Nonreligious thinkers see this era as the full birth of modernity, especially after religious warfare ends in 1648 and secular perspectives gain traction. Roman Catholics, while appreciating the need for reform, decry this moment as a catastrophe of division in the church. Protestants, naturally, see their birthrights here, inspired by the renewal of certain doctrines of grace and emphasis on biblical authority over ecclesial traditions. Eastern Orthodox and churches of Eastern traditions call on thoughtful people to reconsider their streams of spirituality and theology that were not torn asunder by dissent.
The Reformation Era is regarded by all as a tremendous moment of change for Western Europe, one with global impact. Nonreligious thinkers see this era as the full birth of modernity, especially after religious warfare ends in 1648 and secular perspectives gain traction. Roman Catholics, while appreciating the need for reform, decry this moment as a catastrophe of division in the church. Protestants, naturally, see their birthrights here, inspired by the renewal of certain doctrines of grace and emphasis on biblical authority over ecclesial traditions. Eastern Orthodox and churches of Eastern traditions call on thoughtful people to reconsider their streams of spirituality and theology that were not torn asunder by dissent.
There are three important ways of viewing this era that are most helpful for all Christians in the 21st century. The first is recognizing that none of the Magisterial Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Anglican leaders) intended schism. All of these leaders and their movements were understood in light of a thousand years of reforming impulses in the Roman Catholic tradition.
The second important lens for this era is seeing the five Reformations of the era as distinct yet connected. The Reformations included Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic movements. The first four are Protestant, but each brought unique ideas to the world. The Roman Catholic church did reform some of the worst abuses criticized by Protestants.
The third facet includes many attempts to unify divided Christian traditions from the 1520s into the 1700s. These individuals and initiatives rarely appear in popular histories, but the deep desire of thoughtful Christians for true unity with diversity in the body of Christ is ever-present and a source of much good for our world. Some Protestant attempts at unity against Roman Catholic power (Melancthon and Zwingli’s efforts in the 1520s-40s), while others called for ecumenical councils with all traditions present (Arminius, Calixtus, and Grotius in the late 16th and 17th centuries).
Money and work just prior to the Reformation
The indulgence controversy that prompted Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 is parabolic for understanding the church’s relationship with money and wealth. From the Book of Acts to today, the generosity of all classes has funded the church’s local and global activities. For most of church history, a paradoxical relationship with money is present. The honor toward the religious vocations of monks and priests, and personal concerns for standing in the afterlife, brought forth tithes and offerings and supported the institutions (churches and cathedrals, hospitals and monasteries, and educational institutions) that emerged as the church matured. Nonreligious, “secular” work was valued, but often seen in instrumental terms as providing for the more spiritual aims. Wealthy families would often endow monasteries and other works in exchange for masses.
Alongside this religious view, a more positive view of money and work emerged from the monasteries and universities in the 12th through 15th centuries. St. Thomas Aquinas, the leaders of the University of Salamanca in Spain, and other Medieval thinkers supported ethical enterprise, free trade, and natural pricing, while honoring the work of all classes. It is important not to overstate Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” as if Roman Catholic and other Christian streams disparaged nonclerical work.
With this background, let’s look at the five Reformation streams in light of our worship of God on Monday.
The Five Reformations and Money
Lutheran theology and practice
The heart of the Lutheran movement was the doctrine of justification by faith alone (See Gal 2:16–21; Rom 3:21–31, 5:1–11), and restoring Augustine’s fifth-century perspectives on grace and predestination as a counterweight to the legalism and superstitions of some popular Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. This sola fide was joined with sola scriptura, as Christian humanist scholars exegeted the Bible from the original languages and discovered the diversity of church tradition on interpretations.
Early in his protests against Rome, Luther also reaffirmed the biblical truth of the priesthood of all believers from 1 Peter 2:9-10, paving the way for greater lay engagement and reimagining the goodness of all vocations. Luther opined that a good Christian cobbler does not put crosses on shoes, but makes good shoes, affirming the dignity of good work.
Luther’s tragic error of siding with the princes against the peasants (instead of being a mediator) in the Peasant War of 1525, hurt his standing among the people and placed the Lutheran movement into the hands of the princes, limiting its spread. Even with this criticism, Luther’s works of Bible translation, a new catechism for all believers, and his hearty affirmations of the goodness of “ordinary life” found in his Table Talk, all helped propel progress in understanding money and work as more than instrumental.
