Despite my labeling Martin Luther’s movement as the Protestant Revolution, Luther was not originally looking to actually start a religious revolution. He truly wanted to reform very real abuses in the Catholic Church. Yet as things turned out, eventually his fiery personality (not to mention his rather vulgar tirades) led to, not only a full-out religious revolution, but also to actual political revolution. From the Munster rebellion, to the persecution of the Anabaptists and the Peasant Wars, as well as many other tragic episodes, Luther had started something that ended up going way beyond religious disputes—it affected politics and transformed Church/State relations.
Luther was just one man, and one man did not bring about the Protestant Revolution on his own. He needed backing, and the backing that he got came from a number of secular rulers of Europe. This is quite significant: Luther ended up appealing to the rulers of Europe to fight against the Catholic Church. His aim was to work with these secular rulers to help establish a new church: one that was, in Luther’s eyes, more faithful to the Bible, and modeled after the early Church. This is what is meant by the Magisterial Reformation: Luther effected his “reforms” with the help of secular power. He was further aided in this endeavor by the invention of the printing press. Luther’s media blitz “went viral,” and soon secular leaders across Europe got on board with the Protestant Revolution.
This mingling of the secular into church business, though, was problematic, for the fact was that many secular rulers were motivated by things that were not exactly spiritual. In actuality, self-interest and a thirst for power often was the driving force in many leaders’ decisions. German princes who did not have a high standing with the Pope would become Lutheran because it benefitted them politically, whereas other princes who enjoyed the favor of the Pope would remain Catholic. Such mixed motives at the very outset of Luther’s Revolution led to many problems down the road.
The Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation
One of the things that most Protestants probably do not realize is that there never was a time in which there wasn’t conflict and division within the Protestant “Reformation.” It was a revolt not only from the Catholic Church, but almost immediately it became a revolt from fellow “reformers” as well.
Many seem to think that Luther broke away from the Catholic Church, started the Protestant Church, and things went swimmingly for a short time, and that it was only later, possibly during the subsequent generations of “revolutionary reformers” did fissures and conflicts arise. Well, such a view does not line up with history. The historical fact is that, if Luther’s revolution was radical enough, the Radical Reformation did not come long after either Luther or Calvin’s Magisterial Reformations—it happened at the same time. As soon as Luther started declaring the Pope to be the anti-Christ and the Catholic Church to be the Whore of Babylon, as soon as he started declaring Sola Scriptura, people came out of the woodwork all across Europe to take Luther’s rhetoric to its full and logical conclusions.
Now, it must be pointed out that Luther probably didn’t mean his rhetoric to be taken to such extremes. After all, Luther still regularly consulted the early Church Fathers in his study of Scripture, and found them to be invaluable aids to the study of the Bible. Nevertheless, his irresponsible rhetoric had an immediate destructive impact on the Europe of his day. And if there is one thing we in modern America should learn from Luther, it is that irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric will eventually rip apart society.
In any case, the unravelling of European society in the 16th century can be clearly seen in the Anabaptist movement that was birthed by men like Ulrich Zwingli. For the sake of clarity, we could say that Zwingli and his followers took Luther’s Sola Scriptura, transformed it into Nuda Scriptura. Whereas Luther said the Scripture alone should have authority over Church Tradition, Church councils, or one’s reading of the Church Fathers, Zwingli and his followers essentially said, “Why even care about councils or Church Fathers, or Church Tradition?” and they completely and utterly rejected all forms of Church tradition whatsoever. The Anabaptists believed that Scripture should be read without any consideration of how Christians in previous centuries read it.
Luther, at least initially, had hopes of reforming the Catholic Church and probably didn’t really believe some of his own inflammatory rhetoric. But the Anabaptists took Luther’s rhetoric seriously, and therefore concluded that there was not anything in the existing Church worth reforming. In the Anabaptist mind, there was (A) Jesus and the early Church of the first 300 years, then (B) 1,200 years of spiritual darkness ushered in by Constantine and the corrupt, institutional church of the Whore of Babylon. Their mission, therefore, was to sweep away all vestiges of that prostitute known as the Catholic Church, and restore (what they felt) was the pristine and unsoiled Christian faith of the primitive Church. Not surprisingly, not only were the Anabaptists persecuted by Catholics, but also by Protestants of the Magisterial Reformation. This was (ironically) something we can say that men like Luther and the Pope agreed on: the Anabaptists took things too far–they were too radical.
Where Did Modern Evangelicalism Really Come From?
If such a view of Church history sounds familiar, it should—the “1,200 years of spiritual darkness” is held, not only by a vast number of modern day Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, but ironically by a large swath of militant atheists and secularists inspired by the propagandist thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment.
Indeed, many of the characteristics of the Anabaptist movement should sound familiar to most people in Evangelical circles. There was the insistence of that “moment of conversion” (i.e. “When did you get saved?”); the rejection of infant baptism and the insistence of “believer’s baptism” one voluntarily chose to do when an adult (or at least by 5th grade!); the insistence of the complete separation of Church and State (namely because “the world” was so hopelessly corrupt that believers had to separate themselves from it to stay pure—thus paved the way for an entire Christian subculture that included its own music, books, movies, etc.); the rejection of all kinds of formulaic creeds, and the insistence that believers exercise freedom of conscience in matters of belief. The list could probably go on.
As a matter of basic historical fact, it is safe to say that modern Evangelicalism and other non-denominations movements do not so much derive from the Reformation of either Luther or Calvin, but rather the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists.