10 lesser-known Protestant Reformers (II)

A closer look at Heinrich Bullinger, Theodore Beza, Thomas Cranmer, William Perkins and Conrad Grebel.

14 MAY 2016 · 10:07 CET


Contrary to common opinion, there were a lot more Reformers than just Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli.

Last week we studied five ‘lesser-known’ Protestant leaders from the sixteenth century, honing in upon the Lutherans Philip Melanchthon and Matthias Flacius as well as the Reformed Martin Bucer, John Knox and William Farel. You can access that article by clicking here. In this week’s article, then, we will look at the final five Reformers in this two-part series.

They are the Reformed Heinrich Bullinger and Theodore Beza; the Anglicans Thomas Cranmer and William Perkins; and finally, the Anabaptist, Conrad Grebel.

# 6 Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75), Reformed

Heinrich Bullinger was nothing short of a Scriptural and pastoral giant. Although somewhat reserved, he had a colossal impact upon almost all of Europe’s nascent Protestant communities from as far east as Hungary to as far west as Scotland and England. He is best-known today for two reasons: firstly, for being Ulrich Zwingli’s faithful successor in Zurich; and secondly, for penning the immortal ‘Second Helvetic Confession’ (1566).

Most of Bullinger’s vast literary output stemmed from his expository preaching ministry whilst at Zurich. He preached upon every single book of the Bible over the course of his ministry there which spanned more than forty years. Some estimates reckon Bullinger preached anything between 7,000 and 7,500 times. Writes Steve Lawson: “Bullinger was a tireless preacher.

For the first ten years of his ministry, he preached six or seven times a week. After 1542, he preached twice a week, on Sundays and Fridays”. His preacher’s heart led him to aim at clarity and warmth in the pulpit which won him the affection of many. Not only was he loved by his people, but all of Zurich’s ministers looked up to him as a pastor’s pastor. In fact, even beyond Zurich he was considered as “the common shepherd of all Christian churches”.

Despite tradition seeing in Bullinger a mere replica of Zwingli, it would be true to say that his thought was rather independent of that of his beloved predecessor. Zwingli, to give but one example, was a Supralapsarian whereas Bullinger was most certainly an Infralapsarian. Bullinger was also rather different in temperament, exhibiting a fairly mild spirit in comparison to the brutish attitude of both Zwingli and the men of his generation.

One point of Bullinger’s life which has fallen into oblivion is the story behind the ‘Second Helvetic Confession’. Interestingly enough, the Confession was originally Bullinger’s own personal declaration of faith which he had completed after being infected by the lethal Black Plague in 1564.

Although never quite recovering after his bout with the illness, Bullinger was able to minister faithfully for a further eleven years and his Confession, thanks to the mediation of the Elector of the Palatine Friedrich III, became one of the most important documents of sixteenth century Protestantism. To this day the ‘Second Helvetic Confession’ is still widely-consulted and cited within the Reformed world.

# 7 Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Reformed

With the possible exception of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) the only other continental Reformed thinker who could justly be deemed as an intellectual equal of the likes of Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger and Calvin would be the French exegete, pastor, author, theologian and teacher, Theodore Beza.

Just as Bullinger was handed the unenviable task of filling Zwingli’s shoes, Beza had the nigh on impossible duty of taking over both Calvin’s pulpit and his newly founded Protestant Academy in Geneva following the latter’s death in May 1564.

Nevertheless, against all odds, Beza did a simply breathtaking job at consolidating and expanding Calvin’s rich legacy. For over forty years, Beza held generations of young Evangelicals spellbound at the Academy due to his exegetical mastery of the Scriptures and theological knowhow. However it should be pointed out that he was much more than a mere academic.

Combining his academic place of duty with grassroots church ministry, Beza served as a local preacher and as the leader of ‘The Company of Pastors’ up until 1580. Commenting upon John 21:15 he preached, “It is not only necessary that [a pastor] have general knowledge of his flock but he must also know and call each of his sheep by name, both in public and in their homes, both night and day. Pastors must run after lost sheep, bandaging up the one with a broken leg, strengthening the one that is sick [...] In sum, the pastor must consider his sheep more dear to him than his own life, following the example of the Good Shepherd”.

Beza kept up a European-wide correspondence with the key Reformed leaders throughout the continent. Not surprisingly, he was most closely connected to his native France and thus received a torrent of French refugees in Geneva after the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Massacre which occurred in August 1572. Thousands of French Protestants (Huguenots) had been brutally butchered by their Catholic counterparts.

His influence also went beyond the sphere of the church into the civil realm. Due to his wise words of counsel and diplomatic spirit, the magistrates in Geneva were always willing to lend him a listening ear. The St. Bartholomew’s Massacre led him to publish the significant work ‘Right of Magistrates’ (1574) in which he reasons that, “the magistrates have the duty to resist tyranny, including the tyrannical rule of a legitimately enthroned monarch” (Richard Muller). In this sense, Beza went a step beyond Calvin’s more conservatively-minded political thought.

He stayed put in Geneva until he went home on 13th October 1605 at the ripe old age of 86.

# 8 Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Anglican

Continental Europe was not the only place to be struck by the insights of the Reformation. As we saw last week, Scotland experienced a Presbyterian revival via the powerful preaching ministry of John Knox (c. 1513-72). Down in England, however, a distinctive brand of Protestantism known as Anglicanism came into being once the English Parliament proclaimed King Henry VIII (1491-1547) to be the true Head of the Church of England by means of the groundbreaking 1534 ‘Act of Supremacy’.

