Calvin, Zwingli and Luther (1)


Calvin lived for only fifty-four years, and struggled with ill health for much of that time. By the time he went to Geneva to stay, about half of his life was already spent, but he was enabled to do a vast amount in the years that remained. He was both a hard-working pastor and a professor of theology, and his counsel and advice were sought through both personal applications and also written correspondence from across Europe; yet he was a prodigious writer as well.

John Calvin studied medieval theology and then trained for the legal profession where he came into contact with the Christian humanism current in France at the time. He became more committed to the study of Scripture and the Reformation teaching, and, in 1536, published the first version of his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’. Recalled to Geneva in 1541, Calvin worked for many years, taking the lead in defining the new forms of Christian life and work, and of church and community life.

Calvin’s work in Geneva added greatly to the widespread fame which his writings had already brought him. He gave final expression to his theology in 1559 and 1560 by publishing the last version of his ‘Institutes’ in four parts. Calvin wanted to continue and complete the work begun by Luther and other Reformers.

This gives some idea of the impact that the man had on Europe, and therefore on Scotland, and demonstrates how closely intertwined his name is closely intertwined with the post-Reformation history of the Scottish nation. It is interesting to note that the first two volumes of the English language translation of his Letters by Dr Jules Bonnet were published in Edinburgh, rather than in England.

An informal poll conducted amongst members of a Baptist church produced an interesting result. The question was asked, “What nationality was the Reformer John Calvin?”  Over half of those who gave an answer believed that he was Scottish.


Zwingli was the pioneer of the Swiss Reformation. Ordained in 1506, he became rector of Glarus, where he was a diligent pastor and effective preacher. In 1516 he had a new charge at Einsiedeln, where he was able to immerse himself in Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Appointed people’s priest in Zurich in 1519, he used the Great Minster pulpit for a systematic exposition of the New and Old Testaments.

Zwingli initiated the radical programme of reform that rapidly changed Zurich’s ecclesiastical life, and impacted the canton as well as neighbouring cities like Basel and Berne. Prominent changes included the ending of the Mass, the rejection of the papacy, suppression of the monasteries and the pruning of customs and practices according to Scripture.

From 1525, Zwingli found himself at odds with the Roman Catholic church and also caught up with the Anabaptists and Lutherans. Such controversies diverted resources and weakened the force of reform, and Zurich became increasingly isolated. The Swiss Forest Cantons caught Zurich unprepared at Kappel in October 1531, and Zwingli fell in the defeat, which caused a setback to the Reformation in German Switzerland.

Among the many works that Zwingli had published was ‘On the Lord’s Supper’ which sparked off the sacramental debates among the Reformers, each of them followed by further polemical treatises. Theologically, Zwingli steered the Swiss churches into courses that would distinguish the Reformed family. Even if he did not himself develop all the emphases that characterise the reformed churches, he sketched many of the outlines both practically and theologically.


Martin Luther’s background was marked by a deep religion and a dignified poverty, both of which he carried to the grave. He entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits of Erfurt in 1505, and was ordained as priest in 1507. Sent to Rome in 1510 on monastic business, his eyes were opened to the corruption of the curia. In the following year, Luther became Doctor of Theology and was recalled to Wittenberg as professor of biblical studies.

In 1517 Luther’s Ninety-five Theses against the sale of indulgences sparked off the Reformation movement. The theses spread rapidly, overrunning Germany within a fortnight and impacting Europe shortly after. By 1519 Luther was virtually at the head of the Reformation movement. In the following year, he published ‘On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ in which he fired a broadside at the Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist.

A papal bull of 1520 ordered Luther’s books to be burned as heretical and he was given sixty days to recant. Luther burnt the bull and was duly excommunicated. In 1522 he stabilised university and church life in Wittenberg and faced the problems brought on by the Reformation. In addition to the fanatics, he had to deal with the more responsible Catholic resistance. The Peasant’s War of 1525 wounded the Reformation by alienating scholars and humanists and many who had supported the Reformation turned against it.

1529 brought the division within Protestantism on the doctrine of the Eucharistic presence, and the Reformation, which had barely begun, was suffering schism. This fact was not lost on Luther, who had not set out to break away from the Catholic Church.