I would like to suggest that in the area of ecclesiology, Spanish Protestantism had the most biblical, and therefore the most catholic, vision of any group of the Reformation.
In many ways, the Reformation was a huge success. Most notably, the Church recovered the Bible as her ultimate authority for faith and practice, salvation as by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and worship as centered on the Triune God alone. These and other Reformation truths were genuine rediscoveries of Scriptural and early Christian beliefs and practices, and ought to be celebrated by Christians everywhere.
However, in other ways, the Reformation was a failure. As I have written elsewhere, the failure of Protestantism has been our ecclesiology: we have failed to preserve the unity of the Church at a visible level. At some level, Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians speaks to our context as well: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10, ESV). Although we console ourselves with the fact that, beneath our superficial denominational divisions, there lies a deeper and more important doctrinal unity, we must take our divisions more seriously. Could Paul even have conceived of a state of Christianity in which Gospel-preaching churches did not have visible, cooperative unity, or worse, excluded one another from the Lord’s Supper?
In this brief article, I won’t presume to solve the problem that has plagued Protestantism for half of a millennium now. However, I would like to address it from a new perspective and provide a bit of hope that Protestantism doesn’t have to be this way, and that at least some Reformers had a vision to preserve unity despite doctrinal differences on secondary issues.
If we go back to the 16th century, we see that there were four major Protestant groups. Arguably the most well-known were the Lutheran and Reformed ones. They were constant sparring partners with one another and have left us with an enormous corpus of polemical works dedicated to convincing the other side of the remaining errors of their system. There were a few attempts to unite the two movements, such as the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) and the Wittenberg Concord (1536), and a few moderate theologians such as Philip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer who tried to be bridge builders, but these were isolated incidents and voices, and never convinced the larger Lutheran and Reformed bases.
This is where the famous Anglican “third way” or via media came in. Since the 19th century, many have thought that Anglicanism was a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, but this was how the Church of England was repackaged by High-Church Anglicans (“Anglo-Catholics”) such as John Henry Newman who wanted it to be more Roman Catholic. In its original conception in the 16th century, although broadly fitting in within the Reformed movement, Anglicanism would have been more of a via media between Lutheranism and Reformed. They were open to insights from both groups, and most moderate positions were not only welcomed in England, but even invited to enter and contribute.
The fourth group of Protestants, the Anabaptists, typically did not seek to unite with other Protestant movements, but rather sought an extensive and immediate reformation of the Church. One wing of their movement, the so-called “spiritual Anabaptists”, sought to bring their reformation about through violent means, which had the unfortunate consequence of spoiling the entire Anabaptist brand name, and inviting outright rejection and persecution from Protestants and Catholics alike. Because of these reasons, Anabaptists typically have been happy to remain isolated from other Protestants and not seek broader unity.
It is within this context that the little-known Spanish Reformation can be so helpful, even prophetic, for our times.
The lives and works of the Spanish reformers demonstrate that while they were greatly indebted to Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist influences, even joining their ranks and at times becoming their pastors, they never really saw themselves as card-carrying Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, or Anabaptists. They were comfortable everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
The reason this was so, I would like to suggest, is that the Spanish Reformers envisioned a “fourth way” for Protestant ecclesiology, one which took the moderate approach of Melanchthon, Bucer, and Anglicanism, but that went beyond them to include significant portions of the Anabaptist vision. I would like to suggest that in the area of ecclesiology, Spanish Protestantism had the most biblical, and therefore the most catholic, vision of any group of the Reformation.
They would have felt very comfortable with Augustine’s famous maxim: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity. In this brief article I cannot provide all of the examples with accompanying bibliographic documentation that demonstrate the uniqueness of Spanish Protestant ecclesiology, but what I can do is sketch the basic outline and establish the case. First I will show how they adopted a via media approach between the Lutheran and Reformed camps, and then how they incorporated important portions of the Anabaptist vision. While many names may be new for English readers, I can assure you that the ones provided below are among the most important from the Spanish Reformation.
The via media
As I have just said, Spanish Protestants took a via media approach to the Lutheran–Reformed divide, and the following contains some of the most important examples.
Inquisition documents from the important Spanish Protestant centers at Valladolid and Seville from the 1550s show that Protestants in both cities were original in their approach to reforming the Christian faith and eclectic in their appropriation of broader Protestant thought. The reports show both Lutheran and Reformed components in their theology, with no apparent division between some who considered themselves more Lutheran and others more Reformed. Additionally, the reports show that a wide range of humanist, Lutheran, and Reformed books were being smuggled in and read by these groups, again demonstrating their eclectic interest. On traditionally divisive topics such as the Lord’s Supper and the number of sacraments, some Spaniards seem to have tended toward a Lutheran view, while others toward a Reformed view, but there is no indication that there was any conflict between them.
