The Theology of the Reformers
The distinctive teachings emphasized by the leading figures of the 16th-century Reformation.
This essay will highlight the intellectual context of the Protestant Reformation and survey the leading theological emphases of the movement: sola Scriptura, sola fide, the biblical prescription for worship, love of neighbor, covenant theology, and predestination. It will also briefly highlight the distinctives of Anabaptism.
To understand the theology of the Reformers is to situate it within the social, political, and religious contexts of late medieval Europe. It was a period of discovery, rebirth (the meaning of “Renaissance”), and expansion—in terms of geography, technology, theology, and scholarship. Theologies taught and embodied by the Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the Anabaptists converged—despite their seeming pluriformity—on the uncompromisingly central roles of Scripture, justification by faith alone, the entirely gratuitous nature of grace, and how the Christian community received and shared this gift of salvation among them and beyond. The mainstream of the Protestant Reformers viewed their efforts as an attempt to recover and develop the theological tradition of historic Christianity. In this regard, the theology of the Reformers was both an ecumenical and evangelical project that sought to understand the Christian Scriptures according to the best efforts of the patristic and medieval traditions and to conform contemporary worship and life to the apostolic roots of Jesus and the early Church.
A comprehensive picture of the theologies of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century must include the social, cultural, and political context within which they were developed. Even to focus upon one aspect of the Protestant Reformation, in this case its theological legacy, requires consideration of the intellectual background of the sixteenth century. Neither the famous Martin Luther nor his Reformation colleagues worked in a vacuum.
The Reformation Approach to Theology
In order to understand its theological legacy, it is worth highlighting at least two aspects of the intellectual background of the Protestant Reformation. First, the Reformation period witnessed the rise of humanistic approaches to knowledge that prized examination of primary sources in their original languages. The Reformers embraced the famous cry of the humanists to return ad fontes, “to the sources.” The Reformers applied these same humanistic methods to the Scriptures themselves, seeking out the best manuscripts of scriptural texts and translating them from their original Hebrew and Greek rather than relying upon the Latin translation of the Vulgate commonly used in their day. This movement of Christian Hebraism coincided with establishments and endowments of professorships in Hebrew in a number of Universities in Europe. They also applied a similar approach to the theological traditions which they inherited. The Reformers recovered and amplified the voices of important theological works and the ideas of earlier Christian theologians such as Augustine, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and the Cappadocians. In this regard the beliefs of the Reformers were not new or novel since they were fastidious in emphasizing their continuity with the best and the truest of Christian theological legacies, all of which conformed to Scriptures.
Second, the European universities of the Reformation period used scholastic methods in order to clearly communicate ideas with precision. Aristotle’s logic and rhetoric were received and used in a variety of ways in pursuit of this project. Although Martin Luther bombastically denounced the errors of medieval theologians in his 1517 Disputation on Scholastic Theology, he also was trained in these same methods and used them in his famous debate with Erasmus on the freedom of the will during the same period. As we will see below, these methods played an important role in summarizing and codifying the views of the Reformation later in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Regarding Luther, it would be hard to overemphasize the importance of his role in the early years of the Protestant Reformation in Germany or John Calvin’s role in Switzerland, and the subsequent formation of an international “league” of Lutherans and Calvinists. At the same time, Reformation scholarship in recent years has emphasized that Luther and Calvin were shaped by their predecessors and worked in collaboration with a host of other important contemporaries across Europe (and indeed beyond Europe as demonstrated, for example, in recent work by David Daniels on Luther’s interaction with Michael the Deacon from Ethiopia). To understand the theology of the Reformation, it is important to take into consideration not only the works of Luther and Calvin, but also Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, Vermigli, Zanchi, Perkins, and Melanchthon, to name just a few. Practically speaking, highlighting the breadth of the Reformation’s personalities and geographies emphasizes the remarkable unity-in-diversity of its theology. Reformation theology allowed for a great deal of diversity on secondary and tertiary issues, and it also allowed for a great deal of diversity in the application of its theology in differing national contexts. At the same time, on the central doctrines of the faith the Reformers found strong convergence, and in that agreement, they also found strong continuity with the tradition of the church.
The belief that the Scriptures alone should be the final authority for the church’s theology is arguably the most important theological commitment of the Reformed tradition. This commitment to sola Scriptura is often referred to as the formal cause of the Reformation because every other part of Reformation theology flows from this commitment to the Word of God as the principium, or fundamental principle, of theological reflection. (Ps 119; 2Tim 3:16–17; 2Pet 1:16–21).
Reformation theology therefore entails a commitment to the inspiration, sufficiency, clarity, authority, and necessity of the Word of God. The words of Scripture were inspired by God, are all that is needed for believing and living a life that is pleasing to God, can be clearly understood in regard to those things that are essential for salvation, and require submission on the part of the believer, and as such, are essential for the health and life of God’s people. Thus, both in the theology and liturgy of the ecclesial traditions birthed by the Protestant Reformation, the sola Scriptura principle is woven throughout their tapestries.
