Dr. J. Faber Was the Reformation Catholic? Melanchthon's Answer - Dr. J. Faber

This address was delivered during a Reformation Rally in Ancaster, Ontario, on Friday October 31, 1997.

Dr. Faber has pastored Reformed congregations in Deventer and Schiebroek-Hillegersberg-Centrum, the Netherlands from 1952-1969.
He served as Professor of Dogmatology and Principal at the Hamilton Theological College from 1969-1989.


Wittenberg 1517October 31 will always be for us a day of thankful remembrance of the great work our gracious God brought about in the history of His church during the sixteenth century. Reformation Day reminds us of that important moment when Martin Luther published his ninety-five theses. The story goes that he nailed them to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints Day of the year 1517.

The church of God was brought back to the basics of the gospel: forgiveness of sins is freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits. God imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

Those words of our Heidelberg Catechism, and many more, come to mind when we think of the message of the Reformation. One could speak of it with those five Latin expressions that all use the adjective solus (alone): sola Scriptura, sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fide, soli Deo gloria. Scripture alone, grace alone, through Christ alone, by faith alone, and therefore glory to God alone. What a glorious and joyful tiding this is! We may as children of the Reformation together sing our psalms and hymns with deep gratitude to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the one God who lives and reigns forever.

I would like to deal with a specific topic that is dear to my heart, and that I phrased in the form of a question: Was the Reformation catholic?

Let me first elaborate on the question before I come to the answer, and then give you some application.

1. The question

Someone could say: Why do you ask this question? Well, for two reasons. The first one is that already in the sixteenth century the Reforrners were branded as being no catholics anymore but lately come heretics and schismatics.

They were accused of schism. Did they not break the church of God asunder and is the unity of the church not immediately connected with its catholicity? The Reformation was painted as a schismatic movement. Its adherents were regarded as sectarians and often compared to the Donatists of the fourth century. Donatists did not acknowledge a baptism that was administered (presided over) by an unworthy minister. They made the validity of the sacrament dependent on the holiness of the minister, and they broke the unity of the church for the sake of its purity. Were not Luther and Melanchthon, Zwingli and Bullinger, Bucer and Calvin, the Donatists of the sixteenth century? Were they not typical sectarians and schismatics?

And even worse: Did the Reformation not teach heresy? Was its doctrine of original sin, its attack on the so-called free will of man and its doctrine of eternal predestination not a revival of the heresy of the Manichaeans? Had the Manichaeans not spoken of an eternal realm of darkness?

The Romanist adversaries in the sixteenth century were quick with their judgment. They strongly alleged: the Reformation is not catholic but is nothing else than a schismatic and even heretic movement. So there is the first reason to pose the question: Was the Reformation catholic?

The second reason is because of a tendency of this century, especially of the last decades. I noticed that some historians now act as if there were three Reformations: first the Protestant Reformation, the movement inaugurated by Luther and Melanchthon in Germany. Then there is the radical Reformation, the movement of the spiritualists, people like the revolutionaries of the Peasant War (15241 and of the insurrection in Muenster (l534), or people like the quiet Anabaptists. And then there is what some now call the Catholic: Reformation, the movement that wanted to improve the church of Rome. One may think of the establishing of the order of the Jesuits in 1540 or the council of Trent that began in 1545.

Therefore, nowadays historians sometimes speak of three Reformations: the Protestant, the radical and the catholic. This terminology gives at least the impression that the Protestant Reformation was not catholic. Here we nave another reason for our question: Was the Reformation catholic or not?

Now that we have dealt with the reasons, let us for a moment consider the word "catholic" in our question. It is clear that an answer is also determined by the meaning of the question. In this case it will especially depend on the word "catholic."

"Catholic" is an original Greek word and its use in Christianity goes back to the early church. Ignatius used it in a letter to the church of Smyrna in the year 110. It found its way into the ecumenicalal symbols: the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. Everyone of us knows those words of the Apostles' Creed: I believe a holy catholic church and most of us know the somewhat broader confesion in the Nicene Creed: I believe one holy catholic and apostolic church.

