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New Horizons

The Reformation: Then and Now

John Muether and David Noe

At the end of this month, many Orthodox Presbyterians will celebrate Reformation Day. October 31 marks the day that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517. While this has become a common way to date the “birth” of the Reformation, it is rather arbitrary: the thirty-four-year-old monk was not calling for separation from Rome, but simply inviting his academic colleagues to debate the practice of selling papal indulgences (certifications that one’s sins have been forgiven).

The events that followed are familiar to many Orthodox Presbyterians. Luther’s concerns drove him to the heart of the abuses in the Roman Church—her perversion of the doctrines of Scripture, denial of the means of grace to all her members, and moral corruption. After efforts to achieve internal reform came to an end when Luther was excommunicated at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Western Christendom was divided into Protestant and Roman communions.

Early Reformation celebrations focused on the birth of Luther (November 10, 1483), his death (February 18, 1546), or the presentation of the Augsburg Confession (June 25, 1530). Only later would the practice emerge among both Lutherans and Calvinists of locating the onset of the movement in Luther’s posting of his ninety-five theses.

When the Protestant world next year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s hammering on the Wittenberg door, there will be many commemorative events. Joining in that observation, New Horizons magazine commences, with this article, a multipart series on the sixteenth-century movement and its ongoing importance for the life and witness of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

As we mark this occasion, it is fitting to consider why we do so. Is it appropriate to celebrate this tragic division in Western Christendom? What exactly did the Protestant Reformation set out to do, and what did it accomplish? As extensive as next year’s celebration will be, there continues to be widespread disagreement on all of these questions. For many, the “light” of the Reformation that came after medieval darkness was only an extension of Renaissance humanism. Others claim that Protestantism ushered in the modern world—including science, economics, and nation-states—and culminated in the Enlightenment project. For many, the inheritance of the Enlightenment is a mixed blessing. Still others argue that sixteenth-century “protests” prompted a season of Roman Catholic reform (the Counter-Reformation), rendering Protestant separatism unnecessary and even schismatic.

Discontent with the Reformation

As further doctrinal divisions dashed hopes of Protestant unity, many perceived virtues of the Reformation became the vices of modernity. Splintered into multiple traditions and denominations, Protestantism now seems incoherent and impotent to address an intensely secular world. So even if it did accomplish a measure of good, has the Reformation run its course? Is it worth celebrating after all?

There is also another consideration. Even among many Protestants, the principles of the Reformation have been largely forgotten or ignored. Mainline Protestantism has forsaken its allegiance to Scripture in its desperate efforts to be relevant to the modern world. The Word of God has been exchanged for the word of man, lodging the church’s faith in higher criticism and secular science. The staggering decline of mainline Protestantism in America is well-documented: the practices of Protestant piety have largely disappeared from among them, including prayer and Bible reading.

In reaction to mainline infidelity, American evangelicalism promotes least-common-denominator affirmations of faith that often yield intellectual shallowness. A new priesthood of celebrity pastors, whose success is measured by the size of their megachurches, demonstrates greater familiarity with church growth techniques than the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. As much as it champions the good news of the gospel, contemporary evangelicalism fails to bear witness to the gospel in its full and mature expression.

Thus, waning enthusiasm for the Reformation in our age can be tied to the precarious state of American neo-Protestantism. Rejecting both the banality of the mainline church and the shallowness of evangelicalism, Orthodox Presbyterians seek to champion the cause of historic, confessional Protestantism. And yet, even confessionalists today may be tempted to misinterpret the Reformation. For example, a commitment to the spirit of the Reformation does not mean merely expounding the “five solas”: by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, and to the glory of God alone. These are essential features of the faith we confess. But even they can serve as a reductionistic distortion of the achievement of the Reformation, and they do not at all exhaust the character of a church committed to a full-orbed expression of the Reformed faith.

To be Reformed is to submit to the Word of God willingly and to embrace the wisdom of the Reformed confessions in interpreting that Word. To be Reformed is also an aspiration to be conformed ever more consistently to what the Scriptures teach. The zeal for the ongoing reformation of the church and her members is captured by the Reformation motto Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda: “The Reformed church always needs reforming.” Ironically, both the mainline churches and evangelical Protestantism seem to share the same agenda. Their jettisoning of the practices of the Protestant past is often presented as following this motto. But change and incessant innovation are not reformation. They are an abuse of the Reformational principle. Contrary to the apostles of modernity and the prophets of church growth, the burden of the church today is not to keep up with the culture that surrounds her (nor to romanticize some bygone age). It is, rather, to be reoriented by Scripture, attentive to the voice of her Shepherd heard in those pages. The Reformed church is always being reformed by the Word of God. It must be a listening church, and no human word can be elevated above or alongside that Word.

A Reformation Today: The Need for Healthy Discontent

The sixteenth-century Reformers claimed that the Roman church had submitted to “a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). A similar bondage of human contrivances takes on many modern forms, and it warrants our considering whether the church today is in a “Babylonian captivity” of a sort similar to what Luther described five centuries ago.

What would continuing reformation entail today? Paul Woolley, a founding minister of the OPC and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary, challenged the OPC, early in her history, to cultivate what he called “healthy discontent.” He defined this as a frustration over the “lack of enthusiasm for the Reformed faith and a lack of completeness in its presentation.” Healthy discontent makes “the maintenance and propagation of the Reformed faith” the chief love of the church.

The series of articles we present will urge, just as Paul Woolley did, that there is continued need for growth in the faith and practice of the OPC. Contributors to the series, all voices in our denomination, will focus on different topics, such as preaching, the sacraments, prayer, song, worship, and church polity—all essential to our life and health together as a Reformed communion. We will focus, unapologetically, on the Reformed confessional tradition, begun in the sixteenth century and culminating in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. When we are rooted in the continuity and stability of these confessional documents, pledged to a tradition both fixed and reforming, we are protected from superficial and idiosyncratic versions of the Reformed faith.

Contributors will explore such questions as these: Do we have confidence in the means of grace? Can we assert the church’s essential spirituality? Is God’s power made manifest in our weakness? Do we really believe that the Spirit uses the Word to create and sustain new life? These articles will demonstrate that the Reformed confessional tradition brings plentiful resources to bear on these and related matters.

Almost fifty years ago, the Presbyterian Guardian had these wise words about observing the Reformation:

If our celebration of Reformation Day is to possess any real spiritual significance, it will, to be sure, demand more than a nostalgic meditation upon the good old days of the past. If our thinking about the historical situation reduces us to inactivity, we had better not engage in it. But the consideration of history may arouse us to fruitful action if it is integrated with our religious faith and life. History may be a teacher of life if it brings renewed devotion to the God of history. What is demanded at the present time, then, is that the truths and principles which were so full of power at the time of the Reformation should again be seized and should seize us. A steadfast commitment to our God-glorifying faith, and a new zeal to proclaim it in these days of unbelief and apathy, will constitute a celebration of Reformation Day of solid and lasting worth.

We hope that this series will nurture this sentiment among us as we reflect on our Reformation heritage in the coming months. And in pursuing the continuing reformation of the doctrine and life of our church, may we pledge to maintain and carry forward our calling as Protestants, committed to proclaiming the whole counsel of God.

Mr. Muether is the historian of the OPC. Dr. Noe is a member of the Committee for the Historian.

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