Is Reformation Day only for the Calvinists?

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Is being “Reformed” synonymous with being “Calvinistic?”

No. The fact of the matter is that not all Reformers were five-point Calvinists. Many in Western Christianity have come to think of “Reformed Theology” as being synonymous with “Calvinistic Soteriology,” but that is historically inaccurate. Dr. Roger Olson explains:

“One of the major irritants (for me and many others) about the ‘Young, Restless, Reformed’ movement is its leaders’ and followers’ tendency to identify ‘Reformed’ extremely narrowly—as focused on ‘the doctrines of grace’ (as they call them) meaning T.U.L.I.P.  The movement ought to be called ‘Young, Restless, Calvinist.’ Somehow that just doesn’t have the same ‘ring’ as ‘Young, Restless, Reformed,’ though. The problem is that the leading spokesmen for the movement would exclude many more classically Reformed people as not truly Reformed. And yet most of them are not ‘truly Reformed’ by the standards recognized by the World Communion of Reformed Churches! (All of those denominations practice infant baptism.)… Arminius and the early Remonstrants were historically-theologically Reformed. They just disagreed with the narrow definition of ‘Reformed’ being touted by the likes of Franciscus Gomarus and Prince Maurice (the power behind the Synod of Dort). The Reformed Churches of the United Provinces (Netherlands) by all accounts did not then (before Dort) have any authoritative doctrinal standards that excluded the Remonstrants who could gladly affirm the Heidelberg Catechism even though they wanted it revised. It was Dort that made Arminianism ‘heretical’ within the Reformed Churches of the United Provinces. And many Reformed theologians around Europe did not agree with Dort; some from England walked out of the Synod when they saw what a kangaroo court it was and how narrowly ‘Reformed’ was being defined there.”[1]

It is easy to minimalize the grand historical narrative by focusing attention on those scholars who best represent our given theological perspective. Human nature drives us all to paint the former advocates of our perspective in the best possible light while potentially neglecting to reflect upon the views of other lesser known Christian leaders. If experience tells us anything, however, the popularity and influence of any particular leader does not validate his or her beliefs.

Granted, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin were highly influential leaders of the Reformation. However, their viewsthough more closely aligned with TULIP soteriologyare a far cry from the five-point Calvinistic views resurging today. For instance, many scholars, including those sympathetic to Calvinistic soteriology, acknowledge that Calvin tended toward “unlimited atonement” in contrast to the more rigid limitations that became popularized in the later development of Calvinistic predestinarianism.[2]

In fact, if Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin lived today while maintaining their 16th century theological convictions, very few modern day Calvinists would even dare to be associated with them. These three well-known reformers held to some very questionable beliefs and practices. For instance, Calvin believed the sacrament of the Eucharist provided the “undoubted assurance of eternal life to our minds, but also secures the immortality of our flesh,”[3] while Luther condoned bigamy[4] and was known for his foul language. Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s co-worker and friend, admitted that he could “neither deny, nor excuse, or praise” Luther’s vulgarity.[5] More shockingly, these two Reformers were known to have condoned the use of torture and even burning to death those who disagreed with them theologically. (Note: Please read this article in its entirety before critiquing it as being unfairly biased against Calvinistic believers.)

Luther believed the Anabaptist practice of “every member functioning in the church” was from “the pit of hell.” Within two decades, hundreds of laws were passed making this “Anabaptist heresy” a capital offense. As a result, many Bible-believing Christians were burned to death for their convictions with Luther’s encouragement and blessing.[6]

In Geneva, where Calvin ruled, a child was beheaded for striking his parents, and his own step-daughter and son-in-law were executed for adultery. Jacques Gruet dared to disagree with Calvin, calling him “ambitious” and a “haughty hypocrite.” Calvin ordered Gruet to be nailed to a stake by his feet where he was tortured until eventually beheaded for “blasphemy and rebellion.”[7] A friend of Calvin, Sabastian Castellio, rebuked his intolerance and cruelty by saying in part, “If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope [John Calvin], but one who burns men alive while the pope at Rome strangles them first.”[8]

In contrast, lesser-known leaders, like Balthasar Hubmaier, laid the foundation for the Reformation while standing for Christian liberty, believer’s baptism, and many of the same Christ-like values we hold to today. Before the rise of Luther or Calvin, Hubmaierand others like himtook on the abuses of the Catholic church while defending even the atheist’s right to live in peace. While Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and many other reformers who left Catholicism continued to rely on state powers for the execution of “heretics,” great men like Hubmaier stood for Christian love and respect, even for his enemies, which sounds a lot like Jesus.[9]

