The Four Streams of the Protestant Reformation

Thesis Statement

The burden of this essay is to demonstrate that the Protestant Reformation, complete with its various streams, some of which are frequently considered to be in opposition to one another, can be viewed as one movement of reformation due to several common emphases and doctrines and due to the common ecclesiastical body in which they sought reform: the Roman Catholic Church.

Medieval Ecclesiastical Teachings

In order to more fully understand the Protestant Reformation, one must know something of the historical context in which the Reformers lived and engaged in their work of reform.  Monasticism, which had previously dominated the theological production and work of the church, began to lose its influence in the late medieval period.  The work of theology moved from the monastery to the university, a fact best seen in the writings and thought of Thomas Aquinas.  This move, which gave rise to scholasticism, meant an increased focus on the systematization of Christian theology as well as greater attention to the integration of faith and reason.

Intellectual Schools of Thought

There are at least two notable types of scholasticism.  Early scholasticism emphasized realism: the idea that universals have an existence of their own, albeit on what Alister McGrath calls “a different metaphysical plane” than physical or concrete realities.[1]  Later scholasticism, on the other hand, championed the idea of nominalism with its emphasis on particulars: there is no need, for them, to consider the idea of universals.  This line of thinking would later have an indirect influence on the reformers.

There was also increasing debate over the nature and place of authority in the Roman Catholic Church during the late medieval period.  Curialism was a system of thought which held that all earthly power, including civil and political authority, is located in the church.  Conciliarism, by  contrast, held that ecumenical councils ought to have the highest authority in the church, even over the Pope.  Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, planting seeds for later reform, advocated the supreme lordship of Christ and the universal nature of the church, respectively, meaning that all members of the church, regardless of status, are subject to Christ ultimately.

The Spiritual Franciscans did not hold any individual property rights in an effort to identify closely with the poor.  The Waldensians were separatists who advocated for radical simplicity and obedience to the Gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount.  Two views of mysticism were prominent during this time: Voluntarist and Ontological.  Voluntarist mysticism stressed the molding and shaping of human will to the will of God, proving to be no real threat to the church.  Ontological mysticism, on the other hand, pursued direct, unmediated access to and relationship with God.  Since this was the case, they did not see much use for priests, sacraments, bishops, popes, or any other such medium through which to commune with God because they felt they already had unmediated access to him.

Political Realities

Urban centers became increasingly populated during this time as well.  The move from rural areas to cities led to a growth in communication and the spread of ideas.  The printing press had an exponential impact on this and should be regarded as one of the key catalysts of the Reformation.  Science, geographic exploration, and art all played an important cultural role in the late medieval period, propelling societies forward by way of the Copernican Revolution, increased exportation of culture by mission, and Gothic architecture.

The rise of the university, coupled with the dominance of humanism, is another important factor which gave way to major reform.  The humanists sought to go ad fontes, back to the sources, in their work and study.  This meant that they learned the original languages of the literature they were studying and subsequently translated these works into the vernacular such that the common person could read and understand.  Erasmus of Rotterdam translated a critical edition of the New Testament, much to the chagrin of the Roman Catholic Church, in order that the laity could have their own hands and eyes on Scripture.  This in itself is perhaps the most critical factor of the impending Reformation: a widespread movement from those within the Roman Catholic Church to travel ad fontes, giving the people the Scriptures, jettisoning the unnecessary yoke of bondage the Church had placed on them, and reclaiming the authenticity of Christianity.

Having considered the historical context in which the Reformation occurred, an examination of the four streams of the Reformation can now take place.  To that end, the respective theological methods and content of Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, the Reformed, and the Anglicans will be analyzed.

Martin Luther

One should keep in mind that Luther was very much a renaissance man.  He was thoroughly a man of his time, and so the historical context mentioned above plays an important role in his conversion and work of reform.  Recall that Luther was an Augustinian monk and very much acquainted with the errors being propagated by the Vatican.  After his tower conversion experience, he set out to correct some of those errors.

