Reformation Month 2016 Update

I wanted to give an update on my posts for Reformation Month this year. Last year, I led a quiet life and was therefore able to devote a lot of time to the blog. Unfortunately this year, circumstances have changed giving me more duties and precious little time to prepare.

In addition, instead of giving a survey or a synthesis of what can be found with a few hours of research, I am instead  diving deep into texts associated with the reformation.My recent post on the Heidelberg Disputation was a foretaste of what I am hoping to do when I am finished with the Augsburg Confession in a few weeks.

As a result, instead of jam-packing 20 posts into a month, I am going to be posting throughout the rest of the year and into the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation, 2017.

semper reformanda



1518: The Heidelberg Disputation

After nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the wayward Augustinian monk, Brother Martin gave a disputation in Heidelberg on April 26th 1518. Luther had been developing his ideas on indulgences, the role of the church, salvation, and the role of the theologian. Earlier that month, Brother Luther published a pamphlet called Eynn Sermon von dem Ablasz und Gnade or A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace. A powerful little piece written in a style of German that crossed regional dialects, it spread like wildfire throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Luther pointed out that indulgences do nothing to lead one to true repentance, but rather work against the grace God has given. Carefully avoiding the topic of contradicting the Pope directly, Luther insisted that the Pope simply was not reading the passages of scripture close enough. The Heidelberg Disputation then can be seen as a further articulation of these ideas and a thorough expansion of this pamphlet. Luther’s passionate disputation before the Augustinian order sent ripples through the church that eventually led to another disputation in Leipzig the following year.

A disputation is a defense of a thesis and in Heidelberg we see a precursor to Luther’s major writing period of the early 1520’s. Luther articulated in detail some of the key doctrines that would make his works the subject of study around Europe. Among these were the law of God and that of grace through faith, the mortality of all sin and the non-existence of venial sin, and the differences between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross.

Luther starts his disputation by focusing on the law of God. For this he relies on Romans which describes it as the law of sin and death. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 he quotes that the “written code kills.” Luther points out that this applies to “every law.” He states that though we are encouraged to do good, “nevertheless the opposite takes place, namely, that [we become] more wicked.” The problem for human beings in doing good works is that though we may try as we might to do them, we are impure in heart “for without grace and faith it is impossible to have a pure heart.” Our good works are not truly the product of our own hands but an “alien work of God.” Therefore, since we did not do them, but God did them through us by his grace, there is no such thing as human merit. This cut into the notion of indulgences, because they themselves relied on the efficacy of the merit of the saints.

An indulgence can be defined as “the remission of temporal punishment still due for a sin that has been sacramentally absolved.” They could be bought to help the person buying it or one of their loved ones. The indulgence system worked through a treasury of merit which the church had control of. Saints and apostles did plenty of “good works” on earth such that their treasury in heaven was massive. Therefore, for a small payment, the church could transfer the merit from the saints large account to the purchaser of the indulgence’s over-drafted account so as to bring them out of their sin and into an enhanced state of grace and shorten or eliminate their time in purgatory. Luther challenged the idea of merit in good works and did so by challenging the idea that it could be possible to have a good work.

Luther starts by debunking the notion of venial sin. Venial sin is defined as “an offense that is judged to be minor or committed without deliberate intent and thus does not estrange the soul from the grace of God.” A mortal sin on the other hand is defined as “a sin…that is so heinous it deprives the soul of sanctifying grace and causes damnation if unpardoned at the time of death.” What Luther is doing is echoing Isaiah who says “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” It is not so much the actions themselves, as the one doing it. Luther uses this comparison, “If someone cuts with a rusty and rough hatchet, even though the worker is a good craftsman, the hatchet leaves bad, jagged, and ugly gashes. So it is when God works through us.” Though we aim to do good works, we are stained by a world mired in sin and as such, our works are flawed, yet we seek to glory in them. We want to bring credit to ourselves and think that somehow we did that good work by our own strength. In fact, Luther accuses those who believe their works are meritorious as robbers of God’s glory.

Luther says, “To trust in works, which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work. But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself, to enjoy oneself in one’s works, and to adore oneself as an idol.” The truly righteous see good works not as the source of their confidence. The truly righteous seek to do works to please God himself who is their confidence.


Gemaelde von G. Baumann: “Brenz und Isenmann bei Luther in Heidelberg, 1854”

This confidence in works and pride, Luther believes, is the reason for so much strife. They do not see all of their sin as mortal sin. Luther asserts, “God is constantly deprived of the glory which is due to him and which is transferred to other things…” Most often, it is transferred to man. In addition, these works are dead because they are not done in Christ, but for one’s pride. Because the “will is captive and subject to sin….it is not free except to do evil.” In accordance with Augustine, Luther urges that “free will without grace has the power to do nothing but sin.” As a result, the very concept of venial sins is completely done away with. In other words, all sin is mortal sin.

Luther then uses mortal sins to make a point about despair. He says there is no reason to remain in despair. In fact, Luther calls people to “fall down and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ in whom is your salvation, life and resurrection. For this reason the law makes us aware of sin so that, having recognized our sin, we may seek and receive grace.” Grace Luther says exalts and brings hope and mercy. On the other hand, Law humbles, imparts fear and wrath and a knowledge of sin that with humility ought to bring us to an understanding of God’s grace. This is the problem with those who trust in their good works: they are not humble. Those who are puffed up in their works “cannot be humble who do not recognize that they are damnable whose sin smells to high heaven.”

