German reformer Martin Luther is often heralded as the founder of Protestantism and one of the most influential Christians ever. Historian Bernd Moeller has even described him as the most influential European who ever lived, with millions of followers and a massive readership, his reformation project has had an overwhelming success – even though it ultimately failed to reform the Roman-Catholic church.
However, this notion has recently been challenged by other historians. Hartmut Lehmann writes in his contribution to Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform, an anthology on the so-called radical reformation:
True, Protestantism has become a major world religion, with congregations on all continents. In the course of the twentieth century, however, not all branches of the Protestant family grew at the same rate. In Europe and North America, Lutheran churches, that is the churches directly descending from the German reformer, stagnated. Some are in decline, like many other mainstream churches. In contrast, the various branches of Baptist churches blossomed and attracted many new members, and so did numerous Pentecostal churches.
In Africa and some parts of Asia, in particular, congregations that can best be described as charismatic, fundamentalist, or evangelical (I am aware that all of these terms are disputed), are strong and vibrant. While Europe’s traditional Protestant churches are afflicted by progressive secularization, the much younger Protestant churches in the southern hemisphere experience vitality, and their leaders speak of unheard blessings.
In looking at what the British-American historian Philip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom, has called ‘The Coming of Global Christianity’, one may ask what has become of Luther’s heritage and what of his theological legacy. Luther never accepted the baptism of adults and was among the fiercest opponents of the early Baptist movement. Furthermore, Luther strongly rejected any kind of charismatic or emotional religious performance. For him, those who believed that they should follow sensational inspirations, were nothing but enthusiasts who could not be trusted.
However, not in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, but over the centuries, these unreliable enthusiasts have succeeded in unforeseen ways. By the twentieth century, ‘Martin Luther’s unruly offspring’ could proudly claim ‘mass’ success, or ‘Massenerfolg’, to use Bernd Möller’s phrase.
The following is an excerpt of Micael Grenholm’s upcoming book Charismactivism, due to be published later this year by Ettelloc Publishing.
The Protestants of the 16th century were far from the first who protested against Catholic errors and heresies, but this movement was the first one to escape being totally quenched by inquisitors and grow to a big, substantial size so that it was clear once and for all that Catholics and Orthodoxs didn’t have monopoly on the name of Jesus. This was primarily because unlike most previous Christian rebels, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) did not question the state-church system — on the contrary they endorsed it! Thus, many Protestants weren’t persecuted; they persecuted others. Furthermore, while prophetic, charismactivist movements demanded believers to take discipleship seriously and actively seek holiness, Luther’s hostility towards works made it quite easy to be a Christian in his church.
Reformers like John Wycliffe (1331-1384) in England and Jan Hus (1369-1415) in Bohemia (which is now the Czech Republic) had already protested against Biblical ignorance, papal fundamentalism, ecclesial luxury, and indulgences. The latter refers to golden tickets to Heaven that you had to buy in order to decrease time in your or your loved one’s painful purgatory chamber, the existence of which was questioned by Wycliffe since it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, and Hus translated some of Wycliffe’s writings. The Catholics burned Wycliffe’s books, and Hus’ living body. The pope initiated not less than five crusades against Hus’ followers in Bohemia, which they violently countered in the so-called Hussite wars.
In the midst of this destructive conflict, a Bohemian reformer called Petr Chelčický (1390-1460) stepped up and preached the message of the Sermon on the Mount: nonviolence, enemy love and good deeds. Instead of just reforming the church to a slightly better state, he wanted to restore the Biblical, apostolic church completely. He believed in the free will of the individual believer, criticized the marriage between church and state, and promoted economic redistribution and communalism (not to be confused with extremist revolution and communism). Continue reading The Nonviolent Reformer that Sadly Didn’t Have an Easy Name Such As Luther→
What would sixteenth-century Anabaptists have made of the “Toronto Blessing” that has impacted many churches in Great Britain in recent months? How did the Radical Reformers respond to such spiritual phenomena’? The charismatic aspect of Anabaptism has not received much attention from historians, but evidence of spiritual phenomena in early Anabaptist groups is substantial. Some welcomed manifestations of the Holy Spirit, while others were wary and attempted to regulate or discourage such expressions. Basic to the Anabaptist view of charismatic gifts, however, was a belief that a transformed life was the true measure and sign of Holy Spirit presence.
A charismatic view of discipleship
A sixteenth-century Anabaptist named Leonhard Schiemer wrote that believers receive “a power about which they have to say that things that were once impossible are now possible”. Christians lacking such a change, he argued, “are not yet horn again of water and spirit, even the Holy Spirit”.1 Schiemer’s quote indicates two distinctive emphases in Radical Reformation theology: a preference for the term “horn again” rather than “justification by faith”, and a focus on the experience of new life. In contrast to other Reformers, Anabaptists spoke of power to live differently rather than mere freedom from guilt and assurance of forgiveness.
Anabaptists accepted the notion of “justification by faith”, but did not find this term adequate to describe their experience of Christ and his Spirit. Through the death of Christ their sinful past had been forgiven, and now they wanted to live a Christ-centred life in the power of the Spirit. Common Anabaptist terms for salvation were related to the work of the Spirit and the expectation of a changed life. Words that frequently occur are: new birth, conversion, illumination, enlightenment, the new creature, and regeneration2 Continue reading Anabaptism as a Charismatic Movement→