Rethinking the Reformation Reliance upon the Middle Ages

By Dr. David J. Davis

On August 29, 1518, a 21-year-old Philip Melanchthon gave his inaugural address at the University of Wittenberg. Only four days into his job as professor of Greek, Melanchthon energized the audience with a narrative of Western thought that lamented the loss of classical learning in the Middle Ages, as well as the “blessed nectar” of Scripture in its original languages.[1] Like the Renaissance humanists he admired so much, Melanchthon tended to belittle the intellectual traditions of the Middle Ages. He saw a few brief moments of light, but these were either insufficient to restore the Greco-Roman tradition, or were too marred by the barbaric tendencies of the age. In the years that followed, Melanchthon refashioned much of the university curriculum around this vision of a classical revival that he spelled out in his inaugural address, replacing the Thomistic scholasticism so typical of European universities with lectures on Homer, Ovid and Ptolemy.[2]

The picture Melanchthon sketched out that connected the revival of classical learning and the Reformation only gained in momentum over the next few centuries. Today, even benchmarks of historical theology like Alister McGrath’s “The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation” owe a great deal to this narrative, tending to diminish, and even completely ignore, large swathes of medieval theology that directly influenced the Reformation.[3] Unfortunately, this narrative is emblematic of a larger myopia toward the Middle Ages which began with humanists like Francesco Petrarch in the 14th century, and was adopted by reformers like Melanchthon, taking on not only the humanist emphasis on classical languages, but also a knee-jerk disdain for scholarship that occurred after the fall of the western Roman Empire.[4]

What I would like to suggest here is that when we think about the relationship of the classics to the Reformation, we should think in terms of continuity between classical, medieval, and the Reformation rather than in the combative narrative of the classics and the Reformation versus the medieval world. More and more, scholarship demonstrates that the reformers, as much as they rebelled against certain aspects medieval thought, relied upon medieval sources for their own insights and innovations. Medieval theology was as formative for the Reformation as the classics were, because so often it was through the Middle Ages that the reformers read the classics.

Of course, I am not arguing that the Reformation was not deeply influenced by both pagan and Christian classical works. Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Bucer, the chief reformers in Zurich and Strasbourg, respectively, were devoted to Ciceronian rhetoric and a pedagogical emphasis upon classical literature. John Calvin’s earliest works include a commentary on Seneca’s “De Clementia,” and his devotion to Augustine’s writings is well known. Elsewhere, in England, the first Protestant archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, reveled in the humanist teachings of Desiderius Erasmus and Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples. Perhaps most important was the influence of humanist and Protestant theologian Peter Vermigli, a professor at Oxford University in the 1540s, and a mentor to men who would one day become clerics and bishops in the Church of England. Vermigli’s systematic “Loci communes,” which cited classical and medieval sources with regularity, arguably was more influential in 16th-century England than Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” [5]

Alongside the reformers’ love of classical literature, however, runs an equally powerful influence of medieval scholarship. Several contemporary Reformation scholars have contributed to eroding Melanchthon’s narrative in this regard. The eminent historian Heiko Oberman has pointed out medieval authorities as far back as Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century as figures who helped “determine the questions asked, as well as the answers given” in the Reformation.[6] Even when we consider something as provocative and divisive as sacramental theology, we can detect in medieval thought certain things that will become indicative of Reformation dogma. In the “Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas critiqued certain legalistic beliefs that he perceived in ceremonial practices surrounding the Eucharist, saying:

in the celebration of this sacrament, words are used to signify things pertaining to Christ’s Passion, which is represented in this sacrament; or again, pertaining to Christ’s mystical body, which is signified therein; and again, things pertaining to the use of this sacrament, which use ought to be devout and reverent.[7]

Of course, Aquinas affirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation, which the reformers rejected. However, his emphasis here on the symbolic nature of the ceremony would have been welcome in any Protestant congregation of the 16th century.