Luther presupposed the supreme authority of Scripture in all his thought.  Tradition and reason play secondary roles, at best, and perhaps this was due to Luther’s own experience with his ever-afflicted conscience.  Concerning the supremacy of the Word of God over against things such as “contemplation, meditation, and all that the soul can do,” hear Luther: “One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom.  That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ” (in Martin Luther, 54).

Scripture is to be read literally and Christocentrically for Luther.  That is, the text only means what the author originally intended, and Jesus Christ stands at the center and as the culmination of all of Scripture.  Furthermore, the law-gospel distinction is a controlling factor in Lutheran exegesis.  Luther argues, “We must bring forth the voice of the law that men may be made to fear and come to a knowledge of their sins and so be converted to repentance and a better life.  But we must not stop with that…we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness by which faith is taught and aroused” (in Martin Luther, 72-73).

No discussion of Luther would be complete without mentioning his rediscovery of the doctrine of justification through faith alone.  In his own words: “Faith alone is the righteousness of a Christian” (in Martin Luther, 62); and “through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours” (in Martin Luther, 87).  This is perhaps the single greatest emphasis in Luther’s thought, and it continues even to the present day in Lutheranism.

The Anabaptists

Perhaps the most unique of the four major streams of the Protestant Reformation is that of the Anabaptist movement.  One reason for this is due to the fact that some Anabaptists, then and now, would not claim to be Protestant at all; rather, they would prefer to be pure, simple, and authentically apostolic in their Christian faith.  The Anabaptists had a strong separatist impulse and were persecuted frequently by other Protestants.  This features significantly in their theological program.

It comes as no surprise that the Anabaptist movement was generally lacking in academically-trained theologians since they were always heavily persecuted.  This means that there is a distinct lack of dogmatic or systematic doctrinal statements by theologians within the movement.  Formal theologizing was not a top priority.  Even so, they held in common with the magisterial reformers the supreme authority of God’s Word as well as the gospel of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.  In this way, note that some of the same kinds of theological moves were happening even across very diverse streams of the Reformation.

The differences the Anabaptists had with the magisterial reformers were at least two-fold: first, the Anabaptists were generally a-creedal; second, the Anabaptists made no alliance whatsoever with civil authorities.  In support of the notion of a-creedalism, hear Obbe Philips: “In the first place, we must with all understanding concede and confess that the first church of Christ and the apostles was destroyed and ruined in early times by Antichrist” (in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, 207).  Since this is apparently the case, no creeds or confessions from what purports to be the church are to be accepted on the simple basis that the church had already fallen into apostasy.

Finally, the Anabaptists placed an extreme emphasis on the notion of community and discipleship.  Note Dietrich Philips’ words when he argues, “the fourth ordinance [of the church of God] is evangelical separation, without which the congregation of God cannot stand or be maintained” (in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, 243).  Further, due to their separatist impulses and the persecution they received, they developed a kind of “martyrology,” a genre of theological writings which detailed the heroic actions of those who were persecuted and killed for the faith.  To conclude, this stream, with all of its similarities to the magisterial reformers, needs still to be viewed as a separate, though not entirely distinct, movement within the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformed

The Reformed stream of the Protestant Reformation was initiated by Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger in Switzerland and Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, though its most influential theologian was John Calvin.  These four conspired together to formulate perhaps the most mature theological work of the four major streams, spearheaded largely by Calvin’s Institutes and his pastoral and ecclesial work in Geneva.

The Reformed movement placed great weight on scholastic and academic training, and their theological writings betray this reality.  One cannot escape the fact that the Reformed were thoroughly saturated in Scripture.  Both methodologically and functionally, Scripture, because it is the very Word of God, was the highest authority in this movement.  To that end, “we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men” (Calvin, in Calvin’s Institutes, 12).

