The Forgotten Reformer

30 Apr 2014
The Forgotten Reformer
Photo Credit: Thinkstock

From the time of Martin Luther, all the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation espoused and preached four great statements of belief:

  • sola fide—only by faith
  • sola Christus—only by Jesus Christ
  • sola Scriptura—only by the authority of Scripture
  • sola gratia—only by grace.

These four statements became the foundation of the Reformation—preached, believed and shown to be the basis of the salvation of every person.

Martin Luther came to the forefront of the Reformation after his solitary stand against the emperor and the established church when he was called to account for his “heresy” at the German city of Worms in 1521.

His famous closing words still echo today: “As long as my conscience is bound by the Word of God, I cannot, and will not recant, because acting against conscience is unsafe and threatens salvation. God help me. Amen.”

Andreas Karlstadt

Another great personality in the Reformation at the time of Luther was Andreas Rudolph Bodenstein von Karlstadt, more commonly known as Andreas Karlstadt. Born around the same time as Luther, it was Karlstadt who, as chancellor of the University of Wittenberg, conferred on Luther a doctorate of theology degree in 1512. In 1515 and 1516 Karlstadt went to Rome, where he earned a double degree in canon and civil law. However, while he was there, he saw firsthand the widespread corruption in the church and felt compelled to write a series of 151 theses.

At first, Karlstadt opposed Luther’s views on salvation. However, the year that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Karlstadt accepted salvation by grace through faith. He did this on the basis of what he read in the Bible.

Karlstadt had a great mind and was well versed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Luther described him as “a man of unequalled wisdom” and acknowledged him to be his academic superior—at least when Karlstadt agreed with him! However, when Karlstadt disagreed with him, Luther could also call him “an incarnate devil”!

Karlstadt may well have been the first to expound on the belief in sola Scriptura. He became famous for his continual use of the words “But the Bible says . . .” In 1520 he wrote a treatise, titled “On the Canonical Scriptures,” in which he argued that the Holy Spirit speaks to the church through the words of the Bible. Certainly he wanted a complete return to the binding authority of the Bible.

Karlstadt also emphasised the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16: all Scripture is God-breathed” (underline added). In this, he differed from Martin Luther in that Karlstadt affirmed the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. To Karlstadt, the Law of Moses was still binding, while Luther had a strong aversion to a legal and Judaising religion. Luther is also known to have stated that the book of James was an “epistle of sin” and that it should not have been included in the canon of Scripture.

Johann Eck

In 1519 the differences in the understanding of Luther and Karlstadt became apparent. Johann Eck, who was a staunch defender of Catholicism, challenged Karlstadt to a debate in Leipzig. While Luther wasn’t invited, he came anyway and made a presentation. Eck was renowned for his great memory and loud voice and personal presence, while Karlstadt was of lesser stature than Luther, with a ruddy complexion and a thick and unpleasant voice.

Over the week, Karlstadt was in a hot debate with Eck. Then Luther entered the fray. Eck managed to push Luther into a corner and got him to agree with some of the teachings of John Wycliffe and John Huss. This gave Eck the ammunition he needed to go to Rome and get an order for Luther to be excommunicated.

The Sabbath Question

Luther insisted on the Bible being the sole authority for all his teachings, but Eck challenged him on one point: sola Scriptura versus the authority of the Roman church and the pope.

Eck stunned Luther with this challenge: “If, however the Church has had power to change the Sabbath of the commandment into Sunday and to command Sunday keeping, why should it not have this power concerning other [holy] days? If you . . . turn from the Church to the Scriptures alone, then you must keep the Sabbath [Saturday] with the Jews, which has been kept from the beginning of the world.”

Karlstadt must have been greatly impressed by this challenge, because from then on he strongly advocated the observance of the Sabbath on Saturday. His staunch support for the Sabbath caused Luther to write, “If Karlstadt were to write further about the Sabbath, Sunday would have to give way and the Sabbath—that is to say, Saturday—must be kept holy.”

Luther, mighty Reformation warrior though he was, was not one to continue to advance Karlstadt’s beliefs further, despite the evidence found in Scripture.

Interestingly, in an article titled “Sunday,” the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge mentions that Luther’s only excuse for avoiding the observance of the Sabbath on Saturday was “to avoid the unnecessary disturbance which [such] an innovation would occasion, it [therefore] should continue to be Sunday.”

For all his faults, Karlstadt deserves much more acclaim for his dedicated elevation of the Scriptures than many other Reformers of his time.

The Bible Issue

While all this was going on, the issue of sola Scriptura continued to aggravate the church in Rome, as it directly countered its claim of authority to interpret the Bible. The advent of the printing press had made the Bible and the writings of the Reformers readily available throughout Europe. Even some Roman priests thought that the Bible should have a more authoritative place in the church.

Finally the Council of Trent was called. Its many sessions were held over nearly 19 years. One of the issues that the Roman church wanted to counter was the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura. Thus, on January 18, 1562, Gaspar del Fosso, the archbishop of Reggio, presented the same argument that Eck had used against Luther.

He said, “The Protestants claim to stand upon the written word only. They profess to hold the Scripture alone as the standard point of faith. They justify their revolt by the plea that the church has apostatised from the written word and follows tradition. Now the Protestants’ claim that they stand upon the written word only is not true. Their profession of holding the Scripture alone as the standard of faith is false!”

His proof of this statement lay in the fact that the written word explicitly enjoins the observance of the seventh day as the Sabbath. However, Protestants did not observe the seventh day, as they should if they held the Scriptures alone as their standard. Instead, they rejected it.

Del Fosso went on to argue that “[Protestants] not only reject the observance of the Sabbath enjoined in the written word, but they have adopted and do practice the observance of Sunday, for which they have only the tradition of the church.”

Remembering Karlstadt

Even today, Karlstadt is readily and often written off, even ridiculed, and his great intellect and wisdom in recognising the crucial issues of sola Scriptura and Sabbath observance have been ignored.

But Karlstadt followed his beliefs logically, placing the authority of Scripture where it should be, while the failure of other Reformers to do likewise undermined everything else they stood for, as evidenced at the Council of Trent.

God’s Word should be placed above all human laws, traditions and interpretations. And the best way to understand that is to look to Jesus, who left us His example of both observing the Sabbath of Scripture and honouring it according to the Commandments.


Harold Harker