Martin Luther Unleashed

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Completely freed from the authority of Papal Rome, Luther’s own authority begins to grow, as do political power plays and struggles against rivals.


The Truth Behind

The Protestant Reformation

Part 5

Martin Luther Unleashed

Did the Protestant reformers bring about a return to pure New Testament Christianity? Were the reformers led by God’s Holy Spirit? The truth contained in this series is astonishing.

Shocking and sobering truths have come to light in this series. We have learned that “Christendom” has undergone some radical changes since the time of Jesus Christ and His Apostles.

From authentic history, we have seen that pagan ceremonies and traditions were introduced into the professing Christian church soon after the death of the original Apostles. We found spiritual corruption, power politics, and worldliness dominating in the ruling Catholic Church during the “Dark” Ages.

In recent installments, the real facts about Luther’s early life and frustrations—his rebellion against authority and the need for obedience—have been discussed. We have seen that nationalism and politics were the guiding forces in the Lutheran reformation. Last issue, we discussed the painful episode of Luther’s hypocritical involvement in the German Peasant War and his ranting appeal to the princes to “smite, strangle and stab” them in the name of God.

 Now we will discuss the further growth of Lutheranism, and Luther’s continued reliance on princes and politics.

The Growth of Lutheranism

Divisions and scandals plagued the Protestant camp during Luther’s later years. The armies of princes and political power might guarantee that the reformed religion would be outwardly maintained in certain territories. But they had no power to cleanse the faith and morals of subjects, nor were they able to make of one spirit the warring factions that rose within the Protestant movement.

During these years began a controversy between the German and Swiss reformers concerning the true meaning of Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper, as it was now called. This contest caused a lasting breach between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches—a breach we will examine more fully in a later section.

Meanwhile, in January 1530, the emperor sent a call to the German princes for a Diet to meet in Augsburg. He proposed that the friendly adjustment of religious differences should be the primary object of its meetings.

The Protestants therefore prepared a comprehensive statement of their beliefs and of their criticisms of the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. It was chiefly drawn up by Luther and Melanchthon, the latter doing most of the actual construction.

The “Augsburg Confession,” as it was called, is very important to understand. It is the official statement of the position of the Lutheran Church, and has remained the basis of their doctrines to this day.

Let us notice Reginald Walker’s scholarly summary of the Lutheran position as set forth by Melanchthon (with Luther’s advice) in this creed: “His purpose was to show that the Lutherans had departed in no vital and essential respect from the Catholic Church, or even from the Roman Church, as revealed in its earlier writers. That agreement is expressly affirmed, and many ancient heresies are carefully repudiated by name. On the other hand, Zwinglian and Anabaptist positions are energetically rejected. The sole authority of Scripture is nowhere expressly asserted. The papacy is nowhere categorically condemned. The universal priesthood of believers is not mentioned. Yet Melanchthon gave a thoroughly Protestant tone to the confession as a whole. Justification by faith is admirably defined, the Protestant notes of the church made evident; invocation of saints, the mass, denial of the cup, monastic vows, and prescribed fasting rejected” (Walker, Reginald F. An Outline History of the Catholic Church, Newman Press, 1944. p. 372).

Protestants Acknowledge Their Unity with Roman System

Notice first of all that this Confession affirms the unity of the Lutherans with the Roman Catholic Church. Stress is given to the fact that Protestant and Catholic are essentially one church—one system of belief.

Reference to the sole authority of the Scriptures is by this time omitted. The Protestant doctrines of justification by faith alone and rejection of the Catholic sacramental system are the only real points of difference.

Instead of advocating a return to the belief and faith and practice of Jesus Christ and the true Apostolic Church founded by Him, the reformers now stress the unity of Protestantism with the pagan philosophies, beliefs, and practices of the corrupted Roman Catholic system.

As we have seen, the Romish church had now strayed as far from the teachings and practices of Christ and the Apostles as would seem possible. Yet, time and again, we will see the Protestants stressing their “unity” with this reprobate system.

In spite of the conciliatory tone of this Confession, it was rejected by Charles V, and the Catholic-dominated Diet. They ordered the complete restoration of the Catholic faith pending a general council within a year (Hausser, Ludwig. The Period of the Reformation, American Tract Society, 1873. p. 123).