What does the word mean? Well,"catholic" means universal. It indicates entirety. The church of God is being gathered throughout the entire world, from all places and every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues as we read in Revelation 7:9.

The church is a universal gathering. It is so not only geographically and ethnically but also chronologically. The catholic church of God is the church of all ages. There is continuity throughout history. There is an assembly of God's people at all times. We confess with the church of all ages that there is a church of all ages. The catholic creeds speak of the catholic church.

And - last but not least - this church of God adheres to the entire truth. Catholicity has nothing to do with heresy or sectarianism. [1]

2. The answer

Philipp MelanchthonNow that I have explained the question - Its reasons and its terminology - we come to the answer. Was the Reformation catholic? ? Our answer is a heartfelt "Yes." Luther and Melanchthon, Zwingli and Calvin, Guido de Brés and Zacharias Ursinus, and all the other reformers and children of the Reformation, were and remained, by the grace of God, members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

I could illustrate this from Calvin's Institutes or e.g. his letter to Sadoleto, or demonstrate it from the works written by Guido de Brés.

I only mention now the beautiful words in Article 29 of our Belgic Confession. We believe and profess one, catholic or universal church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers. This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end. Moreover, this holy church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.

But this year is a Melanchthon year. It is 500 years ago that Philipp Melanchthon was born. He lived from 1497 till 1560. In 1518 he was appointed professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg - not even a year after Luther had published his Ninety-five Theses. Melanchthon became Luther's most important co-worker for the Reformation in Germany.

In 1521, when he was only 24 years of age, Melanchthon published what is called the first handbook of Reformed doctrine, his Loci communes. In 1530 he composed the Augsburg Confession and defended it in his Apology. In 1539 he wrote a book, entitled The church, and the authority of the Word. Via his student Zacharias Ursinus he had quite an impact upon the formulation of our Heidelberg Catechism.

So there are reasons enough to listen to Melanchthon when we seek an answer to the question: Was the Reformation catholic?

First of all, let us take note of the fact that during his whole life time Melanchthon maintained: "We ought all to be catholics." [2]

Already in 1519 he defended the thesis: "It is not necessary for a Catholic to believe any articles of faith than those to which Scripture is a witness," [3]Sola Scriptura! Scripture alone is the rule or norm for our faith, and not the tradition of the church. The views of the synods, of the fathers and of the schools, ought to yield to clear Scripture. [4]

In 1521, the year in which Luther stood before the Diet at Worms, Melanchthon defended him over against the Paris theologians. They asked: "How will he be reckoned among the Catholics who does not hear the church?" Melanchthon answers: "I ask you, masters, what do you call the church? Is it that French Sorbonne? But how can that be the church which is foreign to the word of Christ, since Christ testifies that His sheep know His voice? We call the church that which has been founded by the Word of God, which feeds on the Word, which is nourished, fostered, and ruled by the Word, and in short, that which compares, all things according to the Gospel: 'For he who is of God heareth God's words.' Again, those who do not hear, are not of God. And besides, since the church has heen born of the divine Word, there is no doubt but that she must be nourished by the same." [5]

Here, we see that the debate between Rome and the Reformation was not only about the meaning of the word "catholic" but also about the church itself. What is the church? Melanchthon writes: "When I use the word 'church,' I do not have in mind pontiffs, bishops, and others who approve their opinions. For these are enemies of the true church: . . . 'But I call the church the assembly of true believers who have the Gospel and the sacraments and who are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, as the church is described in Ephesians 5 and in John 10: 'My sheep hear my voice . ... .' " [6]

The church is born out of the Word, out of the gospel of Christ. The Son of God gathers, defends and preserves for himself a church and He does so through the gospel: When in Lord's day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus formulated our belief concerning the holy catholic church, he clearly followed his teacher Melanchthon.

