Reformed, and in need of Reformation
Reflections on the legacy of the Protestant Reformation 500 years on...
This week marks the 500th anniversary of what most people would label the start of the Protestant Reformation. Most people who have grown up in a Christian community of some sort will know about the infamous act of Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral on October 31, 1517.
The precipitating causes of the Reformation began centuries before the date that many Christians are celebrating today. Luther was not the originator of his complaints, but simply the person to articulate them in a way and at a time that history was ready to finally hear them and act upon them. Luther was an Augustinian Monk and a Doctor of Theology and in the course of his life he became frustrated with what he understood as doctrines and practices of the Church that had departed from what the historic, apostolic faith taught.
Particularly, three perceived errors in doctrine stood out as major sticking points for Luther, and these three big ideas became the basis of his famous ninety-five theses. Luther’s first objection was a priesthood that acted as mediator between people and God, which suggested that direct communication people and God was impossible. The second was the establishment of a seat of authority (the Pope) who could control the entire Church without question. His third main objection (and the focus of what I want to talk about today) related to the notion of salvation through penitent works and charitable acts, rather than by faith alone.
From that last objection, we get the milieu that gave birth to two of the big three “solas” of the reformation: sola gratia (by grace alone) and sola fides (by faith alone). Sola gratia declares to the church that our salvation is not based on merit but by grace, and therefore it is not what we DO that ensures salvation but what God does for us. There are no Christians who are more qualified for salvation because of their actions, but only Christians who rely on the perfect obedience of Christ. Whereas sola fides affirms that God responds to faith as the primary litmus test for whom he distributes that free grace too. Believe in Jesus (we have said) and receive his blessings.
Now the reformation was more significant than these two things themselves and even these issues are more complex than the treatment I am giving them here, but at their core I think that these (along with sola scriptura - by scripture alone - which is bigger than I can touch in this blog) constitute the lasting legacy of Luther’s revolution.
In many ways, after Luther lit the fuse on the reformation, it took on a life of its own. A life that has historical roots in western European renaissance geo-politics as much as it did theology. And Luther’s initial hope of reforming the Roman Catholic church was lost with his excommunication and the eventual creation of the Protestant Church (and then shortly thereafter the protestant churches). The Roman Catholics did respond with their own counter reformation following the Council of Trent but in some instances this only served as an opportunity to double-down on the practices that the Protestants were objecting to. Life after 1517 was very different as the schismatic nature of Protestantism would take hold and spread like a wildfire throughout Christendom.
For one, the rallying cry of sola scriptura led to everyone affirming the primacy of the scriptures and then arguing instead over what it meant. With no central authoritative interpretation the church shattered into countless movements with different opinions of what sola scriptura mandated they believe, practice, or do. That was almost instantaneous. but what took longer to bear fruit were the long-term implications of sola gratia and sola fides - especially when inter-bred with enlightenment and post enlightenment philosophy in Western Europe and North America.
So, what is wrong with grace and faith? Nothing. As a protestant evangelical myself I am not only obligated, but motivated to affirm the solas of the reformation. Scripture, so far as I understand it, is clear that it is by faith in Christ’s sacrifice that we find ourselves counted among the people of God. And that the work of Christ on the cross, and the way in which we appropriate that work through justification is an unmerited act of grace by God toward an unworthy and irredeemable humanity. At its heart, the reformation was a noble pursuit of correcting things that had drifted over the nearly 1500-year history of Christianity. But what I am arguing here is that the early reformers could not have foreseen the way those ideas would morph and shift and take on a life of their own in the centuries that followed and how we have ridden their wave of correction on the pendulum of theology from one end, right past the centre and all the way to the other extreme.
For example: Luther was concerned with a church that had inserted itself into the role of mediator between God and humanity; cutting off the direct access that we have to the throne room of heaven through our great high priest, the risen and ascended Christ (just read the book of Hebrews for more on that). And so, he taught that we didn’t need to make confessions to a priest, or receive absolution from a priest for forgiveness. He taught that we didn’t need to do church mandated penance, or spend money on indulgences for God’s grace to be poured out upon us. These are good things. But we have taken that idea and run it to the absurd limits of its possibilities and have now made the opposite error of cutting the church completely out of the equation altogether! Church attendance is plummeted in recent decades. Not only among the general population, but specifically among those who claim to be Christians! More recent statistics tell us that people who self-identify as “regular” church attenders are those who, on average, attend church on less than half of the Sundays in any given year! People have decided that following Jesus doesn’t require regular fellowship with a worshipping community of faith at all. That instead the very private and direct relationship that they have with Jesus is enough to sustain and nurture them in the community-shaped vacuum of contemporary individualist philosophy – something that I’m sure would have would make Luther and his fellow reformers roll over in their graves!
And it’s more than just the issue of an unmediated relationship with Christ - we have also embraced the idea that Christianity is an intellectual position that we are called to hold more than it is a lifestyle that we are called to live! Sola fides, the idea that the only thing that matters as far as receiving the grace of God is to believe in what Christ did, is theologically true, but it is pragmatically problematic. It may not have been so in the days of the reformation where the compulsion to live in a Christian way was reinforced by other cultural pressures, but in today’s post-Christian culture it is frequently used as justification for all types of contradictory behaviour by professing “believers” in the faith. Again, Luther was working at correcting the abuses of a church that had grabbed power that it shouldn’t have had, and the internalization of salvation was an important shift toward freeing people from that sort of tyranny. But today we suffer under a new sort of tyranny; the tyranny of the self. We suffer from enslavement to, and worship of, our own sinful desires and activities. In other words: in our attempts to make religion a deeply-held internal disposition, what we have actually succeeded in doing is making more external and arms-length than ever.
We are taught in Protestant churches that the reformation did away with the legalism of Roman Catholicism and ushered in a new (or old - depending on how you look at it) expression of faith that was unencumbered by that sort of control, leading us to glorious freedom to choose Christ no matter what we had done, and how we had been broken. This was (and still is) a much-needed message of hope, in many ways this is the heart of the Gospel, but in light of the way these ideas have been coopted and twisted by mainstream western Christianity (and not just fringe groups, but mainstream Protestantism) we need to ask honestly, is the new legalism more destructive than the old legalism? The new legalism teaches that above all you have to believe the right things. That you need to give intellectual assent to a set of doctrines and statements that affirm a certain worldview and understanding of God, but it doesn’t ask you to actually live in congruence with those beliefs.
In the old legalism, you could at least have hope that by repeatedly doing the right thing for fear of an angry God that you would be molded into a good person. What hope do we have today? The evidence is in, and we are hopelessly lost. We compartmentalize faith and an external part of our life and hold it at arm’s length from anything that actually shapes our behaviour. We have abandoned the fellowship that calls us back toward the centre and made belief in Jesus an issue of intellectual or epistemological assent rather than a path of discipleship and obedience. The result being of course that we are a more informed people, but not a more Christian people.
And so, as a result of these solas being taking to the extreme we have become less Christian than ever. Not simply through the creeping secularization of culture, but even more so through the church forsaking what it has historically meant to be Christian. In many ways, it could be said that 500 years on, that the reformation has run its course and we are due for a new reformation in the church. One that swings the pendulum back toward the things we left behind half a millennium ago with the aim of finding centre again. This is what we are trying to do in our own small ways at The Bridge Church. Are we ready for that? I hope so. Because one thing that hasn’t changed in 500 years is that the world still needs the
Church. What is it going to take for us to become that Church again?