Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Reformation Takes Hold

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
In The Messenger of June 2000 we saw that LutherÕs ideas had spread quickly to many parts of Europe. The invention of the printing press was of inestimable value in this. How marvellous are the works of God who directs all things to accomplish His purposes! Furthermore, the Church of Rome was ripe for reform because of widespread corruption and due to the impact of the Renaissance.
Ulrich Zwingli
Born a mere 6 weeks after Luther, on January 1, 1484, in a German-speaking area of Switzerland, Zwingli was quite different from the more famous Luther. He was never a monk and never had the intense personal experiences, which led to LutherÕs understanding of Justification by Faith. He was well educated in the Renaissance style of the men of letters of that time.

After this solid education, Zwingli became pastor of a church in Zurich, the chief city of Switzerland at that time (and still a major centre). He first came under the influence of Erasmus and studied closely his newly edited New Testament, but this moved him further along and he came under the influence of Luther. In 1518 he, too, attacked the sale of indulgences. Soon, images, altars, relics and processions were discarded. The church government was taken from the priests and placed in the hands of the city council. The Reformation quickly spread to the other Òcantons,Ó the semi-independent provinces that make up the nation of Switzerland.

ZwingliÕs main difference with Luther was on the LordÕs Supper. Luther taught that the human nature of the Lord Jesus Christ, after His ascension, received all the attributes of the divine nature, including being omnipresent; therefore, Christ is physically present alongside the elements of the LordÕs Supper (consubstantiation). Zwingli rejected this and taught that ÒThis is my bodyÓ means ÒThis signifies my body.Ó We believe he is right in that, but then he went too far and said the LordÕs Supper is only a memorial ceremony in which Christ is not present at all.

A meeting with Luther in 1529 did not resolve the differences. The Reformation spread to most but not all of Switzerland. A civil war followed and Zwingli was killed in battle in 1531.

John Calvin-Early Stages
Truly the greatest of the Reformers, he was born in France, near Paris, in 1509. After receiving the best education possible (philosophy, law, theology), he published his first book, a truly humanist work [in the classical, not modern sense] showing his Renaissance thoughts. A year later, in 1533, he converted to the Protestant cause, but he revealed little of this personal decision in his writings. Unlike Luther, he was a closed, private man. Around 1535 he fled Paris to escape the arm of the Church of Rome and travelled for a year. At this time he wrote the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the most influential book of the Reformation. It began as a brief catechism and, after several editions, it turned out to be the best explanation of the Christian religion ever written, until today.

On his way to Italy he stopped Òone nightÓ in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was convinced to remain by William Farel, a fiery Swiss Reformer. Here Calvin began his public lectures on the letters of the apostle Paul. In 1537 he was ordained pastor and there was immediate pressure on him to reform the church. He wrote a Confession of Faith and Catechism; both were well accepted.

CalvinÕs opposition to the immoral lifestyle of some of the people brought opposition in the city council. Both Calvin and Farel were deposed and fled Geneva in 1538. (He was still only 29 years old!)

Calvin at Strasbourg (1538-41)

In this northern French city Calvin continued his work in a rather peaceful setting. In this period he:
1. Lectured at the local university, influencing many Lutherans;
2. Pastored a church from which many took his teachings throughout France;
3. Developed his views on Church Order and Liturgy (Òorder of worshipÓ).

In liturgy Calvin differed from Luther. Luther held to the idea that we should keep all practices not condemned by Scripture. Calvin said: We must reject all practices not commanded by Scripture. Although Luther probably meant this as a rule of thumb, it later became the guiding principle for Lutheran liturgies. CalvinÕs rigid view (he banned the observance of all Christian feast days) was later softened in most European churches. His main points were:
1. Nothing should go against the principles of Scripture;
2. Everything must edify the church;
3. Actual practice is left to the local church, according to needs.

During this time at Strasbourg, Calvin also provided a Psalter for church singing. In 1540 he married his beloved Idolet. In 1542 she gave birth to a child who died shortly thereafter; she never recovered from this and died in 1549. Calvin never married again.