Here we hit a remarkable chord where Luther intersects the contemporary Protestant church. There is an idea out there that “I’m basically a good person.” Are you? If so, are you “prepared to receive the grace of Christ”? Luther points out that, “he who acts simply in accordance with his ability and believes that he is thereby doing something good does not seem worthless to himself, nor does he despair of his own strength. Indeed, he is so presumptuous that he strives for grace in reliance on his own strength.” This is the problem with those who feel they are basically good people. They are unable to truly despair of their sin and recognize their need of Christ. Which in itself brings us to Luther’s final point on the theologians of glory and the theologians of the cross.

Theologians of glory emphasize virtue, wisdom, justice and goodness. These are the invisible things of God and they worship; pillars of ideology and theology. On the other hand, the theologian of the cross emphasizes and recognizes the visible crucified Christ. He is motivated not by virtue, but by the suffering of Christ on the cross. The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil in the cross, but the theologian of the cross “calls the thing what it actually is.” The theologian of glory prefers works, glory, strength, and wisdom. Meanwhile, the theologian of the cross prefers the cross, suffering, weakness, and folly. Theologians of glory see their good works as adding to their own glory and making them better in the sight of God. A theologian of the cross does not boast in his works, but says all of them are “filthy rags.” Such a person neither boasts or “is disturbed if God should choose or not choose to do a work in him.”

Luther, hammering on the theologians of glory, argues that “it is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his ‘good works’ unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.” This is because those who put their trust in wisdom will never have enough wisdom. Quoting Ecclesiastes, Luther predicates his comment “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Whether power or praise or wisdom, all of these things are not Christ himself. Therefore, Luther claims rather philosophically, that “the remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it; …he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it, but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly…[he] must flee rather than seek power…. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.” Countering the one who seeks glory for themselves, all glory must be given to Christ.

Kicking off Reformation month 2016, I attempted to explain Luther’s commentary on the Galatians and how the world bears the Gospel a grudge. This is why. The gospel calls us to put our faith in the suffering of Christ on the cross. It urges us to flee fame, power, fortune, wisdom, and grandeur for ourselves. It demands humility and it holds no place for the glory of man, but gives all the glory to God himself. “The law says ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done. The is to let Christ dwell within us and to act through us. Good is not something that we do but is something that is conferred “upon the bad and needy person.” As pertaining to justification and salvation, this concept can be seen as leading away from a concept of infusion of grace and toward a concept of imputation of grace; a challenging step and stumbling block for the Roman church.

As one can imagine for the time period, the ideas expressed in the Heidelberg Disputation took Rome to task in several ways. It threw out the scaffolding which held up the system of merits on which indulgences where sold. It disempowered the church’s leaders to forgive sin, but placed it squarely upon the grace of God to forgive sin based on the merit of Christ. This revival of Augustinian thought and the doctrines of grace put large fissures in the façade that the Roman church had created. It set the stage for further developments and helped open the door wide toward reformation. Today’s church would do well to remember it.

All Martin Luther quotes are from the text of the Heidelberg Disputation

“Heidelberg Disputation.” 26 April 1518. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. Accessed 5 October 2016.

All Definitions are from the American Heritage Dictionary

“indulgence.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th Edition. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) 895.

“mortal sin.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th Edition. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) 1145.

“venial sin.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th Edition. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) 1908.

Reformation Against the World

The world bears the Gospel a grudge because the Gospel condemns the religious wisdom of the world. Jealous for its own religious views, the world in turn charges the Gospel with being a subversive and licentious doctrine, offensive to God and man, a doctrine to be persecuted as the worst plague on earth.

As a result, we have this paradoxical situation: The Gospel supplied the world with the salvation of Jesus Christ, peace of conscience, and every blessing. Just for that the world abhors the Gospel.

– Martin Luther – Commentaries on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians – 1538

Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. These catchphrases of the Reformation sing to us a tranquil song. Knowing the truths therein calms the storms of our lives and strengthens us with confidence. The Reformers knew what it meant that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone who has fully paid for all of our sins. The merits of man, the merits of all the saints, and the merits of all the church appease nothing of the wrath of God against sin. Our salvation is merited on Christ’s death and resurrection alone. This is the subversive and licentious doctrine the world hates.

As Luther insisted in 1538, “the world bears the Gospel a grudge.” The world seeks to thwart the Gospel because it is “jealous for its own religious views.” We do not face the same religious juggernaut as Luther did in the Roman Catholic Church. However, in the last few years, Luther’s prophetic voice echoes as the United States has embraced homosexual marriages, the destruction of biblical categories of gender, and has seen increases in white supremacist and black supremacist movements. In a world such as this, Sam Harris is right when he says “religion poisons everything.” Its doctrines are opposite those groups which seek solace apart from Christ. The true faith, being the true antidote is a poison to the cancers that plague our world.

Luther sought to demonstrate to the powers that be (at his time, the papacy) the the word of God has the ultimate authority. He then leveraged that against the society in which he lived and started a revolution in ideas, in religious practice, and in human hearts. In the same way, we seek to demonstrate that there is no authority, but that which resides in Christ alone. Such authority undermines those whose God is their belly, their ego, or their social media account.

The true faith is, “a doctrine to be persecuted as the worst plague on earth.” It gets in the way of progress. The message is antiquated. It is a personal affair and not a public one. There are a myriad of excuses to deny human guilt. Yet, we do not succumb to such powerless critics.

Paul describes accurately our situation in his epistle to which Luther has provided us comment, “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal. 1:3). A present evil age is the one in which we live and “the Gospel supplies the world with the salvation of Jesus Christ, peace of conscience, and every blessing.”

One of my favorite images of the Reformation is that of a candle burning. In the piece, the Pope, cardinals, and devils attempted to blow out the light of knowledge that has been given to us. Let us pray that we will latch on to it as John 1:5 states, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

NPG D24005; Leading Theologians of the Middle Ages published by John Garrett

“The Candle is lighted, we can not blow it out. – published by John Garrett – 17th century



As we anticipate the 500th year anniversary of the dawn of the Reformation next year, I will attempt to cover key events and documents that helped to shape the Reformation and bring it to become the world-wide phenomenon it remains. In 2017, I hope to cover major theological points the reformers made and how they continue to shape and mold the church today.



Martin Luther: Bringer of Light

Martin Luther - (1483-1546)

Martin Luther – (1483-1546)

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther shattered history. Luther scarcely knew the consequences of his hammering of the 95 Theses on the church door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. Even in the year 2015, almost 500 years later, people still know his name and quote his works. To quote church historian David Calhoun, “More books have been written about Luther than about anybody else in history except Jesus Christ. When one begins to talk about Luther, there is so much to say that it is almost impossible to know how to say it.” (“A Mighty Fortress…”) Martin Luther not only started the Reformation, but his works served as the inspiration for the Reformers in England, France, Switzerland, and the rest of the world all the way down to the present day. Carl Truman writes in Luther on the Christian Life, that “After Augustine, no single churchman-theologian has influenced the Western church more than Luther over the centuries. Not only did his pastoral protest in the sixteenth century precipitate the shattering of the medieval church, but many of his own particular concerns—the clarity of Scripture, the centrality of the preached Word, justification by grace through faith, and the Lord’s Supper—helped to define Protestantism in relation to Roman Catholicism and to determine how different Protestant communions came to understand themselves in relation to each other.” (22) This entire month we have seen how Luther set the tone for the Reformation and shaped, influenced, rubbed shoulders with, and got into heated debate with the other reformers. In short, Luther’s life and legacy cannot be overstated.

Martin Luther - Lucas Cranach - 1532

Martin Luther – Lucas Cranach – 1532

Born in Eisleben in the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1483, Luther grew up well cared for. His father was a copper miner and did everything he could to save money to send his son who showed real talent in his Latin studies and work at the University of Erfurt (1501-1505) to law school. It did not go as his father had planned. Luther was traveling near Stottenheim on his way back to Erfurt to finish his studies when a great and terrible thunderstorm terrified him. Lightning struck rather close to him and he dove down in panic crying out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners that he would become a monk if his life were to be spared. Luther lived, and promptly joined the Augustinian monks.

The Augustinian order gave Luther a home to study, pray, and consider all that he had read. He put the law behind him and studied the scriptures. He grew in the Order and was sent on a trip to Rome in 1510 to try to petition the pope to alter a decision the papacy had made regarding the unification of the various Augustinian orders. Here in Rome, Luther witnessed firsthand the corruption and worldliness of the center of Christendom on earth. Hillerbrand remarks, “he found in Rome a lack of spirituality at the very heart of Western Christendom.” (“Martin Luther – German Religious Leader”) The 2003 film Luther captures Luther’s experience and reaction well:

Eventually Luther began to teach and preach at the University of Wittenberg. He became a favorite of the students there and made a deep impression on his pupils. He started to agitate against the efficacy of relics and delved deep into an Augustinian view of grace. Luther started to pick on those abuses of the church that were most egregious – Specifically the actions of the Indulgence salesman John Tetzel.

The Indulgences or the Ninety Five Propsitions - Scene in Front of All Saints Church - Wittenberg - 31 October 1517

The Indulgences or the Ninety Five Propsitions – Scene in Front of All Saints Church – Wittenberg – 31 October 1517

Luther Hammers the 95 Theses to the Church Door of Wittenberg

Luther Hammers the 95 Theses to the Church Door of Wittenberg

Tetzel gained himself quite a reputation. The papacy had taught that within the blood of Christ resided a treasury of merits. These merits or good works contained in the blood of Christ which was shed for all could be applied to different people to shorten their own or a loved one’s time in purgatory should the price be paid to do so. Purgatory remains a belief within Catholicism to this day where saved sinners reside until there are purged of the last of their sins to enter heaven. Tetzel sold these indulgence certificates which helped to fill the papal coffers and help build St. Peter’s Basilica. He utilized handy catch-phrases such as, “Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” He asserted that one could rape the virgin Mary and still be absolved of their sins by buying a certificate. When Luther heard of what Tetzel was doing, he became livid. He would not stand for it. He wrote up a protest of 95 Theses against the Sale of Indulgences and hammered it to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.

The results of Luther’s actions is well documented. Luther defended successfully the 95 Theses at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. In addition, Frederick the Wise who was the Elector of Saxony and the head of that part of the Holy Roman Empire defended Luther in political strategy aimed at diffusing the tension of their Catholic leader, Emperor Charles V and the papal authorities while quietly supporting Luther through his protégée George Spalatin. Luther’s students and colleagues at Wittenberg jointed together in support of Luther. Luther started to develop his ideas about justification by faith alone or an understanding about salvation bred in what God has done for humanity, not what humanity has done for God, and the papacy set off against him.

The Leipzig Disputation - 1519 - Carl Lessing

The Leipzig Disputation – 1519 – Carl Lessing

Johann Eck, the formidable Catholic apologist sparred with Luther in Leipzig in 1520. At Leipzig, Eck accused Luther of being a Bohemian follower of Jan Hus, and in line with those who follow heretical teaching. (Hillerbrand) Luther asserted that not everything Hus had said was inaccurate and also that church councils could indeed err. A victory for Luther, Leipzig helped paved the way for his excommunication the following year.

Luther Burns the Papal Bull in the Square of Wittenberg - 1520 - Karl Aspelin - 1885

Luther Burns the Papal Bull in the Square of Wittenberg – 1520 – Karl Aspelin – 1885

With Frederick the Wise on his side, Luther was not detained for his excommunication. Ensuring that all Germans would be tried in courts in Germany, Luther was summoned to Worms in 1521 to defend his works before the agents of the papacy and the emperor.

