The Protestant Reformation revisited

31/10/17 is an auspicious day, although I doubt many, including Christians from my own theological stable, will realize it, and quite a few will view what it represents with a degree of embarrassment.

It happens to be the 500th year anniversary to the event that historians often attribute to that which triggered the start of the Protestant Reformation. Given the consequences, some would regard this as perhaps more important than any other event since. It was the day Martin Luther made his “95 Theses” (see here) publicly available, when he nailed these to the door of the church. This is an event I covered in my “Martin Luther – the monk who shook the world” article. Besides attacking the RC church practice, at the time, of selling indulgences whereby, so it was claimed, people may be able to buy their salvation, what Luther wrote was to be articulated in doctrines like those encapsulated in the “Five Solas”.

Luther was one of many who played a part in that reformation movement. Two who preceded and inspired Luther, I have discussed in another article: “John Wycliffe and John Huss”. While the reformers broadly went along with the Five Solas, there were many variants and falling outs between them, and as is a theme throughout church history they often emphasized different things and didn’t always agree. Many were to be persecuted for propagating their views and some would pay the ultimate price: martyrdom. My purpose is not to discuss the events and teachings of the Reformation, all of which is readily accessible in the public domain, but rather to reflect on why the Reformation matters today.

I suspect the reasons for people, who one might expect to celebrate the commencement of the Reformation, not to do so, are many and complex. When discussed the emphasis is often on that which unites rather than divides the church today. One particular concern is not to upset the Roman Catholics, who charitably one might want to have Christian fellowship with. After all, few Catholics today would condone the practice of indulgences, although few would whole heartedly and unreservedly accept the Five Solas. Then again, many Protestants these days would not fully concur either, for liberalism has in many quarters overtaken the certainties preached by the Reformers. Some would caricature the typical Reformation enthusiast as narrow-minded, bigoted and uncharitable when it comes to dealing with Christians outside their small circle or in practically supporting, the poor, marginalized and dispossessed.

As I reflect on what the Reformation might or should mean today, I recognize much has happened in the intervening 500 years and issues we grapple with now, e.g. sexual orientation and sexual identity, the rejection of authority and the tide of unbelief, the Reformers did not have to and vice versa. One only has to look at contentious issues faced among Protestants post-Reformation to see this is the case. Examples include Believers Baptism (ref. the Anabaptists), practical holiness (ref. the Puritans), the Priesthood of all believers and anti-clericalism (ref. the Plymouth Brethren), the work of the Holy Spirit (ref. the Pentecostals) and women’s ministry (ref. most Protestant denominations today). It should be noted the sharp divide between Catholics and Protestants is far less now than in Reformation days. Yet I would I argue the issue of what exactly the Gospel covers remains of paramount importance.

If the Reformers had not been able to push their view to the extent they did, the profound effect that resulted throughout the world as a result of that gospel message being proclaimed, which most of us nowadays take for granted, would not have happened. Instead of benefiting from doctrines like peace with God and assured salvation, and significantly having the scriptures available in our own language and being able to preach them and thus challenge official church teaching, we would instead be beholden to falsehoods and be in bondage. The notion we can do nothing to earn our salvation because it is a gift of God, bound up in Christ being born, dying and rising from the dead, would have been missed. Instead we would be subject to a church that suppresses all opposition to its teaching and subjugates people to error. We will never know for sure what might have happened if there had been no Reformation but one wonders how the state of affairs where the church through its priests etc. controlled all aspects of life might have otherwise changed.

I would argue that what the Reformation achieved is of enormous consequence, even though since it begun the movement for reform has taken many a wrong turn and allowed the opportunity for other ideas, e.g. to do away with religion altogether or introduce new false religions, to take root. It would be an insult to the memory of those who served the cause the Reformation represented, even if it meant them laying down their lives, which is still happening today and to an even greater extent, if we ignored the legacy they left us. But the overriding rationale for celebrating the Reformation is that while the Reformers were limited in their understanding and often got it wrong (Luther’s anti-Semiticism, for example, was more than just regrettable), they did understand the essence of the gospel and were prepared to stand up and be counted when it came to proclaiming and living that same gospel. The challenge for us today is to carry on that legacy and do the same as our forefathers, despite living in a world that has changed considerably in the past 500 years.

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