The Success and Failure of Protestantism
In many ways, the Reformation was a huge success. Most notably, the Church recovered the Bible as her ultimate authority for faith and practice, the doctrine of salvation as by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and worship as centered on the Triune God alone. These and other Reformation truths were genuine rediscoveries of Scriptural and early Christian beliefs and practices and ought to be celebrated by Christians everywhere.
However, in other ways, the Reformation was a failure. I have written elsewhere that the failure of Protestantism has been our ecclesiology: we have failed to preserve the unity of the visible Church. Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians speaks to our context as well: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10, ESV). Although we console ourselves with the fact that beneath our superficial denominational divisions lies a deeper and more important spiritual unity, we must take our divisions more seriously. Could Paul even have conceived of a state of Christianity in which Gospel-preaching churches do not have visible, cooperative unity, or worse, excluded one another from the Lord’s Supper?
In this brief article, I won’t presume to solve a problem that has plagued Protestantism for half a millennium. However, I would like to address it from a new perspective, providing some hope that Protestantism doesn’t have to be this way and showing that at least some Reformers had a vision to preserve unity despite doctrinal differences on secondary issues.
The Sixteenth-Century Context
If we go back to the sixteenth century, we see that there were three major Protestant groups. Arguably the most well-known were the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. They were constant sparring partners with one another and have left us with an enormous corpus of polemical works dedicated to convincing the other side of the remaining errors of their system. There were a few attempts to unite the two movements, such as the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) and the Wittenberg Concord (1536), and a few moderate theologians such as Philip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer who tried to build bridges, but these were isolated incidents and voices and never convinced the larger Lutheran and Reformed bases.
This is where the famous Anglican “third way” or via media came in. Since the nineteenth century, many have thought that Anglicanism was a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, but this washow the Church of England was repackaged by High-Church Anglicans (“Anglo-Catholics”) such as John Henry Newman who wanted it to be more Roman Catholic. In its original conception in the sixteenth century, although broadly fitting within the Reformed movement, Anglicanism was more of a via media between Lutheranism and the Reformed. Anglicans were open to insights from both groups, and most moderate positions were not only welcomed in England but even invited to enter and contribute.
A fourth, and much smaller group of Protestants, the Anabaptists, typically did not unite with other Protestant movements, but rather sought an extensive and immediate reformation of the Church. One wing of their movement, the so-called “spiritual Anabaptists”, sought to bring their reformation about through violent means, which had the unfortunate consequence of sullying the entire Anabaptist movement and inviting outright rejection and persecution from Protestants and Catholics alike. For these reasons, Anabaptists typically have been happy to remain isolated from other Protestants and not seek broader unity. Due to their relatively small size, lack of sustained engagement with the other Protestant “ways”, and hesitancy over whether or not “Protestant” is the best term to describe them, for the purposes of this essay I do not consider Anabaptism the “fourth way” for Protestants. Rather, this term will be reserved for the Spanish Protestant vision, to which we now turn.
The Promise of the Spanish Reformation
It is within the context of a divided Protestantism that the little-known Spanish Reformation can be so helpful for us. The lives and works of the Spanish Reformers demonstrate that, while they were greatly indebted to Lutheran, Reformed, English, and Anabaptist influences—even joining their ranks and at times becoming their pastors—they never really saw themselves as card-carrying members of any of these groups. The Spaniards were comfortable everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The reason this was so, I would like to suggest, is that the Spanish Reformers envisioned a “fourth way” for Protestant ecclesiology, one that took the moderate approach of Melanchthon, Bucer, and Anglicanism, but which went beyond them to include significant portions of the Anabaptist vision. I would like to suggest that in the area of ecclesiology, Spanish Protestantism had the most biblical, and therefore the most catholic, vision of any group of the Reformation. Of course, in this brief article, I cannot provide an exhaustive account of the uniqueness of Spanish Protestant ecclesiology, but I can sketch a basic outline of Spanish distinctives. First, I will show how the Spanish Reformers adopted a via media approach between the Lutheran and Reformed camps, and then how they incorporated important portions of the Anabaptist vision without forfeiting their Protestantism.
