Great Advances Sown by the Reformation

Since no historian is neutral in his or her beliefs and values, but always works from within a particular worldview, I will be speaking here from within my own understanding of what constitutes the best kind of Christian thought and practice. And as I am a Reformed Baptist, this unavoidably colours what I see as seeds that later bore good fruit.

One further qualification: when I speak of seeds of Christian thought and practice scattered by the Reformation, I am referring to what historians call the Magisterial Reformation. That is to say: the Reformation as given a voice by Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, who embraced an organic alliance between church and state for the purpose of Christianising society. In this outlook, church and state were practically two sides of a single coin. That coin was the whole body of citizens in any given ­political entity, from the smallest free city (like Zwingli’s Zurich) to the largest nation-state (such as the England of Queen Elizabeth I).

The whole citizen body was regarded as Christian by profession; the twin institutions of church and state were different manifestations of that Christian citizen body. Each institution – the ecclesiastical and the governmental – had its own purpose, but both institutions comprised the same body of people.

There were admittedly different views among the Magisterial Reformers about how exactly church and state should connect with each other. In particular, the mature Lutheran view came to be that the Christian state should regulate the affairs of the church, whereas the mature Reformed view argued for institutional independence of each from the other, so that the church should regulate its own affairs. But both Lutheran and Reformed accepted that church and state were coextensive within a single citizen body. This was in spite of the best insights of Martin Luther’s ­theology.

Now I am sure we know that the Radical Reformation, especially in its Anabaptist form, mounted a sustained frontal challenge to this whole idea of an entire citizen body being Christian from any authentic New Testament standpoint, and affirmed both doctrinally and in practice that the church is essentially and by nature distinct from the wider citizen body. One may be born into citizenship, but one cannot be born into church membership, only reborn into it through faith in Christ, which is not and never has been the collective privilege of any territorial body of citizens. However, I am not here concerned with what Anabaptists believed on this point. The Anabaptist movement was very much the tiny minority report in the 16th century.

And this issue aside, the theology of Reformed Baptists is far more closely aligned with the theology of the Magisterial Reformers. Most Anabaptists cannot be described as Protestants in a historic sense. Their theology was too far adrift on too many points from the convictions expressed in historically Protestant confessions of faith, especially on matters of soteriology – whether salvation is by grace alone. One might almost say that Reformed Baptists (as contrasted with Anabaptists) were and are simply those children of the Magisterial Reformation who stopped believing that church and state were two sides of the same coin.

So my concern is to consider aspects of thought in the Magisterial Reformation which were not embodied in that Reformation, but which bore fruit among Protestants later, notably although not exclusively among Reformed Baptists.

Who should be baptised?

Let us first of all consider baptism itself. Were there any currents of thought among the Magisterial Reformers that questioned infant baptism and pointed towards believers’ baptism? Yes, there were. In a previous article, I highlighted the influence of Erasmus on Reformation thinking – in some ways Erasmus, with his variety of Christian humanism, was the grandfather of Protestantism. Well, Erasmus departed from the medieval consensus on the purpose of baptism and its recipients. While he did not actually reject infant baptism, Erasmus did suggest that baptism could be given again, once a person had reached the age of discretion and maturity, and could now understand the significance of the sacrament.

        This emphasis on understanding the significance of a religious ordinance, and how only someone of relatively mature years was capable of this, made Erasmus into a quasi-Baptist or semi-Baptist. It is not surprising that among the first generation of Swiss Anabaptists, many of its leaders were devout disciples of Erasmus.

Yet Zwingli himself was also a devout Erasmian. Did this aspect of his master’s religious thought affect Zwingli too? It seems to have done. In his early reforming days, we know that Zwingli had not been convinced that infant baptism was truly biblical. We know this because in 1523, he admitted to Balthasar Hubmaier, the greatest theologian among the Swiss Anabaptists, that it would be better if children were not baptised until they had first been instructed in the faith. Around the same time, Zwingli had written concerning infant baptism: ‘I leave it untouched; I call it neither right nor wrong. If we were to baptise as Christ instituted it, then we would not baptise anyone until he reached the age of discretion.’

Why then did Zwingli finally back away from these early doubts and embrace infant baptism? There may have been several reasons, but perhaps the most weighty was Zwingli’s ultimate unwillingness to question the medieval model of society as a Christian body.

Zwingli’s ideal of Zurich was of a Christian people, a citizen body united by faith in Christ, practising Christian politics, and governed by Christian magistrates. He realised he could not sustain this vision if he rejected infant baptism.

