Why John Wyclif Matters: Simony, Scripture, & the Sacraments

The group of dedicated and zealous church officials tossed the decaying skeleton into the newly lit fire with a sense of devotional glee. The men from Lincoln were carrying out the wishes of the Council of Constance which had declared that the scholar and theologian, “John Wyclif, was a notorious heretic, and that he died obstinate in his heresy; cursing alike him and his memory.” In perhaps one of the greatest ironic moments in history, the Catholic Church had Wycliff’s body which had lain peacefully in the ground since December 1384, exhumed burned, and then tossed into the River Swift in 1415 so as to erase his errors if not his very memory from the historical record. And yet as the presence of this discussion of him makes clear, Wycliff’s legacy and ideas continue to live on within the halls of church history and prove worthy of our examination. If for no other reason than curiosity, we cannot help but ask the question of: “What great evil must one do to warrant one’s bones being dug up, burnt, and then cast into a river?” What had Wyclif done?

From Oxford to Prague to Luther

To begin with, he had the misfortune of being associated with another heretic by the name of John Huss who arrived on the theological scene more than decade after Wyclif’s body have been entombed. While studying in Prague almost 700 miles away from Wyclif’s beloved Oxford, Huss came across Wyclif’s books while in the University of Prague’s library and would go on to attribute many of his theological beliefs to Wyclif. For example, when Huss discussed heresy, he borrowed Wyclif’s categories of, “simony, blasphemy, and apostacy.” Such citations did not enhance Wyclif’s legacy. The year before the Council of Constance condemned Wyclif’s body to be burned, it had ordered that John Huss be burned at the stake. What was Huss’s great crime?

John Huss

Huss had proclaimed that salvation came not through sacraments such as the mass nor through the purchasing of indulgences but rather came when men and women adhered,  “firmly and without wavering to the truth spoken of by God.” While defending the power of the gospel as revealed in the Bible, Huss rebuked priests for spending more time at the local bar than in their pulpits and took issue with the Pope when he countermanded the clear teaching of Scripture. As Huss noted,

If a pope’s command is at variance with Christ’s commands or counsel or tends to any hurt of the church, then he [a Christian] ought boldly to resist it lest he become a partaker in crime.

In many ways, Huss’s teaching should not have been controversial. Huss had hoped to peacefully reform the church, but the Catholic Church which had two popes at the time and enough scandals to set twitter ablaze for decades had no stomach for this biblical and rather a-political call for its local churches to be defined by pure doctrine derived from the Scriptures and by pure living. Thus, Huss found himself on trial in 1413 for his teaching. 

The famed monk, Martin Luther, who started the reformation by nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel on Oct 31, 1517, would declare at his own trial in 1519 that, “I cannot believe that the Council of Constance would condemn these propositions of Huss.” But alas, it did. As the flames reached Huss’s head in 1414, he cried out “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Huss’s body would be so thoroughly burnt that, “not a particle was left of body or garment that could be preserved and taken back to Bohemia to be used as a relic.”

How had Wyclif influenced Huss? Why was the British theologian deemed to be one of the most dangerous enemies of the Catholic Church?

John Wyclif

Wyclif had championed three theological positions that had encouraged Huss and earned the commendation of the Church. Wyclif proclaimed that simony or holding church office for the purpose of financial gain was sinful. Second, he proclaimed that the Church’s ultimate authority rested upon Scripture and not tradition. And lastly, he denied that the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper was the physical body of Christ. All three positions (simony, Scripture, and sacraments) had emboldened Huss and indirectly Luther to follow Jesus and succeeded in irking the Catholic for generations to come.

Though Foxe portrayed Wyclif as a great organizer and visionary in his famous Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the historical record revealed Wyclif to have been more of a reactionary as Martin Luther and John Huss would be in later years. Huss more stumbled into his position as a reformer than sought it out.

Wyclif was born in 1330’s in the town of Yorkshire to a family of limited nobility. With the help of some scholarships, he would go on to earn what would be the modern equivalent of his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at Oxford University where he earned the reputation of being an excellent lawyer, debater and scholar.

