Various Aspects of Luther’s and Calvin’s Reforming Insights

© 2006 Dane’s Place

Based mostly upon Reformation Thought: An Introduction

by Alister E. McGrath, © 1999, Blackwell Publishing

“Take up and read.  Take up and read.  Take up and read.”1  These words, likely sung by a child, wafted over a fence and caught the attention of a teacher of rhetoric near the middle of the fourth century.  At one time influenced by Manicheism, and then by Neoplatonism, Augustine of Hippo heard this innocent ditty and felt inspired to read from the Apostle Paul.  He would eventually become one of the most influential minds of the Christian Church.  Centuries later his writings and thoughts would be revived and rediscovered by two men who seemed to hear the same rhyme: Take up and read.

Martin Luther

A good place to begin examining Martin Luther’s reforming insights would be at the point where he made one of his most profound theological discoveries: justification by faith.  Without his revelation on this notion it is difficult to estimate whether or not he would have contributed anything to the Reformation – of it would have even taken place.

The concept of justification by faith is born out of the understanding that humankind is estranged from God and that a reconciliatory action is necessary in order to enter into fellowship with God.  For Luther the reconciling action meant that he had to put on the “righteousness of God,” which was God’s requirement for humankind.  Pelagianism, a philosophy of the early fifth century, taught that man was able in himself to meet this requirement.  Luther, however, being influenced by the counter-Augustinian philosophy, believed that humankind was incapable of attaining that goal due to the ravages of sin.  This created a catch-22 for Luther.  To be made righteous before God he had to meet divine requirements that were impossible for him to meet.  Clearly, then, his offering to this subject was born, not out of mere intellectual consideration, but from a profound personal struggle with the issue.

Luther’s agony over the subject of God’s righteousness eventually led him to his discovery (or recovery) of the concept of justification by faith.  Instead of God demanding righteousness from the sinner, Luther believed that God gives righteousness to the sinner – who receives it by faith.  Faith for Luther, however, is not a human work; it is a divine gift.  For Luther, salvation is fashioned, delivered, and sustained by God.

Luther’s revelation on justification logically led him to another insight that was important in the Reformation: the priesthood of all believers.  Luther believed that since God provided everything essential for the believer to be saved, the reliance on priest and Church for these things was unnecessary.  Every person, according to Luther, who was made capable by God to enter into salvation, was his or her own priest before God.  To an establishment that relied heavily upon, and profited greatly by the notion that its constituency remain dependent upon the institution for everything needful for salvation, Luther’s ideas were not only revolutionary – they were threatening.

Another important theological insight of Luther’s – and of the reformers in general – was the concept of sola scriptura.  This is a Latin term meaning “scripture alone.”  During the years of the early Church various controversies arose that caused the Church to develop techniques for interpreting Scripture so that appropriate responses to these controversies could be articulated.  Over the centuries these techniques became known to the Church as “tradition.”  During the late Middle Ages a trend developed within the Roman Catholic Church that began to redefine “tradition.”  This view recognized the tradition of the early Church Fathers as a “separate [and] distinct source of revelation, in addition to Scripture.”2  This meant that the Roman Catholic Church recognized the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Church’s tradition as separate and equal sources.  Unlike the earlier view that recognized a “single-source” of authority, the Roman Catholic Church began to hold a “dual-source” theory of authority3.

The dual-source theory of authority allowed for certain teachings and practices to enter Church life that the reformers believed were not permitted by Scripture.  Therefore, the reformers challenged how the Roman Catholic Church used tradition.

Luther’s view of sola scriptura was not one that outrightly rejected Church tradition.  Rather, his view sought to restore what he believed was the Church’s original view of single-source authority, which allowed for appropriate traditional interpretation.  As well, he did not reject the authority of Church leaders, such as the popes and councils.  Instead, Luther recognized their authority as one that came from Scripture.  Luther maintained that the authority of the popes and councils was not inherent to their offices, but came as a result of the Scripture that they were called to serve.

To understand how Luther viewed sola scriptura, a comparative contrast can be made to that of the Radical Reformers who grew out of the Reformation movement.  The Radical Reformers rejected all traditions of the Church that were not explicitly provided for in Scripture.   Comparatively, Luther accepted Church traditions that were not explicitly or implicitly forbidden.  The Radical Reformers allowed for an individualistic interpretation of Scripture that was independent of tradition.  Luther, on the other hand, would not embrace an individualistic approach if it did not correspond with appropriate traditional understanding.

