Reforming What? Getting to the Heart of the Reformation
This fall marked the 500th year anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. There was a lot of celebration and discussion about the Reformation, the reformers, and especially reformed doctrine or teaching, which is often summarized in the “Five Solas” (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria).
I am a history buff, especially when it comes to church history, and I love the Reformation. No doubt, October 31, 1517 was a very significant day; one that launched a transition, not just in church history, but world history for which we are all indebted.
However, I think people tend to forget what the core of the Reformation was all about. The very word reform means literally to refashion or to fix something from its present form, often times to bring it back to its original, intended form. Reform becomes necessary when something loses its way or gets corrupted, polluted, or perverted.
What then were the reformers trying to reform? The church! The controversy at the heart of the Reformation was the biblical definition of the church, a.k.a ecclesiology. Ecclesiology simply answers the questions: who and what is the church, and what is it called to be and to do? From the ancient world, various corruptions and perversions had crept into the church, and there were various attempts at reform which were often met with resistance and quickly shut down by those in power. Corruption was at a near all-time high when Luther, rather casually, stepped out and nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. His primary concern was to reform some elements within the church, which for Luther, primarily had to do with indulgences. I don’t think Luther understood at the time just how corrupt the church was, and I don’t think he understood what impact he would eventually have in opening the door for reform.
However, we need to remember that the Reformation was just that; a movement which opened the door for reform, and we ought to be grateful. But neither Luther, nor Zwingli, nor Calvin, nor any other hero of that time reformed the church. Sure, the church of Rome ended up reforming at some levels, but the reformers quickly broke from the Catholic church to eventually put in place what they considered to be true biblical Christian practice; and they disagreed as much as they agreed as to what needed to be reformed and what that true form should be.
In short, the reformation did not reform the Church, rather, it opened the door for reformation, and generated many churches who claimed to be the true church. This fragmentation was one of the primary criticisms thrown at the reformers by the Catholic church. The great blessing was the freedom to now go back to the Scriptures without major restraint to define true biblical ecclesiology. Of course, as a result of that liberty, we are going to see some major distortions and a lot of fragmentation, but also, we are going to see some valid representations. One of the mottos of the reformers was to keep on reforming. This is something I feel most people who call themselves “reformed” forget. In their minds, church history goes a little something like this: the ancient church had it right; the medieval church messed it all up; the reformers brought it all back; let’s not mess it up again.
And the way they feel we can best preserve the church, is by holding fast to the Reformation itself. But truthfully, the ancient church did not have it all figured out, and the medieval church was not all a big mess, and the Reformation most certainly did not fix it all or bring it all back. And furthermore, our goal should not be to uphold and preserve the Reformation or reformed doctrine as if at that point in history they figured it all out. They didn’t; they simply started the process of helping us get back, and because of the rapid changes that were going on at the time, there were many things that were set in stone prematurely. No one can answer the question of when the Reformation truly ended, because it never did. It simply fizzled out because we became content with our “churches” which were no longer warring to the point of bloodshed, and could live side by side.
If we can take anything from the Reformation, it’s that we should never stop reforming. And we need to remember that being a true reformer is not about preserving reformed doctrine or upholding the Reformation, or any other period in church history as the standard (otherwise we become no different than the Catholic church, subject to a system and a tradition above the Word of God). It’s about preserving biblical authority and being willing to always go back to Scripture alone (sola scriptura) as our standard for defining who and what the church is, and what we are called to be and to do.
In Matthew 16, our Lord said in response to Peter's great confession, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Here, we have the first instance in recorded history of Jesus using the term “church” (ekklesia) in reference to the church. While Jesus does not here reveal the depths of ecclesiology, we do know from this passage that: the church He is speaking of is His, He is its builder, and there is nothing that will be able stop it.
I then leave you with these three fundamental questions, which I consider to be at the very heart of biblical ecclesiology, and which we should never tire of asking:
- What is Jesus building, and why?
- How is He building it?
- How do we know?
Soli Deo Gloria!
In Him, your fellow worker,