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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 17: “A House Divided (1517 – 1660)” – Part 1: A Door in Wittenberg and The Farmers’ War and Zwingli

Chapter 17: “A House Divided (1517 – 1660)” – Part 1: A Door in Wittenberg and The Farmers’ War and Zwingli







Discuss the main differences in agendas and priorities between Luther and Zwingli.  Focus on matters such as sacred art, the Eucharist, the numbering of the Ten Commandments, law, the sacraments and church music.


Huldrych Zwingli

Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531)

It was too bad the two of them couldn’t get along since they shared much and the core of both their reforms was the idea of salvation by faith through grace. Perhaps their background helped to shape their different points of view.  While Luther was a university lecturer who dealt with the educated “elites” who could be reasoned into obedience, Zwingli had pastoral experience with the common man and the need to emphasize authority over the masses.  Luther emphasized that the law was bad and the Gospel was good, while Zwingli emphasized law was good. Zwingli was an admirer of Erasmus who Luther also disagreed with.


One big difference between them was over images and the corresponding numbering of the 10 commandments to emphasize the ban on images.  Luther’s argument against equating images with idolatry was the clever argument that the strict ban was a form of idolatry, giving the images such power, ‘zum Ansehen, zum Zeugnis, zum Gedachtnis, zum Zeichen’ for recognition, for witness, for commemoration for a sign.


Zwingli also linked church music with idolatry that distracted from God.  Music can be all encompassing and one can get lost in the throes of worship.  Ironic since he himself was gifted musically and enthusiastically enjoyed, perhaps he felt it was a trial to strengthen his faith.  Ironically even though hymns were banned, Zurich had no problem making money printing hymns for other churches.


Another big difference was the Eucharist or communion.  Luther’s position does seem a bit weak having rejected transubstantiation where the communion became the actual body of Christ, but that it still possessed the supernatural element of physical Christ in it much like the divine/human nature of Christ himself.  Intellectually, Zwingli’s position was that it was more of a community pledge seemed stronger.  Attractively, it did emphasize a meeting of believers together to commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice of love.


Sadly these 2 powerhouses of thought and reform could not reconcile their dogmatic beliefs.  Attempts were made for them to heal the breach with even face to face meetings.  Luther was so bitter he told his followers it was better to be Catholic than Zwinglian.  Hopefully we believers can bridge the gap with each other to worship together as one people.





Martin Luther Bible in the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg

The Martin Luther Bible in the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg, Germany


Undoubtedly one of Martin Luther’s greatest achievements was the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into German language, which became widely disseminated as a result of the printing press.  The actual translation took place in Luther’s later years and the completed Bible included both the Old and New Testaments as well as the Apocrypha.  To help him in translating into contemporary German, Luther would make forays into nearby towns and markets to listen to people speaking. He wanted to ensure their comprehension by translating as closely as possible to their contemporary language usage. His translation was published in September 1522, six months after he had returned to Wittenberg.  The translation of the entire Bible into German was published in a six-part edition in 1534, a collaborative effort of Luther and many others such as Johannes Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, Caspar Creuziger, Philipp Melanchthon, Matthäus Aurogallus, and Georg Rörer.  Luther worked on refining the translation up to his death in 1546.  In fact he had worked on the edition that was printed that year.  There were 117 original woodcuts included in the 1534 edition issued by the Hans Lufft press in Wittenberg. They reflected the recent trend (since 1522) of including artwork to reinforce the textual message.


The Luther Bible was not the first German Bible translation, but it was the most influential.


Luther’s German Bible and its widespread circulation facilitated the emergence of a standard, modern German language for the German-speaking peoples throughout the Holy Roman Empire, an empire extending through and beyond present-day Germany. It is also considered a landmark in German literature, with Luther’s vernacular style often praised by modern German sources for the forceful vigor (“kraftvolles Deutsch”) with which he translated the Holy Scripture.


The spread of Luther’s Bible translation had implications for the German language. The German language had developed into so many dialects that German speakers from different states could barely understand each other. This led Luther to conclude that “I have so far read no book or letter in which the German language is properly handled. Nobody seems to care sufficiently for it; and every preacher thinks he has a right to change it at pleasure and to invent new terms.” Scholars preferred to write in the Latin, the language they all understood.  Luther popularized the Saxon dialect of German and adapted it for theology and religion, which subsequently made it the common literary language used in books. He enriched the vocabulary with that of German poets and chroniclers.  For this accomplishment a contemporary of Luther’s, Erasmus Alberus, labeled him the German Cicero, as he reformed not only religion but the German language also. Luther’s Bible has been hailed as the first German ‘classic’, comparable to the English King James version of the Bible, which became one of the first English classics.  Luther adapted words to the capacity of the German public and through the pervasiveness of his German Bible created and spread the modern German language.


Luther’s vernacular Bible also had a role in the creation of a German national identity. Because it penetrated every German-speaking Protestant home, the language of his translation became part of a German national heritage.  Luther’s program of exposure to the words of the Bible was extended into every sphere of daily life and work, illuminating moral considerations for Germans.  It gradually became infused into the blood of the whole nation and occupied a permanent space in a German history.  The popularity and influence of his translation gave Luther confidence to act as a spokesperson of a nation and as the leader of an anti-Roman movement throughout Germany.  It made it possible for him to be a prophet of a new German national identity and helped form the spirit of a new epoch in German history.