The via media
Inquisition documents from the important Spanish Protestant centers at Valladolid and Seville from the 1550s show that Protestants in both cities took an original approach to reform and were eclectic in their appropriation of broader Protestant thought. The reports show both Lutheran and Reformed components in their theology, with no apparent divisions between those who considered themselves Lutheran and others Reformed. Additionally, the reports evidence a broad range of interests, with a wide range of humanist, Lutheran, and Reformed books being smuggled and read by these groups. On traditionally divisive topics such as the Lord’s Supper and the number of sacraments, Spaniards held either Lutheran- or Reformed-leaning views, but there is no indication that there was any conflict between them.
Francisco de Enzinas (1520–1552) lived with Philip Melanchthon during his seminary training at Wittenberg, and although he was more a linguist than a theologian (he was the first to translate the New Testament from Greek into Spanish), the fact that he translated both John Calvin’s 1538 Catechism and Martin Luther’s Treatise on Christian Liberty, and then published them together as one work, demonstrates that he was not a doctrinaire follower of either.
Enzinas’ close friend Juan Díaz (c. 1500/1510–1546) quickly impressed and gained the confidence of John Calvin and Martin Bucer, the latter of whom took him as his personal secretary to the second Colloquy of Regensburg (1546) for the second round of the Empire-sponsored Catholic–Protestant dialogue. Although both men were Reformed, they arrived to defend the Lutheran Confession of Augsburg (1530), and were awaiting the arrival of the Lutheran Philip Melanchthon, who would lead the discussion for the Protestant position.
In his confession of faith, Casiodoro de Reina (c. 1520–1594) intentionally used ambiguous language in the chapter on the Lord’s Supper, with some phrases sounding Lutheran and others Reformed. In two letters he wrote to Theodore Beza (1565, 1571), Reina stated his admiration for Martin Bucer and alluded to his support of the Wittenberg Concord, and at the end of his life, when he was received into the Lutheran church (1593), he again endorsed the Wittenberg Concord. Perhaps most notably, immediately after publishing his Reformed confession of faith in Frankfurt (1577), defending a Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper and subscribing to the Second Helvetic Confession in London (1578–1579), he became the pastor of the Lutheran church in Antwerp (1579–1584). While there, David Chytraeus suggested that he become the “superintendent” (i.e., bishop) of the Lutheran church in Antwerp, and his catechism (1580, 1583) was endorsed by leading Lutheran theologians such as Johann Marbach and Martin Chemnitz.
Finally, Reina’s close friend and fellow Reformed pastor, Antonio del Corro (1527–1591), wrote a letter to the Lutheran church in Antwerp in 1567 in which he pleaded with them not to let their commitment to Lutheranism overshadow their love toward their Reformed brothers. His idea was for both Reformed and Lutheran pastors to read aloud publicly a confession of faith and show both churches how much the two groups had in common, but unfortunately this never came to pass. After a difficult experience with the Reformed church in London, Corro finally joined the Church of England (as would several other Spanish Reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries).
In summary, we find A. Gordon Kinder’s appraisal of Casiodoro de Reina to be true of many other Spanish Reformers as well: “Whilst remaining firmly on the Protestant side of the fence, he appears to have felt at home both in the Calvinist and the Lutheran folds, nor did he feel it necessary to reject the one to be in the other; and he avoided the extreme positions and hair-splitting arguments that threatened to divide both of them from within.”
The “Fourth Way”
Thus far we have seen the via media of the Spanish reformers between Geneva and Wittenberg. However, as we have noted, this is also how the Church of England has been historically characterized. We will now turn our attention to see how Spanish Protestants surpassed a mere via media approach by incorporating important insights from the Anabaptist vision, particularly their emphasis on imitating Christ’s life, brotherly love, and refusal to denounce believer’s baptism (without necessarily accepting it themselves).
Juan de Valdés (c. 1490–1541), arguably Spain’s first Reformer, is increasingly recognized as an important figure on spirituality, especially for his most famous works Dialogue on Christian Doctrine and 110 Considerations. He attracted a large following in Naples, Italy, where his “circle” focused on simple Christianity: Bible reading, prayer, and imitating Christ. Although not a mystic, his emphasis on the spiritual life is undeniable. Valdés was shaped by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spanish converso spirituality, which overlaps significantly with Anabaptist spirituality.
