Chapter 6 – The Battle for Religious and Political Liberty – Part 6 (The Protestant Reformation)

Chapter 6

The Battle for Religious and Political Liberty

Part 6 – The Protestant Reformation



When considering the origins of our religious and political freedoms, it is often asserted, that these freedoms were established by the Protestant Reformation. However, we will find that most of these Protestant Reformers, even though they were led by the Bible, to assert principles of religious liberty, most of them, renounced these principles and became sacralists. All these Reformers fell in love with the freedom that the Bible offers mankind. They revelled in the liberation, from works orientated salvation. But, under the same pressure that produced the Constantinian/Augustinian monstrosity, they too, succumbed to the medieval mindset of uniformity and compliance. Therefore, they travelled the same road as Constantine and Augustine, and constructed state churches, and they looked to the state to pass religious laws, in order to produce, the much-desired uniformity and the sacral society.

Thus, liberty of conscious and liberty of religion, was once again banned, which in turn completely stifled political liberty. The Reformers never ventured beyond attempts at religious reform. They never dared to see the connection between religious and political reform. Or if they did they never mentioned it. They wrestled for a short time with religious liberty in sacral societies and then gave up the wrestling. If they were going to take on the burden of being political reformers in addition to religious reformers, they would have too, at a minimum, demand religious liberty for all. However, they turned their collective backs to the Biblical principles of freedom and individuality. Therefore, they all followed the example of ‘mother church’ and were all converted to Constantinianism and Augustinianism. They all became sacralists.


However, not all the Reformers at this time, followed the example of the ‘mother church.’ There were a minority of Bible believers, who always honoured the Bible above all else. They strictly adhered to the principles of religious liberty. This brought them into conflict not only with the ‘mother church’ but also their fellow Reformers, who adopted the ‘mother church’s’ example. These strict Bible Reformers are known as the ‘Free Church Reformers’ and those who built state churches are known as the ‘Magisterial Reformers’ (because of their reliance on the magistrates to enforce their religious laws).


Martin Luther

Martin Luther made a good start, on the road to Biblical religious liberty. When he was called upon to give an account of himself, before the most august body in the Holy Roman Empire, he made his famous religious liberty speech:

Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and if my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.  On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

Here we see Luther justifying himself, on the basis of, the freedom of the conscious. His position, is that we are all are free to read God’s Word and upon being instructed out of the Scriptures, we must be free to act, according to our own conscious understanding. Luther backed up this oral statement, with many written accounts, stating the same principle – the freedom of the conscious:

In 1523 Luther wrote: In matters of faith we have to do with a free act, one in which no one can be coerced… Heresy is something spiritual; it can neither be bruised with iron nor burned with fire nor drowned in water; only the Word of God can overcome it… The secular authorities should keep hands off, should busy themselves with their own affairs and let everyone believe this or that as he can or chooses; force must not be used in this area of life.  Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, p. 189.


Luther emphatically asserted the right to a free conscious and the right of individual choice, at the same time, denying the right of the state, to manipulate or compel a person’s choice Luther also wrote the following:

Belief is a free thing that cannot be enforced…


Princes are not to be obeyed when they command submission to superstitious errors but their aid is not to be invoked in support of the Word of God. Norskov Olsen, Papal Supremacy and American Doctrine, (Loma Linda University Press, Loma Linda, CA) p. 130.


This is strong language for the times. Luther’s thinking is moving from what he has learnt religiously and he is applying what he has learnt, politically. At this point he could easily be mistaken for a revolutionary – advocating rebellion against established authority. In addition, he has recognised the necessity of keeping church and state separate. He has seen the evil that results from the union of church and state and he condemned the results:

See, then, what mad folk we have so long been, who have wished to force the Turk to the faith with the sword, the heretic with fire, and the Jews with death, to root out the tares with our own power, as if we were the people who could rule over hearts and spirits and make them religious and good, which God’s Word alone must do.  Ibid.


Luther becomes a Sacralist

Luther’s original, enthusiastic embrace, of religious liberty, did not last long, he was given a rude shock by political reality. As already stated, religious freedom is intimately twined with political freedom. Once the mind is liberated to think freely, this will inevitably lead to demands to act freely. This logical extension, happened almost immediately in Germany. When the peasants/serfs of Germany heard Luther preach, in their own language, they seized upon Luther’s words, such as when Luther said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all…” Source: Therefore, without realising Luther’s emphasis on the spiritual, rather than the literal and thinking that they had Luther’s support, the peasants rose up against their political masters, and there was a great rebellion, known today, as the Great German Peasant’s Revolt of 1524-25.