Luther Now Urges War

Fearing punitive measures and the loss of church property they had seized, eleven cities united with eight Protestant princes in forming the Schmalkaldic League as a defense against the emperor (Alzog, Johannes. Manual of Universal Church History. 1878. pp. 240–241). It is interesting to note at this juncture that Luther once again changed his policy for the sake of expediency.

He had formerly held, with Scripture (Romans 13), that it was a sin to oppose the emperor or any legally constituted authority (Walker, p. 375). But now he urged them to employ violence to defend his doctrines. “The Protestant princes, together with certain imperial cities of South Germany, united in the League of Smalcald to resist the arbitrary proceedings of the emperor in his efforts to crush out the new opinions. Luther, who had hitherto opposed a resort to arms, now declared that Christians were bound to defend their princes when unlawfully assaulted. The league strengthened itself by an alliance with France, Denmark, and the Dukes of Bavaria. The territories of the emperor were again threatened by an irruption of the Turks under Soliman. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to carry out the measures of repression which had been resolved upon at Augsburg. Accordingly, the peace of Nuremberg was concluded in 1532, which provided that religious affairs should be left as they were until they could be arranged by a new diet or a general council” (Fisher, George P. History of the Christian Church, Scribner’s, 1887. pp. 305–306).

From the peace of Nuremberg, the situation of the Protestant territories remained substantially the same for several years. But many enlightening events took place within Luther’s camp as the “fruits” of his teaching became more apparent. And in many cases, Luther’s resort to an immoral act as being “expedient” to his cause is to be observed.

Luther Condones Bigamy

Perhaps the most outstanding example of Luther’s willingness to alter his standards in order to accommodate his princely protectors is the well-known case of Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse. Philip’s constant adulteries made him anxious as to his salvation, and he began to reason that perhaps a second marriage to a more attractive wife would be the solution to his problems. He appealed to the Old Testament in an attempt to justify this, with motivation behind his “reasoning” strengthened by his acquaintance with an attractive seventeen-year-old daughter of a lady in his sister’s court.

It will be helpful at this point to include extracts from a complete account of this matter by historian Jules Michelet. In it, we find quoted the direct answer of Luther and his associates to the Landgrave’s application:

The most warlike amongst the Protestant chiefs, the impetuous and choleric Landgrave of Hesse, caused it to be represented to Luther, that the state of his health required him to cohabit with more than one wife. The instructions given to Bucerus for negotiating this matter with the theologians of Wittemberg offer a curious mixture of sensuality, of religious apprehensions, and of daring frankness.

The application of the Landgrave of Hesse occasioned extreme embarrassment to Luther. The whole of the theologians at Wittemberg assembled on the occasion, to frame a reply, in which they determined upon effecting a compromise with the prince. They acceded to his request for permission to take a second wife, but upon condition that she should not be publicly recognized. “Your highness,” they state in their answer, “will, of your own accord, readily suggest to yourself the difference which exists between laying down a law to be universally promulgated, and one to serve a private and urgent exigency. We cannot publicly introduce or give our sanction, as by a law, to a permission for marrying a plurality of wives. We implore your highness to reflect upon the danger in which that man would be placed who should be convicted of having introduced into Germany a law such as this, whereby divisions would be instantly created amongst families, and a series of eternal lawsuits arise. Your highness is of a frail constitution; you sleep little, and it is requisite to adopt very great precautions in your case. The great Scanderbeg frequently exhorted his soldiers to observe chastity, telling them that nothing was so detrimental to their pursuit as the pleasures of love. May it please your highness to examine seriously the various considerations involved in this matter; the scandal, the labours, the cares, the grief, and weakness, which, as has been shown to you, are involved in it. If, however, your highness is utterly determined upon marrying a second wife, we are of opinion that it ought to be done secretly. Signed and sealed at Wittemberg, after the feast of Saint Nicholas, in the year 1539.—Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, Martin Bucer, Antony Corvin, Adam John Lening, Lustin Wintfert, Dyonisius Melanther” (Michelet, Jules. The Life of Luther, Written by Himself, 1859. Translated by William Hazlitt. pp. 251, 253).

Luther’s counsel to make a “secret sin” of this matter was to go unheeded. His responsibility for advising the Landgrave to break God’s law was now to exact its penalty. When the news began to leak out, Luther now advised the Landgrave to break another of God’s commandments!

