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Is the Legacy of the Reformation Dead?

Updated on October 9, 2019
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Are there still crucial differences between Catholics and Protestants?

On 31 October 1517, a German Augustinian monk nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the All Saints‘ Church in Wittenberg. The main issue was the sale of indulgences. He probably did not know that this day would enter into history as Reformation Day. His name was Martin Luther. In 2017, this historical day will celebrate the 500th anniversary. Although the thesis did not adress the most important doctrines, which the Reformation emphasized, it was the very beginning of the process.

On 31 October 2016, Pope Francis took part in events commemorating the anniversary of the Reformation. BBC News reported: „Pope Francis and Lutheran leaders presided over an ecumenical prayer service in Lund cathedral in southern Sweden on Monday. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church praised the Reformation for helping to give greater centrality to scripture in the church’s life.“ In the light of these facts it’s important to ask a simple question: does the Reformation still matter?

Purpose of Protests

Why did the Reformation begin at all? What was the purpose of all the reformators? Martin Luther was not the first figure of Protestantism. There were forerunners who opposed Roman Catholic Church, its doctrines and practices. Waldensians, members of a movement found circa 1173, were condemned as heretics and faced a great persecution. They proclaimed that the Scriptures, not men, are supremely authoritative owning non-Latin version of the Bible. Waldensians confessed Jesus as the only Mediator, rejected indulgences and purgatory, accepted only two sacraments (baptism and the communion) or believed Roman Catholic Church to be the very Babylon spoken of in the book of Revelation and that pope is the Antichrist. They also taught the importance of priest’s marriage and lifestyle of poverty.

Another prominent figure of Protestantism was John Wycliffe (1320 – 1384), a scholar at Oxford university. He was convinced that the Church and sacraments are not necessary to attain salvation and that Christians should regard the Bible as the supreme source of authority. Not surprisingly, he opposed indulgences and also considered a pope to be the Antichrist. His desire to spread the truths of the Scripture resulted in the first translation into English, which was made by his followers called Lollards. He was expelled by the Church and his followers suffered persecution.

Thoughts of Wycliffe spread Europe and influenced many others. Among them was the great Bohemian theologian and rector of Prague University, Jan Hus (1369 – 1415). He challenged the pope’s authority and criticized the wealth of the Church. He argued that pope and Church officials holding absolute authority should be a godly example, if not, they are not competent. He spoke out against the indulgences and simony. Hus supported, instead of Latin, use of native language. Therefore, he was an advocate of Mass said in Czech or Czech Bible translations. Jan Hus was accused by the Church as a heretic and summoned to appear before the Council of Constance. There he claimed that Christians should not seek God in sacraments or rituals, but in Scripture alone. The teachings were offensive to Roman Catholic Church. Jan Hus was burnt at the stake on 6 July 1415. His death caused a great resentment. In the next years, Hussites led by general Jan Žižka were fighting against crusaders.

The most prominent figure of Protestantism is probably Martin Luther (1483-1546). Before he nailed his thesis, he hardly sought God but felt very confused, although he was already a monk. At the age of 27, he was given the opportunity to be a delegate to a church conference in Rome. Full of expectations he visited the very heart of the Church. His expectations were not fulfilled – on the contrary, he came away more illusioned and discouraged. He saw immorality, corruption among the priests and experienced nothing but empty religion. After his return to Germany, he began to study the University of Witterberg. He received a doctorate and even became a professor of theology at the university. In 1515, while preparing a lecture, the words of epistle of Romans amazed him: „The just will live by faith“. After some time he realized that the core of salvation was not an enslavement by religious dogma and acts, but faith alone, God´s grace alone and by Christ alone. In 1517, Pope Leo X announced a new round of indulgences for the purpose of building of St. Peter’s Basilica. For this reason, Luther in anger nailed his Ninety-Five Thesis. In them he criticized indulgences but still accepted the authority of the pope. However, he changed his view of papacy. He argued that the pope does not have a special right to interpret the Bible. The pope tried to threaten Luther by excommunication but Luther responded by publicly burning the letter containing the warning. Therefore he was excommunicated by the Church in 1521. In the same year he was summoned before the Diet of Worms. He did not recant his statements because he believed the refutations were not based on the truths of the Scripture. His writings were banned and Roman Catholic Church declared him to be a heretic. Luther´s friends helped him by hiding him at the Wartburg Castle. There he wrote his most significant work – German translation of the New Testament. Luther got support from princes and had many followers. He married Catharina von Bora, a former nun.

