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Lesser-Known Reformers: Introduction

In 2023 we met men who played a significant role in ancient church history (AD 100–590). This year we will skip over the medieval era (AD 590–1517). During this era of church history, some notable men defended and positively developed truth (Ratramnus, Gottschalk, Anselm, and Thomas Bradwardine). Others were pre-reformers (John Wycliffe, John Hus, Jerome of Prague, and Girolamo Savonarola) who helped prepare the church for the great sixteenth-century Reformation. To study them would certainly be profitable. 

But we are Reformed, and we owe a huge debt to the reformers who came after the medieval era. Yet we know only a few. Other than Martin Luther and John Calvin, which names can you think of? Do you know who the first “Reformed reformer” was, and his successor? Do you know who succeeded Luther or Calvin? Do you know the names of other first-generation reformers in England and Switzerland? 

 

Getting to know sixteenth-century reformers better 

Let’s spend 2024 getting to know better the first- and second-generation reformers, those who lived and worked in the sixteenth century. 

The first Reformed reformer was Ulrich Zwingli, who was succeeded by Heinrich Bullinger. They worked in Zurich (German Switzerland). In Germany, Luther was succeeded by Philip Melanchthon; in French Switzerland, Calvin was succeeded by Theodore Beza. Other men in Switzerland (Martin Bucer, John Oecolampadius, William Farel, Pierre Viret, and Peter Martyr Vermigli) and England (Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, Miles Coverdale, Nicolas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer) are also worthy of note. We will meet some of them, and perhaps others, this year. 

We want to focus on men we don’t know as well. So we will mostly pass by Martin Luther and John Calvin—apart from what I say in the rest of this article. 

 

Martin Luther (1483–1546) 

With good reason, anyone who thinks of the sixteenth-century Reformation thinks of Martin Luther. Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians, and Baptists all appreciate the work he did. 

First, Luther emphasized the sole authority of Scripture. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, he made clear that he would bow to the authority of Scripture alone and that he did not view the pope as having authority. To be clear, some think of Luther as an independent thinker who would not acknowledge any other authority. That is not true. Scripture was his authority, and the pope was the head of a church that had departed from God’s word. 

Second, Luther emphasized justification by faith alone. At first he attacked only some of Rome’s practices (indulgences and its view of penance), but later he saw that at the heart of Rome’s teaching is a wrong view of how man becomes righteous before God. Rome teaches justification by faith and works. Luther emphasized that Christ, as an all-sufficient savior, provides all our righteousness and that we are justified by faith alone, not faith and works. 

In sum, Luther’s contribution to the sixteenth-century Reformation is that of attacking and tearing down Rome’s institution, doctrines, and practices. 

For his stand, Luther expected to be arrested and imprisoned, or even killed, at any time. After all, Rome had killed most pre-reformers because of their opposition to Rome. But Luther was never arrested. The papacy in Luther’s day was weak and the German nobles and princes supported Luther. When the bull (papal decree) of Luther’s excommunication was publicized in Germany in 1521, the people didn’t regard it. As a result, Luther was able to live for many more years and continue his work of reforming the church. 

When Luther died in 1546, Philip Melanchthon succeeded him. Let’s meet Philip next time. 

 

John Calvin (1509–1564) 

Whereas God used Luther to tear down what must be removed (Rome), he used John Calvin to build up the Reformed faith. First, Calvin was different from Luther in that he developed Reformed teaching far beyond the idea of justification by faith alone. Calvin developed the Reformed doctrines of sanctification, predestination, and the church. His Institutes of the Christian Religion (the fifth edition was published in 1559) testify to that. 

Second, Calvin laid a better exegetical foundation for the Reformation. In other words, Calvin explained the Scriptures better than Luther. To be clear, Luther’s exegesis of Scripture was doctrinally good. But Calvin understood the original languages (Hebrew and Greek) better than Luther and worked more closely with the grammar of the text. 

Third, Calvin took a different approach to worship than did Luther. For Luther, anything that Scripture did not clearly forbid was permitted. For Calvin, anything that Scripture did not clearly command in worship was not permitted. This difference had many practical results we see even today in Lutheran and Reformed worship. 

Finally, Luther and Calvin both taught sanctification and insisted on personal godliness. In Calvin’s Geneva, however, the matter was more strongly enforced, for Calvin insisted that the church’s elders would discipline those who lived ungodly. This matter of church government was also a significant difference between Lutherans and the Reformed. 

Enough on Luther and Calvin. Many good biographies of these men can be found, even for younger readers. Now let’s meet other men, like Philip Melanchthon. 

 

Prof. Kuiper is the professor of Church History & New Testament Studies at the Protestant Reformed Theological School and a member of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church.