calvin, it is the Law of Moses that is continually convincing the Christian believer of his wretchedness and sin. When Calvin says we are free from the ‘rigour’ of the Law, he means we are freed from the Law’s condemnation, but we are not free from observing and being instructed by the Law. However, this language directly contradicts the teaching of the New Testament, and particularly of Paul the apostle.

The following is the teaching of the Reformation from the Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577):

“We believe, teach, and confess that the proclamation of the law is to be diligently impressed not only upon unbelievers and the unrepentant but also upon those who believe in Christ and are truly converted, reborn, and justified through faith… they have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the law day and night.”34 (Italics mine)

So there it is in plain language – you have been justified through faith that you may practice the law day and night. It is a bizarre blindness that Reformed teaching afflicts people with and leads them into self-evident contradiction that brazenly ignores the teaching of the New Testament.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) equally adheres to this erroneous belief:

“The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (Chpt. 19, V)

John Owen, the English puritan, regarded as the Prince of Puritans, was also very clear in his view:

“Christ not only obeyed all the commandments on behalf of man, but he also bore the penalty of death. But though we are freed from the penalty of death, we are still bound to obey the law. Yet that obedience is not to gain acceptance with God, but rather it is an expression of gratitude to God for our deliverance from death.”35 (Italics mine)

The above are the ‘doctrines of men’ and not to be found in the New Testament. For example, how can one use terminology that directly contradicts the language of Scripture? How does ‘not being under the law’ mean that we are ‘bound to the law’ in order to obey it; that we must ‘practice the law’ and that the Gospel of Christ ‘only strengthens’ this ‘obligation’ of obedience to the law? All the quotes above show no understanding of evangelical truth or of the life-transforming power of the Gospel through a genuine repentance and conversion. In their language the quotes above directly contradict the teaching of the New Testament and of the apostle Paul in particular.

The point above is vital if we are to understand the nature of the Reformation. Namely, the Protestant reformers treated their erstwhile Catholic congregations as basically Christian by virtue of their Catholic infant baptisms, and therefore basically engaged in doctrinally re-educating the people, rather than bring about their conversion through the preaching of the Gospel. Consequently, the inevitable lack of change in the lives of their hearers lead the reformers into a legalistic approach, whereby the teaching of Law became the means whereby the preachers sought to bring about the ‘sanctification’ of their worldly parishioners. It was doomed to fail, as it did. Yes, they preached ‘free justification’, but the absence of an inward transformation by the power of the Gospel left the moral and spiritual condition of people unchanged. Thus, the reformers were forced to apply the Law and to drum it into their listeners from their pulpits as a ‘moralising’ influence to convince them continually of their immorality in an endeavour to steer them away from it. The ‘use of the Law’ was an integral part of Protestant teaching. In fact, Reformed teaching has devised the teaching of the ‘three uses of the Law’, where it is the ‘third use of the Law’ that applies to Christians. Both Luther and Calvin devote significant space in their teachings and catechism to the exposition of the Law and its application to the life of the believer.

The congregations that the reformers were now pastors of were ‘made reformed’ by a vote of the city councils in Switzerland and by the patronage of the Princes in Germany. This could impossibly result in a spiritual awakening among the people. All this simply confirmed and sealed them in a religion that was dead – be it called Catholic or Reformed.

Testimonies to Anabaptist Conduct

Regarding the conduct of the lives of the Anabaptists, I would like to refer the reader to Leonard Verduin’s Book, The Reformers And Their Stepchildren (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1964) and particularly Chapter three, ‘Catharer’, where he deals with this topic. I will just make references to two sources that he quotes.

A letter was written to the city Council of Bern by the Reformed preachers, wherein they stated:

“The Anabaptists have the semblance of outward piety to a far greater degree than we, and all the churches which in union with us confess Christ; and they avoid the offensive sins that are very common among us…. ”36

And this other testimony of those that had interrogated Anabaptists:

“Because their children are being so carefully and devoutly reared and because they do not have the practice of cursing and swearing, therefore they are suspected of being Anabaptists… Now because he does not swear and because he leads an unoffensive life, therefore men suspect him of Anabaptism…. He has for a long time passed for such, because he did not swear, nor quarrel, nor did other such-like things”37

It is beyond doubt that the Anabaptists believed and taught that becoming a Christian is not to do with following rituals and church traditions, or mentally assenting to the doctrine of whatever happens to be the state religion at the time. It all starts with a personal response of faith and repentance to the Gospel message of salvation in Christ. Such a response is then to be followed by believer’s baptism and to be demonstrated through a changed life.

As I have said before, my main aim is not to write in defence of all the Anabaptists did and taught but to highlight the nature of the Protestant Reformation, particularly with reference to how they responded to and treated the Anabaptists.




  1. The Peasants’ Revolt


  1. Luther: ‘On the Jews and their Lies’


  1. Colluding in the Bigamy of Philip of Hesse

In the last chapter, we looked at the development of the Reformation in Germany under Martin Luther. We will now continue to review the Reformation in Germany and the impact that some of Luther’s writings and actions had on events there.

The situation in the German states was different to that in Switzerland. Switzerland enjoyed autonomy within the so-called Holy Roman Empire and the city councils could decide on which religious path to take. In Germany, as we have seen, it was the princes that had sufficient status and strength to make the decisions about which religion – Catholic or Reformed – to follow. The Elector of Saxony and the Langrave Philip of Hesse were early supporters of Luther and the Reformation, and without their assistance the Reformation in Germany would never have gotten off the ground. That these decisions to some extent might have been mixed up with the power politics that was taking place in Europe at that time would be hard to deny. It is not the purpose of this study to look into that aspect of things but it is a factor worth noting.

The Peasants’ Revolt

The next major event that appeared on the scene in Germany was a revolt by the peasants, known as the Peasants’ War. And they certainly had cause to complain. Not only was the degree of exploitation and oppression of the peasants extreme, but it was increasingly getting worse, grinding them into ever deeper poverty and making their lives virtually intolerable with the loss of all their freedoms. There had been peasant uprisings before this in other parts of Europe, and now the oppressive situation in Germany was leading the peasants there to revolt.

The uprising in Germany was by no means a co-ordinated affair with some kind of central organising body directing matters. Protests by peasants had begun in 1524 but were very local. One catalyst or encouragement for this uprising seems to have been Martin Luther’s own reform proposals. Certainly, this was the view of some of the Princes in Germany, whom Luther addressed in his Admonition to Peace during this period, saying,

“It is not the peasants, dear lords, who are resisting you; it is God Himself… To make your sin still greater, and ensure your merciless destruction, some of you are beginning to blame this affair on the Gospel and say it is the fruit of my teaching… You did not want to know what I taught, and what the Gospel is; now there is one at the door who will soon teach you, unless you amend your ways.”1 (Italics mine.)

If the Princes could interpret Luther’s previous writings in this way, then it would be no surprise if the peasants took his writings as an encouragement to press for changes in their intolerable situation. As early as 1520 Luther had written a number of works, such as On the Freedom of a Christian, sometimes also called A Treatise on Christian Liberty, and another called, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. In another work written in 1520 he stated:

“I believe that in this community or Christendom, all things are common, and all the goods of one belong to the other and that no one owns anything entirely of his own.”2

It would be difficult to determine how much impact this single statement may have had, but it is the kind of sentiment that could have given hope to the downtrodden peasants, and it is certainly this kind of outlook that they drew on in writing up their own demands, as we shall shortly see. Luther’s language was also at times carelessly inflammatory and full of invective, and could be seen as inciting people to violence. Early on, when the Catholic Church was seeking to silence Luther, he wrote:

“It were better that every bishop were murdered, every foundation or cloister rooted out, than that one soul should be destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost for the sake of their worthless trumpery and idolatry. Of what use are they who thus live in lust who are nourished by the sweat and labour of others… what do they better deserve than a strong uprising which will sweep them from the earth. And we would smile did it happen.”3

Indeed, the Catholic Church was an integral part of this problem regarding the hardship of the peasants, as it owned land and exacted its own tithes, taxes and laid other financial burdens on its citizens.

The above extract was not uncharacteristic of Luther’s manner of writing. In 1520, in a letter to his friend, George Spalatin, Luther wrote: “If you understand the Gospel rightly, I beseech you not to believe that it can be carried on without tumult, scandal, sedition … The word of God is a sword, is war, is ruin, is scandal, is perdition, is poison….”4

Another German reformer, Wolfgang Capito, who was also Luther’s friend, warned him in December 1520 about his inflammatory language, saying, “You are frightening away from you your supporters by your constant reference to troops and arms. We can easily enough throw everything into confusion, but it will not be in our power, believe me, to restore things to peace and order.”5 These words contained a prophetic element in them. However, Luther was volatile in his responses to events and could seem to issue contradictory statements – on one occasion advising moderation and abstinence from the use of force, and then on another inciting people to the utmost violence. And we shall see examples of this below.

So, as the peasants started to take up their cause, they issued a document in March 1525, called the Twelve Articles, in which they noted their requests and demands. This was issued in southern Germany, where the movement was strong and the most cohesive. In this declaration the peasants make a strong appeal to the Bible as the foundation for their demands, taking up Luther’s point that in all things it is the word of God that should decide matters of social justice. Insofar as this is true, it shows that the peasants were aligning themselves with the Reformation movement itself and making use of it as a springboard to express their grievances and ask for change.

And for the purposes of this study, it is this religious element in the document that I want us to take note of. This whole affair simply highlights that the Reformation movement continued in the culture and mindset of Christendom, where are all the citizens under the government of the religious state are by definition regarded as true believers, as one Christian community, where the Bible is referenced in appeals for justice. We will see how they were all deluding themselves – both princes and peasants. A ‘cultural’ Christianity exposes itself as being no Christianity at all.

In the introduction of The Twelve Articles, the peasants state:

“… all who believe in Christ should learn to be loving, peaceful, long-suffering and harmonious. This is the foundation of all the articles of the peasants (as will be seen) who accept the Gospel and live according to it…. the peasants demand that this Gospel be taught them as a guide in life.”

The peasants felt their cause was just by referencing the Old Testament saying, “Did He (God) not hear the children of Israel when they called upon Him and saved them out of the hands of Pharaoh?” And the first article is a demand for freedom to choose their own pastors. And in the third article they state that, “it has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, which is pitiable enough, considering that Christ has delivered and redeemed us all….” Here is a clear example of how people continued to believe in the idea of Christendom, where everyone in the state is considered to be a Christian and should act in Christian brotherly love! However, in general, they were simply Christianised ‘heathen’ – as were the princes. The other articles represented what could be considered reasonable requests from those who are being so pitiably oppressed; and the articles continue to make reference to the Bible and to God.

It is clear from this that the peasants regarded themselves, and those that they were appealing to, as true Christians. However, this illusion was soon to be shattered.

Luther replied to this document with a writing of his own, entitled, Admonition to Peace. In it, he castigates the German princes and the ecclesiastical leaders for their oppression of the peasants. He writes:

“We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion except you princes and lords… as temporal rulers you do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer… Since you are the cause of this wrath of God, it will undoubtedly come upon you, unless you mend your ways in time… The sword is at your throats, but you think yourselves so firm in the saddle that no one can unhorse you. This false security and stubborn perversity will break your necks, as you will discover.” (Italics mine.)

Luther does not mince his words and claims that the uprising was not the result of his teaching, but the result of their refusal to embrace his exhortations contained in his earlier writings that I mentioned above.

One can perhaps see that the peasants would take encouragement from some of Luther’s statements, concerning the ‘false security’ of the princes and how the sword is already ‘at their throats’. However, he also addresses himself to the peasants, exhorting them in the clearest terms not to use violence. He challenges them that if they want to follow the word of God, they will in no way rebel or fight.

However, his support for the peasants comes with strong qualifications and limitations. On the one hand he says to the princes:

“The peasants have put forth twelve articles, some of which are so fair and just as to take away your reputation in the eyes of God.”

But in the next breath he states:

“Nevertheless, almost all of them (the articles) are framed in their own interest and for their own good, though not for their best good… now you must listen to and put up with these selfish articles.” (Italics mine.)

Considering the extreme oppression and heartless exploitation the peasants were under, this was an extraordinary and unbalanced generalisation to make, if not rather heartless, and could certainly give an excuse to the princes not to meet the demands of the peasants.

Luther goes on to make what could be considered to be some very one-sided statements against the peasants. He writes, addressing them, saying, “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse tumult and rebellion. For no matter how right you are, it is not for a Christian to appeal to law, or to fight, but rather to suffer wrong and endure evil; and there is no other way ( 1 Corinthians 6:5).” (Italics mine.) In response to the peasants’ third article, where they appeal for freedom from the oppression of serfdom, Luther counters with these words: “…that is making Christian liberty an utterly carnal thing. Did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who, at that time, were all slaves.” (Italics mine.)

This is astonishing. As a spiritual and moral leader in the German regions, who is already getting involved in these matters, he is telling the downtrodden peasants that not only should they not rebel, but that they have no right to appeal to the law of the land, and must simply suffer their lot! Slavery is biblical and they have no right of legal appeal. That is his argument. To say do not use arms is one thing. To deny them formal representation concerning their grievances is incomprehensible.

I would have thought that such advice would destroy all hope of change in the peasants’ eyes. The princes reading this would feel under no compulsion to change the status quo if Luther was saying that the requests and demands of the peasants were essentially ‘selfish’, and that they should not fight in any way to change things – not even by legal representation – because it is wrong for slaves to do so!  Although he does appeal to the authorities that they ease the burden on the peasants,  nevertheless, as a ‘spiritual’ and moral leader who was already intervening in these matters, it is amazing that Luther could not have represented their grievances more clearly and directly to the princes and advocated for appropriate changes to the system. However, he backs out of doing so by saying that he cannot comment on most of the articles of the peasants because, “the other articles, about freedom of game, birds, fish, wood, forests; about services, tithe, imposts, excises, Todfall, etc., – these I leave to the lawyers, for it is not fitting that I, an evangelist, should judge or decide them. It is for me to instruct and teach men’s consciences in things that concern divine and Christian matters.”

This lack of direct support for the peasants’ cause would significantly dent Martin Luther’s influence and popularity in Germany. He says he is not fit, as an evangelist, to judge in such matters, but, as we shall see in a moment, when the peasants did cause an uprising, this ‘evangelist’ exhorted the authorities to murder.

Some writers have maintained that this writing of Luther’s Admonition to Peace represented support for the peasants and a springboard for them to take action. The reading of his document gives a different, if not confusing picture. But as we have seen, much of what was written made reference to Biblical truths and Christian values – as if one were addressing, exhorting and rebuking true believers. The unfolding events would show that neither side, neither the Princess nor the peasants – nor Luther, for that matter – reflected anything of true Christian character. This is not said in rebuke to the peasants, but to highlight the illusion that they all continued to live under, namely, addressing and appealing to each other as if they were Christians!

However, in his Admonition to Peace Luther does strongly and vigorously urge both sides to refrain from violence, and tells them that they are far from being Christian if they employ the sword.

Nevertheless, by this time – early Spring, 1525 – the uprising had built up its own momentum, with considerable initial successes as thousands of peasants everywhere attacked monasteries and ecclesiastical authorities, since they also represented the cause of much oppression, and were the easiest targets.6 Even some landowners and knights initially had sympathy for the peasants, as they themselves were under financial burdens from the authorities above them. It seemed at one stage that this uprising might be successful, but a lack of coordination and leadership caused the rebellion to stumble and stall, and it was during this time that the onslaught against them was made.

Luther was furious that the peasants had risen in rebellion, and pens a document against them, addressed to the Princes, entitled, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. In it, he called for the slaughter and annihilation of the rebelling peasants. Luther writes,

“With threefold horrible sins against God and men have these peasants loaded themselves, for which they have deserved a manifold death of body and soul… they cause uproar and sacrilegiously rob and pillage monasteries and castles that do not belong to them, for which, like public highwaymen and murderers, they deserve the twofold death of body and soul. It is right and lawful to slay at the first opportunity a rebellious person, who is known as such, for he is already under God’s and the emperor’s ban. Every man is at once judge and executioner of a public rebel; just as, when a fire starts, he who can extinguish it first is the best fellow… Therefore, whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog… For we are come upon such strange times that a prince may more easily win heaven by the shedding of blood than others by prayers.” (Italics mine)

These are the statements and exhortations to slay and murder made by the religious leader, Martin Luther, who had said that he could only address people’s consciences in his capacity as an evangelist. He had previously said that he was not qualified to interfere in, or comment on social matters, but here he is exhorting every citizen to become an executioner by openly or secretly slaying any rebellious peasant he comes across. More than this, a prince may gain easier access to heaven by shedding the blood of peasants than others by praying. Whatever happened to ‘justification by faith’? There is no moderation or balance in these statements. They breathe out murder.

I said above that it was not only the princes and peasants that totally failed to display any Christian character in what they did, but this applied to Martin Luther as well, and I think his statements above clearly confirm this. It was an astonishing outburst on his part. This is not Luther at the end of his life – this is just 8 years after he had posted his 95 Theses.

Once the German princes had got their act together, the peasants stood no chance – they were simply mowed down and ruthlessly slaughtered. Luther did not pour oil on troubled water – in his fury, he resorted to the most vitriolic and inflammatory language and took just one side. The uprising of the peasants he mercilessly condemned as being of the devil, and the wholesale slaughter of these peasants he not only justified as being supremely Christian, but goaded the princes on to such action. By the summer of the same year, 1525, the rebellion was cruelly put down, with tens of thousands of peasants being killed. The uprising was comprehensively crushed. It is possible that Luther’s public condemnation of the revolt was, in part, an attempt to save the Reformation from the accusation of leading peasants into revolt. And of course, anything that threatened his Reformation, was always of the devil and needed to be exterminated – whether Anabaptists, peasants or Jews.

However, Luther’s ferocious and murderous intervention did not serve him or his purpose well. Erasmus, who had predicted bloodshed because of the manner in which the reformers were propagating their religion, put some of the blame for this slaughter on Luther:

“Erasmus… made it clear to Luther that the bloody outcome of the revolt was caused by the books he published against the monks and bishops in favour of evangelical freedom, especially those books written in German.”7

Luther later wrote the following:

“Preachers are the biggest murderers about, for they admonish the authorities to fulfil their duty and punish the wicked. I, Martin Luther slew all the peasants in the rebellion, for I said that they should be slain; all their blood is upon my head. But I cast it on the Lord God, who commanded me to speak in this way.”8 (Italics mine)

Some defenders of Luther today say that it is unfair of his critics to focus on one or two ‘blots’ of Luther’s character, likening these criticisms to a deliberate character assassination. But these were not ‘blots’; they were symptomatic, they were characteristic of Luther’s nature throughout his life. A fountain does not bring forth waters sweet and bitter at the same time, neither ‘do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles.’ His language of murderous intent, which Luther also justified years later, is not some unfortunate ‘slip’ of character, some understandable idiosyncrasy, or an intemperance born of an annoying, temporary illness; it was a revelation of the nature of the man, which would also later in his life express itself in the most vile and murderous anti-Semitic language.

In the Reformation there was no true separation between church and state. The reformers regarded the ‘religious’ political authorities as subject to the rule of God and therefore subject to the direction of the Church – ‘Preachers are the biggest murderers about, for they admonish the authorities to fulfill their duty and punish the wicked.’

All this had a negative effect on Luther’s standing within the Reformation. From this time on things were different. Luther was no longer the hero figure that he had been. The hopes of many had been dashed.

An article in sums things up like this:

“Repeatedly drawn into fierce controversies during the last decade of his life, Luther emerges as a different figure – irascible, dogmatic, and insecure. His tone became strident and shrill, whether in comments about the Anabaptists, the pope, or the Jews. In each instance his pronouncements were virulent: the Anabaptists should be hanged as seditionists, the pope was the Antichrist, the Jews should be expelled and their synagogues burned. Such were hardly irenic (peaceful) words from a minister of the gospel, and none of the explanations that have been offered – his deteriorating health and chronic pain, his expectation of the imminent end of the world, his deep disappointment over the failure of true religious reform – seem satisfactory.”9

From what I have read, I do not find Luther a more attractive character before 1525 than after this date. And I think there is an explanation that does make sense of his behaviour. A central part of what I am doing in these talks is to offer such an explanation. As I have said, I agree with the defenders of Luther and his contemporary reformers, namely, that they were men of their time, men of their age; they belonged to a kingdom that was of this world, a state-church kingdom. Apart from improving some of their doctrinal views, no great spiritual change had taken place in the Protestant Reformers that displayed itself in their words and actions against those whom they opposed. Also, in his writings throughout his life, Luther used language that was coarse, vulgar and crude – and not infrequently full of invective and hatred and murderous intent, from the beginning of his ministry to the end. It was certainly language that was unbefitting for a spiritual leader, for a Christian minister – indeed, it was language that no Christian should employ.

To suppose that the reformers were just religious men who had only been changed in their doctrinal outlook and nothing more – from catholic to reformed – makes all their violent and hate-filled words and murderous actions totally consistent with men who had never actually been radically changed by the Gospel. The reformers had clearly undergone a doctrinal conversion, a conversion of outlook, but showed no signs of a spiritual conversion.

This is an explanation that would make complete sense of their behaviour, and it also avoids bringing the Gospel into disrepute by claiming such words and actions are consistent with true repentance and conversion. I actually think that it is also the kindest interpretation, as it leaves room for the cry that says, “…but I did it ignorantly in unbelief!”

Luther: On the Jews and Their Lies

This brings us to a work written by Luther in 1543, which was nearly 20 years after the Peasant’s revolt. It was called, On the Jews and Their Lies. It has been suggested by some that this evil book was just a manifestation of Luther’s old age. However, as I indicate above, that suggestion is far too simplistic – indeed, it is very wide of the mark.

At the beginning, Luther did show sympathy towards the Jews. In 1523, Luther accused Catholics of being unfair to Jews and treating them “as if they were dogs,” thus making it difficult for Jews to convert. “I would request and advise that one deal gently with them…” he wrote. “…If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.”10

Treating people by the law of Christian love is commendable indeed. However, when the Jews did not convert to his version of Christianity, and when rumours about Jewish efforts to convert Christians emerged, Luther soon changed his tune, and he changed it completely. It was characteristic of Luther that those who in the end were not for him, he consistently regarded as enemies that needed to be defeated and eliminated.

He wrote:

“I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews… I would not have believed that a Christian could be duped by the Jews into taking their exile and wretchedness upon himself.” (On the Jews and Their Lies)

In an attempt to stir up antipathy and even hatred for all Jews, Luther quotes from the Bible, calling them a ‘brood of vipers’. He goes on to say, “It was intolerable to them to hear that they were not Abraham’s but the devil’s children, nor can they bear to hear this today… Accordingly, it must and dare not be considered a trifling matter but a most serious one to seek counsel against this and to save our souls from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death.” (Italics mine.)

Luther gives his counsel:

“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming… Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burnThis is to be done in honour of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed… This will bring home to them the fact that they are not masters in our country…

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.

Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside… Let them stay at home.

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…

Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an axe, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam.”

Later in the book, Luther repeats and summarises some of these exhortations:

“First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss in sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire. Third, that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country… If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country.”

Towards the end of his book, he writes the following:

“There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses, namely, that God has struck them with “madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians… We are at fault in not slaying them.

From saying that they ‘must not avenge themsleves’, Luther finishes by declaring they would be at fault for not slaying the Jews and avenging the innocent blood of Christ and of Christians.

Luther’s writing against the Jews is unbelievably murderous, evil and hate-filled. It is extreme by any standards. It is difficult to read. This is no ‘hiccup’ in his character. It was not just a ‘bad’ day he was having. Given the right circumstances, this is the man. Nothing in scripture justifies this. Nothing of Christ’s Spirit is exemplified in this – quite the contrary. Whether it was the Jews, the peasants or the Anabaptists, all would be pursued to death if they threatened his Reformation.

The advice Luther gives has terrible parallels to the actions of the Nazis against the Jews. During World War II, copies of Luther’s book, On the Jews and Their Lies, were held up by Nazis at rallies, and the prevailing scholarly consensus is that it had a significant impact on the Holocaust. In his book, Mein Kampf, Hitler names Luther as belonging to the world’s greatest reformers.11 This is part of the legacy of Martin Luther.

Luther Colludes in Philip of Hesse’s Bigamy

Another matter that historians and biographers of Martin Luther refer to as representing ‘a blot’ on his moral character is the issue of his involvement in the bigamous marriage of the Langrave (Count) Philip of Hesse, who was a supporter of Luther and the Reformation. Why some writers give particular focus to this rather than the two previous matters that we have just looked at, I find rather surprising.

Anyway, the story in short is this. Philip got married in 1523, but he was not very enamoured with his wife, and within weeks fell into adultery. However, according to him, on the one hand his conscience suffered terribly, but on the other hand, he was insistent that there was no way he could restrain himself and live being faithful to his wife. Philip wondered whether Old Testament examples of bigamous marriages could provide a basis for him having a second wife. Luther was clear that the New Testament makes no such provision and that one cannot construct a rule that allows a second marriage. Moreover, for such a thing as this to become publicly known would be a great scandal. However, Luther left the door slightly ajar by indicating that in very special circumstances, a unique dispensation could be granted, but pointed out that it would not represent a rule that others could follow, and would therefore be best kept secret. This all sounds rather messy, as it indeed turned out to be.

