Sunday is Reformation Day, the 504th anniversary of Luther’s publication of his 95 theses against the sale of indulgences.
In a series of articles on the meaning of the word “evangelical,” the theological professor Gordon-Conwell James Emery White sees the beginnings of this movement in the Reformation. He points out that the reformers shared beliefs about God, Christ, sin, humanity, eternal life, and other basic tenets of Christianity with the Catholic tradition. Drawing on the work of another evangelical scholar, he identifies four differences from this tradition.
By James Emery White, Understanding the first “evangelical” part: the Reformation and the revivals of the 18th century, on Crosswalk.com:
Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, once detailed four major distinctions between reformers and their Catholic heritage that evangelicals continue to share. The first distinction concerned the question of salvation (soteriology). The Catholic tradition asserted that justification comes through a combination of faith and good works. Reformers countered that justification is by faith in Christ alone.
The second point of tension was the issue of religious authority. The Roman Church insisted that religious authority is a sacred institution established by Jesus Christ over Peter and his successors (the Bishops of Rome). The doctrine of the Reformation held that all the truth necessary for faith and behavior can be found in one source: the Bible, the written word of God.
A third area of disagreement was the doctrine of the Church (ecclesiology). Catholic theology at the time of the Reformation held that the true Church is that sacred hierarchical and priestly institution which Jesus Christ founded on Peter, the first pope, and on the apostles, the first bishops. The theology of the Reformers did not understand the true Church as a sacred hierarchy but as a community of faith in which all true believers share the priestly task.
The last major area of division concerned the subject of the Christian life. The monastic way of life was deeply rooted in Catholic practice and thought. The reformers understood the essence of the Christian life as serving God in his calling, whether in secular or ecclesiastical life.
Although evangelicals generally support these points, says Professor White, the genealogy of evangelism runs through the lineage of pietism, with its emphasis on personal piety, and the resulting Wesleyan revivals and American camp meetings of the Great Awakening, which all led to the definitive Gospel distinctive: “an immediate and instantaneous conversion to Christ”.
Professor White takes the conventional view that in the 17th century the Reformation degenerated into an “unyielding spirit of Protestant orthodoxy,” which he calls “relatively lifeless.” Thus, the Pietists gave life to a “dead orthodoxy”.
At first glance, I don’t see how writers’ hymns like Paul Gerhard, Philippe Nicolaï, Johann von rist; the devotional writings of Johann gerhard, who was also the great theologian of the time; and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach could be seen as something less than pious, much less indicative of a “dead” faith.
The Concordia Publishing House has published a collection entitled Lives and writings of the great fathers of the Lutheran Church, which will also disillusion you with this notion.
What these artists and theologians of the Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy did is explore, defend, and apply these four hallmarks of the Reformation.
In any case, these four distinguishing features of the Reformation seem quite valid. This does not give us a complete picture of what the Reformation was. Maybe the solas are better, with Grace alone, conveying the monergic nature of salvation – which God makes all for our salvation – an important facet of the gospel for Lutherans and Calvinists. Then again, the solas say nothing about vocation, a teaching described in two of Mouw’s four distinctive features. But these four certainly don’t explain the Lutheran reform, with his understanding of how the sacraments tie it all together. But all four can describe the broad outlines of Reformation thought, as supported by most early Protestants.
And yet today there are many Protestants, yes, quite a few evangelicals, who believe that salvation is “by a combination of faith and good works” instead of “by faith in Christ alone. “. Mainstream liberal Protestants do not regard the Bible as a true authority, claiming as institutional churches the authority to change Christian doctrines and moral teachings. The last two, the priesthood of all believers and the idea that Christianity should be lived in the ordinary world rather than in monastic separatism, have to do with the doctrine of vocation. This teaching has long been overlooked, but I have tried to bring it back, as in my vocation trilogy.
It would seem that the message of the Reformation – indeed, of Lutheran orthodoxy, to explore, defend and apply this message – is still needed.
Illustration: Luther and the 95 Theses, by Julius Hübner – https://www.flickr.com/photos/magdeburg/8346882305/in/photostream/, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index. php? curid = 48375610