Zwingli’s ideal of Zurich was of a Christian people, a citizen body united by faith in Christ, practising Christian politics, and governed by Christian magistrates. Zwingli realised he could not sustain this vision if he rejected infant baptism, because such a rejection would create the sharpest distinction between belonging to the citizen body and belonging to the church.

So in order to preserve his cherished ideal of Zurich as a collectively Christian people, and to keep the city’s political authorities on board with support for his programme of reform, Zwingli (I think) set aside his doubts about infant baptism. He chose to continue the traditional practice in which the baptism of a Zurich infant was tantamount to his or her ceremonial induction into citizenship.

The fact remains, however: Zwingli was initially prepared, in his pursuit of biblical reformation, to raise important queries over the theology and practice of infant baptism. And it is hard not to see the figure of Erasmus looming over Zwingli’s shoulder in this early attitude. Later Protestants who rejected infant baptism for believers’ baptism may, therefore, be said to have nurtured into life a seed sown by Erasmus and Zwingli at the very dawn of the Reformation.

Mode of baptism

What about the mode of baptism? Were there any currents of thought among the Magisterial Reformers that questioned baptism by sprinkling or pouring, and pointed towards baptism by total immersion? Here we turn to Martin Luther, who did indeed teach, quite graphically, that the biblical language about baptism spoke of immersion. This fact is reasonably well known among Reformation scholars. In his essay Baptism in the Writings of the Reformers, Robert Letham characterises Luther’s view thus:

‘The old man is drowned, the new man rises. Therefore immersion is the most appropriate mode, a plunging completely into the water until completely covered. The infant or whoever “should be put and sunk completely into the water and then drawn out again”. This form is demanded by the nature of baptism. It signifies that the old man is to be wholly drowned by the grace of God. “We should therefore do justice to its meaning and make baptism a true and complete sign of the thing it signifies.”’

Luther’s immersionist view appears in his Small Catechism, one of the defining documents of the entire Lutheran Reformation. The question on the meaning of baptism receives this answer:

‘It means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, in turn, a new person daily come forth and rise from death again. He will live forever before God in righteousness and purity.’

You cannot drown someone by sprinkling some drops of water on their head. The language here is clearly that of total immersion.

Luther’s view, however, did not flow out into the actual reform of practice in Lutheran churches, where the standard mode of baptism remained sprinkling or pouring. When Lutherans entered into lengthy dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy between 1570 and 1580, one of the points at issue was the mode of baptism, with the Orthodox defending total immersion as the biblical and ancient baptismal form, and Lutherans contending for sprinkling and pouring. Luther’s view, however, does seem to have found its way into the English Reformation; the second edition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, published in 1552 under King Edward VI, and reissued with minor revisions in 1559 under Elizabeth I, said this in its baptismal order of service for infants:

‘Then the priest shall take the child into his hands, and shall say to the Godfathers and Godmothers, Name this child. And then naming it after them, (if they shall certify that the child may well endure it) he shall dip it in the water discreetly and warily…’

To dip, in 16th century English, is to immerse. This is why Baptists were nicknamed Dippers. Only if the child is ‘weak’ does the Prayer Book direct the priest to refrain from dipping and instead baptise by pouring. The prevailing practice of the Reformed English Church, however, was to baptise all infants by pouring. So like the Lutheran Reformation, we find in Protestant Anglicanism a discrepancy between ideal and reality – the ideal set forth in the Prayer Book, and the reality practised in parish churches on Sundays. It would be left to pioneer English Baptists to translate the ideal into practice, and to baptise by immersion. Perhaps they had been reading their Prayer Books as well as their New Testaments more carefully than others.

It would be left to pioneer English Baptists to translate the ideal into practice, and to baptise by immersion. Perhaps they had been reading their Prayer Books as well as their New Testaments more carefully than others.

Faith necessary to the efficacy of the sacraments

Another aspect of baptismal theology among the Magisterial Reformers that pointed ahead to a later harvest was the whole idea of the efficacy of the sacraments. Reacting against a perceived deficiency in the later medieval Catholic understanding of how the sacraments convey blessing, the Reformers insisted that faith – true, lively, saving faith – was the necessary precondition for a blessed reception of the sacraments. In other words, they tied their view of sacramental efficacy to the faith of the participant. Without faith in Christ, the sacraments could convey no benefit. In the Lord’s Supper, for example, Luther held that every partaker received the true body and blood of Christ, but that this would convey blessing only if the partaker had saving faith. The unbeliever would still receive the Lord’s body and blood, but not as a blessing: eating and drinking in unbelief, to him it would convey judgement and condemnation.

