Did the Reformation Destroy the ‘Church?’

Catholics, academics, and some protestants view the Reformation launched by Martin Luther on October 31, 1517 as being a less than helpful historical development. Prior to the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, seemingly one unified Christian church existed. Our Christian friends in the East who assemble under the banner of the Greek Orthodox Church take issue with this Western view of church history. Almost five hundred years before the Reformation, they broke with the Bishop of Rome on July 16, 1054. But the great schism did not destroy the unity of the Western Churches. Luther and the second generation of Reformers deserve the credit or the blame for that development. Baptists have a president, Methodists have bishops, and Presbyterians have presbyters in part because Luther walked off the field and refused to play with the historic and unifying expression of Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church.


Did Luther and Sola Scriptures Destroy the Church?


But is this truly what happened? Did Luther’s quest for a purer church destroy “The Church,” dividing that which God has always intended to be unified?


Those who view the Reformation to be primarily schismatic in nature, point to the most famous line of the Reformation. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, the representative of Pope Leo X demanded that Luther recant of his errors and his teaching. His errors included such things as Thesis 36 which stated, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” Luther asked for an adjournment of the meeting to form his response. When he returned to the hall the following day, he replied:


I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

Here I Stand

Protestants champion Luther’s statement because it encapsulates the idea of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Instead of looking to Rome for truth, protestants can scan the Bible and discern God’s truth through plain reason. Luther had shifted the authority of the church from the Pope’s throne to the pew. Protestants rejoiced.

Christendom quaked. The democratization of the church’s authority threatened to destroy all authoritative claims. Any man or woman with access to the Bible could reason himself or herself to a variety of doctrines that may have no relation to the doctrines proposed by other Christians. Essentially Luther and the Reformers who followed the pugnacious monk had turned theology into a subjective experience that seemingly undermined the idea of truth, leaving no place for cultural much less spiritual unity. Interpretive anarchy reigned.


What Did Luther Really Do?

Though Luther and those in the Reformed camp turned the world upside down, they were not seeking to create a new church, modeling a theological paradigm of unending evolution and progress. The Reformers were inherently theological conservationists who wished to lead the Church back to the historic, apostolic faith. Luther had said his 95 Theses aligned, “with what is in the Holy Scriptures…and then what is in…the writings of the church fathers.”

Luther had not advocated for theological anarchy. He and those who followed him believed that the Holy Spirit that had inspired the New Testament text, converted the lost and sustained the church as the caretaker and protector of the evangelical witness. Christians were free to interpret the text according to their own conscience as long as that conscience aligned with the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic church that affirmed the apostolic witness. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer correctly noted that for the Reformers, “Tradition was not the Word of God; it is the testimony to that Word.” Luther took issue with the Pope not because the Vatican championed tradition. He took issue with Rome because it advocated for theological positions that ran counter to the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic apostolic faith. Vanhoozer helpfully describes what Luther did, writing,

Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the body’s infection (e.g. late medieval Roman Catholicism).

Luther had not protested the authoritative nature of apostolic tradition as taught in the Scriptures. He protested against the commands of the Pope because the Pontiff, “distorts the Holy Scriptures.” He was not an theological anarchist. He was theological purest, Sola Scriptura.

Why Is the Church Fractured?

The church lacks unity not because the reformers protested the authority of Rome but because men and women of every age refuse to acknowledge the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition of the Church as Rome has done. The ancient church father Irenaeus whom Luther knew well described schismatics as follows:

When we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they [the schismatics] object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.

The unity of the church fractures when men and women walk away from the apostolic witness of the Scriptures preferring new sources of authority ranging from prophetic dreams, to religious traditions, to personal feelings. Regardless of their claims, the new traditions always produce schism.

Luther did not infect the church with schism. He reintroduced the church to the cure for division, the gospel once delivered for all and attested to be all true believers. May we be wise stewards of the cure.

Sola Scriptura

scripture-aloneThis post was taken from my talk on Sola Scriptura delivered during FBCE’s Reformation Focus on October 29,2107

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may, God help me, Amen.

With these words,  Luther shattered his connection to the Catholic Church, by proclaiming the Scriptures to be the final authority. Pope Leo X and his advisers believed that the Bible was the inherent Word of God. Luther’s battle was not akin to the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention that fought to reestablish the belief that the Bible was the Word of God and was without error. Both the Luther and the Pope affirmed the inerrant nature of the Scriptures.