A table had been set up and his works were laid upon it and he was told to repudiate them and recant all of their contents. Luther insisted the second day of the meeting that not everything in his works were heretical. Indeed, many had gained insight from them and parts of the works endorsed great teachings of the church. Luther stood boldly declaring:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. [Here I stand, I can do no other!] God help me. Amen.” (Quote in Coffman)

The Diet of Worms had been a perilous time for Luther. The emperor had granted Luther a safe conduct, which meant that Luther could not be harmed or taken captive to or from the Diet. Following the Diet, he was kidnapped and many thought he had been killed.

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms - Anton von Werner - 1877

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms – Anton von Werner – 1877

The famous painter Albrecht Dürer lamented Luther’s supposed death which is quoted here at length from his diary:

On Friday before Pentacost (17th of May) in the year 1521 the news reached Antewerpen, that Martin Luther had been so treacherously taken prisoner. For when the herald of the emperor Charles had been ordered to accompany him with the emperial guard, he trusted this. But when the herald had brought him near Eisenanch to an inhospitable place, he told him that he had no further need of him and rode off. Pretty soon ten riders on horse-back appeared; they treacherously led away this deceived, pious man, who was illumined by the Holy Spirit and professed the true Christian faith. And is he still alive? Or have they murdered him?—which I do not know—in that case he has suffered it for the sake of the Christian truth in that he chastised the unchristian papacy, which resists the liberation by Christ with its heavy burdens of human laws; and also for this reason has he suffered it, that we should even longer as until know be deprived and completely disrobed of all that is the fruit of our blood and sweat, and that this fruit should shamefully and blasphemously be consumed by idle folk while the thirsty, parched people die because of it.

And especially, the hardest factor for me is that God might possibly want to keep us under their false and blind teaching, which has only been composed and compiled by people they call fathers. Because of this, the delicious Word of God is wrongly exegeted or not at all taught in many places.

Oh God in heaven have mercy on us… And should we have lost this man, who has written more clearly than any other that has lived in the last 140 years and to whom you have given such an evangelical spirit, we pray you, Oh heavenly Father, that you would give your Holy Spirit again to someone who would gather your holy Christian Church so that we might live together again in a Christian manner…..Anyone, after all, who reads Martin Luther’s books, can see how his teaching is so clear and transparent when he sets forth the holy gospel. Therefore, these are to be honored and ought not to be burned… (Quote in Schaeffer)

Dürer’s diary captures the general feeling among many of the people who had watched the scene at Worms unfold. Luther’s works were revolutionary. They revived the work of Augustine who had revived the work of Paul in teaching that it is the grace of God that reigns supreme in salvation, not human effort or works. People judged that Luther was right and rebellions started to break out across the Holy Roman Empire.

Luther had been kidnapped by Frederick the Wise’s men who sought to take Luther into hiding before Charles V’s men could capture him. He assumed the disguised persona of Knight George and spent his time in the Wartburg Castle translating the bible into German with the New Testament coming out in 1522.

The Table of the Reformation

The rest, they say, is history. Luther married Katharina von Bora (1525), helped to write the Augsburg Confession of Faith with his right-hand man Philipp Melanchthon (1530), wrote the Lutheran small and large catechism, and served as the founder of the Lutheran church. He sparred with Zwingli and Calvin over the doctrine of the Eucharist, and also worked tirelessly to continue the Reformation. Luther died in 1546.

Martin Luther’s example humbles and inspires us and shows us how the brave actions of one man standing up for the truth of God can change the world.

In honor of Luther and Reformation Day and Reformation Sunday here is one jewel from Luther’s works, from his commentary on the Galatians:

The world bears the Gospel a grudge because the Gospel condemns the religious wisdom of the world. Jealous for its own religious views, the world in turn charges the Gospel with being a subversive and licentious doctrine, offensive to God and man, a doctrine to be persecuted as the worst plague on earth.

As a result we have this paradoxical situation: The Gospel supplies the world with the salvation of Jesus Christ, peace of conscience, and every blessing. Just for that the world abhors the Gospel. These Jewish-Christian fanatics who pushed themselves into the Galatian churches after Paul’s departure, boasted that they were the descendants of Abraham, true ministers of Christ, having been trained by the apostles themselves, that they were able to perform miracles.…When men claiming such credentials come along, they deceive not only the naive, but also those who seemingly are well-established in the faith. This same argument is used by the papacy. “Do you suppose that God for the sake of a few Lutheran heretics would disown His entire Church? Or do you suppose that God would have left His Church floundering in error all these centuries?” The Galatians were taken in by such arguments with the result that Paul’s authority and doctrine were drawn in question. Against these boasting, false apostles, Paul boldly defends his apostolic authority and ministry. Humble man that he was, he will not now take a back seat. He reminds them of the time when he opposed Peter to his face and reproved the chief of the apostles. Paul devotes the first two chapters to a defense of his office and his Gospel, affirming that he received it, not from men, but from the Lord Jesus Christ by special revelation, and that if he or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than the one he had preached, he shall be accursed.

Calhoun, David. “A Might Fortress is our God: The Life of Martin Luther.” Reformation and Modern Church History. Spring 2006. Covenant Theological Seminary. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Coffman, Elesha. “What Luther Said.” Christian History. 08 Aug. 2008. Christianity Today. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Dürer, Albrecht. “Quote.” in Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005. Print. 96-97.

Hillerbrand, Hans, J. “Martin Luther – German Religious Leader.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Luther, Martin. Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. 1538. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Trueman, Carl. Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom. Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2015. Print.