Philip had some hope that there was an incident that could give him some ammunition in his discussions with the reformers. It related to advice given by Melanchthon and Luther regarding the situation with Henry VIII. The following is an account of the background details:

“Both Melanchthon and Luther in 1531 gave to the Englishman Robert Barnes… their written statement that rather than see Henry VIII put away his wife Catherine, whose marriage they looked upon as valid, they would see him take another wife. For the sake of the bodily issue and lawful succession, Melanchthon thought such a thing would be allowed for the good of England, as polygamy was not absolutely forbidden by divine law; while Luther’s impression of the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine was so strong that rather than permit divorce, ‘I would allow the king to take another queen, according to the examples of the ancient patriarchs and kings who had two wives at the same time.’”12

The reformers would be reminded of this later on. As time went on, Philip apparently continued to suffer terrible pangs of conscience, and felt he could not take the sacrament. Philip did not want to live in a state of adultery, but neither could, nor would he give it up. So Philip was desperate for a second (bigamous) marriage to appear legitimate. However, a second marriage was regarded as a capital crime in the reign of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. So, unfortunately for the reformers, Philip, for ‘conscience sake’, was unwilling to keep a mistress just like other princes did, and pressurised the reformers to sanction a second marriage. In 1539, Philip sent the reformer Bucer to Wittenberg with a letter, reminding them also of their advice to King Henry VIII (see above), and also informing them that his wife had agreed to his second marriage. However, Luther restated the case that if an exception were made and it became known, it would be a scandal and cause uproar. Luther also strongly warned him concerning the sin of adultery.

Nevertheless, in view of Philip’s insistence on legitimising a second marriage, the reformers Luther, Melanchthon and Bucer, gave in and agreed to a bigamous marriage. However, Luther said this must be done in the greatest secrecy and that no one was to know, lest there be a terrible scandal. Luther also felt justified in this secrecy, as he maintained it belonged to ‘confessional’ counsel given by the priest to the individual! So, a secret marriage was conducted on 4th March 1540 in the presence of Melanchthon and Bucer. Some writers have ascribed political motives as well to the reformers, claiming that they feared Philip could desert the reformed cause, and it was Luther himself who later claimed this was a factor in their decision. They seemed to think that it was better to sanction a bigamous marriage than jeopardize the cause of the Reformation in Germany.

However, rumours about marriage soon leaked out, which caused great stress and panic among the reformers, with Melanchthon falling badly ill as a result! The reformers consulted together and agreed to quell the rumours by simply denying them; that is, by lying. They believed that this was by far the more preferable option, and indeed a ‘justifiable’ one, since there was no way they could publicly defend their position.

 In a letter to Antony Lauterbach, dated 2 June 1540, in which Luther replies to his question whether a second marriage had taken place, Luther writes, “In answer to your question about the Landgrave’s second marriage, dear Antony, I can say nothing… I only know that no public proofs of the marriage have been shown me… One must not pronounce rashly on insufficient evidence about the doings princes.”13

Luther was being evasive, to say the least! But only about a week later (10th June 1540), Luther had to write an explanation to the Prince Elector, John Frederick of Saxony, who was furious about what had happened and that he had been kept in the dark. The rumours about the second marriage had spread far and wide and was causing upset. The court in Dresden was now saying that bigamy is part of Luther’s teaching, and had approached the Prince Elector about the matter.

In his letter to the Elector, Luther tries to defend himself by saying that as the advice to Philip had been ‘confessional advice’, it ought not to be shared with anyone outside, not even with the Elector. Luther complains that if Philip had kept quiet, there would not have been all this fuss:

“Most serene, highborn Elector, most gracious Lord! I am sorry to learn that your Grace is importuned by the court of Dresden about the Landgrave’s business. Your Grace asks what answer to give the men of Meissen. As the affair was one of the confessional, both Melanchthon and I were unwilling to communicate it even to your Grace, for it is right to keep confessional matters secret, both the sin confessed and the counsel given, and had the Landgrave not revealed the matter and the confessional counsel, there would never need have been all this nauseating unpleasantness.”14

Luther says he wants to maintain the confidentiality of the confessional, however, the sin committed was not just on the part of the ‘penitent’ (Philip), but also on the part of the priest (Luther)! In defence, Luther then also confirms that Philip threatened to ‘turn to the Emperor and Pope’ if he could not obtain what he wanted from them, and Luther states his actions were taken to prevent this. So Luther clearly admits that political reasons were behind his advice. Basically, what Luther says in the letter, is that under the circumstances, he did the best he could do. His hand was forced. In other words, political expediency takes priority over truth and honesty. The reformers did seem indeed to be men of the world.

Despite all this, Luther defended his actions later on with these words: “I still say that if the matter was brought before me today, I should not be able to give counsel different from what I did… I am not ashamed of my counsel, even if it should be published in all the world, but for the sake of the unpleasantness which would then follow, I should prefer, if possible, to have it kept secret.”

So, even in retrospect, Luther did not regret anything or see his counsel, actions and lying as wrong. The 19th century Swiss Protestant theologian and church historian Philip Schaff comments:

“The most unfortunate matrimonial incident in the Reformation is the consent of Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer to the disgraceful bigamy of Landgrave Philip of Hesse. It is a blot on their character, and admits of no justification. When the secret came out (1540), Melanchthon was so overwhelmed with the reproaches of conscience and a sense of shame that he fell dangerously ill at Weimar.”15

I am puzzled by this comment. As an historian, he has recounted all the atrocities of the reformers against the Anabaptists and against the Jews. Why should he be startled by this event as being some kind of exceptional blot on Luther’s life. How is it any more reprehensible to lie about and sanction bigamy than to murder other Christians and Jews? He that is able to twist the Scriptures to justify murdering others is certainly very capable of lying. The Protestant Reformers simply conducted themselves according to their nature – all their life long. Some have suggested that sanctioning bigamy and lying about it indicated some kind of moral collapse at the end of Luther’s life. The words and actions of his whole life argue against such an interpretation.

The Christianised religious clerics remained Christianised religious clerics – before, they were called Catholics, but now, they called themselves Reformed. There was no radical change in their lives – at least, there’s nothing in their actual conduct as reformers that reflects and demonstrates that they had known an inward transformation of life that follows genuine repentance and true conversion. They were men of their times. They were of this world, and they behaved like men of this world – they bent the Scriptures to suit their own religious views, and they cruelly hounded, persecuted and sentenced to death the innocent. What would you expect of such men? Why talk of this ‘blot’ or that ‘blot’. Their whole lives speak the one and self-same thing.

The 20ty century Dutch historian, Heiko Oberman, points out this anomaly in his book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. He refers to the fact that Protestant writers refer to the incident of the bigamous marriage as a “black day” in the history of the German Reformation. But then goes on to make this point:

“In comparison, Luther’s writings against the Jews, which in turn cannot be isolated from his writings against the papists and peasants, evidently seemed far less offensive. But Luther assailed all three groups with deadly ferocity, urging the authorities to take decisive action.”16

Perhaps Protestant writers feel they are more vulnerable to attack from Catholic historians on this point than on the others, since both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists and Jews.

Historically, the Reformation was extremely significant because it altered the political and religious landscape of Europe; it affected the power balance on the continent. However, it brought no spiritual awakening or a movement of repentance and conversions in communities, such as we read in the histories of revivals. On the contrary, where there were signs of genuine repentance and conversions among the citizens outside of the confines of the Church system, the Protestant Reformers urged the authorities to persecute and liquidate them. The Reformation did not bring toleration of other Christian outlooks or freedom of conscience. It carried on the merciless persecution and execution of all those that disagreed with their form of religion, exactly like the Catholics had done and were doing. This was the nature of the Reformation and of the men who led it.



  1. Farel and the Reformation in Western Switzerland: Bern, Neuchatel, Lausanne and Geneva
  2. The Imposition of a Religion on a Reluctant People

We will now return to follow the progress of the Reformation in Switzerland. We had previously looked at the birth of the Reformation in the city of Zürich under Zwingli, and in Basle under Oecolampadius. We shall now consider its spread to other major cities and regions in the west of Switzerland, which will include the city of Geneva, where the reformer John Calvin was to lead the church.

It would be good to remind ourselves that at this time the Swiss regions, or Cantons, had formed themselves into a confederation which had its own independence within the Holy Roman Empire. This was a crucial factor in that it gave each Swiss regions the freedom to choose which religion it wanted to follow without the threat of military action from the Pope or the Emperor.


Another significant city to adopt the Reformation was Bern, which we have already briefly mentioned and which was a major centre of influence at the time of the Reformation. It is the capital city of Switzerland today.

In the early 1520s reformers were active in Bern, applying pressure for change. However, it took a number of years for the city council to turn Bern completely to the Reformed faith.  In Chapter 5, we considered the role that iconoclasm played in securing the Reformation in Basle. Although Basle went over to the Reformed faith after Bern, I indicated that what happened there represented a pattern that was followed in all the cities of Switzerland that made this switch to the Reformed religion – the Reformation did not take root through evangelistic effort but through the zealous dedication of a group of well-educated humanist reformers, who by stirring up the latent anti-Catholic feelings of many in their communities managed to persuade the civic authorities to adopt and impose the Reformed religion on all the citizens in those communities. So, their endeavours were geared to get a change of religion – from Catholic to Reformed – by a decision of the civil government.

In Bern, there were three ministers who were propagating Reformed teaching and in addition to them, there was also a gifted layman, Nicholas Manuel, who created anti-Catholic satirical dramas. In his outdoor plays he mercilessly mocked the papacy and the immoral and self-indulgent life-styles of the Catholic clergy. His plays were very popular and drew large crowds. This very public exposure of Catholic abuses and corruption gave evidence to the fact that anti-Catholic feeling among the population was already rife and provided a base and impetus that could be exploited by the emerging reformers. As a consequence of the growing voice in favour of the Reformation, the city council of Bern made some changes to religious practices as a concession to the reformers. In 1525, Bern abolished indulgences, seized some land from the Catholic Church and removed certain clerical privileges. Moreover, no one was any longer forced to go on pilgrimages, make confession, or believe in purgatory.

However, it was not all plain sailing for the reformers. They had to deal with backlashes from the Catholic camp, not only against their teachings, but against themselves as well, with one of the three reformers, called Haller, wanting to quit at one stage because of the pressure he was under. Moreover, due to the peasants’ war in Germany, which caused some alarm throughout Europe, the Reformed movement stalled for a while and even suffered a reversal in Bern, with the council reversing earlier decisions it had made in favour of the Protestant Reformers. We can see from this that the so-called success of the Reformation in Bern would not depend on large numbers of people being converted through Gospel preaching, but by winning the religious seesaw debates that were going on in the city councils of Bern – and this happened in 1528.

The Reformed group steadily gained strength again, and by 1527 it had a majority in the two governing councils of the city, and, as was the custom, this led to a demand for a ‘public disputation’ to decide which form of religion Bern should follow. So a Disputation was held in January 1528 (between 6th and 26th). 250 theologians gathered with Zurich sending about one hundred ministers and laymen. The reformers were far better prepared than the Catholics and had some notable figures, such as Zwingli himself, as well as others (Oecolampadius, Bucer, Capito and William Farel). Thus, by a majority vote in its favour, the civic authorities ruled that the Reformation Faith would be adopted – not to say, imposed – on all churches in Bern.

So the new Reformed order of service was imposed on all pastors, and the Bernese Council ordered the abolition of the mass, and declared that Catholic bishops no longer had any authority in Bern. Following these decisions, anti-Catholic feeling led to violent mob-led iconoclasm. Paintings and statues representing the Catholic faith were thrown out and destroyed. The Catholic clerics and their flocks could not practice or give expression to their religion any longer in Bern. Political considerations also played a part in the council’s decision as well as religious ones. A vote for the Reformation was, for many, simply a vote against Catholic rule. To some extent, the Reformation was a messy affair of power politics at play using religion as a vehicle to achieve liberation from Catholic control and exploitation.

Bern then applied these decisions to the regions under its jurisdiction, with the council turning its attention to enforcing the Reformation in the rural parishes, many of which were located close to Catholic territory and which were reluctant to adopt the changes. Bern allowed the men of each parish to vote for the creed that they wished to prevail in their village or local church, but once the vote went in favour of the Reformed camp, the churches would immediately be purged of Catholic symbols and the Mass banned completely in that area. But changing people’s religion by a vote in the parish council was not going to carry everyone with it, to say the least!

In the autumn of 1528, war broke out between Bern and some of the villages in the Bernese Highlands (Oberland), where people were protesting against the enforced changes to make them Reformed. Nearly one thousand peasants from the highlands massed together to march on the capital Bern. However, Reformed Bern put down the rebellion of the Catholic villagers by military force, thus imposing the Protestant religion on the rural and alpine villages under its jurisdiction. And ultimately, it would do this right across the French-speaking regions of western Switzerland. This is how the ‘Reformation’ was spreading. There was no evangelistic effort to change people’s hearts and minds by the preaching of the Gospel. The reformers could and did largely content themselves with the success of having their form of religion imposed on the region by vote of the city council and by a majority vote in the outlying parishes once sufficient anti-Catholic feeling moved the vote that way.  To understand the reformers’ allegiance to religious dictatorial rule we need repeatedly to remind ourselves that the Protestant Reformers as well as the civic authorities belonged to Christendom. For both of them, religious tolerance and liberty, by definition, was a threat to the security and stability of Christendom. Thus a reformed government and reformed ministers had no qualms about sending an army to put down the protest of Catholic farmers, who simply wanted to carry on with the religion that had known for generations.

Protestant historians describe such ‘victories’ as ‘the success of the Gospel’ in a region, and hail it as ‘light’ shining, where ‘darkness’ had previously reigned. This is a myth. You cannot convert people with firearms and swords. The Reformation did not bring liberty and the Gospel to people. It substituted one form of oppression for another.

At this stage, it would be good to remind ourselves of one of the main factors that helped bring in the Reformation, and that was the state of the Catholic Church and its clerics. They imposed financial burdens on people, abused their power, exploited people’s ignorance, lived in luxury while people suffered, and many of the clerics lived totally immoral and self-indulgent lives whereby they also manifestly neglected to care for their flocks. Thus, the Catholic Church was an easy target for the mockery of satirical dramas in the streets of Bern, allowing the anti-Catholic campaign of the reformers to find a ready audience among its listeners. Quite a number of people found it convenient just to be freed from Catholic superstitions and abuses, and were thus ready to receive the Reformation message – but we must not confuse this adoption of the Reformed religion with personal conversion brought about by the Gospel. As we have seen, the mandate requiring Bern to adopt the Reformation led to the violent destruction of images and statues in the Catholic churches. This is hardly a sign of people being freshly and genuinely converted and rejoicing in Christ their Saviour! It is more akin to religious fanaticism of an unchanged Christianised community. This is the kind of thing one sees in populist political or revolutionary movements, not in revivals.

If I may state it again, in all the biographies and histories of the Reformation that I have read, it is nowhere recorded that through the teaching of the reformers communities were changed by a conviction of personal sin and the consequent personal repentance of the citizens leading to radically changed lives that produced martyrs, not persecutors and violent mobs. The only records of this type of repentance and conversion are to be found among the Anabaptists.

We have already seen how Bern’s adoption of the Reformation provided significant impetus to its introduction to Basle. However, the events in Bern had a decisive effect on the spread of the Reformation, not to say the imposition of the Reformation, on the French-speaking regions of Switzerland to the south-west of Bern. This area encompasses the region known as the Vaud (Pays de Vaud) and the cities of Neuchatel, Lausanne and Geneva. Geneva is, of course, the city where John Calvin served as chief pastor, and it is enlightening to see in what context Geneva adopted the Reformed faith.

The Pays de Vaud

The history of this French-speaking region is somewhat complex, so I will try to keep to the basics that are relevant to this study. The first thing to say is that this region was generally strongly and deeply Catholic, particularly in the more rural and mountainous regions. However, it was also an area that had sought independence from the neighbouring Catholic Duchy of Savoy. This was a crucial factor in this region going over to the Reformed religion. There was mounting tension and conflict over a number of years between the Duchy of Savoy and the French-speaking region of western Switzerland, the Pays de Vaud.

As a result of this, and to guard against domination by the Duchy of Savoy, Geneva and Lausanne signed treaties of mutual assistance with Bern in 1519, along with the city of Fribourg. The treaties and this link to Bern preceded the tensions that arose later regarding the Reformation, and did not have a religious aspect to them. Bern and Fribourg guaranteed Lausanne and Geneva protection from outside attack in these agreements.

In 1526 Bern, Fribourg and Geneva renewed their alliance, which was entirely political in nature and made to secure Geneva’s independence. The neighbouring Duke of Savoy – against whom these treaties were targeted – did not take kindly to this alliance and created an economic blockade of Geneva. Eventually, this brought Bern – which by then had become ‘Reformed’ – into the conflict, and Bern’s army marched across the Vaud region and liberated Geneva in 1530, in which year another treaty of alliance was signed, called the Treaty of Saint Julien.

What is important to emphasise here is that this French-speaking region was deeply Catholic – in the 1520s it actually passed measures to outlaw Reformed and Lutheran teachings in its regions. However, it was also jealous of its own independence from the Duchy of Savoy and from the associated Catholic bishops. But the French-speaking regions were now reliant on Protestant Bern for their independence, and Bern over-rode its attempts to ban Protestant teaching in its cities and regions. So religion got enmeshed with the geo-politics of the situation. Bern’s guarantee of security, in effect, started to become conditional on the French-speaking territories allowing Reformed preaching within its areas, including Geneva and Lausanne. Eventually, Bern went further by applying huge pressure on the Vaud to ensure that the Reformed doctrine would be accepted as the religion in these territories. In fact, as Bern fully turned to the Reformed faith, Geneva broke of its alliance with Catholic Fribourg (which was part of the alliance with Bern) in order to maintain support from Bern and its army. 1

Moreover, as we have previously seen, the other factor that allowed the Reformation inroads into this region was the conduct and lifestyle of the Catholic clerics. This disaffection for the worldly ways of the Catholic clerics could be, and was exploited by the reformers to bring people over to Protestant teaching. And as I have just noted, the security that Bern provided to these French-speaking regions gave Bern decisive authority over them. This would be a crucial element in the ‘success’ of the Reformation in these areas.

William Farel

So, how did the Reformation spread in the Pays de Vaud, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland?

The person we now have to introduce is a person called Guillaume or William Farel. He is well known as the Reformer who introduced Calvin to Geneva, but he was also an extremely significant figure himself in spreading the Reformation in these regions. Farel had been engaged by the Bernese authorities to spread the Reformed faith in the French-speaking territories of the Vaud under their control. Like so many other Reformers, he had studied under the famous Jacques le Fèvre d’Étaples, the Catholic Renaissance humanist.

How was Farel able to teach the Reformed faith in these deeply Catholic regions of western Switzerland? The one factor that stopped him being thrown out of the French-speaking Vaud region very early on was the fact that Bern had over-ruling authority in this area as defender of their independence. Bern had issued mandates in favour of the Reformation to dampen unrest in Bern itself between the Protestants and Catholics, but they were also applied within the French-speaking regions, thus giving a legal mandate for reformed preachers like Farel to preach in Catholic churches, despite the violent protests against him.

Farel was a fiery, confrontational and charismatic figure, who was advised and warned by his own co-reformers to moderate both his language and behaviour. In the town of Montbeliard, Farel came across a Catholic procession on the day of the feast of Saint Anthony. Angered by this superstition, he boldly advanced and rebuked the people for their idolatry. He then physically seized the image of their Saint from the priest and threw it over the bridge into the river. While the procession stood stunned and horrified at such ‘sacrilege’, he made his quick escape before they could grab him and throw him into the river!2 This incident highlights how the focus of the reformers’ preaching and actions were anti-Catholic rather than evangelistic and evangelical. How is violently seizing an image away from Catholic people going to convict them of sin or turn them to Christ? The reformers saw themselves far more in the style of Old Testament prophets and kings who were responsible for physically overthrowing the idols of Israel and in punishing the idolaters. The reformer’s aim was to change people’s religious practice and beliefs – they failed to target the spiritual condition of people’s hearts by the preaching of the Gospel.

Farel had quite a turbulent time in these French-speaking regions. He went to towns and villages where he would preach, either in the open air or in churches, but always pouring out invective against the Catholic mass, idolatry and the immoral behaviour of the priests. He would even interrupt Catholic Church services, climb the pulpit, take over the service and start preaching against Catholic abuses and superstitions. He would spend longer or shorter times in an area, depending on his reception! He was often met with violent reactions from among the Catholics, who would rush upon him, beat and club him. He suffered a number of severe injuries during these years, and at times his life was in danger. The local Catholic authorities would complain to Bern about Farel’s activities, but each time the citizens of these regions were reminded that their territory was under Bern’s supervision and mandates, and that Farel was not to be hindered in his preaching. In other words, to a very great extent, Farel had been foisted on Catholic communities by the authority of Bern. In some cases, the locals simply refused to attend churches where Reformed doctrine was being proclaimed, or resorted to attending Mass at a Catholic church nearby. Those who opposed the Bernese mandates could find themselves before the court. When Farel met with resistance, Bern would send officials to ensure that he was listened to in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, when they could, parts of the Catholic community would cause him to abandon his preaching in churches by shouting and yelling him down, by ringing the bells or by beating drums – all of which they did! It was confusion and chaos, and did not represent biblical evangelism.

One of the towns Farel visited was Morat. He managed to get a following there in the wake of his preaching, but initially the official public vote favoured Catholicism. This was regarded as a ‘defeat’. Nevertheless, he made repeated visits there, and in the end, the vote went his way and Morat ‘converted’ to the Reformed faith. At every step, we see that the reformers’ aim and primary interest was to change the official religion of an area – this was regarded as a ‘success’ and represented ‘bringing the Gospel’ to the area. The setting up of groups of churches who met in homes, and which consisted of converts who had recently turned to Christ for salvation was something that did not happen, nor did it belong to their world view, nor their religious understanding, which was deeply entrenched in the notion of Christendom.

During this time (1529) Farel made a foray into Lausanne, inveighing against Catholicism, but he was driven out by the clerics. However, he soon afterwards returned, bearing a letter from the Bernese authorities:

“He was at first driven away by the bishop and the clergy, but soon reappeared provided with a letter from the lords of Berne. ‘We send him to you,’ said their excellencies to the authorities of the city, ‘to defend his own cause and ours. Allow him to preach the Word of God, and beware that you touch not a hair of his head.’”3

Thus were the Lausanne authorities forced to allow Farel the freedom to preach and to stir up people against the Catholic faith.


In Neuchatel, Farel used a different strategy to provoke direct confrontation and to stir things up. He and his associates posted placards in the streets that read: “All those who say mass are robbers, murderers, and seducers of the people.” Again, this does not represent evangelism, nor is it evangelical in its approach. This is just religious sectarianism that engenders animosity and hostility, and it had its desired effect, provoking a reaction from the Catholic clergy.

“The canons summoned their people, called together the clerks, and marching at the head of a large troop, armed with swords and clubs, descended into the town, tore down the sacrilegious placards.”4

Farel was hauled before the authorities there, but again, no measures were taken against him, since behind him lay the forces of Bern. On a subsequent visit to Neuchatel, he was preaching outside when the crowd shouted out that he should be allowed to preach in a church. D’Aubigne relates:

“‘Why, should not the Word of God be proclaimed in a church?’ The company of people then bore him along and ushered him into the Hospital Chapel, and placed him in the pulpit. However, seeing the symbols of Catholic superstition all over the Chapel proved too much for Farel, and he ‘laid his hands on these objects of idolatry, removed them, and broke them in pieces.’”5 (Italics mine)

In my reading of the Acts of the Apostles, I do not come across such violent actions by those sent by the Lord Jesus to preach the Gospel. By their preaching and actions the reformers only created a sectarianism that pitched the Protestant against the Catholic. It was a sectarianism that created mutual hostility and aggression between two camps that would last down even to the present day in, for example, Northern Ireland. This sectarian spirit would result in endless bloodshed and millions of death over at least two centuries, with the two rival religions persecuting and killing each other in bitter hatred. There was nothing much to distinguish between them in this respect. The delusion of the Puritans was that they thought God was on their side and they were His representatives to eliminate Catholic idolatry from England by use of the sword and to try and impose their form of religion and outward morality on the whole nation. All this had nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ or His Church.

