Monday, October 25, 2010

The Reformation was not a "day", but an increase in understanding, caused by the opening of the Scriptures.

"Reformation Day" is traditionally known as October 31, 1517. It's regarded as the day that Luther posted his 95 Theses on Indulgences.

That may or may not have been a historical reality. But the historical reality of the Reformation is that it was a theological event. True, there were moral consequences, but the Reformation wasn’t first of all about moral self-improvement and tidying the ecclesiastical house. It was about aligning the church's doctrines with Biblical teaching.

It was this that prompted Martin Luther later to comment:
Life is bad among us as among the papists. Hence, we do not fight and damn them because of their bad lives …. I do not consider myself to be pious. But when it comes to whether one teaches correctly about the word of God, there I take my stand and fight. That is my calling. To contest doctrine has never happened until now. Others have fought over life; but to take on doctrine—that is to grab the goose by the neck! … When the word of God remains pure, even if the quality of life fails us, life is placed in a position to become what it ought. That is why everything hinges on the purity of the Word. I have succeeded only if I have taught correctly. (Cited by Steven Ozment, "The Age of Reform, 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe" (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1980), pgs 315-316 (emphasis added).
Several years ago, Scott Clark provided a little bit of history about how Luther came to realize this.
The Reformation doctrines [took shape in Luther's mind] gradually between 1513-21. In succession, and with fits and starts, Luther gradually realized the great Reformation solas. There are some Reformation solas with which we’re not all familiar. Luther’s first breakthrough happened during his lectures on the Psalms when he realized that Scripture teaches that we’re not just a little sinful but that we’re completely sinful, i.e., that the effects of sin are radical and affect every faculty. We’re not able to “do our part” or to “do what lies within us” toward justification because, as a consequence of the fall, all that lies “within us” is sin and death. Therefore the first Reformation sola was “solely unable.”

This is the essential assumption behind sola gratia, the claim that justification is by grace alone. Grace, is no longer to be reckoned a sort of medicinal stuff with which we are injected, with which we cooperate toward eventual justification. Luther came to understand that grace is God’s attitude of favor toward sinners. Grace isn’t something with which we are infused. Rather, God is gracious toward us. He shows us favor. He gives to us what we do not deserve: righteousness and life.

Only then did Luther realize, as he next lectured through Romans that it was only by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ that we are justified. The entire medieval system was about interior moral renewal. The Reformation is that the gospel is outside of us. The Gospel is that Christ has done it all for us. Justification is solely on the ground of imputed righteousness.

During his next two sets of lectures in Galatians and Hebrews Luther gradually realized that the medieval definition of faith as “formed by love” (fides formata caritate) is false and a misreading of Gal 5. Faith doesn’t justify because it produces sanctity (holiness) in internal moral renewal. Faith justifies because it apprehends Christ and his obedience and death for us (pro nobis). This is solus Christus. Faith is an open, empty hand. Faith is a beggar. Faith looks outside of itself and one’s self to Christ. Faith has no power except Christ its object. Faith is receiving and resting on Christ and his finished work for sinners. Faith is a certain knowledge and a hearty trust in Christ and his gospel. That’s sola fide.

With these breakthrough conclusions came others. During this period Luther came to a new hermeneutic. Where much of the patristic and all of the medieval church had read the Bible to contain two kinds of law, old and new, Luther came to see that the Bible had throughout two kinds of words: law (do) and gospel (done [on our behalf]).

The gospel is not: here is more grace so you can keep the law. The gospel is not: Christ will approve of you if you do your part. The gospel is: Christ has done it. This turn to the law/gospel hermeneutic was a foundation stone of the entire Reformation and it was adopted by all the Protestant churches and confessions Reformed and Lutheran. One of the great tragedies is that today there are congregations that will celebrate Reformation Day or who celebrate a nearby Reformation Sunday who will look you straight in the eye and tell you that the Reformed don’t use a law/gospel hermeneutic.

Another global change that occurred at the same time is the turn to Scripture as the magisterial and unique authority for faith and life: sola scriptura. There’s no one point at which this view developed, but it’s certainly symbolized by Luther’s stand for the sole and unique magisterial authority of Scripture at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Again, the tragedy of this day is that there are Reformed folk who sincerely believe that an Anabaptist hermeneutic or corruption of sola scriptura (biblicism) is the “Reformed” hermeneutic. They believe sincerely and wrongly that it means I and my Bible deciding what is and isn’t true.
This is really what Matthew Schultz is trying to say in his conversation with "Lyin' Bryan Cross".


steelikat said...