Simony and his Rise to Fame

In the 1360s and early 1370s, Wyclif came to prominence when the Duke of Lancaster asked Wyclif to help the English monarchy decide whether they must pay Papal taxes. England was in the middle of a war with France and could ill afford to allow the Catholic Church to take a share of its annual income. Though consulted more for his legal skill than his theological insight, Wyclif’s position on simony or of using the church as a for-profit business (think church greed) quickly became theological in nature. Wyclif affirmed that the church did not have to pay the pope if the pope had sinned. Diverging from Catholic doctrine which proclaimed, that the office made the man, Wyclif argued that the office’s authority depended upon the pope living a righteous life. As he noted in 1377,

No man ought to follow either pope, bishop, or angel but only insofar as he follows Christ, for Christ is both God and man.

If a man lived outside the bounds of Scripture, he ceased to exercise his church office, regardless of its prestige. Wyclif wrote, “Any act that loosens the bond of worship between man and the Father is sin against the Father. The pope, when he has broken by heresy the bond of divine service, is no longer apostolic but apostate.” Secular rulers were to disregard and pull the funding of any priest or pope who had besmirched the purity of the church. Even the threat of excommunication which resulted in one’s removal from the church and being condemned to hell carried no weight if the pope were in sin. Wyclif encouraged the nobles and kings to not fear, “the lightning bolts of excommunication in this case, because a curse resulting from this will be turned into a blessing.” As Wyclif noted, salvation depend upon faith in the providential work on the cross and not upon whims of the pope.

More importantly, Wyclif believed the very act of collecting taxes to support the secondary ministries of the church in ways that did not directly benefit local parishes and churches from which the money came was an act of simony or of church-based greed. According to Wyclif, Jesus had called the church and its officers to collect only those funds needed to support gospel ministry. As Wyclif said, “it is appropriate that he [the priest] duly feed his body sparingly and moderately.” But the money collected to support monasteries or other civic functions of the church were sinful. He also strongly condemned friars, medieval – traveling preachers whom Wyclif called “a pack of apes,”- and anyone else who directly exchanged gospel ministries such as prayer, the appointment of church officials, or the sacraments for money. He wrote,

When someone in exchange for money performs a service or ministers in an office in which the Holy Spirit is conferred, he not only makes money his god, but sacrifices both persons to the idol that he adores.

He similarly took issue with indulgences, the idea that people could purchase their salvation or sanctification, declaring, “that priests granting indulgences commonly blaspheme…God’s wisdom.” Grace freely bestowed by God resolved the complexities of human sin apart from payment. To quote Wyclif once more, “It is clear that a viator [traveler] can take it that his sin is destroyed or that he is contrite in soul only through hope in the mercy of Jesus Christ, a marked sorrow and a holy life.” Salvation came through belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To quote the theologian, “A right-looking of full belief on Christ saves His people.”

The only remedy for the greed, “the leprosy,” that consumed the church of Wyclif’s day was for, the “Lord pope, bishops, all religious Lords, simple clerics endowed with…possessions…to renounce these possessions into the hands of the secular arm of the church, and if they stubbornly refuse, they should be forced to do so by secular lords.” Wyclif believed the king had a moral and biblical duty to resist any pope who stole from his parishioners. Those kings that refused to protect the spiritual quality of their nations would endure an even worse punishment than the sinful church officials. The church was to instruct the state and the state was to preserve the church.

While this understanding of church-state relationships would understandably trouble modern readers who believe the church and state should be separate entities, they also troubled Wyclif’s contemporaries. The Catholic Church thought herself above the state and disliked the idea of church-state cooperation.

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued Papal Bulls or decrees condemning Wyclif’s teaching. One of the Pope’s letters went to Oxford and another to the King. While not necessarily in favor of Wyclif’s ideas, Oxford refused to act, seeking to prove itself independent of papal authority. The king at the time was twelve years old and highly influenced by his Queen Mother and the Duke of Lancaster, Wyclif’s protector, John Gaunt who also took no action. But in 1377, Wyclif had to defend his ideas before a tribunal of Bishops at the chapel in Lambeth, England. That tribunal condemned Wyclif’s ideas as heretical and forbad Wyclif and others from teaching his ideas. But nothing much came of this decision for Gregory XI died in 1378 and then two different men claimed to be pope which brought the administrative wheels of the church to a temporary halt.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

As the screws of persecution began to tighten around him, Wyclif increasingly turned to the Scriptures for wisdom. As he wrote in 1384,

Scripture is the foundation of every Catholic opinion and within it resides the very salvation of the faithful.

