The Reformers Were Far From Perfect. How Should We Respond?

As we continue to enjoy the tremendous amount of resources being put out in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is important for us to acknowledge that Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox were far from perfect.

These were imperfect men. All figures of history are, and church history is no exception: Martin Luther’s later writings about the Jewish people are anti-semetic; John Calvin thought death was a justifiable punishment for heresy; John Knox may have either approved of (or at least wasn’t too choked up about) the murder of Cardinal Beaton.

And the faults don’t only lie with the Refrmers: George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards owned slaves; John Wesley was a terrible husband…There are many examples we could point to where our heroes had major character flaws, sins, and theological blindspots.

The question is, how are we to think about the work that God has done through imperfect men and women?

Here are three areas worth considering:

First, we must acknowledge that if God is going to work through men and women He is going to work through imperfect, sinful men and women. Thanks to the fall, that’s the only option there is (1 John 1:8–9). And God is pleased to do so, for by working through broken vessels such as Moses, David, and the Apostle Paul He is more glorified (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).

Secondly, we must always be cautious about giving our heroes a free pass. Just because we have benefited greatly by their work or writings does not mean that we cannot be critical of them where they were wrong.

Like any historical figure, we should seek to learn from them in both a positive and a negative sense: What can I learn from what this individual did well? What can I learn from how this individual failed?

I think that it is helpful to have heroes – Christian or otherwise. I personally consider C.H. Spurgeon to be a hero of mine, warts and all. Looking up to someone (living or dead) inspires us, provides council, and drives us to excel.

But we must always stop far short of idolizing any mere man or woman. As John Wesley rightly said, “Endeavor to follow each [man] so far as he follows Christ, and not one step farther.”

Lastly, we must not “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” so to speak. It is possible to benefit from the life and work of an individual without endorsing everything about their character. Just as it would be a mistake to act as though our heroes were flawless, it would be a mistake to reject everything that God did through their lives because of their flaws.

Just as it would be a mistake to act as though our heroes were flawless, it would be a mistake to reject everything that God did through their lives because of their flaws.

As we read about the life and theology of the Reformers we learn about men who sacrificed greatly to stand for the truth of the Gospel. Some even gave their very lives.

Today, we all stand as the beneficiaries of the legacy of faithfulness to the Word of God displayed by men such as Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Zwingli, and others.

The Protestant Reformation is not the history of how perfect men did mighty works for God. It is the history of how God worked mightily through imperfect men.

Clayton Kraby
Written by Clayton Kraby
I'm a Pastor in North Dakota and created ReasonableTheology.org to help make theology accessible for the everyday Christian. You can find me on Twitter @ClayKraby.