But how did this robust view of faith’s role in sacramental efficacy apply to infant baptism? In Luther’s Large Catechism, we find the following:

‘since we have learned the great benefit and power of Baptism, let us see further who is the person that receives what Baptism gives and profits. This is again most beautifully and clearly expressed in the words: He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved. That is, faith alone makes the person worthy to receive profitably the saving, divine water. For, since these blessings are here presented and promised in the words in and with the water, they cannot be received in any other way than by believing them with the heart. Without faith it profits nothing, notwithstanding it is in itself a divine superabundant treasure.’

Since the Large Catechism strongly embraces infant baptism, we are perhaps left mystified by Luther’s equally strong language on the absolute necessity of personal faith to the profitable reception of baptism.

The Reformers were (it seems to me) placed in something of a dilemma here, wishing to insist at the same time on the necessity of faith to sacramental efficacy, including the sacrament of baptism, and also on the baptism of infants, with all their apparent absence of meaningful faith. Different Reformers had different ways of trying to square the circle. In the Lutheran tradition, it came to be held that in the case of the infant, baptism itself supernaturally plants a seed of faith in his or her heart, which in the fulness of time will blossom into a meaningful personal faith. This was the Lutheran version of baptismal regeneration.

In the Reformed tradition, Zwingli held that in the case of the infant, the needed faith was exercised by the parents on their child’s behalf.

In the English Reformed tradition, the Westminster Confession taught that the efficacy of baptism was not tethered to the time of its reception. When the baptised infant matured and exercised his or her own faith, then the baptism received in infancy became retroactively effective.

Baptists of course were to find none of these arguments convincing. They maintained, we may think with greater clarity, consistency, and simplicity, that if one accepted the classical Protestant view of personal faith as the necessary precondition of sacramental efficacy, then one should baptise only those who professed such faith. Our Baptist ancestors, in other words, saw themselves as merely following through the very doctrine of sacramental efficacy taught so plainly by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.

If faith is needful to a right reception of the sacraments, then we must baptise those alone in whom we see evidence of such faith.

If faith is needful to a right reception of the sacraments, then we must baptise those alone in whom we see evidence of such faith. Anything else is a practical denial of the fundamental principle of faith’s role in the sacraments. The Magisterial Reformers, therefore, by sowing so widely the theological seed of faith’s indispensability to the proper reception of the sacraments, prepared a future harvest among their Baptist sons and daughters.

Conception of the church

Next we turn to the whole conception of the church. Because the Magisterial Reformers held church and state to be two sides of a single Christian citizen body, it followed that they regarded all members of their state-supported churches as Christians by profession. That is why we find definitions of the church that at first glance appear to be congregationalist in nature. For example, in Luther’s Small Catechism, we find the following exposition of the statement in the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit and in the holy Catholic Church’:

‘I believe that I cannot come to my Lord Jesus Christ by my own intelligence or power. But the Holy Spirit called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as He calls, gathers together, enlightens and makes holy the whole Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus in the one, true faith. In this Church, He generously forgives each day every sin committed by me and by every believer.’

It sounds as if the church is made up of true believers gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Or here is John Calvin’s Geneva Confession:

‘While there is one only Church of Jesus Christ, we always acknowledge that necessity requires companies of the faithful [note – churches are made up of companies of the faithful] to be distributed in different places. Of these assemblies each one is called the Church… we believe that the proper mark by which we rightly discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacrament be properly administered, even if there be some imperfections and faults, as there always will be among men.’

Again, here is the Belgic Confession, the original doctrinal standard of the Dutch Reformed Church:
             ‘We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is  a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.’

And lastly, here is the very famous definition given in the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles, article 19:

‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.’

Taken at face value, these definitions all give the substance of what Congregationalists and Baptists would say about the nature of the visible church. Why then did the Magisterial Reformers end up with churches which, from a Congregational and Baptist standpoint, were so painfully obviously defined by culture rather than by New Testament faith?

In other words, where the Lutheran and Reformed movements prevailed in a free city or a country, all citizens became members of the established churches. Citizenship, which is a cultural entity, determined membership. How did this harmonise with the evangelical conception of the church found in the Lutheran and Reformed creeds and catechisms?

The simple answer, it seems to me, is that the Magisterial Reformers in practice were much too quick to accept a cultural confession of Christian identity as a sound profession of New Testament faith. This flowed from their inability or unwillingness to break with the medieval model by which Europe was understood as a Christian land where all its people were born into Christianity at the same time and in the same way that they were born into citizenship. Given this view of cultural Christian identity, all the noble language of the creeds and catechisms about the visible church as a company of faithful men dissipated into spiritual unreality. The faithful men turned out to be every person in Zurich, or every Englishman. Richard Hooker, the great Anglican theologian of the Elizabethan period, stated it quite plainly:

‘There is not any man of the Church of England but the same is also a member of the commonwealth, nor any man a member of the commonwealth which is not also of the Church of England.’

