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The Great Western Earthquake

Category Articles
Date October 31, 2014


The date that marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is October 31, 1517. No one could have known it then, but what happened that day set in motion an earthquake whose aftershocks are still being felt in the western churches today.

That earthquake had three epicentres, one in Wittenberg with Martin Luther, another in Geneva with John Calvin, and still another in Canterbury with Thomas Cranmer.

What were the contributions of each of these men?

Wittenberg: Martin Luther (1483-1546)

On October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints’ Day, the monk Martin Luther nailed a statement to the church door in Wittenberg, offering to debate his Ninety-five Theses. At the time what most troubled Luther was the sale of indulgences which were said to obtain remission of the temporal punishments of sin for the individual or for a loved one in purgatory. Tetzel is supposed to have created a couplet to aid the sale of the indulgences:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings
the soul from purgatory springs.

There are two contributions I associate with Martin Luther.

Supremacy of Scripture.

Luther was required to appear and answer for his condemned writings at an assembly held at Worms and presided over by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V. The man who represented the Empire and the Roman Catholic Church was John Eck. Eck laid Luther’s writings on a table, and asked if the writings were Luther’s and if Luther stood by what he had written. Luther was backed into a corner. Would he assert that what he had written was the truth or would he submit to the church and recant his writings as being in error? His famous answer was:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Secularists and theological liberals like to think that Luther struck a blow for the supremacy of individual autonomy against authority, particularly church authority. That’s wishful thinking. Luther had studied the Bible and become convinced that the Roman Catholic Church now held serious error. Popes and church councils could make mistakes and had. What then was the ultimate authority? God speaking in Holy Scripture. The Scriptures stood above the church and its hierarchy. The church had to submit to Scripture interpreted by the use of God-given reason.

What Luther did was serious and revolutionary in his day. It put his life in danger, but, more important, it could potentially put people’s souls in danger. It was not his intent to undermine the church or its legitimate authority. He surely was not thinking to assert the authority of private judgment, every man alone with his Bible and the Holy Spirit deciding what Scripture says and what he would believe? But what was he to do with the dilemma? Would he choose to submit himself to the authority of the church or would he call upon the church to submit itself to the authority of Holy Scripture?

Luther’s choice had consequences he could not have foreseen and which he would surely reject. He did not mean to make every man his own pope or to subject the church to seemingly endless divisions. Nevertheless, Luther made the right choice. The Bible is the supreme authority, and even the church in its teaching ministry must submit to the Scriptures.

Centrality of Justification.

Luther faced a theological and personal problem. The theological problem was, ‘How can a man be right (justified = accepted as righteous) with God?’ The personal problem was, ‘How can I be right with God?’ Luther believed that God is righteous and that God requires righteousness of us. But how can man who is a sinner be righteous before a perfectly righteous God? Luther tried very hard to be a righteous man, but, no matter how hard he tried and how successful he was, he always came up short. His best wasn’t good enough. His conscience tormented him. He was frustrated with himself and angry with God, because what God demanded of him Luther could not produce.

The breakthrough that opened all of the Scriptures to Luther came as he contemplated Romans 1:17: ‘For therein the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to to faith; as it is written, The just shall live by faith.’ To this point his understanding had been that God is righteous, that God requires that man attain righteousness by doing the things commanded by the law and the church, and that God in righteousness must condemn and punish unrighteous man. Then he realized that the righteousness of which Paul speaks is the righteousness that God provides in Christ and is received by faith. Forgiveness comes from Christ’s dying for our sin. Righteousness is found wholly in Christ (an ‘alien’ or ‘outside us’ righteousness) and imputed (accounted) to us. We are saved by the grace of God alone, not by human co-operation with God. We are saved by faith alone, not by human works or goodness.