Now Luther Counsels a Lie

“Though an attempt was made to keep the affair private, that soon proved impossible. Luther could only advise ‘a good strong lie’, but Philip was manly enough to declare: ‘I will not lie’” (Walker, p. 378).

The scandal resulting from this episode did great damage to the Protestant cause. Thoughtful men were beginning to wonder where Luther’s doctrine of “grace alone” might lead.

But the main point to remember is that Martin Luther—professing to be a servant of God—had knowingly and deliberately advocated that a man should break two of God’s commandments.

In the meantime, the deterioration of morals continued through all classes of Protestant society. “The Protestants had already begun to relax in the severity of their demeanor and practice. They reopened the houses where debaucheries were wont to be carried on. ‘Better,’ observed Luther, ‘would it have been that the devil had never been banished, than that he should return in sevenfold strength’ (13 September, 1540)” (Michelet, p. 255).

Luther’s Death

The course of Protestantism was now firmly in the hands of the Lutheran princes, and, with constant threats from the Catholic League, they continued to hold on to the ground gained thus far.

The Catholic Council of Trent opened in 1545. With various interruptions for war, it was to continue to meet in irregular sessions until 1563. Its purpose was mainly to investigate and clear up some of the abuses that had led to the Reformation. The result was a conservative reformation within the Catholic Church, but along strictly Roman lines, of course.

Soon after this Council began its sessions, and at a time when the emperor had made peace with the Turks and his other enemies, and now seemed ready for a fresh assault against the Protestant princes, Luther made a trip to Eisleben, his birthplace.

In view of the subsequent history of Germany, it will be well to note that Luther’s final sermon was a railing attack against the Jewish people. He seems to have been possessed with the same vicious hatred and jealousy of the Jews as later characterized the rule of Adolph Hitler. Alzog describes this tendency:

Ascending the pulpit of St. Andrew’s Church, in Eisleben, for the last time, Luther once more called down the vengeance of heaven upon the Jews, a race of people whom he had so unjustly and virulently assailed in his earlier writings, that his followers after his death were confused at the very mention of his malignant denunciations. In his first pamphlet against them, he called upon Christians to take the Bible from them, to burn their books and synagogues with pitch and brimstone, and to forbid their worship under penalty of death; and in his second, entitled “Of Shem Hamphoras,” he describes them at the very outset as “young devils doomed to hell,” who should be driven out of the country (Alzog, p. 271).

Thus, when we read of the atrocities committed against the Jews by Hitler’s Third Reich, we may be reminded that such an attitude was remarkably displayed in the founder of German Protestantism.

Luther himself was unhappy and wretched during his last months. Disturbed by the terrible state of morality to which his doctrine of faith alone had brought the inhabitants of Wittenberg, he wrote his wife in July, 1545, “Let us go out from this Sodom” (Alzog, p. 270).

It was while prospects were thus darkening that Luther died on a visit to Eisleben, the town in which he was born, on February 18, 1546, in consequence of an attack of heart-disease or apoplexy. His last years had been far from happy. His health had long been wretched. The quarrels of the reformers, to which he had contributed his full share, distressed him. Above all, the failure of the pure preaching of justification by faith alone greatly to transform the social, civic, and political life about him grieved him (Walker, p. 379).

Thus it was even apparent to Luther that his doctrines had in large measure failed to cause men to lead lives more consistent with spiritual principles. He often had periods of despondency in his last years, when he seriously wondered if he were not dragging many souls with him to eternal condemnation (Plummer, Alfred. The Continental Reformation in Germany, France and Switzerland from the Birth of Luther to the Death of Calvin. Scribner, 1912. p. 132).

After Luther’s death, the Protestant princes suffered a military defeat at the battle of Muhlberg, in 1547. The emperor granted an interim, which was essentially a victory for the Catholics, until another session of the Council of Trent could be called.

The Reformation Settlement

But in 1554, the Lutheran prince Maurice of Saxony united with Henry II of France to inflict a crushing defeat on Charles V. The Lutherans now demanded full religious freedom and the right to keep all ecclesiastical property seized thus far (Alzog, pp. 279–280).