Francisco de Enzinas lived with Philip Melanchthon during his seminary training at Wittenberg, and although he was more of a linguist than a theologian (he was the first to translate the NT from Greek into Spanish), the fact that he translated John Calvin’s 1538 Catechism and Martin Luther’s Treatise on Christian Liberty and then published them together as one work demonstrates that he was not a strict follower of either.
Enzinas’ close friend Juan Díaz quickly impressed and gained the confidence of John Calvin and Martin Bucer, the latter of whom took him as his personal secretary to the second Colloquy of Regensburg (1546) for the second round of the Empire-sponsored Catholic–Protestant dialogue. Although both men were Reformed, they arrived to defend the Lutheran Confession of Augsburg (1530), and were awaiting the arrival of the Lutheran Philip Melanchthon, who would lead the discussion for the Protestant position.
In his confession of faith, Casiodoro de Reina intentionally used ambiguous language in the chapter on the Lord’s Supper, with some phrases sounding Lutheran and others Reformed. In two letters he wrote to Theodore Beza (1565, 1571), he stated his admiration for Martin Bucer and alludes to his support of the Wittenberg Concord. Perhaps most notably, for some five years (1579–1584) he was simultaneously a member of the Reformed church and pastor of a Lutheran church in Antwerp, even being put forward as a candidate for superintendent of the Lutheran church in that city.
Finally, Reina’s close friend and fellow Reformed pastor, Antonio del Corro, wrote a letter to the Lutheran church in Antwerp in 1567 in which he pleaded with them not to let their commitment to Lutheranism overshadow their love toward their Reformed brothers. His idea was for both Reformed and Lutheran pastors to read aloud publicly a confession of faith and show both churches how much the two groups had in common, but it never happened because the Lutheran church did not want to cooperate (and instead, made things worse). After a difficult experience with the Reformed church in London, Corro finally joined the Anglican church (as would several other Spanish Reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries).
In summary, we find A. Gordon Kinder’s appraisal of Casiodoro de Reina to be true of many other Spanish Reformers as well: “Whilst remaining firmly on the Protestant side of the fence, he appears to have felt at home both in the Calvinist and the Lutheran folds, nor did he feel it necessary to reject the one to be in the other; and he avoided the extreme positions and hair-splitting arguments that threatened to divide both of them from within.”
The “fourth way”
Thus far we have seen the via media of the Spanish reformers, but now it is time to see how they surpassed it by incorporating important insights from the Anabaptist vision, particularly their emphasis on imitating Christ’s life, brotherly love, and refusal to denounce believer’s baptism (without necessarily accepting it themselves).
Juan de Valdés, arguably Spain’s first reformer, is beginning to be recognized as an important figure on spirituality, especially for his most famous works Dialogue on Christian Doctrine and 110 Considerations. He attracted a large following in Naples, Italy, where his “circle” focused on simple Christianity: Bible reading, prayer, and imitating Christ’s life. Although not a mystic, his emphasis on the spiritual life is undeniable. Valdés was shaped by 15th and 16th century Spanish converso spirituality, which overlaps significantly with Anabaptist spirituality.
Casiodoro de Reina’s confession of faith reads more like a story of God’s Trinitarian work of redeeming mankind than it does an abstract, dry treatise on doctrine. By far the largest chapter in the confession is the one which treats the three marks of a true church and —unique to Reformed confessions— the seven marks of a true believer, which focus on Christian living. Finally, although his confession addresses the topic of baptism, his first draft was silent on the matter of believer’s vs. infant baptism, thus implying that he did not want to be dogmatic on the topic (similar to his approach on the Lord’s Supper, as was seen above). After being challenged by other Reformed churches to add a statement in support of infant baptism, he added a restrained paragraph on the topic, stating that while it is not found in Scripture, he would nevertheless support it because of Church tradition and the idea of the covenant.
Antonio del Corro was a Geneva-approved pastor, but he refused to sign the Belgic Confession since it required him to condemn Anabaptists. As was stated above, Corro was more focused on right living and brotherly love than he was on strict dogmatic adherence, and his letter to the Lutheran pastors repeatedly states that brotherly love is more important than any confession of faith, which, he reminded them, were written by fallible men. In another letter that he wrote to Casiodoro de Reina, he stated that he wanted to read works written by Anabaptistic and mystic thinkers such as Kaspar Schwenkfeld, Valentin Krautwald, Andreas Osiander, Justus Velsius, and Jacopo Aconcio. He did not necessarily agree with their doctrine, but at least he was open to listening to what they had to say.
Finally, many Spanish works, when they address the topic of faith, don’t focus so much on justifying faith, but rather on what they call “true” and “living” faith, by which they mean a faith that manifests itself in works. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that in the Spanish reformers’ theology as a whole, they were more concerned with right Christian living than they were about the doctrine of justification by faith alone. They obviously accepted and defended the latter, but that simply wasn’t their main concern; although they believed in and defended Romans 3–4, they were more interested in James 2. What gripped their hearts was the fact that, thanks to the work of Christ on the cross, the Father had poured out the Spirit on his people so that they might live out God’s image.