Hubmaier was a popular preacher in his day and is said to have baptized around six thousand persons in Nikolsburg alone. Not long after enduring months of torture for teaching believer’s baptism, under the rule of Ulrich Zwingli, Hubmaier and his wife were arrested by authorities and tried for heresy. On March 10, 1528, he was burned alive. Three days later, his wife was tossed into a river with a large stone tied around her neck.[10]

Hubmaier taught a non-Calvinistic soteriology. He believed that it was by the means of the gospel that God takes the initiative in drawing all people to himself. As the gospel is proclaimed, God’s Spirit convicts human hearts and leads them to confess Christ. While God takes the initiative, he does not make the decision for man.  By His “attracting, drawing will . . . God wills and draws all men unto salvation.  Yet the choice is still left to man, since God wants him without pressure, unconstrained, under no compulsion.” [11] According to Hubmaier’s own testimony, his belief that God genuinely loved and desired the salvation of all His enemies influenced his views on religious liberty. He argued, “a heretic is not convinced by our act, either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer.”[12]

The simple fact is that not all Reformers held to the five-point Calvinistic soteriology being popularized today. Little attention, for instance, is given to the influence of the Protestant Anabaptists or Christian Brethren movement which flourished in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and other countries during the 16th century. Anabaptists were most notably associated with the doctrine of adult believer’s baptism, the separation of church and state, and voluntary church membership. But history reveals that their soteriology, as it developed, was anything but Calvinistic. While there was no direct link from the Anabaptists to the growth of the Baptist churches in England, it is very likely that the latter were influenced in their beliefs and attitudes by the former.[13]

But, even if we were to limit our historical studies to the inner circle at the heart of what has been popularized as the Reformation’s beginnings, one cannot overlook the influence of Reformed theologian, Phillip Melanchthon. An influential friend of both Martin Luther and John Calvin, Melanchthon accepted an invitation to become the University of Wittenberg’s first professor of Greek, where he worked closely with the other more notable Reformers. Melanchthon went on to publish the Loci communes rerum theologicarum (“Theological Commonplaces”), the first systematic treatment of Reformation thought, and The Augsburg Confession, a popular statement later to be endorsed by the Lutheran Church.[14]

Modern Calvinistic scholars understandably highlight the role of men like Luther, given his treatise The Bondage of the Will, but Melanchthon (the arguably more accomplished scholar) is often overlooked. And Calvin, though a close friend, took great issue with Melanchthon’s soteriology, as would most Calvinistic scholars today.[15] Melanchthon affirmed a more corporate approach to the doctrine of predestination, while rejecting the typical Calvinistic view that God predetermines to save some individuals to the neglect of the rest. For instance, Melanchthon wrote,

“The eternal fate of individuals was in their own hands at the moment when they heard the Spirit-illumined Gospel promises. Altogether, therefore, the choice for a saving faith in Jesus had three origins: the Word, the Spirit, and the individual free will.”[16]

No scholar worth his salt could make the case that Philipp Melanchthon was not a significant 16th century Biblical scholar who deserves at least as much recognition for his role in the Reformation as the likes of Calvin, Zwingli and even Luther. In fact, Robert Kolb’s research demonstrates that the majority of expositors followed Melanchthon rather than Luther in saying that Romans 9, while not exalting human merit, does not deny a general atonement that human beings must appropriate by a free decision. These included former students of Melanchthon like George Major, Niels Hemmingsen, and Cyriakus Spangenberg. Most Lutheran interpreters after Luther, owing to Melanchthon’s influence, not only adopted a corporate theological reading of Romans 9, but also insisted on some human role in faith and repentance, which leads to salvation.[17] To deny those of us in the soteriological line of men like Melanchthon the “Reformed” label on the basis of our theological differences is not only historically inaccurate, but it is somewhat insulting.[18]

Suppose Dallas Cowboy football stars, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin got together and uniquely set themselves apart under the label “Real Super Bowl Champions,” so as to contrast themselves with other teammates such as Mark Tuinei, Erik Williams, Kevin Gogan, Nate Newton and Mark Stepnoski, simply because they were lesser-known in their given positions as offensive linemen. They played no less of a role in the success of the Cowboys Super Bowl victory than the more popular players. Aikman, Smith, and Irvin would be the first to admit this fact, and they certainly know it would be incredibly insulting to insinuate otherwise by adopting a label that implied such a distinction.

