The Reformation as a Non-Event; Why from the Perspective of the Gospel Nothing Remarkable Happened at the Reformation
Our forefathers sacrificed the outward unity of the Christian church to the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures and the preaching of free grace. Therefore church in the Reformation sense is essentially Protestant church. It is to be distinguished from any church that renounces, for the sake of any historical development, the constant appeal to the Word of God as witnessed in the Scriptures. As the congregation of Jesus Christ, it is and remains just as fundamentally church, and is to be distinguished from the sort of Protestantism that equates the church with any national, cultural or religious movement.
-Bethel Confession of 1933: On the Reformation
And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6.
-Augsburg Confession: Article VII: Of the Church
The Historian’s Interest in the Reformation
It is virtually axiomatic that the historian necessarily deals with empirical data and outward visible facts. With these as his primary focus, it is unsurprising that a historian would consider the Reformation to be an extremely significant event for Western History, especially for that of the Church. After all, from an empirical point of view, many many things did happen during the Reformation. Civil rulers took charge of the churches and wrestled it away from the control of Rome, statues, paintings and images were systematically destroyed in the iconoclasm which followed, the liturgy of the church was altered, rituals and ceremonies for the most part were reduced drastically, church law, or canon law, was changed to place all legal ordinance under the governance of civil rulers, monasteries and nunneries were closed, their lands were seized, finances changed hands, Bibles were translated into the vernacular, and many many more.
Spiritual Communion versus Outward Forms
It is undeniable that many many visible and empirical things happened during the Reformation; in terms of politics and culture, there were dramatic changes to the “Church”. However, does the Church consist of canon laws, ceremonials and even church organisation or bureaucracy? Is it a matter of theological significance that before churches had stained glasses and longer liturgies and canon laws where the buck stopped at Rome? Is the Reformation to be reduced to simply a debate over whether a minister should wear a surplice or a robe? Or whether an ecclesiastical court was to be subject to Roman or local canon law? To put this crudely does Jesus really care about the forms of church liturgy or bureaucracy?
To that end, the Church does not consist of canon laws, clerical attires, form of church bureaucracies, style of church decorations or liturgical music tastes. etc. But the Church is essentially a spiritual communion of saints, a communion of faith, love and hope in the divine Gospel which dwells in the hearts of man wherever they are and whatever their outward form, as Melanchthon here remarks in his Apology,
But the Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites, as other governments, but it is originally a fellowship of faith and of the Holy Ghost in hearts. The Christian Church consists not alone in fellowship of outward signs, but it consists especially in inward communion of eternal blessings in the heart, as of the Holy Ghost, of faith, of the fear and love of God… the Creed presents us these consolations. And it says Church Catholic, in order that we may not understand the Church to be an outward government of certain nations that the Church is like any other external polity, bound to this or that land, kingdom, or nation, as the Pope of Rome will say, but rather men scattered throughout the whole world here and there in the world, from the rising to the setting of the sun, who agree concerning the Gospel, and have the same Christ, the same Holy Ghost, and the same Sacraments, whether they have the same or different human traditions… We are speaking of true, i.e., of spiritual unity we say that those are one harmonious Church who believe in one Christ; who have one Gospel, one Spirit, one faith, the same Sacraments; and we are speaking, therefore, of spiritual unity, without which faith in the heart, or righteousness of heart before God, cannot exist. For this we say that similarity of human rites, whether universal or particular, is not necessary, because the righteousness of faith is not a righteousness bound to certain traditions outward ceremonies of human ordinances as the righteousness of the Law was bound to the Mosaic ceremonies, because this righteousness of the heart is a matter that quickens the heart. To this quickening, human traditions, whether they be universal or particular, contribute nothing; neither are they effects of the Holy Ghost, as are chastity, patience, the fear of God, love to one’s neighbor, and the works, of love.
-Philip Melanchthon, The Apology of the Augsburg Confession: Of the Church
Thus, if the Church is essentially a spiritual communion in the heart, consisting of faith, hope and love by the divine Gospel, then it doesn’t have much to do with outward forms of clerical dresses or institutional arrangements, etc. The Lutherans, for example, were very happy to retain the church liturgy with some alterations, as well as many traditional ceremonials and rites like exorcisms in baptism, chasubles, altar lights, and even traditional church canon law and church polity as the Augsburg Confession puts it,
…our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons
Melanchthon in his subscription to the Smalcald Articles was even willing to accept the authority of the Pope as he puts it here:
…regarding the Pope I hold that, if he would allow the Gospel, his superiority over the bishops which he has otherwise, is conceded to him by human right also by us, for the sake of peace and general unity of those Christians who are also under him, and may be under him hereafter.