In addition to these important Reformed commitments regarding the primacy of the Scriptures, one important caveat is worth noting. Although Reformation theology identifies the Scriptures alone as the final authority for faith and life, it also affirms that theological tradition can be a helpful aid to understanding God’s Word. Theological reflection involves reading the Scriptures, drawing from the best insights of past reflection, and continually returning to the text in light of new questions and experiences in a cyclical pattern. Tradition is helpful to the extent that it also places itself under the authority of the Scripture (2Thess 2:15; 3:6). This thorny issue of appropriation of tradition led Catholics and Protestants into fierce debates about the authority for worship and the validation of Protestant theology and praxis.
Flowing out of every part of the Scriptures, Reformation theology also champions a doctrine of salvation that emphasizes God’s grace and mercy rather than human merit (Rom 4:3–5). The material cause of the Reformation is the belief that human beings are justified by God’s grace through faith alone and not by our personal adherence to works of the law (Rom 3:20–25; Eph 2:8–9).
This commitment to sola fide lies close to the heart of scriptural teaching. When a person repents of their sins and comes to depend upon Christ alone as the Son of God and Savior of sinners, they enter a relationship not only with Christ as brother but God as Father (Rom 8:10–17). This union with Christ is the source of all God’s saving benefits, and justification is the legal basis of this union (Phil 3:8–11). We receive and rest upon the righteous work of Christ alone for salvation (Gal 2:20). The righteous works of Jesus are counted as our righteousness, and the righteous death of Jesus is counted as the penalty for our unrighteousness (1Cor 1:30; 2Cor 5:21). Our sins are counted to Jesus, and Jesus’s righteousness is counted to us (Rom 5:1–21). Salvation is a relationship with God that is given to God’s people as a gift by God. It cannot be merited by human effort.
Therefore, the only hope a Christian has is beautifully encapsulated in Question 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism, a 1563 Reformed formulation of the Christian faith:
Q: How are you righteous before God?
A: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil. Nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart [italics added].
The italicized parts highlight the theological themes that drove a wedge between Catholics and Protestants. As one can see, the Protestant emphasis on sola fide and sola gratia (“out of sheer grace,” “accept . . . with a believing heart”) formed the crux of the doctrine of justification by faith alone for Protestants. Undergirding this was a concomitant emphasis on “union with Christ” as a gift and the radical identification with and imputation of Christ and his righteousness, which were made effectual and salvific through the work of the Holy Spirit, primarily through the instrumentality of means of grace and communion with the Triune God: preaching, sacraments, and prayer.
Worship in Accordance with the Scriptures
The theology of worship is also very important to the tradition of the Reformers. Reformation theology emphasizes that the Ten Commandments not only call for the worship of the one true God (Exod 20:3), but also for God to be worshipped truly (Exod 20:4–6). Whereas the medieval church had developed an increasingly elaborate worship service filled with innovations and traditions, the Reformers pointed out the danger of idolatry in any element of worship created by human design apart from divine special revelation.
In response to those who would add human inventions to God’s instructions for worship, Reformation theology remembers Jesus’s response to the Pharisees of his own day, “In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines” (Matt 15:9). God is glorified by worship that follows the express teaching and pattern of the Scriptures and includes the reading and preaching of the Word, spoken and sung prayers, and the celebration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper which were instituted by Jesus himself. To worship as God commanded is to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23–24).
Love of Neighbor and Concern for the Marginalized
Reformation theology historically also has emphasized personal piety and ethics as well as the corporate obligations and duties of the body of Christ. The theme of “love for neighbor,” and a concern for the poor, the orphan, and the widow are central practical applications of Reformation beliefs (Gal 2:10; Jas 1:27; 2:14–16). Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses argued that the abuses of the medieval church—particularly the sale of indulgences—were wrong not only because they lacked a basis in the Scriptures but also because they wrongly elevated earthly wealth in place of genuine piety and concern for the poor. Along similar lines, Calvin’s Geneva became famous for its systematic care for the poor and for refugees. Calvin’s understanding of the role of the diaconate continues to hold a major influence to this day in Reformed thinking.
Covenant theology is often associated with Reformed theology as a way of connecting these four themes related to the Scriptures, the doctrine of salvation, the theology of worship, and concern for neighbor. Classically speaking, the Reformers developed the doctrine of God’s covenant with humanity in order to emphasize both God’s gracious sovereignty in salvation as well as the proper response of the person saved by grace. In creation, God made a covenant with Adam in which life was promised so long as Adam continued in a state of personal and perpetual obedience (Gen 2:15–17). After the fall, God made a promise that a descendant of Adam and Eve would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). This promise is typically understood to be the first proclamation of the Gospel and the establishment of the covenant of grace, a covenant subsequently underlying God’s work of salvation throughout the Old and New Testaments (Gen 12:1–3; Gal 2:7–3:29).
How do these commitments relate to the previously identified four themes? The Scriptures are the record of God’s covenantal relationship with humanity. Jesus is the promised descendant whose righteous life and death brought the promised salvation for God’s people by justifying them in God’s sight (Gal 3:16). Worship is the gathering of God’s covenant people to celebrate their relationship with their covenant making God (this is implied in the Scriptures in various ways but becomes most explicit in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1Cor 11:23–26). As those who have received this covenant relationship with thanksgiving, God’s people are called to respond with faithful lives lived in accordance with their covenantal obligation to love God with their whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love their neighbors as themselves (Luke 10:27).