Peter Martyr Vermigli: Reformer of Europe

Pietro Vermigli - by Hans Asper - 1560

Pietro Vermigli – by Hans Asper – 1560

Italy, Switzerland, England, France, and The Holy Roman Empire (Germany); Peter Martyr Vermigli influenced them all. His skill in debate and acumen in laying forth the Bible and Reformation doctrine convinced bishops, gained the attention of monarchs, and stirred up the hearts and minds of everyday Christians so that it was as if the whole of Europe had come to know his name in the 16th Century. Peter Martyr Vermigli worked tirelessly to carry the torch of the Reformation and his controversial opinions that at one time almost led to a double-headed axe duel remain a subject of study, inspiration, and contention in the present day.

Born in Florence in September of 1500, Peter Martyr Vermigli or Pietro Martire Vermigli grew up in the world of Renaissance Italy. The center of Christendom on Earth: Italy had become a cesspool of corruption. Militaristic and politically-minded popes who wished to expand their territory as well as their wealth, and corrupt priests with mistresses, sometimes multiple plagued the area. Nobles of the city states cheated each-other each in their attempt to gain more power for themselves as is characterized in Machiavelli’s The Prince. Those that spoke out, like Girolamo Savonarola in Florence during the Borgia papacy (Pope Alexander VI) two years before Vermigli’s birth, were burned at the stake.

Pietro Vermigli - by Hendrik Hondius - 1602 - National Portrait Gallery, London

Pietro Vermigli – by Hendrik Hondius – 1602 – National Portrait Gallery, London

Growing up in the same city as Savonarola may have made its mark on Vermigli as he felt “from an early age…to pursue this one thing above other human arts and studies—that I should learn… primarily the divine Scriptures.”(James xiv) Indeed, Theodore Beza once called him the “phoenix born from the ashes of Savonarola.” (James xiv) He spent his time studying and learning and even in his early stages started to think of ways the church might become more true to the scriptures. He went into the rather obscure Augustinian Order (not nearly as big as the Franciscans or the Dominicans) at the age of 14 to study Augustine, and by 1518 he went to the University of Padua. According to Bradford Littlejohn, in Padua “Vermigli soon acquired a reputation for piety, preaching, and phenomenal erudition.” Vermigli out-shined his classmates and started to gain a distinguished reputation.

Like many college students, Vermigli got into a core group of like-minded friends. Among them were “Pietro Bembo, Reginald Pole and Marcantonio Flaminio—all future leaders of the abortive Italian reform movement.” (James xv) These clasmates each went out into their respective fields aiming to reform the church from within. His fame and notoriety as a preacher earned him the position of abbot or head of a monastery at St. Peter ad Aram in Naples in 1537. (“Peter Martyr Vermigli – Italian Religious Reformer”) He served the Catholic church in a number of ways.

Vermigli participated on the side of the Catholics in trying to determine a way of reconciling the church with the Lutheran movement in 1540 at the Colloquy of Worms. The talks failed, but intrigued Vermigli. He especially caught on to Martin Bucer and took note of everything he saw and heard in Germany. Indeed, even some cardinals suspected him – especially after an association with Juan de Valdés (a reform-minded catholic) and other Reformation sympathizers that he may be guilty of heresy. However, shortly after the “Theatines (clerics called to fight against Protestantism) procured his suspension from preaching…sympathetic cardinals at Rome had the ban lifted.” (“Peter Martyr Vermigli”) Vermigli’s powerful friends paved the way for him to teach safely for a time.

He came back home to Italy, he got back with Valdés and his circle where he “first read Protestant literature and embraced the pivotal doctrine of justification by faith alone.” (James xvi) At Lucca, where he began to teach, he started to hold these doctrines out openly. One of his star pupils who would become a great reformer in his own right, Girolamo Zanchi “was introduced to the works of Bucer, Melanchthon, Bullinger, and Calvin” through Vermigli’s teaching; a bastion of Protestantism right under the Pope’s nose. (James xvi) His work became well-known.

One of the hallmarks of Vermigli’s understanding of justification by faith alone is contained in his commentary “On the Death of Christ.” Vermigli says:

His obedience was then very great and also willing because nobody was able to take his life away from him. He himself laid it down. But his obeying did not make him less than the Father as regards his divine nature. Like a friend he obeyed a friend, not like an inferior, ‘Unto death.’ The Lord of life subjected himself to death, and the immortal one died since a king ought to die for his people. A shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and a victim who is killed for a sin should be considered a sacrifice. Where there is sacrifice, God is reconciled and sin is destroyed. In short, our justification is there. (Quote in A Companion to Peter Martyr Verimigli 348)

Vermigli did not go unnoticed for long. The inquisition under Cardinal Carafa was underway and Vermigli was “ordered to appear before a Chapter Extraordinary of the Lateran Congregation of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in Genoa [The Augustinian Order]. Warned by highly placed friends, [he fled to Zürich, Switzerland].” (James xvi-xvii)

In Zürich, as can be imagined, Vermigli made some powerful friends again: Huldrych Zwingli among them. However, some reformers did not eagerly embrace him. This Italian runaway, after all, could have just turned out to be a spy for the church in Rome. As a result “he was carefully scrutinized by Heinrich Bullinger, Konrad Pellikan, and Randalf Gualter [in Zürich, and again by others in Basel]” (xvii) It must have been a harrowing time for Vermigli as he had just left the fires of the inquisition only to be interrogated by almost half a dozen Protestants (although with much more civil methods). He passed the test. Unable to find work teaching in Zürich, he headed up to Strasbourg (switched to France) and worked as a faculty member for Martin Bucer himself in 1542. A year earlier and he would have been there the same time as John Calvin. Alas, he just missed him.

