For the Last Time, Concerning ‘Reformation Day’

‘Reformation Day?  No!’

‘The Reformation’ is a misnomer if ever there were one, for in fact there was no ‘one’ Reformation any more than there was just one Reformer. ‘The Reformation’, when used by students and the general public, usually refers to the Reformation of Martin Luther which commenced at the end of October in the year of our Lord, 1517.

Even then, though, Luther’s intent wasn’t as earth-shattering as later ages took it to be. For Luther, the placement of a series of theses in Latin on the Church Door at Wittenberg Castle was nothing more than an invitation to debate. In other words, Luther didn’t see his act as the commencement of a revolution; he saw it as an academic exercise.

‘The Reformation’ is, then, little more than a label derived from historical hindsight gazing mono-focularly at a series of events over a period of time across a wide geographical landscape. Each Reformer had roots sunk in fertile ground and their work was simply the coming to fruition of generations of shift in the Roman Catholic Church.

Hence, it would be more appropriate to speak of ‘Reformations’ in the same way that we now speak of ‘Judaisms’ and ‘Christianities’. The Reformation was no monolith.

Who, then were the Reformers who gave birth to the Reformations most closely associated with them? They were Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, in just that order.

In 1515 while he was Pastor of the village Church in Glarus, Huldrych Zwingli began to call into question the dependence of the Church on the teachings of the Scholastics. He also questioned the value of the Vulgate for preaching and began earnest study of the Greek New Testament. There, memorizing the letters of Paul (in Greek) he discovered the Gospel which would come to feature so prominently in his Reforming efforts: Salvation is by grace, through faith, and not through works as proclaimed by the Scholastic theologians. By 1519, when he moved to Zurich to become the Pastor of the Great Minster, Zwingli was already well on his way to Reforming the worship of the Church and the administration of the ‘Sacraments’. In short order, within a few years, the Mass was abandoned and replaced by the ‘Lord’s Supper’ and the fixation of the Church on images was denounced and those images removed in due course.

Zwingli’s Reformation was carried out with the cooperation of the City government, which is why Zwingli, along with Luther and Calvin, were to be known to history as ‘Magisterial Reformers’. Not because they were ‘Magisterial’ but because each had the support of their city’s magistrates.

North of Zurich, in Wittenberg, Luther’s Reformatory efforts were coming to full steam around the same time. In 1520 he broke with Rome irrevocably with the publication of his stunning ‘On The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’. From there, there was to be no turning back. And here we must remind ourselves that at this juncture Luther was not dependent on the work of Zwingli, nor was Zwingli dependent on the work of Luther. Both were pursuing reform along parallel tracks, separately.

Further to the West of Switzerland a decade later John Calvin, an exile from France, a lawyer by training and a theologian by training and desire, began his own efforts at Reform. Several years after Zwingli’s death and long after Luther’s demise Calvin plodded away in Geneva attempting manfully to bring that raucous city to heel under the power of the Gospel.

Each of these Reformers were ‘Fathers’ of their own Reformation. Each was, originally, independent of the other and in many ways they tried very hard to retain that independence even when their common foe, the Church of Rome, was the target as their common enemy. Each contributed to ‘The Reformation’ in their own unique way.

If, then, we wish to honor their memory and their efforts, it behooves us to set aside our preconceptions or our beliefs that ‘The Reformation’ began on October 31, 1517. It didn’t. It began in 1515 in Glarus. And it began in 1517 in Wittenberg. And it began in Geneva in 1536.

Happy Reformations Days.

8 thoughts on “For the Last Time, Concerning ‘Reformation Day’

  1. Pingback: Reformation Day Reflections from Around the Web « The Pietist Schoolman

  2. gracetracer

    If it is “reformations” we want we would do better to start a hundred years earlier with Jan Hus. Clearly, “history” smooths out into a more linear story realities that were anything but linear or cleanly drawn. To refer to “the reformation” is to refer to matters which had been whispered in quiet places for centuries by those who dared to think.
    I remember the first time I read Luther’s theses. It was in 1967, around the time of the 450th anniversary of their posting on the chapel door. If his discussion questions are to be taken at face value then at the time Luther was a loyal Catholic monk who was not concerned as much about indulgences per se as he was about knowing how much plenary penance would really cost. (Of course, he may have been posing such questions reductum ad absurdum but the theses make for “inside” reading rather than the “outside” challenge to the authority and legitimacy of the hierarchy which came later. He is more nudging the church to think than challenging any doctrines, as such. One must wonder whether the authorities misplayed their hand with Luther. The more they dismissed him and opposed him, the more they fired him up.
    These issues, “when did this or that start,” are always problematic. For instance, other Europeans had “discovered” the western hemisphere but Christobal Colombo gets credit for the find because he represented a royal European house and Amerigo Vespucci got the naming rights because his friend was the cartographer.
    The Reformation gets called that, not because of any one event but because the arguments of the reformers were widely disseminated through the printing press and changed the world. Wycliffe had been a major influence on Hus a century before Luther but Hus had no political cover nor a means of rapidly spreading the “new” thinking.
    If your concern is that your hero Zwingli is usually mentioned third, as in “Luther, Calvin and Zwingli,” content yourself that in Hebrew lists, the most important person or thing is usually mentioned last.


    1. Jim Post author

      you must not have read the post very carefully. i make the point quite specifically that the reformations are the result of many preceding events. my concern isnt with zwingli’s honor, it’s with historical accuracy.


  3. Dan Ortiz

    If we go back in time before Luther then, shouldn’t we include Savonarola as a proto-reformer?
    Btw, Jim, are you as fluent with the counter-reformation as you are with the reformation? (Do reply back as I might need to ask you a few questions)


    1. Jim Post author

      indeed- though i would call him more of an influencer than a pathfinder. and, sadly, no. the counter-reform isn’t really in my bag of tricks beyond a general understanding of it. diarmaid macculloch would be the go to guy for that one.


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