This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and even Pope Francis is excited about it; although some Catholics think it is rather strange that he would celebrate the catastrophic split in their group.
The Roman Catholic Church has received major body blows yet still survives. The early conflicts with the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople; the virulent, violent, and vicious Crusades against the Muslims and later against “heretics” within the church; the bloody Inquisition; some vile popes (as many as three at a time); the frequent battles with European emperors; and the uneducated, unspiritual, and uncontrolled priests who often bought their positions–all made the church bleed profusely.
Sexual immorality was one of the biggest complaints (along with the selling of indulgences) against the Roman Church as admitted even by Roman Catholic historians. It was common for priests to solicit sexual favors from women in the confessional! Historian Will Durant revealed the alarming fact, “Thousands of priests had concubines, in Germany nearly all. In Rome it was assumed that priests kept concubines, and some reports estimated the prostitutes there at 6,000 in a population not exceeding 100,000.”
He suggests that the convents and monasteries differed “little from public brothels.” It seems the Catholic clergy had a taste for good food and bad women.
Then entered the Reformers!
The early reformers were led by John Wycliffe (died 1384) of England and John Hus (executed in1415) of Bohemia and William Tyndale (executed in 1536) of England who were the forerunners of the Reformation with their emphasis on personal piety and producing the Bible in the common language. Wycliffe died in his sleep following a stroke in 1384 but his bones were exhumed in 1428, burned, and cast into the River Swift as ordered by the Pope.
John Hus was summoned to the Council of Constance and had received a promise of safe conduct by the Emperor and had that assurance from the Pope who declared, “Even if he had killed my own brother…he must be safe while he is at Constance.” The Pope and Emperor lied and Hus was arrested when he arrived at the council. Hus refused to renounce his alleged errors unless he could be shown otherwise from Scripture. To the council he said, “I would not, for a chapel full of gold, recede from the truth.” He was burned at the stake.
Wycliffe, Hus, and Tyndale are called “Pre-reformers” but they were more than that. They set the stage for the major Reformation in the 1500s led by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others. They were all Reformers and the world owes them much gratitude.
It should be remembered that while Reformers were great men, they were still men and made many mistakes in their lives and ministry. Those mistakes, not to be excused, must not negate the major contributions they made to the Reformation. Readers should realize that most great leaders are complex people whom God uses in spite of their “clay feet.” Just like today.
Martin Luther shockingly wrote in On the Jews and Their Lies, “What shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews. Since they live among us and we know about their lying and Blasphemy and cursing, we can not tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy. In this way we cannot quench the inextinguishable fire of divine rage nor convert the Jews. We must prayerfully and reverentially practice a merciful severity.”
His rant continued, “Perhaps we may save a few from the fire and flames [of hell]. We must not seek vengeance. They are surely being punished a thousand times more than we might wish them. Let me give you my honest advice.…their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians, and that we have not wittingly tolerated or approved of such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of His son and His Christians.”
I am appalled that a sane man would make such a statement, but for a Christian leader to do so is beyond the pale.
He added: “Let their houses also be shattered and destroyed…Let their prayer books and Talmuds be taken from them, and their whole Bible too; let their rabbis be forbidden, on pain of death, to teach henceforth any more. Let the streets and highways be closed against them. Let them be forbidden to practice usury, and let all their money, and all their treasures of silver and gold be taken from them and put away in safety. And if all this be not enough, let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.”
He even said, “We are at fault for not slaying them!”
Obviously, good men say and do some stupid things.
In Luther’s Works, he wrote a letter stating, “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly…as long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin….No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day.”
Luther was correct to make the point that nothing can separate a Christian from Christ; however, it is astounding, and abhorrent and not accurate to suggest that any truly born again person would “commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day.”
It is believed by many that Luther was given to hyperbole since he often spoke of God’s grace covering our sins. He was not saying, “Go out and paint the town red. Live it up. Eat, drink, and be merry.” Whatever he meant, it was a stupid thing to write.
Concerning his position on the Peasants Revolt, he wrote Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants urging, “Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.”
He added, “To kill a peasant is not murder; it is helping to extinguish the conflagration. Let there be no half measures! Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them. Leave no stone unturned! To kill a peasant is to destroy a mad dog! If they say that I am very hard and merciless, mercy be damned. Let whoever can stab, strangle, and kill them like mad dogs.”
