If anyone has been around me for the last year and a half they would have heard me bang on about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This was not just one event but a series of events and movements that came to a head on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses, attacking indulgences, on the Wittenberg Church door. This event, in turn, has had repercussions to this day. I don’t have the space to go through this momentous time in history but I would like to highlight some of its outcomes. (If you are unfamiliar with this historical period it is well worth studying).
One of the frst major outcomes of the Reformation was the return to the centrality of Scripture. This is highlighted in what is known as the “5 Solas” (Sola is Latin for alone):
- Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) : The Bible alone is our highest authority.
- Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
- Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
- Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Saviour, and King.
- Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.
While in hiding from his enemies, Luther went to work translating the Latin Bible into German so that everyone could read it. Wycliffe, and later Tyndale, mirrored this process in England.
This return to reading and studying Scripture had many results:
- One was Christian education. Luther and other reformers like John Calvin disagreed with the medieval idea that “Ignorance is the mother of piety” and set up the beginnings of universal education.
- We see developments in art: the idea that God was Lord of all of life and not simply ruler over that which had previously been seen as religious, saw artists broaden their perspectives to everyday life and landscapes as these also brought glory to God.
- Science, liberated from the judgement and strictures of the medieval church, blossomed.
- Physical labour, rather than being considered second in comparison to spiritual endeavours, had an elevated status leading to what later became known as the “protestant work ethic”. Much of Northern Europe’s success in industry and commerce can be traced back to this period.
But freedom has its drawbacks when disconnected from God and His Word. The constant temptation we face is to make ourselves ‘god’. The period of the “Enlightenment” was a time when mankind began to turn its back on God and His Word. We see many of the results of this thinking in western societies today. Frequently laws, behaviours and attitudes no longer refect a Biblical understanding of life. We live in, what many label, a post-Christian society. For the Christian this can be both frightening and exciting. All past certainties have disappeared yet there is now an opportunity for the church and its people to return to its task of being counter cultural – refecting God’s will and not that of the world. In that environment it is clear that there is a definite role for a partnership between home, church and school to grow and nurture disciples who are equipped to be God’s agents in the world. In a very real sense we are to continue the ideals of the Reformation.
This article was written for the Covenant College newsletter
Being a reader of church history it has been fascinating to observe all the references to the Reformation on our current trip. To name just a few:
- In the centre of Prague is a huge monument to Jan Hus the early reformer
- Then in Konstanz Germany there is a museum to Hus
- In Zurich there are references to Zwingli and a statue
- Luther is mentioned in many places in Germany and has street names and statues in his honour. There is a huge monument to him in Worms
- And of course there is the Reformation Wall in Geneva
- There was even a wall built in St Gallen to separate the abbey from the town because the town had become Protestant.
Yet I have this uneasy sense that these, for most, are just bygone relics of history that sit alongside dead kings and local luminaries.
I raise this because the Reformation was a return to Biblical basics – it was a return to the primacy and inerrancy of Scripture. These are truths that are just as necessary today as they were 600 years ago. The message of these relics needs to be reenlivened (have I made up a word?). It would be a pity if these relics lost their meaning.
A number of books have been written in recent years that suggest that the direction the Christian Church has been going is profoundly warped and dysfunctional. Just take for example:
- Radical by David Platt, which explores how we have shaped the gospel to suit ourselves and suggests, as the title implies, some uncomfortable remedies – uncomfortable for the materialistic, middle class, self-centred Western Christian.
- Exiles by Michael Frost looks at how the church has been marginalised in Western cultures and offers new alternatives at being church.
- There have been a host of books by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis looking at more effective ways of being the body of Christ.
- Vishal Mangalwadi in The Book That made Your World shows how Western cultures influenced by the Bible have made huge strides but also reveals how we in the West have dropped the ball as we allow this heritage to dissipate.
You could probably add to the list. But my point is this: the sheer scale of people writing and thinking about the church at present indicates that all is not well in Western churches. If we add to this a host of other issues such as young people leaving the church, Christians leaving the church but maintaining the faith outside its influence and the ongoing influence of theologies that marginalise Scripture, we can get a sense of the enormity of the problem. And we haven’t time to discuss all the areas of abuse the church has been involved in from paedophilia to scandals surrounding celebrity pastors, which have deeply wounded the voice of the church.
One of the stumbling blocks I see is that although some church leaders clearly recognise this problem their ability to act is limited. There are leaders in most churches who are alarmed by the figures both financial and human but in most cases they are seeking solutions from within the structure of their denomination. The structure is the environment their thinking takes place in. It is the structure, that for a whole host of reasons, from personal vested interests to tradition, that blinkers any genuinely radical Biblical vision. Property, jobs, “empires” and status are all involved in this unholy mix. This is not dissimilar to the conditions in the Roman Church before the C16th Reformation.
And then there is us, we who in the West have succumbed to the attractions of materialism. Our very view of life is shaped from the comfort of our easy chair. We too are part of the problem. Our thinking is shaped and anchored in our immediate self-interest. We too have vested self interests.
So, is it time for a new Reformation? I would genuinely love to hear the views of readers. And if it is, how will we hear God’s voice in the noise of our world? How can our hearts be open to the leading of the Spirit? What steps can we take in faith?
When John Hus, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin and many others sought the reform of the church, their initial intention was not to start a new denomination. In fact, Hus and Wycliffe died in the church in which they were born. The dominant issues they were confronted by, and in turn confronted, revolved around the primacy of the Word, the Papacy, doctrines added by the church, and corruption. Half a millennium later there are some of the old issues but also many new ones as well as old issues dressed in new clothes. The other day I asked if we needed a new reformation. If we do, what would need to be reformed? Here are some thoughts in no particular order except the first:
- I believe there needs to be a return to the understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture. Too many churches and believers now treat the Word of God as a “guide” rather than God speaking to His people. Does that mean there will no disagreements? Not at all. We still need to understand what is said, however, we will begin from a common understanding.
- There may be some churches who, quite rightly, claim that this is their current position. But that leads to a second area of reform. There are some churches that need to stop reading Scripture through the lens of their historical confessions. I am not saying these confessions are unimportant, but a confessional obsession can blind us to Scripture’s intent for this age. A confession is a historical and cultural document ( as well as a religious one) so there are always elements that are out of place or balance with era in which we now live. Some of the anti catholic rhetoric would find new targets in the C21st. Then again, may be the rhetoric was misplaced in the beginning. Many issues the church needs to consider were never contemplated centuries ago. The environment, the nature of mission, social justice and the place of women and children in society are just a few.
- For Western Christians a reformation of values is required. I believe the time has come to confess our addiction to materialism and the C21st lifestyle. Today we are in the world and of the world.
- Another Western blight that needs reforming is our understanding of the family – why are family breakdowns occurring at the same rate as society as a whole?
The Word in Hand
From the time of the Edict of Milan in 313 there has been a steady and unwavering progression of the church from organism to organisation. The Reformation didn’t deal with it but now, more than ever in our disintegrating social fabric, the church needs to reveal the power of community – the body of Christ.
These are a few random thoughts on the need for reform. We, particularly in the West, need to confess our failings, our wandering from God and His Word and humbly seek to start afresh. What do you think?