Another modern scholar, Denis Janz, completed the earliest work on Luther’s dependence on medieval sources, identifying three “currents” of medieval thought that directly shaped the reformer’s theology: the scholastic nominalism of William of Ockham, the Augustinian revival of Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini in the 14th century, and the mystical writings of Jean Gerson and Johannes Tauler. Although Luther denounced much of medieval scholasticism, he found several medieval writers appealing, both for their emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, and their commitment to an individual-centered notion of justification.[8] Similarly, Anthony Lane has offered a study of John Calvin that looks at Calvin’s connections to key medieval authorities. Even though Calvin largely agreed with Melanchthon’s thoughts about medieval corruption, like Luther, Calvin was inspired by the Augustinian revival of the 14th century, and he was also influenced by earlier church fathers, including, “Gregory [the Great] and Bernard [of Clairvaux],” whom Calvin considered to be “the two great champions of the truth in the Middle Ages.”[9]

One of the most underappreciated medieval influences on Reformation thought was the 12th century theologian Hugh of St. Victor, whose writings on education and devotion shaped not only late medieval mystical movements, but also Reformation emphases on the authority of Scripture, the liberal arts, and Augustine’s theology.[10] Similarly, Thomas Kempis’s medieval devotional “Imitatione Christi,” a classic that echoed Augustine’s “Confessions,” and St. Francis of Assisi’s prayers, remained one of the best-selling books in Protestant England until the early 17th century.

For readers interested in the English reforms, the contemporary theologian Richard Bauckham has provided a useful example in his study of Protestant interpretations of the Book of Revelation in “Tudor Apocalypse.” John Bale’s “The image of both churches” (c.1547) was the first English Protestant commentary on Revelation, which “set the pattern” for all subsequent English commentaries in the 16th and 17th centuries.[11] In “The image,” Bale demonstrates an awareness of early church commentary beginning with Tyconius in the fourth century, and Augustine in the early fifth century. But Bale also relied upon medieval writers like the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, the 12th-century abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, the 13th-century Dominican bishop, Albert the Great, and the Cistercian hermit, Joachim de Fiore. In fact, among his dozens of sources, de Fiore seems to have been the most significant in terms of Bale’s hermeneutic.

Nevertheless, despite contemporary scholarship by Bauckham, Lane, etc., Melanchthon’s narrative remains a powerfully attractive one. Perhaps one reason for this attraction is that we continue to treat the Reformation as a historical event situated around exceptional individuals who were the driving forces behind larger historical movements. When we orient our historical narratives in this way, too much emphasis is placed upon their individual opinions (NB: even the evidence I have presented in this essay is oriented in this manner). In a recent edited volume of essays “Aquinas Among the Protestants,” Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen point out this problem in relation to the intellectual colossus Thomas Aquinas: “A view of history that tends to exalt great figures has easily seduced people to read much of Protestantism through the lens of Luther’s anti-Aristotelianism and his anti-Thomism.”[12] One of Martin Luther’s most recycled comments about Aquinas comes from his description of the 13th-century theologian and his “Schoolmen” (scholastic theologians) as the chief “source and foundation of all heresy, error, and obliteration of the Gospel.”[13]

Such a sweeping condemnation seems to end the conversation. However, this is by no means a closed case. For example, reformers like the Italian scholars Jerome Zanchi, who was a leading figure in Strasbourg and Neustadt, remained a committed Thomist in his philosophy and methodology. Zanchi presents an interesting example of a theologian who was strictly Calvinist on matters like predestination, but whose work, the “Operum theologicorum,” was deeply entrenched in Aquinas’s ideas about the natural law. Also, the English Calvinist William Whitaker, Regius Professor of Divinity and Master of St. John’s College (Cambridge), drew on Aquinas’s hermeneutic, actually defending Aquinas’s commentaries as being not too far removed from Protestant interpretations of Scripture.[14] Perhaps most significantly, both Franciscus Junius and Richard Hooker, cornerstones of the Dutch Reformed and Anglican traditions respectively, admired Aquinas’s development of natural law theory, turning to him with regularity in developing their own ecclesiology.[15] Despite Luther’s denunciation, Aquinas’s fingerprints can be seen across 16th-century Reformed thought.

Another stumbling block in thinking in terms of continuity between classical, medieval, and Reformation thought is the tendency to prefer the conscious citations that the reformers provide of their classical pagan and Christian sources. For example, when Calvin cites Augustine more than any other authority, it is easy to treat these two thinkers in a hermetically sealed vacuum, disregarding the millennia of scholarly conversation with Augustine before Calvin. Recently, in his study of Martin Bucer, Nicholas Thompson offered a much-needed response to this sealing-off tendency in regard to sacramental positions, by focusing as much on similarity as on difference between the variety of sacramental theologies.[16] One recurring theme in Thompson’s book is how Aquinas and other medieval thinkers anticipated the kinds of issues that reached a breaking point in the Reformation.

