Martin Luther, John Calvin, and several others are recognized as the fathers of the Protestant reformation.1 The word fathers used this way means those who originate or institute something. They surely did so, bringing about one of world history's most important revolutions. They split up the international Church of Rome and replaced it with national, or state churches, mainly in northern Europe. They are known as the magisterial reformers.
For historians and theologians, this name serves two purposes. First, it identifies their cooperation with the princes and governing authorities of their realms, which they thought necessary for the success of their reforms. Secondly, it distinguishes them from the radical reformers, who are much less well-known figures -- men like the Anabaptists Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons.
These radicals, also known as evangelicals, had departed from the historic foundation of Christianity laid by the emperor Constantine and the popes as to the proper relationship between church, state, and society. What had happened twelve centuries before with Constantine was (and in many ways, still is) the normal condition by which Christians judge their participation in the world.
One historian said much about it in these few words:
The conversion of Constantine had aligned the Roman Empire with the Christian Church in a working partnership. But the empire, as the earlier institution, had changed the less of the two; in some ways it had barely changed at all -- it had replaced one State religion by another. The Church, by contrast, had changed a great deal. It had adapted itself to its State and imperial function; it had assumed worldly ways and attitudes, and accepted a range of secular responsibilities; and in the emperor it had acquired a protector and governor whom it might influence but could not directly control. Hence the Church, by marrying the imperial Roman State, was necessarily influenced by changes which overcame that State in the fifth and sixth centuries.2
The magisterial reformers had not departed from this foundation, merely seeking to reform the church in matters of doctrine. As a consequence, they were continuously caught up, as the church of the fifth and sixth centuries was, with the fortunes and changes affecting the worldly powers they were aligned with. While seeking to be advisers to princes on matters of conscience, they were transformed, as many before (and after), into "relievers" of conscience.
Elector Johann Friedrich was prone to solicit advice from Luther and Luther's colleagues only after policy had been set: The original function of the Wittenburg opinion, to advise conscience, was increasingly transformed by Johann Friedrich into the function of relieving consciences, as a religious sanction and assurance.3
If such was the case of Luther, what was the situation with less influential reformers?4 The radicals harkened back to an earlier time, seeing no Scriptural basis for such involvement -- even collusion -- with the state. So they reaped, as others had before them, the same treatment at the hands of the state and its church. The radicals viewed such reformers as hopelessly compromised, protected and upheld, as they were, by the power of the state.
On their part, the magisterial reformers viewed the radicals as dangers to societies, if not heretics. Using their connections with the princes, they caused the radicals to be hunted down. Thousands were put to death in a persecution that both Protestants and Catholics could agree on. The principle issues, but not the only significant ones that caused them to kill the radicals, were their opposition to the state church, infant baptism, and war. The magisterial reformers clung to these as essential supports in maintaining order in both society and church.
But there were others for whom this was only half a reformation... The "evangelicals" were the largest and most important group. They desired a more thorough reform in the light of the Bible. They rejected the idea of a state church and infant baptism, which inevitably accompanied it. Their opponents seized on their practice of 'rebaptizing' those baptized in infancy and called them 'Anabaptists' or 'Rebaptizers.' This was a convenient label as rebaptism was already a capital offense.5 The Anabaptists were bitterly persecuted and largely exterminated, but their ideas survived and have become steadily more influential."6
The effects of the reformers' accommodation with the state (not to mention the Catholic Church for a millennium before them) defines Christian history in a way that is profoundly at odds with the witness of the New Testament church. No search of the Scriptures can find infant baptism, state church, taking oaths, believers waging wars, or even the clergy-laity system that marks all the great divisions of Christianity -- Eastern, Roman, and Protestant. Yet there have always been those (out of the mainstream to be sure) who cannot believe in things that are not in the Scriptures, no matter how well accepted they are culturally.
The beginnings of the Reformation are well known. Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church in 1517. His prodigious output of tracts, books, and even songs, propagated by the printing press, changed the world.7 Not least by his translation of the Bible into the German of the people, he transformed Germany, which bears his mark to this day. John Calvin wrote his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. His awesome intellect influenced the world of the Reformation at least as much as Luther's.
The beginnings of the radical reformation are not well known.8 In the very early years of the Reformation, in the city of Zurich, the radicals and the mainstream reformers enjoyed a brief time of fellowship.
In the early years of the reformation, Zwingli worked hand in hand with a group of radicals -- Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and others. They maintained a common front until 1523. But the issues of the state church and infant baptism divided them. It seems that Zwingli himself opposed infant baptism for a time -- but drew back when he realized that it is essential if a state church is to be maintained. The radicals' opposition to infant baptism hardened and in 1525, after a public disputation with Zwingli, they began to (re)baptize believers. The town council responded by ordering the exile of all those rebaptized, and in the following year the death penalty was introduced for rebaptizing. In January 1527 Felix Manz was executed by drowning.9
A most unusual event forced the "hardening" of the radicals' position: the wife of Conrad Grebel had a baby, which they did not want to baptize! The City Council ordered all families to baptize their children within eight days or leave Zurich. Thus. a great movement was born. They suffered relentless persecution for their opposition to the pillars necessary to uphold the state church. Conrad Grebel was soon imprisoned for life for his actions.10
Luther finally took a decisive stand against them in 1531 over the issue of whether believers could rise in church and interrupt the preacher. This was, in his opinion, "the sitter's right from the pit of hell," and "even though it is terrible to view," he gave his blessing to the death sentence for the Anabaptists issued by the princes on March 31, 1527.
