Protestantism Is Over and the Radicals Won

Michael S. Horton
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

Much of the hoopla surrounding the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation has been blather. On October 31, 2016, at a joint service in Lund, Sweden, Pope Francis and the president of the World Lutheran Federation exchanged warm feelings. Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the mainline Lutheran body, said in a press release for the joint service, “I’m carried by the profound conviction that by working towards reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics, we are working towards justice, peace and reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict and violence.” Acknowledging Luther’s positive contributions, the pope spoke of how important Christian unity is to bring healing and reconciliation to a world divided by violence. “But,” he added, according to one report, “we have no intention of correcting what took place but to tell that history differently.”

Perhaps the most evident example of missing the point is the statement last year in Berlin by Christina Aus der Au, Swiss pastor and president of an ecumenical church convention: “Reformation means courageously seeking what is new and turning away from old, familiar customs.” Right, that’s what the Reformation was all about: average laypeople and archbishops gave their bodies to be burned and the Western church was divided, because people became tired of the same old thing and were looking for nontraditional beliefs and ways of living—just like us!

The Wall Street Journal reports a Pew study in which 53 percent of US Protestants couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the one who started the Reformation. (“Oddly, Jews, atheists, and Mormons were more familiar with Luther.”) In fact, “Fewer than 3 in 10 white evangelicals correctly identified Protestantism as the faith that believes in the doctrine of sola fide, or justification by faith alone.”1

Many today who claim the Reformation as their heritage are more likely heirs of the Radical Anabaptists. In fact, I want to test the waters with an outlandish suggestion: Our modern world can be understood at least in part as the triumph of the Radicals. At first, this seems a nonstarter; after all, the Anabaptists were the most persecuted group of the era—persecuted not only by the pope, but also by Lutheran and Reformed magistrates. Furthermore, today’s Anabaptists are pacifists who generally eschew mingling with outsiders, rather than revolutionary firebrands such as Thomas Müntzer, who led insurrections in the attempt to establish end-time communist utopias (with themselves as messianic rulers).

I’m not talking about Amish communities in rural Pennsylvania. In fact, I don’t have in mind specific offshoots, like Arminian Baptists, as such. I’m thinking more of the Radical Anabaptists, especially the early ones, who were more an eruption of late medieval revolutionary mysticism than an offshoot of the Reformation. I have in mind a utopian, revolutionary, quasi-Gnostic religion of the “inner light” that came eventually to influence all branches of Christendom. It’s the sort of piety that the Reformers referred to as “enthusiasm.” But it has seeped like a fog into all of our traditions.

It is important to note that the early Anabaptists had a precarious relationship to what is usually called the magisterial Reformation. Its main leaders were erstwhile students of Luther and Zwingli, but their theological course was set by the Radical forms of late medieval mysticism, especially Meister Eckhart and the German Theology. This pantheistic-leaning system bore a closer resemblance to ancient Gnosticism than to mainstream Christian teaching, whether Roman Catholic or Reformation. They were also influenced by the twelfth-century mystical prophet Joachim of Fiore, whose interpretation of the book of Revelation divided history into three ages: the Age of the Father, associated with the law and the order of the married, would eventually give way to the Age of the Son, identified with the gospel and the order of the clergy. But the day is coming—perhaps soon, Joachim argued—when the Age of the Spirit will dawn within history, rendering the new covenant as obsolete as the old. In the Age of the Spirit—that is, the order of the monks—everyone will know God immediately, intuitively, and directly. No need for preachers or even for Scripture, creeds, and doctrines that divide religions or for sacraments. In fact, the external, visible church itself will be no more, as the whole human race will become one family of God. Joachim’s speculations impregnated the medieval era with expectations of utopia after a time of revolutionary suffering. The early Anabaptists said explicitly that they were fulfilling the visions of Joachim.

The early Anabaptists also showed no interest in the doctrine of justification, sola fide. Becoming essentially one with God was a big jump from the imputation of an alien righteousness. In fact, according to Anabaptist historians, they were if anything further removed from Rome on these questions, since the whole point of salvation was to attain union with God through extreme discipline. They were hardly fans of sola scriptura, since they were even more convinced than the pope that contemporary prophets were inspired agents of fresh revelation. So, ironically, the Anabaptists were more radically papist than Radical Protestants. This strange claim was made by Calvin in his famous 1539 letter to Cardinal Sadoleto: “We are opposed by two sects: the pope and the Anabaptists.” At first glance, he acknowledges, the comparison makes little sense, as these parties were at opposite extremes. Nevertheless, they are actually united in an important way: “For both bury the word of God in order to make room for their falsehoods,” claiming the authority of modern vehicles of revelation over the express teaching of the prophets and apostles of canonical Scripture.2

Reformers rather than revolutionaries, Luther and Calvin believed that the church had been blown off course significantly but that it could still be called back. They certainly believed in miracles and revelation, but not that there were still prophets and apostles bringing inspired revelation today. They certainly believed in the importance of the law, but they were convinced that the pope and the Anabaptists alike had basically turned the gospel into a new law. And the Reformers insisted that Christ was Lord over both the kingdoms of this world and the church. But like the pope, the early Anabaptists wanted to collapse the former into the latter with one kingdom of God, like the Old Testament theocracy.

The Reformers had a name for this: “enthusiasm.” Meaning literally “God-within-ism,” this penchant for confusing ourselves with God was a perennial temptation, they lamented. In his Smalcald Articles (SA III. 4–15), Martin Luther argued that Adam was the first enthusiast. His point was that the craving to identify the word of God with our own inner voice, rather than heed external Scripture and preaching, is part and parcel of original sin.

We’re all enthusiasts. Müntzer and other Radicals claimed (and still claim today) that the Spirit speaks directly to them, above and even sometimes against what he has revealed in Scripture. The secret, private, and inborn “word” was contrasted with the “outer word that merely beats the air.”3 The Reformers pressed: Is this not what the pope does? While enthusiasm works from the inside out (inner experiences, reason, and free will expressed outwardly), God works from the outside in (the word and the sacraments). “Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point,” Luther thundered, “that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and the Sacraments” (SA III. 8.10–11).

For the Anabaptists, the Platonic dualism between matter and spirit was mapped onto the New Testament contrast between the flesh and the Spirit.4 Everything external, ordered, ordinary, structured, and official was “man-made,” as opposed to the internal, spontaneous, extraordinary, informal, and individual testimony of the Spirit within.

So when Immanuel Kant said that the revelation we can really trust is that which is inside us—reason and “the moral law within”—he was not following Luther but the “spirit” of enthusiasm. When he extolled “true religion”—namely, duty to the universal law we know deep down—over against “ecclesiastical faiths” with their particular creeds, miraculous claims, doctrines, and rituals, he was basically following the script of the Gnostics and the Radical medieval sects that led to the early Anabaptists. The enthusiast in all of us does not want to hear an external word, confirmed by external sacraments, submitting to the external discipline of a visible church. We want to be autonomous, extending our domain from the little throne of our own free will, works, reason, and subjective experience. Apart from God’s conquering grace, we will never allow ourselves to be told who we are by God in his law and gospel.

The same contrast between inner and outer dominates liberal Protestantism.5 It is Jesus in my heart—not the external, salvific Jesus of history who is known through Scripture and preaching, baptism, and the Eucharist. Even where important differences exist on particular beliefs, more conservative Protestants exhibit the same categories of thinking and living. The same antithesis drawn by centuries of liberalism appears in the manifesto that launched Pentecostalism: “We are . . . seeking to replace the dead forms and creeds. . . with living, practical Christianity.”6

But the same contrasts have long been evident in non-Pentecostal evangelicalism. For example, Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz encouraged a retrieval of the movement’s Pietist roots over against the Reformation and post-Reformation emphases: “In recent years, we have begun to shift the focus of our attention away from doctrine with its focus on propositional truth in favor of a renewed interest in what constitutes the uniquely evangelical vision of spirituality.”7 Other familiar contrasts appear in his Revisioning Evangelical Theology: “creed-based” versus “piety” (57), “religious ritual” versus “doing what Jesus would do” (48), with priority given to “our daily walk” over “Sunday morning worship attendance” (49), and individual and inward commitment over corporate identity (49–53). “A person does not come to church to receive salvation,” but to receive marching orders for daily life (49). He adds, “We practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but understand the significance of these rites in a guarded manner.” They are “perpetuated not so much for their value as conduits . . . of grace from God to the communicant as because they remind the participant and the community of the grace of God received inwardly” and are part of “an obedient response” (48).

Given the history of enthusiasm, sociologist Wade Clark Roof’s findings are hardly surprising: “The distinction between ‘spirit’ and ‘institution’ is of major importance” to spiritual seekers today.8 “Spirit is the inner, experiential aspect of religion; institution is the outer, established form of religion.”9 He adds, “Direct experience is always more trustworthy, if for no other reason than because of its ‘inwardness’ and ‘withinness’—two qualities that have come to be much appreciated in a highly expressive, narcissistic culture.”10 The irony is not to be missed: modern secularization is the product less of atheism than of a fanatical “enthusiasm” that is perpetually being stripped of its explicitly religious reference. It is the type of vapid mysticism people have in mind when they say they are “spiritual, not religious.”