During the period of the Reformation it is meaningful to note that what was defined as “Scripture” became a matter of contention between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  This was due in large part to the work of the humanist scholars who revived the works of the Jewish authors from the pre-Christian era.  It became apparent that there were some books in the Greek and Latin versions of the Old Testament that were not included in the Hebrew canon.  This raised earnest dubiety among the Reformers about which works should be recognized as canonical.  Eventually, the Reformers rejected a series of books – deemed Apocrypha – which the Roman Catholics retained.

Another important insight that Luther offered was towards the theology of the sacraments.  A sacrament was a ritual that the Church recognized as having the ability to convey a special spiritual quality.  The Roman Catholic Church had come to recognize seven sacraments.  Luther – once again using the light shed by humanist scholarship – asserted that the Latin Vulgate did not correctly translate the original Greek regarding what might be considered a sacrament.  Luther eventually narrowed the list to two sacraments: Baptism and Mass.  Of these two he made particular theological contribution to understanding the Mass – or The Lord’s Supper.

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Luther encouraged the liturgy of the Mass to be read in the language of the laity.  Regarding the Roman Catholic’s policy of giving the laity only the bread, he believed that all should receive both the bread and cup as part of their celebration.  Luther also offered reforming insight into the understanding of the presence of Christ in the Mass.  The Roman Catholic Church believed that Christ was re-offered as a sacrifice during the Mass and that the bread and cup changed into the body and blood Christ.  Luther rejected this understanding and developed a theory suggesting that Christ was above, beside, beneath and through the elements – but that He did not actually become them.

John Calvin

While Martin Luther seems to have sparked the Reformation, it was John Calvin who is considered by many to be the most influential theologian of the period.

As already noted Luther’s insights emanated out of his personal agonies over great theological difficulties.  Calvin’s, on the other hand, was sometimes realized during periods of leisure.  His most popular work, Institutes of the Christian Religion was a systematic summary of the Protestant faith.  It was published at a time when Protestants desperately needed a theological voice.  It was well-received and placed Calvin on the Reformation map.  In essence, it became a primer for the Reformed faith and served to proselytize many.

Calvin also contributed to the concept of justification, which Luther had brought to the forefront.  Calvin saw a distinction between justification and sanctification.  For Calvin, justification is being made right before God, while sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in changing the believer’s life according to Christ.

Calvin’s insight on the Nature of the Church is worth noting.  He argued that the true Church was marked by only two features: the pure ministry of the Word of God, and the sacraments “rightly administered.”4  Since the Roman Catholic Church did not, in his opinion, meet either obligation, Calvin believed that it was quite justifiable to embrace Protestantism.

Another significant work that Calvin contributed was entitled Ecclesiastical Ordinances.  It contained Calvin’s ideas for Church government.  In Geneva, where Calvin was centered, he came to enjoy considerable influence and sought to establish a model Christian society there based upon his concepts.  He formed a very rigid administrative structure that operated parallel to civil government.  The two powers (ecclesiastical and civil) formed to create an environment where Calvin’s ideology would thrive. (This student pauses at this juncture to opine that not all of the Reformer’s insights seemed insightful.)

At Geneva University, Calvin was able to establish a learning center where his Reformation ideas were taught.  Having been trained as a humanist scholar, Calvin shifted away from the allegorical interpretation of scripture.  Instead, he labored to recover the original languages of the Bible and teach a literal understanding of Scripture.

Geneva University became a safe haven for reformists from all over Europe.  As a result, Calvin’s theology and methodism became widespread.  It extended all over Europe and was quite influential in the developmental stages of the United States.  Many of his ideas (but not all) continue to flourish in evangelical circles even today.

Luther and Calvin were far from being perfect men.  I believe they had personality blemishes and theological blind spots that at times eclipsed their own brilliance (don’t we all?)  Yet, they ‘took up and read’ when the song was sung for them, and they changed the world with their responsive chorus.


1 Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I (© 1984 HarperSanFrancisco), pg. 207.

2 Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishing, © 1999, page 147

Ibid, page 147.

Ibid, page 208



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