The English Reformation, then, was not sparked off so much by a concern for doctrinal matters (as in Germany under Luther) or by affairs of church worship (as in Switzerland under Zwingli), but by political issues. To cut a long story short, Henry wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536).

Pope Clement VII was having none of it. So the King decided to set up a new church independent from Rome. Henry’s first Archbishop of Canterbury (the religious leader of the Church of England) was chosen to be Thomas Cranmer.

Although Cranmer has gone down in history as Henry’s cowardly ‘yes-man’, he did indeed play quite a significant part in reforming the Anglican Church. Not only did he publish the first authorized church service in English –‘The Exhortation and Litany’ (1534) - but he also drew up the first two editions of the oft-quoted ‘Book of Common Prayer’ (in 1549 and 1552) which incorporated some of the key thoughts from continental Protestantism thanks to the help of Martin Bucer (then at Cambridge) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (at Oxford). The Anglican ‘Thirty-Nine Articles’ (first published under the direction of Matthew Parker in 1563 and finalized in 1571) were also greatly dependent upon Cranmer’s doctrine.

Cranmer’s ministry was sadly cut short by martyrdom once Henry and Catherine’s angry pro-Roman daughter Mary ascended to the throne. Cranmer lost his post and was sentenced to death. In the words of Reformation expert Michael Reeves, “The old archbishop and architect of so much of the English Reformation, now nearly seventy, had, under extreme duress, renounced his Protestantism. It was a triumph for Mary’s reign.

Despite his recantation, however, he was such an embodiment of the Reformation that it was decided he should be burned in any case. It was a decision that would more than undo Mary’s victory, for when the day came, Cranmer refused to read out his recantation. Instead he stated boldly that he was indeed a Protestant, though a cowardly one for forsaking his principles”.

“In consequence he announced, ‘for as much as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished there-for’. He was true to his word: as the fires were lit, he held out the hand that had signed his recantation so that it might burn first. Having briefly denied his Protestantism, Cranmer thus burned with movingly defiant bravery, and so died the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury”.1

The date was 21st March, 1556.

# 9 William Perkins (1558-1602), Mainline Puritan

The Puritan movement felt that the Reformation in England had not gone deep enough. It was the powerful Anglican preacher William Perkins who exercised the most powerful influence upon the early generations of non-conformist Puritans, although he himself never left the Church of England.

In spite of his untimely death at forty-four, Perkin’s writings encouraged the Puritans to become more consciously reformed (in the Swiss sense) and not to remain content with the nominal Protestantism which flourished under Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Perkins, for instance, popularized the thought of the aforementioned Theodore Beza in England and ignited a passion for the centrality of the pulpit in Christian worship.

One tome wherein Perkins’ love for the ministry of the Word can be sensed is his 1592 work upon ‘The Art of Prophesying’ (or in contemporary terms ‘The Art of Preaching’). As far as Perkins was concerned, the chief characteristic of any minister is the preaching of the Word. He writes in the preface to the book, “So, if anyone asks which spiritual gift is the most excellent, undoubtedly the prize must be given to prophesy”.

Perkins was convinced that a Gospel preacher had to aim at clarity and simplicity whilst in the pulpit and thus was resolutely opposed to the flowery preaching of his age which majored upon human wisdom and wit.

His Scripture-saturated ministry and books bore fruit in the lives of many of his theological students among whom appear the names of William Ames (1576-1633), the renowned Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) and the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher (1581-1656).

#10 Conrad Grebel (1498-1526), Anabaptist

Our survey of lesser-known Protestant Reformers would not be complete without mentioning at least one Anabaptist thinker. In stark contrast to the Magisterial Reformation (Lutherans, Reformed and Anglicans) which took the presence of the State with utmost seriousness; the Anabaptists wanted to break off from all earthly ties and denounce any type of cooperation between state and church. Ecclesiastically speaking, they also decried infant baptism as invalid given that the baptized person had to know what he (or she) was doing.

Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) was one such preacher. ‘The Father of the Anabaptists’ had actually been led to faith in Christ thanks to Zwingli’s ministry in 1522; nevertheless, the following year he began to feel that his pastor was not carrying out a full-blown reform at his church at Zurich, especially due to Zwingli’s willingness to compromise with the State over the question of abolishing the Mass.

Two years later, Zwingli and Grebel met for a final showdown. They were to debate publically upon the controversial theme of infant baptism. After the debate, Zurich’s authorities officially endorsed Zwingli’s stance, so Grebel and his faithful followers decided to leave Zurich in order to preach their newfound faith, baptizing men and women who responded to their Gospel preaching. From that moment on, Anabaptism (which literally means ‘rebaptism’ or ‘baptism again’) was to become an independent movement, separate from the Swiss Reformation.

As can be imagined, the civil authorities were incensed at Grebel’s re-baptizing antics. Therefore all of the Anabaptist preachers were sentenced to death by drowning. Grebel’s close friend Felix Mantz was the first to die in January 1527.

Grebel himself had been arrested in October 1525 and handed a life-sentence, however, his friends helped him to escape some five months later. But all to no avail. The young Grebel was to be struck down by the plague that very summer. Notwithstanding his relative youth, Grebel was to prove instrumental in the development of a Protestant alternative to the mainline thought of Luther, Zwingli and Bullinger.

1 REEVES, Michael, The Unquenchable Flame: Introducing the Reformation (IVP: Nottingham, 2009), p. 132.


Published in: Evangelical Focus - Fresh Breeze - 10 lesser-known Protestant Reformers (II)