With the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous stand against indulgences this year, there’s already been much debate about the legacy of those tumultuous events.
Naturally, we want to repudiate the violence of those times and must regret that there was division between churches (because many turned away from the light). Ultimately, however, the Reformation clarified a very necessary distinction between teaching that leads people astray spiritually, and the more edifying teaching of the Bible – freshly released into the world in a language people could understand.
Reformation theology is sometimes summarised in Five Solas (or Solae): it was about salvation by grace alone (Sola Gratia) through faith alone (Sola Fide) by Christ alone (Solo Christo), which we know through Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), and all to the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria). I’m not sure it was ever summarised quite so neatly at the time, and there were other issues of immense importance which are not accounted for here (such as the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper – for which our English Reformers went to the stake).
Yet clearly, when it comes to our understanding of salvation, those five points are extremely important. Let’s think here about Sola Scriptura and the way the Reformation recovered the Bible for the church.
Holy enthusiasm for Scripture
‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3.16). This verse is beloved of evangelicals everywhere, and rightly so. It sums up why we show such holy enthusiasm for the Bible. It is not so much inspired as expired, breathed out by God! But as well as being the Word of God himself, the Bible is also a terrifically useful book; indeed, it was given to us in order that we might use it. It is an infallible and inerrant instrument for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training us.
That’s why the Reformers of the 16th century were so excited about the Bible – both translating it and teaching it. It’s why William Tyndale spent such time and energy in the dangerous work of translating the words into English and smuggling them into England. It’s why Thomas Cranmer made sure every church in the land was furnished with a copy, because ‘the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat of our souls’. As he preached (in one of the Church of England’s official Homilies): ‘Let us diligently search for the well of life, in the books of the Old and New Testament, and not run to the stinking puddles of human traditions, devised by human imagination, for our justification and salvation.’ And so: ‘These books therefore, ought to be much in our hands, in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, but most of all, in our hearts.’
Bible pastorally applied
One of the best things about the Reformation is not its big characters and dramatic events; it is the return of warmhearted, pastorally applied, biblical preaching to the church. I discovered this recently for myself as I was putting together 90 days in Genesis, Exodus, Galatians, & Psalms with Calvin, Luther, Bullinger & Cranmer (Good Book Company), a resource to help people read the Bible alongside the Reformers. They were observant readers and gifted teachers of the Word, with a passion for understanding and passing on the world-changing insights God had shown them there. As I dusted down their old commentaries to see if there was anything of value in them for today, I felt I had discovered hidden treasure.
The Reformers wanted to make sure that the church always kept the Bible at the heart of its life and doctrine. We’ve been blogging through The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion on the Church Society website over Lent, and that emphasis has been crystal clear in our Reformation-era confession. For example, in Article 6 it says : ‘Holy Scripture con-taineth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.’
Scripture is utterly sufficient, just as Paul also said in 2 Timothy 3. It alone makes us wise for salvation in Christ. It alone can light the way, and it contains everything we need for eternal life and present godliness. Nothing ought to be demanded of us which Scripture itself does not demand, and no burden imposed on us which is not imposed by Scripture. At one stroke, this way of looking at things undercuts all the pardons, pilgrimages, priestcraft, relics and other erroneous doctrines of the late medieval church.
Pure Word preached
Part of the definition of the church, according to the Reformers, was that it is ‘a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached’ (Article 19). And yet that church cannot ‘ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.’ This is great Reformation doctrine: Scripture is our supreme, coherent and consistent rule, both for salvation and for ordering our lives together as the church.
Bible by the Beach
That’s why the theme for Bible by the Beach this year (in Eastbourne 28 April – 1 May) is ‘Firm Foundations – Reformation for Today.’ Reformation today has to be based on the same firm foundation as the Reformation of yesteryear: the sufficient and supreme Word of God. That’s why I won’t just be giving talks on the history (as exciting as that is) but expounding Romans – one of the key Bible texts of the Reformation. Indeed, John Calvin said of it that: ‘when any one gains a knowledge of this Epistle, they have an entrance opened to them into all the most hidden treasures of Scripture.’
This is also why, if we prize our heritage as churches of the Reformation, we must be careful to keep the reading and preaching of the Scriptures at the heart of all we do. Management and marketing techniques which rely on the tactic of ‘unique selling points’ may accomplish some temporary success. But only the ‘unique scriptural perspective’ gives us access to the mind and power of God for our salvation.
Cranmer exhorts us: ‘Let us night and day muse, meditate and contemplate the Scriptures. Let us ruminate, and (as it were) chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, honey, kernel, taste, comfort, and consolation of them.’ Yet are we content with milky sermonettes of 15 minutes and a perfunctory fast-food daily reading? Only solid meat will bring solid reformation.
It is easy to give lip service to this idea, but to drag our heels and lag behind in our lives. As Luther says in his commentary on Galatians: ‘At the first, when the light of the gospel began to appear, after such a great darkness of human traditions, many were zealously bent to godliness. They heard sermons greedily and had the ministers of God’s Word in reverence. But now, when the doctrine of piety and godliness is happily reformed, with so great an increase of God’s Word, many which before seemed earnest disciples, become despisers and very enemies. They not only cast off the study of God’s Word, and despise its ministers, but also hate all good learning.’
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and Lecturer in Church History at Union School of Theology.