Melanchthon always stressed: The church is catholic, because the gospel is catholic. The church is from the beginning of the world because God himself first revealed the gospel in Paradise. In the foreword of his textbook on Christian doctrine, Melanchthon gives this wonderful sketch of the catholic church: With the promise in Paradise "God once more established a Church, His own people, who are to have eternal salvation. . . . For the sake of His Son Jesus Christ He wants always to have among men, a small company (Haueflein) to know and invoke Him, and later to live with Him in eternal blessedness, wisdom, righteousness, and joy, This Church of Gad is thus reconstructed when Adam and Eve are consoled with the promise of God's Son: 'The seed of the woman will tread on the head of the serpent' (cf. Gen. 3:15)!"

With this promise, says Melanchthon, a Church is once again instituted, and Adam and Eve know that, on account of the promised Saviour, they have been received out of grace; and once more, justified and regarded as children of God. Adam and Eve were justified by faith alone, by grace alone; through Christ alone! So our first parents were the first members of the catholic church. The Son of God gathers His church, by His Word, and Spirit, in the unity of the true faith, from the beginning of the world. When Melanchthon answers the question why the church is called catholic, one is immediately reminded of the description in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 21, with its elements: "out of the whole human race," and especially "in the unity of the true faith," which faith characterizes the church in all ages, "from the beginning of the world to the end." [7]

There is the antithesis in history. Melanchthon writes: "Mankind always has two parts; on the one hand God's people; and on the other, a larger company of those who despise God . . . However, the Son of God throughout all time abides in the true Church of God; He watches over the small company in which His word shines, and He disperses the devils and does not allow tyrants completely to devour His Church:" [8]

The Reformation is catholic, because in the Reformation God restored the true doctrine of the Gospel. The assembly of the church is not bound to the regular succession of bishops; but to the Word of God. Reformation is rebirth from the everlasting seed of the Gospel "The church is born again where God restarts the doctrine and confers the Holy Spirit: . . . The true church . . . retains the true doctrine of the Gospel or the articles of faith, just as Paul calls it the seat of truth." [9]

It warms your heart when you hear Melanchthon sing of the glory of this catholic church. "Let us not think, says he, that the church is only a Platonic state." The Reformation was accused of fleeing into a Platonic concept of an invisible church. Melanchthon rejects such a Platonic idea. Indeed, he often speaks of the church as a remnant as in the days of Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah and portrays the church as the hidden church or the church under the cross. But he does not want to forget that this hidden church is the concrete assembly that Christ gathers here on earth. Therefore the church is no Platonic idea, but earthly reality. [10]

He then continues: "That assembly is the true church in which the pure doctrine of the Gospel shines forth and in which the divinely instituted Sacraments are rightly administered." Here you hear the author of the Augsburg Confession with his well known description of the true church, a description that Calvin took over.

"And this (the true church), Melanchthon says, I hold our churches to be, by the blessing of God, since they profess the pure evangelical doctrine. And this doctrine without doubt has the unanimous approval of the universal church of Christ (the Catholica Ecclesia Christi, J.F,).... How great a glory and blessedness it is to be a member of this assembly!" There is "that procession which Christ leads and over which the holy angels hover, and in which walk such princes as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and other men endowed with extraordinary gifts! In this procession you already have a definite place, if you do not aid or approve the wickedness and cruelty of the enemies of the church, but embrace the true doctrine and confess it and adorn it with reverent character. The Psalmist says: 'pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Blessed will be they who love her'." [11]

We heard Melanchthon say that the true church retains the doctrine of the Gospel or the articles of faith. This expression, "the articles of faith," reminds us of the creeds of the early church. The Reformation did not do away with the ecumenical creeds. The Reformation was catholic because it retained not only the doctrine of the gospel, but also the articles of our undoubted Christian faith. For Melanchthon, the gospel and the creeds are even so closely connected that he always mentions them almost in one breath.

