Choking on Feathers: A Battle on Two Fronts


Martin Luther famously referred to the Radicals of his time as those who had a taste for feathers:

When we have heard or learned a few things about Holy Scripture, we think we are already doctors and have swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all…This one will not hear of Baptism, that one denies the Sacrament, another puts a world between this and the last day: some teach that Christ not God, some say this, some say that: there are about as many sects and creeds as there are heads. No yokel is so rude but when he has dreams and fancies, he thinks himself inspired by the Holy Ghost and must be a prophet.

In the July/August 1959 issue of Torch & Trumpet, Cornelius Van Til published his first article entitled “Calvin the Controversialist.” In it he paints a quick picture of life in Geneva up to the point at which “Calvin and his colleagues were ordered to leave the city.”

Cardinal Sadolet wastes no time trying to do damage control. He writes to the Genevan people that it seemed good “to the Holy Spirit and to me…to write somewhat to you…of the hope in Christ…the blessing of complete and perpetual salvation…by faith alone in God and in Jesus Christ…This [Catholic] Church hath regenerated us to God in Christ, hath nourished and confirmed us, instructed us what to think, what to believe, wherein to place our hope, and also taught us by what way we must tend towards heaven.”

He goes on to threaten the Day of Judgment against those who will not forsake these “modern novelties,” promising those who have returned to the church to meet the Day with confidence. Beza claims there is no one in Geneva who can answer Sadolet and beseeches Calvin to respond. As to this appeal Sadolet makes to the Spirit, Calvin says:

What comes of the Word of the Lord, that clearest of all marks, and which the Lord himself, in pointing out the Church, so often recommends to us? For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, he declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit; but in order that that government might not be vague and unstable, he annexed it to the Word.

There are those today who seem to think that western Christianity is basically a story of Roman Catholicism and everybody else. If one is not Roman Catholic he must be a Protestant. But what is forgotten is that the Radical Reformation told the Protestant Reformation that it didn’t reform nearly enough (paedobaptism being one such signal). This rusty history seems to be an equal opportunity affliction on the part of Catholics and Protestants alike. But just because two camps aren’t Catholic doesn’t mean they are both Protestant. And so for those who don’t seem to recall that the Protestant Reformation was indeed a battle on two fronts, which, among so many other things, was also a battle against two camps which claimed the Holy Spirit above the Word and descending like a dove on either the shoulder of the Church or into the heart of the Individual, Calvin reminds that:

We are assailed by two sects, which seem to differ most widely from each other. For what similitude is there in appearance between the Pope and the Anabaptists? And yet, that you may see that Satan never transforms himself so cunningly, as not in some measure to betray himself, the principal weapon with which they both assail us is the same. For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods. And you, Sadolet, by stumbling on the very threshold, have paid the penalty of that affront which you offered to the Holy Spirit, when you separated him from the Word.

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4 Responses to Choking on Feathers: A Battle on Two Fronts

  1. jedpaschall says:

    Thanks for posting this Zrim. I can see this play out even now in the lives of some that I am very close to, who have swallowed the Spirit “feathers and all.” Any objective appeal to the clear teaching of Scripture is an exercise in near futility, since they place so much stock in these Spirit-wrought revelations.

    It is a tragedy that the contemporary church is so enamored with the QUIRE brand of Christian spirituality. It frankly destroys lives and devolves into something that is anything but Christian.

  2. Zrim says:


    In my experience, I cannot say that I’ve seen “destroyed lives,” but I’ve seen plenty of old fashioned silliness.

    But what has become so intriguing to me over the last few years is the sort of historical ignorance that there even existed a Radical Reformation. I understand why the Rome/Geneva fight gets the lion’s share of press, but my thought is that would-be Protestants could get a better foothold if they understood that the Reformers opposed the Radicals/Enthusiasts as much as they did Rome. And it might help to understand that today’s evangelicals are yesterday’s radicals. To hear so many tell it, it would seem the fight between Geneva and Munster is all but over. I mean, how often do we hear phrases like “Reformed and eeeevangelical” as if those are synonymous terms?

  3. RubeRad says:

    historical ignorance that there even existed a Radical Reformation

    This site used to have a fascinating (in an anthropological, revisionist sense) set of small articles about “Reformation”, lauding the radical reformation of the anabaptists, continuing on I think through the great awakenings, through the origins of pentecostalism, and on to the modern reformation (not, of course, in the Horton sense). Maybe after they finish revamping their site they’ll re-post the series.

  4. John Yeazel says:

    Anabaptist’s of today do not like being referred to as Anabaptist’s. I know Dale Coulter does not like that tag. He studied at reformed theological seminary in Orlando with John Muether and still holds his revivalistic and charismatic views. This, to me, is Anabaptism but he claims otherwise. He claims the reformation went in several directions and there was very little understanding between the various groups. Luther, mistakenly, turned on the peasants and many were executed by the sword of the government. This put a rift in the reformation and many turned on the magisterial reformers. The causes of the rift were not only doctrinal matters; there were historical forces at work too.

    These disagreements with the Anabaptist’s need to approached with wisdom and understanding. It is tricky business and even Luther and Calvin made mistakes in how they dealt with them.

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