Luther’s theology, building on Augustine’s City of God, juxtaposed two realms or kingdoms under the providential rule of God. The first was the church, with the Word and sacrament and the call to faith. The second was secular governance, where rulers led with benevolence and justice and enforced the moral codes of the church. The dynamic tension here both helped and hurt the future of faith and work, and the view of money, depending on the hopefulness or pessimism of particular circumstance. Luther was often more afraid of social anarchy, reducing liberty to a spiritual category.
Zwingli and Calvin: Jesus is Lord of all
Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, laboring in Zurich, was a contemporary of Luther. He admired Luther and agreed with his views of grace and salvation; however, he was put off by Luther’s admirers that failed to see that Zwingli was a peer, that his work was parallel to Luther’s. His work began in earnest in 1519, and in 1523, Zwingli brought his 67 Articles to the Zurich Council. These included the following:
#2: “The summary of the Gospel is that our Lord Jesus Christ, true Son of God, has made known to us the will of the Heavenly Father and has redeemed us from death and reconciled us to God by his guiltlessness.”
#3: “Therefore, Christ is the only way to salvation of all who were, are now, or shall be.
#19: “That Christ is the sole mediator between us and God.”
By 1525 these reforms were established and in the coming years they spread to Basel and Berne. Zwingli differed from Luther on the sacraments, arguing that the Lord’s Supper was a memorial meal received in faith rather than a sacramental perspective of real presence. This difference led to the famous split with Luther at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. By 1531, Zwingli was gone, having died as a chaplain at the Second Battle of Cappel, as Protestantism tried to advance toward Geneva.
Zwingli’s views of money and wealth consist of three insights: 1) a scathing critique of Roman Catholic corruption and a call for integrity in all economic matters; 2) affirmation of the goodness of all Christian occupations and vocations; and 3) a call for generosity toward the poor.
John Calvin, as a younger colleague of Luther and Zwingli, is considered the leader of a second generation of reform. He was a humanist scholar exposed to Lutheran reform currents in Paris, and experienced a sudden conversion to Christ in 1531. In 1536, at the age of 26, he published the first edition of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, addressed to King Francis and all in favor of reform. He outlined a brilliant trinitarian theology, affirmed the key Protestant doctrines, and set forth a refined understanding of gospel influence in all domains of society. As the leading pastor and theologian in Geneva from the 1540s to 1560s, he was a major influence on Protestant advances in France, the Low Countries, Germany, and eventually the New World.
Calvin and his followers were supportive of all Christian vocations and saw ethical enterprise and economic flourishing as signs of divine favor. This is not a prosperity gospel or an endorsement of laissez faire economics, but a profoundly theological affirmation of all good work, rooted in the creation mandate and evident in the new heaven and new earth future. For excellent summaries of Reformed thinking on both public theology and work and worship integration, see the recent work of Matthew Kaemingk.
There are two particular issues that offer a window into Calvin’s economic concerns. The first is his view of interest rates as a public moral concern. In Calvin’s day, bankers lent people money for enterprises, and small businesses depended on these loans to get started or fuel expansion. Calvin did not oppose interest income, but he negotiated with Genevan bankers for a reasonable rate. The customers thought 5 percent was fair, and the bankers wanted 10 percent. Calvin helped secure (for a season) business loan rates of 6.75 percent. Calvin supported free markets while affirming that all aspects of commerce must be done for the glory of God and the public good.
Calvin’s second major focus on money concerned generosity for the poor: The institutional church and public government must inspire generosity and provide for those in need. He did not advocate communitarianism (as was the habit of a few Anabaptist leaders) but pointed to the freewill generosity of the early church and the long tradition of Christian charity.
In recent years, historians, missiologists, and theologians express new appreciation for the “Radical Reformation” movements. These groups affirmed Protestant beliefs against Roman Catholic traditions but argued that they did not go far enough in restoring the church to her apostolic vitality. While there were some anarchist, militant, and cult-like groups that stirred up political troubles in the 1520s and 1530s, most Anabaptists were peaceful and hardworking.
The unique ideas from this movement included: 1) baptism for believers with a testimony of conversion, or a repudiation of infant baptism; 2) separation of church and state and therefore voluntary church membership; 3) ministers supported by the contributions of the saints; 3) pacifism, no participation in war, and for some, no participation in civil government or law enforcement; 4) an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels, though they agreed with the apostle Paul and the Reformers on justification; and 5) accountability for holy living. Added to these beliefs was a deep commitment to missions, with active conventions and commissioning of missionaries in the late 1520s.