Another important distinctive for the Reformed was Calvin’s formulation of the three-fold office of Christ: Prophet, Priest, and King.  Hear the pastoral nature of Calvin’s words as he describes Christ’s Kingly office: “Thus it is that we may patiently pass through this life with its misery, hunger, cold, contempt, reproaches, and other troubles—content with this one thing: that our King will never leave us destitute, but will provide for our needs until, our warfare ended, we are called to triumph” (in Calvin’s Institutes, 56).

As far as tradition is concerned, the Reformed sought a middle way between Lutheranism and Anabaptism.  That is, they were more discriminating than Luther had been but more accepting than the Anabaptists were of ecclesiastical tradition.  Calvin’s Institutes and commentaries are littered with references to the Early Church Fathers, especially Augustine.  Even so, the authority that tradition plays is always derivative: for Calvin, only insofar as the Fathers represent Scripture faithfully can they be said to be authoritative.  All of this to say, while the Reformed differed slightly from the Lutherans and Anabaptists on their use of tradition, the stream itself joined with them and made the same kinds of methodological moves they were making in the hopes of faithfully reforming the Roman Catholic Church.

The Anglicans

The English stream of the Protestant Reformation was the one most connected to the civil magistrate.  On the surface, it seems as though Anglicanism is composed of three equal, yet distinct parts: Reformed theology, magisterial reform, and nationalistic sympathies.  The work of Thomas Cranmer and many others spurred on the Protestant Reformation in the English Isles.

As far as theological emphases go, the Anglicans were concerned to get the Bible into the hands of the people such that they could rightly understand it and thereby know God.  Methodologically, the English reformers had a high view of Scripture and saw it as supremely authoritative, a common theme in each of the streams of the Protestant Reformation.  To this end, in an effort to help disseminate the truths of Scripture to the common people, Thomas Cranmer formulated the Book of Common Prayer.

This communal push in Anglicanism showed not only in their attention to Scripture but also in their view of community.  The liturgical practice of the entire community was to be shaped by Scripture and the BCP in order that all people should be transformed into faithful followers of Christ.  This is why the book is called “Common.”  It is for all the people, not just the official ministers of the church.  In this way, the Anglicans sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church, which had locked away the Scriptures in Latin and kept its truths far from the people.

However, Anglicanism is perhaps best seen as a middle way between the Reformed and the Roman Catholic Church.  Elements of this come through in their writings: “He is the Son of the living God and perpetual virgin Mary,” says John Hooper (in English Reformers, 194, emphasis added).  For a variety of reasons, not least of which was the political and magisterial connection to the reformation movement in England, the Anglicans did not go quite so far theologically as the other streams of the Reformation in their break from Rome.  This is perhaps best seen in their doctrine of the Eucharist which is closer to the Roman Catholic understanding (as well as the Lutheran understanding, it should be noted) than it is to a Reformed understanding.  In this way, the Anglican movement should still be viewed as a stream within the Protestant Reformation, though it has noteworthy differences from the other streams.

Contemporary Applications

There are a variety of important lessons to be learned from the Protestant Reformation and its various movements.  In terms of assent, we should note how each of the divergent movements within the Reformation all had a high view, both formally and functionally, of the authority of Scripture.  It is no secret that sola Scriptura is the formal principle of the Reformation since all four streams sought to reclaim Scripture alone as the highest and final authority for life and practice.  At a time when it is easy to belittle the importance of Scripture or to simply ignore it and its implications altogether, we would do well to follow in the footsteps of the reformers regarding how we think about and handle Scripture.

In terms of dissent, however, we should avoid the separatist mentality of the Anabaptist movement.  As one who stands firmly in the Reformed tradition, and since Jesus Christ is Lord of all, including civil government, it is important for me that Christians not seek to retreat from culture but that we seek to reform the culture by the Word of God.  On the other hand, though, we also do well to remember that all of our hopes are not tied up with the success or failure of our cultural engagement.  In this way we avoid putting too much faith in civil authorities and can place our faith right where it belongs: in Christ alone.


[1] Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 64.


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