If, however, we do the Magisterial creeds and catechisms the honour of being taken seriously as biblical and theological confessions when they define the church, we can only conclude that their language is indeed Congregationalist in character. The church is made up, not of all those who share a culturally Christian identity, but of faithful men (the ­Thirty-Nine Articles), those called, gathered, and enlightened by the Holy Spirit (Luther’s Small Catechism), companies of the faithful (Calvin’s Geneva Confession), a holy congregation of true Christian believers (the Belgic Confession). All it required was for these evangelical definitions to be taken fully seriously, and the superficial equation of cultural identity with New Testament faith would fall into the dust. Our Congregationalist and Baptist ancestors took this step, and thereby, I think, did more honour to the Magisterial creeds and catechisms than their authors themselves did.

Our Congregationalist and Baptist ancestors took this step, and thereby, I think, did more honour to the Magisterial creeds and catechisms than their authors themselves did.

So then, even though the Magisterial Reformation created national state-supported churches in which citizenship and church membership were coextensive, it had nevertheless sown the seed of the later free, independent, voluntary churches through the evangelical conception of the church presented in the Magisterial creeds and catechisms. The only thing needed was for some Christians to believe quite seriously that the church was indeed a company of faithful men, and the whole edifice of culturally determined churches crumbled into theological and practical ruin.

Religious liberty

Lastly, let us consider religious liberty. This has always been precious to Baptists, but it did not flower in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation. Generally speaking, where Protestantism triumphed, it became the official creed of that city or nation-state, to which all citizens were expected to conform. Public dissent would lead to fines or banishment at best, and at worst to capital punishment. The sometimes farcical situation that could develop is illustrated in the religious history of the German Palatinate, one of the seven electoral princedoms of the Holy Roman Empire, situated in the German south-west. In 1559, the Palatinate acquired a new prince, Frederick III. After hesitating between Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism, Frederick committed himself to the Reformed faith, and used his princely power to make the Palatinate into a Reformed territory. For the first time, a German state had a Reformed Church.

This experiment in German Reformed Christianity, however, came to a halt in 1576 with Frederick’s death. His son Prince Louis VI was a staunch Lutheran, and Louis expelled no fewer than 600 Reformed theologians and pastors from the Palatinate, forcibly converting it into a Lutheran state. Louis, however, died in 1583, and since his son was only nine years old, Louis’ brother John Casimir ruled in his name; and John Casimir was Reformed. John expelled the Lutherans, and made the Palatinate a Reformed land once more. This bouncing back and forth between Lutheran and Reformed, with each side expelling the adherents of the other whenever it had its hands on the levers of power, reveals the state of religious intolerance among Protestants even towards each other.

Yet there were seeds of religious liberty scattered by the Reformers, which ultimately sprouted when the political consequences of intolerance became themselves intolerable in a blood-soaked Europe.

Martin Luther among all the Magisterial Reformers held the most progressive views on religious liberty, at least in the earlier part of his career. It should be noted that when Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in 1520 in the papal bull Exsurge Domine, the bull listed 41 of Luther’s alleged heresies. Interestingly, no mention is made of justification by faith, but heresy number 33 for which Luther is condemned reads: ‘It is contrary to the will of the Spirit that heretics be put to death by burning.’ Luther was excommunicated for believing in religious liberty.

Luther was outspoken on the subject, especially between his initial protest against the sale of indulgences in 1517 and the Diet of Worms in 1521. We could gather a treasure-trove of thrilling statements from the German Reformer on the essential and inalienable rights of the human conscience. The state, the political power, he argued, had no authority either to dictate religious belief or to punish people for whatever religious belief they might hold. God alone is the Lord of the conscience, and he alone therefore has the authority to command belief and punish unbelief. Luther affirms that ‘no human being is able to command or ought to command the soul. This belongs only to God, who alone can show the soul the way to heaven.’ Again, he says, ‘the thoughts and mind of man are known to God alone’; that ‘it is useless and impossible to command any person’s belief, or by force to compel it’; that ‘heresy is a spiritual thing which no axe can chop down, no fire burn, and no water drown’; and that ‘belief is a free matter which cannot be enforced.’

This is perhaps highly paradoxical in that of all the Magisterial Reformers, Luther was the most violent in his words. We sometimes shudder when we hear his thunderous denunciations of those who opposed his reforming movement and ideals, especially when he condemns fellow Reformers. Yet it must be acknowledged that Martin Luther’s bark was far worse than his bite. Violent with words he may have been, but no one was more gentle in deeds.

