Reformation 500: Luther, Zwingli, Hus
Martin Luther is a big deal.
For about a week every May, the students in my history class grapple with his role as the historical figure credited for spearheading a movement that permanently split Protestant and Catholic theology.
As a history teacher, I’ve taught about Martin Luther for 11 years. My teaching usually addresses the question: “Is Martin Luther a rebel or a reformer?” After we explore those possibilities, I then make the assertion that, if Luther could answer the question, he would say he was neither a rebel nor a reformer. He would likely say, “a sinner.”
Luther spent his entire life deeply troubled by his own inclination to sinfulness. Despite adopting the holy life of a monk and a theologian, he lived in constant anxiety about his immortal soul. In a passage quoted by historian Steven Ozment, Luther stated in 1545, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience.”
Luther also came to believe that the existing institutions and practices of the Catholic Church endangered his chances for salvation and those of others.
It is for this reason that Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the castle church door in Wittenberg 500 years ago this October 31. Luther taught at the seminary there. Presenting theses in this manner was a common practice in academic circles as a way to start a theological discussion. Luther’s original 95 theses were written in Latin, which would have made them unintelligible to the average German.
Most of Luther’s views focused on the best means to achieve salvation. For example, he rejected the practice of indulgence–selling (the purchase of forgiveness of sins), and emphasized the importance of Scripture as the sole source of God’s Word.
By 1517, Luther was deeply worried about the Church. He felt that church leaders, charged with ensuring the salvation of all Christians, were instead fixated on gaining worldly wealth and political power. Providing a path to redemption for people’s immortal souls often seemed to be a low priority.
Pope Leo X led the Church during the initial stages of the Protestant Reformation. He became a cardinal at age 13 through the influence of his wealthy and powerful father, Lorenzo de Medici. This “Church” seemed totally alien to Luther, who saw it as foreign and run by hypocrites. When Pope Leo excommunicated Luther, he famously burned the pope’s letter in public.
To many of my students, Luther’s words often evoke the image of a rebel on a mission to destroy the status quo. He himself once said, “I rejoice exceedingly to see the Gospel this day, as of old, a cause of disturbance and disagreement. It is the character and destiny of God’s word. ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I come to set man against his father…’ (Matthew 10: 34–35) said Jesus Christ.”
Luther’s audience for that speech had been Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Europe’s most powerful political leader at the time. It is certainly true Luther took on the status quo and shook the Catholic European order to its foundation. But despite Charles V declaring him a rebel in 1521, Luther stubbornly rejected that label.
In fact, Luther, in 1524, passionately condemned a German peasant uprising against the ruling classes. The peasants had reacted to Luther’s denunciation of these leaders by physically attacking other political and social superiors.
In a pamphlet Luther penned entitled Against the Murderous Thieving Hordes of Peasants, he denounced their violent actions done in the name of the Gospel and backed the prevailing social and political order. In 1525, the ruling class in Germany slaughtered 100,000 peasants, crushing their rebellion.
Truth Above All
Luther’s willingness to passionately confront the pope and emperor, and his subsequent denunciation regarding the rout of the peasant rebels, underscored his loyalty to God’s truth.
Luther came from a common peasant background, but not a poor one. His father made money in mining and metal refining. He sent Martin, his eldest son, to school and university, hoping he would become a lawyer. But Martin hated the study of law. He dropped out of law school and famously decided to become a monk after narrowly surviving a lightning storm.
Despite Luther’s education, he doubted the value of it and increasingly found solace in God’s divine revelation. This was the only learning Luther believed was true beyond all doubt.
Salvation for the people
All of Luther’s actions during the Reformation originated from a belief in the certitude of Scripture and the inherent sinfulness and imperfection of humanity. Luther stated this idea in 1520 when he wrote, “Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone….”
Luther, who had condemned the blasphemous peasants in 1525, made sure they could access the Bible by translating it into common German. This built on earlier efforts to create a vernacular Bible, but Luther’s translation is still a landmark moment in both German and Christian histories.
Luther also composed hymns that made it easier to spread the Gospel and his ideas to the illiterate masses. He wanted to ensure that every Christian could access salvation. He rejected the hierarchy of the Church as false prophets who were leading the faithful away from Christ.
Yes, Luther led a great reformation of Christian practices by maintaining that all believers were “priests.” He also empowered many people to seek salvation and to peacefully rebel against the corrupt policies of the Church.
But Martin Luther always believed himself to be powerless in the face of sin. In his view, it was only by God’s grace that sinners such as himself could enjoy everlasting life in Paradise.
Eventually, through the principles of “Grace Alone,” “Word Alone,” and “Faith Alone,” Luther overcame deep anxieties regarding his sinfulness. In doing so, he helped forge a new path to spiritual redemption.
Peter Greene is a high–school history teacher in suburban New York, teaching European and global history covering the period 1450 to the present day. He is deeply interested in the Protestant Reformation and has extensively studied and taught about the subject.
