What’s so magisterial about it?: Magistrates and the Swiss and German reformations (Reformations 11)

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Scholars use the term “magisterial reformation(s)” to refer to the mainline German and Swiss reformation movements under the leadership of Luther and Zwingli (or Calvin) respectively. The term is used because magistrates (the elite, princes, or ruling classes) were so instrumental in both cases, though in quite different ways. Politics had an extremely important role to play in these reformation movements.

Martin Luther’s well-known Appeal to the German Nobility (written 1520, online here) begins to illustrate just how important magistrates, princes, and other rulers were for the Lutheran reformation. In that writing, Luther appeals directly to the German aristocracy to assert their “temporal” authority over against the supposed authority of the “Romanists” (the papacy of the time and those that supported it). German magistrates were called on to apply their punishing role throughout the whole Christian body: “Forasmuch as the temporal power has been ordained by God for the punishment of the bad and the protection of the good, therefore we must let it do its duty throughout the whole Christian body, without respect of persons, whether it strikes popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or whoever it may be” (trans by C. A. Buchheim, online here). There is a sense in which Luther’s appeal to magistrates, which continued well after this was written, was successful. Already the prince who had recently founded the University of Wittenberg (where Luther was a “star” professor), prince Frederick, was a strong supporter of Luther and was instrumental in saving Luther from being tried or burnt as a heretic by the papacy. Soon, many other magistrates likewise came to support the Lutheran reformation and made their territories officially Lutheran, over against other German princes and rulers whose territories remained Catholic. As a result, many actual wars were fought between these territories.

The situation with the Swiss reformation was quite different, but magistrates were heavily involved again. This time, it is city-magistrates that give the descriptor “magisterial” to this movement. The reformations led by Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva were intimately tied in with the city-council, led by civic magistrates, and the city council continued to be the main force behind reformation movements in various other Swiss towns. The role of magistrates in both the Lutheran and Zwinglian movements contrasts strongly to the so-called “radicals” within these same areas who insisted that being a Christian and being a magistrate were by nature incompatible (more about these “radicals” later).

One thought on “What’s so magisterial about it?: Magistrates and the Swiss and German reformations (Reformations 11)

  1. Phil Harland Post author

    4 Comments

    Seminary Prof said…

    Philip,
    Magisterial in reference to the “Magisterial Reformers,” such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin does not have to do with their relationship to the magistrates of the era. It comes from the Latin, magisterius, and connotes the authoritative Reformers, as in the papal magisterium. It is NOT connected to magistrates. Sorry.

    10:56 AM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    Actually, the term “magisterial reformation(s)” is regularly used by _historians today_ in reference to the role of magistrates in these movements (under Luther, Zwingli, and others). This does not exclude the simultaneous reference to magisterium, a Latin term that was used (back in the middle ages) in reference to the teaching power or “authority” held by church magistrates. This, too, applies to the reformers in terms of their claims of teaching authority (as you seem to be indicating). (We are talking about insider and outsider language here used simultaneously in reference to the reformations). See, for instance, Carter Lindberg, _The European Reformations_, p. 12, where he directly addresses this very issue. Phil

    12:40 PM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    In connection with the “outsider” / etic comment above, I forgot to mention that the term “magisterial reformation” was coined, in contradistinction to the “radical reformation”, in 1962 by George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962) (now in subsequent editions). Other historians have adopted the terminology, though with some hesitancy over the value judgements (positive or negative) that may be implied by such terms. Hope this helps. Phil

    1:03 PM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    The 1992 (3rd) edition of Williams’ book (who coined the term magisterial reformation in 1962) has the following on p. 1281 (as cited by Lindberg, p. 12):

    “Thus the classical Magisterial Reformation was ‘magisterial’ not only in the primary sense that it allowed for a large role on the part of the state in implementing Reformation and even in assessing doctrinal, liturgical, and ecclesiological issues but also in the subsidiary sense that it accorded extraordinary authority to an individual teacher”.

    1:11 PM

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