Luther and the Right Wing of the Reformation (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


The Reformation was, of course, a return to the doctrine, liturgy, and church government of Scripture over against the departures and apostasy of Roman Catholicism. But the reformers, as difficult a task as they had in their opposition to Rome, faced the additional problem of radicals in the Reformation movement. In some ways, this radical movement was a greater threat to the success of the Reformation than Rome itself. All the reformers, though they had their differences on some points of doctrine, were united in their opposition to these men. The reformers had to guide the ship of the Reformation between the dangers on the left in the Roman Catholic Church, and on the right in the influential radical movement—the left wing opposition and the right wing opposition; the Scylla of Rome and the Charybdis of the radicals.

The basic problem was relatively simple. The reformers were wise men, endowed by God with extraordinary gifts of discretion and moderation. They knew that the evils in the Romish Church were many and great: wealth of the clergy, fornication in the monasteries, concubinage among the priests, simony, bribery, political intrigue in every level of church life, and the evils of formalism, image worship, and the idolatry of the mass in the worship services. But they also knew that all these evils were rooted in more fundamental doctrinal departures from the truth of Scripture, and that, if reform in morals, worship, and church government were to be brought about, this could take place only through doctrinal reform. If the church would, by the grace of Almighty God, be led back to the truth of Scripture, the rest of the reform would follow.

They also knew that the power of reform lay not in men’s efforts, but in the power of God’s grace revealed through His promise to preserve His church so that the gates of hell never would prevail against it. That is, they knew with total certainty that the power of reform was in the preaching and teaching of the pure gospel, and nothing else. God worked through the gospel by His Spirit. God alone could reform.

Translated into practice, thismeant that reform, especially in the area of the church’s liturgy and church government, had to be brought about slowly and carefully. The people had to be instructed and taught from the Scriptures. They had to have time to make what were, for the majority of the populace, momentous and earth-shaking changes. They had to learn to shift their blind trust in the institute of Rome and the pope to enlightened confidence in Christ alone as their Savior. They had to learn that the worship of God was not in liturgical functions, ceremonies, and rites, but that God is pleased with such worship as is in spirit and in truth. This took time, patience, and much, much instruction.

The radicals wanted everything changed at once. They wanted purity from the first moment of reform. They wanted to force change on the people, if not by the force of precept, then by the power of the sword. They believed the reformers were weak, lacking in courage, hesitant in the work, afraid of antagonizing the secular power, and, thus, unfit for the work that had to be done. This position, not at all uncommon in the church, led these radicals into excesses of every kind.

The radical reformation of which we speak is commonly called the Anabaptist Movement, and the radicals themselves, Anabaptists. This is due to the fact that nearly all of them repudiated infant baptism and insisted on “re-” or “ana-” baptism.

Nevertheless, the movement was by no means a unified one. One student of the Anabaptist movement divided it into three distinct branches: the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists, and the Rationalists. I am not sure that the names given to these three branches are particularly helpful, but, generally, the distinction is this. The Anabaptists were characterized especially by their desire to return the church to apostolic purity. They wanted to help the church jump back a millennium and a half and become what, at least to their minds, was the character of the church during the time of the apostles. The Spiritualists were the wild radicals who gave Luther major problems in the reformatory work in Wittenberg and who were guilty of the worst sort of excesses. They took the position that all externals in worship were sinful and that the only true worship was the communion of the soul with God through visions, dreams, inner revelations, and private conversations between God and the human heart. The Rationalists were of a far more sober kind, but are probably designated as rationalists because they denied many cardinal doctrines of Scripture.

So the Anabaptist movement is a diverse one, difficult to describe, and yet, in all its many forms, a grave threat to the Reformation. We shall treat the movements separately, with special attention to the main characters in the drama as the movement played itself out in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

Carlstadt and the Zwickau Prophets

This radical branch of the Reformation was known by various names. Luther himself called them Schwärmer, a term which suggests the uncontrollable buzzing of bees around a hive and is an apt description of them. Carlstadt became one of them.

Carlstadt was the leader of the Reformation in Wittenberg and a close friend and colleague of Martin Luther himself. He was born Andrew Bodenstein, but took the name of his birthplace. His advanced education was acquired in Rome, where he studied theology and canon law. In 1504 he went to Wittenberg to study, for already at this early date Wittenberg had gained a reputation for scholarship. He was an able student and, upon the acquisition of his degree, was hired to teach in the University of Wittenberg in the chair of theology. It is not surprising, therefore, that he came under the influence of Luther, was persuaded of Luther’s teachings, and joined forces with Luther in the reformatory movement.

Carlstadt was such a trusted friend of Luther that he went with him to the Leipzig Disputation in 1519 and engaged in a debate with John Eck over the issues of human freedom and divine grace. Eck was perhaps Europe’s most able debater, and Carlstadt was soon out of his depth. He had to be rescued by Luther’s intervention, something which hurt Carlstadt’s pride.

After the courageous stand of Luther at the Diet of Worms, Luther was whisked away in an apparent kidnapping by friends and hidden in the castle at Wartburg. This opened the door to Carlstadt to assume leadership of the Reformation in Wittenberg. That in itself would not have been all bad, but Carlstadt was becoming increasingly radical, and he seized the opportunity of Luther’s absence to steer the Reformation in a different direction than Luther had intended.