There is nothing quite more rewarding than teaching under a man you most admire. Strasbourg gave Vermigli a time of growth and a time to explore where the Reformation might take him. He married Catherine Dammartin of Metz and spent time at the Bucer household. He described Bucer’s home as a “hospice for those forced into pilgrimage for the sake of Christ and the Gospel’.” (A Companion) Indeed, it was not long before the rising star of Strasbourg mastered his own teacher. James relates, “As a teacher, Vermigli was judged by all ‘to surpass’ Bucer.” (xvii) Vermigli’s reputation proceeded him all the way to England.

Peter Martyr Vermigli of Florence - 16th Century - National Portrait Gallery, London

Peter Martyr Vermigli of Florence – 16th Century – National Portrait Gallery, London

Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cramner had been on the search for some good men to lead the newly formed Church of England. In addition to Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and others he also brought on board Peter Martyr Vermigli. Vermigli accepted and “became regius professor of divinity at the University of Oxford.” (“Peter Martyr”) This time in England gave Vermigli a time to expand some of his teaching and take part in the Oxford Disputation of 1549 where “he single-handedly upheld Protestant Eucharistic teaching.” (James xviii) He helped to contribute to the alterations made to the Book of Common Prayer (1552) and the Forty-Two Articles (1553) with John Knox and others. Here, the teaching of Calvin and Zwingli made its way into English liturgical life and teaching. Indeed, it even offended the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica when they wrote, “His influence on the 1552 prayer book and the Forty-two Articles (1553) is problematic” without any explanation as to why. (“Peter Martyr”) It is described as “close to that of John Calvin, Bucer, and Philipp Melanchthon.” (“Peter Martyr”) Even in death hundreds of years later, Vermigli begets controversy. He fled England back to Strasbourg at the ascension of Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) in 1553.

"The Candle is lighted, we can not blow it out. - published by John Garrett - 17th century

“The Candle is lighted, we can not blow it out.” – published by John Garrett – 17th century – Features Vermigli and many other reformers including his pupil Zanche.

By the time Vermigli had gotten back to Strasbourg, things had changed. Luther and Bucer had died in 1546 and 1551 respectively. Vermigli held a view of the Eucharist that sided with that of the Reformed (Calvinist and Zwinglian as opposed to Lutheran). As a result, he ended up going back to Zürich to leave some controversy behind him.

In Zürich, Vermigli’s championing of Predestination got him into more trouble. One professor, Theodore Bibliander “had begun openly to attack Vermigli’s doctrine of predestination. [When he did,] a full-blown ‘Prädestinationsstreit’ ensued. The controversy became so intense that Bibliander challenged Vermigli to a duel with a double-edged axe.” (James xxi) The duel never took place and Bibliander was let go in 1560. As a result. Vermigli ended up winning the debate and he lived in relative peace thereafter. He died in Zürich at the ripe age of 62 in the year 1562.

Vermigli is remembered today as a hero of the Reformation. His international work truly makes him a figure deserving of the utmost respect and study. Recent years have seen an great increase of works cataloging Vermigli and as the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation approaches in 2017 it can be expected that even more works will be released.

A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli. Torrance Kirby, Emidio Campi, & Frank A. James III eds. Brill: Boston, 2009. Web. Google Books. 29 Oct. 2015.

James, Frank A. Peter Martyr Vermigli And the European Reformations: Semper Reformanda. Boston: Brill, 2004. Web. Google Books. 29 Oct 2015

Littlejohn, W. Bradford. “The Road Not Taken: Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Lost Cause of Catholic Reform.” Reformation21. Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

“Peter Martyr Vermigli – Italian Religious Reformer.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

To Be a Pilgrim: John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress

Now I saw, upon a time, when he was walking in the fields, that he was (as he was wont) reading in his book [Bible], and greatly distressed in his mind; and as he read, he burst out, as he had done before, crying, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’”-Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress convicted of his sinfulness before God.

Guest Contributor: Mark S.

John Bunyan - Protestant Reformer

John Bunyan – Protestant Reformer – Public Domain

Born in 1628, John Bunyan came of age during the time of the English Civil War, the great struggle between the King and Parliament, during which he served as a soldier in the Parliamentary Army. Bunyan was not characterized as religious in his younger years, but after his marriage to his first wife, Mary, whose faith in God was strong, he was converted through the preaching of Calvinistic Baptist Minister John Gifford. One work in particular (Apart from the Bible, of which he was among the first generation to read in his native tongue) that was significant his understanding of faith was Luther’s Commentary of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. (Bunyan, x)

Not long after his conversion, Bunyan began consuming books at a surprising rate, considering his lack of schooling. Through this self-education he became a scholar and theologian in his own right and produced many treatises, pamphlets, and books. (Bunyan, x) He eventually ascended to the ministry, preaching to a congregation in Bedford, England, until 1660 when disaster struck for all Nonconformists in the form of the Restoration of the monarchy, after Oliver Cromwell’s failed attempt at a republic. The monarchy and the Church of England tried to put a stopper over the rise of Puritan, Baptist, and other Nonconformist ministers and congregations by imprisoning ministers preaching without a license from the established Church. (Bunyan, x-xi)

Bunyan was one of these ministers who spent time in jail. Most were released after a few months, but his refusal to stop preaching bought him a 12 year residency in prison. During this time, Bunyan experienced much angst regarding his family, as he was married to a young wife, Elizabeth (Mary had passed away two years before his imprisonment) and tried to support his family by making shoelaces. (Bunyan, xi) It was during this time that he wrote the majority of Pilgrim’s Progress Part One, which shows the Christian life as more strenuous and frightening than Part Two, which was written later.

John Bunyan's Grave - London - Photo by Author

John Bunyan’s Grave – London – Photo by Author

John Bunyan was released from prison in 1672 and was only jailed for a small amount of time during the rest of his life. He continued writing and preaching and finally was struck down by a fever and chill in 1688 when he went to be with his Savior in Heaven. He is buried in Bunhill Fields (Nonconformist) Cemetery in London.

The Pilgrim’s Progress (Part I in 1678 and Part II in 1688) is an indispensable book, which every Christian should endeavor to read during his/her life. It is the quintessential allegory of the English language and presents the Christian life in an understandable and readable way, which common folk in Bunyan’s day could understand. This was one of Bunyan’s great legacies: learned though he was, Bunyan was a very humble man, who tried not to display his wide learning in public. (Bunyan x)

An excellent example of Bunyan’s virtue of humility is this poem from Pilgrim’s Progress:

Christian Does Battle with Apollyon - Courtesy

Christian Does Battle with Apollyon – Courtesy

“He that is down needs fear no fall,

He that is low no pride;
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide.

I am content with what I have,
Little be it or much;
And, Lord, contentment still I crave
Because Thou savest such.

Fulness to such a burden is
That go in pilgrimage;
Here little and hereafter bliss
Is best from all to age.”


Pilgrim’s Progress is the story of Christian, who after being convicted of his sin, and pointed on his way by Evangelist, leaves his home and scornful family in the City of Destruction to make for the Celestial City. On the way he passes through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation. He grows in his faith along the way as he fights demons and escapes the clutches of Giants, the trickery of unbelievers such as Atheist and Worldly-Wiseman, and the execution-pyre of the City of Vanity Fair (although his companion Faithful, is martyred in that city). After he reaches the Celestial City in Part One, his once scornful family (led by his wife, Christiana), ashamed of their conduct toward Christian sets off to follow him to the Celestial City. Along the way they gather up fellow travelers such as Mr. Feeble-Mind, Mr. Despondency, and his daughter, Much-Afraid. Through this motley bunch of pilgrims, in Part II Bunyan opens up the pilgrimage not just to the valiant everyman, Christian, but also to women, children, people with disabilities, people with depression, the elderly, and more. Part I is the classic Pilgrim’s Progress that everyone remembers, but this author finds Part II to be especially lovely, as the righteous seeds planted by Christian’s pilgrimage in Part I come to fruition in the salvation, not only of his wife and children, but many others along the way.

Pilgrim’s Progress is a renowned work and is endorsed by many evangelicals today, although in an interesting article by Carl Trueman, it is noted that Bunyan’s treatment of Catholicism, Paganism, and the wealthy/aristocratic classes would seem to be in conflict with today’s ecumenist and capitalist ethics within the American Christianity. (Trueman)

Bunyan’s unbending faith and his beautifully-written explanation of the Christian Life are his greatest legacies. In a wonderful poem-turned-hymn (He Who Would True Valor Seek) from Part II, Bunyan summarizes what it is to be a Christian Pilgrim:

“Who would true valor see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avow’d intent
To be a Pilgrim

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
But he will have a right
To be a Pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit;
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll not fear what men say;
He’ll labor night and day
To be a Pilgrim.”

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing. 2004. Print.

Trueman, Carl. “Escaping Vanity Fair: A World of Encouragement from Nietzche” Reformation 21. Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. April 2007. Web. 27 October 2015.

Johannes Oecolampadius: Lighthouse of Basel

Johannes Oecolampadius - Hans Asper - 1550

Johannes Oecolampadius – Hans Asper – 1550

Johannes Oecolampadius served as catalyst for the Reformation in the canton of Basel of the Old Swiss Confederacy. A true scholar, Oecolampadius worked with Desiderius Erasmus on his creation of a Greek New Testament. Not only this, he helped to lead and introduce the Reformation to his home canton forever altering the ecclesiastical leanings of his territory in a clear Zwinglian direction. He knew people like Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Philipp Melancthon, and Martin Luther personally and he took part in the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. Johannes Oecolampadius’ contributions to the Reformation were important and lasting. Church historian Philip Schaff summarizes his life well when he says: “He was inferior to Zwingli in originality, force, and popular talent, but surpassed him in scholastic erudition and had a more gentle disposition. He was, like Melanchthon, a man of thought rather than of action, but circumstances forced him out of his quiet study to the public arena.” (“Oecolampadius”) Oecolampadius served the Reformation as a scholar in his study quietly carrying the torch to the end of his life.

Johannes Oecolampadius - Hans Asper - University of Edinburgh

Johannes Oecolampadius – Hans Asper – University of Edinburgh

Born in 1482 in Holy Roman Empire state of Württemberg in Weinsberg, Oecolampadius showed an amazing aptitude for study. He went to schools in Heilbronn and Bologna, and eventually the University of Heidelberg in 1499. Here he delved into Renaissance humanism, learned about the scholastics, and composed some Latin poems. (Schaff) After Heidelberg, he spent a brief time as a “tutor to the sons of the Palatinates’ elector and in 1510 became preacher at [his hometown of] Weinsburg.” (“Johann Oecolampadius – German Humanist”) As his preaching career took off, Oecolampadius decided to continue his studies and went to the University of Tübingen for his Master of Arts taking up Greek, Latin, and further studies in theology. It was here around the year 1513 that he made the acquaintance of the young Philipp Melanchthon. The Reformation would not start until 1517 when Martin Luther would hammer the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, however, one subjects that Melanchthon and Oecolampadius would have talked about how the church might be reformed. Corruption had gone out of control and everyone knew it. Yet, at this point it was still inconceivable that any real split with the church could happen.

Upon moving to Basel in 1515 after Heidelberg, he met Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus found Oecolampadius impressive and admired his studies of Greek so much that he invited him to help him “in preparing his edition of the Greek New Testament.” (“Johann Oecolampadius-German Humanist”) In addition to this, he also ”produced translations of works by various Greek Fathers of the church, including Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, John of Damascus, Chrysostom, and Theophylact.” (“Johann Oecolampadius-German Humanist”) Oecolampadius wore his scholar’s robes well and his translations from the Greek of the early church fathers helped to increase scholarship in church history all they way down to the present.

