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Martin Luther’s courageous act of nailing ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenburg in 1517 marked the beginning of an unprecedented Reformation movement within the Christendom. Right from the beginning the movement was diverse in nature. For instance, the reformation that occurred in Germany was different in many ways to the Swiss Reformation. The same could be said about the Reformations that commenced in France, Scotland, England and Netherlands during the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. This does not mean that there were no common factors between and among them. Undoubtedly, the reformers were united in challenging the Catholic church establishment. In one accord they enunciated, “Back to the Scriptures.” Nevertheless, their interpretations of the Scripture differed from one another. Hence, the nature and extent of reforms advocated by them also differed. This short paper attempts to highlight some of the differences between the Lutheran Reformation and Reformation propagated by the Reformed alliance.


The Lutheran Reformation took shape in Germany during the early decades of the 16th century and gradually spread to other European nations including Scandinavia, Baltic states, and England.1 The Lutheran Reformation was not carried out by Luther alone though he was the protagonist. He was assisted by Philip Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, Jonas and others. The Lutheran beliefs were presented for the first time at Augsburg in 1530. Since then, the Augsburg Confession became the official statement of the Lutheran movement.2 The term “Reformed tradition,” refers to the theological tradition that emerged from the work of Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer, Beza, Vermigli, Musculus, Knox and other reformers as distinct from Lutheran theology.3 Like the Lutheran Reformation, the reformation initiated by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland also spread to many other European countries. It was the teachings of Calvin which became dominant in the reformed tradition in later days.

There were many things which were common to the Lutheran and Reformed groups. First, both the traditions vehemently opposed the Catholic church. Second, both the traditions held the Scripture above the Church and its traditions. Third, both the traditions more or less believed the same with regard to their understanding of Salvation. However, there were some key doctrinal differences that kept them apart. A chart highlighting some of the major theological differences between the two is included at the end.


3.1 The Starting Point: Why Reformation?

Luther had no intention of starting a new church. He was hoping to reform the Catholic Church, which was generally perceived as having reached a level of worldliness such that it genuinely needed reform. F. Hrangkhuma notes, “Luther still believed in the divine origin and divine right of papacy, the episcopacy, the priesthood, and in the infallibility of the church. He was loaded with reformation ideas.”4 In particular, Luther was concerned about the practice of selling indulgences, purgatory, papal autocracy, immorality, etc. In contrast, Calvin and Zwingli argued that the mediaeval church was totally corrupt, and that it was necessary to go back to the time of Jesus and the apostles to find a model for a reformed church. It is remarked that Calvin in many respects went back even further, into the Old Testament. The Reformed tradition talked about creating a Pure Church. Luther responded to such calls for a purified church stating that it will not be practically possible to imitate the early church. Moreover, Luther argued, just as the individual Christian is simultaneously “justified and sinful,” so the church is simultaneously holy and sinful. A “purified church” will be just as sinful as the corrupt church it seeks to replace.5 In sum, the Lutheran reformers wanted to reform the existing church but the reformers of the Reformed tradition wanted to create a pure church based on the principles of the early Apostolic church. This distinction played an important role in directing the Lutheran and Reformed Reformations.

3.2 The Nature and Extent of Reforms

The nature and extent of reforms that the two (Lutheran and Reformed) wanted to achieve differed drastically. A few aspects are discussed below. First, the Lutherans believed that whatever is not forbidden in the Scripture is permissible. Accordingly, Luther retained those customs and institutions of the Roman church like that of candles, vestments, private confessions, liturgical forms, which were not condemned in the Scripture.6 However, the reformers of the Reformed tradition believed that whatever is not commanded in the Scripture is forbidden. Accordingly, Calvin in Geneva and Zwingli in Zurich removed all traditional practices which were not positively affirmed in the Scripture. Zwingli felt that Luther was conservative and not radical enough in executing reforms. The former while reforming the state of Zurich removed relics, organs, pictures, images from the churches. He also stripped all ornaments and paintings from church walls and altars.7 The Reformed group were totally Anti-Roman in their approach to reformation while the Lutheran were not so radical as the former. The change of appearance and worship in the reformed churches in Swiss were revolutionary than the Lutheran churches in Germany. In sum, it can be stated that the reformed churches felt less reverence for the past and traditions than the Lutheran.

Second, although Luther and his associates sought to reform various abuses in morals, the heart of the Lutheran Reformation was the recovery of the sound New Testament Doctrines – Sola fideSola gratiaSola Scriptura, and priesthood of all believers.8 It is remarked that Luther was a man of the people and fought to bring true religion to the hearts and homes of the people. Luther believed that a faithful proclamation of God’s word would spontaneously bring about reformation. Hence, he focussed all his attention in making the pure gospel available to all. Luther wrote,

Doctrine and life are to be distinguished. Life is as bad among us as among the papists. Hence we do not fight and damn them because of their bad lives. Wyclif and Hus, who fought over the moral quality of life, failed to understand this . . . When the Word of God, remains pure, even if the quality of life fails us, life is placed in a position to be what it ought to be. That is why everything hinges on the purity of the Word. I have succeeded only if I have taught correctly.9

Zwingli and Calvin though gave the same sort of importance to doctrines, however, believed that moral and political reforms should be actively carried out. They believed that application of religion to the social and political order is a must. Carl E. Purinton observes, “Lutheranism was religiously subjective, marked by a deep sense of gratitude to God for his merciful forgiveness, but accompanied by a pessimism about the redemption of society; this sort of attitude seemed to imply that the best that a Christian could do was to give his support to the existing order. Zwingli (and Calvin, later) took a more hopeful view of social and political reform, believing it possible for the Kingdom of God to come upon earth under the leadership of the Elect.”10

At Zurich and Geneva, the reformers tried to enforce a moral code through the local councils. Zwingli and Calvin directed the Reformation along civic lines, with the view of establishing a model Christian community. For instance, Zwingli persuaded the the city council to legislate the various details of the Reformation and supervise the carrying out of its decisions. Similarly, at Geneva, Calvin and Farel worked hard from 1536 to 1538 to establish the community on a theocratic basis.11 It is believed that both Zwingli and Calvin were successful to a large extent in their efforts to reform the society. John Knox, the reformer of Scotland remarked that Calvin’s Geneva was “the most perfect school of Christ on the earth.”12

It should not be thought that Luther and his associates did not desire moral or political reforms. They too desired reformation in all aspects like the Reformed but they differed in their approach. Luther believed in two kingdoms – the ecclesiastical and secular. He argued that the role of the church is to primarily reform the ecclesiastical arena while the Christian rulers should take initiative for reforms in the political arena.13 Church and State was kept as separate entities. The Reformed tradition, however, in general, maintained the unity of church and state. Zwingli argued that the magistrates of his day were the equivalent of the NT elders, and the council of the Christian city thus possesses the right to rule both the civil community and the church.14 Hence, at Zurich and Geneva, the city councils which were governed by the teachings of the reformers had the right to enforce discipline over the church and society, whereas in Luther’s Germany there existed two system, one for the church and another for the society.

Third, the Lutheran concept of the law and gospel differed from that of the Reformed and this had direct effect on the approach of the two in reformation. Luther kept the distinction between law and gospel whereas Zwingli included the moral law within the gospel

rather than juxtaposing law and gospel within the two kingdoms as Luther did.15 According to Luther, the law proclaims what we are to do and not to do, whereas the gospel proclaims what God has done. The Lutherans applied this distinction to every aspect of church life. For instance, preaching was seen as an act of God (gospel) rather than law.16 The Reformed traditions though emphasized both grace and freedom in Christ, Christian life (in Zurich and Geneva) was regulated by strict laws. Some have opined that the disciplinary approach of the Swiss reformers had to do with their Humanist orientations.


The Reformations initiated and organized by the Lutheran and Reformed, in spite of many fundamental doctrinal similarities, differed in their outlook and methods. The Lutheran Reformation focussed more on doctrinal issues while the reformers of the Reformed tradition concentrated more on moral and political change in society. Similarly, the Lutheran Reformation in Germany was less organized than the highly institutionalized Reformations of the Swiss reformers. The Lutheran Reformation appears to be far more in keeping with late medieval Scholasticism, whereas the Swiss Reformation appears to be more on Humanist lines. In spite of the very many differences, both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions flourished in the Reformation era.


1Howard F. Vos, Exploring Church History (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 88.

2Alan Thomson, New Movements: Church History AD 1500-1800 (New Delhi: ISPCK, 1992), 12.

3George Thomas Kurian (ed.), Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity (Nashville: Nelson, 2005), 586.

4F. Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History (Bangalore: Theological Book Trust, 2002), 200.

5H. John, “The Uniqueness of Lutheran Reformation,” (accessed 12 February 2009)

6Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History, 224.

7Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981), 77.

8Vos, Exploring Church History, 88.

9Cited in Richard P. Bucher, “What was the Lutheran Reformation?” (accessed 12 February 2009)

10Carl E. Purinton, Christianity and Its Judaic Heritage (New York: Rolland Press, 1961), 409. (accessed 12 February 2009)

11Vos, Exploring Church History, 90-91.

12Carl S. Meyer, The Church: From Pentecost to the Present (Chicago: Moody press, 1973), 173.

13Chadwick, The Reformation, 69.

14J. Wayne Baker, “Zwinglianism” in Hans J. Hillerbrand (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, vol. 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 327.

15Baker, “Zwinglianism,” 327.

16John, “The Uniqueness of Lutheran Reformation,”

By Sam K. John

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