The precursory question: Does error still have influence?
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.
In respect to the historical Reformation: It was over these two articles of justification — and its implications on the true meaning of imputation — and of Scripture that Christendom was fractured. The Reformers stated their positions to Rome in various writings and confessions of faith, and Rome eventually responded with the Seventh Session of the Council of Trent in 1547. During these sessions, Rome crystallized what formerly were its tacitly accepted positions on justification and authority — also officially repudiating Protestant doctrine. During these official declarations, Rome made a strident separation from Protestant Christians. Many present-day Roman Catholics and Christians say that we have overcome these issues and now can stand together as being of the same faith. From a doctrinal standpoint, this position is untenable, because the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1995 (CCC Sections 80-82) affirms Rome’s positions as stated in the Council of Trent, various papal encyclicals and other conciliar statements. The pope, for all his public altruism, compassion and attempts at ecumenism, nonetheless adheres to the Council of Trent and the statements that condemn the principles of the Protestant Reformation.
In other words, the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches still have a lot to discuss before we can — at least institutionally — all sit cross-legged around the fire pit singing Kumbaya.
I’ll digress to make another illustration. The Latin phrase post tenebras lux means “after darkness, light” and became the motto of the Protestant Reformation. The idea of “after darkness, light” could be said to resemble the idea put forth by 19th-century Restorationism, specifically, Mormonism, that the church of Jesus Christ fell into apostasy several centuries after the New Testament church was established, which was followed by a Restoration in A.D. 1830 — hence the theory of “Apostasy and Restoration.” No Protestant will deny that the Roman church fell into apostasy; but what we will vehemently deny is that this was to the extent that the gospel was thoroughly corrupted from the Bible and from the face of the earth, a notion that defies the promises of God (cf. Matthew 28:20, John 10:35, Revelation 14:6). Furthermore, Restorationism would have us believe that not only was God’s Word corrupted, but that additional inscripturated revelation — the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine & Covenants, etc. — and an appointment of new prophets was necessary to bring about this so-called “Restoration.”
There is a major distinction to be made here. During the Reformation, the Reformers acknowledged that they were not teaching anything new, but were merely recovering and teaching renewed fidelity to old truth that was preserved throughout time in Scripture (II Peter 1:19-21). “After darkness, light” was realized in the expression of truth as found in the Bible alone. Nineteenth-century Restorationism co-opted this principle of “truth recovery” in order to introduce new strains of error.
All this is to contend that after almost 500 years, far from being “irrelevant,” the historical Reformation principally is not even over yet.
In terms of modern Reformation: We don’t need outside forces to be susceptible to error — we’re capable of misleading ourselves without help from anyone else. As long as error exists and has influence, “reformation” will be relevant for God’s people. Many Protestants today still use the word “Reformed” to identify with the tradition of historical Protestant faith and practice. But the term bears more significance and more fundamental roots than that. Christ’s church as a body is called to be continually reformed (Ephesians 5:26-27), just as the body’s individual members are called to be continually reformed (Romans 12:2). The fact is, no living person is fully “Reformed” no matter what communion he belongs to — true church, cult system, or apostate church — and the only standard by which to measure how “Reformed” we are is the Ultimate Standard: Christ himself (II Corinthians 10:12, Philippians 3:14). Like the burning bush that miraculously maintained in the midst of Moses (Exodus 3), God’s people are perpetually refined in His fiery presence, yet never consumed.
Sola gratia, sola fide, solus christus, sola scriptura, soli deo gloria — salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone — is just as pertinent now as it was when it encapsulated the Protestant Reformation. This formula is crucial — literally, the crux — for the newest convert as well as the most seasoned saint. In 1674, during the Dutch Second Reformation, Jodocus van Lodenstein probably coined the phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda — “the church reformed and always reforming.” Some time later, the phrase secundum verbum dei, “according to the Word of God,” was appended to make the statement more clear. The final phrase is, “The church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” Throughout the ages, God’s people continue to be re-oriented to these basic truths, because the gospel that saved us is the same gospel that must preserve us until the end.
According to statistical research published in 2014 by Ligonier Ministries, evangelical Christians lack solidarity on some fundamental aspects of the Christian faith, such as the presence of sin in humanity, the existence of heaven and hell, and pluralism. Review the research summary and detailed report at www.ligonier.org/thestateoftheology.
“It’s easy for us to get stuck in the 16th century and celebrate the Reformation,” the Rev. Burk Parsons remarked on Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, while teaching at St. Andrew’s Chapel. “But we must remember that the Reformation itself is a celebration of nothing other than the gospel of grace that saved us … the 16th century should only serve to point us to the 1st century … If we were to in our own strength confide, our striving would indeed be losing. We have the right man on our side. Bend your knee to Christ, for He is your only right standing before God.”
Elsewhere, Parsons has written, “At the time of the Reformation, the word sola became a necessary qualifier in order to guard the simple truths that Scripture is our only infallible authority for faith and life, and that we are justified, or declared righteous, by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, and all for the glory of God alone. And, make no mistake, we are not justified by believing the solas but by believing in Christ, and we guard these solas not merely for the sake of an event that took place five hundred years ago in Europe, but for the sake of the event that took place two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem.” (Tabletalk, Nov. 2012, pg. 2)
It seems more popular in Christian circles to speak of, pray and hope for “revival.” We don’t often hear of people wanting reformation in the same way. But those who are born again already have “revival” in the most important sense — God has condescended to give us new hearts, breathed new life into us by the Holy Spirit, caused us to trust in Christ alone for salvation, and continued to strengthen us by his Spirit (John 3:1-8, Ephesians 2:4-5, 3:16, Titus 3:4-7).
On “revival” in the sense of reformation, Steven Lawson writes, “(Revival) means a restoring back to fullness of life that which has become stagnant or dormant. It is a rekindling of spiritual life in individual believers and churches which have fallen into sluggish times. True revival always returns God’s people to a fresh and vivid emphasis on the holiness and righteousness of God, his judgment on sin, true repentance, and the overflowing effect of personal conversions to Christ … Any period of revival has always been preceded by a dramatic return to the Word of God.” (Steven J. Lawson, Holman Old Testament Commentary: Psalms 76-250. 2006).
Charles Spurgeon said, “Every generation needs regeneration.” We have revival. What we need, what we have and what God has promised is Reformation.