To return to our story. Exasperated, the Catholic authorities requested that Bern send deputies to oversee and resolve matters. However, as was to be expected, the Bernese delegation supported the Reformed faction in Neuchatel, who then demanded that the Catholic Mass be abolished, but the Catholics would neither give in nor discuss the matter. There was an uneasy stalemate at this time. However, Farel was again preaching at the hospital chapel at Nuechatel and declared to the people listening:

“‘What then, will you not pay as much honour to the Gospel as the other party does to the mass?… And if this superstitious act is celebrated in the high church, shall not the Gospel be proclaimed there also?’ At these words all his hearers arose. ‘To the church!’ cried they; ‘to the church!’”6

The people needed little encouragement. With these words, they bore Farel along and forced their way into the Cathedral itself. The Catholic contingent tried physically to prevent Farel from entering the pulpit, but they were overwhelmed by the Reformed faction, who placed Farel in the pulpit unharmed.

D’Aubigne writes:

“Immediately all is calm within the church and without; even the adversaries are silent, and Farel delivers ‘one of the most effective sermons he had hitherto preached.’ Their eyes are opened; their emotion increases; their hearts are melted; the most obstinate appear converted; and from every part of the old church these cries resound: ‘We will follow the evangelical religion, both we and our children, and in it will we live and die.’”7

If this is what the citizens actually said, then it is very illuminating. They did not say, “We will follow Christ”, but rather said that they were willing to die for the evangelical religion. This had nothing to do with the Gospel and everything to do with religious sectarianism. D’Aubigne states that Farel delivered one of his ‘most effective sermons’ on this occasion, and that even the most hardened were ‘converted’. But what was the result of such a ‘melting of hearts’; what change in behaviour did this ‘conversion’ actually create in them? D’Aubigne continues with the narrative:

“Suddenly a whirlwind, as it were, sweeps over this multitude, and stirs it up like a vast sea. Farel’s hearers desire to imitate the pious King Josiah.”8

We see the same features throughout this study; the same religious worldview. It is Christendom from beginning to end. These stirred-up people, these enraged people, now set about like a violent mob to destroy the images and statues inside the church, believing they are acting as God’s people did in the Old Covenant by physically destroying the idols of Catholic superstitions. In his writings, D’Aubigne wishes us to believe that the violent zeal of these ‘newly-converted’ citizens could be likened to King Josiah’s clearing Israel of its idols. However, this does not represent ‘holy zeal’, but religious sectarianism and hatred. The narrative continues with the people declaring:

“‘If we take away these idols from before our eyes, will it not be aiding us,’ said they, ‘in taking them from our own hearts? Once these idols are broken, how many souls among our fellow-citizens, now disturbed and hesitating, will be decided by this striking manifestation of the truth! We must save them as it were by fire.’”9

The people believe that doing away with the outward symbols of superstition will remove the superstition itself from their hearts. This strange and false thinking then propels the people into violent action:

“This latter motive decided them, and then began a scene that filled the Romanists with horror, and which must, according to them, bring down the terrible judgment of God on the city… the people of Neufchatel were in commotion. The governor, whose castle adjoined the church, was compelled to remain an idle spectator of the excesses that he could not prevent; he was content to leave us a description of them. ‘These daring fellows,’ says he, ‘seize mattocks, hatchets, and hammers, and thus march against the images of the saints.’ They advance – they strike the statues and the altars — they dash them to pieces. The figures carved in the fourteenth century by the ‘imagers’ of Count Louis are not spared; The townspeople collect all these fragments of an idolatrous worship; they carry them out of the church, and throw them from the top of the rock… They tear out the eyes in the pictures of the saints, and cut off their noses. The crucifix itself is thrown down….’”10

However, the contempt of the new converts for Catholic symbols of worship did not stop there. They flung the decorative plates on which the wafers were placed into the river below and then proceeded to eat the wafers to demonstrate that it was only natural bread and not the body of the Lord Himself. This enraged the Catholic clerics who then, together with their supports, flew upon the reformed group and the two opposing camps then came to blows. Leading council members called on the Reformed camp to appear before the governor, but this was rejected out of hand, and things only settled down after the people had seen their destructive desire fulfilled on the images in the church. Following this, the Catholics pressed for an immediate official vote of its citizens on the issue of the Catholic Mass, but this was adamantly resisted by the Reformed camp, who anticipated that such a vote would not end up in their favour, given the circumstances. Instead, they insisted that the officials from Bern should come and oversee such a vote, and of course, this strategy could only work in their favour. Given the tense atmosphere and the potential for more violence, the Catholic authorities conceded and requested the presence of Bernese officials.

As anticipated, the presence of these officials worked in favour of the Reformed camp. The Bernese warned the governor of Neuchatel with the following words:

“Their Excellencies of Berne are much astonished that you should oppose the true and pure Word of God. Desist immediately, or else your state and lordship may suffer for it.”11

This gave a flavour of how things would proceed. Sensing that things were stacked against them because of presence of the Bernese officials, the Catholic authorities wanted to defer the vote as they did not want it to be held under such duress and with such haste. They felt that if there had been time to address the community without this outside presence, they could have swayed the people in their favour. However, they had to succumb to the demands of the Bernese and the vote was held, with the Reformed religion ‘winning’ with a majority of 18 votes.

This is how the Reformation spread and won its ‘victories’ in the West of Switzerland. This is supposed to represent the triumph of the Gospel in these lands. It was nothing of the sort. Given the nature of this ‘conversion’ to the Protestant faith, it is no wonder that stiff resistance continued to be given by the Catholic faithful in these regions, particularly in the more rural and mountainous areas.

The historian Bruce Gordon sums things up with the following words:

“Farel’s activities enjoyed the protection of Bern and its considerable military force. The Bernese encouraged his campaign of violence by turning a blind eye to destructive and illegal acts… Farel and his fellow ministers engaged in covert acts of iconoclasm in which Catholic churches were attacked, often in the dead of night, and images desecrated… In the French-speaking lands it was a pitched battle between a small but fanatical number of reformers and a resolutely Catholic population largely resistant to their charms.”12

Because of Bern’s backing, Farel was experienced some limited success, but things changed when Bern was given the opportunity to invade the French-speaking regions of the Pays de Vaud in western Switzerland. Despite the peace treaty that had been agreed, the Duke of Savoy was now troubling Geneva again. After the Duke refused to negotiate peacefully, Bern’s armies invaded the Pays de Vaud in January 1536 to secure this region from the Duke, and the Bernese army easily overcame the little resistance that his troops offered. The political allegiance of this region with its cities, towns and villages had now to switch to Bern, which meant that the French-speaking region of the Pays de Vaud came under the jurisdiction of Protestant Bern. To all intents and purposes, these regions of western Switzerland had become the possession of Bern. Although Bern promised that no region would be forced to adopt the Reformed faith, the reluctance and resistance of the people to the new religion was such that eventually Bern twisted their arm to make them accept the Protestant faith in their towns and cities.


After its military conquest of the Vaud in 1536, the Bernese focussed their attention on winning over the city of Lausanne to the Reformation. Lausanne was an important administrative centre in the region and would be useful in imposing the Reformed religion on the surrounding areas if it could be won over. In the following quote, Bruce Gordon confirms that it was through public disputations that the reformers sought to win over the council authorities and impose their brand of religion on cities and their surrounding villages:

“The imposition of the reformed faith began in the summer of 1536… To provide a sense of legitimacy, the Bernese magistrates employed a tactic often used in the Swiss reformation: they summoned a disputation… It was to be held in Lausanne in October and 10 points of reformed teaching provided the basis of the debate. This was not an open exchange of views: the outcome was already determined as the Bernese authorities intended to persuade the reluctant Vaudois to accept the new faith… The foregone conclusion was declared: the mass was to be abolished in the Vaud and by 19th October a first Reformation edict required the removal of altars, images and liturgical instruments.13 (Italics mine)

Gordon is among several historians of the Swiss Reformation who make the same point, namely, that the Disputations were simply a strategy, a vehicle that was employed which would ensure the ‘acceptance’, or better said, the imposition of the Reformed religion in a given city or territory. We have seen these features clearly illustrated in this historical survey.

James Blakeley, in his dissertation on the Reformation in the west of Switzerland (the Vaud), makes the same point:

“Cities commonly held disputations before enacting the Reformation. This device was a ritual of persuasion. We can also see in retrospect that it was a rite of self-justification for those who favored the Reformation. There was no doubt that the reformed side would win; but the process of arguing and debating in front of an audience of Catholics and Evangelicals gave the procedure the appearance of fairness. It was no different in Lausanne.”14 (Italics mine)

It is generally recognised that the towns and villages of the Pays de Vaud were made to accept the Reformation under duress from Protestant Bern. However, despite the official imposition of the Reformed religion, in many places people still continued with Catholic services and traditions. In general, the French-speaking regions valued being independent of the Duke of Savoy, but they were not keen on having a new religion being foisted on them. Thus, resentment, resistance and tensions remained throughout the French-speaking regions.

To finish this section and to prepare us for our consideration of Calvin’s activity and rule in Geneva, we need to look at the background of how Reformed teaching gained its foothold in the city of Geneva.


In October 1532, Farel called in at Geneva, where a reform-minded associate named, Olivetan, was there to receive them.

Farel found a few sympathizers in Geneva (including Ami Perrin, who was an ardent supporter of the reformers at that time, but later became an active opponent of Calvin), but the presence of the reformers caused such a commotion among the population that Farel was ordered to leave by the city authorities. However, when he showed his credentials from Bern, the council had second thoughts about how they should treat him. In the event, Farel was hauled before the Catholic episcopal council in Geneva where he was verbally abused and insulted by the Catholic clerics. His reaction was interesting. In his reply to the Catholic clerics, he said, “Elijah said to King Ahab, ‘It is thou, and not I, who disturbest Israel.’ So I say, it is you and yours, who trouble the world by your traditions, your human inventions and your dissolute lives.”15

In these words, we again detect that Farel does not view the Genevan citizens as those who need salvation through the preaching of the Gospel. For him, the Christianised community of Geneva are viewed as God’s people who were being deceived by the idolatrous Catholics. Farel saw himself more in the role of an Old Testament prophet inveighing against the sins of God’s people, not as a New Testament evangelist. As we have seen, it was a fundamental flaw in the thinking of virtually all the reformers.

The Catholic clerics, however, created such a tumult against Farel that he was physically jostled, beaten and bruised, and ordered to leave Geneva within 3 hours. Farel hurriedly got to a boat and crossed the lake to escape their fury.

The next year, in 1533, the Bernese authorities again got involved and sent an official letter of rebuke to Geneva:

“We are surprised that in your city the faith in Jesus Christ, and those who seek it, are so greatly molested… You will not suffer the word of God to be freely proclaimed, and you banish those who preach it.”16

Here the political and military muscle of Bern was being flexed to put religious pressure on Geneva. This put the Genevan civil authorities in a quandary, as they were caught between the protests of the Catholic camp together with the threatenings of the Duke of Savoy on the one hand, and by pressure from Protestant Bern, who were the guardians of their independence, on the other.

Nevertheless, the Catholics continued to preach against the Reformed faith in Geneva. A Dominican scholar called Guy Furbity lead the attack with some vehemence against the reformers and their teachings, and on Jan. 1, 1534, the Catholic bishop prohibited any preaching that did not first have his permission. So a deputation then came from Bern, which included Farel and two other reformers (Viret and Froment). Bern demanded  – no surprises here – that a disputation be held where the reformers were to be heard and where Furbity was called to defend his attacks on Farel and his preaching of the ‘Gospel’, otherwise Furbity would face imprisonment. Huge political pressure, not to say, blackmail, was exerted on Geneva by Protestant Bern. The latter were going to ensure the spread of the Reformed religion, no matter what. They put pressure on Geneva:

 “‘You must arrest Furbity and bring him to trial for insulting us,’ said the Bernese, ‘and he must prove from Scripture what he has declared, or recant.” The Genevans hesitated. It would offend Freiburg.”17

Freiburg was part of that original alliance together with Bern to safeguard Geneva, but Freiburg was Catholic. Geneva hesitated, not knowing quite what to do, but Bern plied on the pressure:

“’If you prefer Freiburg to us,’ replied Bern, ‘then choose her. But what about those large sums of money which you owe us for defending your city? What about the articles of alliance? Refuse our request, and we must have a settlement. We will remove the seal from the articles, and you will look no more to us for help.’ The Senate of Geneva could afford to give up the alliance with Papal Freiburg, rather than that with Protestant Bern. They therefore let the Bernese summon Furbity to a discussion with Farel.”18

It was a real dilemma for the Genevans, who were not keen to change the religious status quo, but for the sake of their political independence they submitted to the greater power, which was Bern, and the alliance with Freiburg was broken off. A public disputation before the councils was arranged where Farel would debate with Furbity. It was held on Jan. 29, 1534, at which officials from Bern were present. The disputation ended in a partial victory for Farel. Furbity was ordered to publicly apologise and recant, which he refused to do and was imprisoned for 2 years.19

Here we can see that the so-called ‘progress’ or ‘success’ of the Reformation in Geneva was determined by the power politics of Bern. Nevertheless, none of these events meant that the Reformation had taken hold in Geneva. Catholic resistance in the city continued. It was a slow, tense, uphill process. Schaff writes:

“Farel continued to preach in private houses. On March 1, when a monk, Francis Coutelier, attacked the Reformation, Farel ascended the pulpit to refute him. This was his first public sermon in Geneva. The Freiburgers protested against these proceedings, and withdrew from the coburghery (April 12). The bishop pronounced the ban over the city (April 30); the Duke of Savoy threatened war. But Bern stood by Geneva, and under her powerful protection, Farel, Viret, and Froment vigorously pushed the Reformation, though not without much violence. The priests, monks, and nuns gradually left the city, and the bishop transferred his see to Annecy, an asylum prepared by the Duke of Savoy.”20

It was under the ‘powerful protection of Bern’ that the Reformation ‘made strides’ in Geneva; and under such protection the Reformed camp felt at liberty to intimidate the Catholic citizens of Geneva and to commit acts of iconoclasm. As elsewhere in Switzerland and beyond, so here too the Reformed party barged their way into churches and smashed up and destroyed images and statues. In May 1535, the mass was provisionally suspended in Geneva. And as we had noted, Bern invaded this region with its military forces and took possession of it in January 1536, and it was only in the spring of that same year that the Reformed faith was officially adopted by edict in Geneva. Again Schaff relates the following:

“In Aug. 27, 1535, the Great Council of Two Hundred issued an edict of the Reformation, which was followed by another, May 21, 1536. The mass was abolished and forbidden, images and relics were removed from the churches. The citizens pledged themselves by an oath to live according to the precepts of the Gospel… All shops were to be closed on Sunday. A strict discipline, which extended even to the headdress of brides, began to be introduced.”21

So again, by the vote of the city Council, the Reformed religion was imposed on an entire city. In the quote above there is also an interesting use of the word ‘Gospel’, as though it had to do with outward rules and something you pledge yourself to by an oath. This makes sense when talking about switching your allegiance from one form of religion to another, rather than the Gospel which changes you. The citizens’ pledge to ‘live by the Gospel’ would be revealed as meaningless. This was all outward, dead religion. Even when the council had imposed the Reformed religion in its territory, the idea that the freedom that this created to preach the Gospel to people for their spiritual conversion was in no part the thinking of the reformers. In effect, for them it was to do with changing the doctrines which people had to believe, the religious practices they had to follow, and with attempting to regulate their outward behaviour by civil legislation. In Chapter 8, we will look at this aspect of ‘legislating morality’ in order to improve the conduct of citizens.

The Roman Catholic nun, Jeanne de Jussie, from the Convent of Saint Claire in Geneva, gives her account of the events of 1535 in her Short Chronicle, which offers us an insight into the nature of the Reformation in Geneva:

“On the feast of the Madeleine, 22 July, when they were ringing solemnly for mass in her church and the whole parish and other good Christians in the town were gathered there to hear the holy Mass in great piety, that miserable preacher Farel brought his whole congregation. They came in… to the church of the blessed Madeline to obstruct her feast, and when they got inside it, they closed the church and stood at the door and forced people to hear that sermon. This greatly distressed and troubled everyone, the women cried out loudly and the men made such a raucous that they (the reformed part) left the church despite their plans. All divine service was stopped. But after those dogs left, the Christian people came back to the church, and the priest said the mass even more solemnly than ever and in great piety. Those dogs did the same thing at vespers, and they took possession of that holy church and preached there every day afterwards, and then in the church of Saint-Gervais. They did the same in the Dominican monastery on the feast of their father St Dominic, and they obstructed divine services in all the churches.”22

This is the account of someone with a Catholic bias, but it nevertheless coincides with other accounts that we have looked at. What happened in Geneva was the imposition of an outward religion (the Reformed one), which was essentially the result of political expediency on the part of the Genevan councils to safeguard their geo-political independence. From all the historical accounts that we have, it is abundantly clear that the Genevans did not turn to the Reformed faith as a result of evangelistic preaching that led to citizens being genuinely and spiritually converted. It was not a matter of people finding salvation in Christ and having their lives changed inwardly – and outwardly. It was just a switch from one religion to another.

Philip Schaff sums up the state of things like this:

“The people were anxious to get rid of the rule of [the Duke of] Savoy and the bishop, but had no conception of evangelical religion, and would not submit to discipline. They mistook freedom for license. They were in danger of falling into the opposite extreme of disorder and confusion. This was the state of things when Calvin arrived at Geneva in the summer of 1536.”23 (Ibid. Italics mine.)

This is an interesting comment – as well as a fairly accurate one – from a historian with deep Protestant sympathies. I agree with the comments above and would say that it extended to every region where the Reformation was introduced and imposed. It was no wonder that the citizens of these cities and regions ‘had no conception of evangelical religion’. And this was so for the simple reason that the Gospel of salvation from personal sin was not preached by the reformers, whatever their written theology may have contained. The reformers preached a ‘gospel’ of freedom from Catholic superstitions, not a life-changing Gospel of freedom from sin. Schaff here sums up the nature of the Reformation – wherever it came, the Reformation left the people with no true conception of the Gospel. Schaff highlights and confirms another point that I make in this study, namely, that people were not only left unchanged by the preaching of the reformers, but actually became worse because of their preaching on justification by faith, since people regarded this as freedom from religious restrictions that prevented them from enjoying themselves. However, to be fair, Schaff would not have applied this to the whole of the Reformation, but his comment about people ‘mistaking freedom for licence’ is a feature that has shown itself throughout this study.

It was on the heels of these events, which had freshly taken place, that Calvin appeared on the scene in Geneva. Unfortunately, Calvin did not recognise that the citizens of Geneva had no concept of the Gospel. There could only be trouble, as this man, Calvin, tried to impose an outward religion on a people whose hearts were antagonistic to it – that is, his own brand of religion.

The historian Bruce Gordon goes some way in confirming the above point. He writes:

“The Bernese were left in the awkward position of governing a region that had adopted the Reformation in name alone. The Reformed party was a tiny faction facing a hostile population determined to maintain its Catholic faith… If ever Calvin needed to be taught a lesson about the implications of a semi-Reformed church full of people who conformed to religious practices in which they did not believe, the Vaud provided it.”24

It is in Chapter 8 that we will begin to look at Calvin’s time in Geneva. It was an attempt to reform people’s indulgent and licentious behaviour by rules and regulations rather than seeking their conversion through the Gospel. The reformers sought to legislate morality upon a community of sinners in order to make them more holy – something which is impossible. Through the laws of the civic authorities as well as through ecclesiastical measures, the reformers endeavoured to suppress, curtail and punish drunkenness, bawdy songs, dancing, blasphemy, sexual immorality. It is strange that it never occurred to the reformers that those in their congregations were as yet still unconverted and first needed to be inwardly changed! But since they failed to convert citizens by the preaching of the Gospel, the reformers could only impose an external and disciplined religion on them.



  1. The Imposition of an ‘External and Disciplined Religion’
  2. The Arrival and Ejection of Calvin and Farel from Geneva

In the previous Chapter, we saw how the Protestant city of Bern used political and military leverage to pressurise and intimidate the French-speaking Catholic cities of western Switzerland (the Pays de Vaud) to ‘convert’ to the Reformed faith. The historian D’Aubigne says the following regarding the city of Bern before the introduction of the Reformation there:

“Of all the Swiss cantons, Bern appeared the least disposed to the Reformation. A military state may be zealous for religion, but it will be for an external and a disciplined religion: it requires an ecclesiastical organization that it can see, and touch, and manage at its will. It fears the innovations and the free movements of the Word of God: it loves the form and not the life.”1(Italics mine)

This statement is a double-edged sword, though D’Aubigne did not intend it as such! If the imposition of religion on a people has the consequence that D’Aubigne asserts, then the expression ‘an external and a disciplined religion’ is an apt summing up of the nature of the Protestant Reformation. D’Aubigne is speaking of the nature of a State Church system and its domineering control over religious affairs, and that such control can only result in an ‘an external and a disciplined religion’. I agree. The Reformation imposed an external religion that did not fundamentally change people themselves, and then set about trying to regulate their unchristian behaviour, resorting to a forced discipline. D’Aubigne, of course, was speaking of Catholic Bern. However, history shows that nothing changed in this respect in Bern. Reformed Bern was as controlling and dictatorial over its citizens as Catholic Bern had been – and we saw exactly this in the last chapter. The religion of the State had changed but it was the same beast as before.

With regard to what D’Aubigne calls the ‘free movements of the word of God’, again I have related the events that show how in Germany and Switzerland the Reformed Church banned the preaching and teaching of any other form of religion and its practice, and persecuted those who wanted to share the word of God freely with others, such as the Anabaptists. Yes, if you embraced the Reformed religion, you were safe, but for all other Christian believers, the state of intolerance and persecution remained more or less the same as it had done under the Catholics.

Geneva had ‘voted in’ the Reformed religion under duress from Bern just before Calvin’s arrival, but the historian Philip Schaff, commenting on the spiritual condition of its people at that time, maintained that they had ‘no conception of evangelical religion’. Essentially, Calvin could not, and did not change this state of affairs. After many years, he eventually did manage to impose his form of ‘external and disciplined religion’ on the people. This occurred chiefly for two main reasons. One was that his political opponents on the city council were eventually vanquished, and secondly, there was an influx of Protestant believers from other parts of Europe, particularly from France, who were sympathetic to the Reformed faith, who could then also eventually be voted onto the councils.

There is a Calvinist preacher today whom I am about to quote but cannot give his name as I cannot find the reference for the quote! Nevertheless, his words are profoundly true. In one of his sermons he said:

“If you miss the regeneration part, you go into legalism.”

In essence, this comment would also be an accurate summary on the nature of the Protestant Reformation. From all the historical accounts we have looked at, this aspect stands out. The Reformation was not an occurrence where through the preaching of the Gospel people were converted to Jesus Christ, witnessed to by transformed lives and communities, as seen in the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example. Therefore, Reformed preaching and the reformers’ domineering control could only result in a legalistic religion of legislating the morality of the people and imposing, or trying to impose, and outward form of religious observance, without changing the hearts of the people – all this in the ‘disciplined’ context of threats, punishments and imprisonment for wayward behaviour. This is a far cry from both apostolic teaching and apostolic behaviour. As I have said, there was nothing either evangelistic or truly evangelical about the Reformation movement if it is to be judged by its conduct and fruit.

It is this aspect of ‘religion without regeneration’ that we shall see more clearly as we consider the Reformation in Geneva under Calvin.

Catholic Clerics Threatened with ‘Conversion’ or Banishment

We saw how in the years 1535 and 1536, the city of Geneva took its final steps in declaring itself for the Reformed faith, imposing it on its clergy and citizens. Similar edicts were given by the Bernese authorities in other regions of French-speaking Switzerland at the end of 1536, stipulating that in order to continue to receive their income, the Catholic clergy had to switch over to the Reformed faith or leave the region. Inevitably, many who stayed on such a basis did not turn out to be the best proponents for the Reformation! One thorn in Calvin’s side for quite a few years in Geneva was the ministers he had to work with. On the outside, they wore the ‘cloak’ of the reformation, but underneath they were unchanged.

In March 1542, six years after Geneva had declared itself for the Reformed faith, and when Calvin had already served in Geneva for several years (but with a break of three years), Calvin complained that he had only one colleague, named Viret, who was of great benefit to him. Concerning the other ministers, Calvin wrote the following to a fellow reformer in Basle:

“Our other colleagues are rather a hindrance than a help to us; they are rude and self-conceited, have no zeal and less learning. But what is worst of all, I cannot trust them, even although I very much wish I could; for by many evidences they show their estrangement from us, and give scarcely any indication of a sincere and trustworthy disposition.”2

This was the quality of ministers and preachers that Calvin had to work with to reform Geneva. But it should have come as no surprise, given the background of how the Reformation had been imposed on the citizens of Geneva, as well as on the rest of western Switzerland.

Legislating Morality Versus the Preaching of the Gospel

The biographer and modern historian, Bernard Cottret, makes the following point in his book on Calvin: “The proclamation of the word and the struggle against dissolute morals – these two objectives would be constants in the time of Calvin.”3

And this was absolutely true for Calvin in Geneva. Calvin would preach in Geneva, but his preaching would address the worldly and immoral conduct of the citizens. Controlling bad and immoral behaviour – suppressing it, banning it, legislating against it and punishing it – became a never-ending fight for Calvin. ‘If you miss the regeneration part, you go into legalism.’

