It always saddens me that people have an aversion to history. Having moved to Boston from San Francisco, I find the history of my new home so thrilling that I can’t understand the indifferent attitude of my friends who have lived here all their lives.Why can’t they see what a treasure this place is?
It troubles me even more deeply that so many evangelicals fail to comprehend the importance of church history in general and the Reformation in particular. The history of our religion helps us understand why doctrine matters so much, both in showing us how the visible church has deviated from Scriptural teachings over its 2000-year lifetime and in showing us how godly men and women faced persecution and martyrdom in order to restore doctrinal purity to the Church. In studying church history, we often realize the preciousness of our faith. More specifically, the study of the Reformation causes us to realize the preciousness of the Bible.
Let’s start by talking about the most famous of the 16th Century Reformers, and then examining what 21st Century Christians can learn from his example. Martin Luther’s disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church originated with his study of Scripture, which he regarded as God’s highest authority. The Catholic Church (which held both religious and political authority at the time), by contrast, insisted that it has authority equal to the Bible. Officially, the Catholic still holds this doctrine, known as “Magisterium.” Over time, Luther observed that many Roman Catholic teachings had developed, not from the Word of God, but as a way for Rome to exploit and control the people.
Although Luther originally posted his 95 Theses strictly in response to John Tetzel’s oppressive tactics of selling Indulgences (see my October 23, 2015 blog post), the resulting conflict alerted him to Rome’s elevation of ecclesiastical authority.Thus, a major tenet of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura, meaning that Scripture alone is the Christian’s authority.
As I indicated a moment ago, Magisterium usually diverted attention away from God’s Word, leaving 16th Century laity at the mercy of church officials. Luther, until he understood justification by faith when he read Romans 1:17, had suffered personally from the church’s false teaching that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross required human effort in order for it to effect a person’s salvation. As a young monk, he put himself through grueling acts of penance trying to atone for his sins. And once he finally understood the wonderful truth that Christ had fully paid for those sins, the Roman Church excommunicated him for preaching justification by faith alone. Yet he clung to his conviction that Scripture, not Magisterium, had to be his final authority.
Later in his ministry, Martin Luther’s writings reflected the lessons he learned from his battles with Rome:
[Commenting on Psalm 119] “In this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night constantly—but about nothing else than God’s Word and Commandments. For God wants to give you His Spirit only through the external Word.”
Every time I read this quote, I marvel at how well it applies to the attitudes, and sometimes the outright teachings of present-day Christians. Or more accurately, professing Christians. While the vast majority of evangelicals pay lip-service to the Bible’s authority, they all too frequently seek to augment it with human philosophies. I’ve written about many of the ways evangelicals compromise Scripture: Holy Yoga, psychological models, the Gay Christian Movement, mysticism and so forth.
All of these additions to Biblical Christianity contradict Sola Scriptura because they undermine the truth that Scripture provides all we need (2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:3-4). Just as Roman Catholicism supplanted Scripture’s supremacy in the Middle Ages, the trends that infiltrate today’s evangelical circles threaten to supplant its supremacy now. I believe this insurrection comes in part because we’ve neglected the lessons of the Reformation, especially in regards to its high view of Scripture.
We need to study the Reformation because it brings us back to a realization of the Bible’s authority and sufficiency. Martin Luther, along with many other men and women of his era, risked their lives by standing on the Word of God, rather than the ideas of human beings, as their sole authority. In studying them, we gain a greater appreciation for the Scriptures that they restored to us.