As Wyclif read and study God’s Word, he became convinced of the authority of the Scriptures. He boldly asserted that, “the certitude and authority of Scripture should be given preference over human reason…since Holy Scripture is the word of the Lord and thus must be of the highest authority.” Scripture could be trusted for it was “true in all of its parts according to its intended sense.” For any doctrine or idea to be believed, it had not only to align with church practice but with the clear and authoritative teachings of Scripture. To quote Wyclif,

It is lawful for bishops and vicars of Christ to formulate statutes designed to help the church…they ought to be accepted, unless they…prove contrary to Holy Scripture.

He continued, “To say…that all papal bulls are of equal authority or certainty with truth with Holy Scripture would be blasphemous attributing to pope the claim of being the Christ.” Christ alone was the Word of truth as contained in the Scriptures. And the Word was the final authority. Wyclif concluded, “Holy Scripture exceeds all human canons in usefulness, authority, and subtley.”

Lollards & the Wyclif Bible

Since the Scriptures were true, understandable and authoritative, Wyclif placed great priority upon the preaching of the Word. Wyclif concluded, “the right preaching of God’s Word is the most worthy work a priest may do among men…more fruit comes from good preaching than from any other work.” Faithful preaching would reflect the clear teaching of the Scriptures and would lead people to salvation and holiness. To quote Wyclif, “God does not ask for cleverness or rhymes from one whose duty it is to preach, but simply to explain rightly God’s Gospel and his words, to stir his people thereby.” Though the Reformation term of Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone would not appear for a few hundred more years, the concept proved to be a fixture of Wyclif’s theology.

Given Wyclif’s high view of preaching, his name became readily associated with the Lollard movement, a movement of lay preachers devoted to the gospel. While the extent of Wyclif’s involvement in the movement remains debated, historians fully affirm both Wyclif’s high view of the Scriptures and of preaching. As Wyclif noted in his pastoral handbook, “the best life for a priest is a holy life keeping the commands of God through faithfully preaching the gospel, as Christ did and charged all his priest to do likewise.” Even if he did not create the Lollard movement, his teachings inspired the lay men who traveled about England preaching the gospel.

Similarly, the extent of Wyclif’s involvement in the English translation of the Bible remains a topic of debate given the fact that John Purvey the main editor of the Bible makes no mention of Wyclif’s influence upon the project. But historians do not doubt that Wyclif wanted the common people to have the Bible in their own tongue. As he said in 1384, “the knowledge of God’s word should be taught in the language known to the people, for God’s Word is essential knowledge.” Commenting on Pentecost, he concluded,

God willed that the people were taught his Word in diverse tongues; therefore, what man acting on God’s behalf would reverse God’s ordinance and his revealed will?

Those who only allowed the Bible to be translated into Latin and who restricted lay people from reading the gospels went against God’s will. Though Wyclif understood that English translations would need to be constantly updated, he believed such translations would empower people to follow God’s law and would prevent the church from falling into heresy.  If they lay people could read the Scriptures, they could hold their clergy accountable. While the extent of his involvement in the Lollard preaching movement and in the translation of the Bible that bears his name are debated, his support of such ideas can be easily found in his writings. As Steve Lawson noted, Scripture was, “the vital heartbeat of Wyclif’s ministry.”

Understandably, the church which claimed to have the exclusive right to both teach and interpret the Scriptures took issue with Wyclif’s ideas.

Sacraments & Trouble

In 1381, he found himself called before another council for his teaching on the church, the Scriptures, and lastly the Eucharist or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

In 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, the Catholic Church had declared that when the priest prays over the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine become the physical body of Christ. By consuming the bread and wine, Christians ate Jesus and gained additional strength to fight sin. After studying the Scriptures and the early church fathers, Wyclif concluded that such a theory was unbiblical. He wrote,

We ought to believe not that it is itself the body of Christ, but that the body of Christ is sacramentally concealed in it…The spiritual receiving of the body of Christ consists not in bodily receiving, chewing, or touching of the consecrated host, but in the feeding of the soul out of the fruitful faith according to which our spirit is nourished in the Lord…nothing is more horrible than the necessity of eating the flesh carnally and of drinking the blood carnally of a man [Jesus Christ] loved so dearly.