This aspect of a ‘moralising campaign’ as a feature of the Reformation in the Vaud (French-speaking Western Switzerland) is clearly brought to light in a dissertation by James Blakely, which was mentioned earlier. Blakeley, among other writers, notes that dancing was a favourite pastime among the people – at festive religious occasions, weddings or at any event that gave opportunity for dancing and singing. However, as this was often associated with other less pleasant behaviour, it was cracked down on by the authorities.

Blakeley writes:

“Beginning with the mandate of December 1536, the Bernese banned dancing, although for a time they permitted three ‘honest’ dances at weddings. Men and women were punished continually for dancing in connection with holy days and festivities… Small groups and families were punished by the authorities for dancing alone… Singing went along with dancing. The Bernese tried to put an end to lewd and bawdy songs.”4

Confronting the ‘crime’ of dancing would turn into a major incident in Geneva when Calvin sought to punish some leading citizens for indulging therein! Blakely goes on to state that “the Bernese authorities punished the Vaudois far more often for playing cards, dancing, drinking, and sexual debauchery than they did for religious violations. The morals legislation that comprises the December 24 mandate was important for the Bernese and their vision of reform.  Good subjects and members of the body of Christ were to act in an upright, pious, and self-restrained manner. Dancing, loud singing, and drinking in the local tavern displeased God and endangered the whole community. Both improper moral and religious behavior provoked the wrath of God.”5

Insofar as this was true, it is clear that the Bernese authorities, together with the reformed ministers, were seeking to impose an outward morality on its citizens, in the name of God and the Gospel. This quote also makes abundantly clear that both the Bernese authorities and the reformed ministers were dealing with and preaching to their citizens as if they were converted Christians. This resulted in a situation where lives that, generally, had not been changed by the Gospel were now subjected to legislation that sought to curb self-indulgent and licentious behaviour – they were endeavouring to ‘sanctify’ the population with legislation. It was doomed to failure.

We will continue to look at this aspect of superimposing an outward morality on people, but first, it is time to introduce Calvin to the scene.

The Arrival and Ejection of Calvin from Geneva

Calvin was born in France in 1509. He studied law and like the other reformers we have looked at he was very much influenced by the Catholic humanists, and greatly admired Lefevre, who was called ‘The Pioneer of the Reformation in France’, although Lefevre stayed within the Catholic Church and wanted to reform it from within.

Calvin was forced to flee France because of the anti-Protestant measures there, and in 1534 went to visit the ageing Lefevre. He then lived in various places outside of France under different names for the next couple of years, spending some of his time in Basle as well. In 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, his theological work on Christianity. This brought him great acclaim within the reformed movement, but opposition from the Catholic side. He was 26 years of age at the time.

In the summer of the same year, Calvin made plans to permanently leave France and go to Strasbourg. However, conflict had broken out between Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V, hindering his way, so Calvin decided to make a one-night detour to Geneva. However, hearing that John Calvin was in Geneva, William Farel, who was residing there at the time, immediately went to visit him. We have already seen what a fiery character Farel was, and he certainly was not going to let this opportunity of recruiting Calvin to the Reformed cause in Geneva pass. Farel wanted him to stay and preach in Geneva. At first, Calvin was reluctant to heed this call because he believed his ministry lay in a different direction. It was at this stage that Farel, like some angry Old Testament prophet, threatened to bring down the curse of God on Calvin’s life and ministry if he did not stay to help with the work of Reformation in Geneva. Calvin succumbed. Calvin writes later of this encounter:

“…Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken…”6

Thus was the 26-year-old Calvin persuaded, if not browbeaten into throwing his lot in with Farel, who was about 20 years his senior, for the furtherance of the Reformation in Geneva. Calvin began modestly in Geneva by doing some Bible teaching but was eventually elected as a pastor, though he was never to be ordained as a pastor. Anabaptist refugees were already in Geneva at this time and within a few months of arriving in Geneva (Nov. 1536), they confronted the reformers’ teaching. Calvin later wrote about this, saying,

“The Anabaptists began to attack us from one side; from the other side, it was the malicious apostate [Pierre Caroli].”7

(Pierre Caroli was a theologian from France who had taught at the University of Paris, but he came under the influence of the Catholic humanist, Lefèvre, and embraced reformed teaching. As a result, he was expelled from the Sorbonne, and because of the persecution against Protestants, he eventually came to Geneva in 1535 (before Calvin’s arrival) to work alongside Farel, before being appointed to lead the work in Lausanne. However, he was a rather erratic figure and there would be conflict between him and Calvin and Farel, with Caroli accusing the other two of teaching heresy.)

Later, in March 1537, two Anabaptists (Herman de Gerbihan and Andry Benoit) sought a public disputation with Farel (Calvin being away at this time), and the city council allowed this to go ahead. However, after the disputation the council decreed that the two Anabaptists should cease from spreading their views, but as they would not submit to this instruction, they were banned from Geneva under penalty of death.8

Nevertheless, towards the end of March, the council allowed another disputation to take place with two other Anabaptists – Johannes Bomeromenus and Jehan Tordeur. These two wanted to show from Scripture that one should not baptise infants. Although the council found against them and compelled them to leave Geneva, Calvin was nevertheless angered by the goodwill shown to them by the council. In 1555 he wrote:

“Eighteen years ago, when the Anabaptist came here to infect everyone with their teachings, they were cordially welcomed to the courthouse. To be sure, we were ordered to refute their teachings in public; but at the same time [the council] was flattering them. Instead of decisively resisting the Anabaptists, they offered them a banquet.”9

Calvin shows his frustration with the council authorities here – they were far more lax and receptive regarding the Anabaptists than Calvin deemed proper! The inevitable tension between the clerics and the civic authorities appears here, and in the tensions and conflicts that developed between them, this may have been an indication of the council’s desire to show the reformers who was in charge. Despite the council’s vote against these further two Anabaptists and their banishment from Geneva, they apparently (clandestinely) survived in Geneva until the time of the reformers’ ejection from the city in 1538.10 However, after this initial period, Calvin would spend significant time writing against the Anabaptists, whom he considered to be the greatest of heretics and their teachings to be from the devil.

The Confession of Faith

We have already noted that the roots of the Reformation in Geneva were shallow. Political expediency played as great a role, if not greater, than religious conviction in turning Geneva to the Reformation. So, how did Farel and Calvin go about remedying the situation of bringing on board a very large number of reluctant people to the reformed faith? Basically, they tried to force everyone to sign up to the reformed faith by taking a compulsory oath, and by legislating against worldly and immoral behaviour. What is evangelical about this? Nothing.

Philip Schaff says much the same things as Blakeley above when writing about the condition of Reformed Geneva at the time of Calvin’s arrival. He writes:

“The Genovese were a light-hearted, joyous people, fond of public amusements, dancing, singing, masquerades, and revelries. Reckless gambling, drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, and all sorts of vice abounded. Prostitution was sanctioned by the authority of the State… The people were ignorant. The priests had taken no pains to instruct them and had set them a bad example. To remedy these evils, a Confession of Faith and Discipline, and a… Catechism were prepared [by Farel and Calvin]”.11

So when Genevans had accepted by public declaration and an oath to follow ‘the precepts of the Gospel’ just a few months previously, we must take this with a huge pinch of salt! Confronted with this situation, Farel and Calvin did not go into the marketplace or even stand in the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel of salvation in order to deliver the people from the power of darkness and of sin, so that their lives might be changed by the saving grace of God. If you miss out the saving, regenerating part, you are compelled into legalism. It is the ‘regenerating’ part that changes people radically and that makes the legalistic approach largely redundant. The reformers were forced into legalism for lack of Gospel preaching.

So, in 1536 what Farel and Calvin drew up a Confession of Faith and rules of discipline, which they officially presented to the council in November. This was within four months of Calvin having arrived in Geneva. Its formal title was: Confession of Faith, which all citizens and inhabitants of Geneva and subjects in its territories must swear to keep and to hold. The idea was that the members of the council should subscribe to it first, followed by the citizens. Those who refused to take the oath were to be excommunicated and banished.

Since the little republic of Geneva had now ‘adopted’ the Reformed religion, it seems that Calvin viewed the city as God’s city, God’s kingdom, equating it to Israel of old. The council, as it were, represented the King of Israel, who was responsible for ensuring the purity of religious worship, and punishing and eliminating all idolaters. Calvin and Farel were as the priests and prophets of old, inveighing against the sins of the people, teaching the righteous commands of the Lord, and informing and directing the ‘King’ (i.e., the council) how to perform his duties. No one who openly and grossly sinned against the Lord’s commands would be tolerated with in the walls of the city of Geneva. These reformers showed no understanding of spiritual conversion, of the Gospel, or of the Church.

How can you force people to make an oath to hold to a confession of faith? It is a bizarre and self-contradictory concept. Why seek to banish sinners who are in desperate need of having the Gospel preached to them? But Calvin and Farel wanted people either to conform, or to be thrown out of this ‘kingdom’ that were trying to set up

William Blackburn in his life of Farel writes:

“It was not easy to break up the old customs of the people, and many of Farel’s new measures [ed. though Calvin was certainly involved] were not to their taste. They were lively and fond of excitement, and had been used to an almost unbounded license. In clear weather they loved music and dancing in the open air. On rainy days they had their cups and cards at the wine shops. Among all their holidays, Sunday was quite as gay as any, when masquerades and other mummeries were their delight. But, as all this was connected with the baser forms of profligacy, Farel [ed. and Calvin] attempted to suppress these amusementsGambling, swearing, slandering, dancing, the singing of idle songs in the streets, Sabbath-breaking, and absence from church without good reasons were forbidden. The people must be at home by nine o’clock in the evening.”12 (Italics mine)

By legislation, the two reformers sought to force people into conformity to a mode of outward religious conduct. This is not the Church of Jesus Christ – it is the ‘Christianisation’ of people, deceiving them into thinking they are Christian believers when they are far from it. If anything was geared to make people misunderstand what the Gospel is, it is the measures that Farel and Calvin undertook. The blind were led by the blind. Where there is no regeneration, there must be legalism.

The council passed these laws in November 1536, but not to the delight of its citizens.

Out of this Confession also came the Catechism, or ‘Instruction of the Christian Religion of the Church in Geneva’ (1537). This was used to teach the citizens the essentials of the faith, and it was to be read at St. Peter’s every Sunday, until the people understood it. It was a religious re-education programme. The Genevan authorities approved (in principle) the confession of faith. In the following month, February, civic elections were held in Geneva and some supporters of the reformers were elected to important positions. This was a help to their endeavours. Nevertheless, there was definite opposition to Calvin and Farel’s demand that all citizens swear an oath of allegiance to the new faith as laid out in the Confession.

Who has the right to excommunicate – priest of politician?

As I mentioned in Chapter 1, from the time of Constantine, when ‘Christianity’ became the religion of the state, there would be an inevitable tension and conflict between Church and State. The Church looked to the State for support and protection, as well as defending religious orthodoxy; but, of course, the State would want a say in Church matters and not just be a ‘passive’ member in this alliance; in other words, just doing what the Church told it to do. The State had its own ideas about what was best for the peace and security of its domains. So, here in Geneva, more than a thousand years later, we see this tension and conflict playing out in microcosm.

The Small Council, which was the most important council in Geneva, was willing to accept the minister’s demands, except that excommunication was not to be used against those who refused to take the oath. There was also the factor that many Genevan citizens resented being ordered to take an oath by French clergy, namely, Calvin and Farel. They had only just been liberated from the Duke of Savoy, and they did not take kindly to again being told what to do by foreign clerics. In particular, the well-to-do merchants opposed the obligatory oath, as well as many of the leading families. Moreover, the authorities in Bern also disapproved of this move, as excommunication, in their view, was the prerogative of the civic authorities, not of the church, and they had no wish for Calvin to change this system and usurp their power. This would become a long, hot, contentious issue between Calvin and the council – and even with Bern.

With regard to people taking the oath, things did not go very smoothly. The council kept stalling the process, and tensions developed between the two reformers and the city council. In October, the reformers sought to compel a profession of faith from those who were showing resistance to the oath, and in November an order was made that those who refused the oath should be banished from the city.

However, this process then hit the buffers as it touched on the sensitive issue of excommunication. Calvin was overseeing the adoption of the Confession of Faith, and he expected, and even insisted, that as the minister he should have full control over the excommunication of those who refused to sign. The council authorities baulked at what they saw as a usurping of the council’s privilege and power in the matter of excommunication. To give Calvin the exclusive right to excommunicate important and respectable Genevan citizens was going a step too far – particularly as he was a foreigner, a Frenchman. The council saw Calvin’s demands as high-handed and as intruding on their civil powers. There was no way that the council could enforce such a scenario on its citizens.

At this time, there was a revealing statement made by Calvin when disputing obligatory oath-taking with the council. A councillor reported that accusations had been made that people were perjuring themselves for swearing an oath to a mere written confession – in other words, that people were being forced to take the oath without their hearts or faith being in it! The reformers replied that it should be viewed differently, namely, as a solemn renewing of the covenant, as had been done in Nehemiah and Jeremiah’s day. However, the council countered by saying that the Bernese authorities also considered it to be a case of perjury.

It is amazing that these councillors had more common sense and moral integrity in judging this matter than Calvin did – and whether intended or not, they also had a better sense regarding what the New Testament teaches. They pointed out the obvious truth that you cannot make people Christian, that you cannot force them to adopt religion by oath-taking! This clearly reveals again how Calvin viewed the Genevans as essentially Christian people that had lapsed somewhat and just needed to ‘renew’ their covenant with God. He did not regard them as ‘lost sinners’ but as ‘wayward’ Christians.

This battle between Calvin and the Councils of Geneva regarding who had the power to do what in ecclesiastical and even civil matters was to dog Calvin and cause him a lot of grief and pain for the next 20 years. At times, it became unedifying political infighting. Now the council began asserting its authority over Farel’s and Calvin’s demands. In January 1538, the council declared that no one should be refused access to the Lord’s Supper. In effect, this meant that Calvin was deprived of the right and authority to excommunicate anyone, since banishment from the Lord’s Supper was an integral part of excommunication. Calvin lamented this in a letter to his co-reformer, Bullinger, in Zurich, saying that he feared that the holy practice of excommunication would fall into oblivion. At this time, things got immeasurably more serious for Farel and Calvin, but we need to backtrack a little because this matter was enmeshed with others.

The other problematic issue had to do with the Bernese liturgical rites.

As well as presenting the Confession of Faith, a couple of months later, in January 1537, Farel and Calvin also put before the council their Articles on the Organisation of Church and its Worship in Geneva. Among other things, Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated at least every Sunday, but in view of the people’s Catholic background he deemed that it should be celebrated monthly. However, he insisted that the Lord’s Supper must be protected from pollution through the attendance of ungodly participants. Calvin urged that overseers should be appointed in the various districts of the city to report any serious faults to the ministers, so that the offender may be urged to repentance and amendment of life. A kind of religious ‘big brother is watching you’ – the big brothers being Calvin and Farel. Now, if the person remained obstinate, then the final step of excommunication was to be applied. However, the wording of this last point was ambiguous in the document as to who had the power to excommunicate. The councils in Geneva, with their understanding of the Articles, passed them, but with one exception, and that was to do with the celebration of the Eucharist. It would be celebrated once a quarter, according to the practice in Bern, and not once a month as Calvin had wanted. The significant point here is that the councils overrode Calvin in this matter. It was a continual battle between the council and the two reformers.

As mentioned above, it was the Bernese liturgical rites that were to be Calvin’s undoing. These rites related to the use of unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper, and to the celebration of Christmas, New Year, the Annunciation and Ascension. Not unreasonably, Farel and Calvin were not in favour of these measures because of their close association with Catholicism. However, having ‘liberated’ Geneva, Bern felt that it should have a say in these matters and expected Geneva to follow its lead. The councils of Geneva now strengthened their position against Calvin by siding with Bern on these matters, which included the use of unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper. Calvin baulked at this intrusion into church affairs by the civil authorities and refused to comply.

Blackburn writes of the groundswell of support for Bern in Geneva against the new reformers:

“The Genevan senate [small council] followed in the same decision, and the Bernese began to have more and noisier friends than ever before in the city. This party now made use of the awful name of ‘My Lords of Bern’, in order to threaten and insult the ministers [Farel and Calvin] whom Bern had such trouble in keeping in Geneva. Troops of them went about parading the streets by night, insulting the ministers at their homes, and threatening to throw them into the Rhone. Bern had preserved the stone fonts, the unleavened bread, and the four festivals, and they would hold fast to them, for they were not able to see the principle which Farel thought was involved in them. He regarded them as relics of Popery, and feared these relics would lead back the people into the old reality… Councils and synods failed to restore peace. A plot was suspected against the preachers.”13

It was a turbulent, unpleasant time for the reformers. And for all the trumpeting about ‘Reformation’, Bern still clung on to vestiges of Catholicism. Calvin was more advanced in his reformed ideas than Bern, and he did not like the Bernese authorities, or any civic authority, having control over church matters. He was not willing to submit to Bern’s instructions in this matter. Calvin believed he had rightly understood the word of God in the scriptures and that therefore, in a way, his teachings represented God, so when he was opposed, he considered that God’s truth was being opposed and he became quite indignant at such opposition. This tended to be a feature of how he dealt with ‘heretics’ – to oppose his teachings, was to oppose the word of God and God Himself.

There was another factor which added to the woes of Farel and Calvin, and that was the suspicion that they were working for France to bring Geneva under France’s control, and some of Calvin’s supporters seemed to be in favour of such a move. France had begun to take an interest in Geneva, and Calvin and Farel were both Frenchmen! Suspicions began to be aroused. In February 1538, a French agent actually did pay a secret visit to the city and eventually made overtures for a French alliance through two of the leading supporters of the reformers, which seemed to confirm people’s suspicions. Mobs protested outside the reformers’ houses at night, firing off guns and threatening to throw them into the river. For those who already opposed Calvin’s stringent measures, this added fuel to the flames of their opposition.

Things continued to work against the two reformers. In February 1538, there were new elections to important executive posts (the ‘Syndics’, or magistrates) within the council, and all these were taken by men hostile to Calvin. But in these complicated issues, it needs to be noted that to be anti-Calvin did not always mean you were anti-Reformation – you were just anti-Calvin, and the things he stood for! People did not mind a switch in religious allegiance as long as it did not interfere with or curtail their worldly pursuits and pleasures too much. However, Calvin now started to preach against the council publicly and ends up being censured by them for calling them ‘a council of the devil’ in one of his sermons. One of his co-reformers, the blind Frenchman, Courauld, called the Genevan state ‘a kingdom of frogs’ and the magistrates ‘drunkards’ – but this is the council that had led the citizens in an oath of allegiance to the Reformed gospel! Courauld soon found himself in prison. The situation was getting venomous and embittered.

The battle lines were now being drawn. Good Friday was now approaching, at which the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated, using, of course, unleavened bread, by the stipulation of both the Genevan council and the authorities in Bern. However, Calvin and Farel refused to follow these instructions, which they felt was being imposed on them, and gave the authorities to understand that they would withhold the Lord’s Supper from the whole city on that day rather than use unleavened bread according to the Bernese practice. The council responded by telling them that either they comply, or they would be forbidden from preaching in the city.

Again, Calvin and Farel brazenly ignored this injunction against them, and on the following Sunday (April 21) they both spoke publicly in different churches and refused to administer the Lord’s Supper to the people. They also made sure that no one else would be able to celebrate the Eucharist. One minister, Henri de la Mare, reported to the council that he had been prevented from preaching and celebrating the Lord’s Supper with the threat of excommunication from the two zealous reformers.

Things had now gone too far for the councils of Geneva. The city authorities declared that the Bernese rites were to be adopted. The councils issued orders of expulsion against Calvin and Farel (on April 22 and 23), and they were given three days to depart. Without delay, the two men left Geneva and headed first for Bern and then to Zurich, where they attempted to explain their actions to the authorities and the reformers there. However, in neither city did they escape a certain amount of censure from the authorities, who warned them against their overzealousness and lack of discretion and wisdom in how they had handled matters. Various attempts were made to affect a reconciliation at that time, but Geneva would have none of it, and refused to have Calvin and Farel back.

Calvin’s and Farel’s attempt to impose the Reformation ‘more fully’ in Geneva had failed miserably. They had to make an ignominious, hasty departure. Calvin and Farel were not being metaphorically ‘stoned’ for pleading with the people to turn to Christ and be converted, but for trying to impose legislation that outwardly controlled people’s everyday lives, and for seeking to overrule the council. The citizens of Geneva did not reject the Reformation, they rejected the dictatorial rule of Calvin and Farel.

After these events Calvin went to Strasbourg, which was a German Protestant city. There he was able to pastor a French church (of refugees) and to continue with his writings. Farel went to serve in Neuchâtel and remained there till the end of his life. From there, he wrote to Calvin in September 1538 about the desolate circumstances in Geneva:

“They have created a whorehouse there. The Anabaptists hold their gatherings daily, and everywhere the Mass is heard. Everything is going topsy-turvy and things could not be any worse.”14

In Chapter 9, we will look at Calvin’s return to Geneva and his remaining years there.



  1. The Difficulty of Imposing Religion on an Unwilling Population
  2. Calvin Almost Gives Up

In the last chapter, Calvin and Farel had just been ignominiously ejected from Geneva. From there, they travelled on to Basle, but then Farel was called away to serve the church in Neuchatel, and Calvin was invited to Strasbourg to serve as a minister in a French church which catered for refugees from France. During his stay in Strasbourg, which lasted about three years, he wrote a new edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and a Commentary on the book of Romans.

Pierre Caroli

During this time another issue came back to haunt Calvin. In 1537, when he had been labouring in Geneva, he had been accused of heresy; more precisely, of having a false view of the Trinity. The person who brought this accusation was the rather mercurial character called, Pierre Caroli, whom I briefly mentioned in the last chapter. He had been vacillating between the Catholic Church and the reformers, but now professed to be on the side of the Reformed faith. Caroli had been installed by the Bernese authorities as the main minister in Lausanne, much to the displeasure of Calvin and Farel. After reports by Caroli regarding Calvin’s teachings, Berne was very concerned that it too might be associated with heresy, so Calvin and Farel had to make a defence of their beliefs before them. They were vindicated in the matter, and Caroli returned to the Catholic Church after being deposed by Berne. However, the problem for Calvin and Farel was that the rumours of heresy would not go away, and time and energy was taken up in trying to squash the rumours. It was a stressful, exhausting and exasperating time for Calvin, Farel and their close friend, Pierre Viret, who was the other minister at Lausanne.

That was in 1537. But only two years later, in 1539, Caroli reappeared, seeking reconciliation. Calvin was then in Strasbourg, having been expelled from Geneva. Caroli claimed that he had only gone back to the Catholic Church because of what he had thought were the false teachings of Calvin and Farel. To make amends, Caroli went first to Neuchatel, where Farel now was, and managed to convince him of his desire to return to the Reformed fold. Farel was glad to receive him back, believing that Caroli was genuine in seeking reconciliation. Caroli then went to Strasbourg, where Calvin was, in order to put things right with the leading reformers there, which included Martin Bucer. The reformers he spoke to made it clear that they disapproved of his actions, but again, were happy to receive him back. Calvin, on the other hand, was incandescent with rage.

I mentioned how Calvin could take things very personally, and this certainly would be an example of that. Calvin declared that under no circumstances would he receive Caroli unless he fully retracted the accusations of heresy against him. Martin Bucer and the other reformers endeavoured to mediate in the matter. Calvin was invited to give his version of things and to enumerate Caroli’s faults. Calvin refused, very much doubting Caroli’s sincerity, and believing it would be a never-ending battle of words. The next day, Calvin had to meet with the leading reformers again for him to look at some statements (‘articles’) that Caroli had agreed to. But this time Calvin blew up in a rage. Calvin accused his colleagues of working behind his back, of prejudging the issue, and put the blame on Farel for having been so naïve in the beginning. Calvin was so distraught that he could not comply with their request that evening. Calvin later wrote about the incident in a letter to Farel:

“There I sinned grievously in not being able to keep within bounds, for bile had taken possession of my mind to the extent that I poured out bitterness on all sides… I complained that they had presented these articles to me for the purpose of exonerating Caroli, and that it was their opinion that these articles were good. While I was unheard, and judgement had already been pronounced, they required me to subscribe [to the articles], which if I refused, would turn them into my adversaries… At last, I forced myself out of the dining room… Bucer followed, and when he had soothed me by his gentle words he brought me back to the company. I said that I wished to consider the matter more fully before making any more distinct reply. When I got home I was seized with an extraordinary paroxysm, nor did I find any other solace than in sighs and tears, and I was the more deeply afflicted because you [Farel] had occasioned those evils for me. Again and again they reminded me of your leniency, who had mercifully embraced Caroli upon the spot, saying that I was too headstrong and could not be moved one inch from my judgement. Bucer, indeed, has tried every mode of representation that he might soothe my mind on the subject. Meanwhile, he invidiously uses your example against me.”1

Calvin could, and would react to opposition to himself with force – in writing, in preaching and in his actions. As we shall see, he seemed to need public vindication and triumph before he could feel at ease. However, emotionally and mentally, Calvin could not cope with a situation where it was now his colleagues who were finding fault with him. It was completely unbearable and intolerable to him that there was no prospect of changing his friends’ minds concerning him, and about the duplicity of Caroli. His frustration knew no bounds, and he exploded with bitter accusations against his friends. Upon arriving home, he fell victim to a kind of emotional breakdown of frustration. It seems Calvin needed to feel vindicated and be seen to be vindicated, and even to triumph over his perceived enemies, and this trait emerges later on in his dealings with his opponents.