In recent years, the theologian N.T. Wright (with others) has challenged Luther and asserted that he (and the other Reformers) did not understand Paul. For Luther justification is a legal term having to do whom God regards as righteous; for Wright it is a relational term having to do with membership among God’s covenant people. Justification for Luther is about the doctrine of salvation; for Wright it is about the doctrine of the church. For Luther justification is individual; for Wright it is communal. For Luther we are justified (declared righteous) by faith in Christ and his righteousness; for Wright we are justified (included among God’s people) by acknowledging and following Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

Anglican Gerald Bray has written:

Nowadays some people claim that the righteousness of God refers primarily to the covenant community of God’s people, something which was achieved by the works of the law in the Old Testament and is now by the church as the body of Christ.

After pointing out that this ‘communitarian’ view was held neither by Roman Catholics nor Protestants (both of whom Wright believes wrong because they did understand Paul’s religious background), Bray says,

Either way (R.C. or Protestant) it (justification) applied to individuals not groups and modern theories to the contrary notwithstanding, this approach still seems to be the one that is most faithful to the meaning of the Biblical text.1

Luther said of justification by faith alone,

This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.

Geneva: John Calvin (1509-1564)

Luther was bombastic; Calvin was rational. Luther was hot; Calvin was cool (though he had a temper). Luther was the man I’d like to drink beer with on Friday; Calvin was the man whose class I’d like to attend on Monday. I’d like to sit at Luther’s table; I’d like to sit beneath Calvin’s pulpit. I’d prefer Luther’s style; I’d prefer Calvin’s content. Two of Calvin’s best biographers are Anglicans: T.H.L. Parker and Alister McGrath.

There are two contributions I associate with John Calvin.

Clarity of the Commentaries.

Calvin produced commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible. Calvin’s commentaries are scholarly, but clear, concise, pastoral, and practical. Though written 450 years ago they remain very helpful aids to the understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Dr. Joseph Haroutunian of McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, writes:

. . . we find Calvin bent upon establishing what a given author in fact said . . . Allegorizing was misunderstanding, and misunderstanding was the evil a scholar had to avoid by all means . . . he was protesting not against finding a spiritual meaning in a passage, but against finding one that was not there. The Word of God written for the upbuilding of the church was of course spiritual, but in the primary sense of leading to the knowledge of God and obedience to him. Calvin’s ‘literalism’ establishes rather than dissolves the mystery of the Word of God, provided for the Christian’s help and comfort.

. . . Calvin was a conscientious historical critic. His comments did not degenerate into the undisciplined exhortation which often goes with ‘practical preaching.’ He neither practiced nor encouraged irresponsibility toward ‘the genuine sense’ of Scripture . . . any ‘spiritual’ meaning other than one derived from the author’s intention was at once misleading and unedifying.

One has only to consult Calvin on a few given passages of Scripture to recognize that he is indeed a teacher without an equal. Calvin comments with the conviction that any passage of Scripture he may examine contains a Word of God full of God’s wisdom, applicable to the condition of his hearers and readers in one respect or another. This conviction enables him to respond to the Bible with a vitality and intelligence . . .

Dr. Haroutunian sums up nicely:

Calvin published his Commentaries to give his readers insight into the Word of God and to point out its relevance to their own life and situation. To this end he cultivated accuracy, brevity, and lucidity. He achieved his purpose to a degree that has aroused the admiration and gratitude of generations of readers. And in this day . . . a man who would understand his Bible will do well to have Calvin’s Commentaries within easy reach.

System of the Theology.

When Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago was asked by William F. Buckley if there was anything omitted that he wished had been included in the Great Books series, he replied ‘Calvin.’ The second edition of the Great Books included a whole volume (20) with selections from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Historian Will Durant counted the Institutes among the world’s ten most influential books. Calvin scholar John T. McNeill wrote, ‘Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the few books that have profoundly affected the course of history.’

Calvin was the first of the Reformers to produce what we now call a systematic theology, the first edition published in 1536, the final much fuller edition in 1559.2 The structure of the work is the traditional Christian catechesis: The Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. With this structure Calvin deals with all the essential subjects of theology, including the Trinity, the Person and Work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, ecclesiology, sacramentology, etc.

A systematic theology is an effort to organize the teaching of the Bible in categories such as the doctrine of God or the doctrine of salvation. The Institutes are a systematic exposition of the Christian faith, an explanation and defence of the historic catholic faith. Calvin reveals an excellent working knowledge of the church fathers, whom he greatly respects. More important Calvin consciously intends to go ‘back to the source’ and ground all of theology in the Holy Scriptures.

Recently the whole idea of systematic theology has been questioned by many scholars, including N.T. Wright (see above). The criticism is that systematic theology imposes an order and system on the Bible so that the message of the Bible is distorted. The way to approach and understand the Bible is by means of exegesis (vocabulary, grammar, historical setting, immediate context) and in light of biblical theology (the unfolding of God’s saving work in the Bible and its history). Systematic theology is categorized as ‘scholastic’ because it takes a ‘scientific’ approach to the Bible, treating it as though it were another department in the curriculum of the university.

This objection to systematic theology seems to me wrong. Systematic theology begins with the conviction that the Bible is a book of truth given to us by God. It is true that truth is not revealed to us in the abstract but concretely in history. God has spoken in the Bible progressively, revealing himself and his plan of salvation. However, while God revealed himself progressively in history, God does not contradict himself. What God has revealed is harmonious with itself. Systematic theology believes that God has so constructed the human mind and human language as to lead us to think about truths in categories. The truths of God’s Word can be developed and understood in relationship with one one another. Systematic theology answers the questions, ‘What does the Bible say about . . .?’ and, ‘How does what God says about x relate to what he says about y?’ Exegetical theology, biblical theology, and systematic theology are not enemies or even rivals but friends who work together and mutually support each other.

Biographer T.H.L. Parker brings together Calvin the exegete and Calvin the theologian:

I am eager for people to know Calvin not because he was without flaws, or because he was the most influential theologian of the last 500 years (which he was), or because he shaped Western culture (which he did), but because he took the Bible so seriously, and because what he saw on every page was the majesty of God and the glory of Christ.

Canterbury: Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

There is one man who links Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer. Martin Bucer was the friend of all three. Bucer came to the Protestant faith under the influence of Martin Luther. Later in Strasbourg he influenced John Calvin. After his exile to England, he had an impact on the Reformation there, especially on the second Book of Common Prayer.

Of the three Reformers we are considering, only Cranmer died for the Protestant faith. Cranmer served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Henry had set the church and nation free from Rome, but he wasn’t much interested in reformation of the church’s worship and doctrine. Cranmer was, and, when Edward VI, still a boy and a convinced Protestant, succeeded his father, the reformation made real progress. However, Edward died still a teenager and was succeeded by his half-sister and Henry’s daughter, the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor. She reversed the reformation and eventually had Cranmer burned at the stake.

There are two contributions I associate with Cranmer.

Book of Common Prayer.

The primary factor that led me to Anglicanism was The Book of Common Prayer. I came to believe that the so-called ‘directed worship’ of Presbyterianism allowed for all the chaos of worship one sees across the spectrum of evangelicalism. The only solution I saw and see is prescribed worship, and I believed that the Prayer Book provided ordered, biblical, Protestant, reverent worship. I came also to believe that there is no reason to drive a wedge between written prayers and the spirit of prayer. And, as one friend (a Prayer Book user but not an Anglican) puts it, ‘If you can do better than the Prayer Book with free prayer, have it.’ My conviction is that the Prayer Book gives us substance to pray that would never occur to the vast majority of evangelical ministers or people. To put it another way, my heart resonates with the Prayer Book.

Cranmer wanted to reform the church’s worship to make it consistent with Protestant theology while conserving what he could of the historic liturgy. James Wood in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer writes:

Theologically the 1559/1662 Book of Common Prayer is both radical and conservative. Its Protestantism can be felt in its emphasis on man’s sinful depravity, and on the unearned gift of God’s salvation (justification by faith alone, not by good works). One scholar has said that ‘the triple beat of sin-grace-faith runs through the whole book.

