The Reformation was a great example of what it meant for people to recapture the gospel above all else, but around the time of its 500th anniversary people began to ask whether the Reformation was now “over” or had become irrelevant.
One reason for this is that many perceive the challenges churches face today are not the same as 500 years ago. You don’t have to be an expert to recognise that one of today’s greatest challenges is militant and missional Islam, and another is secularisation – the attempt to reduce or remove Christian heritage and values from our society.
The confrontation and the debate between Protestants and Catholics looks very small compared with the importance of these present-day challenges, so people begin to think that the issues of the Reformation are no longer as relevant. In addition, many believe – doctrinally and theologically speaking – that the issues of the Reformation have been solved. Most are no longer interested in talking about justification, salvation and the technicalities of biblical doctrine.
So, we need to recall the main issues debated and discussed all those years ago and consider whether they’re still relevant today.
There were two foundational pillars of the Reformation:
1. the authority of the Bible over the church, and
2. that God’s salvation is a gift received by faith alone.
How did Rome respond to this? At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the official response was to reject both points. With regard to the Bible’s authority, the Council of Trent said, no, the Bible is not above the church. It is the other way around. It is the Church that is the mother of the Bible – the Church that made the Bible – so it is the Church that presides over what the Bible teaches and decides what is the truth. The council also expanded the list of canonical books, adding the Apocrypha to prove the point that it is the Church that made the Bible.
On the point that salvation is by faith alone, the Council of Trent again said, “No”. It said that God is involved in salvation at the beginning, but if you want to be impacted by it you have to improve yourself, receive the sacraments and behave well. God might be necessary, but he is not sufficient. It is not by faith alone – it is by faith and works.
Reformed doctrine is still rejected
It’s important to recognise that the rejection of both central points of the Reformation did not end in the 16th century. By way of example, since that time the Church has added a number of dogmas to its core beliefs (a dogma is regarded by the Catholic Church as divinely revealed and therefore unchangeable).
In 1854, it promulgated the dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception – the idea that Mary was preserved from original sin at the time of her conception. In 1870, it promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility – that when the Pope speaks from the chair, he speaks infallibly, without error. In 1950, the last dogma promulgated by the church was Mary’s bodily assumption to the heavenly glory – the idea that, as soon as she died, she was taken, body and soul, into the heavenly glory.
Is any of this in the Bible? No, but that’s not the point. Within the Catholic system, the reliance is not on the authority of Scripture alone.
On the other major point that salvation comes to us by faith alone, the Council of Trent said those who believed such things should be excommunicated. It declared that those who upheld justification by faith alone were “anathema” (cursed), as well as affirming that salvation is a process that God initiates, but you have to contribute to it in order to make it work.
So, while the language, attitude and posture may have changed, the central issues of the Reformation are still with us. The Reformation is not over. It is a responsibility for every generation – ours included. The gospel was at stake then and the gospel is at stake now.
Maintain our witness
What are we to do then, in response to this? We must maintain gospel standards and witness in our lives. The truth that the Bible is the word of God, and that it stands over every other authority, needs to qualify our witness if we want it to be evangelical, gospel-centred and gospel-focused.
In our century, there are many voices telling us to dilute the gospel and “round off the edges” to make it more palatable. If we do that, we are falling short. When we want to fulfil the missionary tasks of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus throughout the world, we have to proclaim it in a biblical fashion with biblical content. We don’t have the freedom to change it – not unless we want to destroy it.
There are certainly Roman Catholics who have a personal relationship with Christ but, as far as the official doctrine, dogma, teaching of the Church is concerned, the institution rejected the Bible 500 years ago and is still rejecting it in our time. And so, our responsibility is to reach out to our Catholic neighbours with the gospel of Jesus – with the news that salvation is by faith alone.
Of course, with the moral, social and cultural issues of our time we sometimes find Catholics and people of other faith traditions on our side – defending such things as unborn life, the family and important social practices. We have the freedom and responsibility to work together on such issues amid the call to live in peace with one another. But when it comes to the missionary mandate to preach the word to the ends of the world, we must maintain this task faithfully.
The Reformation was a glorious, complex event but it’s still something we have to engage with on an ongoing basis. Will we be ready to rise to this challenge? Or will we shy away from this responsibility and seek the appreciation of men rather than the affirmation of God?
May God grant us the courage to be Protestant – not in the sense of being antagonistic, but to witness in favour of the gospel. This is our task. This is our calling.
Dr Leonardo De Chirico is pastor of the Breccia di Roma church, a Bible college lecturer in institutional theology and vice chairman of the Italian Evangelical Alliance. This is an edited version of a talk he gave at CMS Summer School in Katoomba last week.