Luther. Zwingli. Calvin. Simmons. Why were these men regarded as reformers? Because their proclamation of the Gospel uncompromisingly reformed society and left an indelible impact on the pages of history or because of their own agendas? To this day, Believers all across the world owe a debt to the faithfulness of these men who served The Lord Jesus Christ in carrying forth the Gospel. …not all results were seen in their lifetime.
Who were these men?
Martin Luther was born in Eisleben in 1483 to well-to-do middle class family. He pursued Law but gave it up to enter the life of a monk and ministerial studies (Four Great Reformation Leaders). He lived his life as a monk wrestling with his sin and was often in the confessional booth. However, he made discovery in the Scriptures which set his heart free by to the Grace of God—Romans 1:16-17—that God justifies the sinner completely by faith! Man is not saved by works but by faith alone through God’s grace alone (History of Christian Thought). In the time forward from that moment of the liberation of Martin’s soul, he began to study the Scriptures even more in earnest and sought to adhere his faith and practice to what the Word of God revealed. This lead to his famous “95 Theses” which many mark as the beginning of the Reformation (reforming church life the “back to the Bible movement”).
Ulrich Zwingli was born in 1484 in Switzerland. He was a chaplain and pastor who greatly “valued expository preaching, established an educated ministry, stressed the role of the Holy Spirit, engaged in radical liturgical reform, enhanced the disciplinary role of the laity, and laid the foundations for the Reformed doctrines of predestination and the sacraments” (Four Great Reformation Leaders). He often butted heads with and debated his contemporary Martin Luther on various doctrines and practices.
John Calvin was born in 1509 in France but in the years of his developing emergence as a reformer was banished from France, and dwelt at Geneva. Known for his expository preaching and development of Calvinistic theology in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin was a reformer who would not compromise what he believed the Bible taught and was faithful to Bible study and feeding his flock. Literally his faithfulness in ministry changed the entire city of Geneva.
Menno Simmons was born in 1496 in Friesland, Netherlands. He was originally ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest but later joined the Anabaptists, engaged in deep study of the Scriptures and became their foremost leader. He is regarded as the “founder” of the modern day Mennonites and Baptists. His leadership and servanthood brought stability and balance to the Anabaptist radicals and moderates.
Luther’s Major Theological Beliefs and how they Differed from the Others
Martin Luther’s major theological beliefs founded the Protestant Reformation—Justification by Faith alone through Grace alone in Christ alone, the supremacy of Scripture and the priesthood of the Believer. In these respects, Luther did not differ with the other reformers. He differ with the other reformers on the practice and doctrinal view of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church structure. One must bear in mind that “in examining Luther’s teaching on the church…his education and vocation as a Roman Catholic monk and theologian” had shaped his mind in many respects. “It was never his intention to separate from the Roman Church; he was interested only in moving back toward its biblical and patristic roots” (All God’s People).
In other words, Luther desired to see the Roman Catholic Church reformed and did not like that his “followers” decided to separate and call themselves Lutherans (Church History in Plain Language). The other reformers, in contrast, were much more outspoken and even vicious against “Romanism.” Perhaps the most heated debates among the four; however, were in regards to Communion. Luther’s view was close to the Catholic view that Christ’s blood and body are partaken of. Whereas Zwingli emphasized the spiritual presence of Christ in the supper and Calvin and Simons’ taught more in line with a symbolic interpretation.
Other points of difference also caused the four to butt heads. On the doctrine of baptism, Calvin and Luther upheld infant baptism, Zwingli did not endorse the baptism of infants but also did not stand against it, but Menno starkly upheld the baptism of professed Believers of age enough to understand why they were being baptized. In regard to church structure there was great divide amongst them. Luther upheld an active laity because of his emphasis on the priesthood of all believers but also had an established system of leadership over the congregation. Zwingli, emphasized the local body as a general assembly led by Christ almost mystically where all are equal. Calvin upheld eldership which led to the Presbyterian (elder-led) form of church structure, which claimed its roots in the primitive New Testament church. Menno held to a combination of several of these views: 1) the local church was self-governed by the membership which was only composed of baptized Believers, 2) each Believer was equal and the local body called or appointed a pastor to lead them and faithfully expound the Scriptures, and 3) church discipline.
The Man I Believe had the Greatest Influence on Christian Thought and Theology Today
I believe Luther has had the greatest influence on theology based on an examination of history and I highly regard him. However, Menno Simons stands out to me as the most because the Anabaptists views shaped Christian thought and theology in a way that largely laid the foundation for the beliefs of my own cooperative fellowship: the Southern Baptist Convention. I believe that the Baptist have been most faithful to a true dividing of the Word of God and I hold as the most important criterion, right interpretation and faithfulness to the Scriptures. Luther was a great tool in the hand of God but on many points, his doctrine is shaky when compared the Scriptures.
The local church is autonomous and composed only of true Believers—the Body of Christ is not composed of unbelievers whether they deceive men or blindly profess themselves to be in Christ. Baptism is by immersion and a command only for those who believe on the Lord Jesus of their own free will which infants cannot do and coercion cannot validate. The equality of each member in the Body, yet the regard for and calling of the Spirit’s gifted and called man to pastor is the Biblical model. Baptist’s have long opposed violence and sought to uphold freedom for all to choose. Evangelism is focused on a faithful proclamation of the Word not coercion. Christian love and holiness is practiced in befriending the world’s lost and yet separating from the worldliness that tempts one’s soul is the Biblical ideal. Because of these doctrines, which come straight from Scripture and were largely defended by the convictions of Anabaptists, I regard Simmons as the most important reformer who has influenced Christian thought and theology today.
Without the Reformation, what Would Theology and Beliefs be like for Modern Christians?
If there had been no Protestant Reformation, modern day Christians would likely still believe whatever they were told by the Pope, they wouldn’t have the Scriptures in their own language, they would not understand salvation by grace through faith alone, the Word of God would not be taught and proclaimed exposition ally and evangelistically with the fervor and commitment of today, nor would many be Christians because “Christianity” was a religion merely and not a relationship with a risen Savior and Lord for many, many of those in the “state church.” Only God knows the true heart of each of the four Reformers, but they did effect a tidal wave of turning to the Scriptures and Jesus Christ alone as Savior and Lord. In close, the world today would be one of blind religion and mass lostness without the Protestant Reformation. Praise be to the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who through the Holy Spirit sent the Reformation to revive the sleeping Church and spread spiritual awakening to the lost and dying world!
Four Great Reformation Leaders by Seminary Extension which is reprinted material from Moody Press’s Great Leaders of the Christian Church, edited by John D. Woodbridge (1988).
History of Christian Thought: A Study Guide by Seminary Extension. Copyright 1964, revised 2004.
Documents of the Christian Church edited by Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder, 1943, 1999.
All God’s People: The Church Universal in Historical, Biblical, & Systematic Perspective by David L. Smith, 1996.
The Story of Christianity Volumes 1 & 2 by Justo L. Gonzalez, 1985.
Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley, 1996.
A Mighty Fortress is Our God – read from the Baptist Hymnal.
Skimmed in Wordsearch Software:
- The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther.
- Table Talk by Martin Luther.
- The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.
- A Treasury of Great Preaching (including sermons by Calvin)
- The Works of Joseph Arminius.