Likewise, not all Protestants of the “Protestant Reformation” became well known, nor did they all play the same role in bringing correction to the errors of the Catholic church. And they certainly did not all agree with each other on every point of theology. So, when did it become acceptable for a particular stream of Protestants within the movement to lay claim to the “Reformed” label on the basis of one relatively small soteriological distinction? We hope to set the historical record straight and reclaim a label that has never been unique to those who affirm the TULIP systematic. We too are Reformed and are continuing to reform according to the Word of God. Therefore we too can declare, “Happy Reformation Day!”


NOTE: Many of the citations and quotes on Luther and Calvin can be found in journal articles submitted by Frank Viola under his series, “Shocking beliefs.” Viola puts these facts in right perspective saying, “The point is not to put the greatest influencers of the Christian faith in a bad light or disregard their legacy. Rather, it’s the opposite. It’s to show that even the most influential Christians who have changed the lives of countless people for good — Calvin [or Luther] being one of them — believed things that were surprising, shocking, and even outrageous. So tread carefully the next time you come across another follower Jesus who doesn’t believe just like you do on every doctrinal point.” Web site accessed: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/

[1] Roger Olson, Is Arminianism “Reformed?” web site: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/02/is-arminianism-reformed/

[2] As, e.g., in M. Charles Bell, “Was Calvin a Calvinist,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 36/4 (1983), pp. 535-540; idem, “Calvin and the Extent of Atonement,” in Evangelical Quarterly, 55 (April, 1983), pp. 115-123; James B. Torrance, “The Incarnation and Limited Atonement,” in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, 2 (1984), pp. 32-40; Kevin Dixon Kennedy, Union with Christ and the Extent of the Atonement (New York: Peter Lang, 2002). Source from: Richard A. Muller, Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the “TULIP”? web site: https://www.calvin.edu/meeter/Was%20Calvin%20a%20Calvinist-12-26-09.pdf

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.32.

[4] Luther wrote, “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.” Luther in De Wette II, 459.

[5] His books, Hans Worst and Table Talk contain unseemly and lascivious expressions and sentiments. The Swiss Protestant reformer Bullinger said of Luther, “Alas, it is as clear as daylight and undeniable that no one has ever written more vulgarly, more coarsely, more unbecomingly, in matters of faith, and Christian modesty, and in all serious matters, than Luther. There are writings by Luther so muddy, so swinish, so vulgar and coarse, which would not be excused in a shepherd of pigs rather than in a shepherd of souls.”

[6] Peter Hoover, Secret of the Strength, Benchmark Press, 1999, pp. 59, 198. Hoover clearly states that Luther and his friends believed that the practice of “the sitter’s seat” — the open sharing for mutual edification they envisioned in 1 Cor. 14 — was to be “dealt with only by fire, water, and the sword . . . Luther gave his blessing to the death sentence upon the Anabaptists . . . for the preservation of the public order” (p. 59). In addition, Hoover points out that “Martin Luther and his colleagues met at Speyer on the Rhein in 1529 . . . At that time they passed a resolution: ‘Every Anabaptist, both male and female, shall be put to death by fire, sword, or in some other way’” (p. 198).

[7] All of the above information about Geneva can be found in Will Durant, The Reformation, pp. 472-476. Durant cites his sources. See also Calvin’s Geneva: An Experiment in Christian Theocracy – published in The Radical Resurgence and Calvin’s Geneva: Applied Critical Thinking – published in The Radical Resurgence

[8] Quoted in How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West by Perez Zagorin.

[9] Hubmaier’s treatise, Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them (1524), was the first treatise on behalf of complete freedom of religion produced in the sixteenth century.  He argued that the nature of the gospel precludes coercion and insisted that the state has no jurisdiction in religious matters.  He extended liberty even to law abiding atheists, “It is well and good that the secular authority puts to death the criminals who do physical harm to the defenseless, Romans 13.  But no one may injure the atheist who wishes nothing for himself other than to forsake the gospel.” (Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings, p. 51)

[10] Bergsten, Torsten. Balthasar Hubmaier: Anabaptist Theologian and Martyr. Translated and edited by Irwin Barnes and William Estep. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1978.

[11] Balthasar Hubmaier: Schriften. Edited by Gennar Westin and Torsten Bergsten. (Heidelberg, Germany: Guetersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1962), 322

[12] Hubmaier’s treatise, Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them (1524), 202

[13] Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia (copyright 1993, 1994)

[14] Clyde L. Manschreck, Philipp Melanchthon: German theologian. Encyclopaedia Britannica; web site: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Philipp-Melanchthon

[15] Gregory B. Graybill, Evangelical Free Will: Philipp Melanchthon’s Doctrinal Journey on the Origins of Faith. Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 342.

