In 1518 the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, having entered his fifty-first year and believing his death to be imminent, longed to be rejuvenated for a few years, “for this only reason that I believe I see a golden age dawning in the near future.” In retrospect, it seems that Erasmus was unduly pessimistic about his own end—he had nearly twenty years yet to live—and overly optimistic about his times. His heady vision of a “golden age” of peace and learning would soon vanish before renewed war between the pope and the emperor, peasants’ uprisings, the assault of the Turks in the East and, above all, a religious crisis of profound impact. This crisis, which we call the Reformation, would shake the foundations of Western Christendom, leaving the church permanently divided. Before he died in 1536, Erasmus was referring to his age as “the worst century since Jesus Christ.”

This negative assessment, however, must be set alongside other, more positive appraisals. Thus, the Scottish Presbyterian theologian William Cunningham opened his massive study of Reformation theology with the bold claim that the Reformation of the sixteenth century “was the greatest event, or series of events, that has occurred since the close of the canon of Scripture.” In a similar vein, the philosopher Hegel, a Protestant of a different sort, referred to the Reformation as “the all-illuminating sun, which follows that daybreak at the end of the Middle Ages.”

Until recent years one’s interpretation of the Reformation depended, almost invariably, upon prior confessional or ideological commitments. Roman Catholic partisans, beginning with Johannes Cochlaeus in the sixteenth century and continuing to Heinrich Denifle and Hartmann Grisar in the twentieth, have not been slack in their insistence that the Reformation was—to put it mildly—a mistake. What were its causes? Luther, a mad monk driven by narcissism and sexual compulsion; the German princes, greedy, self-serving autocrats; the Protestant preachers, renegade priests ready to sell their souls to become womanizers. And its consequences? Equally obvious: the rending of the seamless robe of medieval civilization, the splitting apart of faith and reason, nature and grace (so perfectly harmonized by Thomas Aquinas), and the unleashing of the forces of absolutism, nationalism, and secularism.

Protestant polemicists, for their part, responded to the Catholic caricatures in kind. In 1564 the Protestant court chaplain, Jerome Rauscher, published a treatise entitled One Hundred Select, Great, Shameless, Fat, Well-Swilled, Stinking, Papistical Lies. The leaders of the Protestant movement—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—were depicted as heroes of the faith. Their words and deeds took on cosmic significance in the unfolding of salvation history.

In the tradition of liberal Protestantism, the reformers were frequently extolled not because of, but in spite of, their actual reformatory doctrines. For Hegel, and especially Luther, the Reformation constituted a crucial moment in the history of thought because at this juncture the concept of human freedom came to the fore. He thus reduced Reformation theology to the dictum: “Man is destined through himself to be free.” In this view the Reformation was merely the first phase of the Enlightenment; Luther and Calvin, the precursors of Rousseau and Voltaire!

The German historian Leopold von Ranke inaugurated a new era in Reformation historiography when he published his monumental German History in the Age of the Reformation (1839). Although a Lutheran by confession, Ranke sought to rise above denominational prejudice. (He also wrote a history of the popes, in order to prove his evenhandedness!) He stressed the interaction of religion and politics in the period of the Reformation and insisted on extensive and critical use of the primary sources. The proper aim of the historian, as Ranke put it, is to know and reconstruct the actual past wie es eigentlich gewesen (“as it actually happened”).

Ranke’s influence on subsequent Reformation historiography, and indeed on the study of history in general, has been immense. His emphasis on the scrupulous use of sources has raised critical study of the Reformation to a new level. The writings of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, as well as those of many Catholic and radical reformers, have since been published in modern critical editions. Much more is known today about the complex combination of political, social, and cultural factors that characterized the Reformation. At the same time, Ranke’s desire for an utterly objective history has not been fulfilled. Nor indeed can it be. History is never the simple recounting of the past as it really was. It is inevitably an interpretation of the past, a retrospective vision of the past, which is limited both by the sources themselves and by the historian who selects and interprets them.

Perspectives in Reformation Studies

Reformation studies today embrace a variety of competing approaches. Before setting forth the aim and perspective of this book, let us look at three general areas of concern in contemporary Reformation scholarship.

The Problem of Periodization

Lord Acton, who was a keen student of the Reformation, once declared that historians should be more concerned with problems than with periods. The attempt to situate the Reformation between the medieval civilization that preceded it on the one hand and modern culture that followed it on the other has proved to be exceedingly awkward. Early in the twentieth century, Ernst Troeltsch argued that the Reformation, in its seminal tendencies, belonged to the “authoritarian” worldview of the Middle Ages. The breakthrough to modern times came not in the sixteenth century with the Reformation but in the eighteenth with the Enlightenment. The famous church historian and Luther scholar Karl Holl rebutted Troeltsch and claimed that Luther and the reformers had presaged many positive developments in modern culture, notably in the concepts of personality and community.