Return to Geneva

In the meantime, things were not working out well in Geneva. The church, in particular, was very much lacking leadership and competent ministers, and now the Catholic Church, through a particular Cardinal (Jacopo Sadoleto) was making overtures to the city of Geneva about returning to the fold. Sadoleto wrote so convincingly that neither Geneva nor Bern had anyone capable of replying in kind. Calvin was approached to compose a reply, and he agreed to do so. This was at the end of 1539. In September 1540, the Council of Geneva instructed one of its members, Ami Perrin, to oversee the recall of Calvin. However, this first request was rejected. Calvin wrote to Farel saying: “whenever I call to mind the wretchedness of my life, how can it not be but that my very soul must shudder at any proposal for my return?… When I remember by what torture my conscience was wracked at that time, and with how much anxiety it was continually boiling over, forgive me if I dread the place as having about it something of a fatality in my case.”2

Evidently, Calvin found his first stay in Geneva gruelling. However, Calvin also expressed himself in terms of being open to God’s will, should He make that clear. Initially, Strasbourg also did not want to lose Calvin, but as the overtures from Geneva continued, in the end, Calvin agreed to return. But he imposed conditions – he gave the Genevan Council to understand that he would only return on his terms, as had been expressed during his first stay. To this they agreed, and he was warmly received back in Geneva in September 1541. He had been away for three years.

Upon arrival, Calvin immediately set about drafting Ordinances for the ordering of the Christian religion in Geneva. These ordinances related to the government, administration and life of the church. It seems that Calvin had learnt nothing from his first attempt at trying to outwardly impose religion on people. No doubt, he must have felt encouraged to pursue his aims, since it was clearly intimated by the council that he would have more of a free hand this time. However, 14 years of struggle lay ahead of him.

In November, the Ordinances were passed by the Genevan councils, but the councils made some significant changes to them. For example, a pastor could be installed only with the final approval of the council. Likewise, a pastor could only be deposed by a decision of the council and not by a decision of the clerics. In the amendments made to the ordinances, it stated clearly that ministers were subject to civil law and that the final sentence of punishment was the prerogative of the council.

A Consistory court, called the Consistoire, was set up, and it was responsible for church discipline, but it consisted of the ministers and 12 laymen, who were all chosen from the councils, and this meant that in the Consistory the council members outnumbered the ministers, which again gave the council control – at least, potentially. Moreover, the president of this body was to be the executive magistrate of the council. The amended Ordinances made it clear that the ministers (the clerics) had no civil jurisdiction, and the consistory court was not to usurp the authority of the councils.

I am surprised that Calvin did not kick up a fuss about the amendments, as they seemed to land him in a similar, if not identical situation as before, and indeed, the amendments did lay the ground for future tensions and conflicts between the religious ministers and the councils. In the new instructions, church attendance was made mandatory for all citizens. It is no great surprise that embittered opposition started growing against Calvin. This is the natural result when you start legislating morality and imposing religious observance in the name of God’s law, to a large community of unwilling people. Opposition and defiance were an inevitable result of such efforts. It was like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. There was bound to be conflict.

In fact, it was about 10 years later, when Calvin felt he had been defeated in these struggles that he handed in a letter of resignation to the city authorities, which, nevertheless, was refused by them. However, Calvin gained some respite and help when in 1546 new ministers from France arrived, who came to replace others who had left. They were well-educated and sympathetic to Calvin’s work of reformation, but one of them, Michel Cop, would soon be embroiled in a tumult of his own making.

Opposition Grows Against Calvin

Having extra clergy from France, on the other hand, only increased the anti-French feeling that was growing because of Calvin’s dominating style. As I mentioned, it was not so much that the people were against the Reformation itself, but against Calvin’s imposition of rules and regulations that deprived the citizens of the personal liberties and pleasures that they had been used to. In his biography on Calvin, the writer and Calvin scholar, Thomas H. L. Parker, gives this assessment of the cause of the conflict:

“The troubles were caused by two factors. The one, the undisciplined wilfulness and fear of a strong section of the community. The other, that blend of determination, excitability and intelligence that constituted Calvin’s character.”3

Gradually, an opposition group developed against Calvin. These included respectable and notable families in Geneva and important council members, including Ami Perrin. (If you remember, Perrin had initially warmly welcomed Calvin to Geneva.) This opposition group was given the name ‘Libertines’, for obvious reasons, or ‘Perrinists’, after Ami Perrin. In the same year, 1546, and in the years that followed, there were grumblings and complaints from various citizens against the increase in French clergy. In Geneva, it was not only dangerous, but also a criminal offence to speak against Calvin and his teaching. At the beginning of 1546, one of the Libertine group, Cartelier by name, spoke against Calvin in no uncertain terms at supper in his own home. He was imprisoned, and Calvin comments:

“I testified to the judge that it would be agreeable to me were he proceeded against with the utmost rigour of the law.4

Can we imagine the apostle Paul – had he had the opportunity to do so – demanding the secular authorities punish someone who had criticised him? Had Calvin read and understood the scriptures about forgiveness, and rejoicing when someone reviles you, and says all manner of evil against you falsely; about blessing those that curse you and doing good to them that hate you? (Mtt. 5:11, 44). This is Christendom, not Christianity. I suppose it is no wonder that some people have called Calvin ‘the Pope of Geneva’.

In March 1548, one citizen (Millon, from Auvergne) was banished from Geneva because he had written ballads against Calvin. In February, in the same letter as above, Calvin wrote to Farel saying, “With regard to those who gave out that we were establishing here a permanent seat of despotism, under colour of defence, let us suffer this rumour to spread on both sides. Their impudence has been met with civility and mildness, so that they ought to be ashamed of themselves. I trust that they will keep quiet. I seek, as far as I am able, to persuade our friends to remain unconcerned.” Calvin certainly felt he had ‘right’, if not God, on his side, and seemed unperturbed by accusations of being a despot. But it is clear that there was the feeling among some that he was acting like a pope.

Ami Perrin’s mother was bold enough to criticize Calvin before the Consistory. The following is recorded:

“She continued to create insults at the said M. Calvin, among which are those that follow: that he came to Geneva to throw us into debates and wars, and that since he has been here there has been neither profit nor peace… Moreover, she reproached him that he did not live as he preached, and that she never found love in him…”5

Pierre Ameaux

Apart from Ami Perrin’s mother, quite a number of people, including other important citizens of Geneva were feeling the reformer’s style of imposing religion on them was creating strife and upset in the community. In January 1546, tensions rose between Calvin and the councils about the conduct of one Pierre Ameaux, who accused Calvin of being a mere ‘Picard’ (i.e. a Frenchman), who preached false doctrine. Being a maker of playing cards, perhaps he had a particular reason to grumble about Calvin. But to accuse Calvin of preaching false doctrine was considered a crime in Geneva; so Ameaux was arrested. He was tried by the Small Council and ordered to pay a fine of 60 crowns and to publicly acknowledge his fault. However, the Council of the Two Hundred reduced the sentence, only requiring Ameaux to make an apology to Calvin before them. Calvin flatly refused to accept the latter as a suitable punishment for the slander against him. Ameaux had impugned the name of God, claiming that the word of God was false doctrine!

As I mentioned earlier, Calvin, believing that he truly represented God’s truth in his teaching, perceived any opposition to himself or his teaching as opposition to God and to His truth. Others might say that he was a man too easily offended and who could not tolerate any personal criticism of himself.  Whatever the case, Calvin threatened not to preach again unless the sentence was made more severe. This caused some tumult in the city. The council of the Two Hundred gave in, and ordered that Ameaux be publicly paraded and humiliated. He had to make a circuit of the city in his shirt, carry a torch and kneel at certain places, asking God’s forgiveness. This seemed to satisfy Calvin’s sense of justice (if not revenge) in suitably vindicating and restoring his reputation.

Even ministers got into hot water if they impugned the character of Calvin. Henri de La Mare, who was pastor in the village of Jussy, privately criticised Calvin for his bad temper and inflexibility. He was hauled before the Consistory, where he dared, to some extent, to defend Ameaux, and repeated his view that Calvin was “a bit subject to his tempers… impatient…, hateful, and vindictive.” Well, de La Mare might have felt his opinion substantiated when Calvin ensured that he was ousted from ministry within the Genevan territory.6

Dancing Forbidden

In April 1546, another crime was committed. Ami Perrin had held some of the most important positions on the Genevan Small Council. But, by all accounts, he was a worldly man, and dubbed by Calvin as ‘our comic Caesar’. Perrin took a leading part in the opposition that was growing against Calvin. A problem arose because it was reported that Perrin’s wife, along with others, had danced at a wedding party, which was attended by other important citizens of Geneva. Among those who had danced were Ami Perrin himself and the president of the Consistory Court, Amblard Corne. So they were imprisoned for the crime of having danced at a party, and made to confess their crimes and apologize before being released.

This is the Reformation in Switzerland. Neither priest nor politician understood the Gospel, or preached the Gospel. Neither priest nor politician understood what constituted the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. By means of the civic law, they tried to make people righteous and upright, and to cajole them with threats and imprisonment in order to persuade them to be good ‘Christians’ – and being a ‘good Christian’ meant you could not dance at weddings. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, on the part of both pastor and politician. Where there is no regeneration, there will be legalism – and that of the pharisaic sort, in other words, with an emphasis on the outward observance of rules and laws.

With regard to the case of dancing, some denied any wrongdoing, which infuriated Calvin. He relates his part in being able to force a confession from the wrongdoers by letting them know, in no uncertain terms, the consequences of denying their dishonesty. Moreover, Calvin used his pulpit to publicly inveigh against dancing and other ‘loose’ behaviour of the Genevans. Calvin writes about this to Farel:

“After your departure the dances caused us more trouble than I had supposed. All those present were summoned to the Consistory, with the two exceptions of Corne and Perrin, [where they] shamelessly lied to God and us. I was incensed, as the vileness of the thing demanded, and I strongly inveighed against the contempt of God in that they thought nothing of making a mockery of the sacred admonitions we had used… When I was finally informed of their state of ease, I could do nothing but call God to witness that they would pay the penalty for such perfidy. I at the same time announced my resolution to uncover the truth even though it should be at the cost of my own life lest they should imagine that any advantage should come of lying.”7

With extreme diligence, if not ruthlessness, Calvin sought to put out the fires of ‘carnal and worldly’ conduct wherever and whenever they appeared in Geneva. Calvin falsely thought he was building a Christian community, a godly community by the measures he was taking. There are many who hail the Reformation as some kind of return to ‘Gospel’ Christianity after centuries of Catholic rule, as though thousands if not multitudes were brought into the Kingdom of God through a fundamental repentance and new birth that changed their manner of life. This is simply not true. This may have been happening among the Anabaptists, but not among the reformed and their congregations.

The Taverns And Dramas

The year 1546 was also the year that attempts were made to change the nature of the taverns, that is, the drinking houses in Geneva. So the taverns were closed. In their place, five religious public houses were opened. Here there would be food and drink, as well as a French Bible available. There was to be no swearing or dancing. It was to be a place of edification, with the singing of hymns and the reading of Scripture. It should be no surprise to us that these ‘religious’ public houses did not last long, and the taverns were soon back in business!

As an illustration of a failed enterprise, the attempted ‘conversion’ of the taverns reflects the nature and the failure of the Protestant Reformation, in that it fails to truly change people’s lives spiritually and inwardly first. It is through the preaching of the evangelical Gospel that leads people to repentance and changed lives, where they themselves then choose not to go to pubs to get drunk. Of such things we do read in revivals of the past (for example, in the revival of 1859 in Belfast, or the 1904/05 revival in Wales, not to mention the changes in communities that happened during the Wesleyan revival), where pubs were closed, either through the conversion of the pub owner, or through lack of trade. There are no historical records that bear witness to anything even vaguely approaching these kinds of spiritual awakenings under the leadership of the Protestant Reformers.

In the same year, 1546, a tumult arose because of a play called Acts of the Apostles. Calvin had read the text of this play and approved that the play could be performed for the edification of the people. Otherwise, worldly plays were forbidden by the council. However, a fellow minister, Michel Cop (who I mentioned earlier), stepped outside the agreed line and fiercely denounced it from his pulpit. This resulted in a riot in the streets by the Genevans, who were infuriated that they were being deprived of this entertainment. Such riots were not unusual in Geneva. Calvin relates the following in his letter to Farel:

“At dawn, Michel, instead of preaching, inveighed against the actors. But so vehement was the second invective that a gang of people made straight for me with loud shouts, threats and what not. And had I not by a strong effort restrained the fury of some of them, they would have come to blows. I endeavoured in the second debate to appease their anger, acting moderately, for I judged that he had acted imprudently in having at such an unseasonable time chosen such a theme for preaching. But his extravagance was the more displeasing as I could not approve of what he had said.”8

During the tumult, the council had ordered everyone to go home, but crowds of people remained in the streets, angrily demonstrating. According to Calvin, on the next day the instigators of the violence said they would have killed Cop, had not Calvin intervened. Cop was severely reprimanded not only by the council but also by Calvin. Cop’s attempt to keep the people on ‘the straight and narrow’ by angrily denouncing drama plays – including religious ones – failed spectacularly. In one sense, one could say that Ami Perrin’s mother was largely right. Calvin could only bring ‘debates and wars’ without ‘profit and peace’ because the reformers were engaged in rebuking the sins of a ‘religious’, but largely resistant, worldly community.

In other matters, Calvin and his colleagues did not spare the council itself, accusing it of ‘moral laxity’ for not dealing properly with sexual immorality in the community. It is clear that Calvin was wedded to the notion of Christendom and did not believe in the separation of Church and State. He, as a minister of the church, wanted the secular authority to punish the immoral behaviour of the people in order to promote righteousness in the city. The council retorted that if there were such persons, then the preachers should use discretion and inform the council of it instead of using the pulpit to publicly harangue the council about it. The inevitable tensions between state and church continued in Geneva as they had done since the time of Constantine.

Calvin did not view the Church as a separate body of believers in an otherwise godless community. The church was a mixed multitude of a godless majority and a godly minority, who could hardly be distinguished. The church was imperfect and its adherents still sinners (whether ‘godly’ or ‘godless’), needing the rigours of the Law, by edict and by preaching, to keep sin in check. He regarded the city of Geneva as the church, where righteousness was to be imposed on the citizens, and punishment or banishment inflicted on the openly sinful and rebellious ones.

The magisterial reformers did not preach a Gospel – the Gospel – that lead people to repentance and conversion. They bitterly opposed the idea of a personal conversion. The consequent lack of moral change in people’s lives that came under their teaching and jurisdiction resulted in the Protestant Reformers applying the Law of Moses in its moral capacity to rebuke, curtail and subdue the immoral lives of many in their congregations – even using the civil law in an endeavour to achieve this. It has been said that “Christianity grows alien to its essence when it is made into law for those who have been merely born instead of reborn.”8a This is the history and nature of the Magisterial Reformation. It was alien to the Gospel. It was the imposition of an outward religion on those whom the reformers failed to lead to repentance and true faith in Christ. Reformers related how they were able to retrieve some Anabaptists back to a reformed outlook, but accounts of leading souls to Christ for the first time in their lives is something that is lacking.

Jacques Gruet And Riots

In 1547, new elections for important posts in the council executive changed things in favour of the anti-Calvin party. On 27th June, a threatening letter was found in the pulpit of Saint Pierre. It was a coarse letter with implicit, if not clear death threats, telling the reformers to keep quiet and to stop blaming people and ruining their lives.9 Calvin brought the letter before the council, and in the event, one Jacques Gruet was arrested – he belonged to the anti-Calvin group. His house was searched and a number of writings and letters were found which were critical of Calvin and extremely anti-religious in nature. In particular, a letter addressed to the magistrates was found, which highlighted the sentiments of not a few in Geneva. It said that they should ‘not be ruled by the voice or will of one man.’ It argued that all men are different with their different natures, opinions, and likes and dislikes. It goes on to say:

“Therefore, it seems to me that a magistrate should establish a state in which there is no discord of making a people subject to something against their nature.”

Now, leaving aside the nature and beliefs of this man Gruet, he is here making the point very clearly that you cannot make a leopard change its spots; you cannot force people into something that is fundamentally contrary to their nature. Or, if I may interpret it further, you should not attempt to ‘Christianize’ people. The legal, outward imposition of modes of behaviour could not work when it is contrary to the person’s nature and disposition. It is amazing that what an atheist sees and states clearly, Calvin and all the magisterial reformers were blind to. You cannot force religion on people; it will not change who they are. Gruet’s letter continues by acknowledging that “everyone who maliciously and voluntarily hurts another deserves to be punished.” But then he concludes with, “But suppose I am a man who wants to eat his meals as he pleases, what is that to do with the law? Nothing.”10

It is undoubtedly true that Gruet wanted to have the liberty to enjoy more than just eating and drinking; but there was sound logic and common sense to his argument. However, Gruet was subjected to prolonged torture, which extracted from him a number of confessions, as a result of which he was beheaded in July 1547. In 1550, when workmen were doing renovations on what had been his house, they discovered all manner of shocking blasphemous material. This gave a sense of justice to the citizens of Geneva for the sentence inflicted on Gruet. Calvin inveighed against his writings, which were also publicly burned at that time.

Also in 1547, Ami Perrin was arrested and eventually released, but stripped of his honours. This happened because of his behaviour towards the council over a certain matter and for suspected intrigue with a foreign country, namely, France. However, all this caused another one of those terrible Genevan riots. The issue did not directly involve Calvin, but in the commotion, he made his way to the council chamber, and he relates the following about the event:

“Much confused shouting was heard… Things got so loud that there was surely a riot… I at once run up to the place. Everything looks terrible. I throw myself into the thickest of the crowds, to the amazement of everyone. The whole mob makes a rush towards me; they seize me and drag me hither and thither – no doubt lest I should be injured! I called God and men to witness that… if they wanted to shed blood, to start with me. Even the worthless, but especially the more respectable, at once cooled down. I was at length dragged through the midst of them to the council. There new fights started, and I threw myself between them… I succeeded in getting everyone to sit down quietly, and then delivered a long and vehement speech, which they say moved all them.”11

As we learned, one of the factors which led Geneva to recall Calvin was that they needed someone with strong leadership qualities. Moreover, Calvin’s integrity and uprightness, which was appreciated by at least some, gave his leadership the respect needed in decisive moments. There seems no doubt that Calvin was faithful in what he did, and he gave himself to the work tirelessly and sacrificially.

However, things were getting on top of Calvin. At about this time (1547), he wrote, “I have not yet decided what I am going to do, except that I can no longer tolerate the ways of this people, even though they may bear with mine.”12 But Calvin managed to revive from this mood and struggled on. The Libertines, on the other hand, continued in their opposition to Calvin, undermining him and stirring up trouble wherever they could. When there was a significant number of opponents to Calvin on the councils, they would make a decision perhaps not so much on the merits of the case, but in order to snub Calvin and to demonstrate their authority over him and the pastors.

Where Calvin did suffer a defeat to the council was in church appointments. Without going into details, one pastor (De Ecclesia, by name) had behaved badly and also taught error, and the ministers referred the matter to the council. The council responded by saying that the ministers should forgive and reinstate him. However, the full meeting of the company of pastors decided that he should not be restored, and they informed the council of this. The chief magistrate (syndic) at that time (1549) was none other than Ami Perrin, and he informed the pastors that De Ecclesia had been issued a final warning by the council, and he was to continue in the pastorate. The Company of pastors were forced into submission on the matter. This was just one case among others, where the council overruled the company of pastors on appointments and demotions of ministers. This issued caused Calvin great frustration, and presumably it gave Perrin great pleasure!

Jerome Bolsec

What turned out to be a very significant event and a blow to Calvin was the arrival of a French refugee who was forced to leave France because of his evangelical preaching. His name was Jerome Bolsec. He was a monk who had also ventured into practising medicine. He arrived in 1550 and settled just outside Geneva. Early on he was reprimanded in Geneva for challenging the doctrine of election. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1551 (October 16th) he attended a Friday Bible study (Congrégation) where various pastors were present. Bolsec started speaking against Calvin’s teaching on predestination, saying it made God a tyrant and the author of evil. He accused Calvin’s teaching of making an idol of God. However, he did not notice Calvin come in and sit down. When Bolsec had finished, Calvin stood up and spent one hour refuting Bolsec’s claims. At the end of the meeting, Bolsec was arrested and taken to prison. It was very dangerous to oppose Calvin’s teaching.

Bolsec was interrogated by the civil court, but it was too difficult for them to pronounce on matters so theologically complex. As a result, Calvin and the other ministers had to form the questions to be put to the prisoner, thus providing the council with the resource to pursue a theological examination of the prisoner. Although he stood firm in the debate, Bolsec did not show himself to be a competent theologian and remained in prison during this time. However, when Bolsec claimed that ministers from the churches of other cities sided with him, there was no way they could not let this go unchallenged. So Geneva sent a letter to other Swiss churches asking for their opinion before making a decision on the matter. No doubt Geneva expected a suitable judgement to be made against Bolsec by the Swiss churches.

However, things did not turn out to Calvin’s satisfaction, or even in his favour. What made this a troublesome affair for him was the fact that Bolsec had expressed views about Calvin’s teaching that others also shared, even among his friends and co-reformers. In the end, the replies from the Swiss churches were a weak mixture of suggestions. Basle’s response was ambiguous with regard to any punishment, and Clavin complained about their response in a letter to Farel, calling it ‘cold and empty’. (Letter to Farel, Jan. 1552). However, that was nothing compared to reply from Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich. Bullinger had taken over from Zwingli and was an important figure in the Reformation movement in Switzerland. The church in Zürich expressed surprise that it was being asked for its opinion on an issue that had already been settled in an official document of doctrinal agreement made between Zurich and Berne (the Consensus Tigurinus). They did not understand why such a fuss was being made about this, and added that they felt Bolsec had been treated too severely by the Genevans. They advised that a reconciliation be made with Bolsec. This caused no end of annoyance and frustration to Calvin, who felt he was being treated like an enemy, and complained bitterly to Farel about Zurich’s and Bullinger’s response. (Letter to Farel, 8 Dec. 1551). In the same letter, he also complained about the lack of communication from the Senate (the Small Council) in Geneva, stating:

“The Senate did not consider the pastors worthy of being written to, but to heighten the insult, they limited their communication to the magistrates.”

Calvin was feeling side-lined by the authorities in Geneva. Another snub! He also privately corresponded with Bullinger at this time, but Bullinger warned him that Bolsec was only saying what others had been saying about his views on predestination. More than that, there was explicit criticism from Bullinger that Calvin had overstepped the mark regarding predestination and gone beyond scripture. He told Calvin, “Now, believe me, many are offended by your statements on predestination in your Institutes, and Bolsec has drawn from them the same conclusions….” (Bullinger to Calvin, 1 Dec. 1551). Calvin could not let that go unanswered and defended his stance in no uncertain terms to Bullinger. The Bolsec affair ended up straining relations between Calvin and the Swiss churches.

Calvin could not tolerate any challenge to his teaching, believing as he did, it represented God’s truth. After receiving the replies, the Genevan authorities banned Bolsec from Geneva at the end of December. However, things were far from over. Bolsec went to the Bernese lands, where he was allowed to voice his criticisms of Calvin and his doctrines, and soon drew in others who already were not enamoured with Calvin. Bolsec was a rather eccentric figure and eventually returned to the Catholic Church, but he found those who were ready and willing to listen to his criticisms of Calvin in the Bernese regions.

Calvin, in the end, had to go to Bern to clarify things regarding what he taught and to secure peace. Although he was well-received, reservations still remained, and those who had criticisms of Calvin were still allowed to voice them openly and freely. This open criticism of Calvin reached such a pitch that the Genevan council had to write a letter of protest to Bern.

The background to this is that Calvin had disaffected the Bernese because of his opposition to their liturgical rites and his criticism of their ministers, as well as Calvin wanting the clerics to be in charge of the sanction of excommunication instead of the councils. They were also worried that Calvin was a maverick in their midst, who was unduly influencing the whole of the French-speaking region with his own doctrinal views. Relations between Calvin and Bern were as strained as ever.