Back to Geneva 1541
Geneva was in turmoil during CalvinÕs absence. Three parties vied for control and when, finally, the Reformed party won, they urged Calvin to return. He was reluctant to do so, but went, as he was convinced it was the LordÕs will. Upon his return:
1. He put into practice his Church Order, especially the principles of office (special and general) and how they related to each other and were to function within a system of church government;
2. He promoted the idea that the civil government should uphold both tables of the Ten commandments and uphold the Reformed faith in society (see footnote, Belgic Confession, Article 36);
3. He began the practice of consistory meetings with pastors and elders. The deacons met separately.
4. He established the Venerable Company of Pastors to discuss pastoral needs and to study the Bible (the records of their proceedings are still available in book form). All churches in Geneva were part of one congregation, ruled by one consistory;
5. He put into use the liturgy developed at Strasbourg and the complete Psalter. Many of these ÒGenevanÓ tunes are still in use today and the liturgy observed in our churches is closely based on what he developed;
6. He established schools--up to the seminary level.
7. He paid much attention to refugees, of which there were many during this time of war and persecution (people fled from France, England and the Netherlands). He helped establish hospitals and orphanages. His deacons (and deaconesses! although they did not form part of the consistory and were strictly involved in the care of the sick, the poor and the orphans) were kept very busy.

CalvinÕs Influence
Calvin has been painted as the man who ÒinventedÓ the doctrine of predestination. This is simply not true, although he did develop this Scriptural truth further than anyone else did. In this, he followed in the footsteps of Augustine. It is not true, however, that his theology was controlled by predestination. In fact, in his Institutes he does not discuss it until well past the middle of the work. It is true that he recognized clearly that God is sovereign, but he also stressed powerfully manÕs responsibility. In bridging these two seemingly opposite points, Calvin laid much emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. He differed from Luther in that while Luther placed the stress on manÕs justification by faith, Calvin focussed on the glory of God. In this, the doctrine of predestination was seen as the heart of the church.

His system of thought is referred to as Calvinism. Calvinists, more than any other group of Christians of the Reformation, have understood that the Gospel has meaning for every area of life. The charge that Calvinism, because of its views on predestination, would make men careless or fatalistic, has been clearly proven false.

Calvin built upon the foundation laid by Luther. His theology became the truth as recognized in all Reformed and Presbyterian churches. We call ourselves ÒCalvinists,Ó not to honour the man, but to recognize that God used him to develop the Truth.

Calvin also had a profound effect on the French language (as Luther did on German). His style of writing has influenced modern day French more than that of any other man.

Calvin and Michael Servetus
Opponents of Calvin are always quick to bring up the name of Servetus. This man, brilliant scholar that he was (in medicine he was the first to describe blood circulation, but he was also proficient in geography and astronomy), had been condemned by the Roman Church for his heretical views on the trinity. His attacks on Christianity had been condemned by all. He constantly harassed Calvin and wanted to debate him. Captured, tried and condemned to death by the Church of Rome in Vienna, he escaped and fled to Geneva in 1553. Here he was also arrested by the city council, tried and condemned to death at the stake for heresy (which took place in October 1553). CalvinÕs role at the trial was limited to being a witness for the prosecution on theological matters. He did concur in the sentence, but asked for a more humane way (sword). Calvin has been severely criticized for this one case while the Church of Rome, especially through the Inquisition, was responsible for the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people.

How should we evaluate this? Although we may say that the burning of Servetus was wrongÑthe Gospel is not advanced by such methods--it must be noted that the entire church world concurred. Servetus had been condemned by Rome and the Lutherans. It was common practice to kill heretics, the argument being that if murder of the body requires the death penalty, how much more should this be applied to those who Òmurder the soulÓ through teaching falsehood. It must also be stressed that Calvin was not directly responsible for this execution, although he was virtual master of Geneva at this time. He, too, was a child of his times.

Calvin laboured on in Geneva until his death in May 1564, not quite 55 years old, worn out in the cause of Christ.

Read 1546 times

We have 418 guests and no members online

© Free Reformed Churches of North America