In Casiodoro de Reina’s confession of faith, the largest chapter is the one which treats the three marks of a true church and (unique to Reformed confessions) the seven marks of a true believer, which focus on Christian living. Finally, although his confession addresses the topic of baptism, his first draft was silent on the matter of believer’s baptism vs. infant baptism, implying a reluctance to be dogmatic on the topic (similar to his approach on the Lord’s Supper, as was shown above). After being challenged by other Reformed churches to add a statement in support of infant baptism, he added a restrained paragraph on the topic, stating that while it is not found in Scripture, he would nevertheless support it because of Church tradition and the idea of the covenant.
Antonio del Corro was a Geneva-approved pastor, but he refused to sign the Belgic Confession because it required him to condemn Anabaptists. His focus was on right living and brotherly love, rather than on strict dogmatic adherence. His letter to the Lutheran pastors repeatedly stated that brotherly love was more important than any confession of faith, since, he reminded them, confessions were written by fallible men. In another letter to Casiodoro de Reina, Corro stated that he wanted to read works written by Anabaptist and mystic thinkers such as Kaspar Schwenkfeld, Valentin Krautwald, Andreas Osiander, Justus Velsius, and Jacopo Aconcio. He did not necessarily agree with their doctrine but was open to listening to their arguments. Importantly, however, in a letter dated July 3, 1571, he condemned the errors of some of the people mentioned in his prior letter, along with others such as Arius, Pelagius, and Papists. However, he did not specify the errors to which referred, thus making it hard to judge his relationship to them.
Finally, many Spanish authors, when they address the topic of faith, don’t focus so much on faith in its function as justifying, but rather on what they call “true” and “living” faith, by which they mean a faith that manifests itself in works. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that, generally speaking, the Spanish Reformers were more concerned with right Christian living than they were about the doctrine of justification by faith alone. They obviously accepted and defended the latter, but it simply wasn’t their main concern. To state the issue in terms of key New Testament texts: although they believed in and defended Romans 3–4, they were more interested in James 2. What gripped their hearts was the fact that, thanks to the work of Christ on the cross, the Father had poured out the Spirit on his people so that they might live out God’s image.
Before concluding, it is important to note that the Spanish Reformers’ openness to Anabaptist thought did not necessarily mean that they agreed with it themselves, but rather that they recognized Anabaptists as true believers and thus did not want to exclude them from the visible church. Nevertheless, they were at the very least open to incorporating elements of Anabaptist thought and spirituality where they were not opposed to the magisterial Reformation, and there is considerable overlap between the two, as is being increasingly recognized by scholars of the Spanish Reformation.
The vision reconstructed above was not that of every Spanish Reformer. For example, Cipriano de Valera (c. 1532–after 1602) and Juan Aventrot (c. 1558–1633) were Reformed, and they took positions that would have excluded Lutherans and Anabaptists from fellowship.
However, these voices represent the minority position among Spanish Reformers, and the basic argument of this essay remains true: Spanish Protestantism took a moderate, or via media, position between Lutherans and the Reformed, and it went even further in their embrace of important aspects of the Anabaptist vision. They were never open to heretical positions on key doctrinal matters, and most, if not all, expressly affirmed their allegiance to the major Christian creeds and councils of the first five centuries of the Church, completely in line with other Protestant groups of the time. But within this essential orthodoxy, they were willing to include all the major groups of the Reformation. Being neither truly Lutheran, nor Reformed, nor Anglican, nor Anabaptist, their vision begs to be called something else, which I have suggested as the “fourth way”.
Ironically, although Spain’s “fourth way” was rejected by most groups in the sixteenth century, it seems to be what many are longing for in the twenty-first: from official ecumenical dialogues between denominational representatives, to the phenomenon of non-denominational churches, to adult Bible study fellowships that include all Christians regardless of denominational ties. Unfortunately, the Spanish Reformation cannot offer us a model of what this “fourth way” could look like at a practical level, since it was brutally suppressed in Spain, and there was never a large and stable enough group of expatriated Spaniards to implement their vision elsewhere in Europe. At best, it can be carefully reconstructed, but always with the caveat that it is hypothetical and speculative. However, what it can offer us is hope—hope that Protestants don’t have to endlessly divide up into ever-more denominations; hope that Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, and Anabaptists could restore visible ties; hope because there are exemplars within Protestantism’s history for valuing brotherly love as much as truth; hope that Protestantism can be cured of its schisms and thus better reflect the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph 3:10).