In a sense the vernacular Bible also empowered and liberated all Protestants who had access to it. The existence of the translation was a public affirmation of reform, such as might deprive any elite or priestly class of exclusive control over words, as well as over the word of God.  Through the translation, Luther was intending to make it easier for “simple people” to understand what he was teaching.  In some major controversies of the time, even some evangelicals, let alone the commoners, did not understand the reasons for disagreement, and Luther wanted to help those who were confused to see that the disagreement between himself and the Roman Catholic Church was real and had significance. So translation of the Bible would allow the common people to become aware of the issues at hand and develop an informed opinion.  The common individual would thus be given the right to have a mind, spirit and opinion, to exist not as an economic functionary but as subject to complex and conflicting aspirations and motives. In this sense, Luther’s vernacular Bible acted as a force towards the liberation of the German people.


The combination of Luther’s social teachings and the vernacular Bible undoubtedly had a role in the slow emancipation of western European society from a long phase of clerical domination.  Luther’s vernacular Bible broke the domination and unity of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe. He had claimed Holy Scripture to be the sole authority, and through his translation every individual would be able to abide by its authority, and might nullifying his or her need for a monarchical pope. As one Roman Catholic Bishop put it, Luther’s Bible had “stirred a mighty storm and tempest in the church” empowering the no longer clerically dominated public.


Finally, Luther’s translated Bible also had international significance in the spread of Christianity. Luther’s translation influenced the English translations by William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale who in turn inspired many other translations of the Bible such as the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, the Douay–Rheims Bible of 1582–1609, and the King James Version of 1611.  It also inspired translations as far as Scandinavia and the Netherlands. In a metaphor, it was Luther who ‘broke the walls’ of translation in western Europe and once such walls had fallen, the way was open to all, including some who were quite opposed to Luther’s beliefs.  Luther’s Bible spread its influence for the remolding of Western European culture in the ferment of the sixteenth century.  The worldwide implications of the translation far surpassed the expectations of even Luther himself.






In 1520, the Catholic Church finally had enough of Martin Luther’s polemics and attacks against them and thereby excommunicated him that year.  Luther promptly responded by publically burning the bull of excommunication in Wittenberg amongst cheering townsfolk who regarded him as a hero.  With all his actions thus far, Luther began seeing himself as chosen by God for the specific task of delivering the Church from satanic error.  (loc. 11819)  He believed that the Church had taken God’s sacraments and turned them into an elaborate confidence trick on God’s people.  This led him to write three great treatises in the same year for everyone to read, whether they were scholars, clergy, layperson, rich or poor to get his message across that the Catholic Church had misinformed and misled them all along.


His first work, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, focused on the tensions between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and declared that the pope was not only an enemy of the empire but of all Christendom itself.  Not only was he just an enemy, Luther declared him to be Antichrist along with the rest of the institution of the entire Catholic Church.  This is a title that many still use in evangelical and fundamentalist views of the Catholic Church today.


His next work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, was written in Latin and was therefore targeted toward clergy in an effort to convince them that the sacraments which they administered had been perverted from their biblical forms.  And above all, the Eucharist had been turned to a Mass which falsely claimed to be a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice once offered on the Cross.  (loc. 11830)  He no qualms about Christ’s presence in the bread and wine in services, but he completely and passionately disagreed about the doctrine of transubstantiation where, in official Catholic doctrine, the bread and wine actually (and miraculously – i.e. magically) transform into Christ’s flesh and blood in a literal sense.


His final work, The Freedom of a Christian, explored how an utterly fallen humanity, enslaved to sin, claim any sort of freedom or liberty in life.  Luther provided a bold answer which would follow the basis of Reformed soteriology: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  All this was possible through the death of Christ through God’s divine mercy and grace, which effectively gave back freedom to those whom God had chosen from amid an utterly undeserving humanity.


In my view, it seems as if the most influential work among the three was his final treatise about Christian freedom.  Luther personally described it as containing “the whole of Christian life in a brief form.”  I had the opportunity to briefly go back and read the second half of the treatise, and was struck by Luther’s clarity in presenting the gospel.  He states, “The Word is the gospel of God concerning His Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies.  To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching.”  Pretty straightforward and direct.  He uses vivid imagery to describe the gospel and an individual’s relationship with Christ as being that of a marriage – a metaphor that many preachers use till this day.  In Luther’s description of imputation, “And she [the bride – i.e. the church or the believer in Christ] has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all His is mine and all mine is His.’”  These are still powerful words that can captivate and move people.  As a whole, though all three treatises have merit for their own sake (and in broadest of terms they can be looked upon as anti-Catholic Church propaganda – especially the first two), The Freedom of a Christian, has the most practical use for the common Christian belief and faith in the broadest of terms, rather than dealing with specific (historical) issues against the Catholic Church or the Pope being the Antichrist or issues with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in the Eucharist- issues I think many Christians don’t much think or deal with in the most part.




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