Last post on this topic we looked at the central doctrines of the Reformation. Here I hope to identify some of the central characters of the Reformation, and to fix some of the key dates in this great period of the church’s history. Because of the Incarnation, all doctrinal issues are ultimately personal in an important sense, and we see the need to emphasize this when talking about the Reformation. Perhaps a text from the book of James can help us understanding this.
Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit (James 5:16-18).
We see here the weakness of men and the strength of God — a powerful combination. James does not hesitate to present us with the example of Elijah as he encourages us to pray. But such encouragement, while needed, has an accompanying danger, which James guards against here. In all such instances, we are imitating fellow sinners, forgiven by God’s grace. The Christian faith has no room for blind hero-worship. This is very important to remember as we consider the faith of these Reformers. Remember — soli Deo gloria.
Put another way, we are not to follow men blindly in what they teach (1 Cor.3:4). We are to be taught (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). We are not to follow men as an autonomous standard (Matt. 23:9). We are to imitate them as they imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1; Heb. 13:7).
That said, let us consider some of the great men of the Reformation. Let us begin with Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) — a great Swiss Reformer. He was a Catholic priest who became the chief pastor of the Great Minster Church in Zurich. A very effective preacher, in the years following 1519, he became interested in the writings of Luther. He broke with Rome openly in 1523. He was killed in 1531 while serving as a chaplain with a Protestant army defending against a Catholic insurrection. He is notable chiefly for his controversy with the anabaptists, and for his “memorial” view of the Lord’s Supper. At the same time, it is worth noting that Zwingli may not himself have been as Zwinglian as many assume.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the spark which set off the powder keg. He was an Augustinian monk who became an instructor at the newly-founded University of Wittenberg. The Reformation is traditionally dated as beginning October 31, 1517, the day Luther nailed 95 theses to be debated on the church door at Wittenberg. His great strength, and central weakness, was the greatness of his spirit. He fought well with the bad guys — but unfortunately he also fought all too well with some good guys too.
Philip Melancthon (1497-1560) came to Wittenburg as the Greek professor the year after the Reformation started. He threw in his cause with Luther right away, and became a lifelong supporter of Luther. His great strength, and central weakness, was that he had an thoroughly irenic spirit. His desire for peace sometimes induced him to give away the store. In the heritage of Luther and Melancthon, modern conservative Lutherans are certainly reformational, but not consider themselves Reformed.
William Tyndale (1494-1536) was a Catholic priest ordained around 1521. He was the father of the Reformation in England. His translation of the New Testament into English, and the books of Moses later, and his book The Obedience of a Christian Man, had an immense impact on the English people. He spent much of his life in hiding on the Continent — translating, printing, and shipping contraband. He was arrested in Belgium, then strangled and burned. His last words were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes,” which the Lord was pleased eventually to do.
John Calvin (1509-1564) was a Frenchman who found himself at the center of the Reformation in Geneva. Converted in 1533, he wrote the great treatise of the Reformation — The Institutes of the Christian Religion — when he was twenty-seven years-old, and a three-year-old believer. His learning and organizing genius were simply incredible.
Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was great Reformer at Strasburg. He was an important bridge between Calvinists and Lutherans, as well as between the Reformation on the continent of Europe, and the English Reformation. Not as well-known as the others, he remains one of the more important Reformers. He was responsible for reintroducing the office of ruling elder into the Church. His motto was, “We believe in Christ, not in the church.” He ended his life at Cambridge in England.
Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury. He helped King Henry break from Rome, and drafted the 39 Articles. While the Lutheran Reformation stopped short out of “principle,” the Anglican Reformation was stopped short in a tug-of-war. Cranmer recanted his faith in a time of weakness, but then recanted that. He died nobly as a martyr in 1556.
John Knox (1514-1572) was the father of the Scottish Reformation, and lived a really eventful life. He was ordained a priest in 1536, came to Reformation doctrines, preached for some “outlaws,” was galley slave for 19 months, preached Reform in England as an Anglican chaplain, was exiled to Geneva where he studied under Calvin, returned to his native Scotland, and established the Reformation there. His influence throughout the English-speaking world is largely unrecognized, but is enormous nonetheless.
William Cunningham describes these men well.
“The Lord did this by His Spirit at the era of the Reformation, and He employed in doing it the instrumentality of the Reformers . . .Their unquestionable sincerity and integrity, their unwearied zeal and activity, their great talents and their undaunted courage, would only have shed a false glare around a bad cause, if it was not indeed the cause of God which they were maintaining.”