A compromise called the Peace of Augsburg was finally reached in September 1555. It permitted each prince to determine whether Catholicism or Lutheranism should be professed in his territory. No choice was given his subjects. All ecclesiastical properties seized before 1552 were to be retained by the Lutherans; all seizures since that time were to be returned. Only Catholicism and Lutheranism (as defined in the Augsburg Confession) were permitted in Germany. All other deviationists were to continue to be punished as “heretics” (Walker, p. 382).

Therefore, in 1555, the division of Germany between Catholic and Lutheran was made permanent. In after years, the most serious challenge to this state of things was made in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). In the course of this terrible war, between the princes of the Catholic League and those of the Protestant Union, nearly half the population of Germany is said to have perished by the sword, famine, or the plague. But, by the Peace of Westphalia, it finally ended in relatively the same religious division of Germany as had been decided upon in the Peace of Augsburg.

Thus, religious hatred, political division, and unceasing war continued to follow in the wake of the Lutheran reform. The decline in public morals was also a noticeable factor, as we shall see.

The political and religious alliance of Luther with the German princes placed the destiny of his cause in their hands from the first. And this religious patriotism, in turn, prepared the way for the strong national state in Germany—a state that in more recent times bathed much of the world in blood under Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolph Hitler.

Before analyzing the doctrines and practices of the Lutheran movement and the ultimate result of this religious upheaval, we will first recount the course of the Reformation in other lands, such as Switzerland, France, and England.

Since, however, all authorities agree that the “prime mover” in the Protestant camp was Luther himself, and that the Reformation as a whole was activated more from this source than any other, we will only outline this course.

Lest we lose our perspective in the maze of historical events, places, and personalities, let us again ask ourselves: Was the Protestant Reformation a movement activated of Apostolic Christianity? Were its “fruits” the result of the Holy Spirit’s operation?

The startling facts of history have revealed how Martin Luther’s doctrine of “faith alone” led to spiritual decay in many areas. They have shown how Luther’s political involvement with the German princes led him to condone bigamy and urge the nobles to “smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly” their peasants in the infamous Peasant’s War. Even at the end of his life, we noted Luther’s ranting attack against the Jews—echoed later under Hitler’s Third Reich, although anti-Semitism was not at all dead in the interim.

Throughout, we have asked: Was the Protestant movement a genuine “reformation” of the one true Church which Jesus promised to build? (Matthew 16:18). Was it a sincere, Spirit-led return to the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints?” (Jude 3).

Now we shall continue this revealing analysis of the Reformation with the dramatic story of its progress in Switzerland. We shall first consider the man who began the reform movement in that land. He is little known to most modern churchgoers, yet he has exerted a powerful influence on the beliefs and practices many Protestant churches hold to this day. His name was Ulrich Zwingli.

The Zwinglian Reform

During the early years of the Lutheran reform, a movement that was similar in many respects began in Switzerland. The guiding force of this movement in its early stages was Ulrich Zwingli.

Zwingli was born in 1484 in the mountain village of Wildhaus and was a bright student from his youth. He studied at the University of Vienna and then went to Basel. He became absorbed in humanism, and later began studying the Greek Testament published by Erasmus. From this, he copied with his own hand the epistles of Paul that he might commit them to memory.

In addition to his scholarly interests, Zwingli was also a zealous patriot and wished to reform the corrupt social and political life of his country. Bribes and ecclesiastical positions were commonly offered influential Swiss to gain their allegiance in fighting the battles of the pope or of the French king (Hausser, pp. 127–128).

After receiving his master’s degree at the University of Basel, Zwingli was appointed as a parish priest through the influence of his uncle. He himself received for a time a pension from the pope by consenting to the hiring of Swiss youths as mercenary soldiers in the pope’s army (Walker, p. 360).

He was finally led to denounce this practice of mercenary hiring because of vigorous French activities to this end in his own parish. Zwingli then was able to effect a transfer of his activities to the famous pilgrim shrine of Einsiedeln, which greatly enlarged his influence and reputation.

Zwingli’s Doctrinal Development

During this time Zwingli was led to see the futility of the superstitious pilgrimages made each year to the religious shrines in Einsiedeln, and was led to preach against one Samson, a seller of indulgences.

He also continued at this time his study of Scripture and began to develop a doctrine of justification similar to Luther’s. He remembered some of the humanist lectures he had heard in the university, exposing the worthlessness of indulgences and affirming the death of Christ as the only price of forgiveness. He began to feel that Scripture was the only authority and, through its study, developed many points that came out in his later teaching.

