“The inevitable result of reliance on methods and traditions is that we find ways of succeeding without God ….
What was radical yesterday is regular today. But someone had to break with the crowd; someone had to step out – even if it meant being misunderstood by his own generation. Someone had to be bold and seem like a fool in the eyes of many in order to make a fresh move.” Colin Nyathi
So is the story of the religious revolutions of the 16th century [1501 to 1600 AD] where many ‘fools’ became the light of the gospel and some paid dearly with their lives.
There were many Reformation leading lights. Martin Luther in Germany, Frenchman John Calvin and Zwingli in Switzerland – all three had separate ‘light bulb’ conversion experiences after studying the Greek New Testament for themselves (Bibles were not easily available at the time). All separately came to same conclusion at a time when the church of the day had drastically strayed from the way the Lord Jesus Christ meant it to be. The Bible was at the centre of the revolution if not the cause of it.
Often it is Luther who is recognised as the father of the reformation since his 1517 protest and in the previous episode we detailed some of the achievements.
1. Luther put Scripture ahead of tradition. He first studied the Bible at the age of 20, and comparing it to what he has been taught in the church he saw vast differences and began to ask why. He was told both scripture and church tradition are the truth but he decided to pick one and throw away the other.
2. He put Faith before works on the biggest question getting right with God – how do I get forgiveness? How can I as a human being be reconciled with a righteous God? This is where Christianity differs with all other religions.
3. He put Grace before sacraments –by then the church had 7 compulsory sacraments or church ordinances viewed as magical or necessary to salvation and church membership – Jesus Christ never commanded more than three, chief being baptism and holy communion.
4. Luther put truth ahead of unity. “My conscience is captive only to the word of God (instead of the authority of the institutional church)”. Before then there was only one church and Luther is still accused of dividing it. It’s the truth of the Gospel that holds the church together not necessarily human organisation.
Eventually Luther stopped making changes after about five tumultuous years, slowing if not stopping the reformation in Germany and today it’s as if the Lutheran church also stopped at that point.
John Calvin a brilliant lawyer was converted in Paris in 1532 after reading the Greek New Testament and within months he was in prison for his Christian beliefs. After prison he fled to Switzerland and became the reformer of Geneva where he abolished crucifixes and candles, and many unbiblical church rituals carrying the changes further than Luther. He instituted representatives-led system of church governance now known as the Presbyterian system setting the stage for Geneva became the centre of Presbyterian in the world. He attempted to summarise and harmonise the Christian beliefs at the age of 26 – The Institutes of Christian Religion – a 600-page document that has influenced the course of history. It has been claimed to some to be one of the great expositions of the protestant beliefs despite its shortcomings. One can be nailed for saying ‘shortcomings’ because most Calvinists and saints/denominations of the reformed tradition regard Calvin or his writings as infallible/perfect. Calvin believed in the absolute sovereignty of God that God’s will is the final matter that decides destiny of nations and man. The true biblical pattern is BOTH man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty on a lot of issues. Calvin believed that God is in absolute control of everything and everyone.
Calvin, like Luther and other reformers made mistakes e.g. putting church and state together. Like the Catholics that they opposed, they also used State apparatus to push the reformation -either the church controlled the state or the state controlled church. At some point if a church members misbehaved they got the magistrate to deal with them to and also used political leaders to convert citizens. The religion of the prince or government leader became the religion of the city so they went after these civic leaders to push reformation from the top. When the state says everybody shall be this religion and everybody there shall be this denomination sooner or later there will be religious wars.
Ulrich Zwingli a catholic priest also became protestant after reading the New Testament and realised that many of the things he was preaching from the pulpit were not true. He rose and preached the new Biblical truth at the Zurich cathedral and among other things criticised his leader the Pope and medieval church practices. He finally reversed his allegiance to the Pope and got married, ceasing to be a priest and left with many other priests. He imposed his protestant beliefs in all people in the district and fought with those who didn’t convert. He persuaded the city council to say that from now all the people must become protestant. And part the people didn’t convert and it became a fully drawn physical war – a war lasting 2 years and Zwingli himself was slain in one of the battles.
One of the saddest outcome of protestants religious war was Bartholomew Day Massacre in 1572 in which about 22,000 Huguenots were slaughtered in France.
In all this there arose a tiny group of radicals e.g Brethren, Menonites etc now labelled the left wing or step children of the reformation. They insisted that the church should not be identified with the community/state, concluding a person should not be baptised into a Christian church until they believe. They said we are not going to change bits and pieces we are going back to the original church as in the Bible days – this particular group earned the name Anabaptists i.e. twice baptisers as they would ‘rebaptise’ a new believer who was once baptised as a baby.
They believed in a free church not even a protestant establishment and refused to take part in the religious wars and were regarded as a dangerous by both Protestants and Catholics. Even Martin Luther and the reformers supported wielding the sword against them in the name of Christ. But the radicals said we will not use any sword but the Sword of the Spirit – the Word of God. And they were attacked by both the Catholics and the Protestants. Some fled to the new land recently ‘discovered’ i.e America but many fell by the sword.
History has shown that heroes of the previous move, like pillars of reformation can be stumbling blocks for the next. Someone said Roman Catholics have one infallible pope while protestants have thousands (leaders looked upon as inerrant today).
Reformers swept away century old traditions and were willing to put tradition to the sole test of scripture even at the cost of their lives yet they didn’t consistently apply the same principle to how own work, church or movement – did not put the same searching spotlight on own protestant traditions. Furthermore, some of the leaders eg Luther were not comfortable with the whole Bible especially the book of James and Revelation which he wished were not be part of the Bible. Perha[ps its time to let shine the light of Scripture in the now 500 year old protestant practices – all non-Catholic denominations.
What the 16th century will be remember for however is restoration of the truth of:
Justification by faith – as an answer to the most fundamental question – what must I do to be saved? God is willing to declare you righteous which is itself an unrighteous impossible act by a righteous God … unless its paid for. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, a righteous man taking the place of the unrighteous for both justice and mercy to be fulfilled for God to treat you as if you never sinned. The only place where Justice, Mercy and Grace and satisfied is at the foot of the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
… to be continued
This is part 7 of #ThisGospel a Church history series by Talent Mbedzi (Whatsapp +27624740015)