Despite his strong opposition to the German Anabaptists, who in the 1520s could be quite a wild bunch, Luther recoiled in horror from the bloody persecution that was heaped upon them by Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities. He said, ‘It is not right, and I deeply regret it, that such pitiable people should be so miserably murdered, burned, and cruelly put to death. Everyone should be permitted to believe whatever he pleases. If he believes wrongly, he will have punishment enough in the everlasting fire of hell. Why should they be tortured in this life also?’ With typical rough wit, Luther quipped that if false teachers must be punished by death, then the hangman becomes the best theologian.

With typical rough wit, Luther quipped that if false teachers must be punished by death, then the hangman becomes the best theologian.

Why then did Luther’s progressive convictions about religious liberty not find their way into the fabric of orthodox Protestantism in the 16th century? Partly because Luther himself ultimately held back from applying those convictions fully to the situation of Germany as he perceived it after the shock of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525. A significant number of Anabaptists had taken an active part in this great lower-class rebellion, perverting Luther’s message (as he saw it) into a social gospel of political salvation by armed revolution. Such religious teachers were dangerous to the outward peace of society, Luther felt, and should be punished by the state, although with banishment rather than death.

The trouble was how to distinguish between one Anabaptist and another. In the widespread fear and panic aroused by the Peasants’ Revolt, ­every Anabaptist was seen as a violent enemy of the state, and all suffered, the innocent many for the crimes of the fanatical few. Moreover, the majority of Protestant governments were not so lenient as Luther; if he counselled banishment, they often preferred to inflict death. We have only to think of the execution by drowning of Anabaptists in Zwingli’s Zurich.

Finally, Luther did come to think that blasphemy should be severely punished by a Christian state, and it proved all but impossible in practice to draw a line between blasphemy and heresy. Were all heresies not blasphemous? Luther’s idealism about religious liberty therefore ran into the sand of 16th century religious politics. It was left to a later generation of Protestants, notably Congregationalists and Baptists in England, to rekindle that original fire of freedom so nobly ignited by Luther at the outset of the Reformation.

It may be of interest to note that the greatest pioneer of religious liberty among English Protestants was John Foxe, author of the famous Book of Martyrs. Nowhere did the seed of freedom planted by Luther blossom more fruitfully than in one of the greatest architects of the English Reformation. Sickened by the cruelties visited on English Protestants by the reactionary Catholic regime of Queen Mary Tudor in the mid-1550s, Foxe not only chronicled those martyrdoms, but conceived an enduring hatred for all religious persecution, no matter by whom or on whom it was inflicted.

When English Protestants under Queen Elizabeth I began persecuting English Catholics, Foxe protested vigorously. He was repulsed by this Protestant shedding of Catholic blood, and tried to persuade his government not to put Roman Catholics to death for their faith, but his efforts met with no success.

Foxe’s belief in religious toleration especially stands out in an incident that took place in 1575, when two Dutch Anabaptists living in England were sentenced to death for heresy by the English authorities. There was no question of these Anabaptists being a political threat, as English Catholics were held to be. Foxe became their intercessor, pleading personally with Queen Elizabeth that the lives of the two Anabaptists be spared. Cruel punishment for religious error had, he argued, been introduced into the Christian world by the popes of Rome, and now that Protestants had shaken off the yoke of the papacy, such harsh practices should be laid aside. If the authorities were determined to punish these Anabaptists, at least let their lives be spared! Elizabeth, however, rejected Foxe’s plea, and the unfortunate Anabaptists were executed.

The Reformed theologian Philip Edgcumbe Hughes refers to Foxe as ‘a true pioneer in the long struggle for mildness and toleration in the treatment of religious adversaries’. It would however be another century in England before Foxe’s ideals finally triumphed, at least for Protestants of all stripes, including Anabaptists and Quakers. Roman Catholics would suffer from civil discrimination in theory and in practice until the 19th century, although no longer liable to imprisonment or death for their faith.

In various ways, then, the Protestant Reformation scattered good seeds of thought which in their own day were not allowed to mature and bear fruit. Thankfully a later generation would provide the necessary climate to see that fruit blossom. Perhaps in that sense we can put a generous interpretation on the famous words of John Robinson in his farewell address to the Mayflower pilgrims in 1620, as reported by ­Edward Winslow:

‘if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of His, [we must] be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by his Ministry: For he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy Word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the reformed churches, who were come to a period [a full stop] in Religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their Reformation: As for example, the Lutherans they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw, for whatever part of God’s will He had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them: A misery much to be lamented; For though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed His whole will to them: And were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received.’