Andrew Messmer (PhD, Evangelische Theologische Faculteit) is Academic Dean of Seville Theological Seminary (Spain); Associated Professor at the International Faculty of Theology IBSTE (Spain); Affiliated Researcher at Evangelical Theological Faculty (Belgium); and editor of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Spanish journal Revista Evangélica de Teología. He has written and edited books and articles in Spanish and English. His Spanish page is www.casareinayvalera.com, where he writes about all things related to Christianity. He is married and has five children.
|↑1||See my article “The Failure of the Reformation: Jesus, Socrates, and the Dilemma of Inferior Disciples”, Evangelical Focus, 16 May 2020, https://evangelicalfocus.com/feature/5782/the-failure-of-protestantism-socrates-jesus-and-the-dilemma-of-inferior-disciples|
|↑2||For example, cf. Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The Myth of the English Reformation,” Journal of British Studies 30 no 1 (1991): 1–19.|
|↑3||What is more, they included insights from reformers from other backgrounds, such as the Italians Peter Martyr Vermigli and Bernardino Ochino.|
|↑4||Their view of Church–State relations made dialogue very difficult, and unity virtually impossible.|
|↑5||For example, cf. Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant (Waterloo, Ontario: Conrad Press, 1973).|
|↑6||Adrian Saravia (c. 1530–1613), a Spanish-Flemish Protestant, also endorsed the Wittenberg Concord in his work De Sacra Eucharistia. However, although his father was a Spaniard and his life overlaps in many ways with those of Reina and Corro, Saravia appears to have seen himself as more Flemish than Spanish, as Paul Hauben argues (Three Spanish heretics and the Reformation [Genève: Librairie Droz, 1976], 116–125).|
|↑7||As is usually the case in debates, each side blamed the other. For Antonio del Corro’s perspective, cf. his Epistre et amiable remonstrance d’un ministre de l’Évangile de nostre Redempteur Iesus Christ… (Antwerp, 1567); trans. into English: An epistle or godlie admonition, of a learned minister of the Gospel of our saviour Christ… (London: Henry Bynneman, 1570). For Matthias Flacius’s perspective, cf. Excusatio Matthiae Flaci Illyrici contra calumnias adversariorum… (n.p., 1568).|
|↑8||Casiodoro de Reina: Spanish Reformer of the Sixteenth Century (London: Tamesis Books Limited, 1975), 82.|
|↑9||Apparently, the only major piece of the Anabaptist vision that the Spanish reformers did not incorporate into their own was the separation of Church and State. On the contrary, they tended toward Erastianism, which placed the Christian monarch at the head of the Church.|
|↑10||The Benefit of Christ, another spiritual classic, was most likely written by his followers, and based on his teaching.|
|↑11||It is also interesting to note that he rejected confirmation, infant baptism’s complement.|
|↑12||Hauben, Three Spanish heretics, 23.|
|↑13||For example, Juan de Valdés’ surviving works emphasize Christian living as opposed to doctrinal precision (he had close fellowship with Roman Catholics and Protestants during his time in Naples) and Casiodoro de Reina’s longest chapter in his confession of faith is dedicated to the seven marks of a true believer.|
|↑14||Manuel Díaz Pineda, La reforma en España (Siglos XVI–XVII): Origen, naturaleza y creencias (Barcelona: Editorial Clie, 2017), esp. Part 2, §4.2 and Part 4, §3.|
|↑15||At the moment, I am unsure whether Juan Pérez de Pineda (c. early 16th cent–1567) was “clearly” Reformed, or rather went along to get along. For example, although he was always on good terms with Geneva, and even published catechisms that reflected Reformed structure and contents, his influence from Constantino de la Fuente (c. 1502–1559/60) and deafening silence on infant baptism must be taken into account. My thanks to Jon Nelson for pointing out some difficulties related to classifying Pineda.|
|↑16||Although not addressed in this essay, the influence of Sebastian Castellio’s thought on Reina and Corro cannot be overlooked. Castellio was a famous advocate of the freedom of conscience, which likely would have affected Reina’s and Corro’s ecclesiology.|
|↑17||I plan to do this in a future article.|
|↑18||I would like to thank Jon Nelson and Steven Griffin for reading an earlier draft of this work and making helpful suggestions.|