Reformation Reflections

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Exactly 499 years ago Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. So, we’re one year away from a significant anniversary of this milestone.

Synod 2016, in response to an overture, instructed us to observe this 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.

The word choice is important. Somewhere between receiving the overture and the action on the floor of synod, the title of the intended observance was changed from Celebration to Commemoration. That’s significant.

I believe the Holy Spirit was moving in and through the deliberation of our church’s assembly when this switch of words was made. The Protestant Reformation was both necessary and unfortunate. Necessary, because the Roman Catholic church, at that time in history, needed some biblical correctives. Unfortunate, because things had become so bad that a split was unavoidable.  

So, as we prepare to commemorate the 500th anniversary next year, I suggest that this year and every year we remember with a bit of sadness that while the Reformation was necessary, it was also unfortunate and that we respond with gratitude, knowing that God’s truth endures, through his Word and in his Church, whether we call ourselves Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox.

In the words of Martin Luther’s hymn: “That Word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.  Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God).

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As a historical matter, I've always argued that the protestant reformed, which I view as essential a "back to the Bible" movement, started in England, not Germany, even if Luther's nailing of the 95 thesis gets all the press.

John Wycliffe had translated the Bible into the "common man's" language (English) in England, and Wycliffe's "followers" (the Lollards) were running around the English countryside with that translation around a century, yes 100 years, before Martin Luther was even born.

If the power of Scripture brought to people of faith who were not clergy was the essential ingredient of the protestant reformation -- and I believe it was -- then the protestant reformation began in England, not Germany, largely because of the work of John Wycliffe, not Martin Luther.

In addition to your notes, there is another perspective to add.

God used the Church of the Middle Ages to convert the barbarian tribes of Europe, a process pretty well completed by about 1000 A.D.

Also, and important, these converted nations were discipled to the extent that they had changed their national output from destructive (of the Roman Empire) to constructive (the renaissance).  This would not have happened had the church not disciplined them as it did.  But now, having achieved a measure of spiritual maturity, many of these peoples no longer required the rather arbitrary disciplinary measures of the Middle Ages, and broke away much the  same way as young people, disciplined by their parents, break away from home to make their own way in life.  We should see God's hand in this process, using the efforts of the church of the medieval period to further his kingdom.  See not only the human defects but also and more important the sovereign grace of God in giving direction to the process of human history in Europe.

Edwin Walhout

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