By the 1540s, these disparate movements coalesced around the leadership of Menno Simons (hence the later Mennonite identity), a former Catholic priest that possessed brilliant pastoral and leadership skills. Most of their gatherings in Switzerland, France, Germany, and elsewhere were in homes, with occasional larger meetings. The Anabaptists were persecuted by both Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities because they were deemed dangerous heretics and subversive to the social order. There were over 100,000 Anabaptist martyrs in the 16th century.
As Simons and other leaders defended their beliefs, they offered unique perspectives on money and wealth that still influence Christian thinking. Here are some insights from their apologetic writings:
- Good work that leads to economic flourishing is a gift from God, and generous stewardship is expected.
- Ministers are supported by voluntary contributions and may need to work.
- There should be no poor among the saints, and the less fortunate should be helped by the community.
- Private property is good. Simons defended this against accusations of communitarianism, where all was held in common. Menno recognized that diligence, thrift, and wisdom led to more resources for those in need.
In 1582, a Jesuit priest observed the Anabaptists and commented that they were unsurpassed in discipline, honesty, sobriety, and reverence. “One would almost think they had the Holy Spirit!” he exclaimed.
The Anglican Reformation
The Anglican story is much different, as King Henry VIII’s break with Rome began in 1534 over his divorce and remarriage issues. From this moment to the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, England was divided and much blood was shed between Catholics and Protestants.
Out of this tumult emerged a Protestant England (and full civil rights for Roman Catholics only returned in the 1830s), with three streams vying for influence and power: 1) high-church Anglo-Catholic expressions that wanted as little change as possible with submission to the English monarch as head of the church instead of the Pope; 2) a broad-church Anglicanism rooted in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and The Book of Common Prayer that gently reflected Reformed theology and sacramental worship; and 3) a low-church movement, from which Puritan and Presbyterian movements arose, that sought to rid the church of any vestiges of “Papism” and to model the work of Calvin. From this low-church faction eventually came Methodism and the rise of a broad evangelical and Pietistic consensus in the 18th century.
The first thing King Henry VIII did as head of the church was close all monasteries and redistribute the property to his allies. All Anglican streams supported ethical enterprise and care for the poor, but there was little original thinking on money and wealth in this movement until the Methodist movement of the 1700s.
Roman Catholic Reform
The fifth and final Reformation stream is found in the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes called the Counter-Reformation. There is some truth in this label, for some of the Catholic activity involved direct repudiation of Lutheran and Reformed doctrines, deep opposition to Anglican leaders in England, and severe persecution of the Anabaptists. Some of this repudiation was enshrined in the final draft of the Council of Trent (1540s-1560s).
Through all the polemics, there was also a current of humility and holiness that promoted change. The abuse of indulgences was repudiated. Reforms in monasteries and churches were serious. The rise of the Jesuit movement, led by Ignatius of Loyola, help further both reform and zeal to re-evangelize Europe and foster missionary work in Asia and the New World. Some of the most profound spiritual writings and calls for justice come from 16th century leaders, including the works of St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.
Roman Catholic leaders such as Bartolomeo de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos condemned African slavery and the oppression of the indigenous people in the Americas conquered by Portugal and Spain. Significant voices from Dominican, Franciscan, and Jesuit movements fought for justice for the poor.
Regarding money and wealth, Catholic Reformers reaffirmed the goodness of free trade and natural pricing but condemned the waste of accumulated wealth on luxury for the few with so many others in poverty. Such Reformers made some headway in Europe and in the New World, but they faced uphill battles to cross entrenched wealth and power.
Wisdom For 21st-Century Christians
There are five insights useful for our contemporary discipleship and mission. First, all traditions support ethical enterprise, diligence in daily work, and the goodness of lay vocations. The second is more of a warning: All traditions continue to renew the sacred/secular divide by reifying the three-tiered hierarchy of monks and missionaries, priests and pastors, and the laity.
Third, the enduring wisdom of centuries of Christian reflection on economics and money should be studied and wisely applied, by listening to voices from every century as engagement in the public square is supported by all traditions — by way of fairness, accountability, compassion, and gratitude.
Fourth, the thoughtfulness of the Anabaptist (Mennonite) ethos — especially on voluntary affiliation, generosity, and ministry supported by the people — continues to inspire our own efforts.
Finally, global Christians participate in many economies and political systems. All must aim for justice, pursue diligence, express generosity, and celebrate flourishing when possible.
Money is a tool for good when grounded in the gospel. Here we can find good counsel for our economic lives.