By Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
It is commonly believed, and rightfully so, that the Puritans were second generation reformers. They persisted in the same theology where the first generation reformers were commensurate. They were not those who sowed the reformation harvest, but rather, they cultivated the theological crop. In this brief historical survey, my intention is to set forth a biographical account of those men who set the stage for Puritan Theology.
It is obvious by their writings that the Puritans stood upon the shoulders of men like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Theodore Beza, and other first generation reformers. These in turn stood upon the shoulders of men like Augustine, and Chrysostom; early fathers of the church who in turn bowed before the presence of Jesus Christ and His Word. The doctrines of these reformers were the doctrines of the Puritans. These Puritans honed reformation doctrines to sharp edges able to magnify the God who was worthy of such praise for the redemption wrought in Jesus Christ. They harnessed the seeds of the reformation and cultivated a model of life and doctrine which was closely knit together in biblical harmony. This can only be appreciated when one ventures back to the dawning of the Reformation, and peer into the lives of the early reformers.
It would not be beneficial in this article to transcribe the entire History of the Reformation by D'Aubingne, or The Reformation in Scotland by John Knox, when one can much more conveniently buy the books, and others like them, and read them at their leisure. This is simply a short timeline of events and people leading up to the Puritans and their mark on history. It is a terse depiction of those who were used of God to prepare theology for the development of the Puritan mind.
First, it must be asked, “What is a Reformer?” This term is used to describe those men who desired to reach back to the foundations of the Word of God and the true Gospel of Jesus Christ in light of human traditions and ecclesiastical corruption. A reformer’s intention, when applied in this way to church history, was particularly seen in the reformation of the corrupted Roman Catholic Church. To “reform” something is to “make right that which is wronged” or to “amend, rectify, or remedy” something. The reformers desired to “rectify or amend” the corrupt traditions of the Roman Catholic church and turn it back to the Bible’s authority alone. However, this term can still be used throughout church history meaning to “continually amend that which is wronged.” The church is not perfect, and will never be perfect. Thus, it continues to be reformed and amended before God in all its ways. The term Semper Reformanda ought to be continually enforced, in that the church should be “always reforming.”
Many scholars would set the dawn of the historical landmark of the Reformation on the shoulders of Martin Luther. Their focus would fall upon the nailing of his 95 theses to the door of Wittemberg as the inauguration for the Protestant Church and its endeavor to change the darkness which had settled upon the Roman Catholic church for so long. I believe this to be an inaccuracy. The Reformation began over 100 years before the Augustinian monk had ever been born.
The first reformer to be noticed is John Wickliffe. He is known as the morning star of the Reformation; a star rising upon a new day. Wickliffe was born in 1330 AD and died in 1384. He attended Oxford University, receiving his doctorate in 1372. Most of his life was spent teaching at Oxford, and studying God's Word in Oxford’s extensive library. He was a brilliant scholar who mastered the late medieval scholastic tradition, and was recognized by John of Guant (The Duke of Lancaster) as one who was extraordinarily gifted in theology and preaching. Not only was he an able clergyman, but he was also involved in state affairs. Wickliffe performed diplomatic duties for the crown, and wrote extensively on supporting civil government.
Wickliffe was well respected and had a wide influence with his teaching and preaching. He wrote against the Roman Catholic church on many doctrinal points. He did not believe in the clerical ownership of land and property, as well as papal jurisdiction in secular affairs. He also believed that those clergy who lived in open immorality, as many of the corrupt "popes, bishops, and priests of the time," should relinquish their positions the moment they came upon unrepentant open sin. This would have included much of the political corruption found in the Catholic church, and if Wycliffe’s biblical teachings were heeded, many of the priests, bishops, cardinals and popes would have stepped down rather quickly.
In reaction to Wickliffe's open "defiance" of the Roman Catholic church and the Pope’s authority, a Papal bull was issued against Oxford to impede him from teaching. It also noted that Wickliffe was to appear before a "hearing" which, unsurprisingly, charged him with heresy against the mother church. He did attend that hearing and was formally charged with heresy. The Catholic church was adamantly opposed to his teachings, especially when he attacked the Mass. He also rejected all ceremony and organization not mentioned in the Bible (which would have excluded almost everything the Romans Catholic church performed), as well as the heretical doctrines of transubstantiation and the clerical "power" of the priesthood. His views on doctrines were more and more closely matched with that of Augustine. Nevertheless, as a result of his political connections, Wickliffe was not arrested at this hearing.
