The motto of the church I belong to is, "Taking the Reformation into the 21st Century." It is a marvelous slogan, but I wonder if it is not naive. Is a new Reformation possible today? Of course it is, if God wills it. Many of us have been praying for a Reformation for years. But I am preoccupied by another issue. Since Europe and the world are so different from what they were 500 years ago, how can it happen again? The question should more properly be, if a Reformation occurs today, what will it look like? Will it be very similar, or quite different, from what happened in the 16th century? To answer that we need to know something about the way the 16th century Reformation fit the particular structures of society. This in no way removes from the spiritual and theological nature of the Reformation, rather it enhances it, because it shows that God uses circumstances and cultural features in ordering world events. as Steven Ozment puts it, "Spiritual changes are also embodied; they have a preexisting material matrix and concurrent material effects. The soul's salvation also engages the mundane issues of individual and social life. The Reformation's struggle for souls took place as much on the battlefields of body and property, money and politics, society and culture as within individual hearts and minds."1

It is easy to look at the speed with which the Reformation conquered a city like Geneva, and to forget all that went on in the background. On the surface, it all happened in rapid succession. Genevans were interested in Lutheran views as of the 1520s. Farel, with Antoine Saunier and perhaps Olivètan, went there in 1532. They preached and won many adherents. But they were soon sent out. The next year Antoine Fromment and Pierre Viret came to Geneva, observing that its people were eager "to hear the Word." Sunday, May 21, 1536, the city officially decided to embrace the Reformation. Calvin arrived two months later. Though he and Farel were expelled from 1538 until 1541, Calvin then came back for good. He labored until his death in 1564, seeing the church and city to fuller conformity with Reformation principles. Genevan Calvinists then became the most potent religious force in Protestantism.2 The Genevan Reformation spread far and wide, and its effects are still felt today.

Was this the stuff of pure miracle? Of course, the ultimate explanation for such a profound revolution is God's grace. Yet there were many elements in the background of the Genevan Reformation that demonstrate the way in which an essentially spiritual transformation is connected to the particulars of the social situation. Moreover, in order to appreciate the fact that the Reformation brought change at every level, from church structure to moral authority, to political and economic life, it is necessary to understand the backgrounds against which those changes occured. Let us briefly examine three areas. Each of these can be considered revolutions, rather than just change.


1Steven Ozment: Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1991), p. 67.

2Owen Chadwick: The Reformation (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 96.



by Dr. William Edgar

First, the renewal of learning, Humanism was a movement in the 15th and 16th centuries which elevated new discoveries, a new interest in the human dimension, and a readiness to reshape earthly life. The upper classes, rulers and merchants began to be well educated. Libraries grew, printing machines multiplied, original languages were appreciated. One can see in the art of the Renaissance a gradual change in emphasis from judgment (the reigning Christ over the doors of Gothic churches) to human response (Leonardo's Annunciation). 

Humanism combined two elements. First, critical freedom. It has roots back to Peter Abelard (1079-1142) at the Cathedral School in Paris. His famous Sic et Non ("Yes and No"), were a series of affirmations and denials to show that reason, not just authority, has a role to play in determining truth. Second, moral fervor. Going back at least to Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153), purity of faith and devotion to God challenge the constant temptation of laxity and corruption. 

Unlike its modern version, the Humanism of the Renaissance was largely Christian. It combine a love for learning with spiritual zeal. The best known Humanist is Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466- 1536). Through satire and erudition, he put into words the feelings of mny that something was wrong in the church. His book, The Praise of Folly (1511), is an ironical blast against the abuses of monasticism and the indulgence system. Humanism warred against tradition, using a powerful philosophical ally: Nominalism. Nominalism was the major philosophical opponent of scholasticism. Nominalists believed that truth is in the real world, the world of experience, not mere logic. Because of this down-to-earth emphasis, the Humanists were able to study the Bible for what it was, with due attention to historical facts.

