Do Baptists have a Right to Celebrate the Reformation?

A painting of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels, circa 1872

Tomorrow we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, dated from Martin Luther’s purported nailing of the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It’s been a yearlong celebration, and some might mourn the passing of this Renaissance in Reformation studies. Have no fear! This is only the first of many anniversaries. We can now celebrate 500 years since the Heidelberg Disputation, the Leipzig Debate, the Diet of Worms, The Bondage of the Will, and the first catechisms. I hope I make it long enough to celebrate all the different editions of The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Unfortunately, there are some people who don’t think I should be celebrating at all, because I am a Baptist. Throughout the course of this year, I have often come across statements such as, “Luther would have called Baptists heretics,” “Baptists have no clue about church history or historic theology,” “Baptists ignore the principles of the Reformation,” etc. Invariably, these statements come from people who hold to one of the confessions that arose out of the 16th or 17th centuries, such as the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, or the Westminster Confession.

Why would people make such statements? Is there any truth behind them? Should Baptists be taking off their party hats and going home with their heads hung low in shame? These questions are somewhat difficult to answer due to the diversity among Baptists. Add to that the fact that by “Baptist”, the Reformed and Lutherans often mean anyone who practices credobaptism (also called “believer’s baptism”). This would force us to include a wide variety of churches that make no claim to being Baptist and may not even have a clear statement of faith.

Nevertheless, I will attempt to briefly address these questions. When people object to a connection between Baptists and the Reformation, they usually have one of the following things in mind. Continue reading

The Reformation was a Tragedy

“Martin Luther in the Circle of Reformers” by the German School, circa 1625-50

We haven’t hit the month of October yet, and already I have read so much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that I would just assume be done with it. Actually, that’s a lie. I could probably read articles about the Reformation until kingdom come. I am what is popularly called a history geek. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that this year has been so full of solas, beer steins, and papal anathemas that I hesitated to add to the deluge unless I had something to say that was rather different from what had already been said.

Well, here’s something you may not have heard from many Protestants this year: the Reformation was a tragedy. Yes, you read that correctly. In the midst of all this celebrating, I think we ought to take some time to mourn what we have lost. Great damage has been done to the cause of Christian unity, and 500 years later we have yet to recover.

“Hold on a minute!” you might be thinking. “Are you suggesting that the Protestants were wrong to break away from Rome? Do you really believe we should ignore major doctrinal errors in order to maintain a superficial unity?” No, that is not what I am saying at all. There are certainly aspects of the Reformation that we should be celebrating. The recovery of the doctrines known as the Five Solas (scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone) was an absolutely essential development in the history of Christianity. Many of today’s doctrinal errors occur when we fail to cling to those biblical principles. Even so, I think we must celebrate with a twinge of sadness. Continue reading

That Time Martin Luther Became a Thief

In this 1875 painting by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg, “Luther Making Music in the Circle of His Family”, Melanchthon is portrayed sitting at the table behind them. Apparently he was present at every Luther family gathering?

The relationship between the German Reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon has been puzzled over by scholars for centuries. They were fellow professors at the University of Wittenberg and collaborated on a number of projects, from a German translation of the Bible to the Augsburg Confession. Yet, there were undoubtedly some theological differences between them in later years, and all their contemporaries noted that their personalities were essentially opposites. Luther himself once characterized the relationship in the following way.

I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles, and thorns, and clear the wild forests; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him.[1]

Continue reading

The Reformer Who Wrote Erotic Poetry

Theodore Beza, lover of fancy hats. Portrait by an unknown artist circa 1605.

History is full of odd tales, and nowhere more so than during the Protestant Reformation. We have, for example, the much beloved story of how Martin Luther’s future wife, Katharina Von Bora, escaped from her convent in a fish barrel, giving new meaning to the phrase, “That’s a pretty kettle of fish.” The relationship between the two of them and the subsequent improvements in Herr Luther’s bowel movements are rather the stuff of legend. (More about Luther, Germans, and poop can be found here.)

Then there was Wibrandis Rosenblatt, who managed to get herself married to three different Protestant Reformers – Johannes Oecolampadius (Try saying that three times fast!), Wolfgang Capito, and Martin Bucer. Now, I must stress that this dear lady was not married to them all at the same time, but rather in succession after they each went the way of all flesh. Indeed, before she was ever married to Oecolampadius, she was already the widow of one Ludwig Keller (Ancestor of Timothy Keller? Just throwing it out there…). That makes a total of four husbands for Wibrandis, which is either incredibly unlucky or incredibly suspicious.

However, for our story today I would like to take us a bit farther south to the town of Geneva, nestled on a beautiful lake at the feet of the Alps. Long before it was nagging the rest of the world about how it should behave in times of war, Geneva hosted a rather interesting religious experiment when it invited a French expat named Jean Calvin – yes, that’s John Calvin – to carry out a reformation in the city along with Guillaume Farel. This was an important development in the history of the Reformed Protestant tradition.

But I’m not going to talk about Calvin today – sorry to burst your bubble. I know Calvin is much beloved in these parts, even by those who have never bothered to read any of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, his greatest lasting legacy. No, I would like to talk about one of Calvin’s close associates, Théodore de Bèze, better known in the English speaking world as Theodore Beza. His is a truly fascinating story with many twists and turns. Continue reading