On October 31, as many recognize All Hallows Eve (the eve of All Saints Day or Halloween), many Protestant theologians will be celebrating 499 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. As I often remind people, the Reformation did not start with Martin Luther, just like the civil rights movement did not start with Martin Luther King, Jr. But like King, Luther was a charismatic leader, and his actions marked the turning point for a movement which saw the Roman Catholic Church as corrupt and disconnected from the faith which they were supposed to be supporting.
It should be noted that Luther was not trying to start a new denomination. Rather, his letter “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” known better as the 95 Theses, sought to reform the Catholic Church by addressing specific areas of corruption and abuse. Core to Luther’s thesis was criticizing the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. An indulgence is “a partial remission of the temporal punishment, especially purgatorial atonement, that is still due for a sin or sins after absolution.”
Ultimately, when this attempt failed, the evangelicals, as they were known, split from the Catholic Church to become the Evangelical or Lutheran Church. (It should be noted, this should not be confused with the Evangelical Movement in the United States, as they are very different.)
While this was going on in Northern Germany, things were starting to get hot in Switzerland. A Catholic priest named Ulrich Zwingli had just moved from Glarus to Zurich to become the priest at the Grossmünster, or Great Church, in 1518, where he began to preach his Protestant theology. Zwingli was radical in his beliefs, stating that the Roman Catholic Church was beyond repair and that a new reformed church needed to be created. Zwingli saw the excesses of the church and worked to bring it back to the core aspects of the faith.
Zwingli argued that the Bible was the only basis for his theology. He rejected the veneration of saints, hell and damnation, and questioned the need for any sacraments as a divine right. He also held up the sale of indulgences as an example of the corruption in the church. We see Zwingli’s influence in our church today, especially when we think of baptism and its “replacement” for circumcision, and the connection between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.
While Luther is the undisputed “father” of the Lutheran movement, Zwingli is the “father” of the Reformed movement. Though scholars still argue how much influence or reaction Luther had on Zwingli, Zwingli claimed that he took no leads from Luther. But Zwingli was not the great leader that others would become, and in most Protestant circles, he is not really known. To be honest, I only knew about him because he is part of my family lineage.
Better known among the Presbyterians is John Calvin. The problem with Calvin, like Luther, is that he is so well known, much of what we know about him is more apocryphal than it is actual. My initial image of Calvin was that stark college professor who was always precise and never lenient. I have no idea where I got that, but it is a very common misconception. After reading Calvin’s works over and over, I am constantly amazed at his grasp of grace, struggle, and acceptance.
Calvin was a French humanist and a supporter of the Protestant Reformation. If you go to Geneva, there is a famous monument to the Reformation. As you walk up to it, you will first see two corner pillars: one with the name Zwingli, and the other with Luther. A few feet away, you see the reliefs of a handful of men, with Calvin in the middle. The symbolism is important, because it is from the theology of Zwingli and Luther that Calvin, along with others, developed the Reformed tradition.
Calvin was able to do something incredible. Like Zwingli, Calvin did not have a desire to change the Catholic Church. He was looking to make the world a better place. Along with his “institutes of the Christian Faith,” the basis for Reformed Theology, many historians credit him with transforming Geneva from a provincial town into an intellectual capital of Europe. Geneva was a beacon of political, as well as ecclesiastical, reform. In fact, as democracy spread, Geneva became a model, which is why our church structure and the United States government are so similar.
Calvin attracted to Geneva renowned scholars, highly qualified craftsmen, and more modest families fleeing persecution. He thereby boosted the economic dynamism of the region, to which the development of watchmaking and banking activities remain a testament to this day. At the same time, he was able to make Geneva a land of refuge, by inspiring local attitudes with liberal and generous views.
As both a lawyer and theologian, Calvin was deeply involved in the reorganization of political and social institutions. He fought for a fair relationship between church and state; his views on law gave the justice system a solid ethical foundation; and by reorganizing the General Hospice, he brought concern for the poor back to its place in the life of the town. Perhaps his crowning achievement was the creation of the College and the Academy, where the quality education offered to all, without distinction, ensured the wider influence of a model dynamic society that was open to the world and to development.
I could go on and on about the Reformation, but one thing that is true is that just as Calvin built on the foundation provided by Zwingli and Luther and reformed their theology and understanding of God, many theologians, pastors, and people influence our understandings and insight into God. We continue to be reformed always, by asking how we are being faithful to God’s Word.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen