On the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, we find that this movement, which cataclysmically disrupted and eventually divided Western Christendom, is still not without its critics. Brad Gregory attributes the rise and triumph of secularism in the West to the Reformers’ rejection of the authority and piety of an otherwise unified medieval church.1 Mark Noll argues that the Reformation was no longer necessary due to the increasingly friendly relationships between Protestants (especially Evangelicals) and Roman Catholics.2 The ongoing ecumenical dialogues between the two groups, as well as increased cooperation between Protestants and Catholics in the last half century in a host of endeavors, would seem to justify these assessments. Moreover, we might even question the seemingly undue attention present-day Christians are giving to the Reformation in a society which arguably is post-modern and post-Christian. After all, the world of sixteenth-century Europe functioned at least theoretically according to the concept of “Christendom”, or the “Christian Commonwealth”, as the governing social paradigm. However, two reasons continue to suggest the relevance of the Reformation in the twenty-first century.
First, the Reformation reminds the Church of its ever-present need to continue defining its doctrine and practice according to Scripture as its final authority. The supremacy of Scriptural authority is foundational to Reformation theology. Theologians such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin strongly maintained such doctrines as justification by grace through faith alone: firstly, because they believed these dogmas to be affirmed by Scripture. Luther writes, “We conclude with Paul, that we are justified by faith in Christ, without the Law.”3 In a similar vein, Elizabethan Protestant apologist John Jewel eloquently declared “the canonical Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament”, to be “the heavenly voices whereby God hath opened unto us his will.”4 These Holy Scriptures, as “the foundations of the prophets and the apostles whereupon is built the church of God”, are “the very sure and infallible rule whereby it may be tried whether the church doth stagger or err and whereunto all ecclesiastical doctrine ought to be called to account; and that against these Scriptures neither law nor ordinance, nor any custom ought to be heard.5 Moreover, the Scriptures serve as the means by which the Spirit teaches the church. In this regard, Calvin assigns to the Holy Spirit the role of confirming the Scriptures as the Word in the hearts and minds of Christians: “Therefore Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.”6 Moreover, Calvin, like most of the reformers, viewed the work of the Holy Spirit as inseparable from the instrumentality of the Word: “For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we, in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word.”7 Thus, the Church fundamentally assumes the posture of perpetual disciple as the Spirit ceaselessly teaches and sanctifies it through the written Word. While the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures as the final authority for the Church functions as the operative principle of Reformation theology, it nevertheless takes seriously the positive role of tradition in biblical interpretation and application. This leads to the second reason for the Reformation’s current relevance.
The Reformation impresses upon the present-day Church the importance of constructive, but critical, interaction with previous tradition. By “tradition”, we mean the manner in which the Church interpreted Scripture through the help of ancient expositors it deemed to be helpful and authoritative teachers of Scripture. These earlier Christian authors are known as the Church Fathers. For the exception of the Anabaptists—who, by and large, rejected appeals to anything but the bare letter of Scripture itself—just about all of the major reformers frequently cite these ancient authors, especially Augustine, as part of their own Scriptural exegesis. In fact, interpreting Scripture through the writings of the Church Fathers was largely what most of the reformers meant by sola Scriptura or “Scripture alone.”8 Many of the reformers regarded the early church as the criteria for determining biblical orthodoxy. One such defender of this criteria was John Jewel, who specifically defined sola Scriptura as the authority of Scriptures, the Church Fathers, the first four ecumenical councils—Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451)—and the practices of the Early Church.9 Although stated together, he notes that the Church Fathers, councils, and early church customs derive their authority from the Scriptures, as they exposit and apply the Bible accurately.10 Therefore, the authority possessed by these traditional sources is still only secondary. These considerations render tradition fallible, valuable though it is, and thus properly subject to criticism. It was for this reason that Calvin could sharply disagree with Augustine’s understanding of the divine image in which human beings were created.11 Even though Jewel strongly advanced tradition as the means of defining orthodoxy and catholicity, he still openly acknowledged its subordination to Scripture: “But what say we of the fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, Hierome, Cyprian…What shall we think of them, or what account may we make of them? They be interpreters of the word of God. They were learned men, and learned fathers; the instruments of the mercy of God, and vessels full of grace. We despise them not, we read them, we reverence them, and give thanks unto God for them. They were witnesses unto truth, they were witnesses unto the truth, they were worthy pillars and ornaments in the church of God. Yet may they not be compared with the word of God. We may not build upon them: we may not make them the foundation and warrant of our conscience: we may not put our trust in them. Our trust is in the name of the Lord.”12
The critical, though appreciative, appropriation of tradition in the light of Scripture in these post-modern times also applies to the assumed notions, practices, and preferences of our own ecclesiastical communities, and thereby we are prevented from universalizing and canonizing them. Adopting this approach from the Reformation helps to engender a spirit of humility, and enables the Church to be receptive of change as the Holy Spirit directs it through the Word. Continuous willingness to be corrected will most likely lead to modification or rejection of practices and doctrine so as to sanctify further the Church’s witness in the present world.
In sum, the Reformation remains relevant to the twenty-first century Church because it is a persistent call to continuous, Spirit-led change through the Word. This dynamic involves honestly engaging the Scriptures with the aid of tradition—whether as the longstanding insights inherited from the past, or as the distinctives of our particular ecclesiastical communities—while holding these insights and distinctives loosely in the humble and prayerful willingness to revise or discard them in order to faithfully bear witness in our complex age. In this, the Reformation beckons us today to continue reforming.
Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012). ↩
Mark A. Noll, Is the Reformation Over: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids, MI, 2005). ↩
Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Trans. Theodore Graebner (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1939), 72. ↩
John Jewel, An Apology of the Church of England, ed. John E. Booty (New York: Church Publishing, 2002), 30 ↩
Jewel, Apology, 30. ↩
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:92. ↩
Calvin, Institutes, 1:95. ↩
Throughout the Middle Ages, there were largely two approaches to the relationship between Scripture and tradition. See Heiko Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 269-96. ↩
Jewel, Apology, 32. ↩
Jewel, Apology, 18. ↩
Calvin, Institutes, 1:190. ↩
John Jewel, The Works of John Jewel, ed. John Arye, 4 vols. (Cambridge: The University Press, 1845-50), 4:1173. ↩