In 1518, Zwingli was transferred to the cathedral church of Zurich. He now refused his papal pension, and opposed all foreign entanglements of the Swiss. It was not until 1522 that Zwingli definitely broke with Rome.

When some of his parishioners broke the Lenten fast, citing Zwingli’s doctrine of the sole authority of the Scriptures (Hausser, p. 132), he preached and published in their defense, and the bishop of Constance sent a commission to put down the innovations. Zwingli now appealed to the civil authorities, and the Zurich burgomaster eventually ruled that only those things taught in Scripture were to be preached. Thus the road was open for a religious and political revolution.

Rapid Changes Occur

News of the Reformation in Germany under Luther had now reached most of Switzerland, and this was an additional encouragement to their cause. Many of Luther’s writings were also being distributed among the German-speaking Swiss, and his doctrine of justification by faith alone was now widely understood (Fisher, George P. The Reformation, Scribner, 1873. p. 147).

But, as we shall see, with the aid of the civil authorities, who were fed up with Roman tyranny, Zwingli was able to bring about an even greater change than had Luther.

Zwingli believed that the ultimate authority was the Christian community, and that the exercise of that authority was through the duly constituted organs of civil government acting in accordance with the Scriptures. Only that which the Bible commands, or for which distinct authorization can be found in its pages, is binding or allowable (Walker, p. 361).

Because of his strong belief that the Bible ought to be the complete guide in doctrine and practice, Zwingli went much farther than Luther in his reform. His attitude toward the heathen ceremonies and feasts that had crept into the Catholic Church was much stricter than that of Luther. “While Luther was disposed to leave untouched what the Bible did not prohibit, Zwingli was more inclined to reject what the Bible did not enjoin” (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 145).

Zwingli now began the process of getting cantonal government officials to back his teaching. He arranged for a public debate on sixty-seven articles, involving the Catholic doctrines on the mass, good works, intercession of saints, monastic vows, and the existence of purgatory. The Bible was to be the authority on which the discussion was to be based. “In the resulting debate the government declared Zwingli the victor, in that it affirmed that he had not been convicted of heresy, and directed that he should continue his preaching. It was an endorsement of his teaching” (Walker, p. 362).

Many changes now took place. The priests and nuns began to marry. Images, relics, and organs were done away. The confiscation of ecclesiastical properties by the state began in 1524. That same year, Zwingli married a woman with whom he had lived since 1522—not without considerable scandal (Walker, p. 363).

Because of the political value of Switzerland in the wars, the pope had not directly interfered with the Zwinglian movement all this time. Zwingli encouraged the spread of his movement throughout Switzerland. Most of the cities soon came under the influence of his teaching, and even the great German city of Strasbourg had been won to the Zwinglian, rather than the Lutheran, point of view.

It is important to note, however, that the changes were not actually accompanied by the wholesale conversion of the individuals in these cities to Zwingli’s teachings. Rather, it was a combination politico-religious movement aided by the Swiss Republican Party, which came to oppose all things Roman. It was this very alliance with politics that soon led to Zwingli’s death on the battlefield.

Zwingli’s Basic Doctrinal Position

In 1525, Zwingli published his main theological work, the “Commentary on True and False Religion.” Fisher summarizes his doctrinal position:

Although in most points he held the ordinary Protestant views, he differed from them in the doctrine of the Sacrament, as will hereafter be explained. He held to predestination as a philosophical tenet, but taught that Christ has redeemed the entire race. He considered original sin a disorder rather than a state involving guilt. He believed that the sages of antiquity were illuminated by the Divine Spirit, and in his catalogue of saints he placed Socrates, Seneca, the Catos, and even Hercules (Fisher, The History of the Christian Church, p. 308).

Here we note that Zwingli so totally misunderstood the purpose and nature of God’s Holy Spirit as to imagine that it was guiding the pagan philosophers of antiquity, whose immoral lives and teachings are clearly alluded to by the Apostle Paul in his letter to Christians in Rome (Romans 1:18–32).