. . . Cranmer ensured that the Anglican Prayer Book took a definite position on the fraught (and violent) issue of the eucharistic ‘real presence’ . . . This insistence can be felt in the words the presiding minister says to the Anglican communicant as he offers the sacraments:

The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed upon him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

Still . . . the Book of Prayer was also an eclectic and consoling, even conservative document, the least revolutionary and more Catholic of the European Protestant liturgies . . . Along with the services of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Holy Communion the 1662 Prayer Book has a calendar of the church year; a list of saints’ days . . . liturgies for special days . . . and services for the Burial of the Dead . . . and so on. Gordon James points out that it was clever of Cranmer to borrow collects and prayers from the English Catholic and monastic traditions, from Greek Orthodox and from old Spanish rites . . .

Above all, the Book of Common Prayer offered Cranmer’s language as a kind of binding agent, a rhetoric both lofty and local, archaic and familiar . . .

Articles of Religion.

In addition to the Prayer Book Cranmer also gave us the Articles of Religion. One of the things that troubled me about the branch of Presbyterianism of which I was a part was subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism. I heard man after man take no exceptions and offer no clarifying statements. Every time I wondered, ‘With as many words and and the amount of detail there is in these documents, how can this be?’ While I believe that the Westminster Standards, which as J. I. Packer points out were written by an Assembly the majority of whom were Anglicans, are a most excellent statement of Christian faith, I appreciate the Articles for their brevity.

But what kind of doctrine is found in the Articles? They are catholic in that they affirm the catholic theology of the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. But they are also clearly Protestant, as distinct from Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologies, in places reflecting Lutheran theology and in other places (especially on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) reflecting Calvinistic (Reformed) theology. Gerald Bray has written:

The Thirty-nine Articles are usually printed with the 1662 Prayer Book, but they have a different history (from The Prayer Book) . . . The Articles were given official status by King Charles I in 1628; since then they have been the accepted doctrinal standards of the Church of England. Other Anglican churches have received them to a greater or lesser degree . . . it has to be said that most Anglicans today are scarcely aware of their existence. Even the clergy have seldom studied them, and only evangelicals now take them seriously as doctrine.

The Articles are not a comprehensive systematic theology in the way that the Westminster Confession is, but they do address questions of theological controversy in a systematic way. In that sense, they are more advanced than earlier Protestant doctrinal statements. They start with the doctrine of God, go on to list the canon of Scripture, and then get into more controversial subjects. Justification by faith alone is clearly stated, and there is also a clear defense of predestination. The sacraments are numbered as two only, and they are defined as witnesses to the Gospel. Towards the end there are articles defining the powers of the civil magistrate, along with one that sanctions the two books of Homilies, collections of sermons in which the doctrines of the Articles and Prayer Book are more fully expounded . . . perhaps their brief and judicious statements will one day gain them greater acceptance within the wider Reformed community.

I would prefer for Anglicans not to separate Cranmer the liturgist from Cranmer the theologian and not to separate the Prayer Book from The Articles. The Prayer Book and the Articles come to us from the same author (in the main) and should be assumed to be in harmony with one another. On the great Protestant doctrines of the authority of Scripture and of justification by faith alone they are one. On the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion there is to my mind no conflict between them nor between them and the Continental Reformed. The Prayer Book and the Articles give doctrine which is truly catholic and decidedly Protestant.

Wittenberg, Geneva, Canterbury. Luther, Calvin, Cranmer. An earthquake with three epicentres. May the quake continue to roll.


  1. The Faith We Confess, pp. 74-75.
  2. In 2014 the Trust published an English translation (by Robert White) of the 1541 French edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion.

William H. Smith of Covenant Reformed Episcopal Church, Roanoke, Virginia, blogs at The Christiam Curmudgeon.

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