By 1531, Luther believed that blasphemy was punishable by death and he included “false teaching” into that definition. He got that from his time in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1536, Philip Melanchthon drafted a memorandum demanding death for all Anabaptists and Luther signed it. Wow, now he’s getting close to me because my theological ancestors were Anabaptists.
Luther was not patient with the Roman potentates. He wrote, “We should take him—the pope, the cardinals, and whatever riffraff belongs to His Idolatrous and Papal Holiness—and (as blasphemers) tear out their tongues from the back, and nail them on the gallows.” It was one thing to point out the errors and crimes of the Roman Church but there was no excuse for Luther’s excessive ranting and encouraging physical violence. That’s what the Catholics were doing!
Luther’s problem was not only a problem of discretion but also one of doctrine. He wrote in On Marriage, “As to divorce, it is still a debatable question whether it is allowable. For my part I prefer bigamy to it.” In his Of Married Life, he wrote, “The word and work of God is quite clear, viz., that women are made to be either wives or prostitutes.”
“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.”
How would you react if your pastor taught those thoughts last Sunday?
Thomas Muentzer, usually identified as an Anabaptist, was a reformer in Germany and often was in opposition to Luther especially in the Peasants Revolt that Luther criticized and Muentzer championed. Muentzer wrote, “curse the unbelievers…don’t let them live any longer, the evil-doers who turn away from God. For a godless man has no right to live if he hinders the godly. The sword is necessary to exterminate them…if they resist let them be slaughtered without mercy…the ungodly have no right to live, save what the Elect choose to allow them…Now, go at them…it is time…The scoundrels are as dispirited as dogs…Take no notice of the lamentations of the godless! They will beg you… don’t be moved by pity…At them! At them! While the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword get cold! Don’t let it go lame!”
While we must remember the era in which these men lived, that is no justification for such outrageous and unchristian activities.
Muentzer was a leader in the Peasants’ War (1524-1525), and was later imprisoned by the Roman Church. He did not accept infant baptism and believed in additional revelation. He and his followers are usually described as Anabaptists, although there is no evidence that he re-baptized anyone. He recanted his “heresy” and accepted the Catholic mass just before his beheading, and his head was displayed outside the city for years as a warning to others. Muentzer is a good example to believers to be balanced in political matters and to keep one’s eyes on Christ and His teaching.
Ulrich Zwingli (died 1531) was a prominent reformer in Switzerland who had major personal problems. He had a brief affair with a barber’s daughter; slept with a woman from a previous church; was secretly married to Anna Reinhart which was commonly known. They were publically married three months before the birth of their first child. He defended his womanizing by saying he had never defiled a “virgin, nun or married woman.”
That is as bad as, “It depends on what the meaning of is is.”
Under Zwingli in Zurich beginning in 1518, Catholics were forbidden but so were Anabaptists. The city council declared, “It is our will, that wherever they be found, whether singly or in companies, they shall be drowned to death, and that none of them shall be spared.” Felix Manz was an Anabaptist who was arrested and executed for baptizing adults who had trusted Christ after having been sprinkled as babies.
John Calvin (died 1564) was a major reformer in France and Switzerland but influenced Europe and America. He was an intellectual, preacher, author, theologian, attorney, and statesman. His Institutes of the Christian Religion has made an incredible impact on the world. In 1541, Calvin was chosen by the city of Geneva to be their religious leader to supervise the religious education of the cities’ children and to implement his version of church order.
When Michael Servetus (medical doctor and preacher), who did not believe in the Trinity or infant baptism, mentioned that he would come to Geneva, Calvin wrote a letter to a friend noting that if Servetus were to come, “as far as my authority goes, I would not let him leave alive.” Strange talk for a Christian preacher.
Servetus went to Geneva and was arrested, tried, and found guilty of heresy. He was burned at the stake on the outskirts of Geneva. That was indefensible but Calvin’s followers make a feeble attempt to justify the murder. They still do!
While the Reformers were courageous and committed men, they were also challenged men who often failed in choosing to do right when faced with wrong.
The Reformers did their job that shook the world but their results have faded, after all, nothing lasts. Moreover, they failed when they formed state churches that still exist which should be disbanded today. Thank God for the reformers with all their flaws but with the modern sexual perversion endorsed by religious leaders, apostasy by all the mainline denominations, general unbelief and wicked rebellion of church members, it’s time for another Reformation!
It’s time to welcome the Reformers–again!
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The Fuse is Burning!
by Don Boys, Ph.D.
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