As I said earlier, Luther himself was conservative. In the early part of the Reformation, he had no intention of leaving the church, and his idea of effecting changes in the church was to do so slowly and carefully, teaching and preaching the pure gospel. In fact, Luther’s general position on change was to retain everything which Rome practiced except that which is explicitly contrary to Scripture.

But Carlstadt would have none of this. He began to attack every Romish practice that he could think of. First it was monasticism, then the mass, then the practice of administering the Lord’s Supper with the bread only, then the use of Latin in the liturgy. In close conjunction with all of this, he attacked the celibacy of the priests, and he himself married; he wrote an entirely new church constitution; and he stirred up the people to engage in wild and frenzied iconoclastic mob action in which crowds of people would enter churches, tear down images, smash painted glass windows, drag all the trappings of liturgy into the streets to be burned, and gut the inside of church buildings.

But even this was not the worst. Even before Worms, Carlstadt began to shift his thinking from the admittedly dry and sterile scholasticism of the Middle Ages to a blatant mysticism. He began to scoff at learning as being an impediment to knowing God. He spoke of the inner work of the Spirit as being sufficient for all knowledge necessary to salvation, and he began to repudiate infant baptism as a practice in the church.

The movement was given impetus by the visit of two Zwickau prophets, whose ideas we shall explain a little later. And even Thomas Münzer, that wild-eyed Anabaptist prophet, paid the city a brief visit. The city was ripe for anarchy.

It is not surprising that these matters should soon come to Luther’s attention. He considered his isolation in Wartburg to be reprehensible to Christ and to himself while the village and his university were going up in the flames of Carlstadt’s wild excesses. His Elector, Frederick the Wise, refused him permission to return, so fearful was he of the dangers which Luther faced from the Roman Catholics. But in a beautiful letter (quoted in part in my Portraits of Faithful Saints), Luther informed Frederick in no uncertain terms that he had to obey God rather than men.

He went in disguise and spent three days in the city without anyone knowing. He then came openly into the church where he had preached and worshiped, and delivered a series of eight sermons, so utterly biblical and moving that by their power alone peace was restored and the Schwärmer were driven from the city. It was a remarkable performance and an act of courage probably as great as, if not greater than, Luther’s stand at Worms. The sermons were delivered in a calm, almost matter-of-fact way, without histrionics, anger, condemnatory language, or abuse of those who were systematically wrecking the Reformation. They were quiet, but forceful expositions of the Word of God. Let preachers today, who so quickly are dissatisfied with the fruit of solid expository preaching, take note!

Of these sermons Schaff writes:

He preached eight sermons for eight days in succession, and carried the audience with him. They are models of effective popular eloquence, and among the best he ever preached. He handled the subject from the stand-point of a pastor, with fine tact and practical wisdom. He kept aloof from coarse personalities which disfigure so many of his polemical writings. Not one unkind word, not one unpleasant allusion, escaped his lips. In plain, clear, strong, scriptural language, he refuted the errors without naming the errorists….

The ruling ideas of these eight discourses are: Christian freedom and Christian charity; freedom from the tyranny of radicalism which would force the conscience against forms…; charity towards the weak….

It was an astonishing demonstration that Luther was right. Man cannot perform the work of reformation. Only God can do that. And God’s instrument then and now is the preaching of the Word of God. These sermons may still be read today. They can be found in Luther’s Works.

Luther’s own evaluation of the power of the word was (quoted in Schaff):

I will preach, speak, write, but I will force no one; for faith must be voluntary. Take me as an example. I stood up against the Pope, indulgences, and all papists, but without violence or uproar. I only urged, preached, and declared God’s Word, nothing else. And yet while I was asleep, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my Philip Melanchthon and Amsdorf, the Word inflicted greater injury on popery than prince or emperor ever did. I did nothing, the Word did every thing. Had I appealed to force, all Germany might have been deluged with blood; yea, I might have kindled a conflict at Worms, so that the Emperor would not have been safe. But what would have been the result? Ruin and desolation of body and soul. I therefore kept quiet, and gave the Word free course through the world. Do you know what the Devil thinks when he sees men use violence to propagate the gospel? He sits with folded arms behind the fire of hell, and says with malignant looks and frightful grin: “Ah, how wise these madmen are to play my game! Let them go on; I shall reap the benefit. I delight in it.” But when he sees the Word running and contending alone on the battle-field, then he shudders and shakes for fear. The Word is almighty, and takes captive the hearts.

Carlstadt lost his effectiveness as a reformer. For a time he submitted to Luther and Luther’s policy for reformation, but he did so sullenly. For a brief time he continued to lecture in the University, but soon found this intolerable, for his heart was filled with revenge against Luther. After retiring, he lived simply and alone, but gave himself over to mystical inspirations and subjective revelations. He was in some contact with other radicals, but at last settled in Basel (1532), where he seemed to regain some spiritual balance. At least, he became pastor there and a professor in the university and died peaceably in 1541.