[16] Ibid., 313-314.

[17] Robert Kolb, “Melanchthon’s Influence on the Exegesis of His Students: The Case of Romans 9,” Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and the Commentary, ed. Timothy J. Wengert and M. Patrick Graham (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 201-205; Kolb, “Nikolaus von Amsdorf on Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy: A Lutheran’s Doctrine of Double Predestination,” Harvard Theological Review 69:3-4 (July-October 1976): 329.

[18] Certain labels adopted by Calvinists tend to make insulting implications. For instance, Dr. Michael Brown, a former Calvinist and notable Hebrew scholar observes, “I’m fully aware that ‘the doctrines of grace’ is a terminus technicus (albeit a popular one) for Calvinism, and I know that some of you use it here without the slightest condescension on your part, but as a non-Calvinist, I find the term offensive. I revel in God’s grace as much as any Calvinist I have ever met or ever read, and every Arminian I have ever met who sang Amazing Grace did so with amazement and astonishment. I fervently hold to the doctrines of grace!” Michael Brown, commentary on his Line of Fire radio program. Web site: http://www.lineoffireradio.com/2010/03/25/march-25-2010/

 

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5 thoughts on “Is Reformation Day only for the Calvinists?

  1. From the website Theopedia:

    Reformed theology is generally considered synonymous with Calvinism and most often, in the U.S. and the UK, is specifically associated with the theology of the historic church confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Three Forms of Unity.

    A summary of Reformed theology, or what it means to be Reformed, may be seen in the following:

    It means to affirm the great “Solas” of the Reformation. (See the Five Solas)
    It means to affirm and promote a profoundly high view of the sovereignty of God.
    It means to affirm the doctrines of grace. . . to see God as the author of salvation from beginning to end. (See Calvinism)
    It means to be creedal. . . to affirm the great creeds of the historic, orthodox church. (See e.g. the Nicene Creed)
    It means to be confessional. . . to affirm one or more of the great confessions of the historic orthodox church. (see e.g. the Westminster Confession)
    It means to be covenantal. . . to affirm the great covenants of Scripture and see those covenants as the means by which God interacts with and accomplishes His purposes in His creation, with mankind. (see Covenant Theology)
    It means to take seriously the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. . . to affirm the primacy of mission and understand that mission.
    It means to have a distinctly Christian worldview that permeates all of life.

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  2. I have to agree that the term “Reformed Theology” has become, over many centuries, associated with Calvinism, so that today, one can’t really say “Reformed Theology” without the hearer automatically making the association. However, it is apparent that today, many Calvinists don’t feel comfortable asserting everything that John Calvin himself forcibly asserted (as representing his conceptions of reformed theology). The issue of infant baptism, was significantly controversial during the Reformation period, because many aspects of it were simply derivatives of Catholic soteriology.

    The Anabaptists, a people who were obviously imperfect themselves, were demonically persecuted, just as Christians were during the 1st Century, by the Roman empire. Howbeit, this time by the “so called” reformed ones. Certainly a Christian today wouldn’t be comfortable associating that with “Reformed Theology”.

    It would be interesting to see what “Semper Reformanda” ( Always Reforming ) would look like today, if the church weren’t under the bondage of corruption. Unfortunately, we corrupted humans setup our personal castles, raise our personal flags and the net result are religious strongholds, that often look like principalities and powers.

    We require Jesus to say: “I see your good works, yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love”

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  3. If sound evangelical doctrine includes the rejection of infant baptism and the necessity of credo-baptism, then none of the major reformers ever became qualified to shepherd God’s flock, since elders must be able by sound doctrine to minister (Titus 1:9). Saved and gifted to teach, yes… Used to win many souls and turn others back to studying the Scriptures, yes… but our Lord will determine how much harm they did to the cause of Christ building His church in their sacramental/magisterial theology that sought the death of those “outside” their “church”, especially their own pacifist brothers, the Anabaptists.

    The fact that they did not even recognize them as brothers is proof positive they were not qualified in sound doctrine to lead the flock of God. I recommend all pastors should read Verduin’s Reformers and Their Stepchildren! The tractates of Balthasar Hubmaier are also important reading! Freedom of religion today is primarily because of the sound doctrine teaching of baptistic/pacifistic leaders who willing died for their stands in the truth!

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  4. ” Little attention, for instance, is given to the influence of the Protestant Anabaptists or Christian Brethren movement which flourished in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and other countries during the 16th century.”

    And the only thing the Pope, Luther, and Calvin could agree on was The Final Solution to the Anabaptist Problem.

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