In fact, when we turn to a sacramental theology as influential as John Calvin’s and focus upon the nuances of its development, we can detect how important the medieval conversation with Augustine was for the reformers’ own theologies. Randall Zachman recently noticed that the “most significant development … in Calvin’s understanding of the holy Supper of the Lord after 1539 regards an increasing emphasis upon the Supper as a means by which to elevate the faithful from earth to heaven.”[17] Interestingly, this development aligns quite clearly with Calvin’s slow adoption of more and more of Bernard’s theology, particularly of Bernard’s imagery of a mystical marriage between Christ and the body of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist.[18] For Calvin, the sacrament was more than a signification of Christ’s sacrifice, it was a spiritual feast, a union of human and divine, foreshadowing the joining together of the Church and Christ. Calvin’s notion of a “unio mystica” between Christ and the Bride in the temporal ceremony of the sacrament echo key elements of both Bernard’s “Sermones super Cantica” and his “De diligendo Deo.” Calvin goes even further than Bernard in “relating them [the sacraments] to ‘unio’ than Bernard,” and arguing that both baptism and communion spiritually join the believer to the Bridegroom.[19] It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for a sacramental theology like Calvin’s to have developed in the 16th century without the direct influence of the Middle Ages, which Calvin both drew upon and heavily critiqued.

I am quite sure that this is not the end of the story. There are many more connections and continuities that deserve further exploration. My point here has not been to elaborate on all of the possible continuities between the classics, medievals, and the Reformation, but rather to make the point that a strong degree of influence and inspiration between the Middle Ages and the Reformation exists. If key reformers like Luther, Calvin, Vermigli, and Hooker relied upon medieval thinkers like Bernard, Aquinas, Ockham, and Bradwardine, then we must begin to understand the Reformation as much as a medieval development as a revival of classical learning. Also, in order to better understand the Reformation, we need to become better students of the medieval authorities.


[1] John Scofield, Philip Melanchthon and the English Reformation (Ashgate, 2006), 9–10.

[2] Theodore Arthur Buenger, “The Classics and the Protestant Reformation,” The Classical Weekly, 11 (1917): 34–37.

[3] Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformations, 2nd edition (Blackwell, 2004).

[4] Theodore Mommsen, “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages’,” Speculum 17 (1942): 226–242.

[5] David J. Davis, Seeing Faith, Printing Pictures: Religious Identity during the English Reformation (Brill, 2013), 54–59.

[6] Heiko Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Eerdmans, 1992), 3.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benzinger, 1947), III, q.83, a. 5.

[8] Denis Janz, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983), 2–3.

[9] Anthony N.S. Lane, John Calvin: Study of the Church Fathers (T&T Clark, 1999), 43.

[10] G.R. Evans, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence, and Rupture (IVP Academic, 2012), 160; Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, trans. Geoffrey Bromley (Eerdmans, 1992), 30, 35.

[11] Richard Bauckham, Tudor Apocalypse: Sixteenth Century Apocalypticism, Millenarianism, and the English Reformation (Sutton Courtenay, 1978), 22–24.

[12] Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen, “Introduction,” in Aquinas among the Protestants, eds. Svensson and VanDrunen (Wiley, 2018), 9. This volume is particularly helpful in pointing out the acres of unexplored terrain on the topic of the reformers and the many varieties of medieval theology.

[13] Translated by Denis Janz, Luther on Thomas Aquinas: The Angelic Doctor in the Thought of the Reformer (Franz Steiner, 1989), 11.

[14] David Sytsma, “Thomas Aquinas and Reformed Biblical Interpretation: The Contribution of William Whitaker,” Aquinas among the Protestants, 49–74.

[15] Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity remains one of the most influential works in the Anglican Communion. Compare Hooker’s Lawes, I.6–8 with Aquinas, Summa, I-II, q. 94, a. 2.

[16] Nicholas Thompson, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Patristic Tradition in the Theology of Martin Bucer, 1534-1546 (Brill, 2005).

[17] Randall Zachman, Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 339.

[18] Lane, John Calvin, 93–94; Dennis E. Tamburello, Union with Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).

[19] Tamburello, Union with Christ, 98.

[Editor’s Note:  Christianity and the Classics image from Nicolas Poussin’s The Triumph of David, c. 1630, found at Wikipedia Commons.]

David Davis, Ph.D.About the Author

David Davis, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of History at Houston Baptist University. He has published two books on the Reformation and numerous scholarly articles. In 2013, Dr. Davis was awarded the Opal Goolsby Outstanding Teaching Award at HBU. In 2017, he was awarded the Hardenberg Fellowship at the Johannes a Lasco Bibliothek in Germany and a Renaissance Society Fellowship at the Huntington Library in 2018.