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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed


Written by: Ted Vial

All the major reformers-Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin-were influenced by nominalism.  The consequence of this influence is that they did not think that one could know anything about God by looking at the world.  Although God created the world, our minds did not have access to divine essences in the world that would teach us about God.  We could not draw analogies from the world to God.  Our only knowledge of God came from what God chose to reveal in scripture.  Scripture does not answer speculative questions about the nature of God, or why God set up the world as it is.  It only tells us that we are sinners, but that God promises forgiveness.

In the late Middle Ages mysticism, the attempt to discipline one's life in such a way that immediate contact with the divine is possible, became more popular.  Christianity has a long tradition of mysticism.  Gerhard Groote (1340-1384) founded the Brethren of the Common life, a community of mystics for lay men and women.  This community is one example of dissatisfaction with available forms of piety in the late Middle Ages, and experimentation with new religious forms.  The example of this attempt to focus on the personal experiential life of laity rather than on correct doctrine was an important model for the Reformers.

Finally, many social factors created a receptive environment for the Reformed founders and the Protestant movement.  The 16th century was a time of rapid urbanization (and the early Reformation was largely a city affair).  Reformers benefitted from the invention of the moveable type printing press.  During this time there was a middle class growing in size and prestige between the nobility and the peasants, and the first stirrings of nationalism (some branches of Protestantism quickly take on a national character).  All these changes created anxiety and opportunity for new religious movements.

Study Questions:
     1.    What was the Renaissance? What movement significant to the Reformation came out of it?
     2.    How did Humanism influence Zwingli’s reading of the Bible?
     3.    What is nominalism? Who was the most famous nominalist, and how did nominalism influence all three major reformers?
     4.    What is mysticism? Why could it be argued it was always a part of Christianity?
     5.    Describe the major social events of the time that influenced the Reformed founders.


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