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The Protestant Reformation

Updated on March 7, 2019
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James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.


Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) took over the church at Zurich after the death of Zwingli in 1531. He had earned a master's degree in 1522, and began a career teaching monks. In 1529, his priest father declared himself a Protestant—and all of his sons would go on to become Protestant ministers.

Heinrich was a devoted pastor who was meek, wise, and patient. He welcomed the hungry, the lost, the seeker, and the persecuted into his own home. He refused any gifts, though his salary was meager.

For forty years Bullinger preached, sometimes seven days a week. He corresponded with Christians and theologians from all over Europe. His writings outnumber those of Luther and Calvin combined.

"There had been no controversy about the Lord's Supper during the times of the Apostolic Church," Bullinger wrote, "What our Lord and Savior instituted was a supper, not a mass. Pope Gregory the Great instituted the mass, the monstrous fountainhead of all superstitions."

He proclaimed, "The law is intended for the instruction of those who have been justified by faith, to tell them what they should follow and what they should avoid. The Law made salvation conditional on perfect obedience, which is unbearable; but it bridles the desires of the flesh and provides a standard for leading godly and upright lives."

Bullinger also made this pronouncement: "By virtue of the Second Commandment images are not lawful in the churches of the Christians. I thoroughly detest the image of the crucifix."



The Anabaptists, led by Conrad Grebel, were a group who broke from Zwingli over infant baptism. After all, no babies were baptized in the Bible. The Biblical instructions were "Believe and be baptized," something only an adult could possibly do.

The Anabaptists were outlawed in 1527 by Zwingli, after which they were persecuted unmercifully by Catholics and Protestants alike. Still, they gained a large following among the lower classes around Europe.

Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler, a former monk, was arrested in the Black Forest in 1527 by Catholics. His tongue was cut out, flesh torn with hot irons, and body burnt; while his wife was drowned.

Their next major leader, Jacob Hutter, was caught in 1535 by Catholics, thrown into an icy river bound and gagged, pulled out to be scourged, flaming brandy poured into his wounds, and then burned to death.

An Anabaptist baker named Jan Matthijs overthrew the government of Munster, Germany, and forced all residents to be baptized. He then burnt all books except the Bible, declared Communism, and instituted the death penalty for adultery. He also legalized polygamy, with Matthijs taking fifteen wives, before he was caught and butchered. His lieutenant, Jan Beuckels, took charge but he also was caught, tortured to death, and hung in a cage still on display today at St Lamberts Cathedral.


Menno Simons and the Mennonites

The next leader of the Anabaptists was the pacifist Menno Simons, who planted Mennonite churches in Germany and the Netherlands, while surviving 25 years as the most wanted man in Europe. He traveled with his wife and children, always in danger, enduring great hardship and deprivation for his beliefs. He was known as a man of unwavering integrity, of humble spirit, and gentle manners.

Menno Simons (1496-1561) was a Dutchman who was educated in Catholicism, ordained a priest, but never read the Bible for the first twelve years of his priesthood. After reading some writings of Martin Luther, he read the New Testament and accepted the Reformed faith. Shortly thereafter, he witnessed the beheading of a man for baptizing an adult. He studied the Bible and concluded that infant baptism was wrong.

What was truly apostolic to the Reformers was what was actually taught by Jesus Christ and His apostles—regardless of the teachings of church doctors and other learned men. Christ Himself had denounced the commandments of men.

Therefore the true church of Christ had been lost for a long time. The culprit was the traditions of the Catholic Church. From the time of the apostles the church had gradually degenerated into a reliance on outwork works, of which ceremonies were what men came to rely on, and images what blatantly manifested this idolatry.

The name 'Anabaptist' specifically means the re-baptizing of adults who had been baptized as babies. Anabaptists considered infant baptism as "the highest and chief abomination of the pope," and of any Protestants who continued this practice.

The true apostolic church followed the command of Jesus Christ and only baptized believing adults, restricting it to those who first come to the faith through the Word of God. Baptism was testimony to the inward "yes" of the heart.

Menno Simon believed that all children go to heaven, baptized or not. He denied that baptizing children had any effect whatsoever. "In His ordinance and institution of Christian baptism Christ had prescribed the order to be followed for apostolic baptism: first the Word, then hearing, then a change of life, and only then baptism."

Anabaptists believed that sinners were to be barred from the church. The church was in fact obliged to use shunning and exclusion, but only for grave offenses. Excommunication was serious business because salvation was serious business.


