For the last several days, I’ve had the privilege to walk the streets and visit historic sites from the historic Reformation era. I’ve had opportunities to lecture and preach in various locations such as the church in Eisleben where Luther preached his last sermon before his death. As I’ve walked the streets here in Germany and considered the many historic stories of these Reformers—I’m freshly reminded of the need for theological and methodological balance.
Fritz Erbe and the Pit of Death
Fritz Erbe was an Anabaptist who was condemned to death because of his position on baptism. He refused to baptize his children, and as a result, he was considered to be in violation of the law and was put in a tower prison near the city wall of Eisenach. The baptismal rolls of the churches served as a tax record in his day, so not only was he violating the doctrinal positions of the church, but he was violating the law as well.
It was not the Roman Catholics who put him in that cell. It was the Lutherans – his fellow Protestants. Because he would not stop preaching from the window of the cell, they eventually transported him to Wartburg Castle where they placed him in a deep pit in the tower of the castle where he would spend the last seven years of his life. For what cause? Because he was reading the text of Scripture in German that Luther had labored to give to the people and coming to different theological conclusions. Theology matters. Balance matters. We must strive to be balanced theologically and move carefully to the point of calling someone a heretic.
Zwingli and the Failure of Marburg
Luther and Zwingli were invited to a very important meeting in 1529 in order to settle differences on doctrinal positions. Luther was leading the Reformation in the north in Germany while Zwingli was leading the Reformation in the south in Switzerland. As they came together with a collective group of theological and political figures for the Colloquy of Marburg held at the majestic castle—Luther and Zwingli were found to be in agreement on 14.5 out of the 15 points. However, it was the Lord’s Supper that separated the two men.
Luther argued passionately for the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper while Zwingli argued for a memorial position. The two could not come to terms and the colloquy of Marburg was a failure. However, it was more than a failure. It was harmful. Luther was known to be harsh with his words at times. Rather than merely disagreeing with Zwingli, he went as far as calling him a man of another spirit. He was calling into question his faith based on his position of the Lord’s Supper—although both were in agreement that the Roman Catholic Church’s position is heresy. For Luther, Zwingli was a heretic too.
History can teach us some valuable lessons. Theology matters. That’s why we are not all members of the same church and that includes people within the Reformed tradition. That’s why today we have Lutheran and Presbyterian and Reformed Baptists. When we survey history, we see Jonathan Edwards being fired because of his position on the Lord’s Supper. We also see John Rogers and other men being burned at the stake for their rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation.
Before we condemn someone as a heretic we should examine their position thoroughly to make sure that the individual shouldn’t be embraced a brother or sister in Christ. Theology matters and so does theological balance.