Wickliffe's best known work was that of the translation he accomplished from the Latin Vulgate to English. Though he did not translate the Bible from the original languages (the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) he still placed the first English Bible into the hands of the people. The translation was made available to the English people through the hands of the Lollards (or “poor preachers”) These Lollards were Wycliffe’s trained lay preachers who took up the task of spreading the Gospel even in light of the anathema of the Roman Catholic Church. They traveled with their Bible, and the clothes on their back, gaining sustenance by those who would take them in.
Wickliffe died in 1384 from two strokes. The Roman Catholic church never caught him to burn him at the stake. In spite of this, 40 years after his death, they dug up his bones and burned them to ashes, scattering them in a river, and formally excommunicated him from the Roman Catholic church.
The next great figure of Reformation thought (which at this time was simply an adherence to the truths of the Bible) was a Bohemian monk named John Hus (Jan Hus). He lived from 1372-1415. He studied at the university of Prague, and later became a professor there. He took priestly vows, and served the Catholic church for a time, until his conversion through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.In 1402 Hus was appointed rector and preacher of Prague's Bethlehem chapel, the center of the Czech reformed movement. During these years, many of Wickliffe's expositions of the Word of God moved the true Church closer and closer to biblical thinking. By 1407, adopting many of the same biblical insights, Hus was clearly identified with this kind of reforming thought by the Roman Catholic church. Hus wrote and preached against papal indulgences, clerical abuses of power, immorality of high living within the Catholic clergy, and the veneration of the Pope. He wrote to promote piety and godliness, rather than riotous living and excess which the Roman Catholic church allowed.
In 1414, Hus was summoned by the Archbishop of Prague to stand before a official hearing on his doctrines--the Roman Catholic church believing Hus was a heretic and yearned that his preaching be stopped. Since Hus refused this charge, and continued to preach the Gospel, the Roman Catholic church summoned him, under pretense of "safety", to appear and present his case before the Catholic tribunal. Instead of allowing him a fair trial, they arrested Hus and imprisoned him; Hus' case was never really heard. He did stand “trial” and was convicted of being a heretic. He was burned at the stake by the Catholic church on July 6, 1415. Hus sang hymns while he died.You may have heard the phrase, "your goose is cooked". This was first coined from the martyrdom of this reformer. Hus' name in German sounded like "goose". Thus, as he was burned, they coined the term "Hus is cooked (or, “your goose is cooked)" in German. Yet, Hus said to the Archbishop during his trial, that though he--the goose--be burned at the stake, another will come--a swan--to teach and preach the doctrines of the Bible; to finish the work of reformation which had begun. This swan would be no other than Martin Luther in the early 1500’s.
After John Hus, the next noteworthy reformer is William Tyndale. He was born in 1493 AD, and died a martyr in 1536. He was educated at Oxford, and became a prominent Greek Scholar. He had obtained a copy of Erasmas' Greek New Testament and vowed before the Lord that "nothing" would stop him from learning the Greek language. He was prominently skilled as a Greek scholar and attempted a translation of the Bible (the NT) from original Greek to English. He sought to publish this translation but was turned down at every corner for the rights to publish; especially since he appealed to the Roman Catholic Church. They did not want the laity to gain hold of a copy of the Bible in their own tongue lest they misinterpret it; the Romans church believed that only the mother church is able to rightly interpret the Bible.
