Why the Reformation?

By  Needham, Nick ( Banner of truth, Nov 2017)

500 years ago, the Church in Western Europe was awash with influences calling for much-needed reform. Most of these influences flowed from the Renaissance, whose Christian scholars were weighing the contemporary Church against what they found in the Bible and the writings of the early Church fathers. Their greatest figure, Erasmus of Rotterdam, had in 1516 published a new critical edition of the Greek New Testament, which rapidly became a tool in the hands of reformers of all sorts. Prior to this, Erasmus had published new editions of many of the treatises of the Church fathers, and writings of his own critiquing contemporary Christianity in the name of a more biblical and more patristic faith. We cannot, for example, read Erasmus’ popular Handbook of the Militant Christian (1503) without seeing in it a vision of a reformed Christianity that trembles on the very verge of what we might call Protestant.

In the end, it fell not to Erasmus but to Martin Luther to catalyze these existing influences into an effective reform movement. Luther, a pastor-scholar of the Augustinian order of friars in Wittenberg University, had discovered in his own religious order the resources of an Augustinian theology of grace which he wanted to apply to the wider Church. The prevailing theology taught in the Roman Catholic universities at that time (the so-called via moderna, the ‘modern way’) was anti-Augustinian, placing all the emphasis on human freewill and merit in securing salvation. For Luther, this was a doctrinal and pastoral disaster.

Traditionally the date of the Reformation has been attached to Luther’s public protest on October 31st 1517, in his 95 Theses, against the sale of ‘indulgences’. Simplifying a complex issue, these were certificates of pardon authorized by the papacy which, it was thought, could shorten the time suffered in purgatory by the buyer and his deceased relatives. It would be very hard to find even the most die-hard Roman Catholic who would now defend the horribly emotionally manipulative ‘indulgence preaching’ of the Dominican Friar Johann Tetzel, with his tasteless reassurances that anyone buying one of his indulgences would find mercy from God ‘even if he had raped the Virgin Mary’. Only a degree less vulgar was Tetzel’s jingle, ‘As soon as the coin in the money-box rings, a soul from purgatory springs!’

Had Luther’s protests against this monstrosity, initially made as ‘Catholic reformer’, been better handled by the papacy, a very different story might have unfolded. We might all be praying to St Martin Luther, patron of Roman Catholic reform. But the then pope, Leo X, overreacted badly to Luther’s protest, bungling the whole affair, and succeeded in driving Luther, step by step, into an increasingly polemical stance, ultimately involving the basic issue of authority. By the time Luther stood as an accused heretic before the Diet (German parliament) of Worms in January 1521, he had rejected the supreme authority of the papacy within the Church, affirming instead that Scripture possessed sole infallible authority, for Christians. Later theologians would call this the ‘formal principle’ of the Reformation: that which gives form, structure, and sense to Reformation teaching.

Although it did not figure at the Diet of Worms, a second principle, the ‘material principle’ of the Reformation, soon became entangled with Luther’s movement for reform. This was justification by faith alone. In the view of Luther and his fellow Reformers, when they turned to Scripture as the Church’s sole infallible authority, what they found taught in it’s pages was that sinners are saved or justified (accepted as righteous by God) through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. This was the Gospel of the Reformation. Historians argue about when precisely Luther came to believe this; some place it as early as 1514, others go for a later date of 1519 (my preferred option). We will not find justification by faith in the 95 Theses, but we will find it in a watershed 1520 treatise, The Freedom of the Christian, where Luther expounds the doctrine with a lyrical, joyful eloquence.

Armed with these two principles , the sole infallible authority of Scripture, and justification by faith alone in Christ alone , Reformers all over Europe cast off the dead weight of papal authority, and reformed their existing churches, sometimes at a city-level, as in Calvin’s Geneva, sometimes at national level, as in the England of King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I. This Reformation embraced not only theological teaching, but also congregational worship and church government, which were reshaped to reflect the reality and implications of biblical authority and justification by faith. By the time the dust had settled, Europe found itself divided into a powerfully Protestant north against a reactionary Roman Catholic south, with some countries (notably Switzerland and France) internally divided.

In these ecumenical days, many lament this division. The present writer, however, sees it as a necessary consequence of the tragic rejection by Southern Europe of the liberating and life-giving truth welcomed by the North. England, Scotland, Germany, the Dutch Republic, the whole of Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland), and the Protestant portions of France and Switzerland, were most and purely productive of moral, spiritual, and literary fruit. The Reformation is not something to be lamented but celebrated, and emulated.

[Protestant churches world-wide celebrate and commemorate Reformation Day on Oct 31st]