Without intending to question basic Catholic doctrine, the Humanists nevertheless got into fights over unfounded traditions. Lefévre d'Etaples, for example, showed that Mary Magdalene was not Mary the sister of Martha. Erasmus doubted Paul wrote the Book of Hebrews. He also published a new Greek version, the first to use original manuscripts. the Humanists railed against popular superstitions and cermonies.

Now, these Humanists were not Reformers. Erasmus may have laid the egg that Luther hatched, as the saying went, but he could not and would not have hatched it. He wanted reform, not revolution. To be sure, a major branch of Humanism wanted to apply the insights of antiquity to everyday life, from jurisprudence to medicine and natural history. There are many connections between the methods of the Reformers and their Humanist cobelligerents. The 95 theses were effective in part because Humanist sodalities distributed them.3 But there are great differences in the message itself. The Humanists stood on the foundation of the medieval church, even though they criticized its faults. Luther questioned the foundation itself. The Humanists were content with change. Luther spearheaded a revolution.

Similarly, Calvin owed a great deal to Humanism. Trained at the Collège de Montaigu, under such luminaries as Guillaume Cop, the King's physician, and Guillaume Budè, the best Greek scholar in the country. There he also encountered the Nominalist Scotsman John Major, who may have introduced him to Luther. He later went to the Law Faculty of Orléans, and on to Bourges where he studied languages. Both places were full of great Humanist professors, and one can see from the material he encountered there than Humanism profoundly affected his scholarship. His commentaries are indebted to Erasmus and Budè. His careful attention to words and context, his critical interaction with prevailing opinion, his knowledge of the classics and the church fathers, owe a good deal to Humanism.

At the same time, it is impossible to reduce Calvin to Humanism. His basic approach to learning was revolutionized through his love of evangelical truth. Let's take an example. Calvin, stemming from Humanist practice, stressed the method of "brevity and simplicity" as he examined Scripture. With his teachers, he wanted a text to be understood for what it said, and to be explained to every reader. But then he was first of all a pastor. He cared deeply about the souls of his congregation. When he exposited Scripture it was with a view to edifying and admonishing both Genevans and his spiritual children all over Europe.

One avenue of research that should be encouraged is understanding the system of thought that Calvin espoused. It has hitherto been thought that the system is all too obvious. A few passages of the Institutes taken in isolation make him out to be obsessed with predestination or the purity of the church. In point of fact, we are easily misled because of his commitment to simplicity and brevity. His writings are so clear, and powerful, that each portion gives the appearance of being monolithic. H. Bauke and others have pointed out that in fact, there is a "conjunction of opposites," rather than one or two exclusive themes in Calvin's theology. Furthermore, the many different forms of his writings, from catechism, to treatises, to commentaries, to letters, to sermons, to liturgy, all give different perspectives on the mosaic of his theology.

My point here is that true Calvinism, the Genevan spirit at its best, is rich and brilliant, abounding in theological and practical insights. Compare it briefly, and no doubt unfairly, to two other schools. Lutheranism says the gospel is everything. Law must be preached as a prelude, but once grace has come, law takes a back seat. Anabaptism says obedience is everything. The gospel must be there, but it is only a beginning, then radical discipleship begins. Calvinism, on the other hand, says grace and obedience must coexist. One is saved by grace in order to obey. One obeys because he is saved. The law tells us how to please God. The gospel puts us in right relation with the law. 

Here again, we have not renewal but revolution. The Genevan Reformation effected such a powerful transformation of all of life because Calvin's theology begins and ends with the glory of God. To know God is to accomplish the purpose of human life. This was a revolution made possible because ultimately it rested on authority, the very Lordship of the Sovereign God. 

The same things could happen today!

Dr. William Edgar, 1998


3Bernd Moeller: "The German Humanists and the Reformation," in Imperial Cities and the Reformation: Three Essays (Durham: Labyrinth, 1982), p. 24.