Retrieving the spirit of the Reformation....
By J. Matthew Pinson
Last year, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which began October 1517. As we turn our attention to the next 500 years of church history, the temptation is to treat that distant event and the gospel-animated movement it spawned as ancient history, irrelevant to what it means to help churches grow in our environment of religious pluralism, consumerism, and amusement.
Yet we evangelical Protestants need, more than ever, to recover the spirit of the Reformation. As Timothy George often reminds us, we need to engage in “renewal through retrieval.” A retrieval of the gospel essence that stirred Reformation fires half a millennium ago will enliven and renew the church today. In short, we need, as David F. Wells has reminded us, “the courage to be Protestant.”
The spirit of the Reformation is encapsulated in the Latin phrase ad fontes! Emerging from the Northern Renaissance, with its desire to recover not only classical realism in the arts but also long-forgotten classical texts from the original Greek and Latin, the Reformation sought to go ad fontes, back to the fountains, back to the sources. Their sources were the Bible in its original languages and the Greek and Latin church fathers.
This ad fontes work caused the Reformers to see a stark contrast between the beauty of the primitive church and what medieval Catholic faith had become. This contrast compelled them to reform the church, retrieving the richness of biblical faith eclipsed during the Middle Ages.
In advancing this ancient-future vision of the gospel and the church, five emphases came to be associated with the Reformers, the five “solas”: sola scriptura (scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), and soli deo gloria (to God alone be the glory). A return to these riches of the Reformation can breathe new life into a North American church that, like the Church of Rome in late medieval times, has become captive to the spirit of the age.
Against the medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers preached the sufficiency of Scripture. This meant the church could not bind the consciences of God’s people with doctrines and practices not warranted in Scripture, the only sufficient rule for the Church’s faith and practice.
The Reformers saw the Church as having a special “DNA” of the Spirit and the gospel different from other organizations. When humans add to the faith and practice of the Church revealed in Holy Scripture, they inject what Harry Reeder calls “cultural steroids” into the church. These “steroids” initially seem to bring health but eventually produce weakness and death.
The Roman Church had invented so many new doctrines and practices not warranted in Scripture that it eventually drifted into something completely different from apostolic Christianity.
Yet the Reformers’ emphasis on sola scriptura did not mean they ignored the Christian tradition, as some evangelicals are tempted to do today. The Reformers’ whole point was to hearken back to a biblically faithful tradition in the apostles and the church fathers they believed had been eclipsed for hundreds of years. Yet their views on sola scriptura led them to reject that official church teaching is just as authoritative as the doctrine and practice of Holy Scripture.
Salvation by Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone, in Christ Alone
Another hallmark of the Reformers was salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. When they went back to the sources and compared late medieval teaching with the New Testament and early Christianity, they saw a contrast between works-righteousness or merit theology in medieval scholastic theology and the emphasis on grace and faith in the New Testament.
So they taught salvation doesn’t come by a mixture of God’s grace and man’s yearning for God, or a mixture of faith and works/merit. Instead, they said, God’s grace is the only thing that can enable totally depraved, spiritually dead people to see their need of Christ, who alone provides the remedy for sin.
This realization reoriented the Reformers’ doctrine of justification. For them, the righteousness of Christ imputed to the sinner who has faith in Christ, is the only thing that can make a sinner righteous in God’s estimation. Imputed righteousness, not inherent or infused righteousness, was the essence of the Reformers’ doctrine of justification.
The emphasis on salvation by Christ alone also meant Christ was the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). It put an axe to the Roman Catholic penitential system of confession to a priest who granted absolution (forgiveness) and the believer’s penance. Christ alone is our mediator and high priest, and we as believers are a royal priesthood and holy nation.
To God Alone Be the Glory
The final sola is soli deo Gloria—to God alone be the glory. Luther taught the “theology of the Cross.” He described late medieval Roman Catholic theology as a “theology of glory.” Instead of pomp and splendor, we are called to the humility and plainness of the Cross.
In the theology of glory, the medieval scholastic theologians aimed to see the face of God. In the cross, Luther averred, we see “God’s backside.” We see humility. We see God humbling himself to death for the people He loves.
This mentality calls us to deflect all glory away from ourselves and toward God in our faith and in the life of the Church. The Reformed (Zwingli, Calvin) and Anabaptist (Hubmaier, Simons) wings of the Reformation took this idea even further, seeking to cut away all vestiges of the theology of glory—all the ways that the Church, in its worship and service and practices, sought to glorify man and not God.
Renewal Through Retrieval
Retrieving the spirit of the Reformation, with its five solas, can do so much to help evangelical churches bear witness to Christ in our increasingly fragmented age. Going ad fontes, back to the scripturally rich sources of our Reformation past, can help bring the renewal we desperately need in this era when we seem so bent on making Christianity palatable to its cultured despisers.
This will mean a fresh vision of how the apostolic doctrines and practices of Scripture shape the way we live out the gospel of the Kingdom in the week-in, week-out practices of the church. (For more, read Jonathan Leeman’s wonderful book Word Centered Church). It will mean a move away from legalism, self-help, prosperity, and human-centered spirituality and worship toward the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It will take the focus from us—our own glory and the ways we can attract people to Christianity through human glory and self-gratification—and put our focus back on the Cross.
This sort of scriptural renewal through retrieval, this sort of ad fontes, is what made the Reformation happen and changed the world. It’s the same sort of renewal that can bring fresh, God-centered, Word-driven, gospel-focused energy back into evangelical churches as they bear faithful witness to the gospel of the Kingdom.
About the Writer: J. Matthew Pinson is president of Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee.