Monday, October 23, 2006

The Lasting Significance of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation stands out as one of the most significant events in the history of the church. Its lasting significance can be seen in a number of areas. Some have argued that the Reformation is significant for social welfare, others for church/state relations, and still others for the family. Debates continue to rage over what was the greatest significance of the protests as equally loud as they rage over whether it was modern or medieval in its orientation. The answer for Christians, however, must be found in the reformers recovery of the true gospel and the high Authority of the Bible.

By the 1500s the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church had reached the height of its corruption. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) had been known as the “Great Warrior Pope” and those who preceded and followed him were as equally poor representations of Christ and the apostle Peter. Church tradition was accepted on equal par with Scripture, and, worst of all, salvation could now be bought for a mere couple of coins. The last of these faults, known as the selling of indulgences, was the final straw for an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther. Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg was meant to open dialogue about these issues, not to initiate a breach with the established church, but the Theses received a dramatic response.

As the Theses circulated they drew much support and appreciation. Many had already noted the corruption with the church; good Catholics were organizing reforming measures. Many felt that Luther was more than justified in his criticisms and hoped that they would be taken seriously, among these individuals was the great Humanist Desiderius Erasmus. But as Luther progressed in his theology it soon became apparent that he was going further than many were willing to go. By the time that he began calling the Pope the Anti-Christ it became evident that the church would have to pronounce him a heretic, which they did in the Papal Bull Exsurge Domine (1520).

Luther was not the only theologian calling for sweeping reforms. Prior to him John Wyclife in England and Jan Huss in Bohemia shouted against the corruptions of the church. The great difference between his predecessors and himself was that Luther was not merely attacking methods and habits, but attacking theology. He went to the very heart of the matter. Even by the time of the Diet of Worms (1521) Luther was convinced that his “conscience was captive to the Word of God.” A few years later (1525) Luther published his greatest work The Bondage of the Will, in which he not only laid out his conviction on the supreme authority of the Bible, but a soteriology that depended solely on Christ Jesus and the grace of God for salvation. Here was the “hinge” on which the whole reformation swung: was salvation all of God or could man give Him a hand? Was salvation Monergistic or Synergistic?

At the same time that Luther was drawing these conclusions a Swiss theologian was coming to similar ones. Ulrich Zwingli, in the town of Zurich, was leading a reformation of his own that would soon take the form of the “Reformed” tradition. As his theology developed it began to appear, understandably, in his sermons. The sermons drew the common man quite quickly but struck much of the established ecclesiastics as dangerous. After the First Zurich Disputation (1523) Zwingli was sealed as the voice of Protestantism in Switzerland. At the Second Zurich Disputation (1523) Reform was immanent for the city, and in the following years it was realized with the removal of “images and idols” (1524) and the absolution of the mass (1525).

The Reformations spread widely across Europe from Luther’s Germany and Zwingli’s Zurich. It reached England where it was spread by the likes of theologian and Bible translator William Tyndale, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, who brought significant reforms to England through his power and his Book of Common Prayer. The reformation reached into France as well through the likes of the great second-generation reformer John Calvin.

Calvin was merely passing through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg when he was convicted to stay and lead the church at Geneva through reforms. The Reformation had already been building in this city thanks to the writings of Luther and the work of William Farel, who would eventually become a life-long friend of Calvin. Calvin consistently preached the word in the city and this was the primary means by which he spread reformation teaching. His books and treatises helped to fan the flame, but through consistent weekly preaching of the word he sought to do the most changes to this immediate area. After being expelled from that city (1538), over issues of church discipline, Calvin took up a fruitful ministry in Strasbourg as a pastor, teacher, and writer. He would later return to the city and take up the same practice of preaching the reformation into effect.

His writings were, of course, the most enduring testimony to his reformation work. His Institutes, first printed in 1536 and later revised, is the most formal and thorough organization of Reformation Theology. Luther’s theology has been summarized well in the Five Solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. These were the same doctrines that Calvin, having read Luther, would promote. For Calvin specifically, however, the doctrine of election became a hallmark.

It was not that Luther or Zwingli were any less predestinarian. Rather it is owing to Calvin’s more thorough dealing with the subject that his name came to be the label under which people most often set the doctrine of predestination. For Calvin predestination was an issue of the history of salvation, and was more realized after a person’s conversion than prior to it. When looking back at how sinful you were and where you were at in life it seems only logical to conclude that God chose to save you and not the other way around. Throughout church history this doctrine would be debated and eventually denied by the Catholic Church at large. For the Catholic theologians, sin was not so damaging to human free-will that election was necessary. The doctrine of total depravity, another element to Calvin’s system of theology, was denied by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which came to be accepted authority for the Catholic Church in response to the reformers.

In each of these cities, on the continent and the islands around it, as the Reformation took route it may not have always started with pure motives. Henry VIII was not particularly concerned with changing the theology of the church; he merely saw a way to annul his marriage with Catherine. The result, however, was the recovery of the true gospel. The church had for far too long seen fit to accept a place for works in the salvation of man, but against this doctrine the Reformers unanimously cried “Glory to God Alone.” They may have disagreed on the Eucharist, and on worship, but they agreed on who was responsible for salvation. To be sure there were “radical reformers,” who took to extremes in their re-action to the church. The Anabaptists consist of some solid theologians and plenty of crazy fanatics. But by-and-in-large the Reformers of the 16th century re-affirmed the supreme authority of the word of God, seen most evidently in their use of it in writings and debates, and the salvation of sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The lasting significance of the Reformation is its recovery of the true gospel message.


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