Tyndale secretly finished the translation with the help of colleagues, and smuggled the new translation into English hands. During a dinner meeting among priests and bishops where Tyndale was present, he said that he "defied the Pope and all his laws" and vowed that "a plough-boy would know more of the Scriptures than they" so help him God. That English Bible did find its way into the hands of the plough-boys, yet, through Roman Catholic influence, King Henry VIII set his indignation against Tyndale and required the translation to be burned. Henry did this because Tyndale, among others, would not consent to the marriage of the King to Anne Bolin, subsequent to his divorce of Catherine of Argon. Tyndale had written a treatise on Christian growth which King Henry VIII read. In it the king saw that Tyndale was "sympathetic" towards "monarchs" because if priests abused their power, kings had the right of judgment and justice against them. Henry VIII favored this since the Pope had refused to annul his marriage with Catherine. King Henry ultimately set himself as the Defender of the Faith, above the Pope. So Henry VIII was partial towards Tyndale at first, and desired to meet him, though ultimately the King found out that Tyndale, because of Scriptural warrant, could not condone the King's divorce, and in his writings has stated that divorce was sin. Henry allowed the Roman Catholic church to arrest Tyndale. Tyndale was caught, arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. While he was being tied at the stake, Tyndale prayed that the "eyes of the King would be opened." In 1536, he was strangled to death and then burned. After his death, the circulation of the English Bible providentially found its way into the hands of King Henry VIII. In seeing the masterful work done, Henry issued an edict that every church was to have one of these Bibles on display in their chapel. Henry did make one adjustment to the Bible, and that was the insertion of the header which pronounced him Defender of the Faith on the title page. Although posthumously, Tyndale's prayer was heard.
Just after Tyndale came upon the reformation scene, another young monk named Martin Luther commenced a great stir in Germany. Luther was an Augustinian monk who, after much study, was persuaded by one of the later Reformation standards, "Sola Fide" (Faith alone), early in his walk with Christ. It was during his study of Paul’s epistle to the Romans where he was consumed by the divine and supernatural light of conversion. The text read, "The just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17 quoting Habakkuk 2:4.) Luther was a monk who felt the full weight of the Law of God resting upon his shoulders--that Law he was unable to keep, and thus, he, being a sinful man, was under the wrath of a holy God who condemned him for his sin. Not until Luther's conversion was this weight lifted. He had previously attempted to "work" for his salvation through the vain prayer of the rosary, priestly confession, contrition, penance and the like. He would often spend upwards of 6 hours in the confessional trying to account for the days' sins, but the moment he left the booth, he would remember one more, and fall under great guilt and sorrow. Only the atoning blood of Christ had the ability to wash the stains of those sins away.
Luther, after his conversion, posted his 95 theses to the door of a chapel in Wittemberg on October 31, 1517. This instigated a great controversy since he attacked the indulgences of the Roman Catholic church which were the bread and butter of the papacy. He was branded as a heretic, and was labeled as a conspirator among the "Hussites", the followers of John Hus--the goose. Luther was the swan which Hus "prophesied" about. Luther ultimately was forced to defy the pope, and the papacy, though in the beginning he desired to reform the church, not break away from it. However, he found no medium of compromise. Luther was not invited to Strasbourg to debate with Dr. John Eck. Actually, Luther's colleague, Dr. Carlstadt, was invited as a representative of these “novel” reformation teachings. The meeting was to be structured as a debate. Luther was not invited because if he had left the Wittemberg area, he would not be under the protection of the German Prince Elector Duke George of Saxony, who was favorable to Luther. But because the invitation gave Carlstadt and "any whom he may invite" safe conduct, Luther decided to attend, as well as Phillip Melancthon. Here Luther had his famous debate with Dr. John Eck. Luther defied Eck and astounded him with his extensive learning. Though Eck tried to stand his ground, he was taken back by the reformer's biblical stance and prowess. Those adhering to biblical truth knew Luther stood firm. He brought forth the truth of God and stated "The plough-boy with scripture is mightier than the greatest Pope without." He was obviously charged with heresy. But was not arrested at that time.
Luther was summoned by King Charles and the Bishopric to stand trial for his work. They beckoned him a summons to appear in the city of Worms before the king while under the crown’s safe conduct. Luther was under the impression that he was attending a formal debate to present his views but this was not the case. Luther was to attend the meeting, called the Diet of Worms, and defend himself. The King and Roman clergy had his books strewn upon a table in plain view. Luther was beckoned to come forward, and was asked two questions, 1) Are these your writings? Luther conceded they were. Secondly, 2) Will you retract them? Luther's response was "Most gracious emperor! Gracious princes and Lords. His majesty asked me two questions. As to the first, I acknowledge as mine the books that have been just named: I cannot deny them. As to the second, seeing that it is a question that concerns faith and the salvation of souls, and in which the Word of God, the greatest and most precious treasure either in heaven or earth, is interested, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection. I might affirm less than the circumstance demands, or more than truth requires, and so sin against this saying of Christ:--whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father in heaven.