Closely related to this debate is the issue of the relationship of the Renaissance to the Reformation. The word Renaissance, which was originally only a term in the history of art, has come to represent a period of cultural flourishing—intellectual, literary, artistic—that swept through Italy and then northern Europe from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. The link between Renaissance and Reformation is often said to be humanism, which refers not to an anthropocentric philosophy of life but rather to a pattern of education and activism modeled upon a quasi-religious reverence for classical precedence. Humanism deeply affected every branch of the Reformation. Luther developed his insight into Pauline theology while using Erasmus’s edition of the Greek New Testament. Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon, and Beza, among many others, were steeped in humanistic studies before embracing the Protestant message. Still, we cannot simply equate humanism and the Reformation; for in the wake of the Lutheran schism, humanist was divided from humanist as deeply as Protestant was from Catholic.

Was the Reformation the fulfillment or the antithesis of the Renaissance? Enno van Gelder argued the latter, claiming that the Reformation was basically at odds with positive elements of the Renaissance carried forth by such scholars as Erasmus and Montaigne. On the other hand, William Bouwsma pointed to important affinities between the deep tensions in Renaissance culture and the solutions offered by the Protestant reformers. Thus, he described the Reformation as “the theological fulfillment of the Renaissance.”

The problem of periodization has defied an easy consensus. It is clear that the Reformation was ambiguously and eclectically related to both medieval and modern impulses. Heiko A. Oberman, whose research on the late medieval context of the Reformation would seem to validate Troeltsch’s thesis, has nonetheless found “the birthpangs of the Modern Era” in three characteristics of the later Middle Ages: (1); the discovery of the inductive method in scientific research, (2) a new view of human dignity based on a covenantal understanding of the relationship between God and the human, and (3) the closing of the gap between sacred and secular. Without overdefining our terms, it is best to see the Reformation as an era of transition, characterized by the emergence of a new kind of culture that was struggling to be born even as the old one was still passing away.

Political, Social, and Economic Interpretations

Clearly the Reformation lends itself to an examination of these factors. In the political sphere it witnessed the rise of the modern nation-state, the last serious attempt to make the Holy Roman Empire a viable force in European politics, and the beginning of dynastic religious wars. Why the Reformation succeeded in Germany, failed in France, and never took root in Spain can only be understood in the light of the distinct political histories of these nations. Economically, the influx of gold from the New World, together with the breakup of feudal land economies, created runaway inflation and economic dislocation. The relationship between the Reformation and the rise of capitalism has been studied extensively and continues to generate controversy. Likewise, the social forces operative in the Reformation have been investigated in great detail. We now have a much fuller picture of the social realities of the sixteenth century: the resurgence of witchcraft, the impact of printing, the ethos of urban life, changing family structures—all of which impinged directly upon the religious impulses of the age. Some of the most creative interpretations of the Reformation have been set forth by Marxist historians who, from Friedrich Engels to Gerhard Zschabitz, have interpreted the class struggles of the sixteenth century as a prototype of revolutions in the twentieth.

Ecumenical Historiography

Perhaps no scholar has had more influence on contemporary Roman Catholic interpretations of the Reformation than Joseph Lortz. His two-volume study of The Reformation in Germany (1939-40) broke decisively with earlier Catholic polemics against the Reformation and offered a basically positive, if still critical, appraisal of Luther. An entire “school” of ecumenical Catholic historians has followed in Lortz’s footsteps. This tradition of irenic scholarship has received a further impetus since the Second Vatican Council. On the Protestant side, we may mention the new interest in the reformers generated by Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, and especially Karl Barth. While this emphasis has been decidedly confessional in part (cf. the “Luther renaissance” associated with Karl Holl), it has also contributed to a wider appreciation of the reformers as servants of the entire church.

The Reformation as Religious Initiative

While the foregoing approaches to Reformation history provide valuable insights for understanding such a complex period, we must recognize that the Reformation was essentially a religious event; its deepest concerns, theological. In this study we are not concerned to tell the “whole story” of the Reformation. Our primary focus is neither the political, social, nor the strictly historical dimensions. Rather we are concerned with the theological self-understanding of five major reformers. Although we shall have occasion for critical assessment, we must not prejudge the validity of the reformers’ thought. If F. M. Powicke’s dictum, “A vision or an idea is not to be judged by its value for us, but by its value to the man who had it,” is not the whole truth, it at least reminds us that we cannot begin to evaluate the significance of earlier Christians, especially the reformers, until we have asked ourselves their questions and listened well to their answers.