Thus, the form and method of church bureaucracy was largely a matter of “indifference” or adiaphora. These are simply judgements of prudence, pragmatics and good sense, and the spiritual kingdom or the Church is not constituted by such forms. For example, the return of the control of churches back to civil rulers is theologically and historically unremarkable, as they are simply returning to the state of the Church before the Investitures Controversies of the 11th and 12th century when the Pope started to assert his right to confirm and appoint bishops in the Church and to bring the ecclesiastical courts under his authority. Before that, civil rulers simply appointed the clergy and nobody really cared what Rome thought about it, kings even had the title “Vicars of Christ” and were anointed with sacred oil at their coronation! Ecclesiastical courts’ powers and jurisdiction were subject to the civil courts of kings, and it was only much later on when the Pope started to “centralise” the church bureaucracy of the Western Church in Rome (with many a conflicts and struggles with the civil rulers and local clergy who resisted this move) that ecclesiastical jurisdictions became more and more independent of the civil rulers, and become more and more subject to that of the Pope. During the Reformation, many Protestant rulers explicitly appealed to the example of the Eastern Orthodox where the Emperor called church councils and was the effective governor of the church. In this sense, the Reformation was simply a very old ping-pong power struggle between the King and Pope and is theologically unremarkable in that aspect. Simply because churches were returned back to the localised jurisdiction of civil rulers does not constitute the “break up” of the Church, as if the Church’s unity was constituted by uniformity of canon polity or legislation rather than a unity of faith, hope and love, etc.
Of course one can argue that many abuses in the Church were corrected during the Reformation, e.g. abuses of indulgences, ignorant clergy, inaccessibility to the Bible, services conducted in tongues unknown to the people, abuses of power and laxity in discipline, etc. But such corrections have always been going on throughout the history of the Church and in this regard, the Reformation was again simply unremarkable (think of the reforms by St Francis in response to the laxity and corruption of the Church, or the Eastern Orthodox’s translation of the liturgy into the vernacular in Eastern Europe wherever their missionaries went, etc). As long as the Church remains in this world, it will sin, even on a broad scale, which will provoke a reaction for renewal, etc. In this regard, the Reformation is simply part of the continual renewal and sanctification of the church which has been and will always continue to occur in the church as long as she continues to live in this world, fall into sin, and require to repent and turn back to God. Think today of the prosperity Gospel which ties God’s grace and blessing in accordance to how much you give in financial terms, how’s that difference from Tetzel’s “as soon as the money in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory hell springs”? In this sense, the Reformation’s critique of these particular abuses is as unremarkable as many orthodox Christians contemporary critique of the prosperity Gospel and is simply part of the ongoing renewal process which the Church necessary goes through in its journey in this world.
Ecclesiastical Creeds as Answers to Specific Problems, not as Constitutions of the Faith or Gospel
Was the Reformation truly that unremarkable? Did nothing theologically significant happen there? Was there not a “rediscovery” or “recovery” of the Gospel lost? What about the doctrinal conflicts of justification by faith alone, Christ alone as the mediator, the rejection of purgatory, indulgences, treasury of saintly merit, etc? What about the Reformation solas, sola scriptura, sola fide, etc? Or from the perspective of the Catholics, were there not doctrinal innovations, new creeds and doctrines before the Reformation unheard?
Let me answer this by asking an analogous question. During the Trinitarian-Arian controversy which spanned for about 60 years, was the doctrine of Jesus Christ “rediscovered”? “Recovered”? Was it even lost in the first place? Was the doctrine of the Trinity, with its unfamiliar concepts of “subtance”, etc, an innovation of the faith? Was it a new doctrine? It is undeniable that it is a new creed in the literal sense that before the council of Nicaea in 325, the creed did not exist. But simply because the creed did not exist doesn’t mean that the contents of those creeds did not exist in the Scriptures or in the concrete the preaching of the Church.
Again, we must be very wary of the same error we have pointed out before. We must not confuse the Gospel or the faith of the Church with ecclesiastical documents produced and sanctioned by church bureaucrats and institutions- Protestant or Catholic! Long before the Nicene Fathers formulated the doctrine of the Trinity, the Church has always proclaimed Christ as the Son of God, Lord and Saviour, and who is one with Father, etc, and this has been witnessed to the Church by the preaching of the Holy Scriptures. The Nicene Creed exists simply because Arianism exists, and the Nicene Creed was an answer to a theological error, but otherwise, strictly speaking, the Nicene Creed is not necessary nor required for a proper understanding of God, and if Arianism didn’t exist, neither would the Nicene Creed and we would be none the poorer with respect to the Gospel and the Christian faith. Consider the implications of turning the Nicene Creed into a necessary datum of faith. What are we to make of the Christians who lived 300 years before the council of Nicaea? Were they all as ignorant and blind as the Athenians building altars to an unknown god? Did they not know whom they were worshipping, confessing and dying for? Was their knowledge and faith in God somehow deficient before the Nicene Fathers finally produced their creed?
We must be careful likewise that we do not turn the Reformation into an event of virtually divine proportions, whether it be the “recovery of the Gospel” Protestant narrative or the “fall into heresy and deviation from the Apostolic faith” Catholic narrative. Long before the Reformers proclaimed sola scriptura or the Scriptures as alone the infallible and canonical authority, St Thomas Aquinas has already taught it (here and here) without controversy and without batting an eyelid, along with many other patristic fathers of the Church. The Blessed John Duns Scotus had, long before Luther, already taught a form of forensic justification when he argued that the remission of sins was simply a matter of a divine legal decision to not punish the penitent and to simply declare him legally as forgiven and justified. He also taught that the sacraments do not cause or confer grace in themselves but are mere moral causes to those who use the sacraments rightly (that is, with faith), and in accordance to the ordinance and promises of God.