For this reason I entreat your imperial majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may answer without offending against the Word of God." Luther was given one day to reflect on these things. That night he prayed this prayer:
O Almighty and Everlasting God! How terrible is this world! Behold, it openeth its mouth to swallow me up and I have so little trust in Thee! How weak is the flesh and how power is Satan! If it is in the strength of this world only that I must put my trust, all is over! My last hour is come, my condemnation has been pronounced! O God! O God! O God! Do thou help me against all the wisdom of the world! Do this; Thou shouldest do this Thou alone for this is not my work, but Thine. I have nothing to do here, nothing to contend for with these great ones of the world! I should desire to see my days flow on peaceful and happy. But the cause is Thine and it is a righteous and eternal cause. O Lord! Help me! faithful and unchangeable God! In no man do I place my trust. It would be vain! All that is of man is uncertain; all that cometh of man fails O God! My God, hearest Thou me not? My God, art thou dead? No! Thou canst not die! Thou hidest thyself only! Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it well! Act, then, O God stand at my side, for the sake of they well beloved Jesus Christ, who is my defense, my shield, and my strong tower." After a moment of silent struggle, he thus continues: "Lord! Where stayest Thou? O my God! Where art Thou? Come! Come! I am ready! I am ready to lay down my life for Thy truth patient as a lamb. For it is the cause of justice-it is Thine! I will never separate myself from Thee, neither now nor through eternity! And though the world should be filled with devils,-though my body, which is till the work of Thy hands, should be slain, be stretched upon the pavement, be cut in pieces, reduced to ashes, my soul is Thine! Yes! I have the assurance of Thy Word. My soul belongs to Thee! It shall abide forever with Thee! Amen! O God! Help me! Amen!"
The reason I included this at length, is because it is characteristic of the spirit behind the Reformation. Wickliffe, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Beza, and all the Puritans had a disposition which trusted in the power of Jesus Christ and the Lord God alone. They were very aware of their inherent weakness and their sinfulness.
Luther appeared before the Diet once more the next day. He gave a long speech in defense of his works. And in conclusion replied in this way to the question of recantation:
When he had ceased speaking, the Chancellor of Traves, the orator of the Diet, said indignantly: "You have not answered the question put to you. You were not summoned hither to call in question the decision of councils. You are required to give a clear and precise answer. Will you or will you not, retract?" Upon this Luther replied without hesitation: "Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning,- unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted,-and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience." And then looking round on this assembly before which he stood, and which held his life in its hands, he said: "Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me! Amen!"
Luther spent a great time in hiding after that meeting. As a matter of fact, his colleagues (friends of Duke George) kidnapped him that night in fear of his life, threw a sack over him and "stole" him away. This was unknown to Luther, yet, it most assuredly saved his life. He then spent a great deal of time in hiding. He took this time to teach, catechize, preach, and translate the Scriptures into the German tongue. One of the greatest Reformational works was written by Luther is called The Bondage of the Will. Luther believed this was his greatest work. It is still available to buy today and deals with a refutation of Erasmus’ denial of total depravity and a setting forth of the biblical picture of man’s total inability to save himself. Luther died in 1546.
While the Reformation was commencing in Germany under the guidance of Luther, Switzerland was beginning in an extensive Reformation as well. Two priests converted to Christianity were taking the country by storm. The first was named Ulrich Zwingli. He is the third most prominent Reformer of the time. He was born in 1484, in Wildhaus, St. Gall, Switzerland and showed early promise in education. His genius can readily be seen in his music and the ability to play 8 instruments. He studied at the University of Basel where he was captivated by humanistic studies. Zwingli was ordained a Catholic priest and served in parishes in Glarus for ten years (1506-1516), and Einsiedeln two years (1516-1518) until he was called to be the people's priest as the Great Minister in Zurich.After a long struggle with the moral problem of sensuality, he had a breakthrough much like Luther's, which cast him upon the waters of the Scriptures. The Scriptures produced in him a hostility to the medieval acetic practices of the priesthood, of which he wrote vehemently against.
Zwingli took Zurich to spiritual Reformation, by the grace of God. He preached straight through the Gospel of Matthew, which in those days was very rare to preach exegetically and continually through one book. It transformed the people to embrace the heart of the Reformation. Zwingli was killed during a war at that time in which he ministered to the soldiers. He died on the battlefield.