They called this the "sitter's right" and calmly implied that they, when moved by inner conviction, had as great a right to speak and to act as any pastor, any priest, any reformer or bishop or pope.11
Luther's chief concern was that the Anabaptists "brought to nothing the office of preaching the Word." He cared not that he indicted Paul in this, for the apostle had instructed the members of his churches to stand up and speak when one of them had a revelation, inspiration or teaching. When this happened, Paul taught, the one already speaking should sit down !
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification... But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. (1 Corinthians 14:26,30)
This was not the first time in Christian history that people were executed for obeying the Word of God by those who were disobeying it. While the contrast between the disobedience of the orthodox and the obedience of the unorthodox has been a frequent occurrence -- almost defining the two, one could say -- seldom has the contrast been so extreme as in this instance. Over the twenty following years, no less than 116 laws were passed in the German lands of Europe that made the "Anabaptist heresy" a capital offense.
"Stranger than fiction," the old saying goes about the truth. The tales of history and the events of today prove this to be true, practically on a daily basis. There is a man unique in all history: burned in effigy12 for heresy by the Catholics and burned in reality by the Protestants!
The sentence of the Inquisition against Michael Servetus in the Catholic city of Vienne, France, that "he should be burned at a slow fire until his body was reduced to ashes" was carried out, at the instigation of John Calvin, by the Protestant city of Geneva, Switzerland.13 And burned at the stake for what? The Protestant historian Roland Bainton would write in his book, "Travails of Religious Liberty" that "he put the adjective in the wrong place."14
The judges wrote that Servetus deserved to die for dividing the church of God and thereby ruining many souls. This, of course, was exactly the charge the Catholic Inquisition made in their death sentences against Protestants and Anabaptists. For both, such spiritual ruin was tantamount to murder. The fact that both could not be right at the same time did not bother either the Protestants or the Catholics. The possibility that maybe neither were didn't even occur to them. The endless possibilities of interpreting theological truths did not give them pause that perhaps they shouldn't enforce their beliefs on others.
The end was neither merciful nor swift. What was exacted of him "for setting yourself against the divine majesty" calls into profound question how those who could do such things could know, in any way, shape, or form, the Prince of Peace.
A crown of straw and leaves sprinkled with sulphur was placed upon his head. His body was attached to the stake with an iron chain. His book was tied to his arm. A stout rope was wound four or five times about his neck. He asked that it should not be further twisted. When the executioner brought the fire before his face he gave such a shriek that all the people were horror-stricken. As he lingered, some threw on wood. In a fearful waft he cried, "0 Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!" At the end of half an hour he died.15
William Farel, Calvin's mentor, and the man who persuaded him to make Geneva his home, steps into Servetus' story at this point. He accompanied Servetus to the stake, pleading with him "openly to admit his errors and confess that Christ is the eternal Son of God."
Do you see the turn of phrase for which Michael Servetus died?
The magisterial reformers believed that the support of secular, worldly power was necessary for the success of their reformations.16 Governments punish criminals by the sword. With Christian involvement in government, matters of conscience -- even of private beliefs -- become criminal matters. This had been the case since Constantine. None of the magisterial reformers objected to this. In fact, they supported such authoritarian and intolerant governments enthusiastically. They saw societies filled with a variety of religious sects as the great danger lurking in freedom of conscience.
Lending all the power of their persuasion and prestige as men of God to their governments, these men supported, with very few exceptions, the decisions, policies, and even wars of their rulers. Or, as not infrequently happened, they urged on their rulers and their societies to shed blood, either in religious persecution or war. Calvin taught that mercy is not allowed in the defense of good doctrine and the punishment of bad doctrine:
Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime... There is no question here of man's authority; it is God who speaks... We spare not kin nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.17
This was published after the execution of Michael Servetus.
Among his many calls to arms, Luther's most famous, which also contains an interesting doctrine of works salvation, was against the peasants of Germany:
Stab, beat, strangle to death whoever can. If you lose your life in doing so, blessed are you; you can never attain to a more blessed death. For you die in obedience to the divine word and command.18
In his famous "Table Talk" -- notes of conversations around the table in his house, Luther commented on the war.
Preachers are the biggest killers of all. For they stir up the rulers to resolutely carry out their duties and to punish pests. I killed all the peasants in the riot; all of their blood is on my neck. But I blame it on our Lord God; it is He who commanded me to speak thus.19
It is easy to be offended by the many extreme and radical things Luther said and miss the power and influence they had in his day -- and that they still have in our day. Of course, such exhortations to pick up the sword are not new for Christians. Neither is the credit -- or the blame, depending on one's point of view -- for inciting bloodshed. Pope Urban II ignited the fire that burned through eight crusades in his call to arms in 1095.
Many of us grew up as patriotic Americans who made, even in this day, a strong connection between God and country. So it is hard, even at the distance of centuries, to ask the question, "How could the Prince of Peace be served by so much bloodshed?" If we were to ask it, then inevitably our thoughts should carry us to the present day, where it is natural and easy to assume that every use of the sword by our nation is justified -- if not divinely sanctioned. And so has every generation justified the sword, and in many nations, religious persecution.
Martin Luther often condemned the pope as the antichrist. Protestants used to say this a lot, but it is politically incorrect today. But what could be more contrary to Christ than Luther's calls for violence and death against the Jews, the Anabaptists, and his outright calls for war against the Catholics and the Turks? What could be more antichristian than to attach the name of Christ to war and wealth, or as cynics put it, "God, gold, and guns"?