Is the Reformation still necessary?

Is the Reformation still necessary? image

All over the world people are gearing up for a year of celebrations commemorating 500 years since Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

There is still an academic debate about whether the theses were actually ever nailed to the door, though the tide has certainly turned back in favour of saying that he did. Not that it matters much. No one doubts that the theses that ignited the Protestant Reformation were sent to his local bishop on October 31, 1517. That Reformation transformed the religious landscape in ways that continue to resonate in 2017. 

Yet is it still a cause of celebration? Is it still necessary? Today some voices – including apparently Pope Francis himself – consider it is all over. The Reformation has ended. But has it, and should it?

Luther’s response was provoked by a church that was demonstrably corrupt but, then again so had others before him. His was not the first voice raised in protest. Yet what Luther did – which very few others had done – was to draw the link between abusive practices and false doctrine. It was not only what was done in the church’s name that needed to be changed but what was taught in the church’s name as well. 

False doctrine inevitably leads to false practice. False practice is a very reliable indicator of false doctrine. The list of false doctrines Luther would uncover included an emphasis on tradition that obscured the supreme authority of Scripture, an emphasis on priesthood and sacraments that distracted from hearing, believing and obeying the word that God has given us, an emphasis on institutional unity and uniformity that was often treated as more important than Christian discipleship, and an emphasis on works which transformed grace into a supplement to our own religious effort.

There are undoubted heroic dimensions to the narrative of the Reformation. Luther’s great stand at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521 stands out among them. With all the power of the Western world arrayed against him – the new Emperor in his splendour, the princes of Germany and the representatives of the Pope – he refused to recant and declared that his conscience was captive to the word of God. The words his friends heard, but which never made it into the official record, are well known: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me”. 

Everything – including traditions, papal pronouncements and the law of the Church – must be tested by the final authority: the written word of God.

The stories of Bilney, Tyndale, Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, immortalised in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (published as Actes and Monuments), continue to inspire Christian men and women today (a quick Google will give you the gist but there have been magnificent biographies written the last couple of years, too!). They were mistreated, hunted down and murdered because the truths that Luther had helped them see afresh were too precious to ignore. 

We are justified by faith apart from works. What matters most is not what we do but what has been done for us by Jesus. Our life of obedience and good works flows out of being right with God; it does not make us right with God. Our access to God is direct in the gospel of his Son. It is not dependent upon the ministrations of the priest. The true church is the congregation of faithful people around the word of God, those who hear God’s word and take hold of God’s visible words of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

What believers need more than anything is to hear what God has to say to them, and so having the Bible in your own language is not a luxury but a necessity.

In the 16th century ordinary life was dramatically different, depending upon whether you were Catholic or Protestant. You could tell what people believed by looking inside their church buildings. In Protestant churches there were no images or statues, the lectern or the pulpit was moved to the place of prominence and the table and font, while they were retained, were moved to the side. 

You could tell what people believed by looking inside their homes. In Protestant homes, images and icons were nowhere to be seen and the Bible was given pride of place. You could tell what people believed by looking at their daily routine, the new dignity given to “secular” work (it was not only the monks and priests who were honouring God in their work) and the respect given to women.

Of course mistakes were made. Luther was tired, sick and sore and never really understood or listened to Zwingli and the Swiss, so a divide was created between the German Reformed and the Swiss Reformed – the Lutherans and the Calvinists. Luther’s harsh tongue was not just reserved for the Pope and his court but for Turks (Muslims) and Jews as well. Some of the language he used, especially against the Jews, is deeply offensive to those on the other side of the Holocaust. 

Calvin and Farel made a real hash of their first stint in Geneva and were actually ordered to leave the city. They were ideologues who tried to impose their will on the people rather than persuade them from the Scriptures. Archbishop Cranmer capitulated under tremendous pressure and signed a recantation of all he had taught and written. Only at his trial in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford – they never were going to set him free – did he reaffirm his commitment to the doctrines of the Reformation, whatever the consequences. John Knox was a hothead who made Luther look calm and irenic (and that’s quite a feat!). Eccentric extremists broke off from the Reformers in Germany and those in Switzerland, causing riots and disorder and public distress. 

We shouldn’t look back at the Reformation with rose-coloured glasses. The heroes of that era were ordinary, fractured, weak and anxious people, just like us. We don’t have to turn them into something they were not. The Reformation dramatically changed millions of lives over the centuries to come. Yet at the time no one was certain it would survive. In fact, the Catholic emperor’s armies marched into Wittenberg while Luther’s body was still warm in the grave.

So was it worth it? Most definitely. To the Reformers we owe the recovery of the gospel of grace and unconditional pardon, the Bible in our own language and the transformation of home, work and church. These men and women did not intend to separate from Rome. They stayed within that institution until they were thrown out. Yet they judged that access to the word of God, the freedom of the grace of God and the reform of the church of God were all worth it. Freedom from fear, ignorance and superstition were all worth it, too.

Is it still relevant? Does the protest of Protestantism still need to be made? In the centuries that have followed the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church has changed a lot. The liturgy is no longer primarily in Latin. There have been concerted attempts to tackle corruption. Conciliatory advances have been made towards the other denominations. However, there has been no movement on the doctrine that divided us in the 16th century. The Pope is still presented as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture – the only one who has the right to determine what it means. Church tradition is still accorded such a high place that it is not easily disentangled from Scripture. Justification is by faith but not by faith alone. Our access to God is not direct but mediated through the saints and even the virgin Mary. The sacraments are necessary for salvation. Only Roman Catholic ordination is valid. The Pope is infallible. 

A close examination of every joint statement made by Roman Catholics with Lutherans or Anglicans or the Orthodox, reveals that in every case it is the Lutherans, Anglicans or the Orthodox that have moved. The Roman Catholic teaching of the 16th century remains intact. The teaching behind the abuses that fired the Reformation flame continues as the official teaching of the Roman Church.

Since the Pope didn’t start the Reformation, he has no authority to declare it over. What is more, the protest is needed just as much today as it was then. For all our new-found friendship with Catholics and co-belligerence on certain moral and political issues, we must remain conscientious Protestants. 

So next year, when the celebrations begin, we can join in with the knowledge that the freedom we now enjoy in the gospel was recovered for us by the Reformers. Luther with his courage and directness in expounding Scripture, Calvin with his commentaries and even more his Institution of the Christian Religion, Cranmer with his magnificent liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer and its program to expose God’s people as much as possible to the life-transforming power of God’s word – they are all God’s gift to us and their legacy is something we cannot afford to ignore, belittle or surrender.

Throughout 2017, Moore College is planning a series of events to celebrate the Reformation and its recovery of the biblical gospel. Will you come and celebrate with us? 

For details of college-planned celebrations, see the college website.

The Rev Dr Mark Thompson is the Principal of Moore Theological College and a canon of St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney

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