Beyond Luther: The Reformed story
This year, Luther is in the limelight. But the Reformation story is not all his. David Thompson looks at the second great story of the Protestant Reformation
The date of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, said to have been pinned on the church door at Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, is significant. It was the eve of All Saints’ Day, when prayers and masses were offered to the saints for family or friends in order to reduce their time in purgatory, before reaching heaven. Luther challenged the whole system, and, with the support of certain German princes, brought it down. What began as a theological debate among scholars turned into a political battle with the papacy (and the Holy Roman Emperor, who backed it).
When a compromise was proposed at a meeting in Speyer in 1529, those who rejected it became known as ‘Protestants’ and the Protestant Reformation was underway. Even so, there was nothing inevitable about its success. Princes could and did change their minds. Luther used the new means of communication effectively – the printing press and the German Bible, but perhaps most of all cartoon-style leaflets putting the Reformation in pictures. Popular Catholicism too had much more life in it than historians used to think.
At this point, however, we need to turn to France. There a young scholar named John Calvin was converted to Luther’s ideas in 1534. He resigned his pastoral responsibilities and wrote a book in defence of his new position. The Institute of the Christian Religion was published in Latin at Basel in 1536. This book, revised and enlarged, reached its final form in 1559, with slightly varying titles. (The popular title Institutes, in the plural, was not used until the 19th century.) Calvin’s teaching was part of a great parting of the ways among Protestants, and, historically, being ‘Reformed’ means to follow Calvin rather than Luther.
Both Luther and Calvin were profoundly influenced by Augustine’s understanding of original sin. But Calvin was trained as a canon lawyer; and Calvin’s book was a systematic theology in a way in which nothing Luther wrote ever was. Luther had begun with the question: ‘How can I be saved?’ Calvin began with God, and how sinful human beings could understand and know God. His answer
was ‘through the scriptures’. …
This is an extract from the May 2017 edition of Reform