As one who loves to read history, I have never quite shared the desire to keep anniversaries. It often seems that the louder the celebration, the more distorted the message, and history gets replaced by lessons in civics. But October is Reformation month, and 31 October 1517 is as convincing a date as any to remember as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The medieval Church of the day was busy selling indulgences, where buyers were assured that they would acquire spiritual benefits. In 1476 the papacy extended these benefits to purgatory, which meant that one might buy an indulgence (just a piece of paper with conditions and promises set out) for deceased relatives. One might hope to get grandma out of purgatory and into heaven by paying money to view relics. The Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, was horrified at this premature outbreak of the something like the prosperity gospel. So he objected in his 95 Theses, which were almost certainly nailed to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg where he taught biblical studies at the newly-opened local university.
Any human movement will be mixed. Luther himself – like the rest of us – did not march impeccably through life. He could be too crude and explosive at times; he could be wrongly opportunistic as when he tried to condone the bigamy of Philip of Hesse; and his treatises against the Jews in his final years would have been better not written. The same can be said of all the Reformers, including Calvin. The English Reformation was particularly mixed, yet somehow God was at work, achieving His purposes.
What is all this saying to us, here on the other side of the world, five hundred years after the event? For now, let us make two points. The first one is that Reformation sought to recapture the full and inerrant authority of the Bible. In one sense the Bible was everywhere in the medieval period. There were mystery plays such as The Acts of the Apostles in France which had 61,908 lines of rhymed verse and took 40 days to perform. In addition, there were morality plays which personified virtues and vices to encourage godly living. Miracle plays depicted the lives of the saints, both biblical and extra-biblical. In another sense, the Bible was hidden. It was a visual age, full of fake news – not unlike our own. Both Angers and Constantinople claimed to be exhibiting the head of John the Baptist, for example.
Against that, the Reformers looked to the Bible alone as the sufficient and inerrant Word of God – which is how it presents itself (cf. Deut.4:2; Psalm 119; Mark 7:1-23; John 10:35; 17:17; 2 Tim.3:15-17). When Heinrich Bullinger of Zurich wrote a commentary on the epistles of Paul, James and Peter, he declared:
First of all, we would like to point out, dear reader, that we have written no laws, but commentaries, which one must verify, and may not be considered as divine oracles. The Bible is the only measuring stick for the truth. Where, then, you notice that I have not been quite correct in my interpretation, lay my commentary aside and follow the Bible.
This is the challenge to us as individuals and as a Church. To know God, we need to know His Word. We need to believe it – all of it – and understand how it fits together and cling to it when the world disparages it and supposed friends undermine it.
The second point is related to this; it concerns the sufficiency of Christ in saving His people. Medieval Catholicism had some attractive characters, but in general it was a giant treadmill. When King Henry VII (1485-1509) of England died, it was found he had provided that no fewer than 10,000 masses be said for the repose of his soul. The emperor Charles V outdid this – he left provision for 30,000 masses to be said for his soul. The once for all perfect sacrifice of Christ, so clearly demonstrated in the book of Hebrews, was apparently not enough (see especially Hebrews 7-9).
There were exceptions, and I recently read that the astronomer Copernicus, who was a cleric in the medieval Church, died with Luke 18:13 (‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’) on his lips. Much clearer, however, is the testimony of the Reformers. Calvin asked, and then answered his own question: ‘Do we wish to come to him? Then let us come empty-handed, for whatever we bring to him will be like smoke in our hands.’ We contribute sin; Christ reveals His astounding grace.
There could not be two more important questions for us to confront: How do we know God? And how can we sinners be saved? The Reformation teaches us what God tells us in the Bible. His Word written is sufficient and true, and the Word made flesh is sufficient and true. Soli Deo Gloria!