In his short history of the catholic church, in his textbook on Christian doctrine; he quotes one of his beloved texts: " No other foundation can any one lay than this which is laid, which is Jesus Christ, the Saviour." "And then the Church in the time of the apostles set forth the chief articles of Christian doctrine in the Apostles' Creed, and afterward in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, a true explanation of the previous creed is given. At this point, says Melanchthon, I want sincerely to give my eternal confession. 'All the articles in these creeds I truly hold, believe, and accept as divine truth, and with God's grace I will always keep them, and I might add that, all angels and men are obliged to accept these same creeds with true faith." [12]

It is generally, accepted that our Heidelberg Catechism in Lord's Day 7 uses a definition of Melanchthon when it asks; What is true faith? True faith is not only a sure knowledge but also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel. I would like to suggest that also the following question and answer are phrased after a formulation by Melanchthon, "the teacher of Germany," the teacher of Zacharias Ursinus: What, then, is necessary for a Christian to believe? All that is promised us in the gospel; which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary. This wonderful combination of the promise of the gospel and the Apostles' Creed is typically Melanchthonian. The catholic creed summarizes the catholic gospel. The Reformation was not an innovation. It did not bring new dogmas but restored and unfolded the ancient catholic doctrine of the triune God. Melanchthon strongly stated: "I would not want to stand forth either as the author or the defender of any new dogma in the church " [13]

Was it not precisely for this reason that in 1540 Melanchthon changed Article 10 of the Augsburg Confession (the Lord's Supper)?

The gospel, first revealed in Paradise, is summarized in the articles of our catholic faith. By the grace of God the promise of this gospel was again forcefully proclaimed in the Reformation. Our question read: Was the Reformation catholic? Melanchthon's answer is simple and short; The Reformation was catholic, because it rediscovered the gospel. [14]

3. Application

Allow me now to give a short application of this answer.

Returning to my introduction, I would first urge you not to yield the word "catholic" to the Romanists. Roman Catholic is anything but catholic. The holy catholic church is not confined, bound or limited to a certain place - Rome, or to certain persons - the pope and the clergy. Roman Catholic is a contradiction in terms. Melanchthon rightly stated: The papists falsely call themselves Catholics, because they do not keep the uncorrupted doctrine of the Word, according to the agreement of the more pure ancient church. [15]

I will not now go into Melanchthon's appeal to the more pure ancient church. He, the professor of classical antiquities, knew his Greek and Latin perfectly. He quoted what he called the testimonies of the fathers. Besides Calvin, especially Melanchthon was the Reformer who defended the Reformation as catholic also in references to the Scriptural thought of brothers like Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine. "Augustine is mine," he even said. It does not mean that he did not have any criticism of brothers as Augustine or even of ecumenical councils as that of Nicea. [16] Melanchthon's own thoughts and actions were not perfect either.

But he was right when he stated: the Romanists falsely call themselves Catholics. Therefore, we should not speak of a Protestant, or even evangelical, Reformation besides a Catholic Reformation. In the sixteenth century there were many movements but there was only one Reformation. The so-called evangelical or Protestant Reformation was the catholic Reformation.

But what remains most important is that the Reformation was catholic because of the gospel. The eternal gospel is the joyful tiding of forgiveness of sins and eternal life solo Christo, only through Jesus Christ. He is our Saviour, the only Mediator between God and man. The promise of the gospel was signed and sealed to us in holy baptism. Do we believe this promise of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

Christ gathers His congregation from everywhere and throughout all ages. I believe a holy catholic church. But when we say or sing that, we should also have this firm confidence: I am, and forever shall remain, a living member of this holy catholic church. A living member is he who believes: Not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely out of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits.

And now a third application that is also dear to my heart. It concerns the unity of the church. The Reformation was catholic, but catholicity and unity belong together. I believe one holy catholic and apostolic church. Indeed, the unity of God's church is unity of faith. But faith shows itself in works and the catholic church is no Platonic state. If we as Reformed people are one in faith, we should show this towards one another not only in words but also in deeds.

The last application we could make together. Let us together sing Te Deum, the hymn composed probably in the fourth century by Nicetas of Remesiana in what is today Yugoslavia. As far as we know, Nicetas was the brother who for the first time wrote the word "catholic'" into what is now our Apostles' Creed. [17] He put it also in this hymn:

    Thy prophets' and apostles' glorious company,

    The martyrs robed in white - all sing their praise to Thee.

    Thy holy catholic Church in worship stands before Thee,

    Confessing Thee: the Father, infinite in glory;

    Thy true and only Son, worthy of veneration;

    The Holy Spirit, source of strength and consolation.