Of course, many Protestant writers acclaim Zwingli for his “broad” views on the heathen speculators. Hastie lauds Zwingli’s view: “With a breadth of thought and feeling rare in his age, he recognized a divine inspiration in the thoughts and lives of the nobler spirits of antiquity, such as Socrates, Plato, and Seneca, and hoped even to meet with them in heaven” (Hastie, William. The Theology of the Reformed Church in Its Fundamental Principles, Clark, 1904. p. 184).

Zwingli’s desire to meet these ancient philosophers in heaven is illuminating to the real student of Scripture. He had altered many outward Catholic forms for the better, and had adopted Luther’s fundamental doctrine of justification, but his entire concept of God and of the ultimate purpose of salvation was still essentially that of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Lutheran and Zwinglian branches of the Protestant movement had scarcely begun to develop when they came into a violent controversy on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, as they called it. It was a basic matter for both parties, and neither would give ground or yield to the other.

The Controversy Over the Lord’s Supper

Luther insisted that the objective presence of the glorified body and blood of Christ was actually in the bread and wine. In some mysterious way, His body and blood are actually received by the communicant whether he believes or not.

On the other hand, Zwingli denied that Christ is present in any such sense, and believed the Lord’s Supper to be simply a memorial of His atoning death.

In the dispute, little love was shown on either side. Zwingli thought that Luther’s idea of the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a Catholic superstition. He said that a physical body could only be in one place, and that Christ was at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

 Luther accused Zwingli of exalting human reason above Scripture. He tried to explain the physical presence of Christ on ten thousand altars at once to be a scholastic assertion that the qualities of Christ’s divine nature were not communicated to His human nature and so, as spirit, He could be everywhere at once.

Perhaps the significant thing is that this dispute showed clearly that—whether either one was right—they were not of the same spirit. From then on, they could not honestly claim that the one Holy Spirit of God was guiding them into truth—and that they were one in Christian fellowship. “Luther declared Zwingli and his supporters to be no Christians, while Zwingli affirmed that Luther was worse than the Roman champion, Eck. Zwingli’s views, however, met the approval not only of German-speaking Switzerland, but, of much of southwestern Germany. The Roman party rejoiced at this evident division of the Evangelical forces” (Walker, p. 364).

The heated controversy over this point extended for many years, and included a series of pamphlets, preachments, and discussions. The principal and, as far as results, final discussion between the reformers on this point took place in the castle of Philip I, the Landgrave of Hesse mentioned earlier, in Marburg. Philip, we remember, had such great sexual problems of his own at this time that he seldom partook of the Lord’s Supper because of a guilty conscience (Walker, p. 377). We may add that it seems peculiar that an adulterer, a bigamist, and a drunkard like the Landgrave should be one of the lay leaders in the Reformation movement.

But Philip was one of the political mainstays of the Protestant movement, and desired that the two reforming parties come to an agreement, if at all possible. Therefore, he invited the leaders of both parties to meet at his castle and on October 1, 1529, the discussions began.

 Although Luther was suspicious of the doctrine of the Swiss on the trinity and the original sin, the main point of difference was the presence or absence of Christ’s physical body in the Lord’s Supper. Luther insisted on a literal interpretation of the words: “This is my body.” Zwingli held that a physical body could not be in two places at one time. Though the discussions lasted for several days, agreement was impossible, and the two parties finally parted—each doubting the “Christianity” of the other (Kurtz, J. H. Church History, Vol. II. 1891, p. 273).

The Landgrave arranged one final meeting of the reformers, and urged upon them the importance of coming to some sort of understanding.

The Final Meeting of Luther and Zwingli

Schaff describes this meeting:

On Monday morning he arranged another private conference between the Saxon and the Swiss Reformers. They met for the last time on earth. With tears in his eyes, Zwingli approached Luther, and held out the hand of brotherhood: but Luther declined it, saying again, “Yours is a different spirit from ours.” Zwingli thought that differences in non-essentials, with unity in essentials, did not forbid Christian brotherhood. “Let us,” he said, “confess our union in all things in which we agree; and, as for the rest, let us remember that we are brethren. There will never be peace in the churches if we cannot bear differences on secondary points.” Luther deemed the corporal presence a fundamental article, and construed Zwingli’s liberality into indifference to truth. “I am astonished,” he said, “that you wish to consider me as your brother. It shows clearly that you do not attach much importance to your doctrine.” Melanchthon looked upon the request of the Swiss as a strange inconsistency. Turning to the Swiss, the Wittenbergers said, “You do not belong to the communion of the Christian Church. We cannot acknowledge you as brethren.” They were willing, however, to include them in that universal charity which we owe to our enemies (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII. Hendrickson, 1996 (1888). pp. 644–645).