While such a move might seem insignificant, it proved significant for Wyclif for he had openly written against a rather standard and well-known doctrine of the fourteenth century church.

In May 1382 at the Black friars Synod, Oxford condemned Wyclif’s teachings and forbade him or anyone else from teaching any of Wyclif’s ideas. Facing house arrest as well, Wyclif appealed to the king for help. John Gaunt arrived and kept Wyclif out of prison but also showed him the necessity of resigning from Oxford. Given the young king’s precarious position, the crown could not afford a long and protracted battle with Oxford or the Catholic Church. Thus, Wyclif moved to Lutterworth to live out his days writing about the Scriptures and sharing the gospel he loved so dearly. He died from a stroke on December 31, 1384, at (most probably) the age of 54.

Final Thoughts

As the catholic officials digging up his tomb made clear, Wyclif’s ideas did not die with him. The man who called priest to repent of simony or greed, who championed the authority of the Scriptures, and who advocated for a scriptural understanding of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will in once since never die. For what made Wyclif famous was not his ingenuity but his foundation, the gospel of Jesus Christ. What God promised Isaiah in 55:11 would prove true of Wyclif,

“My word…that goes out form my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

God’s word continued on from Wyclif to Huss to Luther and then to millions of us today. No one can stamp out the Word of God or those who stand with it. Even if they burn our bodies and toss our ashes into the sea, the God’s Word abideth still.

A Brief Introduction to the life and Legacy of John Calvin

On November 1, 1533, theological controversy erupted once again in connection with All Saints Day. But instead of Germany, this drama occurred in Paris, France.

Sixteen years and a day earlier, the well-intentioned and at the time somewhat naïve monk, Martin Luther, had nailed his 95 Theses or questions to the door of the Wittenberg chapel. With that document, Luther had hoped to combat the idea that men and women could earn salvation through good works or even through the purchase of a piece of paper called an indulgence. Sadly for him and Christendom, the Pope rejected Luther’s calls for reform. After a meandering series of accusations, book burnings, and councils, the Catholic Church excommunicated Luther, forcing the monk to retreat into Germany for the purpose of creating a church that would once again champion the historic faith of Jesus and the apostles which declared salvation to be by grace alone through faith alone.

A Quick Biography

By 1533, Luther’s reformation had taken hold of Germany and parts of Switzerland. But little of Luther’s light had penetrated the spiritual darkness that had enveloped the nation of France. John Calvin would later note, he  grew up, “obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery.” He began college intent on becoming an officer of the Catholic Church. But as he progressed in his studies, Calvin’s father directed the young scholar away from the church and into law for to quote Calvin the profession “commonly raised those who followed it to wealth.” After turning his back on theology, Calvin somewhat ironically came into contact with the writings of Luther and other reformer’s books which had just begun to eke across the French boarder. While reading, Calvin experienced a sudden conversion which would reshape his life. Calvin wrote, “Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein.” Though he finished his legal studies and excelled at that profession, the doctrines of grace had captured his heart.

Because he maintained a stringent academic regime which began around 6AM and ended about midnight, Calvin quickly earned the reputation of being an expert in both reformed and biblical theology. When his friend Nicolas Chop decided to educate academics in Paris on the errors of works salvation in the middle of an All-Saints Day speech, he asked Calvin for help. While the extent of Calvin’s involvement in the speech remains debated by scholars, its poor reception could not be questioned. Much like Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, Calvin’s and Chop’s calls for reform in 1533 were forcefully opposed by the Catholic Church. A few days after the speech’s conclusion, officers were sent to arrest Calvin. But he got wind of the plot and a using a blanket rope escaped out of high window. He scurried off to southern France.

A few months later on October 18, 1534, posters appeared all over France including outside the door of king Francis the 1st’s bedroom, denouncing “the horrible, great, and unbearable abuse of the papal mass.” The king was not amused and responded to the documents with swift persecution, burning 32 protestants at the stake. Grasping that France had no stomach for the Reformed faith, Calvin fled his homeland and headed to Italy, seeking to begin a private life of study and reflection. After some time, he decided to relocate to the city of Basle.

