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Two Reformation Branches

Steve Lawson compares the German and Swiss Reformations:


While Reformation fires were spreading throughout Germany, similar sparks were igniting in Switzerland. Nestled in the Alps, this loosely confederated nation was to play the pivotal role in the historic events of the Protestant movement. If a reformation is measured by its end rather than by its beginning, the Swiss reform movement was even more far-reaching than that which was birthed in Wittenberg. What caught fire in Switzerland soon extended to France, England, Scotland, Hungary, and Holland. Even parts of Germany adopted the teaching of the Swiss Reformers more fully than that of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

. . .

Finally, the Reformation flourished in Switzerland because the country was a refuge for many believers fleeing persecution in their homelands. The Huguenots of France and exiles from Scotland and England escaped to safety in Switzerland. There they sat under biblical preaching by Swiss teachers with strong Reformed convictions. When the political climates changed in their native lands, these persecuted believers returned home and took with them the teaching of the Swiss Reformers. By this gathering and dispersal, the Swiss Reformation spread farther and wider than that of even Germany.

. . .

In many regards, the two major branches of the Reformation in Europe—the Lutheran movement in Germany and the Reformed movement in Switzerland—were much alike. Both were founded on the absolute authority of Scripture alone—sola Scriptura—in opposition to the tradition and leadership of Rome. The difference lay in the application of biblical truth to the church. At this point, the Swiss Reformers broke further from the Roman Catholic Church than did the Lutherans. This is to say, the Swiss leaders were more strict than the Germans in their interpretation and application of Scripture. Luther, for example, felt that the church could practice whatever was not contrary to the Bible, allowing for a smaller departure from the practices of Rome. With this understanding, the German Reformers first tried to reform the church from within. But the Swiss Reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin, chose to pursue only what is set forth in Scripture. The result was a more decisive break with Rome, an effort to bring reform from outside the Catholic Church.

Another contrast between the German and Swiss movements had to do with their chief emphases.* Luther made justification by faith the article on which the church stands or falls. But the Swiss Reformers—who certainly preached this cardinal doctrine—were zealous for a more all-encompassing truth, namely, the sovereign grace of God in man’s salvation. Philip Schaff writes: “The Swiss theology proceeds from God’s grace to man’s needs; the Lutheran, from man’s need to God’s grace.” Consequently, Zwingli and Calvin subordinated every doctrine to the eternal predestination of God in sovereign grace. Luther clearly believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation and treated it as a part of the gospel of grace. But the Swiss Reformers treated God’s sovereignty as the first principle of Christian thought and emphasized it more prominently. In this sense, the Swiss had a higher trajectory than the Germans in their preaching and writing. While the Lutherans stressed sola fide (“faith alone”), the Swiss Reformers stressed soli Deo Gloria (“glory to God alone”) more than even sola gratia (“grace alone”). Grace, they stressed, is the highest means to the ultimate end of God’s glory.

—Steven J. Lawson, Pillars of Grace (Reformation Trust, 2011), 427–429.

* See also “Lutheranism versus Calvinism.”.

Posted 2018·10·02 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Church History · Lutheranism · Pillars of Grace · Steve Lawson

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