Such an approach requires an appreciation for what John T. McNeill has called the “religious initiative” in Reformation history. Impressed by the secular context of current events, we are tempted to interpret the past in terms of contemporary standards, rather than those of the age we are studying. It is easy to assume that princes and reformers, like modern statesmen and diplomats, were motivated primarily by secular concerns. Yet the Lutheran George of Brandenburg, when required by Emperor Charles V to participate in a Corpus Christi procession, replied that he would sooner kneel down and have his head cut off. Likewise, Galaezzo Caracciolo, a relative of the pope who was converted to the reform, preferred a life of exile, including separation from his wife and six children, to the renunciation of his newfound faith. Such examples give poignancy to Luther’s lines: “Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.” It is well to remember that the age of the Reformation produced more martyrs than all of the persecutions in the early church.

Of course, not everyone in the Reformation was afflicted with martyrdom lust. Montaigne, no doubt, spoke for many when he said, “There is nothing for which I wish to break my neck.” Religious toleration was often advocated by those least moved by religious passion, as the case of les politiques in France demonstrates. Still, the reformers—Protestant, Catholic, and radical alike—were able to accomplish what they did because they were alive to the deepest struggles and hopes of their age. By tapping this profound reservoir of spiritual yearning, the reformers affected a major change in religious sensibilities. In this sense the Reformation was at once a revival and a revolution.

After an initial chapter, in which a number of the spiritual currents of the late Middle Ages are described, this book offers a theological profile of five major reformers of the sixteenth century: Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, and William Tyndale. Each of these figures stands at the headwaters of a major confessional tradition in the Reformation. Luther, who is the seminal theological genius of the entire Reformation, left his particular stamp on those Protestants who adhered to the Augsburg Confession. By the end of the sixteenth century, the “Lutherans” were the dominant religious party in most of Germany and in all of Scandinavia. Zwingli and Calvin, reformers of Zurich and Geneva respectively, are the coparents of the Reformed tradition, which spread far beyond the confines of its native Swiss context to embrace reformatory movements from Scotland and France to Hungary and Poland. Each of these three—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—though differing from one another in significant ways, was a magisterial Reformer; that is, his reform movement was endorsed, indeed established, by magistrates, the ruling civil authorities. Tyndale was condemned in England and executed on the Continent at the hands of imperial authorities, but his last recorded words reveal his hope for a renewal of the church led by a reformed magistracy: “Oh Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Menno Simons is the “odd fellow out” among these five. He left his position as priest in the Roman Church to become a leader of the Anabaptists, one of the major groupings of the Radical Reformation. The Mennonites, or Mennists, as they were originally called, were quite active in the Low Countries. Their influence was felt from England in the West to Russia in the East. By the early seventeenth century they had gained a measure of toleration in some places; in Menno’s day they lived under perpetual threat of banishment and death.

Luther (1483-1546), Zwingli (1484-1531), and Tyndale (1492-1536) were reformers of the first generation; Calvin (1509-64) and Menno (1496-1561) were of the second. Zwingli met Luther once; besides the possibility of a meeting between Tyndale and Luther, there was no other personal contact among these five reformers. Many other reformers could well have been chosen. Philip Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, and Theodore Beza—the successors respectively of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—were all major theologians who transmuted as well as transmitted the traditions they inherited. Among the Anabaptists, Balthasar Hubmaier was more learned and Pilgram Marpeck more incisive than Menno. The Catholic reformers, Ignatius Loyola and Girolamo Seripando; the Anglicans, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker; the Puritans, Thomas Cartwright and William Perkins; the “evangelical rationalists,” Michael Servetus and Faustus Socinus; the mediating theologian, Martin Bucer—these and many others could well serve as prisms into the rich diversity of Reformation theology. In this volume, however, we shall attempt an in-depth sounding of select formative figures rather than a broad sampling from a wide range of religious thinkers.

Our interest in the theology of the reformers is neither antiquarian nor obscurantist. Historical theology is the study of what “the church of Jesus Christ believes, confesses, and teaches on the basis of the Word of God.” The church of Jesus Christ, however, is universal in respect to time as well as space. The reformers we study are both our fathers in the faith and our brothers in the community of the faithful. Their struggles and doubts, their victories and defeats are also ours.

Many of the theological issues with which they wrestled seem far removed from contemporary concerns. For most modern Christians the intricacies of predestination, the precise mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and the arguments for and against infant baptism are matters of acute indifference. Concealed in such controverted points, however, are burning questions of life and death, questions about who God is, how divine revelation is imparted, and what constitutes the true church. The five reformers we focus on in this book faced these and many other questions with an integrity and lived-out courage that we can both admire and emulate, even if we cannot agree with all of their answers. Peter of Blois, a medieval theologian who died nearly three hundred years before Luther was born, expressed a sense of gratitude for the Christian writers of antiquity that should also characterize our attitude toward the reformers of the sixteenth century: “We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants; thanks to them, we see farther than they. Busying ourselves with the treatises written by the ancients, we take their choice thoughts, buried by age and human neglect, and we raise them, as it were, from death to renewed life.”