This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. Last week I reflected on a recent trip I made to Germany and Switzerland to see the Luther and Calvin sites. I was fairly sympathetic to Luther in particular and to the Reformation in general. One reader, pushing back a bit, wondered if I would tell the rest of the story. The Reformers, he said, persecuted the “(ana)Baptists.”
It is true that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli did sanction the persecution of some individuals they deemed heretical. But these were not actually Baptists, not one of them. They were not immersionists. Luther supported the crackdown on Thomas Munster (an apocalyptic reactionary); Calvin lent tacit support to the burning of Michael Servetus (an anti-Trinitarian heretic), and Zwingli stood by while the Swiss Brethren—Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock (Anabaptists or rebaptizers)—were suppressed. Just about one month ago, I stood at the bank of the Limmat River in Zurich Switzerland at the very spot where Felix Manz met his Maker, having been sentenced to drowning by the Zurich city officials for his obstinacy in refusing to give up his “heretical” view, with Zwingli standing by approving of the execution.
Regrettably, all three Reformers played a part in the deaths of those whom they opposed, though not one Reformer actively participated in the executions. Does this mean that their lives, their ministries, and their messages should be discredited? I do not think so. I always hate to be put in a position where I need to defend those who do things I think are wrong. I disagree with Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli for failing to stop the persecution of heretics, but I do not think that these errors should cause us to dismiss their lives and views out of hand.
Calvin and Calvinism are regularly castigated for the Michael Servetus affair, as if nothing else about him matters. But is this fair? Should we therefore also disregard our Baptist brethren who supported slavery, throwing out their otherwise good deeds because they failed to reject slavery? There were quite a number of “good” American Christians, some of them Baptists, who either supported slavery or failed to act decisively to end the wretched practice. Should we criticize them for their error? Many do, I among them.
But their poor judgement needs to be understood in their own historical settings. I am not at all excusing the error of punishing heresy (or of tolerating slavery for that matter). But soul liberty had not yet been articulated. That would not happen for almost one hundred years, when the Baptists and others put that teaching before the magistrates.
The brother also wanted me to remind my readers that these Reformers “continued” to hold on to their belief in the “sacraments.” Indeed, they did. But again, this error does not discredit all the good they accomplished. I am not upset that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli failed to come far enough in their understanding of biblical Christianity; I am grateful that they came as far as they did.
Consider where they started from. When Luther began his journey toward God, he was a Roman Catholic without a Bible in his native German language. That momentous production would have to wait until he was holed up in the Wartburg Castle for eleven weeks with nothing but time on his hands. He needed something to keep him occupied while he hid from the emperor’s men, so he translated the New Testament into German.
Luther was educated in Roman Catholicism. When he began to seek God, he did so in the only way he knew how, as a monk of the Augustinian order. His confessor and superior Johann Staupitz, in order to get Luther to think about something other than his own internal angst, ordered Luther to teach theology—from the Psalms and from Romans. Luther began to immerse himself in the text of Scripture, from an admittedly weak translation, the Latin Vulgate, but the Word of God had its effect. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Suddenly, the scales fell from Luther’s eyes and justification by faith alone came into focus. Luther became a man with a mission. The Protestant Reformation was born.
I am condensing the story to make a point. But rather than castigating Luther for not going far enough theologically and becoming a Baptist, I would rather commend him for coming as far toward the truth of God as he did, and for becoming a Christian. True, he failed to get communion right and shed himself of the belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. While he rejected the standard Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation—the bread and wine being transformed magically into the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrated the elements, though they still looked and tasted like bread and wine—he held to his own unique version, consubstantiation—the body of Christ is in, with, and under the elements. This became the standard view of Lutheranism. He and Zwingli had a falling out when Luther could not convince Zwingli to give up the symbolic view. I wish he had followed Zwingli on this, but he did not. Still, he stepped out of the darkness into the light of the gospel. Amazing!
The same could be said for John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. Both men were reared in Roman Catholicism and both came to reject the religion of their upbringing. Sure, they missed some things—major things even. But they got a good bit right, and for that we should be grateful! All three men embraced sola Scriptura, which eventually led English separatists to become our Baptist forbearers. In time, these English brothers would come to see that if they were going to be true to Scripture, they needed to immerse professing believers. Some did and the Baptist movement was born. I am not a “trail of blood” man, so I do not have a problem with seeing the Baptists emerge as a distinct group in the early 17th century. I think Baptists today can be grateful for some of what Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and a host of others taught that led them to break the bonds of Roman Catholicism that gripped the ecclesiastical world. Soli Deo Gloria!
Jeff Straub is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.