Should We Go Back to the Reformation?


Reformed theologians often urge us to go back to the Reformation.  An example of this would be The Reformation Study Bible (original called The New Geneva Study Bible) with R. C. Sproul as the general editor.  In the introduction Sproul made this statement: "The Reformation Study Bible contains a modern restatement of Reformation truth in its comments and theological notes. Its purpose is to present the light of the Reformation afresh."   [See our detailed evaluation of this study Bible: The Reformation Study Bible]. The stated purpose of The Reformation Study Bible is call us back to the Reformation to learn of its doctrines and its theology.

We need to remember that the LIGHT does not come from the Reformation, it comes from the Scripture:  "The entrance of thy words giveth light" (Psalm 119:95). The Reformers were enlightened in many ways but it was only because of the light of Scripture. The Reformation in many respects was a "back to the Bible" movement.  So also today, our goal should always be to go back to the Bible, not back to the Reformation.   This is not to say that we should ignore what the Reformers wrote and taught, but we should always test all things by the Word of God to see if what they taught was in harmony with Biblical truth.  See Acts 17:11.

Paul said "Be ye followers [imitators] of me, even as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). We are to follow the Reformers in many respects, even as they followed Christ.  In some ways, however, we must be careful not to follow them.  In some ways the Reformers did not imitate Christ at all.  To illustrate this we will examine the lives of two of the greatest Reformers--Martin Luther and John Calvin.  These men had great strengths but also some glaring weaknesses.  It is with sadness that we call attention to the darker side of these men, but the facts of history cannot be ignored.

Luther and the Jews

The following is written by the respected Church historian, Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church,  Volume 7 "Modern Christianity--The German Reformation," pages 61-62:

A few words on his views concerning the toleration of the Jews who had to suffer every indignity from Christians, as if they were personally responsible for the crime of the crucifixion. Luther was at first in advance of public opinion. In 1523 he protested against the cruel treatment of the Jews, as if they were dogs, and not human beings, and counseled kindness and charity as the best means of converting them. If the apostles, he says, who were Jews, had dealt with the heathen, as we heathen Christians deal with the Jews, no heathen would ever have been converted, and I myself, if I were a Jew, would rather become anything else than a Christian. But in 1543 he wrote two violent books against the Jews. His intercourse with several Rabbis filled him with disgust and indignation against their pride, obstinacy and blasphemies. He came to the conclusion that it was useless to dispute with them and impossible to convert them. Moses could do nothing with Pharaoh by warnings, plagues and miracles, but had to let him drown in the Red Sea. The Jews would crucify their expected Messiah, if he ever should come, even worse than they crucified the Christian Messiah. They are a blind, hard, incorrigible race. He went so far as to advise their expulsion from Christian lands, the prohibition of their books, and the burning of their synagogues and even their houses in which they blaspheme our Saviour and the Holy Virgin. In the last of his sermons, preached shortly before his death at Eisleben, where many Jews were allowed to trade, he concluded with a severe warning against the Jews as dangerous public enemies who ought not to be tolerated, but left the alternative of conversion or expulsion. [emphasis mine]

For a fascinating discussion of how modern Jews view Martin Luther, see the article "Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation" found in the book Jewish Literacy--The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin [William Morrow and Company, NY, 1991], pages 204-206.  Telushkin elaborates on the same points made by Philip Schaff above. He also likens Luther to Mohammed, because both men initially had a love for the Jews but later turned in hate against the Jews when the Jews would not convert.  Here are some of Rabbi Telushkin's shocking quotes:

[Luther] was to pen the most anti-Semitic writings produced in Germany until the time of Hitler.

One one occasion, this earlier exponent of Christian love said: "I would threaten to cut their tongues out from their throats, if they refuse to acknowledge the truth that God is a trinity and not a plain unity."

At the Nuremberg trials, Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher defended himself with the claim that he had not said anything worse about the Jews than had Martin Luther.

Hitler proudly claimed Luther as an ally:  "He saw the Jew as we are only beginning to see him today."

The following is by Dr. Manfred Kober, taken from his letter to the editor of the Des Moines Register, November 8, 1999, in which he presents a balanced position with regard to Martin Luther and his anti-Jewish sentiments:

Luther's comments about the Jews are an illustration that spiritual greatness, then as now, can coexist with moral infirmity in the same individual.  His anti-Jewish sentiments were an aberration in a gentle person at the end of his life of whom it has been correctly said that "he was the only Protestant reformer whose heart was as large as his brain" (Harper's Monthly, XXII, 231).

