This week is the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, that that the Roman Catholic priest and monk Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. While there had been previous attempts to reform the church, and there would be more to follow, including that of our own Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone on the American frontier in the early 1800’s (“The Reformation of the 19th Century” – J. H. Garrison) this dramatic and providential act of Martin Luther is as good as any event to officially mark the beginning of the spiritual movement of Protestantism that changed the face of the church and the world.
The Protestant Reformation was nothing less than a Copernican revolution in theology. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 –1543) fomented his revolution in the scientific world by removing the Earth from the center of the universe around which all of the other planets, including the Sun, revolved, replacing it with the Sun at its center around which all of the other planets, including the Earth, revolved. Before the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church with its dogmas and traditions was at the center of the spiritual solar system, and every other church and spiritual movement was put into rotation around it, their places determined by how close or how far their teachings were from the official teachings of Roman Catholicism. In contrast, Protestantism put the Bible at the center of the Christian solar system, and then aligned the planets of the churches and movements around its teachings, their place determined by how close or how far from the truth of Scripture their teachings were, and this gets to the spiritual nub of the revolution that was the Protestant Reformation.
In 1521, Martin Luther was called before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms to fully explain his views. “Diet” refers to an official meeting and “Worms” is a city south of Frankfurt. At the end of this defense of his ideas, tradition says that Martin Luther stood before his opponents and boldly declared –
Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.
“Convicted by Scripture” — “my conscience a captive to the Word of God” — “here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” — this is the Reformation in a nutshell. Dr. Scott H. Hendrix, the Emeritus Professor of Reformation History and Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, explains the significance of these famous words –
Luther asserted that his conscience was captive to the Word of God and that he could not go against conscience. This was not, however, a modern plea for the supremacy of the individual conscience or for religious freedom. Though already excommunicated by Rome, Luther saw himself as a sworn teacher of Scripture who must advocate the right of all Christians to hear and live by the gospel.
One of the most important insights of the Reformation, as far as I am concerned, is that reformation is not something that is once done and forever thereafter settled, but rather, that reformation is an ongoing process for every Christian and every church in every generation. ”Ecclesia semper reformanda est” – “Reformed and always reforming” – or, in its more complete form – “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God” – is a familiar way for Protestants to think and talk about what the Reformation means. The “Word of God” (Incarnate in Christ, inscripturated in the Bible, and illumined in our hearts by the Holy Spirit) always confronts and corrects our thinking, feeling, and acting. An important part of its function is to challenge us, our thinking and living. As James Smart explained –
The Word of God has in it always elements that are congenial and elements that are uncongenial since it is at one and the same time God’s words of both judgment and grace, no grace without judgment and no judgment without grace. To eliminate the uncongenial may be to escape the judgment that makes ready to receive the grace.
Reformation is the faithful consequence of the Word carefully taking our measure, us coming up short both individually as Christians and corporately as the church, and us rolling up our sleeves and getting to work to bring things into better conformity with the Mind of Christ as it has been revealed to us in the Word. This is why Pastor Jack Hayford says that we need to continuously “drive a nail” into the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, the pipe organ, the choir loft, and the pews of our churches today – into “any place both visible and sufficiently shocking to provide a counterpart to the ancient door at Wittenberg.”
Half a millennium ago the Church was shaken to its roots – dragged by the nape of the neck to confront the reality of God’s Word, and forced to face the fact that its forms had chained people rather than freed them. The dual truths of “justification by faith” and “the priesthood of the believer” were trumpeted forth and the true “church” – the people of God – was released through a recovery of the revelation of God’s Word. We’re overdue for another one.
More than one Reformation historian has pointed to Jean Perrissin’s painting – “Le Temple de Paradis, Lyon” (1564) – to help visualize the spiritual Copernican revolution that the Reformation was in the life of the church and Christians. It shows a Protestant Church in France. At the center of this little spiritual universe is the pulpit. The preaching and teaching of the Word is the center around which everything else that is going on in this church turns – the children waiting to be instructed in the faith, the couple waiting to get married, the businessmen dressed for work, the baptism of a newborn baby, even the dog that has made its way to worship and sits attentively under the pulpit!
The point in these details is that all these people and all these activities centered on and revolved around the proclamation of God’s Word. They believed the Bible was God’s message for them and to tem, sufficient not only to save but also to guide one in a life godliness. As the Word from God, therefore, it had to be proclaimed, heard, and obeyed. Indeed, it had to have the final say. (Matthew Barrett)
Back in 2012, Darryl Dash (https://dashhouse.com) called for a new a “Copernican Revolution of the Word that puts us in our place in orbit around God and His Word in our lives, our churches, and our preaching.” Instead of positioning ourselves at the center of the universe and demanding that “the Bible spin in orbit around our lives,” Darryl argued that “it’s far better to put God and His Word at the center, and to demand that our lives spin in orbit around Him.” And I couldn’t agree more. The Reformation is not just an event that we remember and celebrate. Reformation is a commitment we make and a continuing process to which we give ourselves. It is said that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther told the Renaissance scholar Erasmus – “The difference between you and me is that you sit above the Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me.” And if you ask me, that the essence of what it means to be a Protestant. It is to consciously “sit under Scripture.” Drive a nail in it. DBS +