But before he could get to his destination, international politics interrupted his travels and forced him to spend an unexpected night in Geneva. What appeared to be simply another mundane night in Calvin’s life was suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the loud, headstrong, and somewhat flamboyant protestant preacher, William Farel. For the next hour or so, Farel begged the young reformer of 26 years to lead the Genevan church. Calvin politely declined, saying, “My heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies.” Farel was not to be put off. Calvin reports what happened next. “Upon this, Farel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me.” Before all was said and done, Farel would call down a curse on the young Calvin, proclaiming, “You are following only your own wishes, and I declare, in the name of God Almighty, that if you do not assist us in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for seeking your own interest rather than his.” The threat struck home. Calvin said, “I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.”

Though Farel undoubtedly overstated his case and would continue to make brash decisions such as marrying a sixteen-year-old girl in his fifties, God had ordained this expression of Farel’s audacity for the benefit of the Genevan church and for all of Christendom.

God would use Calvin’s presence in Geneva to stabilize and preserve the faith once delivered for all. While Luther deserves credit for rediscovering and popularizing the gospel, Calvin’s should be celebrated for preserving the faith that Luther unearthed from the destructive rays of societal chaos, political egotism, and doctrinal confusion. Calvin proves important to the church today because his books, sermons, and tracts have provided Christians with a great understanding of theology, preaching, and pastoral ministry.

Calvin the Theologian

Calvin wrote and wrote. Through his hundreds of books, he gifted the church a library of accessible volumes that have helped Christians understand the important doctrines of the faith.  By hand and sometimes by dictation, Calvin created commentaries on most of the New Testament. He died before he could get to 2 and 3 John and Revelation. He also published a catechism, sermons, and most famously his Institutes of Christian Religion. Though few have read this book that rivals the size of the Old Testament in its entirety, the volume continues to inform Christian thought for Calvin methodically discussed a host of Christian doctrines. He touched upon everything from the Lord’s Supper to Guardian Angels, to natural revelation to prayer. Perhaps most famously, he solidified the protestant church’s understanding of the fallenness of man, the saving power of Grace, and the providence of God.

After reading the Scriptures, Calvin concluded that men and women entered the world broken by original sin. When Adam sinned both he and all his descendants became sinners. Calvin writes, “the whole man is overwhelmed – as by a deluge – from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed as sin (ICR, 2.1.9).” Because men and women were chained to sin, they could not choose anything good. By necessity, evil people with corrupt wills would want and would choose evil. Calvin writes, “The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous.” As Augustine and Luther, Calvin denied that men and women had the willful freedom to choose good. Sin served like a weighted anchor upon the soul directing people towards evil. According to Calvin, people legitimately choose to do evil apart from coercion as it was all they would ever want to choose.

When God saved a sinner, he accomplished the feat through the gracious opening of the sinner’s eyes to the realities of sin and to the glories of Christ. Once aware of the truth of the gospel, men and women can do nothing but believe. It is the necessary response to the saving power of God. Just as a woman with a foreclosure notice on her front door will undoubtedly cash a check for a billion dollars, the enlighten soul willingly repents and believes when exposed to the saving grace of Jesus. In other words, people do not so much choose God as God chooses them. Calvin writes, “For no man makes himself a sheep but is made one by heavenly grace.” In other words, men and women repent and believe according to God’s grace, his irresistible grace. Calvin concludes, “To sum up: by free adoption God makes those whom he wills to be his sons; the intrinsic cause of this is himself, for he is content with his own secret good pleasure.”

This doctrine has left Calvin open to the charge of hyper-Calvinism or fatalism, a type of let go and let God mentality. Proponents of this thinking say that since God has already determined the future, they do not have to evangelize, love others, or do anything to advance the gospel. God is going to save whom he is going to save. Though some churches have taught hyper-Calvinism, Calvin did not teach this doctrine.

He believed God’s providential plans occurred through our willing hearts. In other words, God does all that he desires and so do we. When God ordains events, he does so in ways consistent with our wills. While God ordained that Joseph would be sold into slavery so that he could ultimately save his family, God did not make Joseph’s brothers go against their natural desires to toss Joseph into a pit. God worked through their evil wills to accomplish his divine plan which was good.

