The precursory question: Does error still have influence?
by Peter Benyola
On Oct. 31, 1517, a Roman Catholic monk nailed his 95 Theses to the door at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther’s small act of protest was the tipping point for a cauldron that already had been brewing for generations. We still commemorate the seminal event of the Protestant Reformation, whose true star is not Martin Luther, but the Word of God. Luther acknowledged this in Thesis Number 62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” The essence of Reformation is return to biblical truth.
Why do we observe Reformation Day? Does it matter anymore? Is the Protestant Reformation passé and no longer relevant for Christians? This may be quickly answered with an easier question: Are people still misled by error — any departure from God’s revealed truth?
We all must acknowledge that we have errors. None of us have a perfect theology, a perfect understanding of all things. Even Luther’s 95 Theses, which were a big step in the right direction, were not biblically spot-on at every point. Luther’s early predecessor, Augustine of Hippo remarked somewhere that even the greatest theologians are right only about 80 percent of the time and wrong, somewhere, the rest of the time.
The only true and perfect theology is the theology of God, that is, the knowledge that God has about Himself, for Himself, within Himself in three Persons. There is no error with God because He is perfect in righteousness, wisdom and omniscience In real space and time, He has graciously, progressively, and terminally siphoned part of this knowledge of Himself to His creation.
It was John Calvin who wrote the maxim often cited by those Reformed, finitum non capax infinitum — the finite cannot contain the infinite. So great and majestic are the counsels and depths of God’s infinite understanding, that finite vessels cannot fathom them. It was our own sin that estranged us from full fellowship with God, and the blood of Christ can cover even the imperfect theology of the most precise, Type-A personality. Though I can’t perfectly understand the counsel of God, I strive for accuracy in what I believe. Hopefully the errors in my thinking are secondary and few. If I knew my errors, I would correct or at least attenuate as best I can in the areas where I err. If you think I am in error, I hope you’d care enough to tell me, so we can investigate the Scriptures together and I can make adjustments in my thinking if necessary. It’s a good thing that our legal standing before God does not depend on having flawless theology, otherwise we’d be cooked. I’ve accepted that the mysteries and paradoxes of God’s Word are integral to His call that we place our full trust in Him not only as our Savior, but as our Creator, Counselor, Author and Finisher of our faith.
Though we all have errors, it is important that our errors not touch the core of the gospel. There are non-negotiables in the Christian faith. Speaking of legal standing, the matter of exactly how a person stands blameless before the judgment bar of God was at the core of the Protestant Reformation. The 19th-century Swiss-born and German-educated Protestant theologian, Philip Schaffer, as early as 1845 in his book The Principle of Protestantism, identified and delineated two basic categories, the formal cause and the material cause of theology. The “material cause” of the Reformation was justification, or how a sinner becomes right with God; but the “formal cause,” or the underlying issue, was the matter of authority — specifically, the authority of Scripture alone, versus the blended authority of Scripture and church tradition.