Luther was sympathetic toward the conditions of the peasants, but he was horrified, that his teachings were being used as justification for such rebellion and violence. Therefore, he wrote a pamphlet against the peasants entitled, ‘Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants’ in which he called upon the nobles to put down the peasants, writing that, “[The peasants] must be sliced, choked, stabbed, secretly and publicly, by those who can, like one must kill a rabid dog.”

As a result of the Peasants War, Luther’s attitude and his theology began to change. He saw first-hand, what can happen when freedom of conscious collides with the security of the state. He saw what Plato feared, that given free reign, society would disintegrate into mob rule with all its subsequent horrors of death and destruction. As a consequence, Luther switched from being a Free Church Reformer, to a Magisterial Reformer, virtually overnight.


Luther becomes a Magisterial Reformer

Many of the ruling class in Germany became followers of Luther, and they looked to Luther for guidance in religious and civil matters. Therefore, Luther had to turn his attention to how does a Reformed Christian society organise itself – this placed him in uncharted territory. Where would he turn for guidance, for the task of establishing a Christian society. It is no surprise that he chose the Platonic/Augustinian model, because before the Reformation, Luther belonged to the Augustinian Order of monks. As an Augustinian monk, his role and purpose was to teach and defend Augustinianism. Therefore, he reverted to Augustinian principles in order to build a uniform society. He began to rely on ‘the sword’ to settle disputes with ‘heretics’ and all those who would disturb the peace and security of the state. When the ruler of the German state of Hesse asked Luther how he should deal with ‘heretics’ within his realm, Luther’s advice was the following:

Every person is duty-bound to prevent and suppress blasphemy, each according to his status. By virtue of this commandment princes and civil authorities have the power and duty to abolish unlawful cults and to establish orthodox teaching and worship.  Concerning this point Leviticus applies: He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, let him be put to death. Seeing that our gracious Landgrave (Philip of Hesse) reports that certain leaders and teachers of the Anabaptists are in prison, who are to be banished (that is, who had been banished from the land) and had not kept their promise, Your Princely Grace may, on the ground that they have become disobedient and have not kept their promises or oath, with a good conscience, have them punished with the sword.   Norskov Olsen, Papal Supremacy and American Doctrine, p. 131.


There is no religious liberty here. Luther had become a sacralist. His priority had become the security of the state, not the integrity of Scripture. For example, the Reformation was a New Testament movement, but when it came to justifying his sacralist religious and civic relations Luther could only appeal to the Old Testament.

Princes must not only protect the goods and the physical being of their subjects but their most essential function is to promote the honor of god, to repress blasphemy and idolatry. That is why in the Old Testament the kings put false prophets and idolaters to death.  Such examples apply to the function of the princes. Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, p. 195.


Luther’s followers, who shared Luther’s original beliefs about religious liberty, also became sacralists. His most influential supporter, Philip Melancthon followed Luther into sacralism:

I am now of the opinion that persons who defend an article of doctrine which, though not insurrectory, is openly blasphemous should be put to death by the authorities, for these must punish open blasphemy as much as other public crimes. The law of Moses teaches us this.  Norskov Olsen, Papal Supremacy and American Doctrine, p. 131.


Notice also how Melancthon, can only justify his new sacralist view, on the basis of Old Testament Scripture. Thus, the Lutherans after having discovered religious liberty and individual rights in the New Testament, now take a backward step into the Old Testament, in order to preserve the traditional platonic structure of society. By rejecting the right to freedom of the conscious, the Lutherans became a persecuting church. In July 2010, the Lutheran World Federation passed a resolution, asking God and the descendants of those, their Church, persecuted in the sixteenth century, for forgiveness.

In spite of the fact that Luther, in the early years of his personal reformation, understood the principles of religious liberty, the movement that he founded did not. Unfortunately, Luther discovered that it was easy to practice and advocate religious liberty on a personal level, it was much more difficult, to infuse society as a whole, with the same principles. The problem for Luther, was that in spite of his desire to keep politics and matters of faith separate, he was ultimately faced with a choice – Biblical principles or uniform society. He chose the latter. Politics and religion had been coupled together since the Constantinian change and Augustinianism was the clue that held the two of them together. Luther could not separate in a few short years, what had been the norm for more than 1000 years.

Luther was not the only Reformer who started out advocating for religious liberty, freedom of the conscious and individual rights, who later changed his mind, Ulrich Zwingli did the same thing, and for the same reason – the preservation of a sacral society.


Ulrich Zwingli

Zwingli started off as a reformer, in similar vein to Luther. But at a crucial point in his reformation career he turned back and chose to remain a sacralist. The issue that halted Zwingli in his tracks was adult baptism (or believers’ baptism).  Zwingli was the most influential pastor and leader in the Swiss city of Zurich, and on March 7, 1526, the Zürich council, passed an edict that made adult re-baptism punishable by death. The edict decreed that the execution method, for offending the edict, was to be drowning, known colloquially as ‘the third baptism.’ Zwingli, chose to support the edict, and subsequently one of his fellow reformers, Felix Manz, was found guilty of breaking the edict, and he was executed, by drowning, on Jan. 5, 1527. Manz was the first Protestant to be executed by fellow Protestants, for which Zwingli was largely responsible:

It is quite apparent that what restrained Zwingli from introducing believer’s baptism was the consideration that such a baptism would tend to divide society – the one thing that men of sacralist conviction cannot allow. Anything that results in composite society is for the sacralist an intolerable evil. Baptism said he, is “a visible sign wherewith a man makes himself responsible to God and makes this apparent to his neighbor with the outward sign… it brings into being a sect and not one faith.” Zwingli like so many of his generation, was blissfully unaware that the Church of Christ is by definition a sect.

They were mortally afraid of anything that so much as smacked of faction-making – forgetting that the Church of Christ as set forth in the New Testament is by definition a faction, in any given situation, a party, a segment of society – never the totality. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, p. 107.


John Calvin

John Calvin was another reformer, in another Swiss city, who did almost exactly the same thing as Zwingli. Calvin was the leading pastor in the Swiss city of Geneva. He had a contentious dispute with another reformer called Michael Servetus. Calvin wrote to another pastor the following:

If he [Servetus] comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight. Letter to Farel, Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Baker Book House, 1950), p. 371.


Servetus did indeed come to Geneva, and Calvin did indeed put him to death, by burning at the stake. Once again demonstrating that there was no room for the liberty of conscious in the sacral Protestant city of Geneva. Did perpetrating such a horrendous act, on a fellow reformer, cause Calvin to pause and consider he might be acting against the Bible, against the Scriptures that he held so precious? Unfortunately, not! Sacralism causes spiritual blindness. Calvin has stated his position on these matters clearly:

Whosoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will, knowingly or unknowingly, incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God that speaks and prescribes it as a perpetual rule for the Church. Quoted by, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, p. 206.

Yes, ‘a rule for the church,’ but please Pastor Calvin, please show where the rule for putting people to death, can be found in the New Testament. Only Christian sacralists, insist on the death penalty for ‘heretics’ and try to justify it Biblically.


The Progress of the Reformation

The reason why, the Lutheran, Zwinglian and Calvinistic Reformations, failed to live up to their full potential, is because Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, failed to live up to their full potential. As a result, these Reformers, did not establish their churches along New Testament lines. They built their churches on the same foundation as the church they were trying to escape from – that foundation being Constantinianism and Augustinianism. They built state churches which were modeled after the Roman Catholic system.

As the years went by Lutherans organized territorial churches and brought public worship into harmony with Protestant beliefs… Ibid. p. 128.


During the time that the Lutherans were busy organizing their territorial churches, the Catholic powers of Europe could do little to prevent or oppose them. This was because they were embroiled in many other pressing problems, not the least of which was the Ottoman Empire, invading from the south east. However, a respite from the pressure finally arrived and they turned their attention to the Lutheran issue:

By 1529 Emperor Charles V had obtained peace in the empire and turned his attention to the Lutheran revolt. The Diet of Speyer, in 1529, stated that Lutherans would not be tolerated in Catholic districts, but Catholics would have full rights of worship, property and income in Lutheran districts. Ibid. p. 128.


The Lutheran princes, who were nominally subject to the Emperor, made a formal protest against this proclamation. It was this protest which gave rise to the epithet ‘Protestant.’ Thus, the very name ‘Protestantism’ was coined in a struggle against inequality in the arrangement which demanded liberty for Catholics but denied it to the Lutherans. Therefore, Protestantism was born out of the struggle for religious liberty. But it ultimately failed. It delivered religious liberty for a privileged minority, but denied it to the majority.

Of course, the Lutherans were not happy with the Catholics having religious rights, that were denied to them, and war broke out. The result of the war was stalemate, neither side could get the victory over the other. This resulted in another agreement – the peace of Augsburg in 1555.

At the peace of Augsburg in 1555 equal rights in the empire were extended to Catholics and Lutherans, but no other evangelicals were recognized. Only one faith would be permitted in a given territory – that of the ruling prince. This principle is usually defined as cuius regio, eius religio (each region, or territory, his religion), that is, the religion of the ruling prince or monarch was to be that of its inhabitants. Ibid. p. 133.


Under the Augsburg Agreement, the Lutherans won the right to be recognized as an officially approved religion in the empire. But this right was only accorded to the ruler of a given territory. In other words, the ruling class had won the right of religious liberty for themselves, but not their subjects. Furthermore, no other religious view, that diverged from what was legally permitted, was to be tolerated. The principle that prevailed at this time was: ‘Religious liberty for me, but not for thee.’ Too bad if you were a Calvinist or an Anabaptist. The Lutherans were happy, they had won the right to worship according to their conscious. But they were not going to extend the same right to others, thus the Lutheran Church became a persecuting church, just like the Catholics.

This arrangement (the Augsburg Agreement), muddled on for some time, none of the competing parties being particularly happy. The fuse that lit the most devasting war in Europe, up to that time, was a new emperor, trying to impose Catholicism on his domains. This sparked what is called ‘The Thirty Years War’ which devastated Europe, mostly in the German speaking parts. Most historians acknowledge that the Thirty Years War reversed European development by about 100 years. It eventually came to an end in 1648, with yet another peace treaty called the Peace of Westphalia:

In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia confirmed the right of both Catholics and Lutherans to exist, and the Reformed Church, which had won many followers in Germany, was accorded the same right for the first time.  No other Christian group, however, was granted the right to exist. Ibid. p. 134.


So, after a devasting war, one more faction was added to the approved legal list of religions. The Calvinists had won religious liberty for themselves, but again the same principle applied to all others – ‘Religious liberty for me, but not for thee’ – and this principle prevailed everywhere.



Just because some enlightened quotes, can be cited from Protestant writers, this does not mean that the Protestant Reformation produced the religious and political freedoms that we enjoy today. These quotations, are often from reformers with a Free Church mentality, which later change to a Magisterial Church mentality. The enthusiasm for the Bible and the Bible alone was quickly tempered by social and political reality. The Protestant Reformation made a good start, but it did not deliver up to its full potential. It did not give the great gift of religious and political liberty to the world:

There is a widespread notion among Protestant groups that separation of Church and State, and thus religious liberty, was one of the products of the Reformation… that religious liberty was but the logical development of the principle held by all the reformers. Just where this notion arose is difficult to say, and no reputable historian of our own times would endorse it…  William Warren Sweet, Religion in Colonial America, p. 320.

The greatest contribution that the Protestants made to the cause of religious liberty was demonstrating that religious liberty was not just something that was desirable – it was also obtainable, albeit in a limited form. Before the Protestant Reformation, the idea of religious liberty was thought of as something alien, akin to rebellion and treachery. It is only as some brave men and women, inspired by the Bible, were willing to die for the cause that some people managed to escape and obtain some degree of liberty. But the societies that the Protestants established bore all the hallmarks of the sacral societies that they escaped from. Protestant society was just as sacral as Catholic society. Protestants sought to build societies that were just as uniform as Catholic societies. Nevertheless, the myth that Protestantism is the source of our religious and political freedoms, that we enjoy today, is a persistent one.

Progress towards religious liberty, stalled in Europe, after the Treaty of Westphalia. The major factions within Protestantism, Lutheranism and Calvinism had obtained religious liberty for themselves and both denied it to every other Protestant. Therefore, we have to go elsewhere, to trace the origin of the religious and political freedoms we enjoy today.

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