Ulrich Zwingli stands as one of the most significant reformers in 16th century Europe. Remarkably, he has been less discussed or recognized as an important figure in the movement than Martin Luther (1483–1546) or John Calvin (1509–1564). James F. White, an eminent worship scholar, recognizes that “Zwingli’s reforming career was a short one, less than a decade, but it brought radical transformation to worship.”
Zwingli’s unique doctrinal concept and practice of Eucharistic Theology (taking of the Lord’s Supper) is based on his involvement in the Eucharistic controversy with Luther, a difference in their interpretation of Scripture. (Luther believed that the Lord’s Supper was literally Christ’s body and blood, a sign of the promises of God. Zwingli believed it was a symbol of the believers’ faithfulness to each other.)
Zwingli taught new forms of worship, which became a radical part of the reform of worship in the 16th century. This should be considered a significant part of his contribution to the movement’s heritage.
Zwingli was born in January 1484 in Zurich, Switzerland. He was a contemporary of Luther, and the two men shared similar socioeconomic backgrounds. However, Zwingli’s life and ministry differed from Luther’s. While Luther lived as a monk and a professor, Zwingli dedicated his life to being a parish priest and an army chaplain.
Since his childhood, Swiss patriotism influenced Zwingli. Throughout his university education, he was influenced by humanism (belief in the basic goodness and ability of mankind to overcome problems rather than reliance on God) and scholasticism (dogmatic emphasis on traditional ideas).
The influence of Erasmus (a Dutch humanist) and Augustine (an early Christian theologian) is especially evident in Zwingli’s intellectual and theological development. Under the influence of Erasmus and other humanists, Zwingli immersed himself in the evolving idea of ad fontes (literally, “back to the sources”), so he turned to the original sources, particularly to the Scriptures and the writings of early Christian theologians.
Like Erasmus, Zwingli emphasized the inwardness of religion and was critical of outward ceremonies. His basic hermeneutical principle (method of interpretation) shows Erasmus’ influence, for instance, in his emphasis on the gospels and the role of Christ as teacher and example. Zwingli did not like the word “sacrament” (religious ceremony), so he replaced its meaning as “oath,” and he emphasized its spiritual aspect as interpreted from John 6:63 (“It is the Spirit that makes alive; the flesh profits nothing”).
Zwingli’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the doctrine of predestination (belief that all events have been willed by God) reveals strong kinship with Augustine’s theology. Zwingli’s Eucharistic theology shows that he was strongly engaged by Augustine’s exegesis (explanation) of the book of John.
Zwingli was ordained in 1506, and assigned to a parish in Glarus. In 1516, he visited Erasmus, and was challenged to embrace the Erasmian principle that Christian belief and worship should be based on the Bible itself.
For Zwingli, the Bible was the fundamental source of theology. In particular, his zeal for the Bible was well manifested through his prophetic preaching ministry during his early years as the “people’s priest” at Zurich’s Great Minster church, starting in 1519.
As a part of his basic conception of the reform of worship, Zwingli abandoned the lectionary (selected portions) in favor of reading entire books of the Bible in sequence (Lectio continua) in order to emphasize “the centrality of biblical instruction of all of life, personal and communal.”
Truly, with the admirable pathos of a “sectarian” spirit, Zwingli was strongly motivated to the mission that took him to the edge of controversy. There, he figuratively stood with a Godly sword to protect the heart of Christian belief from any dogmatization of the Bible’s Spirit–filled truth.
Zwingli never compromised his sacred duty to preach biblical truth, even at the bloody battle field where he finally died (the battle of Kappel on October 11, 1531). Zwingli’s “noble enthusiasm” about the Word, like John Wesley’s, ceaselessly ignited and informed him to live as a great “people’s preacher.”
Truly, Zwingli’s contribution to the Protestant Reformation, especially to the renewal of worship, was prophetic, largely due to his unique positions on critical issues. His voice would continue to shape theological debate. He influenced John Calvin’s own unique doctrinal perspective on the Eucharist, and John Wesley, a great Reformer in the 18th century, learned from it. They in turn had great influence on the reformation of worship in the Protestant church.
Zwingli’s legacy and insight do not stop there. They continue on into future generations for the sake of defining and enriching the living message of the Word in Christ.
Major Young Sung Kim is the Territorial Ambassador for Holiness.
One of the early reformers to have a profound impact on Martin Luther was the Czech priest John Hus, who was burned at the stake as a heretic (nonconformist) in 1415—almost 70 years before Luther was born.
Hus inspired the founding of the Moravian church, which in the 18th century sent missionaries around the world. The great English evangelist John Wesley was heavily influenced by members of the Moravian church.
Almost 100 years after Wesley’s death in 1791, William Booth founded The Salvation Army. Its doctrines are distinctly Wesleyan. Booth, as a young man, attended the Methodist church, founded largely on the teachings of John Wesley and his brother Charles. Booth was later a Methodist preacher before founding The Salvation Army in 1865.
“To me there was one God, and John Wesley was His prophet,” Booth said.