The event with Bolsec is very significant for another reason. It was another example of the council asserting their independence and authority over Calvin. We have already seen how Calvin argued with the council over the punishment that should be inflicted on Ameaux, Calvin wanting a much more public and severe one than the councils were disposed to impose. Also in the case with Bolsec, not only did the act of consulting the other Reformed cities turn out to Calvin’s great disadvantage, but it highlighted the tension between the council and Calvin. This will be an important factor when we come to look at Calvin’s involvement in the execution of Michael Servetus.

The 1550s

In the first half of the 1550s things were not going well for Calvin. There were continuing tensions with Bern, who in 1554 actually banned those writings of Calvin that they believed did not follow their own teachings. Resentment towards the preaching of the pastors in Geneva also carried on unabated. Then the elections in February 1553 gave the Libertines – the anti-Calvin faction – a majority on the chief seats within the council, with Ami Perrin as first syndic (executive magistrate). The Perrinists then took up positions on the Consistory, thus again threatening and limiting Calvin’s position and authority in matters of church discipline.

Tensions and conflict between Calvin and the councils emerged again over the issue of banning people from the Lord’s Supper. Calvin claimed that this was the prerogative of the Consistory, but was overruled at this time by the magistrates, who claimed this authority for themselves. The council took less and less notice of the ministers in matters relating to church discipline and appointments, and even banned the ministers, who were citizens of Geneva, from sitting on the General Council which was open to all citizens. It was a stressful time for Calvin, to say the least. In April, there were complaints from a number of citizens that they found the reprimands of the consistory oppressive, so the council called on the ministers to explain themselves. In 1553 Calvin wrote:

“…they have never shown a more unbridled licence… The entire republic is now in disorder and they are striving to uproot the established order.”13

After 12 years of political and religious infighting and of opposition from the citizens of Geneva, in July (1553), Calvin had had enough and asked permission to resign. Thus it is recorded:

“M. Calvin has remonstrated and asked that the council will not be displeased if, since he sees that some wish him ill, and many grumble and turn away from the Word, he goes into retirement and serves no longer.”14 (Italics mine)

His request, however, was denied. It seemed that the Perrinists wanted Calvin under their control, rather than let him loose as a free agent. That ‘many grumbled and turned away from the Word’ was the inevitable result of trying to foist religion on a worldly population.

There are those who claim that Calvin believed in the separation between the Church and the State. As I have already stated elsewhere, this, at best, is only half true. In essence, it is not true at all. All the Protestant Reformers continued the state church system that evolved from the time of Constantine. They believed in Christendom. The state and church are really one entity with two parts, serving to ensure that godly teaching and living are secured in their domain. According to this view, the Church wields the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and the State wields the sword of physical punishment (Romans 13:1-6), and it is the states’ ‘duty’ before God to purge the community of ungodliness, idolatry and heresy. Both are called of God to make and keep the community ‘godly’ and ‘Christian’. These ideas are clearly expressed in Calvin’s and other reformers’ writings.

This kind of alliance between Church and State set up from the time of Constantine, meant that the ‘Church’ was going to have to accept having its wings clipped – to a greater or lesser extent – by the power that had not only given it the privileged position it enjoyed, but also ensured that no other dissenting voice or teaching would be allowed to exist or survive in its regions.

What is true is that although Calvin expected the state to fulfil its ‘divine’ duty in punishing the immoral and the heretic in society, he believed these civic powers should not interfere in the running of the church. That was his idea of a so-called ‘separation’ between the two. He wanted this concept to work ‘one way’, that is, in his favour. Calvin would have been horrified at the notion that the state had nothing to do with upholding and imposing the ‘one true religion’ in its domains. But it is naïve to think that those who hold the keys of power, that is, the state, will end up being so subservient to those who actually depend on them for their existence, that is, the Church! You cannot have the civic power behind you unless you are willing to have your wings clipped to a certain extent.

In Chapter 10, we will look at an event that gives us an illustration of exactly this – the Church and State acting as one to bring a heretic to his death.




  1. The Execution of Servetus
  2. Reaction to the Execution
  3. Victory over Political Opponents
  4. Summary and Conclusion

In the midst of the controversy between Calvin and the magistrates regarding who had the right to decide on the issue of excommunication, an unexpected and significant event occurred. It was the affair relating to Michael Servetus. I wrote about the execution of Servetus in Chapter 3, but we will now look at this matter in greater detail.

Servetus had written works challenging the doctrine of the Trinity, and they were considered heretical by both Catholics and Protestants. Servetus tried to influence the reformers in both Basle and Strasbourg but was met with opposition to his views, and the Catholic Church had actually issued orders for his arrest. He therefore changed his name (to Michael Villeneuve) to avoid detection, and went to study medicine in Paris, where he excelled as a student of that subject. Servetus then entered into correspondence with Calvin, which bore no fruit at all. In fact, he had earlier invited Calvin to Paris for them to meet there, but then he himself did not show up. Calvin wrote to Farel about Servetus on 13th February 1546, stating:

“Servetus lately wrote to me, and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies, with the Thrasonic boast, that I should see something astonishing and unheard of. He takes it upon him to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” (Italics mine.)

As early as 1546, Calvin had already had enough of Servetus and his false teachings, and he plainly stated he would be willing to ensure his death were he to venture into Geneva. This was written to his close friend Farel, with whom he could be honest and open. There’s nothing here to suggest he was using the language of exaggeration, although others have offered that interpretation, but the events that follow give us no reason to believe that he did not mean what he said to Farel in that letter. What is certain, is that it was Calvin who had him immediately arrested upon his arrival in Geneva; it was Calvin’s friend and brother who both represented surety at the initial stages of the trial; it was Calvin who drew up the theological case against him; Calvin did nothing to try and prevent his execution, except to have it changed from burning to beheading; and it was Calvin who after Servetus’ death wrote a book defending the execution of heretics. All these facts show that his words to Farel about Servetus were no idle threat or innocent exaggeration on Calvin’s part.

But let us continue with the story. Servetus had to keep his true identity hidden and was working as a medical doctor in the French city of Vienne, which was under Catholic control. While in Vienne, he again sent correspondence to Calvin, troubling him with his teachings regarding the Trinity. This was in 1553. However, at that time it was made known to the Catholic authorities that they had a heretic in their midst, but they needed evidence to that effect. As it turned out, Calvin was one of the people who could verify that the man going under a different name was actually the heretic, Servetus. Calvin was approached and he let himself be persuaded to give such evidence and thus expose Servetus to the Catholic authorities and to the certain punishment of death by being burnt at the stake. Upon receiving the evidence from Calvin, the Catholic authorities immediately arrested Servetus, but he managed to escape from prison while still under investigation. In his absence, the Catholics sentenced him to be burned alive in a slow fire. This was in June 1553.

After his escape, Servetus was on his route to Italy when he decided to visit Geneva. Why did he stop over in Geneva when it was not the most direct route? He claimed that he was only going to stay for one night and had already booked his transport by boat to leave the next day. Perhaps his curiosity and desire to meet and spar with the great Calvin had got the better of him. In Geneva, Servetus attended the church where Calvin was preaching. Calvin recognised him, and it was Calvin who then had him immediately arrested; and it was Calvin’s secretary, Nicolas la Fontaine, and his brother Antoine, who were, in turn, placed in prison in the initial stages of the trial as surety – in case the charges should prove false. This was the requirement of the legal procedure in Geneva. It was also Calvin who drew up a list of accusations on theological points for the case against Servetus. The trial proper began in the middle of August.

The prosecutor for the council was Pierre Tissot, but after two days, a substitute, Philibert Berthelier, stood in for him. However, Berthelier was among those who opposed Calvin’s austere measures in Geneva. The next day Calvin complained to the council that Berthelier was being too lenient on Servetus, and so Tissot resumed as prosecutor. This was politics at play. The uncle of Calvin’s secretary acted as prosecuting counsel against Servetus. At every stage, we see that Calvin was the instigator and a prime mover in this process to incriminate Servetus with the charge of heresy. Without Calvin’s intervention, Servetus could have left Geneva unharmed – if he had genuinely intended on leaving the next day.

The thrust of the argument of the prosecution was to show that the teachings of Servetus were heretical. This was a critical point, as according to Roman Law contained in the Justinian Code, to teach rebaptism, or against the Trinity, was a crime punishable by death – heresy was a capital crime. (The Justinian Code was formulated in the 6th century AD during Emperor Justinian’s rule.) It was the Justinian Code that the leading Protestant reformer in Germany, Melanchton, made reference to (as well as Leviticus 24:16) to press his case for the execution of heretics.1

Servetus himself had complained to the council (September 15) that Calvin was using the Justinian code against him. He complained:

“I humbly beg you to cut short these delays and deliver me from prosecution. You see that Calvin is at the end of his rope, not knowing what to say and for his pleasure wishes to make me rot in prison. The lice eat me alive, my clothes are all torn, and I have nothing for change, neither jacket or shirt, but a bad one. I have addressed you another petition which was according to God, and to impede it Calvin sites Justinian. He is in a bad way to quote against me what he does not himself credit…”2

There could be only one reason for citing the Justinian Code – and that was to secure a death penalty. This is part of Calvin’s letter to Farel, written on 20th August:

“…We have now new business in hand with Servetus. He intended perhaps passing through this city; for it is not yet known with what design he came. But after he had been recognized, I thought that he should be detained. My friend Nicolas summoned him on a capital charge, offering himself as security according to the lex talionis. On the following day he adduced against him forty written charges. He at first sought to evade them. Accordingly we were summoned… At length the Senate pronounced all the charges proven. Nicolas was released from prison on the third day, having given up my brother as his surety… I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon him; but I desire that the severity of the punishment may be mitigated.” (Italics mine).

Calvin again expresses his hope that Servetus will be put to death. He even admits that it was a capital charge that was brought against Servetus, that is, one that incurred the death penalty. In practice, the last words of Calvin in the quote meant that he would request that Severtus was beheaded instead of being burnt – and that was exactly what Calvin did petition for prior to the execution. Calvin at no time asked the council to commute the death penalty. Farel, in replying to this letter, took the last sentence to mean that Calvin wanted to spare Servetus the death penalty, and rebuked Calvin for suggesting anything less than death for Servetus.3 As we have already seen, all the well-known leading Protestant reformers of the 16th Century were men of murderous intent.

The trial proved to be long and wearisome. Part of the problem for it dragging on was the political tensions and infighting that was going on between Calvin and the civic authorities, the latter always seeking to assert their authority over Calvin to his disadvantage. Regarding the actual legal proceedings against Servetus, Calvin took no part. But as we have seen, his interventions and involvement played a crucial and integral part in Servetus’s arrest and the charges brought against him. Politics and the continuing power struggle between the councils and Calving were at play in these matters. According to Parker, the Libertines were wanting to keep Calvin at arm’s length concerning the proceedings to minimize his say; and they also encouraged Servetus to stand up to Calvin, which Servetus gladly did, taking advantage of the rivalry between the council and Calvin.4

The case of Servetus as a heretic was well-known to the Catholics, and the council in Geneva was very aware of this and sensitive to any accusation that the Catholics might bring against them of harbouring and protecting heretics if they let Servetus get off lightly, so there was no way the council could let him simply go free. But neither was the council keen to let Calvin have his way in the matter. They realised that Calvin was out to brand Servetus as a heretic and that he would seek a severe punishment, as he had done in previous cases. (We have already seen how Calvin baulked and argued with the council about what he regarded as the lenient punishment against Ameaux, and forced the council to humiliate Ameaux by making him parade through the city confessing his ‘crime’.)

However, Calvin was involved in exchanges and discussions with Servetus while in prison, as a result of which Calvin and the ministers submitted articles accusing Servetus of heresy. It is clear that Calvin was playing a definite and determined part in the conviction of Servetus as a heretic. Servetus then made accusations against Calvin, to which Calvin made a vehement defence. As the case dragged on, a certain impasse was reached. The council was not going to depend on Calvin’s direction in making a decision about any appropriate punishment. As they had done in the case of Bolsec, so now the council decided to seek the advice of other Reformed Swiss cities. One reason for this was that Servetus had claimed that reformers in those cities agreed with him.

The Council made the following statement on the 21st of August:

“Inasmuch as the case of heresy of M. Servetus vitally affects the welfare of Christendom, it is resolved to proceed with his trial; and also to write to Vienne to know why he was imprisoned, and how he escaped; and after that, when all is ascertained, to write to the magistrates of Berne, of Basle, of Zurich, of Schaffhausen, and other Churches of the Swiss, to acquaint them with the whole.”5

As in the case with Bolsec, the Genevan council was side-stepping Calvin and requesting the advice of other leading reformers. We saw how this resulted in a judgement that was very mild for Bolsec, which infuriated Calvin and turned out to his great disadvantage. In this case too, Calvin had wanted direct involvement to ensure an outcome that would have been more severe for Bolsec. Calvin could only be frustrated by another such move on the part of the Genevan council, seeing that he was focussed on securing a severe, if not the severest penalty for Servetus. Indeed, Calvin was so angry at this decision that he complained to Bullinger in Zurich, saying:

“Our Council will, on an early day, send the opinions of Servetus to your city, to obtain your judgment regarding them. Indeed they cause you this trouble, despite our remonstrances; but they have reached such a pitch of folly and madness, that they regard with suspicion whatever we say to them. So much so, that were I to allege that it is clear at mid-day, they would forthwith begin to doubt of it.”6 (Italics mine)

Calvin was extremely frustrated and put out by the action of the Genevan council. He reveals a number of very significant things in this letter. He clearly says that he actually protested to the council about seeking outside advice regarding the guilt of Servetus and an appropriate punishment; he was obviously afraid of another ‘fudge’ on the issue by the other Reformed Swiss cities. He states that this step of asking advice from the Swiss cities is simply to do with the council’s ongoing animosity to him personally. Calvin was highly annoyed at this decision and took it as an action of defiance against him. One thing this clearly shows is that Calvin was not some kind of neutral, passive bystander in the Servetus affair, as some would mistakenly suggest. He had a particular interest in an outcome that vindicated him against Servetus, and that suitably punished the latter. But the crucial question is, why should Calvin baulk and feel thwarted by this action of the council? The answer is that he realised that the council, in using this strategy, may be seeking an outcome that did not align itself with his wishes or expectations.

We need to recall the case of Bolsec to understand this. Bolsec had attacked Calvin’s teaching on predestination in no uncertain terms, and was immediately arrested. During the investigation of Bolsec, Geneva consulted the other Swiss cities – just as it was now doing in the case of Servetus – and this had brought an answer from them that was not particularly condemning of Bolsec. Calvin was annoyed and exasperated at the leniency of the Swiss cities towards Bolsec; he was simply ousted from Geneva, but could carry on criticising Calvin from Bern! This caused Calvin a great deal of frustration and also tension between him and Bullinger at that time.

Not content with just writing to the eminent Bullinger to complain about the council’s request for advice, Calvin writes to Simon Sulzer, the leading reformer in Basle to try to influence him as to the guilt of Servetus. He writes:

“It was he whom that faithful minister of Christ, Master Bucer of holy memory, in other respects of a mild disposition, declared from the pulpit to be worthy of having his bowels pulled out, and torn to pieces…”.7 (Italics mine.)

Calvin is at pains to highlight what a heretical scoundrel Servetus is by stating that even the mild-mannered reformer, Bucer, wanted Servetus ripped apart – and he even said so publicly from the pulpit! Calvin continues:

“He at length, in an evil hour, came to this place, when, at my instigation, one of the Syndics ordered him to be conducted to prison… we see how very inactive those are whom God has armed with the sword, for the vindication of the glory of his name.” (Italics mine.)

These comments are very revealing concerning Calvin’s general attitude towards the role of the magistracy in general in Christendom, and his frustration at the lack of their punitive action against heretics. Calvin is here remonstrating to the reformer in Basle that Christian magistrates are not being vigorous enough in punishing heresy – all this in the context of complaining about Servetus. He calls such punitive action ‘a vindication of the glory of God’! He goes on to say:

“Seeing that the defenders of the Papacy are so bitter and bold on behalf of their superstitions, that in their atrocious fury they shed the blood of the innocent, it should shame Christian magistrates, that in the protection of certain truth, they are entirely destitute of spirit. I certainly confess that nothing would be less becoming, than for us to imitate their furious intemperance. But there is some ground for restraining the impious from uttering whatever blasphemies they please with impunity.” (Italics mine)

Calvin seems to borne along by his anger here, complaining that the Catholics by their execution of heretics at least show some due concern for what they (wrongly) believe is right, thus putting the Reformed cities to shame, who lack this kind of ‘concern’ for the truth. But he then has to pull back by admitting they should not imitate the excesses of violence of the Catholics. Nevertheless, Calvin sets out very clearly in the letter what an evil influence Servetus has had on others and how he threatened the very foundation of Christian teaching. He ends up virtually imploring Sulzer to advocate strong action against Servetus. He concludes his letter by saying:

“But as I hope that you will see to it that the impiety of the man be represented in the character that it merits, I shall not add more. Only there is one thing I wish to say to you, viz., that the treasurer of this city, who will deliver to you this letter takes a correct view of this case, so that he at least does not avoid the issue which we desire. Would that your old disciples were animated by the same spirit!” (Italics mine)

Calvin does everything he can in this letter to persuade and apply pressure on those in Basle to come up with a pronouncement that will satisfy and accord with Calvin’s desire for punitive action against Servetus. He is hardly a passive by-stander. He is extremely vexed at the thought that Servetus may get off lightly and these are desperate attempts on his part to prevent such an outcome by attempting to influence the ‘jury’. He was not going to let the Genevan council side-line him completely. There is no language of mitigation or moderation in this letter. Servetus is to be condemned as a heretic – and punished accordingly.

Some have suggested that Calvin really took no part in the process and that things were decided by the council of Geneva and the other Swiss cities; they maintain that Calvin essentially had no influence on the proceedings against Servetus. However, given his writings and actions, it is certainly untrue that Calvin just sat back and passively let things take their course. By his participation and actions in a number of different ways, Calvin sought to keep up the momentum for a severe punishment against Servetus; and in the end, we have Calvin’s own statements of murderous intent. The idea that Calvin was outside the process and detached is belied by the facts. That the council continued to try and thwart Calvin, as it had been doing for years, does not alter the fact that Calvin was pursuing the severest of punishments for Servetus, and we see him in a state of desperation and frustration when he felt the council was trying to side-step him.

As it turned out, Calvin need not have feared. The response from the Swiss cities could hardly have been clearer. Servetus was deemed guilty of heresy, which, of course, could attract the death penalty. The Swiss cities were ready to show that they were not ‘soft’ on heretics, but would not commit themselves to specifying the kind of punishment Servetus should receive, and left that decision to Geneva. However, Bern suggested that if things could not be resolved with Servetus, then he should be put in prison so that his influence could be neutralised. Why did Calvin not pick up on this and request that the death penalty be commuted to indefinite imprisonment? But there is no record of him having done so. But the condemnation of the Swiss churches against Servetus as a heretic was very emphatic, saying that it was an opportunity to give a blow against heresy, and to rid the church of such a rogue.  The death sentence was certainly implicit in their respone. Calvin expressed his satisfaction about the verdict of the Swiss cities to Farel:

“The messenger has returned from the Swiss Churches. They are unanimous in pronouncing that Servetus has now renewed those impious errors with which Satan formerly disturbed the Church, and that he is a monster not to be borne. Those of Basel were judicious. The Zurichers were the most vehement of all; for they not only censure in severe terms on the atrocity of his impieties, but also exhorted our Senate to severity. They of Schaffhausen will agree… Caesar the comedian [Ami Perrin]… went up to the assembly in order to free that wretch from punishment. Nor was he ashamed to ask that inquiry might be made at the [Council of the] Two Hundred. However, he was without doubt condemned. He will be led forth to punishment tomorrow. We endeavoured to alter the mode of his death, but in vain.” (Calvin to Farel 26th Oct. 1553. Italics mine.)

Let us first notice that Calvin states that he and the clerics endeavoured to change only the ‘mode of death’ for Servetus – not to have it commuted to something less. The outcome of the death penalty for Servetus is consistent with all that Calvin wrote and did during this whole process. It is also clear that in this letter there is an element of satisfaction and delight at the response of the Swiss churches, particularly that of Zurich, in that they advised a severe punishment. Similarly, there is a note of triumph as he relates how Ami Perrin’s attempt to commute the death penalty and even ‘free the wretch from punishment’ was totally thwarted. Calvin would have been furious if that ‘wretch’ had been freed. Like the Catholics of his time, Calvin did not understand the scripture that says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). Calvin believed it was right and just that the ‘Church’ punish heretics and put them to death.

Perrin had tried to intervene to stop the case or thwart the process, and asked the matter be referred to the Council of the Two Hundred for a decision, but his attempt failed, much to the obvious satisfaction of Calvin. However, Perrin might have also been motivated by a desire to spite Calvin in his attempts to free Servetus. The council gave its verdict that Servetus was to be burnt at the stake, stating that the strong responses from the Swiss churches really left no other option in view of Servetus’s heretical teachings. Calvin and the ministers asked that this should be changed to death by beheading, but the request was refused. Perhaps this is another instance of the council asserting its authority over Calvin. But at no stage did Calvin make an intervention that Servetus should not be punished with death. And whether the reason Calvin wanted the penalty changed to beheading was one of compassion, or whether it was because of an instinct that the actual burning of person might not be good PR for the Reformation, is a matter of debate.

Upon Servetus’s request, Calvin went to visit him in prison before the execution. But the encounter proved fruitless. Calvin gave his version of the visit, and it ends with these words:

 “So, following the rule of Paul, I withdrew from the heretic who was self-condemned.”8

Calvin was quoting from Titus 3:9,10, and shows the spiritual condition of his own heart when he misuses the Scriptures that speak about a man being self-condemned, while he knows that Servetus is going to be condemned to death as the result of a process that Calvin himself had started. Like a Spanish inquisitor, Calvin left a man to be condemned to death because he refused to recant his beliefs. But the apostle Paul did not envisage that believers would put heretics to death when he was writing to Titus.


The burning of Servetus caused an immediate backlash against Calvin, particularly in Basle. Humanist and Christian voices were raised against him and books written, saying that no one should be punished for their beliefs and that Calvin was returning to the atrocities of the Catholics. Calvin wrote to Bullinger at that time:

“You at least… judge me with equity. Others attack me savagely, reproaching me with (professing) cruelty, with pursuing with my pen a man who died at my hands.”9

What Calvin did next is very revealing. In response to these attacks on him, Calvin hastily wrote a work entitled, Defence of the Orthodox Faith against the Errors of Michel Servetus. In this book he defended the death penalty for heresy in no uncertain terms. With all the records available, it is clear that the idea, voiced by Calvin’s apologists, that he was not directly responsible or even wished the death of Severtus is shown to be untrue. Their attempted defence of Calvin becomes redundant in view of the fact that Calvin staunchly and even fanatically defended the death penalty for heretics in this work.  It is a strange logic to say that Calvin did not wish the death of Servetus when he writes a book defending his execution and justifying the death of heretics.

Let me repeat here what Calvin wrote in his Defence of the Orthodox Faith:

That humanity, that is advocated by those who are in favour of a pardon for heretics, is greater cruelty because in order to save the wolves they expose the poor sheep. I ask you, is it reasonable that heretics should be allowed to murder souls and to poison them with their false doctrine, and that we should prevent the sword, contrary to God’s commandment, from touching their bodies, and that the whole Body of Jesus Christ be lacerated that the stench of one rotten member may remain undisturbed?” And again, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church.”(Italics mine)

It is chilling stuff. Calvin rebukes those as being cruel who argue that for compassion’s sake one should not put heretics to death. Calvin uses the same arguments that were used by Augustine and others down the centuries with regard to the persecution and execution of heretics. Calvin also sought to justify the killing of heretics by making reference to the death of Ananias and Saphira for lying (Acts chapter 5) and Jesus using force to cleanse the temple of greedy traders. How can you trust the theology of someone who can so abuse and corrupt the meaning of the Scriptures? There must have been a solid veil over his spiritual eyes and understanding to be so blind to the obvious. This also holds true for the other leading Protestant reformers, Bullinger, Melanchthon and Beza, who wrote in defence Servetus’s death penalty, and variously congratulated and encouraged Calvin on securing his death, and for his book defending the death penalty for heretics. You can read what these reformers wrote in praise of Calvin’s book in Chapter 3 of this study.

Philip Schaff, commenting on Calvin’s Defence of the Orthodox Faith, states:

“Calvin’s plea for the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy by death, stands or falls with his theocratic theory and the binding authority of the Mosaic code. His arguments are chiefly drawn from the Jewish laws against idolatry and blasphemy, and from the examples of the pious kings of Israel. But his arguments from the New Testament are failures.10

Of course all of Calvin’s arguments were ‘failures’, since Calvin’s references to the Old Testament to validate the murder of heretics in these New Testament times only reveals his ignorance of the nature of the Covenants and the nature of Christianity. Schaff is here confirming what I have made reference to several times. There is no escaping the fact that Calvin wanted to set up a kind of ‘theocracy’, where God’s law was imposed on all who lived within the jurisdiction of the republic of Geneva. And this was chiefly based on the model of Israel in the Old Testament, on which the execution of heretics was also to be based, as well as the punishment of all evil doers. Priest and magistrate were to work together in establishing God’s Kingdom on earth. In their outlook, and in the language used by the Protestant Reformers, there is nothing to separate them from those of the Catholic inquisition. They are all of one kind, except the reformers refrained from killing as many heretics as the Catholics.