Just as Joachim prophesied, the Age of the Spirit, identified with the kingdom of God, has now rendered the visible church and its ministry obsolete. The father of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, asserted, “Jesus always spoke of the Kingdom of God. Only two of his reported sayings contain the word ‘Church,’ and both passages are of questionable authenticity. It is safe to say that he never thought of founding the kind of institution which afterward claimed to be acting for him.”11 With the subordination of the kingdom to the church, Rauschenbusch argued, came the eclipse of ethics by an ingrown focus on doctrine, worship, preaching, and sacraments—hence, the corruptions of the medieval church and the failure of Protestantism also to reform the structures of society.12

Catholic theologian Matthew Levering refers to the example of religion scholar Diana Eck, who eschews the image of “the body of Christ” as hierarchical in favor of “household.” “The underlying foundation of the world household will finally have to be pluralism,” she claims.13 Further, “this kingdom of divine blessing ‘is much wider than the church. It is the Kingdom of God, not the Christian Church.’” Levering properly judges,

Eck’s vision of a world-unity based on the recognition of our common humanity neglects the human need for forgiveness, for mercy, which requires the historical action of the living God to overcome our brokenness and the harm that we have done to others. We need the God of mercy, in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, to heal our alienated condition and establish for us a relationship of love and justice by a transformative gift of love.14

Further, for Eck, death is the end; thus our only hope lies in this life.15 Everything sacred, including the Spirit and the kingdom, has been reduced to the immanent frame—in other words, it has been secularized.

But this spirit of enthusiasm is evident in Roman Catholic circles as well, as Levering also recognizes. The kingdom of God (which is universal and inward) is set over against the church (which is particular and created by the external word). In Do We Need the Church? Fr. Richard P. McBrien writes, “The church is no longer to be conceived as the center of God’s plan of salvation. Not all men are called to membership in the Church, nor is such membership a sign of present salvation or a guarantee of future salvation. Salvation comes through participation in the Kingdom of God rather than through affiliation with the Christian Church.”16 He adds, “All men are called to the kingdom, because all men are called to live the gospel. But the living of the gospel is not necessarily allied to membership in the visible, structured Christian community.”17 Thomas Sheehan’s The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (Random House, 1986) is yet another example of the opposition between the kingdom and the church in Roman Catholic circles today.

It is impossible (especially in such a short space) to offer any detailed account. But my contention is that many of the principal features of our modern, secularized world are driven in part by this shift away from a God who speaks authoritatively, judging and saving us, outside of us in history, to the “god within”—meaning that our own inner voice is our sovereign ruler. Even a liberal theologian such as Paul Tillich recognized that the Enlightenment was to some extent the triumph of Radical enthusiasm: “The inner reason of the Enlightenment is really the inner light of the Quakers.”18

We also see the quasi-Gnostic impulse in the modern obsession with religious, cultural, and political revolutions. Eric Voegelin’s work has helped me to understand how the Gnostic’s hatred of the world can take two forms: either the Gnostic insists on destroying it and remaking it all over again in the form of pure spirit, or he recoils from the world altogether and seeks security in a small group of purists who isolate themselves from the godless. We can see both approaches in countless movements that are always deeply religious or spiritual in their basic motive—even when the proletariat replaces God. Raze this world to its foundations and build a new civilization from scratch. History is moving toward an endpoint, either of apocalyptic disaster or utopia, and we are going to be agents of this providential destiny. As Karl Löwith explains, the modern doctrine of progress is Christian eschatology secularized. The climax of history is to be found not at the end of history but in the middle—not by Christ’s return but by our collective striving.

We also see the two approaches of the Gnostic in various forms of evangelical engagement with politics. For the first half of the twentieth century, fundamentalists tended to separate themselves from the godless world but then became politically engaged in the 1980s. Their basic attitude toward the world, however, remained constant: a relatively hostile view of culture, science, the arts, and especially of “elites” who increasingly were themselves Gnostics of the Left—the same Manichean divide between light and darkness, the saints and the reprobate, agents of revolutionary freedom versus coconspirators with the forces of evil. But if the idea of autonomy—the self as sovereign—is at the heart of modern secularism, then its genealogy can be easily traced back to the Renaissance magus and the Radical Protestants who were shaped by that concept of the inner self as a spark of the divine.

If my thesis is anywhere close to being right, then the story of our modern age is not so much Lessing’s idea of “the education of the human race” and the gradual triumph of reason over presumed revelation, science over superstition, and secular peace over religious violence, as it is a secularized version of Radical Christian mysticism. In fact, Lessing himself said that Joachim of Fiore’s visions of an Age of the Spirit were not wrong, only premature, awaiting the arrival of the Enlightenment.

