Sacralism and Calvin’s Geneva

John Calvin, the Frenchman who became one of the most famous Christian theologians and controversial figures in history, initially wanted nothing more from life than to study and write in ivory tower academia in the 16th century. Intrigued by the nascent Reformation, he first fled Paris to avoid punishment for heresy, and then was shamed by reformed French evangelist William Farel into serving in the church in Geneva, Switzerland, a city of corruption in a land of libertines.

Most religions are sacral, meaning that they are tied to a certain ethnic group and geographic location. To be a Sumerian was to live in Mesopotamia, follow Sumerian culture and worship Sumerian deities such as Anu, Enki and Inanna. To be an Egyptian was to live along the Nile, speak Egyptian and worship Orisis, Isis and Anubis. To be a Hebrew was to live in Palestine, follow the Law of Moses and serve Jehovah. The early Christian church broke this mold, with believers in every people group, and every location in much of the world. The civic religion was emperor worship, intended to unify to the Empire against threats within and without, and the main cause of Christian persecution was that believers did not join the civic religion. Thus they were guilty of treason.

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What Was the Most Important Part of Luther’s Theology?

Luther’s allegiance to the Holy Bible (solo Scriptura) as the ultimate source of authority in Christianity was the most important point of his theology. It is hard for Christians in the 21st century to imagine how the first 350 years of the faith must have been, when the only Bible available was the Old Testament, possibly the Apocrypha, the gospels and the letters of Paul, and some other letters. There was no firm agreement on what constituted the inspired Word of God, and therefore the dangers of heresy were great.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the church came up with a combination of means to judge whether a teaching was orthodox or not. Creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed, which summarized the key points of Christianity, a single bishop in each city who served as the source of authoritative interpretation, and an increasing understanding of which books belonged in the New Testament and which did not, were the means by which the early Church defeated Gnosticism and a host of other heresies that could have destroyed the new faith in its cradle.

The danger, of course, in using such a combination is that believers are tempted to put creeds or authoritative teachers above the Bible. This is exactly what happened. At the Council of Carthage in August 397, church authorities recognized (they did not determine) which books should form the New Testament. These books bore apostolic authority, were consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and other Christian teachings, and they were recognized throughout the church as God’s inspired truths.

After the Bible was completed, the reasonable thing to do would have been to recognize that the authority of creeds and bishops is derived from and therefore subordinate to the Word of God. Creeds are useful teaching tools but are essentially mini systematic theologies and therefore necessarily oversimplify or even distort the truths of the Lord. Bishops are usually well educated and faithful and their word can be trusted, but they are still sinful men and liable to errors of omission and commission. Creeds and bishops were still needed because in cultures with few books and little literacy it is important to have such lesser authorities, but God‘s word was the ultimate authority.

What happened, unfortunately, was that the authority of the bishops was magnified, not diminished, until church leaders were presenting as truth teachings that were clearly falsehoods, such as the practice of indulgences. Unbound to the Bible, creeds also proliferated and promulgated misinterpretations of it. Over hundreds of years, these errors gained the authority of tradition and tradition, not the True Word, became the ultimate source of authority. Believers suffered greatly from both of these errors for centuries.

Luther came at a time when mass printing and distribution was possible and literacy was rising fast. Over a millennium after Carthage, he and others rediscovered what should have been apparent all along. The Word of God, not creeds based on it or bishops and other churchmen explaining it, was the real source of truth. Everything believers teach and do must be measured against the only real source of authority, the Bible, and not the other way around.

Tradition still has authority and much of what we do in the modern church, such as worship services at 1100 on Sundays, midweek prayer meetings, and Christmas on December 25th, is based on it. Creeds still have authority, because they are quick and useful ways to teach important Biblical truths to men. However, the Bible is supreme. Luther recognized this, and all of his other great contributions, such as sola fide and sola sacerdos, came from that foundation.

Preparation for the Reformation

In Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) characterized the life of man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He was referring to the trials of his own day, as well as those of the decades preceding him, the time of the Reformation.

European life in the late 15th century certainly fit Hobbes description. Under the feudal system, the poor lived hand to mouth, with much of what they produced going to their feudal lord who protected them. Disease was rampant, childbirth was dangerous, and living conditions harsh.

The church, ostensibly there to bring man to God, often discouraged him with its villainy, impoverished him with its larceny, and humiliated him with its arrogance. Indulgences, sold to deliver men from agony in purgatory, and the ignorance and immorality of religious leaders, were especially burdensome. Numerous reform efforts, including the monastic and various other movements, had produced less than the hoped for effect. Common people and honest nobles and clergy alike agreed that it was time for a change. Those who benefited most from the current system resisted every possibility, but the world was changing in ways far beyond their ability to stem the tide. During the Babylonian captivity of the Papacy (1305-1377), there were multiple popes competing for allegiance, damaging the prestige of the highest office in the church.

Life in the late 15th century was changing more than it had in the previous two millennia. Scholasticism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries promoted dialectical reasoning, the resolution of disagreements through rational argument and the search for ultimate truth. The Crusades in the Middle East (1095-1291) exposed Europe to foreign cultures and ideas and greatly enhanced trade. They also reintroduced Greek and Latin learning from Arabic manuscripts. The Black Death (1348-1351 and returning every generation until 1800) regularly depopulated and rocked the social structures in Europe.

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 was terrifying to Europeans. The Roman Empire, which had existed for over two millennia and formed the Eastern bulwark of Christendom against the infidels, was suddenly gone. Byzantine Orthodox scholars fleeing the Ottoman Muslim onslaught scattered throughout Western Europe, bringing their writings and their ideas and calling the Roman Catholic way of life into question.

Science and technology were also accelerating. The compass became practical to Europeans for navigation at sea in the 13th century and dead reckoning improved. The work of Copernicus demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun, improving navigation. Combined, these advances enabled the Portuguese to explore the African coast (1418) and reach the Indian ocean (1488). Ultimately, it allowed Columbus to discover the New World and Magellan to circumnavigate the globe (1519-1522).

One of the greatest advances was gunpowder. The matchlock musket enabled a common farmer to kill an armored and mounted knight, and the cannon that finally defeated the 5th century Theodosian walls of Constantinople could also defeat the walls of any castle. Feudal lords, finding that they could no longer defy kings with their knights and castles gladly took colonelcies in and raise regiments for their king’s army, and feudalism finally collapsed. These developments also strengthened the monarchy at the expense of the church.

As the church lost credibility and a host of new influences impacted contemporary man, Latin lost importance outside of ecclesiastical and academic circles, and the vernacular languages gained importance. Nationalism grew as competing feudal estates merged into nations and local languages blossomed. Finally, Gutenberg’s movable type (1450) made printing practical, and ideas in writing poured off his and other’s presses all over Europe. The powder was ready, and Luther was about to provide the spark.