A Brief History of Enthusiasm

Michael S. Horton
Friday, May 31st 2024
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The literal meaning of enthusiasmos in Greek is “god-within-ism.” According to the ancients, the highest state of the soul’s enlightenment lies beyond sense experience and even reason. This achievement of unspoken union with the divine within is called gnosis, unmediated knowledge. Such philosophical religion is at odds with biblical faith at nearly every turn. As the sovereign king who issues edicts, God’s activity in creation, providence, and redemption always comes as a word from outside us. In fact, ignoring God’s external word and turning within to find truth was the source of our first parents’ transgression.

In this way, Luther said, Adam and Eve were the first “enthusiasts.” Luther identified such god-within-ism with both religious extremes of his day: Anabaptism and Rome. Both corrupt the gospel by turning sinners from Christ outside of them to the self and its mystical experience and good works. Doesn’t the pope pretend to receive direct revelation like Thomas Müntzer and other so-called prophets? Don’t both sides deceive their followers with false miracles? Luther dubbed all enthusiasm a “theology of glory” or “seeking God outside the way”—that is, beyond the incarnate Word proclaimed in the gospel. Calvin shared Luther’s disapproval when he replied to Cardinal Sadoleto, “We are assailed by two sects: the pope and the Anabaptists.” Both claim an ongoing apostolic office and boast about continuing revelations. “In this way,” Calvin says, “both separate the Word from the Spirit and bury the Word of God in order to make room for their falsehood.”

To be sure, God’s word comes to us and reaches the deepest recesses of our hearts, but it always comes as an “alien word.” The Spirit dwells in us and testifies to our spirits, but God’s Spirit isn’t our spirit. Our inner voice would never tell us that the Word became flesh, bore our sins in his body, and rose bodily as the beginning of the final resurrection. Our inmost soul resists with might and main the truth that it is the citadel of rebellion against God, the fountain of corruption, and that as sinners we are justified apart from works through faith alone in Christ alone.

Although the Anabaptist revolution of the sixteenth century was ultimately unsuccessful in its immediate aims, it inspired the revolutionary spirit of modernity. In later revolutions, the prophecies would often be secularized, but the ideal of an Age of Enlightenment beyond the church and state persisted. Marx and Engels made a virtual cult of Müntzer as the precursor of Communism, while postmillennialism contributed significantly to visions of the new American nation as “a shining city on a hill,” a new Israel uniquely called by God to establish its institutions abroad. And in movements like the New Apostolic Reformation, we hear the latest rousing chorus of the enthusiast’s anthem.


  • Martin Luther, Luther’s Works 5:42. See Walther von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976); cf. Steven D. Paulson, “Luther on the Hidden God,” Word and World, Vol. XIX, no. 4 (Fall 1999), 363.

  • “Reply by John Calvin to Cardinal Sadoleto,” in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, 7 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 1:36.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Friday, May 31st 2024

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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