Let’s bring this out of the clouds and down to where most of us live every day as Christians. A cursory inventory of the most popular Christian books and preachers tells the tale. Focusing more on inner empowerment for the autonomous self than on God himself and his work of creation, providence, redemption, justification, sanctification, glorification, and the resurrection of the body, much of the spiritual diet is “chicken soup for the soul.” Many believers consider spending time alone with God in prayer, listening for “what he is saying to me today,” as more important than going to church to gather with other sinners and hear God’s word proclaimed and receive his sacraments. We are on our home ground doing it ourselves rather than submitting to something external to our inner voice. Why try to follow difficult arguments, narratives, doctrines, and commands together with other people when we can basically look within to find the answers?

As the growth of Christianity shifts to the Global South, some forms are more faithful than their more liberal northern counterparts. Anglicans in Africa often scratch their heads, wondering what possible spiritual connection they have with the Episcopal Church in the United States. And yet American “enthusiasm” continues to spread like wildfire in extreme forms of revivalism, Pentecostalism, and the “prosperity gospel.” Conservative Protestants have become quite adept at detecting liberalism miles away. But we’re not very good at recognizing more fundamentalist varieties of Gnostic enthusiasm, even when we are swimming in it.

So what exactly are we celebrating in this year of the Reformation’s five hundredth anniversary? Are we rejoicing in the reformation of the church’s doctrine and worship, away from human-centered religion to a faith centered on the Triune God and the gospel of his saving grace in Christ alone, received through faith alone, communicated through the word and the sacraments alone? Or are we celebrating the Radical enthusiasm that our culture mistakes as the Reformation: the autonomous self, individualism, free will, and inner experience and reason?

While many people are debating this year whether the Reformation is over, my thought is this: Did it really ever get off the ground? Yes, at first, there was a marvelous recovery of the gospel and a sense that we are utterly dependent on God and his grace in Jesus Christ. In many parts of the world, the effects of that recovery are still being powerfully felt. But in modern culture generally, the magisterial Reformation lost ground to the enthusiasts of the Left and the Right. Now that we have tried Radical Protestantism for several centuries, the best way of celebrating the Reformation would be to give it a chance again to be heard.

Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

  1. Matthew Hennessey, “A Catholic World Fades Over a Lifetime,” The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2017,
  2. John Calvin, “Reply by John Calvin to Cardinal Sadoleto’s Letter,” in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, 7 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 1:36.
  3. See, for example, Thomas Müntzer, “The Prague Protest” (2–7) and “Sermon to the Princes” (20), in The Radical Reformation: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, ed. and trans. Michael G. Baylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Cf. Thomas N. Finger, “Sources for Contemporary Spirituality: Anabaptist and Pietist Contributions,” Brethren Life and Thought 51, no. 1–2 (Winter/Spring 2006): 37.
  4. Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 563.
  5. F. C. Bauer, for example, argued that the apostle Paul used “‘the term, “spirit” . . . to denote the Christian consciousness.’ This consciousness is an ‘essentially spiritual principle, which forbids him [a Christian] to regard anything merely outward sensuous material as in any way a condition of his salvation. . . . Thus the spirit is the element in which God and man are related to each other as spirit to spirit.” and where they are one with each other in the unity of the spirit.’” Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Work, His Epistles and His Doctrine (London: Williams and Norgate, 1875), quoted in John R. Levison, Filled with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 4. Levison adds the sentiment of Herman Gunkel: “The relationship between divine and human activity is that of mutually exclusive opposition” (5).
  6. Donald Gee, Azusa Street Mission, “Tests for ‘Fuller Revelations,’ The Pentecostal Evangel” (14 Feb 1925), cited by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen in Toward a Pneumatological Theology: Pentecostal and Ecumenical Perspectives on Ecclesiology, Soteriology, and Theology of Mission, ed. Amos Yong (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002), 98.
  7. Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 56; also Kärkkäinen, 9-37. In all of these cases, a “pneumatic hermeneutics” is put forward as a way of attaining rapprochement with Rome.
  8. Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 23.
  9. Roof, 30.
  10. Roof, 67.
  11. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1917), 132.
  12. Rauschenbusch, 133–34.
  13. Diana Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Boston: Beacon, 2003), 228, quoted by Matthew Levering in Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: Love and Gift in the Trinity and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 303.
  14. Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 303.
  15. Levering, 303.
  16. Richard P. McBrien, Do We Need the Church? (London: Collins, 1969), 228.
  17. McBrien,161.
  18. Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 286.
Photo of Michael S. Horton
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, September 1st 2017

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology