A Reformation Tour, September 2014
Some friends asked me to lead a tour to sites of the Reformation. I agreed but with misgivings. It was years since I had studied the Reformation and many of the places were new to me.
Our group began in Berlin and moved west to the Luther sites, Leipzig (also famous for Bach), Wittenberg, Eisleben, Eisenach (including Wartburg Castle), Erfurt and Worms. In other words, we visited to the most significant places of Luther’s life, education, work, trial and death.
A man of humble background Luther emerges as highly intelligent, but also deeply determined. After being condemned as an outlaw at the Diet of Worms he was hidden in Wartburg Castle where he translated the Greek New Testament into colloquial German. Luther saw out his days at Wittenberg as an academic, but was greatly helped by various colleagues including Philip Melanchthon. It is evident that as a devout Catholic he did not set out to divide the church.
Luther great insight was that in his death, our Lord embraced and dealt with human wretchedness. Luther knew this at first hand, and it was his study of Psalm 22 that showed him that the Christ who had been ‘forsaken’ had been forsaken for him.
We left Germany and visited sites associated with the French lawyer and classicist John Calvin, Strasbourg, Basel, Zurich and Geneva. Very different in temperament from Luther, the Frenchman emerges as similarly highly intelligent and industrious. Calvin’s roots were more socially prominent than Luther’s and the circumstances of his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism are unclear.
John Calvin methodically wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible. It’s true to say that Calvin in the ‘father’ of commentators. His treatment of the texts is disciplined and careful, and mercifully to the point. He established a seminary in Geneva in which he was the Old Testament Professor. Equally, Calvin wrote the Institutes, a compendium of Christian belief only six years after his conversion, which he continued to revise and expand throughout his life.
Apart from being a model commentator Calvin is noteworthy for his insistence of the majesty and glory of Almighty God in the Institutes.
We moved across the channel to Oxford and Cambridge where we traced the ‘masters’ of the English Reformation, as Marcus Loane called them, Bilney, Tyndale, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer. These men had been greatly influenced by Erasmus, Luther and to a lesser extent, Calvin. Unlike Luther and Calvin who died in their beds, the English leaders died violently, burnt alive or strangled.
Cranmer takes rightful place alongside Luther and Calvin. His great legacy is the Book of Common Prayer, the Articles of religion and the Ordinal. Cranmer’s genius was to endorse as much of the past that was consistent with the Bible (liturgies, creeds and church government) whilst embodying the insights of the great continental reformers. His Articles of Region are expressed briefly yet profoundly.
I asked the British tour company for local guides who were at least sympathetic with the Reformation and was very agreeably impressed with their enthusiasm and knowledge.
It was for our group a truly educational, but also spiritually uplifting experience.
I offer the following reflections about my recent revisiting of the three Reformers, Luther, Calvin and Cranmer.
First, each was a man of great intellect and piety. As men born in the fifteen century, when scholarship was in its infancy, their achievements were remarkable. The Bible was not available in their respective languages and there were few great scholarly shoulders to stand on.
Secondly, each of them was supported by networks of friends and supporters. They did not work in isolation.
Thirdly, each of then benefitted by political protection: Luther by the Elector of Saxony, Calvin by the Geneva Civic Council and Cranmer by Henry VIII and Edward VI. In those violent times it’s fair to say that without such protection their achievements would not have been possible.
Fourthly, the invention of the printing press made possible the rapid dissemination of Tyndale’s translations and the writings of Luther and Calvin. It is difficult to imagine the speed and effectiveness of the spread of reformation thought without this revolutionary new medium.
Finally, it is true to say that each man had his faults. Luther’s views on the Jews near the end of his life are a problem. Calvin’s vision of a whole secular community complying with church disciple was impractical. Cranmer wavered under pressure. (Who can blame him?)
In other words, these men were not perfect or without their blind spots. Yet we are beneficiaries of their courage and faithfulness to God. May we be as faithful to Christ and his Gospel in our times as these men were in theirs.
Anglicans do well to thank God for each man, but not forgetting Thomas Cranmer for his gift to us of the rich and edifying deposit in the Prayer Book, Articles and Ordinal.