Thus we see that Luther parted from Zwingli, not in the feeling that the Swiss party was guided by the Holy Spirit, but that Zwingli was guided by a different “spirit” than himself. Indeed, there is ample testimony, even among Protestant writers, that the reformers did not have the “unity of the Spirit” that only God’s Spirit can bring.

Notice Plummer’s account of Zwingli’s desire to avoid this pathetic disagreement:

But, there is no need to doubt his declaration that he had carefully avoided corresponding with Luther, because he says, “I desired to show to all men the uniformity of the Spirit of God, as manifested in the fact that we, who are so far apart, are in unison one with the other, yet without collusion.” They did not remain in unison, as all the world knows; and it is one of the many sad facts in the history of the Reformation that Luther declared Zwingli’s violent death to be a judgment on him for his eucharistic doctrine (Plummer, pp. 141–142).

Zwingli’s Death

Soon after the Marburg Conference, a war broke out between the cantons of Switzerland, which resulted in the death of Zwingli. It began as a direct result of the attempt of the Protestant cities to starve the Catholic cantons into submission, and ended with the Catholics repossessing some of the ground they had previously lost.

The trouble developed out of the persecution of the Protestants in the Catholic cantons. The behavior of the Catholic cantons became threatening, and Zwingli recommended a resort to violent measures to force them into submission.

The chief demands that were really made were that the Protestant doctrine, which was professed in the lower cantons, should be tolerated in the upper, and that persecution should cease there. But the question was whether even these demands would be enforced. Zwingli was in favor of overpowering the enemy by a direct attack, and of extorting from them just concessions. But he was overruled, and half measures were resorted to. The attempt was made to coerce the Catholic cantons by nonintercourse, by thus cutting off their supplies. The effect was the Catholics were enabled to collect their strength, while the Protestant cities were divided by jealousies and by disagreement as to what might be the best policy to adopt. Zurich was left without help, to confront, with hasty and inadequate preparation, the combined strength of the Catholic party. The Zurich force was defeated at Cappel, on the 11th of October, 1531, and Zwingli, who had gone forth as a chaplain with his people to battle, fell (Fisher, The Reformation, pp. 153–156).

Why Zwingli Died in Battle

The cruel truth is that Zwingli’s violent death was a direct result of his own actions. He had not heeded the Scriptural injunction to “keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Neglecting to apply Christ’s declaration: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), Zwingli had made constant use of politics and physical power to gain the results he desired.

As Fisher states: “Zwingli was a patriot and a social reformer” (Fisher, The Reformation, p. 145). Like Luther, he put his trust in the princes of this world.

Therefore, Zwingli’s violent death on the battlefield—in an essentially religious war which he himself had urged—seems a striking confirmation of Christ’s warning: “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

After his death, the reformed party could still have gained the victory. But it was not united, and each city aspired to be the metropolis of a proposed confederation—and so was jealous of the others. Consequently, they were forced to conclude a humiliating peace, and had to yield some of the gains they had previously made (Kurtz, p. 269).

Thus we see division among the followers of Zwingli, and an even greater division between them and the Lutherans. That same spirit of mutual antagonism possessed many of their Protestant successors in the generations that followed.

One has only to look about him to see the hundreds of differing Protestant churches. On occasion, for a show of unity, they call themselves, collectively, the “Church of Christ.” But they are not of one spirit by any means.

At the very beginning of this division among the Protestant churches, Martin Luther was willing to face this fact. Referring to Zwingli and his followers, he said: “Either one party or the other must necessarily be working in the service of Satan; the matter does not admit of discussion, there is no possibility of compromise” (Alzog, Universal History, p. 352).

Thus began the religious division and confusion of our times. Our purpose is to determine if this Protestant system—or any part of it—is a genuine restoration of the one true Church Jesus Christ said He would build.

Next time, we will continue this gripping series with the study of John Calvin’s tremendous influence on the Reformation. You will be surprised to find out the truth about the origin of many modern Protestant ideas!


To read the previous installments of this series, please follow these links:

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