Therefore, we must not fall into the error which many Romans have charged Protestants with, teaching that we are justified by believing in justification by faith alone. We are not justified by believing in the article of justification by faith alone, but we are justified by believing in Christ. Therefore, the fact that the doctrine of justification by faith alone has been formulated and set into a confession or creed during the Reformation was no more an advancement of faith or a recovery of the Gospel than is the setting the doctrine of the Trinity into the Nicene creed an advancement of the doctrine of Christ or a recovery of the proper worship of Christ which was lost.
But like the Nicene Creed was an answer to Arianism, the confessions and article of faith of the Reformation were formulated in response to very specific problems and abuses, e.g. indulgences, the merit system with its attendant invented meritorious spiritual works or mediation through a church institution or bureaucracy, etc. But it would be erroneous to turn them into necessary datums of faith constituting the Gospel without which it is impossible for anyone to be saved or able to worship God, like turning all pre-Nicene Christians into idolaters who didn’t know whom they were worshipping before the Nicene Creed. Again, the words of the Scriptures are sufficient, whether of our understanding of the nature of Christ’s divinity or justification by faith, and whenever the Scriptures are read and Christ is preached, there faith is conceived and there people believe the message of Christ and are saved. A confession or article of faith, while a proper discursive hermeneutic to guide a preacher’s ministry, do not themselves constitute the Christian faith or the Gospel, they are not the object of faith, only Christ and the divine Word is.
Conclusion: Historical Headlines and Humble Preachers; The Paradoxical Self-Negation of the Reformation
Historians would naturally focus upon the “big events”, events of major political or social significance, and the historian whose only tools and eyes are for the empirical, can only see the outward forms. They see only the institutions, the politics, the civic organisation and form. They see the ornaments of the liturgy, the festivals and feast days, the rites and rituals, and by the changes of these visible forms, concludes that something “important” or “significant” or “fundamental” has occurred at the Reformation.
But this cannot be for the Christian, especially for the Protestant. The Protestant precisely believes that the Gospel or Christian faith is not mediated through institutions or church bureaucracies. The Word has no need of ecclesiastical creeds or confessions or canon laws for it to do its work. In this, paradoxically, the Protestant declares that the breakup of the outward unity, a unity of forms or church bureaucracy, has no bearing whatsoever upon the efficacy of the Ministry of the Gospel or even the Church, for the Church ultimately is not constituted by canon laws or church institutions, but by a spiritual communion of faith, hope and love in the divine Gospel once preached and delivered to the saints. Whenever and wherever the Word is proclaimed and Christ is preached, there the Holy Spirit is present, and there faith is conceived and there a spiritual communion is a reality in this world and the One, Holy, Catholic Church grows. This can occur under a Pope, or under a King or under a Patriarch, or council of presbyters or bishops, the outward forms are truly a matter of indifference as far as the Gospel and the Church itself is concerned. In effect, the Protestant is saying, Canon law crumbling? Institutions breaking up? Liturgical forms multiplying? The true spiritual unity of the Church is unharmed, nothing to see here, things continue as they were and always has, keep calm and carry on.
As Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, once said of the Anglican Communion,
The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.
Protestantism likewise has no peculiar thought, practice or creed or confession or canon law or organisation of its own. It has the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church preserved in the Scriptures and maintained in the concrete preaching of her ministers, passing on the same Gospel, the same Faith and the same message from the beginning of the Apostolic Church, whatever the outward form or organisation of the Church.
Thus in the midst of “big” strife, controversies and debates, in the midst of high papal or imperial politics, while bishops excommunicated each other and councils deposed their predecessor in the Nicene Council wars, as prelates made deals with rulers and Emperors, while theologians lobbied behind ecclesiastical figures, as councils generated creeds and confessions in a flurry of religious zeal, the humble priest in his parish, the pastor with his unknown and unremembered flock in his church, the many thousands of ministers and Christians all over Europe, unrecorded by history and far removed from the events which so occupies the interest of historians, they continue undisturbed to read the Scriptures, preach the Word and proclaim Christ, and in the muddiness and confusion of theological controversies, the Lordship of Christ, by the grace of God and the miracle of the Holy Ghost, shines forth in a person’s heart, faith is generated, souls are gathered into the communion of saints, and the Kingdom of God continues to grow, independently of the ever shifting forms of church organisation and liturgy. This has been so from the beginning in St Paul’s day when he had to deal with theological controversies of his own, and this will remain to be so throughout the history of the Church until the Final Consummation when only then at last shall there be an end to the writing of creeds and confessions and the Church shall at last be at rest. And the Reformation was but a little blip in the grand scheme of the Church, whose author is Christ, whose life is the Holy Spirit, and whose will is the Father’s, and whose end shall proceed whatever the passions of ecclesiastical officials or the ever morphing forms of institutions.