The doctrine of providence should not lead people to fatalistic despair or laziness. Human actions were and are still meaningful. Providence does not erase human responsibility. Rather it should fill our hearts with hope. After noting that you or I could die from a host of causes ranging from a snakebite, to a fall, to an animal attack,  to a hail storm, to a falling shingle, or to a mugging, Calvin writes of the Christian, “it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion.” If God reigns, we have no reason to fear for God does good for us.  

Calvin The Preacher

Though Calvin loved theology, he did not think it the discipline of scholars. He wanted it to reside in the hearts of everyday people. To accomplish this goal, Calvin preached, a lot. During his life, John Calvin preached more than 2000 sermons, devoting 65 sermons to the gospels, 159 sermons to Job, and 200 sermons to Deuteronomy. When Calvin returned to Geneva after having been exiled because he got mad at the City Council and locked them out of the church on Easter Sunday, Calvin returned to the Psalm that he was preaching when he had left the city, picking up at the very verse he had left off years before. Geneva contained three churches and the pastoral staff consisting of four additional preachers and three associates that worked along-side of Calvin. The men would preach at least twenty sermons a week in the various churches. Calvin preached twice on Sunday and then every weekday on alternating weeks. His Sunday sermons featured expositions from the New Testament or the Psalms. On weekdays, he would preach through the Old Testament.

Calvin valued expository preaching because he believed it to be the method by which God saved and sanctified the lost. He said, “Faith needs the Word as much as fruit needs the living root of the tree.” The preaching of the Word also sustained Christians after conversion. Calvin wrote, “The…Word is the basis whereby faith is supported and sustained…take away the Word and no faith will remain.” Calvin firmly believed the success of the church and the success of all the Reformation reforms would rise and fall with the preaching of the word. If a local church lost the citadel of biblical preaching every other ministry would fall in short order. To remain, a church must preach the word.

Understanding the importance of preaching, Calvin reserved the pulpit for qualified men. To get a church in Geneva or one of its country parishes, a man had to possess a godly character, knowledge of the Scriptures, and be a competent speaker. Calvin concluded, “There are two things required [of us preachers], first that we provide a good explanation to the faithful of that which is required of salvation, and then we add as much vehemence as appropriate, so that the doctrine touches and enlivens the hearts.” The sermon was supposed to be the means whereby the fallen heart connected with the Holy Spirit. This experience in-turn would result in spiritual transformation. It was the means by which pastors moved people to obey Christ through the power of the Spirit.  

Calvin passed on the core tenants of the Reformation through expository preaching. He taught scores of succeeding generations of Christians the means and methods of faithful, gospel exposition.

Calvin the Counselor

Lastly, Calvin gave the church a legacy of pastoral care that demanded that those who studied theology and preached the sermons regularly step out of the pulpit and into the lives of their congregation. To help the people of Geneva live out what they heard preached, Calvin ordered his fellow pastors to join him in spending time in the homes of their congregation. He wrote, “It is not enough for a pastor in God’s church to preach and to cast his words into the air, he must practice private admonitions.” Calvin and his fellow pastors visited every church member at least four times during the year to discuss theology, to pray for them, and to verify their church attendance.

If the visits revealed sin’s in the church members life, the pastors would call their counselee to repentance. For example when Calvin discovered through the visitation process that the sailor Jacque Verna was soliciting his daughter-in-law for unwholesome favors, he ordered him to stop and when he learned a mother was beating and burning her step-daughter he reported her to the local magistrates. Calvin and his fellow pastor also provided for the poor, counseled with those in jail, and care for the sick. If someone was bedridden for three days, a pastor would visit them to, “console them according to the Word of God.” When the plague hit Geneva in between 1542-44, the pastor’s struggled in assessing the situation. But before the plague left, two of Geneva’s pastors would die from the plague after catching germs from the sick people they had visited. According to Calvin, the faithful pastor was to know the scriptures well, was to love the pulpit, and was to invest in the lives of his congregation.