The Peace of Augsburg: Protestantism in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden

The German princes defeated the emperor, winning freedom to decide their own religious affairs. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg pretty much ended hopes that Catholics and Protestants would come back together as one.

In the Netherlands, the Protestant north gained independence and would become an extremely wealthy nation known as Holland; the south remained Catholic and would eventually become Belgium.

The Reformed movement was strong in the Netherlands and as a result, Charles V had made it the law that anyone caught reading the Bible, preaching it, hearing it preached, or even speaking of its words, was to be burned at the stake. To pray at home, sing a hymn, or refuse to bow to Roman Church images was soon added to proscribed activities punishable by death. Delicate women and young girls displayed unflinching courage in defying these prohibitions.

The blood of Protestant Christians was seed—persecution only increased the number of Protestants. Under William of Orange (1533-1584) revolution brought freedom of worship to Holland.

Calvinists established a state religion in the Netherlands, the Dutch Reformed Church, in 1622. Ever since then the Reformed Church has played a central role in the country.

The Reformer of Denmark was Hans Tausen (1494-1561). The New Testament was translated into Danish and widely circulated.

The leaders of the Swedish Reformation were the brothers Olaf and Laurentius Petri, the sons of a blacksmith. Before their efforts, the people of Sweden were forbidden to read Scripture. Olaf Petri translated the Bible into Swedish and the King of Sweden, as well as the national assembly, accepted Protestantism as the religion of the country. From then on the children in the public schools of Sweden were taught the Bible.

Meanwhile, Pope Paul IV banned entertainment and dancing in Rome; created an index of banned books; and herded Jews into ghettos, forcing them to wear yellow hats. When Paul IV died in 1559, the people of Rome destroyed a statue of him.


John Knox

John Knox (1513-1572) established Calvinism as the sole religion of Scotland in 1560. He and his followers became known as Presbyterians, well known for self-restraint and self-reliance. Scotland still had a Catholic monarch until 1567, when Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate.

Knox had once been a Catholic priest. After his conversion to Protestantism, he was captured by Catholics and made a slave on a French galley. After being freed, Knox made his way to Geneva, where he attended the Academy and studied under John Calvin, before setting out to conquer Edinburgh—spiritually.

God used John Knox to strike the death knell of popery in Scotland. With the fires of martyrdom blazing all around him, with the tyrant's axe poised over his neck, Knox stood his ground. He was fearless. Mary Queen of Scots charged him with heresy. Knox responded with these words:

"As right religion took neither original strength nor authority from worldly princes, but from eternal God alone, so are not subjects bound to frame their religion according to the appetites of their princes. For oft it is that princes are the most ignorant of all others in God's true religion. If all the seed of Abraham had been of the religion of Pharaoh, whose subjects they long were, I pray you madam, what religion would there have been in the world? Or if all men in the days of the Apostles had been of the religion of the Roman emperors, what religion would there have been upon the face of the earth? The Word of God is plain in itself."



The Anabaptist theologian, Hans Denck, said: "No one can truly know Christ unless he follows Him in his life. And no one can follow Him except insofar as he knows Him first."

He instructed Anabaptists never to swear at all, to take no oaths, not to serve any government, or bear arms.

No one could understand Scripture unless the Holy Spirit dwelled in him. Without the Holy Spirit, people would only find darkness, not light, in Scripture. Denck preached that the apostolic church had fallen away under the secular influence of Constantine the Great.

His followers and his theological successors are known as Unitarians. They specifically focused on rejecting the dogmas of the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon in regard to the Trinity. They started what has been termed a "war on the trinity."

The Unitarians were against the Roman Catholics and Protestants, rejecting not only the Catholic doctrines of Purgatory and the Cult of the Saints; but also predestination as asserted by Luther and Calvin. They did agree with the Reformers in the belief of "Scripture alone" and "justification by faith alone."

Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) wrote a 'Refutation of the Vulgar Doctrine about the Satisfaction of Christ for Our Sins.' In it he asserted that Christ is not the price for our sins, nor did he placate the wrath of God. Rather, Christ showed and taught the way of salvation, declared the love of God, and confirmed it by his miracles and by his death and resurrection. Salvation rests on mercy.

