Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reflections on Protestant Reformation

The Reflections on last semesters modules continue with the Protestant Reformation module, taught by Dr Nick Needham. Dr Needham studied theology at New College, Edinburgh where he also taught a course on the life and works of Zwingli. No surprise then that one of our essays was on Zwingli and his relationship to Humanism. The main texts for the course were Dr Needham's own book (deep breath) 2000 Years of Christ's Power, Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation, along with readers by Hillebrand and Janz, together with works by Lindberg, McGrath and Chadwick.

The first part of the course examines the Renaissance setting for the Reformation. A lot of this was new to me, I must admit, not being a historian in any sense of the word (I did sciences at school). But, understanding the Renaissance is hugely important for understanding the Reformation, something that came out clearly in the essay question on Zwingli, entitled: Zwingli: Humanist Reformer? My answer was, basically, yes...

Zwingli was a humanist Reformer. His education introduced him to the Scriptures in their original languages and to the Church Fathers, and provided the tools to engage with them. It gave him the ideal of Christianismus reniscens – and what is this but an ideal of reformation? Whilst Zwingli undoubtedly developed his thought in an evangelical direction, leading to his Reforming zeal in Zürich, he followed this path largely because of his humanist ideals and the tools with which humanism had furnished him....the Scriptures provided the impetus for Zwingli’s Reforms at Zürich, which affected not only the Church, but also society. McGrath writes that ‘the influence of humanism upon the Swiss Reformation was nothing less than decisive’.

Historians have often treated Zwingli in contrast to, and in the shadow of, Luther. Attempts to replicate Luther’s crisis conversion experience as a paradigm for Zwingli’s life is testament only to the romantic power of Luther’s story. Zwingli deserves to stand on his own as a Reformer with a broad vision of the power of the Word of God and the God of the Word. For him, the issue of Reformation was one affecting all mankind: ‘the church of the pontiffs is the church of the devil, the enemy of man’.

Dr Needham's emphasis that the Reformation was the action of one part of the Catholic church in securing reform, his highlighting of contemporaneous evangelicals in the Roman Catholic tradition, and his contrasting the views of the Reformers with the type of thing that often passes unchallenged as bona fide Reformed teaching today were all very helpful antidotes to the simplistic jingoism that sometimes seems to associate itself with the topic.

One of the joys of Church History courses is reading the primary sources. The earthiness of Luther would put a blush on many a contemporary ministers face. Whilst Luther was often brusque and rude, I think we need some of his earthiness today. He said that 'while he and Melancthon were drinking beer together, the Word struck a mighty blow against the papacy' (my paraphrase) and also apparently, 'if I break wind in Wittenburg, they smell it in Rome' (phooey!). But, my man is Zwingli. He was more measured than Luther, more of a gentleman, like Calvin. On Calvin, Dr Needham writes:

Calvin was basically a gentle, quiet, longsuffering person, who hated controversy and took part in it only when a high sense of duty compelled him - he had none of Luther's love of a good fight...He rejoiced in the earthly gifts of God. Natural beauty, food, drink, family, friendship, art, music: these things were very good - Calvin had no doubt of that. Yet the kingly service of Jesus Christ and His Gospel was infinitely greater and more glorious. p219

I look forward to sharing a cognac with Calvin and Zwingli, and perhaps even a beer with Luther!
The other essay on the course this year was on the Radical Reformation, specifically the Rationalists and the Spiritualists. Of course, the Anabaptists were the largest movement in the Third Reformation: rioting, protesting, disrupting sermons and generally doing the extremist thing. Well, we've learned to live with it!