Nick Campbell, one of my favourite podcasters, is going through a church history series this October. His aim: to discuss the Reformation, touching on everyone but Martin Luther. It’s difficult to talk about the Protestant Reformation without mentioning Luther, and doing so will inevitably leave gaps in important parts of the story—but I consider the move a brilliant idea. Study Luther, by all means, but do not forget that there were so many other key players in the story. Such as:
Valla—who set the stage.
Lorenzo Valla was just one of the many scholars whose work prepared and propelled the protestant progress. But for me, Valla stands out. His examination of the Donation of Constantine and his comparison of the Greek New Testament to the Vulgate showed the change over time in both texts and traditions. Valla equipped and inspired Erasmus, who published his friend’s work after Valla’s death.
Johannes von Staupitz was Luther’s confessor, a good friend and spiritual father who was in so many ways instrumental in setting the reformer on his course. Somehow Staupitz had the patience to sit through his young friend’s agonizing long hours in the confessional, had the insight to recognize the root behind it, and had the strong Augustinian theology to bolster Luther’s failing hope. It was Staupitz who sent Luther on his trip to Rome, Staupitz who encouraged him to take doctorate in theology, and Staupitz who gave him the professorship of biblical studies at Wittenberg. Sadly, the two were forced to part ways when Luther was compelled to leave the Roman Church, and Staupitz was compelled to stay. Yet they always respected each other, and Luther never forgot his teacher.
Eck—the worthy opponent.
It would be too easy to caricature Eck as simply the bad guy. He was bullying, brash, and his name rhymes with ‘bleck’. But he was brilliant, too. An esteemed professor and debater, in fact. When Eck cornered Luther in their debates at Leipzig, he was inadvertently refining the reformer’s theology. Eck forced Luther to look deeper into his theology, forced him to ask questions he wouldn’t have considered otherwise. An opponent, even an annoying one, is good to have—otherwise one grows too comfortable, and thus vulnerable.
Melanchthon—the ‘nerd’ friend.
Protestantism’s protégé, and Luther’s close friend. Phillip Melanchthon was intellectual and industrious, a biblical languages polyglot, with about thirty books published by the time he was twenty-one. His impact may have been a little overwhelming, if it had not been balanced by his gentle nature. He was timid, and prone to overthinking. Melanchthon was the main brain behind the Augsburg Confession, he took over for Luther in leading the Lutheran churches, and was more of a peacemaker than his predecessor.
Carlstadt—who went off the deep end.
Carlstadt was one of the most enthusiastic proponents for the Reformation. He’s also one of the reasons why the Lutheran reformation was so reserved (relatively). With much zeal, but not so much wisdom, Carlstadt would force his quavering congregation to meet his own convictions in a way that shocked other preachers. Carlstadt, unyielding, unrestrained, and ultimately unhelpful, was a sort of forerunner to the Radical Reformation.
One of the things I love about digging into the history of the Reformation is how much there is to it—so much more than Luther’s 95 theses and his speech at Worms. The more I discover of the people involved, the fascinating connections winding through the ages, the more I’m amazed at God’s orchestration of an incredible epic. Seeing His sovereignty in the past helps me to remember His sovereignty over the future as well.
Happy Reformation Day, and Soli Deo Gloria in aeternum