The greatest magisterial reformer to rival the eminence of Martin Luther during this time is John Calvin. Not only was Calvin an astounding man of his time, but his theology, resting upon Augustine, and upon the Apostles and Jesus Christ, shaped the theology of the Puritans.
Calvin was extraordinarily gifted by God. He was born in 1509 in Noyon, Picardie. His father was a notary who served the bishop of Noyon, and as a result of this connection Calvin, while at the age of 12, received 2 chaplainries which in turn paid for his education. Although he commenced training for the priesthood at the University of Paris, his father, because of a controversy with the Bishop and clergy of the Noyon cathedral, now decided his son should become a lawyer. (Luther also studied law and left it to become a priest as well). Later he studied at Bourges where he became converted, and joined the reformation cause against the Roman Catholic heresy. After his father died, Calvin returned to Paris where he joined friends there and wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was published when he was only 27. This work is one of the best products the Reformation produced. It has marked Calvin forever as a father of Reformed Thought. While Calvin was pastor of the Eglise St. Pierre and spent much of his time preaching, his greatest influence came from his writings.
Both his Latin and his French were clear and his reasoning lucid. He wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, all of the New testament except The Revelation of the Apostle John. He produced a great number of pamphlets, of which is notable The Necessity of Reforming the Church. It is a short work which should be read by every pastor today. But most important of all, his Institutes were rewritten a number of times and published through 5 editions. They began as a small book of 6 chapters, and were finished in the much larger work of 79 chapters.Calvin's influence through the Reformation was specifically seen in his work in Geneva, Switzerland. Though he was not happy to take up this work as chancellor over the entire city, still, if God desired to use him there, he would no doubt stay. A maxim which he vigorously lived by, even to his detriment, was, "Eat little, sleep less, and study more." Calvin’s work in Geneva resulted in the creation of a religious paradise where the Scriptures ruled the hearts of men from the rich to the poor. When John Knox visited Geneva, he said that it was as if “visiting heaven on earth.” The Lord used Calvin to convert the "city" into a religious city-state and a central hub of learning during the time of the Reformation.
The Reformation under men like Wycliffe, Hus, Zwingli, Tyndale, Luther and Calvin, solidified the Biblical doctrines of the faith, recapturing the true faith from the Roman Catholic church's counterfeit faith. The content of this victorious reaffirmation of biblical doctrine can be summed up in the five slogan terms of the Reformation. Here is a brief summary of their content:
Sola Christus: Christ alone. That only through the work of Jesus Christ alone may a man be saved. It is not by foreseen faith, or by good deeds, or by human merit that a man may obtain faith – these are all works stemming from a wicked and depraved heart which all men possess. Rather, it is solely on the merit of Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Man’s salvation is exclusively accomplished by God's work through his Son.
Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone. That Scripture is final authority for salvation and sanctification for the Christian. It is not by papal edicts, or priestly verdicts which have authority over the consciences of men. A man’s conscience may never be bound by human inventions or traditions, but only by the Word of God alone. Where the church and the word of God differ on doctrine, the Word of God takes supreme prominence.
Sola Gratia: Grace alone. Works that are accomplished by human effort have no place in the salvation of the soul. Men are miserable wretches in the sight of God. They are unworthy and worthless. Men are only saved by the electing grace of God in Christ. God is never obliged to save anyone. He acts completely by mercy and grace on those who are undeserving.
Sola Fide: Faith alone. That a person may, upon one act of believing, be justified in the sight of God for all eternity. It is a belief by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. It is one act to be justified by faith, then the remainder of the Christian life is a glorifying of God through holiness and obedience of a purified life. One cannot mix works and faith for salvation. Faith alone, as a gift given by Christ, and applied by the work of the Holy Spirit, is the efficient cause of justification.
Soli Deo Gloria: Glory to God alone. All things live and move and have their being to glorify God. God will be glorified in everything. He is glorified by those in heaven under His mercy, and is glorified by those in hell who glorify His justice. God shall be glorified by the saint and the sinner. Men shall reflect back to Him the radiance of His worth. All that men do will ultimately be for His glory, and for none other.
In the blessing of these men is the spirit of the Reformation which under girds the theology of Puritanism. Puritan theology lies in the exposition of the Word of God by men who were specially blessed by God in the faculties of the mind. The Puritans extracted and cultivated the gold in the books of the Reformers. They harvested what the Reformers planted. They emerged with A Puritan’s Mind.