Finally, and closely related to these covenantal themes, Reformed theology affirms the biblical doctrine of predestination. The primary purposes of the doctrine of predestination are to make believers grateful, humble, and bold in sharing the gospel. Recipients of God’s grace should be grateful because God chose to give his salvation to them as a gift (2Tim 1:9). Recipients of God’s grace should be humble because salvation ultimately depends upon God’s will and not human merit (Rom 8:28–30; Eph 1:3–14). Those who know that salvation depends upon God’s sovereign mercy are freed to boldly proclaim the good news, expecting God to bring all those elected to salvation into the joy that comes from eternal life in God’s presence (1Pet 2:4–10).
To affirm that God’s will is primary and sovereign in the act of predestination is not to deny that human beings have wills or genuine agency, although some popular-level treatments of predestination over the years have seemed to do this. Reformed theology affirms that the decision to trust God is experienced as a human one, and the decision to refuse God is made as a genuine act of the human will (James 5:40). When it comes to faith in God, rather than conceiving of God’s will and the human will in competition, classical Reformed theology identifies a synchronic relationship between God’s will and the human will (John 8:34–35). The human will is ultimately contingent upon the will of God (Phil 2:13), and nevertheless the human will freely believes in God (Rom 6:16–23).
There is significant debate among contemporary Reformed theologians regarding the best terms to use for the compatibility of God’s will and the human will. The important point is that the Westminster Confession of Faith, perhaps the most fully formed post-Reformation confession of faith and one with a very strong doctrine of predestination, included an entire chapter outlining the nature of the freedom of the human will. The Scriptures clearly teach that “we love him because he first loved us” (John 6:44), and at the same time the Scriptures also clearly teach that the Holy Spirit enables the human being to love God freely as a genuine act of the will.
Since the Reformation period, it has been hard to separate consideration of the doctrine of predestination from the name of John Calvin. Unfortunately, theological treatments of this doctrine frequently have run afoul of Calvin’s warning to avoid speculating about things which God has not revealed. In his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.21.1–2), Calvin wrote that “human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous.” Calvin consistently emphasized that God does not reveal to us who has been predestined unto life, and therefore to speculate about the identity of God’s elect is not only improper but “foolish and dangerous, nay, even deadly.” The biblical doctrine of predestination should be limited to what is revealed in the Scriptures, namely that God is sovereign, and that salvation is a gift. For Calvin, “the moment we exceed the bounds of the Word, our course is outside the pathway and in darkness” and there “we must repeatedly wander, slip, and stumble.” The doctrine of predestination should make us thankful, humble, and bold in sharing the Gospel, and it should be handled with great care.
Reformation Theology “from the Margins”
Any discussion of the renewal movement in Western Christianity which we now call the Protestant Reformation must include the Anabaptists. Older scholarship often referred to them with the infelicitous appellations of “radical Reformation” or “radical Reformers,” and for some, the word radical itself disqualifies them from being considered seriously. Such labels, however, reflect obvious theological judgments, and therefore, this historiographical tendency should be remedied, especially in light of the ongoing influence of Anabaptist views within the broader Reformation traditions. Three aspects of the Anabaptist emphasis on return to the “primitive and apostolical” faith of Jesus and the early Church warrant inclusion here, especially since they cast a long, influential shadow on the way subsequent Baptists, including those in Anglo-American contexts, articulated their sacramental theology, ecclesiology, and political theology. One of the key documents for Anabaptist theology is The Schleitheim Confession, drawn up in 1527 among the Swiss Brethren who sought a “further reform” of the Church under the leadership of Michael Sattler. It was a movement inspired initially by the works of Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, both of whom ended up lashing out against the perceived-and-actual excesses of the Anabaptists. The Seven Articles contained within the Schleitheim Confession repudiated the practice of infant baptism, espousing instead a believer’s baptism (Article 1); articulated a memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper, castigating the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as participation in the “table” and “cup of devils” (Article 3); and affirmed a radical separation between Church and State, together with a defense of radical pacifism (Articles 4, 6).
Those interested in studying the theology of the Reformers in greater depth would do well to begin with the confessions of faith and catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries. In addition to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Schleitheim Confession mentioned above, the Augsburg Confession (1530), together with the other documents gathered together in the Book of Concord (1580), remain foundational for understanding historic Lutheranism; the Belgic Confession (1561) continues to hold sway in the Reformed churches; and the London Baptist Confession (1644) serves as a continuing guide for Baptist churches that seek to tie themselves to the Theology of the Reformers. Ad fontes!
- Allen, Michael and Scott. R. Swain. Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016.
- Bagchi, David and David C. Steinmetz, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology. New York: Cambridge, 2004.
- Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–2008.
- Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.
- Janz, Denis R., ed. A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.
- Old, Hughes Oliphant. Worship: Reformed according to Scripture. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.
- Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, James T. Dennison, Jr., and trans. George Musgrave Giger, 3 vols. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1997.
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.