Don't begrudge anyone for celebrating reformation day, though, even if they get it wrong. When young people and the curious wonder "why are we celebrating this, what's this all about?" many of them will find the truth in spite of post-reformation distortions.

John Bugay said...

Steelikat, nah, I'm glad for Reformation Day. I'm just reporting things that I think are interesting. I have Lohse's work on Luther's theology; my hope is to go through this week and provide just a little bit more detail on each of the stages that Luther went through.

Anonymous said...

Of the sentences above that make up this article, this one seems to me takes the cake so we can eat it too:

"... It was about aligning the church's doctrines with Biblical teaching."

For me, the one chapter in the Bible that seems the most succinct when we come to realize that the ministry of the aligning of the church is an ever present necessity is Ezekiel 34.

That chapter begins this way:

Eze 34:1 The word of the LORD came to me:
Eze 34:2 "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?
Eze 34:3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.
Eze 34:4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
Eze 34:5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.

The chapters ends this way:

Eze 34:27 And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them.
Eze 34:28 They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid.
Eze 34:29 And I will provide for them renowned plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the reproach of the nations.
Eze 34:30 And they shall know that I am the LORD their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord GOD.
Eze 34:31 And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord GOD."

And, after reviewing this chapter one Lord's day, a prominent woman in our fellowship raised her hand to share her thoughts about the prophecy.

Her thoughts went something like this: "you see, we are the sheep of His pastures, and we all know, those of us who have worked with sheep, that we are just like they are, dumb creatures. Yes, so it is, sheep are dumb creatures and so are we today! We are just dumb humans on so many levels, we are in constant need for Good Shepherds, just like Ezekiel teaches".

It was not a very flattering increase of understanding to us after she shared with us her remarks that Lord's day, now was it? Yet, there is a lot of truth within her remarks that cause for us to be involved in our daily necessity, that is, to increase in understanding, caused by the opening of the Scriptures!

John Bugay said...

Thanks Natamllc :-)

James Swan said...

Hey, I caught Ozment- right before the quote you cite, he leads up to it by stating:"[Luther] wrote of the primacy and inviolabiltiy of doctrine:". He then cites the quote in your entry.

Actually though, Luther didn't write the words cited, it's A Table Talk entry (LW 54:109). It appears though Ozment translated the statement himself, as the LW translation reads a bit differently.

Tedium aside, I would agree with Scott Clark's synopsis. Luther's reform work was gradual, as was his encounter with sola fide. Here's one of my favorite Luther quotes, written toward the end of his life:

But above all else, I beg the sincere reader, and I beg for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ himself, to read those things judiciously, yes, with great commiseration. May he be mindful of the fact that I was once a monk and a most enthusiastic papist when I began that cause. I was so drunk, yes, submerged in the pope’s dogmas, that I would have been ready to murder all, if I could have, or to co-operate willingly with the murderers of all who would take but a syllable from obedience to the pope. So great a Saul was I, as are many to this day. I was not such a lump of frigid ice in defending the papacy as Eck and his like were, who appeared to me actually to defend the pope more for their own belly’s sake than to pursue the matter seriously. To me, indeed, they seem to laugh at the pope to this day, like Epicureans! I pursued the matter with all seriousness, as one, who in dread of the last day, nevertheless from the depth of my heart wanted to be saved.

"So you will find how much and what important matters I humbly conceded to the pope in my earlier writings, which I later and now hold and execrate as the worst blasphemies and abomination. You will, therefore, sincere reader, ascribe this error, or, as they slander, contradiction to the time and my inexperience. At first I was all alone and certainly very inept and unskilled in conducting such great affairs. For I got into these turmoils by accident and not by will or intention. I call upon God himself as witness." [LW 34: 327-328].

John Bugay said...

James, my copy of Ozment is thick with highlighting and underlines; I might have known that you'd know exactly where that Luther quote is from.

It seems to me that the method of cataloging Luther's writings is not like anyone else's. Probably because he lived life on the fly.

At first I was all alone and certainly very inept and unskilled in conducting such great affairs. For I got into these turmoils by accident and not by will or intention.

Actually, Ozment gives this tribute to Luther that I've always tried to keep in mind:

We are so accustomed to think of the young Luther as a melancholy monk preoccupied with his own salvation that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that he was the age's most brilliant theologian. He led the revolution against Rome and traditional religion not as a visionary spiritual reformer, but as a skilled doctor of theology (Ozment, 231).