Philip Schaff maintains that ‘Calvin never changed his views or regretted his conduct towards Servetus.’ Even nine years after the execution of Servetus, Calvin defended his actions against him, when replying to the accusations one of his critics, named, Baudouin:

“Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster.”11 (Italics mine)

At least Calvin here acknowledges that the council ‘took vengeance’ in response to his exhortation. In his commentary writings also, Calvin continues to uphold the notion that it is right and proper for the secular authority to use the ‘sword’ to punish heretics. Commenting on Matthew 13:39, Calvin states:

“This passage has been most improperly abused by the Anabaptists, and by others like them, to take from the Church the power of the sword. But it is easy to refute them; for since they approve of excommunication, which cuts off, at least for a time, the bad and reprobate, why may not godly magistrates, when necessity calls for it, use the sword against wicked men?” (Italics mine)

Calvin argues that only banishing a wicked person from the company of believers (as the Anabaptists taught), and taking no punitive and physical action against them, deprives the Church of its use of the sword through the magistrates. As noted elsewhere, it is a fundamental aspect of Calvin’s teaching that the magistrates represent an arm of the Church in the use of the sword. But were not the reformers simply repeating the cruel executions that the Catholic Church inflicted on those it regarded as heretics? Here is Calvin’s reply:

“But, if under this pretext the superstitious have dared to shed innocent blood, I reply that what God has once commanded must not be brought to nought on account of any abuse or corruption of men… the Papal executioners will not bring it to pass by their unjust cruelty that the zeal of pious magistrates in punishing false and noxious teachers should be otherwise than pleasing to God.12 (Italics mine)

Calvin uses the same argument as Luther, namely, that just because the Catholic Church wrongly uses these draconian powers to kill the innocent, this does not invalidate the proper use of such powers in killing heretics, which Calvin claims, is well pleasing to God.

Concerning Calvin’s attitude and actions, Schaff maintains,

“Calvin’s prominence for intolerance was his misfortune. It was an error of judgment, but not of the heart, and must be excused, though it cannot be justified, by the spirit of his age.”13

What I can say about Schaff’s comment is that I agree with the part of it where he says that Calvin was of the spirit of his age. The kingdom that Calvin was in was of this world. He certainly did not exemplify the Spirit of Christ, or the character of a Christian in this matter, or in many other matters. Furthermore, are we to say that the crimes and sins we commit are to be excused because of the spirit of the age we live in? This is a strange theology indeed. Paul did terrible things ‘in ignorance’, but he did not blame the age he lived in, or his pharisaical background, but repented of his own evil deeds and was saved by the mercy of God. The salvation that Paul experienced through Jesus Christ changed Paul’s heart and turned his life around completely (1 Timothy 1:13-16), from persecutor to enduring persecution. And that salvation was freely available to all, including Calvin in his day, and was exemplified in some of those he persecuted, such as the Anabpatists, but was missing from the life of Calvin himself.

Schaff says that it was ‘an error of judgment, but not of the heart’. It is far more the truth that because his heart was wrong and unchanged, he would necessarily make errors of judgement. He acted according to nature. By their arguments in defence of him, the apologists of Calvin only tend to confirm the point I am making. By the way they conducted themselves in these matters, Calvin and the other leading reformers of the 16th century did not seem to know or experience a Gospel that changed them, that changed their hearts. Yes, they had a change of doctrinal convictions, intellectual enlightenment even, but manifestly not an inward change that took them ‘out’ of the ‘spirit of their age’, and ‘translated’ them into a totally new Kingdom (Colossians 1:13), with a totally new way of thinking. They still behaved like Catholic despots – they live according to the spirit of their age.

Another writer stated that what Calvin did, he did with a clear conscience. I do not disagree. Calvin believed that it is better for the sake of the whole flock that individual heretics should be put to death, rather than let them infect others with their teachings and cause them to depart from the faith and perish eternally. The reformers believed this was their sacred duty and responsibility before God – just like the Catholics had for centuries, and just like the Pharisees had done in sentencing Jesus to death. Jesus had prophesied no less: “…yea, the time comes, that whosoever kills you will think that he does God service.” (John 16:2). Without a doubt, this applies to the magisterial reformers.

In all good conscience towards God, the sect of the Pharisees had Jesus crucified and persecuted His followers. Likewise, the reformers promoted and oversaw the persecution, imprisonment, torture and execution of Anabaptists when the latter simply testified to a conversion experience and to a baptism on the basis of that change-around in their lives. Yes, the reformers thought they were doing God a service by persecuting and executing them, but ‘a good conscience’ in itself does not justify us or our actions (1 Cor. 4:4)

A Reversal of Fortunes

Although Calvin faced a backlash from certain quarters because of what was done to Servetus, his standing grew within the Reformation movement as a defender of the truth. It was now apparent, particularly to the Catholics, that the Reformation would not tolerate heretics in its midst, and this was a consideration that was very important to the reformers, namely, that they should not be seen to harbour, or be soft on heretics. Bullinger wrote to Calvin at the time expressing his delight that, “God has given you an opportunity to wash us all clean from the suspicion of being heretics or of favouring heresy if you show yourselves vigilant and ready to prevent this poison from spreading further.”14

The correspondence between the leading reformers in congratulating Calvin on the success of proving that heretics should be put to death is simply gruesome – it does not matter what age it occurs in; it remains gruesome and chilling.

The Struggle with the Councils Continues

During the trial of Servetus, the war of words was continuing between Calvin and the council concerning who had the authority to determine things regarding the Lord’s Supper and excommunication. A huge wrangle developed around the person of one Philibert Bethelier, who was a notable citizen of Geneva and a Perrinist (i.e., anti-Calvinist), whom the clerics refused to admit to the Lord’s Supper despite the council pronouncing that he could (summer 1553). It ended up being a bitter tug of war that went on until a special commission that was set up ruled in favour of Calvin and the ministers in January 1555. However, the council still kept up its harassment of Calvin in other ways so that he wrote to Farel the following words:

“Here at home everything is in fearful confusion… On the inner discords our city I am afraid that you will soon be getting bad news.”15

Among the youth of Geneva there was also animosity against the imposition of religion. Farel had spoken against the young people and was forced to apologize. In January, a group of youths marched through the streets with torches and deriding religion. The following Sunday, Calvin lamented and complained about the Genevan youth in his sermon:

“Alas Our Lord has indeed given occasion to weep and moan, both to you, children of Geneva, and to me with you, for it is needful that a pastor, when there is some scandal in the church, should be the first to cry out to ask pardon of God, so that all the people may follow Him.”16

In this sermon again we see clearly that Calvin views the whole community of the city as being encompassed by the church – even the worldly anti-religious youth! Calvin’s exasperation and frustration is vented in another sermon on the next Sunday, when he stated:

“I would like to be far from Geneva. And might it please God that I should never have to approach within a hundred leagues to please them, provided there were people who desired their salvation.”17

However, it was then that things changed dramatically – politically, at least, if not in other respects. Geneva had been attracting a large number of Protestant refugees, particularly from France. The February (1555) elections returned supporters of Calvin to the most important positions on the council, and the Perrinists were ousted. Following this, the council now decreed that a large number of French refugees could be given citizenship, which meant they could be voted onto the council in elections, and of course, these would naturally be in favour of Calvin. The political tide was moving in Calvin’s favour, which eventually would give him unprecedented influence and authority in Geneva.

This move to strengthen the position of the French refugees caused discontent among some of the citizens of Geneva, and resulted in a kind of confused demonstration or riot in May (1555), which was interpreted as a revolt or insurrection. During this incident Ami Perrin had taken the baton, which was the symbol of authority of the chief magistrate (syndic) out of the magistrate’s hand, thus giving the impression of an insurrection – and that is how it was interpreted. Ami Perrin had to flee for his life along with Philibert Berthelier because of their involvement in the ‘riot’. Calvin demanded justice after this incident, proclaiming in one of his sermons:

“There are those who will complain, as soon as one talks of doing justice, that one is bloodthirsty, that there is nothing but cruelty… And not only will the birds of the gallows talk – I speak of those who sins and crimes are manifest – but their henchmen in the taverns, who imitate the preachers. Oh, they know how to invoke humanity and mercy, and it seems to them that I spare blood no more than they do wine….”18

From these words we see that Calvin was well aware that he was being accused of vengeful brutality, and mocked in the drinking houses. He had called for justice, that is, punishment, regarding those who had been among his chief opponents. Calvin was getting involved in politics here and stirring up a backlash against those who had opposed and thwarted him for years. But, of course, for him, the little republic of Geneva was the Lord’s Church, God’s domain, and he viewed it at his spiritual duty to safeguard the community from political insurrection.

Well, punishment was handed out. Those who were involved in the riot were tortured and executed for their involvement. They were beheaded and quartered, and their body parts were hung up in the four quarters of Geneva.19

Calvin was not backward in supporting the severity of the punishment imposed by the council, stating:

“Those who do not correct evil when they can do so and their office requires it, are guilty of it. Just as, if a preacher conceals the reigning vices, it is certain that he is a traitor and disloyal… If I then support evil… by indifference, I shall be the first to be condemned. Similarly, if those who have the sword of justice do not employ the severity they should to correct faults, it is certain that the anger of God fall on them forever.”20

Calvin here claims that the execution of those convicted of insurrection not only deserve such punishment according to the criminal law, but also on the basis of divine law.

Victory over Political Opponents. Calvin Now has a Free Hand in Imposing Religion.

The events of 1555 brought to an end the concerted and organised opposition to Calvin in Geneva on the political front, and the emergence of councils that were favourable to (his version of) the Reformation. So, how did things proceed in Geneva after this? Well, we do not really know much. What I found significant, as well as very surprising, was that in reading several modern biographies on Calvin, they all fall virtually silent regarding the activities of Calvin in the city of Geneva after his political opponents were vanquished. It is quite remarkable. Parker states in his biography of John Calvin (p. 124) that it would not be right to see Calvin’s career in Geneva mainly in the context of the opposition to him. However, as soon as the political opposition to Calvin has been overcome, Parker falls almost silent on the activities of Calvin in the remaining nine years that Calvin had in Geneva before his death in 1564. After the events of 1555, he and other biographers (Bruce Gordon and Bernard Cottret), just focus on the writings of Calvin, on his international correspondence and influence, on the type of man he was, as well as mentioning the setting up of a college in Geneva. Concerning his activities in Geneva over this nine-year period they say very little.

This seems to be because there is nothing much to relate. Having gained this freedom from political opposition, Calvin just carried on in fulfilling his aim to regulate the conduct of the Genevan citizens. Magistrates, with together with religious ministers, could now supervise and control every facet of life. With the backing of a supportive council, Calvin could now advance his version of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Calvin did not use this new-found liberty to start a programme of evangelisation in the city in order to convert sinners to the Lord, because, as we have already seen, he did not view the people in the city like that. They were already regarded as a community of God’s people whose worldly ways and godless behaviour needed to be held in check by legal restrictions and punishments, and by enforcing morality from the pulpit; those who opposed, faced various kinds of punishments, including imprisonment and banishment, or for more serious offences, execution.

One biographer (B. Cottret, Calvin, A Biography) does pick up a little on how things progressed immediately after the fall of the Perrinists. Measures were taken to stop people practising the crossbow and children playing in the street during the preaching; skittles on the Sabbath was to be banned as it would give the Protestants a bad name among the Catholics. Advice was also given concerning the need for men and women to avoid mixing in certain public places for appearance sake, and to limit temptation. Some people complained about the extreme punishments for sexual immorality. One person objected that people were being condemned to death for adultery when, on the other hand, they were being taught they were a Christian society under the law of grace. He complained that this amounted to judaizing the people. He was imprisoned for daring to make such a judgement.21

However, from what we have read above, this man’s perception that the reformers were involved in nothing but ‘judaizing’ the community would seem to hit the nail on the head. The reformers were ignorant as to the true nature of the Lord’s church, and believed in following the Old Testament by legalistically imposing morality on the community and by punishing the consistently wayward.

What is lacking from Calvin’s time in Geneva, whether before or after the fall of the political opposition to him, is the following:

There is no narration about people in Geneva being ‘convicted of sin’ through the preaching of the Gospel and turning to the Lord for salvation as a result of such preaching; or of testimonies of those who had been converted and their lives being changed in a way that made them leave their sinful ways and abandon drunkenness, swearing and the like. No reports from Calvin or other reformers rejoicing that someone had ‘found Christ’ or ‘turned to Christ’ for salvation through their preaching – none that I have yet found, anyway. These are the kind of testimonies and records we have from among the Anabaptists. But it was because of this kind of testimony that the reformers banished the Anabaptists from their lands and even had them executed. The reformers in Geneva may have ticked the box regarding ‘justification by faith’, but what it actually meant to them and how they conveyed this truth in their preaching did not seem to result in the in type of conversions that we read about in the New Testament or in spiritual awakenings and revivals since then.

What we do read is that during this period, thousands of refugees who were already of a reformed persuasion came to Geneva – particularly from France – and found it a haven from persecution. These also expressed their gratefulness and even joy at finding a place where what they already believed was freely being preached and applied.

The Nature of the Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was historically of monumental significance – because it changed the balance of power in Europe, both in the political and the religious sphere. This does not mean that the Magisterial Reformation was a spiritual phenomenon or movement. It showed no signs of being such. It was certainly religious in nature, and it was very human, but there was no indication of that divine element that have characterised the revivals and spiritual awakenings of past centuries, such as in the 18th and 19th centuries – or even that reflected the work of the Anabaptists that resulted in the conversion of many thousands of ordinary folk who turned to Jesus Christ for salvation for the first time in their lives through the ministry of Anabaptist preachers.

The importance of the Reformation relates to how it changed the political and religious landscape of Europe, not how it changed and transformed the lives of people spiritually. The idea that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th started to bring in a time of religious freedom and toleration is simply a myth. It did not do so to any extent – except for those who agreed with, or just accepted and submitted to its regime and dogma.

Being of Christendom, the reformers continued to perpetuate all the horrors and falsehoods of Christendom. They were part of that same collusion with the secular authorities as the Catholic Church had been for over a thousand years, and engaged in the cruel persecution of religious dissenters. It matters little what doctrines they taught. Their doctrines did not seem to change their lives inwardly, their actions outwardly, nor bring about the conversion of their listeners. They might have spoken with the ‘tongues of angels’; they might have been able to expound ‘all mysteries’ and displayed ‘all knowledge’ through their doctrinal system. It makes no difference. If we do not have love – His love – it does not profit us anything. If He says on that day, “I never knew you; I never saw My nature in you;” What use then saying, “But we taught justification by faith”?

My comparison of the reformers to the Pharisees is not hyperbole on my part. In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees did believe in the resurrection from the dead as well as in the existence of angels. However, there is no way this would lead me to extol them for these correct beliefs and label their crucifixion of Christ and persecution of the disciples as unfortunate ‘blots’ on otherwise commendable lives for teaching the people the Law. Jesus appeared to the Pharisee Saul and asked, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4. Italics mine). The reformers persecuted disciples of the Lord, believers in Christ and put them to death – they were persecuting Christ, just as Saul had done, but their tragedy was that their consciences were not accessible to the Lord’s voice; their consciences were not ‘pricked’ nor did they hear the voice of the Lamb of God; they simply carried on persecuting Him.

The Protestant Reformation was not evangelistic. How could it be given its adherence to the theocratic model of Old Testament Israel, given its belief in Christendom, where society is already rendered ‘Christian’ by virtue of the infant baptism of every citizen? Neither was the Reformation evangelical. How could it be, since it abandoned sola scriptura in pursuit of justifying its false doctrines concerning infant baptism, concerning the nature of the Church, concerning the persecution and killing of other believers, concerning its strident denial regarding personal conversion and believer’s baptism based on such a conversion? How were they different from the Roman Catholics in any of these matters?

A romantic or fabled notion of the Reformation has come down to us. We hear of a man that stood up to the Catholic Church, who preached justification by faith, and immediately and unwittingly we impute to that person and his movement our present understanding of the Gospel, of Christian behaviour and teaching, without really knowing what kind of man he was or what he really taught. I can no more praise the work of the reformers than I could the religious zeal of the Pharisees who persecuted the disciples of the Lord.

Had you lived in the territory of a Protestant state at that time; and if you had heard the message of the Gospel preached to you by someone that led you to repentance and faith in Christ; and if as a result of that experience you believed you should be baptised, and indeed, were therefore baptised; then you would have been in great danger! If any of the Protestant Reformers heard you testify to these things, you would either have been banished from their lands or arrested, imprisoned and perhaps tortured to get information out of you about other of your fellow believers, or to get you to recant. If you were an ardent believer, then execution would have been your fate. If you had been banished or managed to escape, the Catholic authorities in neighbouring countries would have persecuted you with even greater rigour. It would not matter at all what you called yourself – Anabaptist, Swiss Brethren or just a Christian. If you testified to a personal conversion and to a believer’s baptism, each and every one of these Protestant Reformers – be it in Germany or Switzerland – would have seen to it that you were eliminated one way or the other. This is the nature of the Protestant Reformation.

On the ‘Library of Congress’ website, it states the following concerning religious persecution in Europe:

“The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept… meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.”22 (Italics mine)

Summary and conclusion

For over a thousand years, there had been one Christendom. But now there were two! The Magisterial Reformers were responsible for the creation of a ‘second’ Christendom, where there were now two religious kingdoms – Protestant and Catholic – each having their own brand of religion that would tolerate no other. The result would inevitably have to be wars and conflict!

The reformers had bought into the state church system, or rather, they had never left it. The two ‘Christendoms’ not only had swords drawn against each other, but they also persecuted dissenters within them. The division of Europe into Catholic and Protestant heralded a period of atrocious religious wars in Europe that lasted from about the mid-1550s to the mid-1650s. The thirty years’ war, from 1618 to 1648, fought between Catholic and Protestant regions, was considered to be one of the most destructive wars in European history. Between four to eight million people were said to have died and it utterly devastated areas of Germany, where it is estimated that at least one third of the population may have died. These wars may indeed have been linked to the ongoing power struggles within Europe, but it is clear that it was the state church system that provided the context for new alliances and the pretexts for wars. In his book called, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, the historian, Benjamin Kaplan, argues that religious intolerance continued well into the 1700s. Religious toleration slowly came about as society and Western Culture itself made religious intolerance unfashionable.

In one sense, what the two Christendoms taught mattered little – they both represented cruel persecution to the genuine believer, who had experienced a personal conversion and was baptised and who wanted to meet with other like-minded believers in their homes. In this matter there was no difference between them.

What is clearly shown from history is that the Protestant Reformation continued the same dictatorial, repressive and oppressive system that had been the feature of Roman Catholic reign down the centuries, which had its beginning under the rule of the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius 1 in the 4th century and carried on by the Holy Roman Empire. They held fast to the marriage of state and church, where the church expected and exhorted the state to punish and even kill religious dissenters.

The Protestant Reformers showed no understanding of what the Church of Jesus Christ is. Their hearts and minds were blinded and hardened to the truth and nature of the Gospel and of the Church. And what were the teachings of the Anabaptists that the reformers objected to and rejected? Among them were these: that the church and state are separate entities, which, by nature, do not belong together; that the church should not use secular power to punish and persecute those who hold different religious views; that the church consisted of converted, committed believers and as such should meet in gatherings that distinguished them from the worldly, godless community; that a person could personally respond to the Gospel message and know personal repentance and conversion; that a person should then be baptised on the basis of his or her faith; that through such a response to God they could have a sense of the forgiveness of sins. The Protestant Reformers vehemently taught against all of these truths and tried to hound the Anabaptists out of existence because of them. Who is now evangelical? The Protestant Reformers or the Anabaptists?

It is not only that the reformers had no understanding of the church as a company of converted people, but they showed no understanding that a person could know a personal conversion that, among other things, gave them an assurance of sins forgiven. If the reformers themselves had experienced such a conversion, they would, at least to some extent, have been able to understand and sympathise with the experience of the Anabaptists. But the testimony of many Anabaptists was simply mind-boggling to the reformers. They could not identify with it, they could not understand it. From the testimonies that we have, it seems clear that many Anabaptists did know God’s salvation, and they were persecuted and killed because of it.

This is what Jesus forecast, “…yea, the time is coming, that whosoever kills you will think that he is doing God a service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.” (John 16:2-3). Do these words apply to the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century? I would ask, how can you argue otherwise? Putting someone to death simply because he wanted to be baptised following his conversion is an example of the ‘the ones born of the flesh persecuting those born of the Spirit’ (Galatians 4:29). In this verse, the apostle Paul is talking about the Judaizers who were trying to enforce an outward observance of the Law. He makes plain that such Judaizers preached something that was not the Gospel and that only brought people into bondage. This is a fitting example for the Protestant Reformation. It was a judaizing endeavour that, though it doctrinally taught ‘justification by faith’, it nevertheless imposed an outward morality on a largely worldly society and that persecuted and killed those who would not conform to their dogma and practice.

The illusion, or delusion of the Reformation was that it purported to be the breaking forth of the true Gospel, and many looking back in retrospect today and fixing on the fact that the reformers preached justification by faith have imbibed a romantic but wholly false idea of what it was like. Spiritual darkness continued under the reformers of the 16th century just as it had done under the Catholics. That the Reformation was not a movement of spiritual awakening and conversions among the peoples of Europe seems to be intimated by the writer Bruce Gordon in his book, The Swiss Reformation, where he writes:

“The Swiss Reformation did not operate by mass movement or through political alliance. Its success was first and foremost due to a network of churchmen, scholars, and laity who passionately shared their evangelical ideas. These networks were always a minority in their communities, but through the sharing of information, talents, and writings they emerged as a formidable force for change.”23

I would have to disagree with Gordon about the word ‘evangelical’ that he uses regarding the reformers, and he might well disagree with my conclusions, but nevertheless his comments are supported by the historical accounts, namely, that the Reformation was not a ‘mass movement’ in that sense, but rather a small number of energetic reformers through a thought-out strategy played the state church system to their own advantage.  Exploiting the complaints and disgruntlements of people against the abuses, exploitation and corruption of the Catholic Church, the leading reformers managed persuade princes and magistrates to switch to their form of religion and to impose their own religious dogma on people. I have already quoted Gordon earlier in the study where he states that the reformers used the custom of ‘disputation’ (a formal and official debate to decide on religious matters before clerics and council authorities) as a tool to convince the councils to reject Catholic teaching and to impose the Reformed service in their territories.

As I have said, the greatest judgement or condemnation of the Magisterial Reformers comes from those apologists who say that they were men of their times, and suggest that it might not be quite fair to judge them according to the standards of modern times. Well, it is true that they were men of their times, they were of this world, and their kingdom was of this world. Their actions and outlooks were determined by the culture they had grown up in and which they had never left. That is the nature of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. It was neither evangelistic nor evangelical.

There are indeed many aspects to the history of the Reformation, and it has not been the purpose of this study to pursue all of these. As I stated at the beginning, this study has focussed on those things that relate to, and reveal the nature of the Protestant Reformation, and I would ask the reader to bear this in mind if they feel I have not sufficiently pursued a particular topic that was touched upon in this study.

One of the main reasons for giving a historical overview of the Reformation in the 16th century is to provide a background to their teaching. The lives of the reformers, I believe, give us a clue regarding the nature of their theology, which I hope to show, lacked an understanding of the Gospel, of why Jesus died on the cross.

Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021



Early History

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1 D’Aubigne, J. H. Merle, History Of The Reformation In The Sixteenth Century, trans. Henry Beveridge, William Collins, 1846, Vol. III & IV, p. 14

2 John Calvin to Cardinal Sadoleto,1539. Found at:

3 Werke, St. Louis Edition, Vol. XX col. 1718. Quoted, Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1964, p. 209.

4 Corpus Reformatorum.  Vol. 91 p. 635. Quoted, Verduin, p. 214,215.

5 Luther’s Works, Vol. 3, Lectures on Genesis Chapters 15-20, Genesis 17:3-6  Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Concordia Publishing House, Saint Louis, 1961, p. 104.

6 Werke, Vol. VII, Louis Ed. p. 990

7 Von der Wiedertaufe, an zwei Pfarrherrn. Luthers Volksbibliothek, Band 2. Translated from the German by me.

8 Sermon 61, The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 6, 11th Ed., Preface Thomas Jackson, London 1856

9 Quellen zur Geschichte der Taufer, IX Band, Balthasar Hubmaiers Schriften, von Westin-Bergsten (Gutersloch, 1962) p. 340. / Verduin, p. 105.

10 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. H. Beverige, WM. B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, Bk. 3, Ch. 14, P. 10,11.

