RELIGION LIBRARY

Protestantism

Origins

Founders

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.

All three—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—agreed on the main Protestant principles: justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and scripture alone as the final authority. They all felt it was important that the Bible, which had been available only in Latin, be translated into languages that Christians could read for themselves. All three expected the same Holy Spirit who inspired scripture as the word of God, and who changed the hearts of sinners to believe that their sins had been forgiven, to lead pious, saved Christians to a correct understanding of scripture. On this last point they were disappointed.

The fact that separate Protestant churches—Lutheran and Reformed—developed was troubling, and Zwingli and Luther met at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) to try to reach a common understanding that would unify the two churches.  They agreed on twelve points of doctrine, but could not agree on the thirteenth: what happened at the Lord's Supper. Luther argued that the body and blood of Christ became associated with the bread and wine, following a literal interpretation of the scripture passage, "This is my body, broken for you" (Matthew 22:19). Zwingli argued that Jesus was surely using a figure of speech, and that the bread and wine symbolized the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. He based his doctrine on John 6:63—"It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless." This failure to unify the Church in belief and practice regarding the Lord's Supper, based on differing interpretations of scripture, set something of a pattern for the division and diversification that has characterized Protestantism throughout its history. Particularly in America, where the government did not establish and defend a particular denomination as it did most places in Europe, the profusion of denominations and sects has been rapid and constant.


Study Questions:
1.     Who was Martin Luther? How did his training help to prepare him for the movement he would create?
2.     Who was Zwingli? How did he understand scripture?
3.     Who was John Calvin? What did he contribute to the Reformation?
4.     What theological doctrines did these three men share? Where did they differ?

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