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Bible and crossIn order to study John Calvin one must be prepared to read extensively and intensively.  Calvin trained as a lawyer, and the type of scholarship that is associated with the law extends to his examination of the 16th century Church and the subsequent formation of the Reformed faith.

The Catholic Church of that time bothered many of the Reformers, who initially wanted to reform the Church from within.  However, papal opposition put paid to that notion, and they had no other choice but to break off into their respective churches.

The Church vs Scripture 

Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and other Reformers were angry with the Catholic Church for the following reasons:

  • Papal abuses, which had begun in the Middle Ages.  These included immoral living on the part of all levels of the clergy, including some of the Popes of that period. To the Reformers it appeared as if Catholic clergy simply absolved themselves of sin by ‘doing penance’ rather than repenting and sinning no more.  They continued to sin and sin again.  Furthermore, the clergy implied that grace and salvation could be bought through the purchase of indulgences, Masses and special devotions.  
  • Papal claims regarding apostolic succession.  The Reformers interpreted Christ placing St Peter as head of the Church as a result of Peter’s faith not because of him as a person.  Whilst they were somewhat willing to consider a reformed papacy without the corruption and with a ‘back to basics’ theology, the opposition from the Church hierarchy caused them to reconsider.
  • Substituting the Church for Scripture.  Remember that only the wealthy and the religious had access to manuscripts such as Bibles or Missals. Few people could read. There were also no printing presses at the time.  In addition, the Reformers saw the Church adding on additional teachings, rituals and traditions which they saw as corrupting or diminishing Scripture. They particularly objected to the hierarchy doing this under the labels of  ‘the unanimous consent of the Fathers’ and ‘Holy Mother Church’.  Remember, there was only one Church;  to it, all Christians owed obedience.
  • The notion that monastic life was superior.  The Reformers were vehemently opposed to the idea that living a celibate, cloistered life was the best route to spirituality. They believed that all Christians were capable of deep faith and profound beliefs.  The corruption of the religious orders at the time no doubt contributed to the suspicion and accusation of hypocrisy connected with monastic life.
  • Mediation via the saints and the transmission of grace via the Sacraments.  The Reformers maintained that everyone should ‘go straight to the source’ and pray to God through Christ.  There believed there was no scriptural evidence for asking Mary and the saints to intercede on people’s behalf.  They also objected to priests having the power of mediation and the idea of the transmission of grace via all seven Sacraments.  Therefore, the Reformers reduced the Sacraments to two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  • Salvation through good works.  The Reformers considered the Catholic teaching of salvation through grace and good works to be semi-Pelagian.  They therefore rejected the notion of good works and made grace the sole means of attaining eternal life.          

The solas — cornerstone of the Reformation

The Catholic Church was — and is — characterised by the following:

  • Scripture and tradition
  • Faith and works
  • Grace and merit
  • Christ, Mary and the intercession of the saints
  • God, saints and Church hierarchy. 

Based on the reasons above, they pared what they saw as un-Biblical excesses and proclaimed the five solas to establish standards for authority, salvation and worship.  ‘Sola’ is derived from the Latin ‘solus’, meaning ‘alone’:

  • Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) — authority
  • Faith alone (sola Fide) — salvation
  • Grace alone (sola Gratia) — salvation
  • Christ alone (sola Christus) — salvation
  • Glory to God alone (soli Deo Gloria) — worship. 

Initially Luther, along with Zwingli adhered to all five solas.  However, in October 1529, the two men could not reach agreement on the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.  At that point, Luther started his own denomination in Germany and Zwingli his in Switzerland.  However, Zwingli died prematurely, leaving his successor Heinrich Bullinger to continue in his footsteps.  But, Bullinger was only five years older than Calvin, and like him, part of the second generation of Reformers.  Calvin’s work in transforming Geneva into a model Reformed city eclipsed Bullinger’s writings.  Therefore, as Calvin’s reputation grew, his Reformed Protestantism spread quickly throughout the Continent.     

And that’s how Lutheranism and Calvinism came to be born. 

For more information, see: The Origins of Calvinism by Joel Beeke.

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