11 Sermons on Several Occasions, On God’s Vineyard, Vol. 2, Sermon 112, J. Emory and B. Waugh, New York, 1830, p. 389

12 Luther, Martin, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, A revised and completed version based on the ‘Middleton’ edition if the English version of 1575, James Clarke  Co, Ltd. London, Burleigh Press, Bristol, 1956, p.226. Also: Lectures on Galatians, LW 26 pp 232-3.

13 Reading the Psalms with Luther, Psalm 32, Introduction, Concordia Publishing House, 3558 S. Jefferson Ave., St Louis. 2007, p. 78.

14 Ligonier Ministries, at:

14a Found at:

15 Luther, Commentary on Galatians, p. 23

16 Faith and the Imputation of Righteousness, October 17, 1999. At:  / Also at:

17  Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 2, Ch. 7, P. 12)

Chapter One

1 Broadbent, E. H., Pilgrim Church, p. 9.

2 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. 3, Ch.3, P. 1 & P. 2. Found at

3 Bishops and Their Position of Power in the Late Third Century CE: The Cases of Gregory Thaumaturgus and Paul of Samosata, Daniëlle Slootjes, Journal of Late Antiquity, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2011, p. 103, (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/jla.2011.0005. With reference to: Herrmann, Ecclesia in Re Publica, 57, 63. p. 103

4 Broadbent, p. 11

5 Eusebius of Caesarea, trans. Bagster; Rev. Ernest Cushing Richardson; Bk 4, Ch. 21; found at        

6 Ibid Bk. 4, Ch. 20

7 Nicea and the World; found at

8 Broadbent, p. 20.

9 Leonard Verduin, Reformers and Their Stepchildren, p. 32

10 Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book 1, Ch. 16

11 Theodoret. Lib. 1 c. 20. Found in Institutes, Calvin, Bk. 4, Ch. 11, P. 15

12 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 8. P. 15

13 Hans Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church, trans. B. L. Woolf, Vol. 3; London Lutterworth Press, 1961; p.116

14 Ibid p. 119

15 Ibid p. 123

16 Codex Theodosianus: On Religion, 4th Century CE, XVI.i.2. AD 380. Found at:

17 The Eucharistic Liturgies: Their Evolution and Interpretation, Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E.                      Johnson, pp. 70–71. Liturgical Press; 2012. Found in:

18 Broadbent, Pilgrim Church, p.43

19 Augustine, Answer to the Letters of Petilian the Donatist; trans. J. R. King. Book I, Chpt. 6

20 Ibid, Bk 1. Ch. 18

21 Ibid. Book 2, Chpt. 10.

22 Augustine, Of the Correction of the Donatists, trans. J. R. King, Ch. 6, P. 23.

23 Letter of St. Augustine To Vincentius, Letter 93, Ch. 3, P. 9. Found at:

24 Ibid Ch. 5, P. 16

Chapter Two

1 R. Tudor Jones, The Great Reformation, Gwasg Bryntirion Press, Bryntirion, Bridgend, Wales, 1997, p. 14.

2 Letter to John Fisher, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 3: The Correspondence of Erasmus, Letters 298 to 445, 1514 to 1516. Trans. R.A.B Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976)

3 Noël Béda, Annotationum Natalis Bede Doctoris Theologi Parisensis in Jacobum Fabrum Stapulensem (Cologne 1526), 133r and 146r.

4 Calvin, Erasmus, and Humanist Theology, Greta Grace Kroeker; in: Calvin and the Early Reformation, Pages: 11,12,17. Ed. Brian C. Brewer, David M. Whitford  2019                                                                  DOI:

5 Schaff Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII, Modern Christianity. Second Book, The Swiss Reformation; Intro., § 2

6 D’Aubigne, J. H. Merle, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, trans. H. White, Oliver and Boyd 1853, Vol. 2, Ch. 5, p.423-425

7 Ibid Vol 2, Ch. 4, p. 418

8 Letter-Writing in the Early Swiss Reformation: Zwingli’s Neglected Correspondence. Nigel Harris, Zürich, 7th May 2019 /

9 D’Aubigne, p. 438 (Vol. 2, Ch. 6)

10 C. Arnold Snyder, The Birth and Evolution of Swiss Anabaptism (1520-1530), MQR 80 (Oct. 2006), p. 504.  Also found at: The Free Library. 2006 Mennonite Historical Society

11 Huldreich Zwingli, the Reformer of German Switzerland, Ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson; p. 191. G.  P.  Putnam’s  Sons, New  York  and  London

11a Doc. 57A, Zwingli’s Defense of His Booklet on the Mass Canon, October 9,1523, The Sources Of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents, Ed. Leland Harder, Plough Publishing House, Walden, New York, Robertsbridge, England,  2019, p. 2237-239. Original Publication: Zwingli’s De canone missae libelli apologia, published 10/9/1523 Transcription: ZW, II, No. 26

11b Ibid, Introduction to Doc. 57B, Letter of Jacob Grebel to Vadian, Zurich, October 12,1523, p. 243,244. Original: Stadtbibliothek (Vadiana) St. Gallen, VB.II.152 Transcription; VB, III, No. 364

11c Ibid, Doc. 57C, The Second Zurich Disputation, October 26-28,1523, p.253. Original Publication: Die Akten der zweiten Disputation vom 26.-28. Oktober 1523. Published 12/8/1523 Transcription: ZW, II, No. 28

12 Snyder, C. Arnold, p. 506

13 Doc. 59, Letter of Grebel to Vadian, Dec. 18, 1523, The Sources Of Swiss Anabaptism, p.286. Original: Stadtbibliothek (Vadiana) St. Gallen, VB.Il. 161 Transcriptions: VB, III, No. 374; M-S, No. 8

14 The Sources Of Swiss Anabaptism, Doc. 59A, The Grebel-Stumpf Alternative Plan of a Separatist Church, Zurich, before December 23,1523. Original Publication: Zwingli’s In catabaptistarum strophas elenchus, published 7/31/1527 Transcription: ZW, No. 108, pp. 32-36 Translation: Taken from Jackson, 1901, pp. 132-33

14a Quellen zur Geshichte der Taüfer in der Schweiz, I Band, Zürich, von Leonhard von Muralt und Walter Schmid (Zürich, 1952), p. 184. / Quoted in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, L. Verduin, 1964, p. 198.

15 Ibid, quoted Verduin, p. 199

16 W. R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge UK, 1996, p.14

17 Huldreich Zwingli, the Reformer of German Switzerland, 1484-1531, Samuel Macauley Jackson, John Martin Vincent, Frank Hugh Foster. Huldrych Zwingli, Letter to Vadian, March 7, 1526, p. 252. Found at:

Source: Zwingli, U., Bucer, M., Zwinger, T., Stähelin, R. (1887). Briefe aus der Reformationszeit: grösstentheils nach Manuscripten der Zwingerschen Briefsammlung. Basel: Schultze’sche Universitäts-Buchdruckerei (L. Reinhardt).

18 The Great Reformation, R. Tudor Jones, p.68

19 Mennonite Encyclopedia, 3:473. Found in Estep, p. 46,47

20 Albert H. Newman, History of Anti-pedobaptism, Philadelphia 1897, p. 107

21 Henry C. Vedder, Balthasar Hübmaier, 1905, pp. 77,78

Chapter Three

1 Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 1916, 154. Quoted in: Hege, Christian and Harold S. Bender. “Martyrs’ Synod.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 21 Jan 2023.

2 Letter to Myconius, 1530, Wappler, Paul. Die Stellung Kursachsens und des Landgrafen Philipp von Hessen zur Täuferbewegung, 13 f. Münster i. W. : Druck und Verlag der Aschendorffschen Buchh., 1910. Found in: Neff, Christian. “Melanchthon, Philipp (1497-1560).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 21 Jan 2023.,_Philipp_(1497-1560)&oldid=145860

3 Ibid, 26 f

4 See Oyer, John, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, p. 138. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1964

5 The statements made by Jobst Möller, Heinz Kraut, and Hans Peissker during this investigation have been published from the court records in Corpus Reformatorum II (995, 999, and 1000). Found in citation of footnote 2 above.

6 Corpus Reformatorum III, 16 f. Found in citation of footnote 2 above.

7 Corp., Ref. III, 21. Ibid

8 Corp. Ref. III, 17. Ibid

9 Quoted in: The Anabaptist Vision, Harold S. Bender, 1944. Reprinted from Church History (March 1944) Xlll, 3-24, with slight revisions. From: Horsch, 293, from Sebastian Frank’s Chronica, Zeitbuch und Geschichtbibel (Strassburg, 1531).

10 Ibid From: Heinrich Bullinger, Von dem unverschampten fräfel . . . der selvsgesandten Widertouffern (Zurich, 1531), folio 2v. /  Letter of Zwingli to Vadian, May 28, 1525, Huldreich Zwinglis Sämtliche Werke, ed. Egli, Finsler, Köhler, et al. (Leipzig, 1914) VII, 332.

11 Ibid The full official text of the decree may be found in Aller des Heiligen Roemischen Reichs gehaltene Reichstage, Abschiede und Satzungen (Mainz, 1666), 210, 211.

12  Quoted in translation by John Horsch, Mennonites in Europe, 325, from Bullinger’s Der Wiedert & aumlufferen Ursprung, etc., Zurich, 1560, quoted in ‘The Anabaptist Vision’, Harold S Bender,

13 Calvin, Institutes, Bk 4, Ch. 11, P. 4.

14 Ibid, Bk 4, Ch. 20, P. 4.

15 Ibid, Bk 4, Ch. 20, P. 5.

16 Calvin John, Treatise against Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession (1549), The Sixth Article of Magistrates, The Collected works of John Calvin (Illustrated), Anonymous trans.  Also found at: where the text is adapted from Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, John Calvin, ed. and trans. Benjamin W. Farley, Baker Academic, 1982

17 Ibid.

18 Quoted in Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p. 74. Quellen Hesse, p. 108. Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band (Wiedertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet) (Marburg, 1951)

19 History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation. Philip Schaff, Chpt. III, S.23.

19a D. Martin Luther’s Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Ed. Knaak, Kawerau, et al.57 vols. Weimar, 1883-1914; I, 624. Found in Oyer, p, 135

20 Martin Luther, Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523), Part Two, Works of Martin Luther Vol. 3 (Philadelphia Edition).

Also found at:

21 Ibid, Bk 4, Ch. 20, p. 10.

22 Letter to Farel, 24th July 1555, Letters of John Calvin, Vol. 3, p. 205,206; Dr. J. Bonnet, 1858.

23 Zurich, June 12, 1554. The Life of John Calvin, Theodore de Beze, pp. 192,193.

24 Ibid. Oct. 14, 1554.

25 The Reformation’s Light, Chpt. 9, The Execution of Servetus For Blasphemy, Heresy, & Obstinate Anabaptism, Defended, John Knox, pp. 199, 204; Ed. C. Matthew McMahon and Therese B. McMahon, Puritan Publications, FL 33073. Also at:                       


26 The Works of John Owen, Ed. Rev. William H. Goold, Vol. 12, p. 41. Edinburgh, 1862.

27 Concerning the Rights of Rulers over Their Subjects and the Duty of Subjects towards Their Rulers [1574]; cited in Lecler 1960, 1:348. Found in: The Persecutor’s Wager, Author(s): Craig Duncan, Reviewed work(s): Source: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 116, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), pp. 1-50 Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review Stable.

28 Beza, Epistolarum theologicarum liber unus (Geneva 1573), pp. 216ff; quoted in Lecler 1960, Vol. 1, p. 349. Italics mine.   / Beza, The Right of Magistrates, quoted in Freedom and the Construction of Europe: Volume 1, Ed. Quentin Skinner, Martin van Gelderen, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 306,307

29 Source of original German text: Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer in der Schweiz, edited by Leonard von Muralt and Walter Schmid, Volume 1. Zurich: S. Hirzel Verlag, 1952, pp.13-19.

30 Luther, Martin, Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 30. Band. Zweite Abteilung, pp. 212,213. Weimar, Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger 1909.

31 Quellen Hesse, pp.111,112.

32 Calvin, Institutes, Bk 4, Ch. 11, P. 3

Chapter Four

1 Huldreich Zwingli, Samuel Macauley Jackson, 1901; p. 178,179

2 Ibid, p. 222

3 Von der Wiedertaufe, an zwei Pfarrherrn. Luthers Volksbibliothek, Band 2. Translated from the German by me.

4 Ibid, translation mine

5 Ibid, translation mine

6 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 3, Ch. 3, P. 2

7 Selected Works Of Huldreich Zwingli, 1484-1531, The Reformer Of German Switzerland, Ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, 1901. Pp. 184,185.

8 Luther, Large Catechism, IV, 10.

9 Ibid, IV, 52, 54, 55.

10 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 15, P. 16

11 Werke, Vol. VII, p. 990, Louis Ed.

12 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 16, P. 16, 31

13 Ibid, Bk 4, Ch. 16, P. 32

14 Werke, St. Louis Edition, Vol. VII. p. 200. Quoted in The Reformers And Their Stepchildren, Verduin, p. 107.

15 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book. 4, Ch.1, p. 14.

16 Quellen Hesse, p. 444. Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band (Wiedertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet) (Marburg, 1951). Quoted in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Verduin, p.116.

17 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 2, P. 3, P. 9

18 Ibid, Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 7

19 Schmidt, Gustav, Justus Menius, der Reformator Thüringens, Band I, p.163, 164. Translated from the German by me.

20 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 4 Ch. 1, P. 13 &  Bk. 4, Ch. 12, P.12

21 Ibid, Bk. 4, Ch. 12, P.12

22 Ibid, Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P 4.

23 Ibid, Bk 4 Ch 1, P. 13, & P. 15

24 Ibid,  Bk. 4 Ch. 1, P. 15

25 Corpus Reformatorum.  Vol. 91 p. 635. Quoted, Verduin, p. 214,215.

26 Werke, St. Louis Edition, Vol. XX col. 1718. Quoted, Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p. 209.

27 Luther, Sämmtliche Werke: Band 39, 1846; Erlangen, Heyder. P. 225f

Chapter Five

L Luther, Commentary on Galatians, p.23

1 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation, p. 249.

2 Ibid, p. 255

3 Ibid, p. 251

4 D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the 16th Century, p. 815

5 See his letters to Melanchthon and Spalatin, in De Wette, Briefe Luthers, II. 7sq., 31. / Schaff, p. 260

6 Quoted in D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. 3, p. 828

7 D’ Aubigne, Vol. 3, p. 830

8 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation, § 32 The Reformation in Basel. Oecolampadius.

9 D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. IV. P. 314, 315.

10 Ibid, p. 316

11 Ibid, p. 317

12 Ibid, pp. 319-321

13 Ibid, p. 322

14 Erasmus His Life and Character, Robert Blackley Drummond, Vol. II, 1873, London Smith, Elder, & Co. p. 314-316

15 Letter of 6 September 1524. Collected Works of Erasmus, 10. p. 380. University of Toronto Press. 1992.

16 Epist., lib. xix. ep. 113, ed. Lond. 1642, col. 950-952. / Quoted in The Reformers on the Reformation (foreign), London, Burns & Oates, 1881. p.10

17 The Reformers on the Reformation (foreign), London, Burns & Oates, 1881, pp. 13–14. See also Erasmus, Preserved Smith, 1923, Harper & Brothers, pp. 391–92.

18 See, Oyer, John, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists, p. 222, 223

19 Quoted in, The Reformers on the Reformation (foreign), p.3 . With: The Workings of the Holy Spirit in the Church of England, by Henry Edward Manning, 1881(?). London, Burns & Oates;  Found at:

“ostra Germania quoque post tantam lucem Evangelii tantum non obsessa videtur a diabolo. Juventus indomita et effrenis est, et impatiens disciplinae, senes avaritia, usuris, et multis sceleribus infandis implicite tenentur. — Comment, in Gen. xxiii. 9, Op., ed. Wittemb., 1580, tom. vi.

20 Quoted in Ibid. p. 4, De Scandalis, Opera, ed. Amstelod., 1677, tom. viii. p. 71.

21 Quoted in Ibid pp. 4,5; De Regno Christie lib. i. c. 4, Op., ed. Basil, 1577, p. 24.

22 Quoted in Ibid p. 5; Ap. Calv. Epist, Op., tom. ix. p. 232, ed. Amstelod.

23 Melanchthon report to Elector John, August 13, 1527, Clemen, Supplemented Melanchthoniana, I, Abt. 6, p. 369; also letter to Camerarius, August 11 or 12, 1527, ibid., p. 368.

24 Stump, Joseph The Life of Philip Melanchthon, p. 78. Pilger Publishing House, 1897

25 Printed by K. Rembert, op. cit., p. 554, n. I. / Translated from the German by me.

26 Grebel, Grebel to Müntzer, 5 Sept. 1524. C. A. Cornelius, Geschichte des Munsterischen Aufruhrs, Book II, p. 240 (Appendix I), 1860

27 Quellen zur Geschichte der Taufer, IX Band, Balthasar Hubmaiers Schriften, von Westin-Bergsten (Gutersloch, 1962) p. 340. / Verduin. Reformers And Their Stepchidlren, p. 105.

28 Acta des Gespraechs zwischenn predicanten Und Tauffbruederen Ergangen Inn der Statt Bern … (In Vol. 80 of certain Unnutze Papiere reposing in the Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern; the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, Goshen Indiana, has a copy of this manuscript.)  / Quoted, Verduin, p.106.

29 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 2. & P. 7.

30 Ibid, Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 13

31 Luther, Werke, St. Louis Ed, Vol., I, p.296. / Quoted, Verduin, p.108

32 Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band, p.224. (Wiedertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet) (Marburg, 1951) / Quoted, Verduin, p. 112

33 Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch.15, P.12.

34 Article VI, Concerning the Third Use of the Law, paragraphs 1, 2.

35 Communion with God, Abridged by R.J.K. Law, Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, p. 120

36 William Joseph McGlothlin, Die Bernr Tauefer bis 1532, p. 36 – Berlin 1902. / Quoted, Verduin, p. 109

37 Quellen IV, p.379 / Quoted, Verduin p. 108

Chapter Six

1 Martin Luther, An Admonition to Peace, 1525

2 Martin Luther, 1520; Sämmtliche Werke, ed. Erlanger, 22, p. 20; quoted in Martin Luther,  M. A. Mullett 2004, p.165

3 Luther, Werke, Weimar, v.28, pp.142-201 / Against the Falsely Called Spiritual Order of the Pope and the Bishops (July, 1522)

4 Luther’s Own Statements, Henry O’connor, Cornell University Library 1884, Letter to Spalatin, February, 1520.

5 Janssen, History of the German People at the close of the Middle Ages, Vol. III, 1900, 136

6 See R. Friedenthal, Luther, The Camelot Press Ltd., p. 413

7 Robert Henry Murray, Erasmus & Luther: their Attitude to Toleration (Society for promoting Christian knowledge, 1920), 245.

8 Sämmtliche Werke, ed. Erlanger LIX, p. 284 ‘Table Talk’; see also Grisar, Vol. III, p. 213.

9 Hillerbrand, Hans J.. “Martin Luther”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 Jan. 2023, Accessed 30 January 2023.

10That Jesus Was Born a Jew” 1532. WA 11, 336:30-34; quoted in Eric W. Gritsch, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012), p. 65.

11 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971, 213.

12 In De Wette, Briefe Luthers, IV, 295, and for Melanchthon see Corpus Reform., II, 520, especially 527. & Luther and the Bigamous Marriage of Philip Of Hesse, John Alfred Faulkner, Drew Theological Seminary, Madison, New Jersey, p. 209. Found at:

13 Smith, Preserved, The life and letters of Martin Luther, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1914; p. 376

14 Letter published, Seidemann: Lauterbach’s Tagebuch auf das Jahr 1588, p. 196 ff. / Also, P. Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, p. 377f. / On dating see W. W. Rockwell, Die Doppelehe Des Landgrafen Philipp Von Hessen , p. 137, note 3.

15 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation, § 79, p. 318

16 Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989, p. 289

Chapter Seven

1 See in particular, Blakeley, James Joseph, Popular Responses to the “Reformation from Without” in the Pays de Vaud, University of Arizona, 2006.

2 Willian Maxwell Blackburn, William Farel And The  Story Of The Swiss Reform, p. 104

3 D’Aubigne, J. H. Merle, History Of The Reformation In The Sixteenth Century, trans. Henry Beveridge, William Collins, 1846, Vol. IV, Ch. 6, p. 273,274

4 Ibid, p.280

5 Ibid, pp. 280, 281

6 Ibid, p.286

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid, pp. 286, 287

9 Ibid, p. 287

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid, p. 290

12 Gordan, Bruce, Calvin, Yale University Press, 2009. p. 66

13 Ibid, p. 67

14 Blakeley, James Joseph, Popular Responses to the “Reformation from Without” in the Pays de Vaud, 2006, The University of Arizona. P. 157 / Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern, AII, Bd 256, fol. 165.

15 Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation. § 61

16 W. M. Blackburn, William Farel and the Story of the Swiss Reform, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board Of Publication, 1865. pp. 271, 272.

17 Ibid, p. 273

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid, p. 277

20 Schaff, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation § 61

21 Ibid.

22 Jeanne de Jussie, The Short Chronicle: A Poor Clare’s Account of the Reformation in Geneva, ed. and trans. Carrie F. Klaus, p. 128. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

23 Schaff, § 62

24 Bruce, Gordon, Calvin, Yale University Press, New Haven And London, 2011; p. 67


Chapter Eight

1 D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. IV, Ch. 2.

2 Calvin, Letter to Myconius, March 14, 1542

3 Cottret, Bernard, Calvin, A Biography, p. 116. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2000

4 Blakeley, p. 289

5 Ibid, p. 287. Refers to: Archives Cantonales Vaudoises, Ba 21/1, fol. 1.

6 Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, 1-35, Vol. 1, Preface.

7 Calvini Opera 31:26

8 Calvini Opera, 21:209f., 2010

9 Calvini Opera, 27:237f.

10 See Calvin, Farel, and the Anabaptists: On the Origins of the Briève Instruction of 1544, Hans Rudolf Lavater; Trans. by John D. Roth; pp. 328,329

11 Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: The Swiss Reformation. § 83

12 WM. M. Blackburn, William Farel, And The Story Of The Swiss Reform, 1865; p. 151,152. Italics mine.

13 Ibid, p.296

14 Herminjard, Correspondance, 4: nr. 745


Chapter Nine

1 Opera Calvini, 10b, 396ff.; Herminjard 6, 52ff.; ET 1, 127ff  / Quoted in, T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin, Lion Hudson plc., 2006, p. 96.

2 Opera Calvini 11, 91; Herminjard 6, 325-6; ET 1, 187 / Quoted Parker, p. 106

3 Parker, T. H. L., John Calvin, Lion Hudson plc, 2006, p. 124

4 Calvin, Letter to Farel, Feb. 1546

5 Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 423.

6 Cited in Watt, Jeffrey R., “The Consistory and Social Discipline in Calvin’s Geneva”; 2020. Liberal Arts Faculty Books. 225; p. 19.

7 Calvin, Letter to Farel, Apr.1546

8 Calvin, Letter to Farel, 4 July 1546

8a Verduin, p. 31

9 Opera Calvini 12, 545

10 Quoted Parker, p. 137, Opera Calvini 12, 564-5

11 Opera Calvini 12, 632-3; ET 2, 134-5

12 Opera Calvini 12, 639; ET 2, 137

13 Opera Calvini 14, 509; ET 2, 377-8

14 Opera Calvini 21, 547.

Chapter Ten

1 Corpus Reformatorum, pp.198,199

2 Cited in Bainton, Roland H., Hunted heretic; the life and death of Michael Servetus, 1511-1553, Boston, Beacon Press, 1960, p. 197

3 8th Sept. 1553. Calvin Opera, tom. ix. p. 71.

4 Parker, John Calvin, p. 151, 152

5 Rilliet, Albert, Calvin and Servetus, 1846; pp. 122,133

6 Calvin to Bullinger, 7 Sept. 1553.

7 Calvin to Sulzer, 8th September 1553. Macphail’s Edinburgh Ecclesiastical Journal and Literary Review, Volumes 23-24, 1857; pp. 251, 252. Also at: Bonnet, Jules, ed. Letters of John Calvin. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858, pp. 427–29.

8 Cited Roland Bainton, Hunted Hertics, p. 210

9 OC 15, col. 124, to Bullinger, Feb. 1554

10 Schaff, p. 546

11 Cited in Schaff, Ch. 16, § 137, Calvin and Servetus. Responsio ad Balduini Convicia, Opera, IX. 575

12 Harmony of the Law, Vol. 2, Commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5; written in 1563.

13 Schaff, Ch. 16, § 137

14 Opera Calvini, 8, col. 558

15 Opera Calvini, 15, 617-18; ET 3, 182

16 Opera Calvini, 53, col. 405. 33rd sermon on 1 Timothy

17 Opera Calvini, 53, col. 36th sermon on 1 Timothy

18 Opera Calvini, 26, col. 501, 51st sermon on Deut.

19 Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 608

20 Opera Calvini, 27, col. 271

21 Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 657

22 Found at:

23 Bruce Gordon, The Swiss Reformation, Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 348

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