Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” but he did not wait to receive an answer from Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Fifteen centuries later, the followers of Jesus were still debating how to know the truth. Roman Catholic theologians, then and today, taught that God continues to reveal new truth to the leaders of his Church (that is, the Pope), but Martin Luther insisted that God’s truth is unchanging. Everything we need to know about God and about our salvation is clearly stated in the Bible, as written by God’s chosen prophets and apostles. No new revelations are to be expected; no additional truths will be given to the Church.
This applies to religious knowledge, not to all knowledge. Since Luther’s time, scientific study has learned much about God’s creation; no doubt, much more remains to be learned. Even scientific discoveries, though, do not cancel religious truths revealed in the Bible. Likewise, the Holy Spirit does not reveal new religious truths that contradict the Bible. Even while Luther was protected in the Wartburg castle, prophets arrived in Wittenberg claiming to have new messages from the Holy Spirit. Luther continued to say, as he said at the Diet of Worms, that he would not be convinced of any new religious truth unless it was shown to him from the Bible—not from popes or councils, and not from prophets who claimed new messages from God.
Luther did not mean that every Christian is free to interpret the Bible his or her own way. While placing all other Church authorities under the Bible, Luther also said that the Bible interprets itself. If it is confusing or unclear in one place, God’s people look for another part of the Bible that discusses the same idea, using that to enlighten their minds regarding the reading that is difficult to understand. The book of Revelation is best understood in light of the sixty-five books that precede it. Divisions that hindered the work of the Church in Luther’s lifetime and afterward largely developed from sincere misunderstandings of the Bible, but those sincere misunderstandings sometimes resulted from a determination to put reason and logic, or emotion and feeling, or some human authority, ahead of the Bible when seeking truth.
Ulrich Zwingli was a preacher in Switzerland at the same time as Luther. Zwingli claimed that he received his understanding of Reformation independently from Luther’s writings, although the time lag between Luther’s published work and Zwingli’s proclamations makes historians dubious about Zwingli’s claim. Luther and Zwingli met at Marburg to see if they could work together to oppose the Pope and lead the Church in Reformation. They agreed on eleven important points but disagreed on the final point. Luther insisted that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine served in Holy Communion; Zwingli said that the bread and wine are reminders of Christ’s body and blood. Luther pointed to the words from the Bible, “This is my body”—according to some accounts, he had written them in chalk on the table—saying that “this” and “is” and “body” all had to be taken as true; none of them permitted an interpretation of “reminds” or “represents.” Zwingli disagreed, and the two could not combine forces. Zwingli later died on the battlefield fighting against forces representing the Pope, the Emperor and the Roman Church.
A generation later, John Calvin became Zwingli’s heir in the Reformation. In many ways, Calvin represented a revival of the scholastic vein in Christian theology, seeking to combine reason and faith. Calvin suggested that, when receiving the Lord’s Supper, a Christian is lifted to heaven and enjoys Christ’s presence, while Luther’s heirs replied that Christ comes to earth and is thus really present in the Lord’s Supper. Where Luther had emphasized God’s love and mercy, Calvin emphasized God’s power. Calvin reasoned that, since God is Almighty, all those saved and going to heaven will arrive there because God wants them there, and all those condemned and going to eternal punishment will arrive there because God wants them there. This teaching of “predestination” counters Bible verses that say that God wants all to be saved and wants no one to be lost. Other Christians swung to the opposite approach, teaching that God saves those who want to be saved but condemns those who refuse to be saved. Luther’s teaching—and that of Lutherans since his time, a teaching called “election”—holds to the paradox that no one can be saved without God’s work but all who are lost have rejected God’s work. Calvin’s predestination and the opposite approach—labeled Pelagianism or Arminianism from the names of two advocates of this approach—are both more satisfying to logic and reason than the teaching of election. Luther and Lutherans assert that election is more faithful to Scripture than the more logical suggestions regarding who is saved and who is lost.
Calvin also held that only Christians should govern a Christian land. Luther affirmed that Christians could serve in government, but he did not demand that only Christians could lead; Luther even said that he would prefer a government led by a Muslim who is a competent leader to a government led by a Christian who is incompetent. Luther felt that the government should punish the wrongdoer and protect citizens from danger, but he also said that only the Church can forgive sins and preach the Gospel; the government should not enforce religious beliefs.
Other groups of Christians were distinct from Luther, Calvin, and the Pope. Some called for violent revolution to establish the kingdom of God on earth, while others withdrew from the world and tried to remain pure from worldly concerns, including government. Some went beyond Zwingli, not only saying that bread and wine are merely reminders of Christ’s body and blood, but also that Baptism is merely a reminder of our commitment to God, and therefore only adult believers should be baptized. Politically, some parts of Europe including the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire remained within the Roman Church; northern parts of the Holy Roman Empire held to the teachings of Luther, as did the Scandinavian countries; while parts of Switzerland, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Netherlands favored Calvinism.
King Henry VIII of England at first favored the Roman Church. He wrote an essay against Luther’s teaching, for which the Pope rewarded him with the title “Defender of the Faith.” All of Henry’s heirs, including Elizabeth II, have claimed that title. But a few years later, Henry ran into a practical problem. His wife Catherine, a princess from Spain, had been pregnant six times, but four of the children were stillborn, a fifth died within a month of birth, and only a daughter survived into adulthood. Henry knew he could father healthy sons—he had done so with other women—so he assumed his marriage was cursed. Catherine as a child had been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who died young, and Henry needed special permission from the Pope to marry his brother’s widow. Now he wanted special permission to divorce his wife and marry a woman who could provide him with a son.
Pope Leo had died by this time, and the new Pope (also from the Medici family) had to make a decision. Pope Clement could agree with Henry and please this king of part of an island at the west end of Europe, or he could agree with the Spanish princess and please her nephew, Charles, who was king of Spain, the Netherlands, and the New World, as well as Austria, and also Holy Roman Emperor. Obviously, Pope Clement decided in favor of Charles’ aunt. Henry then declared himself head of the Church of England and broke with the Pope. Negotiators sought to ally Henry’s movement with the Lutherans, but when their theologians learned Henry’s reason for breaking with Rome, they were unwilling to declare an alliance.
Nevertheless, the English Reformation at first followed Lutheran guidelines. Henry—who married six times in all—eventually died and was succeeded by his only son, Edward. Edward was in poor health and died soon afterward. His older sister Mary became queen and tried to lead the Church of England back into the Roman Catholic Church, but she failed. Eventually, she was replaced by her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, who guided the Church of England largely on Calvinist paths, although with a broader tolerance for diversity in the Church than was being observed in most European nations.
Meanwhile, under Clement and his successors, the Roman Catholic Church tried to resolve its internal problems. The Council of Trent affirmed penance, indulgences, purgatory, and the authority of the Pope, but the council took steps against misuse of power within the Church. Meanwhile, Ignatius of Loyola provided the Romans with a mind equal to that of Luther and Calvin, Ignatius had been a soldier, but was seriously wounded; during his long recovery, he read the Bible and other Christian works. He wrote Christians works himself, including devotional works still studied today. He also organized another movement like the Augustinians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, would become the ground troops defending the Church of Rome in Europe and bringing its teachings wherever European governments were sending explorers and colonists. J.