Before concluding, it is important to note that the Spanish reformers’ openness to Anabaptist thought did not necessarily mean that they agreed with it themselves, but rather that they recognized them as true believers, and thus did not want to exclude them from the visible Church. Nevertheless, they were at the very least open to Anabaptist thought and spirituality, and there is considerable overlap between the two. This is not merely my evaluation of the evidence, but rather has been defended by other scholars on the topic, such as in the recent monograph by Manuel Díaz Pineda.
I need to be clear that the vision that I have reconstructed above was not the position of every Spanish reformer. For example, Cipriano de Valera and Juan Aventrot were clearly Reformed, and did not shy away from taking positions that would have excluded Lutherans and Anabaptists.
However, these voices represent the minority position amongst Spanish reformers, and the basic argument of this essay remains true: Spanish Protestantism took a moderate, or via media, position between Lutherans and Reformed, and went even further than Anglicans in their embrace of important aspects of the Anabaptist vision.
They were never open to heretical positions on key doctrinal matters, and most, if not all, of them expressly affirmed their allegiance to the major Christian creeds and councils of the first five centuries of the Church, completely in line with other Protestant groups of the time. But within this essential orthodoxy, they were willing to include all four major groups of the Reformation. Being neither truly Lutheran, nor Reformed, nor Anglican, nor Anabaptist, their vision begs to be called something else, which I have suggested as the “fourth way”.
Ironically, although Spain’s “fourth way” was rejected by most groups in the 16th century, it seems to be what most people are longing for in the 21st: from official ecumenical dialogues between denominational representatives, to the phenomenon of non-denominational churches, to adult Bible study fellowships which include all Christians regardless of denominational ties.
Unfortunately, the Spanish reformation cannot offer us a model of what this “fourth way” could look like at a practical level, since it was brutally suppressed in Spain, and there was never a large and stable enough group of expatriated Spaniards to implement their vision elsewhere in Europe. At best, it can be carefully reconstructed, but always with the caveat that it is hypothetical and speculative.
However, what it can offer us is hope. Hope that we as Protestants don’t have to divide up into denominations. Hope that Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, and Anabaptists could belong to the same church. Hope that there were at least some people during the Reformation who valued brotherly love as much as they did truth. Hope that Protestantism can be cured of its schisms, and thus better incarnate the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph 3:10).
Andrew Messmer is Professor of theology in Spain.
1. For example, cf. Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The Myth of the English Reformation,” Journal of British Studies 30 no 1 (1991): 1–19.
2. What is more, they included insights from reformers from other backgrounds, such as the Italians Peter Martyr Vermigli and Bernardino Ochino.
3. Their view of Church–State relations made dialogue very difficult, and unity virtually impossible.
4. Adrian Saravia (c. 1530–1613), a Spanish-Flemish Protestant, also endorsed the Wittenberg Concord in his work De Sacra Eucharistia. However, although his father was a Spaniard and his life overlaps in many ways with those of Reina and Corro, Saravia appears to have seen himself as more Flemish than Spanish, as Paul Hauben argues (Three Spanish heretics and the Reformation [Genève: Librairie Droz, 1976], 116–125).
5. Casiodoro de Reina: Spanish Reformer of the Sixteenth Century (London: Tamesis Books Limited, 1975), 82.
6. Apparently, the only major piece of the Anabaptist vision that the Spanish reformers did not incorporate into their own was the separation of Church and State. On the contrary, and somewhat surprising due to their negative experience with the Spanish Inquisition, they tended toward Erastianism, which placed the Christian monarch at the head of the Church.
7. The Benefit of Christ, another spiritual classic, was most likely written by his followers, and based on his teaching
8. It is also interesting to note that he rejected confirmation, infant baptism’s necessary complement.
9. Hauben, Three Spanish heretics, 23.
10. In a letter dated 03 July, 1571, he condemned the errors of some of the people mentioned in this letter, along with others such as Arius, Pelagius, and Papists. However, he did not specify which errors he was referring to, thus making it hard to judge his relationship to them.
11. La reforma en España (Siglos XVI–XVII): Origen, naturaleza y creencias (Barcelona: Editorial Clie, 2017), esp. Part 2, §4.2 and Part 4, §3.
12. At the moment, I am unsure whether Juan Pérez de Pineda was “clearly” Reformed, or rather went along to get along. For example, although he was always on good terms with Geneva, and even published catechisms that reflected Reformed structure and contents, his influence from Constantino de la Fuente and deafening silence on infant baptism must be taken into account. My thanks to Jon Nelson for pointing out some difficulties related to classifying Pineda.
13. Although not addressed in this essay, the influence of Sebastian Castellio’s thought on Reina and Corro cannot be overlooked. Castellio was a famous advocate of the freedom of conscience, which likely would have affected Reina’s and Corro’s ecclesiology.
14. I plan to do this in a future article.
15. I would like to thank Jon Nelson and Steven Griffin for reading an earlier draft of this work and making helpful suggestions.