What we owe to the Reformation

Categories: Editorials

How important is the Protestant Reformation to you? Five hundred years have passed since Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. Our modern age considers events that old to be of no relevance; we have a very short-sighted view of both the past and the future. Students of history will know that what resulted from the Martin Luther’s challenge is of lasting importance.

In the first place, the Protestant Reformation was a revival of true religion. The way of salvation had been lost, and the worship of the triune God had been replaced with a ritual that had very little to do with biblical worship. Rather than teaching that sinners are justified by faith, as the Apostle Paul taught in, for instance, the Epistle to the Romans, the Church prior to the Reformation taught that salvation is to be had by doing what the Church teaches. In particular, submission to baptism, confession and penance, and attendance at the mass, conferred grace on the individual. Application could be made to the saints, and to the treasury of merit, to make up any shortfall in the amount of grace needed to counterbalance the sins a person had committed. Worship was therefore not a matter of giving praise to our Lord Jesus Christ for saving us from our sins, but of engaging in a ritual that had form but lacked content.

In the second place, the Protestant Reformation was a rediscovery of the true text of the Bible. Before the Reformation the Church believed that the Latin Bible was the pure and unadulterated Word of God. In 1581 Theodore Beza gave Cambridge University a manuscript of part of the New Testament. It is known as Codex Beza Cantabrigiensis, or Codex D. It consists of most of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and 3 John. Even these parts are not complete, due to the ravages of age. Beza gave the manuscript because religious wars in Europe posed a real danger to the survival of much of the source material for the Reformation. Codex D is not a particularly valuable manuscript, in that it differs from the standard text in too many places. Its real interest lies in the fact that it is a diglot, consisting of pages of Greek beside pages of Latin. Neither is a translation of the other, but both are independent. In other words, two different Bibles were in existence from an early time: scholars date the beginning of the manuscript to around ad 250. (It has had a somewhat chequered history, with indications of around a dozen different hands making corrections to if over a long period.) The Latin is a form of the Old Latin which preceded Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate. That was the version used in the Western Church, with all its errors. When Greek-speaking scholars began to migrate to the West, following the sack of Constantinople in 1203, they brought their manuscripts with them. Among them were copies of the New Testament in Greek. When Erasmus began to study them he was moved to produce an edition of the Greek text, which he published alongside his new Latin translation in 1516. Over the next two decades he revised the Greek, and others continued the work into the seventeenth century, culminating in the Received Text of 1633. All the Reformation Bibles, in English, German, Dutch, Italian, French and other languages, came about because a reliable text was available, and because scholars had the skills to translate from Greek and Hebrew accurately.

In the third place, the Protestant Reformation was a restoration of biblical practices. We find within the pages of the New Testament certain warnings concerning the troubles that would arise in the Church. See, for instance, Acts 20:28–31, where Paul warned the Ephesian elders of ‘grievous wolves’ who would enter in from outside, and that ‘of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things’. The subsequent history of the Church shows that warning to have been entirely accurate. Heresy broke out in place after place, and time after time. The legacy of the early ecumenical councils, and of the creeds they formulated, stands as a testimony to the hard-fought and hard-won battle for orthodoxy. Orthodoxy began to lose ground to practices that arose during the early centuries, which, in time, became the new orthodoxy. Any who challenged transubstantiation, purgatory, the invocation of saints, and the adoration of relics was liable to severe punishment, including death. But when the Protestant Reformation arrived, people began to see that the Bible did not support these beliefs. In fact, the Bible contradicted and condemned them.

In the fourth place, the Protestant Reformation was a revival of expository preaching. The Church had never ceased to preach, though what passed for preaching during the late mediaeval period was nothing like the preaching that would become standard. Then, preaching consisted of stories with morals, aimed at either frightening people away from sinful behaviour, or encouraging them to acts of charity from the examples of the saints. Priests and friars would make up stories if they could not find a true one that fitted the point they wished to make. Many of the stories included fantastic elements, such as talking horses. When the Protestant Reformation came, men began to preach with a new-found fervour. There was now a sense of urgency. Preachers understood the grave danger in which people lived without the knowledge of the truth, and public preaching, as well as the more regular preaching in churches, became a feature of the Reformation times. The Bible was their source, salvation was their theme, and the glorifying of Christ their aim. Sermons that have survived from the period put much modern preaching to shame. There was genuine conviction, and confidence in the grace and power of God to perform a work of grace in the hearts and lives of hearers. Preaching was seen to be the means by which the gospel is to be declared, and the men who were called to preach trusted that the Lord would use the means he had given.

In the fifth place, the Protestant Reformation was the means of overthrowing the gasping power of the Pope. Rome has claimed the primacy for her bishop over all the other bishops (however we understand that word). The Bishop of Rome believes he is the universal father, He claims to be the heir to Peter, to whom, Rome teaches, was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whoever sits on Peter’s chair is therefore the representative of Christ on earth. All authority in the Church derives from this office, so that all bishops, cardinals, priests and so on act as representatives of the Pope. He has power over all the people on earth, from the lowliest commoner to the most majestic monarch. All must bow before him. The Protestant Reformers, and some who preceded them, saw in the papacy the fulfilment of Paul’s warnings in 2 Thessalonians 2, concerning the man of sin ‘who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God’ (v.4). The greatest exposition of this passage was made by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth in his treatise, Is the papacy predicted by St Paul? It is a masterly treatment of the Greek text, and he proves that the Pope is the great enemy of Christ. The Reformers all took this view, and delighted that the light of the gospel, as rediscovered in the true text of the Bible, was the instrument by which the pope’s pretended power could be dispersed, and men and women, as well as nations, could be freed from his malevolent influence and superstitious teaching. Why so many so-called Protestant churches are in thrall to the Bishop of Rome today is a mystery—or would be, were it not for Paul’s warnings of the failings within the church, as we saw in Acts 20.

Our debt to the Protestant Reformation is enormous. There was a time when these things were well know.n. They are hardly known at all today, but they should be. Let us be clear as to the benefits and blessing we enjoy because of the Protestant Reformation. Let us ever give thanks to God for them.