Ecclesia Reformata

One of my favorite things about seminary wasn’t a major prayer event or some grand scholarly function, although those were great, too. It was having German food every October 31st. Wursts, sauerbraten, potato salad . . . I ate more like a king than a monk (while many of my classmates instead opted for the ubiquitous pizza). Aside from indulging my love of German cuisine, the meals reminded us all of our theological heritage as Protestants.

October 31st is Halloween for most, but for theology nerds like yours truly, it’s first and foremost Reformation Day. On this date in 1517, The Reverend Father Martin Luther, O.S.A., a professor and priest in Wittenberg, Germany, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church. The world was never to be the same again.

Luther’s original document is almost exclusively devoted to refuting false beliefs about indulgences, but he would come to author a number of tracts and books taking issue with papal authority, purgatory, transubstantiation, the wealth of Rome, the role and importance of the Bible, and myriad other subjects. By far, however, even beyond his translation of Scripture into the vernacular, his most significant and most lasting contribution was his rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. We are not forgiven of our sins because of our deeds or because we purchased a piece of paper granting us an indulgence; we are forgiven by the free grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ — nothing more, and nothing less. The Roman church had lost that truth across the centuries, and it took Luther to remind them.

Or try to, at least. Through the excommunication of Luther and the edicts issued at the Council of Trent, which began some thirty years later, the Roman Catholic Church made its position clear: it had never erred, in doctrine or in practice, and therefore would reform in no way. Unfortunately for the Bishop of Rome, it didn’t matter what Trent decided. The Protestant Reformation had begun. The ranks of the Reformers grew, and Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, Menno Simons, and countless others joined Luther in his protest.

None of these were perfect men; none will ever be granted sainthood today. Luther himself was a virulent anti-Semite. Calvin ruled Geneva with a theocratic iron fist, burning perceived heretics at the stake. And yet these flawed, imperfect men were the chosen vessels for the return of theology ad fontes. They alone could bring the Church back to the Bible and bring the Bible back to the common laity. Without these men and men and women like them — John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Katharina von Bora, Jan Hus, and others — there would be no Bibles in your homes today. Even now you would not be able to offer your opinions of holy Scripture.

We thank God for the Reformers.

But we do not accept them uncritically.

Much of what passes for “Reformed theology” is, in my own estimation, itself unbiblical. Too often the Reformers threw out the theological baby with the ecclesiastically Roman bathwater, and our worship is the poorer for it. Moreover, the nascent Protestantism almost immediately fractured, and we must now live in the reality of 30,000 Protestant denominations. Schism has given births to tens of thousands of other schisms. The Church will never again be whole as long as she remains on this side of eternity. By outright rejecting even ecclesial tradition and insisting on Scripture as the sole source of truth, the Reformers paved the way for the billions of individual interpretations of the Bible we now see, each equally valid, each without the normative force of historical, traditional interpretation. These things give me pause. While I fully embrace the necessity of the Reformation, I do wish at times they hadn’t reformed quite so much, tried to fix things which weren’t broken.

Nevertheless, the Reformation was, is, and is to come — ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. Today we should remember the beginning of that road. Let us celebrate the brave work of a German monk five hundred years ago today — soli Deo gloria.

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The Protestant Inquisition

Like it or not, we’ve all seen it happen. Maybe we’ve even done it ourselves to some poor, unsuspecting soul. We made a matter outside of Scripture the litmus test for someone else’s Christianity. In more fun phrasing, we launched our very own Protestant Inquisition. Torquemada and Ximenes apparently stopped the Spanish Catholics too soon, and we Protestants eagerly accepted the mantle of Grand Inquisitor.

First, though, let’s all admit orthodoxy exists. There is an agreed-upon set of essential dogma which no one can disbelieve and rightly be considered Christian. These are the basics of the faith: the existence of God, His Triune nature, the life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus, things like that. You know, all those things we’ve put into creeds and handed down for a couple of thousand years expressly for the purpose of preserving the essentials of the faith. (Yes, I’m referring to those exact creeds a lot of Protestants don’t want to say they believe because they’re not verbatim in Scripture. But that’s another soapbox.) These are essential, necessary doctrines. Other things classify as orthodox without being strictly necessary for one’s salvation: respect for the sanctity of life (not just the unborn, and not just humans), a proper sexual ethic, membership in a local congregation, all that jazz. Those are also things we should lovingly defend from a biblical perspective.

Protestant Inquisitors don’t stop there, however. Instead they judge your soul based on any number of other, sometimes ludicrous, factors. I’ve seen more than a few church signs proudly declaring to the world their congregations are KJV-onlyists, fundamentalists, dispensationalists, premillennialists . . . the list goes on. It may get “our kind of people” in the pews, but it tells me, as someone who falls into none of those camps, I would never be welcome to attend their church; they would never consider me as truly Christian.

Those are some of the more popular criteria used by the inquisitors, too: Bible translation, eschatology, and antipathy towards theological liberalism as that congregation defines it. Another major criterion is political affiliation. More than one Protestant Inquisitor has told me liberals don’t go to heaven; anyone who isn’t a registered Republican (if you live in the U.S.) goes straight to hell. (As a registered Independent, I guess I’m a lost cause here, too.) But I seem to have overlooked Jesus’ voter registration status, party platform, and his favorite country in Scripture. (I really didn’t; they aren’t there.) I’ve written on this a few times previously, so I won’t belabor the point here, but from a biblical perspective, I believe both major American political parties to be equally anti-Christ, just in different ways. Still, that doesn’t stop people from making party choice a matter of — or a precursor to — salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

All of those litmus tests fail at precisely this point. If we are indeed saved by grace through faith (Reformation at 500, people), then it is unbiblical to add additional requirements. Yes, we are told that our Christian lives subsequent to that crisis moment of accepting Jesus are to have certain do’s and don’ts, but those aren’t threshold requirements. If we all had to be perfect before becoming a Christian, no one would be a follower of Jesus. All we can do is grow in sanctification after our baptisms, sinning less and doing good more. As we grow in holiness, we grow closer to a biblical model of Christian perfection — one that would still fail all those unbiblical tests administered by the Inquisitors.

If only their tests matter — if I may only be a true Christian because I read a certain Bible, vote a certain way, subscribe to a certain faith tradition, or believe Jesus will come back in a certain fashion — then Christ died for nothing. His passion, his crucifixion, his blood is insufficient to cover my sins, grant me absolution, and give me eternal life. He needs me to do more beyond what he himself did for me. It is a weak savior indeed who depends upon the actions of the Men he came to save. There are other gods on the market who promise to be powerful enough to do those things for me without added rules or extra effort on my part, and that frankly makes them more appealing to a lot of people.

Halt the Protestant Inquisition. Stop adding requirements beyond the word of God, you Pharisee. Help people come to a God of Holy Love, not a Judge of Human Law. Their souls depend on it.