Socinus proclaimed: "That monstrosity of three realities, that imaginary Trinity, was tritheism. One God and three persons was a contradiction that even the angels would have difficulty comprehending. If this dogma was correct, Holy Scripture would certainly have taught it somewhere in a manner that is clear and obvious. Christ is not possessed by a nature but by a power that had been given and conferred upon him. He remained subordinate to God the Father, but he received from the Father an equality of power with Him. Christ was not a preexistent being but Jesus, a man. Trinitarian dogma was repugnant to Scripture and an invention of Satan."

This is absolute monotheism.

Socinus warned of "the danger of idolatry among believers in Christ," defining it as "treating Christ with greater honor than is his due, namely, honor that is clearly divine, and requesting from him those things that can and should be requested from God alone." He claimed that the command to pray, "My Father who art in heaven" revealed an exclusionary principle. "No one should be worshiped except God the Father."

In other words, Christ is the Son of God, but he is not eternal.


The Huguenots: the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre

Jacques Lefevre (1455-1536) was the forerunner to the Protestants in France. Lefevre was a sincere and zealous papist, an extremely learned man, a professor at the University of Paris. Because he adored the Saints he undertook a project to write a history of them. During this operation, he studied the Bible in the hopes of gaining some insight into the cult of the saints. After this he dropped the project and instead started to preach ideas similar to Luther's—before Luther.

Lefevre declared, "If thou art a member of Christ's church, thou art a member of His body. Oh, if men could but enter into the understanding of this privilege, how purely, chastely, and holily would they live."

The sister of King Francis I, Princess Margaret, accepted the Reformed faith. Lefevre translated the Bible into the French language for the first time in 1530. Soon the peasants of France, laborers in the fields as well as artisans in their shops, were reading and discussing the precious truths of the Bible every day. They assembled in homes to join in prayer and praise in such numbers, that the sale of wine produced by monks began to suffer.

Louis de Berquin (b. 1490) was a nobleman, a brave knight with polished manners, of blameless morals, and devoted to study. He joined the Reformers and was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in 1529.

An immense crowd gathered to witness the event. They were amazed, indignant, and bitter that such a man was to be executed. They looked with wonder at Berquin's radiant, peaceful countenance as he was strangled and his body burned to ashes.

Princess Margaret had grown to love the gospel, and extended royal protection to Protestants. She even had Reformers preach sermons in her palace, which grew huge crowds. Every day thousands of nobles, statesmen, lawyers, merchants, and artisans came to hear messages of purity, temperance, and industry; and condemnation of drunkenness, licentiousness, and laziness.

King Francis (1494-1547) tried to tolerate the Protestants, but they wanted more than simply to be left alone. They initiated crude, hostile attacks on the pope and the church that could not be ignored. One night they posted placards all over Paris condemning the Mass. This was all the Romanists needed to convince King Francis that these heretics were a danger to civic peace and to the stability of his throne.

The King issued this edict: "We will live and die for the Catholic religion. Let all be seized without distinction who are suspected of Lutheresy. I will exterminate them all."

Morin, the royal detective, led a parade of priests, monks, soldiers, and informants through the streets of Paris. They dragged families out of their homes and put them in chains. The victims were put to death in an especially cruel fashion, as it was ordered that their flames be kept unusually low, so as to prolong their agony, when they were burnt at the stake. The King soon banished printing in France as well.

The Italian Queen, Catherine de' Medici, became ruler of France, where Calvinists were called Huguenots. The Huguenots rose up and seized 1,000 Catholic churches.

In 1572, three thousand Huguenot leaders, who had been invited to Paris for a royal wedding, were massacred on St Bartholomew's Day.

Upon hearing the news, the King of Spain broke out into laughter and the pope sang joyous hymns of praise. France was now in civil war that would last thirty years. In 1598, the Edict of Nantes made France officially a Catholic nation.


Jacob Arminius

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch professor who vigorously opposed John Calvin's ideas about predestination. Arminians stress the doctrine of Free Will, and that Christ died for all human beings—all human beings can freely believe in Christ and be saved. Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Seventh Day Adventists—to name a few—would eventually subscribe to the Arminian view.

According to Arminius the human will is responsible for conduct. Grace can be resisted by the human will. If it were impossible to resist grace, as John Calvin held, God's offer of reward for virtuous conduct and His threat of punishment for immorality would both be in vain. Without free will there would be no such thing as disobedience.

Therefore God permits evil but never wills it. If hearts are hardened, they are hardened by the sinners themselves—not by God, as Calvin had said. God desires all men to be saved by coming to the knowledge of the truth. Jesus Christ is the savior of the whole world, not just the elect.


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