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Religion Library: Protestantism


Written by: Ted Vial

The three major founders of Protestantism are Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin. Luther and Zwingli began their reform movements almost simultaneously—Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland. Both had been Roman Catholic priests; both began to criticize Catholic doctrine and practice based on their reading of the Bible in its original languages.

Luther was a law student returning to school after a semester break when he was caught in a thunderstorm, feared for his life, and realized that he was not sure of his salvation. This convinced him to become a monk, and he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. Though he was apparently a very conscientious monk, his strenuous efforts in the monastery did not reduce his anxiety about God's wrath. Trained as a biblical theologian, he was preparing a lecture on Paul's Letter to the Romans for his university students when he realized that the Greek of Romans 1:17 could mean either "the righteous shall live by faith" or "those who are righteous by faith shall live." The first had been taught by the Catholic Church, and implies that as one strives for righteousness (sinlessness), one is endowed with faith. The second implies that faith is a gift that one does not strive for, but that brings righteousness with it (i.e., made righteous by means of faith). Luther believed this to be the intent of Paul, and indeed of the entire Bible. This insight formed the core of his reform.

Zwingli was a priest trained as a humanist. This training led him to the principle of sola scriptura (scripture alone) in the same ways and at about the same time as Luther. When Erasmus published a Greek edition of the best Greek manuscripts of the New Testament available, Zwingli quickly bought it and then taught himself Greek so he could read it. When he was appointed priest at Zurich's Grossmünster (the most prominent cathedral in the German-speaking part of Switzerland), he announced that he would not preach from the lectionary but would preach the Book of Matthew straight through "from A to Z." In taking up this controversial practice he was in effect announcing that he would rely on the word of God found in scripture as the foundation of his teachings and practice.

John Calvin was trained in France as a humanist and as a lawyer. His first love, though, was theology, and as a student he decided that the Protestant beliefs and biblical interpretations were correct. He was forced to flee France, which was far from hospitable to Protestants. His intention was to pass through Switzerland to the city of Strasbourg, which was a Protestant city, and live the quiet life of a scholar. Spending the night on his trip in Geneva, he was met by William Farel (1489-1565), the leader of the Reform movement that had recently taken control of Geneva. Farel convinced Calvin that his duty was to stay and put God's reform into practice in Geneva, rather than to pursue his own desire to lead a quiet life.


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