A continual traveler, Oecolampadius decided to take a job preaching in Augsburg, The Holy Roman Empire (Germany), in 1518 where he met and started to consume the works of Martin Luther. The 95 Theses had been printed for mass distribution and it is no doubt that Oecolampadius would have had a copy in his hands. Schaff relates that Oecolampadius gave sermons which “showed his moral severity and zeal for a reform of the pulpit.” Eventually, he resolved to join some Brigittine monks, but “found opposition as he sought to emphasize God’s Word and the truth contained therein. Within a year he was forced to depart, and painfully left a good part of his precious Latin, Greek, and Hebrew library behind.” (Dyck) Change was coming slow to the Catholic church and people did not want to break with tradition. Erasmus’s Greek New Testament had been new and disruptive to monastic life. Oecolampadius and other people consuming the new learning actually believed that they could study the bible and learn from it apart from the interpretations of the church. Not only this, he actually believed that the Bible should and ought to instruct the church. As a direct result, “growing disillusionment with the Roman Catholic view that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ and his increasing admiration for Martin Luther caused him to leave in 1522.” (“Johann Oecolampadius – German Humanist”) He left dismayed, after a brief stint as a chaplain, left to go back to his studies in Basel to attain a D.D.

Johann Oecolampadius - Statue located in Basel, Switzerland

Johann Oecolampadius – Statue located in Basel, Switzerland

The early 1520’s in Basel became a great time of growth for Oecolampadius. He developed a close friendship with the reformers of Zurich, Huldrych Zwingli and William Farel. He also started “lecturing in three languages to large audiences and preaching at Saint-Martin’s Church [in Basel, where he soon] became the dominant figure of the city.” (“Johann Oecolampadius – German Humanist”) He started to attack the Eucharist more formally as well as the sacrificial and sacramental practice of the mass. He emphasized the supremacy of the Word of God in preaching and followed Zwingli in preaching in an expositional style throughout the entire bible. Diane Poythress, who has recently written a biography on Oecolampadius, translated with Vern Poythress one of his commentaries on Isaiah chapter six, Originally published in 1525 it reads:

And when you know God and see how great is his majesty, beyond profound and inscrutable [p. 57b] judgment, and how great is his goodness, then, if the vision be to that [such a calling], teach, lest you be among those who run but are not sent, and instead of the word of God you offer the trash of your dreams.

In the Scriptures, however, if you search them, you will see God.  And when Uzziah has died, you may at once declare God fullest and best.  This is not a perceptible unction to you, or a rite consisting in ceremonies, nor were bishop’s hands furnishing [it].  But the sincere heart will be fit for the Holy Spirit and heavenly unction.

Poythress captures vividly the seriousness and boldness with which Oecolampadius preached. In this short passage alone we see an attack against mysticism in preaching, an affirmation of the Word of God as supreme because it is the place where we see him, and also a pointing out that bishops or other church officials did not bestow the Holy Spirit on human beings, but God himself bestows it on who he wills.

The Marburg Colloquy - 1529 - Christian Karl A., 1867. Original: Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum / GK 470 Standort bitte unbedingt angeben!; Foto: Hermann Buresch;

The Marburg Colloquy – 1529 – Christian Karl A., 1867.
Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum

It is this spirit that Oecolampadius brought with him to the Marburg Colloquy a few years later. Here a disputation took place between himself, Zwingli, Luther, Martin Bucer, Philipp Melanchthon, and others to hash out a unified view on the Eucharist and thus unite the Reformed and the Lutherans together in the Reformation. It was not a success. The Zwinglians continued to maintain a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper (a remembrance), while the Lutherans held to the idea that the real presence of Christ was present in the Eucharist. A sacrament of the church, the Supper kept these groups from uniting, yet both sides were sharpened in their viewpoints.
Back in Basel, Joahann Oecolampadius continued to lead and to preach. He labored over the latter parts of his life in putting together the pieces of the relationship between church officials and officials in the civil government. Dyck relates that “It was important to him that good church government be established in the place of the prelatic government of the Roman organization….more remedial than punitive….[He put together] four pastors, four magistrates, and four representatives of the lay people. He held that this system of organization would avoid tyranny and uphold the dignity of the church.” (“Johannes Oecolampadius: Lighthouse of the Reformation”) Such experiments in government by Oecolampadius and Calvin held that by dividing the councils in this way a separation of powers could be established in a way that the government of the Roman Church had not allowed. In this way, he sought to lessen the ability of corrupt government to develop as quickly.

Oecolampadius eventually passed away in poor health. The Reformation, after gaining so much momentuim had finally garnered a sweeping Catholic counter-reformation response. A catholic army killed Zwingli at the Battle of Kappel in October of 1531, Oecolampadius passed a month later after a sickness laid him low.
Johannes Oecolampadius will remain a hero of the Reformation. Thanks to the Poythress’s in translating some of his works into English, Oecolampadius is now known to the English speaking world in a way that he has not since the time of the Reformation. It is hoped that we will continue to remember Oecolampadius for his great work in seeking to reform, and to reshape, and re-envision Christian life on Reformation terms. It is for this reason he is continually honored.

Dyck, John. “Johannes Oecolampadius: Lighthouse of the Reformation.” 8.96 Western Reformed Seminary Journal. Alberta, Canada. Web. 27 October 2015.

“Johann Oecolampadius – German Humanist”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Oecolampadius, John. “Oecolampadius on Isaiah 6.” Diane Poythress and Vern Poythress, Trans. 21 May 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Schaff, Philip. “The Reformation in Basel: Oecolampadius.” History of the Christian Church: Vol VIII – Modern Christianity: The Swiss Reformation. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web, 26 Oct 2015.