Calvin’s theological legacy is both complex and rich. Regardless of whether you agree with his conclusions, modern church members should appreciate Calvin’s faithfulness. Through his theological writings, his preaching, and his pastoral counsel, he provided future generations of Christians with the tools they needed to both understand and pass on the fundamentals of the Christian faith to future generations. The Faith once delivered for all that Luther discovered and popularized, Calvin institutionalized. When he died on May 27, 1564, he left behind a legacy of faithfulness worthy of our remembrance.

Did the Reformation Destroy the ‘Church?’

Catholics, academics, and some protestants view the Reformation launched by Martin Luther on October 31, 1517 as being a less than helpful historical development. Prior to the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, seemingly one unified Christian church existed. Our Christian friends in the East who assemble under the banner of the Greek Orthodox Church take issue with this Western view of church history. Almost five hundred years before the Reformation, they broke with the Bishop of Rome on July 16, 1054. But the great schism did not destroy the unity of the Western Churches. Luther and the second generation of Reformers deserve the credit or the blame for that development. Baptists have a president, Methodists have bishops, and Presbyterians have presbyters in part because Luther walked off the field and refused to play with the historic and unifying expression of Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church.

Did Luther and Sola Scriptures Destroy the Church?

But is this truly what happened? Did Luther’s quest for a purer church destroy “The Church,” dividing that which God has always intended to be unified?

Those who view the Reformation to be primarily schismatic in nature, point to the most famous line of the Reformation. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, the representative of Pope Leo X demanded that Luther recant of his errors and his teaching. His errors included such things as Thesis 36 which stated, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” Luther asked for an adjournment of the meeting to form his response. When he returned to the hall the following day, he replied:

I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

Here I Stand

Protestants champion Luther’s statement because it encapsulates the idea of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Instead of looking to Rome for truth, protestants can scan the Bible and discern God’s truth through plain reason. Luther had shifted the authority of the church from the Pope’s throne to the pew. Protestants rejoiced.

Christendom quaked. The democratization of the church’s authority threatened to destroy all authoritative claims. Any man or woman with access to the Bible could reason himself or herself to a variety of doctrines that may have no relation to the doctrines proposed by other Christians. Essentially Luther and the Reformers who followed the pugnacious monk had turned theology into a subjective experience that seemingly undermined the idea of truth, leaving no place for cultural much less spiritual unity. Interpretive anarchy reigned.

What Did Luther Really Do?

Though Luther and those in the Reformed camp turned the world upside down, they were not seeking to create a new church, modeling a theological paradigm of unending evolution and progress. The Reformers were inherently theological conservationists who wished to lead the Church back to the historic, apostolic faith. Luther had said his 95 Theses aligned, “with what is in the Holy Scriptures…and then what is in…the writings of the church fathers.”

Luther had not advocated for theological anarchy. He and those who followed him believed that the Holy Spirit that had inspired the New Testament text, converted the lost and sustained the church as the caretaker and protector of the evangelical witness. Christians were free to interpret the text according to their own conscience as long as that conscience aligned with the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic church that affirmed the apostolic witness. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer correctly noted that for the Reformers, “Tradition was not the Word of God; it is the testimony to that Word.” Luther took issue with the Pope not because the Vatican championed tradition. He took issue with Rome because it advocated for theological positions that ran counter to the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic apostolic faith. Vanhoozer helpfully describes what Luther did, writing,

Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the body’s infection (e.g. late medieval Roman Catholicism).

Luther had not protested the authoritative nature of apostolic tradition as taught in the Scriptures. He protested against the commands of the Pope because the Pontiff, “distorts the Holy Scriptures.” He was not an theological anarchist. He was theological purest, Sola Scriptura.

Why Is the Church Fractured?

The church lacks unity not because the reformers protested the authority of Rome but because men and women of every age refuse to acknowledge the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition of the Church as Rome has done. The ancient church father Irenaeus whom Luther knew well described schismatics as follows:

When we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they [the schismatics] object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.

The unity of the church fractures when men and women walk away from the apostolic witness of the Scriptures preferring new sources of authority ranging from prophetic dreams, to religious traditions, to personal feelings. Regardless of their claims, the new traditions always produce schism.

Luther did not infect the church with schism. He reintroduced the church to the cure for division, the gospel once delivered for all and attested to be all true believers. May we be wise stewards of the cure.