The Reformation Was a Tragic Necessity
By Timothy George
This coming Sunday, Reformation Day, many Baptists will join millions of other Protestant believers around the world in celebrating an event that took place on Oct. 31, 1517. On that day, an obscure Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted (whether by nail or by mail is a matter of dispute) his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther used Erasmus’s newly-published Greek New Testament to come to a new understanding of repentance and the Christian life. The Latin Vulgate had rendered the Greek word metanoiete as “do penance.” Luther now saw that this New Testament word did not refer to external penitential acts such as prayers, fasting, pilgrimages and indulgences. It referred instead to a genuine change of heart and mind, a turnaround brought about by God’s sovereign grace in the hearts of men and women who abandoned hope in themselves to trust in what Jesus Christ had done for their salvation. Luther rediscovered what Augustine believed and what Paul taught: Human beings are put to rights by God sola gratia, “by grace alone.”
This didn’t “cause” the Reformation. A call for reform in the church had been brewing in late medieval Europe for several centuries. Think of St. Francis and his radical critique of the extravagant wealth and posturing of church officials. Remember the Waldensians huddling together to study the Bible in the remote valleys of the Alps. Recall the Bible translations by John Wycliffe and the Lollards in England, the fiery sermons of Savonarola in Florence, the martyrdom of John Hus at Constance.
These currents of pre-reform came together on the eve of the Reformation to produce a moment ripe for Luther’s work. Technological and academic advances meant the Bible could now be translated and widely disseminated. Argula von Grumbach, a laywoman in Ingolstadt, Germany, dared challenge scholars of the university there on the basis of the Bible. In Switzerland, Thomas Platter, a penniless student who had learned to read, took from his pocket a translation of the New Testament to thwart the arguments of a local priest. The authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture is a cornerstone of both the Reformation and Baptist heritage.
The Reformation was a multi-faceted movement. The diversity of its voices can be heard in Luther’s insistence on justification by faith alone, Ulrich Zwingli’s doctrine of the clarity and certainty of the Word of God, John Calvin’s engagement with the world as “the theater of God’s glory,” and Menno Simons’ call to follow the “bitter Christ” in the way of suffering and discipleship.
Baptists can learn much from each of these expressions of the Reformation without diminishing the distinctive features of their own tradition. For Baptists, the heritage of the Reformation was refracted through the prism of persecution and dissent, which informed their intense advocacy of religious freedom and their rejection of a state-established church. The Reformation of the 16th century was a Scripture-based renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The Baptist movement emerged as a renewal within the renewal.
Several years ago I was asked to endorse a book by my friend Mark Noll called Is the Reformation Over? I responded by saying that the Reformation is over only to the extent that it has succeeded. In fact, in some measure, the Reformation has succeeded more within the Catholic Church than in certain sectors of the Protestant world. This does not mean that we can sweep aside church-dividing differences as if they were trivial or passé. But it does call for us to recognize that the common faith we share with other believers in Jesus Christ is far more important than the differences that remain among us in a culture increasingly marked by secularism, consumerism and terrorism. We do well to recall Menno Simons’ favorite verse in the New Testament: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 3:11).
The late Jaroslav Pelikan once spoke about the “tragic necessity” of the Reformation. Both aspects are relevant today. The necessity of the Reformation remains what it was for Luther: to proclaim the overcoming grace of God, the gospel of salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone based on the clear teaching of Holy Scripture alone. But the tragedy must also be acknowledged. It is evident in the impaired unity that detracts from the witness of the visible Body of Christ, and especially in the lack of love Jesus-followers too often have for one another.
The tragic necessity of the Reformation reminds us of Luther’s call for true repentance, as expressed in the first of his “95 Theses”: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended the entire life of all believers to be one of constant repenting and turning to God.”
Timothy George is the founding dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School and chair of the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.