Luther and the Pope butted heads on the doctrine of the sufficiency and authority of the Bible. The Pope and the cardinals believed that they could and should add commands and ideas to the Scriptures because as Bishop Stephen Gardiner said, “The Scripture is dead: it must have a living expositor.” Infamously, Pope Leo X expanded upon the Scriptures by creating Indulgences to pay for the completion of St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Indulgences were little pieces of paper that transferred merit from Christ and the saints to the sinner upon payment to the church. As the evil monk Tetlsel sang, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs.” The Catholic Church was selling salvation on the authority of the Pope and on the authority of church counsels.

authorityLuther objected vehemently to the sale of indulgences, knowing that salvation comes through faith alone,  by grace alone, through Christ alone for the glory of God alone.  The Catholic Church responded to Luther’s 95 Theses and other writings by calling the German Bull to repent of his errors and to affirm the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church.

Luther refused. He was, “bound by the Scriptures.” The church was not Luther’s authority. The Pope was not Luther’s authority. Pragmatism or the belief that what works is right was not Luther’s authority. The culture was not Luther’s authority. Right and wrong were not determined by the societal acceptance of a practice. Rather, Luther’s authority was the Bible.

The Biblical Case For Luther’s Belief

Luther made the Scriptures his authority because the Scriptures, the Word of God, claim to be the exclusive access to the voice of God. In I Timothy 3:16-18, the Bible claims to have been breathed out by God or exhaled from his mouth. The text in our hands and that shines on our phones is not simply the religious musings of some deep thinkers, it is not the divine inclinations of a few wise men and women, and it is not the suggestions of the spiritual astute. The Bible, is the Word of God. It is the essence of God.

2 Peter 2:16-21 reveals this truth clearly. The text states:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son,[i] with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The Bible, the words of Peter, Paul, Matthew, Mark, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, and the many other writers, contains the words of God. And the words that compose the Scriptures were not written in a dark room somewhere. No, these words reflect reality. Peter is recording the teachings and the events he saw and heard. He says in verse 16, “we were eyewitness.”

What was Peter an eyewitness too?

He tells us. He is talking about his experience on the mount of transfiguration. In Mark 9:1:-8, Luke 9:28-36; Matthew 17:1-8, we are told that  Jesus, Peter, James and John go up on a mountain. Jesus is transfigured. The three disciples see Jesus’ glory and listen to Jesus talk with Moses and Elijah. Then they hear as Peter recounts in verse 17 these words, “This is my beloved Son,[i] with whom I am well pleased.” They hear the voice of God the Father.

But as amazing and as grand as those words were and that experience was, Peter is affirming that you and have I something better. He says in verse 19:

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts

Peter affirms the prophetic word. He says that text in front of us is more sure and more helpful for our everyday lives than his experience on the mount of transfiguration. Chew on that for a minute. Peter is affirming

kiwihug-284614that the Bible is better and more helpful than being with Jesus briefly on the mountain top. God’s word is far better than any experience we may have in the woods as the sun rises. God’s word is far more helpful than any experience we can create by praying ourselves into an emotional tizzy. God word is far more excellent than any private prophecy or premonition. If we want to hear the voice of God and to know what God is saying to us,  we must read the Bible.

Peter tells to respond reality of the Bible’s authority by reminding us that we will “do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” Borrowing the language of Psalm 119, Peter tells his readers that only God’s Word can guide them to light, truth, and joy. Only God’s word can show how us how live, how to worship, and how to overcome sin. God’s Word is inerrant and it is authoritative and all we need.  All of Scripture and not just the red letters is the words of our God.

And all of Scripture is the words of Christ.

John 14:25 promises:

25 “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

Everything the disciples wrote down came from the Holy Spirit who was sent by the Father to bear witness to Jesus. The Bible is the Word that the Father ordains us to have through the Spirit, attesting to Jesus. We do not have to reach outside the Bible’s pages for a special word from the Lord. Because God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit work together in perfect unity and unison, they will not give us competing words or visions from sources other than the Bible. No member of the trinity will go against the over members and send a rogue message out here or there. And if we hear a word outside of Scripture, we have not heard the voice of God. We have tapped into demonic darkness. To know God’s will, to hear God’s voice, we must tune our hearts to the Scriptures.

Until Christ returns, until the morning light breaks into the darkness of this world and Christ once again reigns on high above all earth, the Scriptures are fully sufficient for all we need in life and Godliness. As Luther would note,

Scripture alone is the true Lord and master of all writings and doctrines on earth.

Luther can make this bold declaration because in verse 21, we read these words,

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The apostles did not put down their own ideas. They did not write down their agenda and push their political aspirations as the writer Dan Brown asserted in the Divinchi Code. No, writers of the Bible recorded verifiable facts. wrote down the words of God.

Remember verse 16. Peter tells us that he was an eyewitness. The apostle John makes the same claim in I John 1:1:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.

And in Luke 1:1-4 we read,

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

And in Matthew 5:17-19 Jesus famously asserts the authority and sufficiency of Scripture noting

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

As Luther would reflect,

The saints could err in their writing and sin in their lives, but the Scriptures cannot err.

Luther and the reformers made the Bible their authority because it is the definitive and complete Word of God. Sola Scripture; Scripture alone.

Reflections For Today

As I conclude this section, I want to reflect on how this doctrine of Sola Scripture should shape our church. As Dr. Albert Mohler the President of Southern Seminary said,

The true churches of the Reformation understood that the right call was for a church always reformed by the Word of God.

As men and women affirming the doctrines of the Reformation, the biblical idea that Salvation is through Christ alone, by Grace alone, through faith alone, for the glory of God alone, upon the authority of the Scriptures alone, we should continually examine our lives and the lives of our church for the purpose of reforming our hearts and church. to reflect the Scriptures.

I wish to close by posing to questions to help us apply the truths of Scripture alone to our hearts.

1. Do we value the Word in our church? Does the children’s ministry revolve around the teaching and preaching of the Word or is the ministry driven and directed by games and personal opinions?

Do the songs that we sing reflect our music preferences or do they reflect the gospel as revealed in the Word?

Do the sermons we hear drive us to the text? Or can we quickly close our Bibles once the pastor starts preaching? Do we regularly hear our pastors, guest preachers, and Sunday school teachers saying, “See what the text says, look at that verse, see what the word says,” or do the preachers simply tell stories and reflect on their own impressions? John Blanchard said,  “The pulpit is the throne for the Word of God”

Word prominently displayed on our throne? Do we value the word in worship?

2. Second do we value the word in our daily life? Do we truly think that the Words of eternal life are found in the Scriptures? Where do we go first when we encounter trials, tough decisions, and sickness, hardships, and unpleasant experiences? Do we run to our friends? Do we run to the psychologists and the Christian therapist for some extra biblical advice? Where do we go?

Luther noted,

A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.

Several hundred years later Dietrich Bonhoeffer restated Luther’s sentiment, saying,

The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus.

God’s word claims to contain all that we need for life and godliness (2 Tim 3:16-18). Luther said that God is light and that “all else being darkness.” Do we look to the light when seeking to navigate our lives or do we embrace the darkness that parades about as the world’s wisdom? Do we value the word in our life?

The reformation began in 1517. But it has not ended. May we continue by God’s grace to cotinually reform our churches and our souls to reflect the truth of the Scriptures. Sola Scripture. Scripture alone.

Review: Church History ABCs and Reformation History ABCs

AbC-church-historyMany of us do have no clue about our spiritual family history. Sure, some of us might remember the day our church first began or we might have photos of 51lCHRNwI7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_the people who lead us to Christ. However, when we start to dig a little deeper into our family history looking at how the gospel made it from the New Testament era to the 21st century, we do not know where to begin. We struggle to recall who Augustine is, why Martin Luther is so valuable, and what William Tyndale did. Unfortunately, there is no ‘Church Ancestry.com, to help us reengage the men and women who propelled the gospel into the modern era.

Thankfully with the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation only a few months away, two great new children’s books, The Church History ABCs and Reformation ABCs, have been published by Crossway to help us grasp our spiritual lineage. These two books written by Stephen J. Nichols, President of Reformation Bible College, and illustrated by Ned Bustard delve into the complexity of church history with the ease and simplicity of children’s story. Both kids and adults will find these resources engaging, interesting, and inspiring.

augustine-1As we read through the Church History ABCs,  we will encounter everyone from Augustine to Ulrich Zwingli. We will encounter small stories written in the first person that talk about the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, the books of John Foxe, and the about the martyrdom of Nicholas Ridley. As we work through the book’s 34 pages, we will gain a better appreciation for all the suffering and sacrifices that the former saints endured so that we could follow Christ. And if we want to gain a little fuller understand of the who the saints mentioned are and of what the colorful illustrations that accompany the words mean, we can flip to the back of the book and read a short summary of their lives.

9781433552823The Reformation ABCs is also a great book. Most of the pages focus on the men and women of the reformation, recounting the contributions of John Knox and many other. Other pages discuss Queen Elizabeth and how she persecuted the puritans, Westminster Abby and how it was the hub of conservative theology under Cromwell, and the 16th century and how the reformation even touched Michelangelo. The book gives the reader a great overview of all the key players, cities, and events that shaped the reformation.

If you have an interest in church history, have heard a lot about the reformations this year and want to know more, or simply want to gain a fuller understand of what it means to follow Christ, I encourage you to grab a copy of these books. They are easy to read, colorfully illustrated and full of great information. For example, did you know that the Scottish flag has an ‘X’ on it because the apostle Andrew was supposedly crucified in the X position? If you are like me and did not know this fact, then you are also probably like me and would find both the Church History ABCs and the Reformation ABCs informative and helpful. 

Oh and yes, your kids will like them too!