Regrettably, late in life Luther did make some statements critical of the Jewish people.  But as Bainton, Luther's foremost American biographer says, Luther's "position was entirely religious and in no respect racial."  Luther was not an anti-Semite.  His unfortunate tract, "Concerning Jews and their Lies" was the culmination of disillusionment.  Not by way of excuse but simply as an explanation, the following factors should be taken into consideration:  1) Luther was disappointed that despite his best efforts, the Jews did not recognize Christ as their Messiah.  2) Luther was distressed to hear a rumor that a Jew had been suborned by the papists to murder him.  3) Luther was dismayed that Jews taunted the uncircumcised Gentiles and blasphemed the Virgin Mary and the crucified Christ.  4) Luther was disgusted when Christians in Moravia converted to Judaism, undergoing circumcision and worshiping on the Sabbath.  Luther believed that the Mosaic Law had lost its validity with the coming of Christ. If the Jews of his day wished to keep the Mosaic Law, let them do it in Palestine.  Thus he recommended an enforced Zionism, that Jews be expelled to their own ancient homeland.  His position is deplorable but in no way was comparable to the inquisition of his day nor did it pave the way for Nazi atrocities.  It would have been unthinkable for Hitler to recommend a Jewish return to Palestine.

Would that Luther had followed consistently the sentiments expressed in his interpretation of Psalm 14:7:  Those so-called Christians "imagine that they are doing God a service when they persecute the Jews most hatefully...(rather) a man ought to be most heartily sorry for them and continually pray for them...(and) attract them by all manner of gentleness, patience, pleading and care."

For what the true attitude of a believer should be toward the Jewish people, see the following two documents:  1) For Our Jewish Friends   2)  Message to Israel

Calvin's Intolerance

The Reformers came out of Roman Catholicism which was known for its intolerance and persecution of anyone who differed from Catholic dogma, as anyone who has studied the Spanish Inquisition fully knows.  The tragedy is that John Calvin and some of the other Reformers, became shamefully intolerant of those who differed from their doctrinal position, even to the point of executing the offender!

The following is from Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church), Volume 8, "Protestant Intolerance," pages 700-800.

The Reformers inherited the doctrine of persecution from their mother Church, and practiced it as far as they had the power. They fought intolerance with intolerance. They differed favorably from their opponents in the degree and extent, but not in the principle, of intolerance. They broke down the tyranny of popery, and thus opened the way for the development of religious freedom; but they denied to others the liberty which they exercised themselves. The Protestant governments in Germany and Switzerland excluded, within the limits of their jurisdiction, the Roman Catholics from all religious and civil rights, and took exclusive possession of their churches, convents, and other property. They banished, imprisoned, drowned, beheaded, hanged, and burned Anabaptists, Antitrinitarians, Schwenkfeldians, and other dissenters.

The prime example of intolerance was the execution of the heretic Sevetus.  Schaff devotes 86 pages to this man--his doctrines, trial and execution (Volume VIII).  Sevetus fled to Geneva where Calvin had him arrested, tried and eventually burned to death.  Other Reformers who strong supported Calvin in this act included Beza and even the usually mild and gracous Melanchthon.

These men must be commended for their hatred of false doctrine (see Revelation 2:15) but strongly condemned for their intolerance, persecution and even execution of those who promote error.  Dr. John Whitcomb has stated the Biblical view as follows: "We insist that no human being in the church age should ever be executed for any spiritual or theological error.  At the same time, we dare not minimize doctrinal errors and must be careful to apply New Testament principles of Biblical separation and church discipline."  C. H. Mackintosh has commented as follows:

The burning of Servetus, in 1553, for his theological opinions, is a frightful blot upon the Reformation, and upon the man who sanctioned such an unchristian proceeding. True, the opinions of Servetus were fatally and fundamentally false, --he held the Arian heresy, which is simply blasphemy against the Son of God; but to burn him, or any one else, for false doctrine, was a flagrant sin against the spirit, genius, and principle of the gospel, the deplorable fruit of ignorance as to the essential difference between Judaism and Christianity.  C.H.Mackintosh, Notes on the Book of Deuteronomy, Volume II, page 162 footnote.

Obviously during the millennial age, the King will not allow any false religions or doctrinal deviations, and all the earth will be united in the true worship of the true God.  But contrary to the teaching of many Reformed theologians, we are not in the kingdom yet!


Any true light that the Reformers had came from the light of Scripture.  We rejoice in the truths that they recovered such as justification by faith, the absolute sufficiency of the Scriptures and the universal priesthood of all believers.   These are very basic truths of the Bible.  There were other doctrines, such as the nature, purpose and destiny of the church, which they did not understand well at all [as illustrated by the fact that Calvin was seeking to make Geneva some kind of little kingdom or church-state].  The truths pertaining to Christ's beloved body and bride were uncovered at a later period of church history, especially during the 19th century in England and Ireland.  The Reformers also had some glaring flaws, such as documented above, which we can learn from and seek to avoid in our own lives and ministries.

We should never go back to the Reformation, but always back to the Bible.  It is always best to go back to the pure spring rather than to go back to the stream further down from the spring because the stream further down can become polluted along the way.  God's Word is a pure, unpolluted spring of truth, and those who drink from it will never be disappointed.  We can learn from the Reformers and from all great men of church history, but we must constantly test all things by the Word of God, and follow these men only insomuch as they followed Christ.

Appendix #2 - The Errors of Preterism

Dangers of Reformed Theology, Index

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