            Soli Deo Gloria!


[1]ReturnSee for a broader exposition my Essays in Reformed Doctrine, J. Boersema and W.M Wielenga eds. Neerlandia: lnheritance Publications 1990, 71-99, 107-109.

[2]ReturnCorpus Reformatorum 24, 399. The context is important. Melanchthon states that to be called Catholic and to be really Catholic are two different things. Only he can be called a real Catholic who embraces the doctrine of the true Catholic Church. It has the testimony of all times and all ages. It is in agreement with the teaching of prophets and apostles. it does not tolerate divisions or heresies. "Omnes debimus esse Catholici, id est, amplecti hoc verbum, quod tenet Ecclesia recte sentiens, aliena a sectis, se unon implicita sectis pugnantibus cum illo verbo."

[3]ReturnMelanchthon: Selected writings, Baccalaureate thesis, 1519, tr.C.L. Hill, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1962, 18.

[4]Return'Luther and the Paris theologians', 1521, o.c., 80.

[5]Return o.c., 81

[6]Return 'The church and the Word' (1539), o.c., 135, cp. 133. Just before he published this treatise, he wrote to Archdeacon Heath in England that he did not call "church" that Roman assembly which oppressed the church by godless tyranny but those lights of the pious, Adam, Noah, the prophets, Christ, the apostles, and other pious persons, who have kept the purity of the heavenly doctrine: "Nec ego ecclesiam voco illum coetum Romanum, qui nefaria tyrannide ecclesiam oppressit . . . ," Corpus Reformatorum 3, 679.

[7]Return Melanchthon's answer to the question why the church is called catholic reads in Corpus Reformatorum 24, 398: Quia est coetus ubique terrarum passim dispersus, Et quia membra eius, ubique sunt, quamtumvis locorum intervallis disiuncta, in externa tamen professione amplectuntur unam et eandem omnibus aetatibus, ab initio usque ad finem, verae doctrinae vocem .

[8]Return Melanchthon on Christian doctrine: Loci communes 1555, tr. C.L. Manschreck, New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, XLVI and XLVII.

[9]Return Melanchthon: Selected writings, 137.

[10]Return Cf. Corpus Reformatorum 8, 619: Non loquimur de Ecclesia, ut de Idea Platonica, sed coetum visibilem monstramus . . . .

[11]Return o.c., 185. The Latin original is in Corpus Reformatorum 23,640s.

[12]Return Melanchthon on Christian doctrine: Loci communes 1555,, XLIX and L.

[13]Return "Letter on the Lord's Supper" 1529, Melanchthon: Selected writings, 126. Cf. Corpus Reformatorum 3, 321: Nec nos ullum novum dogma inveximus in Ecclesiam, sed Ecclesiae catholicae doctrinam renovamus et illustramus.

[14]Return "For there is no doubt that the kind of doctrine we profess expresses the very consensus of the catholic church of Christ, as indicated by the confessions, the saner synods, and the more learned fathers," Melanchthon: Selected writings, 177.

[15]Return Corpus Reformatorum 24, 398 (De appellations Ecclesiae Catholicae): Papistae falso se nominant Catholicos, quia non retinent doctrinam incorruptam Verbi, iuxta consensum purioris Ecclesiae veteris." Cp. CR 12, 489: "Non igitur recte arrogant sibi titulum catholicae Ecclesiae hi, qui defendunt opiniones ignotas veteri Ecclesiae."

[16]Return See especially the booklet "The church and the authority of the Word," 1539, in Melanchthon Selected Writings, e.g., 176f.: ". . . it is clear that we truly hold the same doctrine as the catholic church of Christ. I add this also, that distinguished writers such as Ambrose, Augustine, and a few others think the same way, if they are properly understood and if they are forgiven for some few things which were not matters of controversy in their day." Peter Fraenkel dealt with the topic of the testimonies of the fathers extensively in Testimonia patrum. The function of the patristic argument in the theology of Philip Melanchthon, Geneve: Librairie E. Droz, 1961.

[17]Return J.N.D. Kelly, Early christian creeds, second edition, London, Loogmans, 1960, 385.