For months now, Protestants around the world have been observing, celebrating and reflecting on five hundred years of the Reformation, in the lead up to the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the chapel door of Wittenberg Castle on October 31, 1517.
It is simplistic, of course, to speak of “the Reformation” as though it were a singular event; this period of history has been more accurately referred to as “the Age of Reformation.” Readers of church history will be aware of the interrelation of many personalities, movements, controversies and practical realities during this era, not to mention the influence of geopolitical and ecclesio-political interests, as well as the technological advances in printing that greatly increased the speed with which ideas could be circulated. All of these contributed to the shape and extent of the reformation movement throughout Europe. Historian Steven Ozment, in his award-winning book, The Age of Reform, introduces this era as follows:
The religious beliefs and practices that reshaped sixteenth-century towns and territories were the work of generations of intellectuals and reformers, trained theologians and educated laymen, who drew on ancient traditions and competed for the loyalty of a laity acutely sensitive to the societal consequences of religious issues.[i]
Nevertheless, it is appropriate to understand Luther’s activity that October day as the flashpoint for what would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
When Luther posted his 95 Theses, titled A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, he may not have expected them to attract much attention outside of the theological faculty at the University of Wittenberg.[ii] In fact, just a month earlier, Luther had posted a set of 97 Theses to just such polite academic interest. Titled A Disputation against Scholastic Theology, those 97 Theses had as their main target the philosophy of Aristotle and the late-medieval theologians who adopted the Aristotelean worldview. W. Robert Godfrey contends that these lesser-known Theses “are much more interesting and important from a theological point of view than the 95 Theses;”[iii] however this theological point of view had little bearing on political or ecclesiastical authority or the broader social context, and so remained a largely academic matter. In his 95 theses against indulgences, Purgatory, and salvation by works, however, Luther was directly confronting papal authority, and on the very tangible issue of money.[iv] It was not long before the controversy reached beyond the academy and into the realm of real-world consequences.
From Luther’s perspective, the dispute over indulgences was, at root, a struggle to acknowledge the sufficiency and supremacy of the Word of God. His preface to the 95 Theses declares that they were written “out of love for the truth and from desire to bring it to light...”[v] While it is again simplistic to try to reduce the causes and aims of the Reformation to a single issue, this theme of authority – the question of the normative standard for Christian belief and practice – is dominant among Luther and the other reformers. They emphasized the infallibility and sole authority of God’s Word, the doctrine we have come to know as Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura was one of five “Solas” of the reform movement summarizing the Reformational worldview, each of which, in its own sphere, and mutually reinforcing one another, emphasized that because of the atoning death and powerful resurrection of Jesus Christ, no other mediator was necessary, or indeed, possible, between God and man.[vi]
In championing “Scripture alone,” the reformers meant that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith for the church. Sola Scriptura does not deny the legitimacy, value, or even authority of extra-biblical traditions, rules, creeds, confessions or other knowledge, but teaches that such things are inferior to, and subject to correction by, the Scriptures. That is to say, the content of such traditions ought to be accepted only in so far as it agrees with the content of Scripture. James White explains, “The Bible is an ultimate authority, allowing no equal, nor superior, in tradition or church. It is so because it is theopneustos, God-breathed, and hence embodies the very speaking of God, and must, of necessity therefore be of the highest authority.”[vii]
Sola Scriptura was not a novel doctrine cobbled together by the reformers. Indeed, the Reformation was in large part a reaction against such novelties and deviations as indulgences and the belief in works-based righteousness that had been introduced in the Roman Church. The bulk of Luther’s theses are proposals for a return to Christian belief and practice as taught in Scripture. This doctrine of the authority of Scripture is found first in Scripture itself. Jesus and the apostles consistently presupposed the veracity and authority of the Old Testament (see Matt. 19:4; Mark 12:24-26; 2 Tim. 3:16; Jas. 2:23), and Peter sets the writings of Paul as the inspired equal to the Old Testament, saying of his letters that “the ignorant and unstable twist [them] to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16).
The early church fathers similarly assumed and upheld the ultimate authority of Scripture, writing variously that “with regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures…. For our saving faith derives its force, not from capricious reasonings, but from what may be proved out of the Bible,”[viii] and, “in the plain teaching of Scripture we find all that concerns our belief and moral conduct.”[ix] So pervasive was this point among these early theologians that J.N.D. Kelly writes, “there is little need to dwell on the absolute authority accorded to Scripture as a doctrinal norm.”[x] On this and other points, then, it is appropriate to understand the Reformation not as a novelty, but as a rejection of extra-biblical novelty.
Along similar lines, another slogan that characterized the Reformation Age was ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda – “the church reformed, always reforming.” John Frame explains that this phrase, in harmony with Sola Scriptura, furnishes a principle for dynamic, creative, and faithful living before God: “both ‘reformed’ and ‘reforming.’ Our faith is ‘reformed,’ based on unchanging biblical principle. But our faith is also ‘reforming,’ challenging all human traditions and fashions by the word of God.”[xi] Just as the initial Reformation was a developing movement that strove to be faithful to the constant touchpoint of Scripture, so in our own time we should be mindful of the constant need to submit our doctrines, beliefs, and experiences to the inspired, authoritative Word of God, and to interpret all of life and history in light of that Word.
[i] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), xii.
[ii] The selling of indulgences was emphasized by Pope Leo X in 1515 as a means of financing the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
[iii] W. Robert Godfrey, Reformation Sketches: Insights into Luther, Calvin, and the Confessions (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003), 35.
[iv] At least twenty of the ninety-five Theses are explicitly about the ways that indulgences are a sinful invention that harms God’s people and undermines His grace.
[v] Martin Luther, “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther, on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” in Works of Martin Luther: Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds. (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, p. 29-38.
[vi] The others are Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ; Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone; Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King; Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone. Douglas Wilson observes that “Rightly understood, these things taken together constitute a worldview. And when the world is enveloped this way, there are no pieces left over.” See Douglas Wilson, “Reformation Now,” Blog & Mablog, last modified October 29, 2016, https://dougwils.com/s8-expository/reformation-now.html.
[viii] Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat. 4, 17, translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3101.htm.
[ix] Augustine, de doct. Christ. 2, 14, translated by James Shaw. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1202.htm.
[x] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2003), 42.
[xi] John Frame, “A Theology of Opportunity: Sola Scriptura and the Great Commission,” Frame-Poythress, last modified May 15, 2012, https://frame-poythress.org/a-theology-of-opportunity-sola-scriptura-and-the-great-commission/.