Ulrich Zwingli (1453-1531), the city chaplain, stood before Zurich City Council. He was arguing 67 theses. It was the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland. He criticized the Church for its practices such as celibacy (he even had an affair). He also lifted up the authority of the Bible. Zwingli and Luther disagreed over one issue: the Lord’s Supper. In their discussion, they were very harsh to each other. Zwingli died in battle when defending Zurich against Catholic forces.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a prominent French theologian. His well-known work, Institutes, declared basic statements of the Reformation. He held the position of justification by faith, sovereignity of God, total depravity of man, threehold offices of Christ (prophet, priest, king) or separation of church and state. He refused the concept of seven sacraments and accepted only baptism and communion. Calvin was a very productive author. He is controversial for his quarrels with Michael Servetus, who denied the Trinity and was burnt in Geneva. There are conjectures regarding participation of Calvin in this process. Even so, John Calvin is considered as one of the most influential men of the Reformation and pioneer of reformed theology. Well-known five points of Calvinism, created in 1618-19, were a response to five points of Arminianism.

The key role in the spread of the Reformation in Scotland was held by John Knox (1505-1572). Knox was a Roman Catholic priest but later he embraced Protestantism. He opposed for example the mass considering it an invention of man and not commanded by God. Because of Mary I, radical Catholic queen, Knox was obliged to leave Scotland. He became a minister in Frakfurt and then also in Geneva. He came back to Scotland and preached until his death. John Knox and five other men wrote the Scots Confession of Faith and other documents. Knox is considered a founder of Presbyterian Church.

The theology of the Reformation may be summarized in so-called Five Solas. Latin word sola means only. What are they?

  • Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – The Bible is the infallible authority, source of truth
  • Sola Fide (Faith alone) – Salvation does not come through any works of man but only through faith in Christ Jesus who died at the cross to wash away human sins.
  • Sola Gratia (Grace alone) – Redemption of man is only through God´s grace. Nobody is more worthy than other when receiving forgiveness and favour of God.
  • Solus Christus (Christ alone) – There is no salvation except through Christ. Only he is the mediator between human and God.
  • Soli Deo Gloria (God’s glory alone) – All glory belongs to God. He is glorified in the salvation that can not be earned by any merits, so that no one may boast. Finally, the purpose of life is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

Reaction of the Catholic Church

After the aforementioned events happened, the Roman Catholic Church realized that important doctrines and practices should be discussed. That is the reason why Council of Trent (1545-63) was held. A wide variety of issues were consulted. Protestantism was condemned. Although the council proclaimed that salvation does not comes through works, the understanding is very different compared to Protestant view. Canon 12: „If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified… let him be accursed.“ There are many examples but another great problem is understanding of good works – Protestants believe good works are done not to become saved but because a person is saved and therefore bears fruit. Canon 24: „If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.“ Many other points could be added. The most important fact is that Council of Trent clearly cursed all holding the Protestant view.

Pope... Antichrist?

Martin Luther believed, based on biblical books of Daniel, John, epistles of Paul, Peter and Jude that the papacy is as the seat of the true and real Antichrist. It is worth mentioning that Luther, even when nailing his thesis, was a great defender of the Pope. John Calvin called the Roman pontiff Antichrist realizing how severe it may sound. He was convinced words of 2 Thessalonians are not capable of any other interpretation than that which applies them to the papacy. John Knox claimed the papacy to be the very Antichrist and son of perdition of whom apostle Paul speaks in the Scripture. Roger Williams (1603-83), a Reformed Baptist theologian, spoke of the Pope as the pretended Vicar of Christ, who sits as God over the Temple of God, exalting himself above all that is called God. As John Knox, he called the papacy son of perdition. The Westminster Confession of Faith from 1647, one of the most famous Protestant confessions at all, very clearly declares the pope of Rome Antichrist because there is no but one head – Jesus Christ. John Wesley (1730-91), the most important man of Methodism and great preacher (during his life, he rode 250,000 miles on horse to preach the Gospel), wrote that the pope is the man of sin, son of perdition exalting himself above all that is worshipped and claiming the prerogatives which belong to God alone. Fiercely opposed to the papacy was Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), a notable Baptist preacher known as the „Prince of Preachers“. Not only he considered the pope as Antichrist as other theologians and preachers, but he also encouraged Christians to pray against it – of course in the spirit of love. He was aware the battle is against errors, not man who holds them. There is a great number of men who opposed doctrines of Roman Catholicism and the papacy as well. As Michael de Semlyen, in his book All Roads Leads to Rome points out: “Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer; in the seventeenth century, Bunyan, the translators of the King James Bible and the men who published the Westminster and Baptist confessions of Faith; Sir Isaac Newton, Wesley, Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards; and more recently Spurgeon, Bishop J. C. Ryle and Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones; these men among countless others, all saw the office of the Papacy as the antichrist.”

Present & Future

In these days, efforts of ecumenical movement to unify the Church are remarkable. The first greater impulse by Roman Catholich Church came with Second Vatican Council (1962-65), 21st ecumenical council. First Vatican Council (1869-70) called Protestants „heretics and schismatics“. In contrast, Vatican Council II, in a document Unitatis Redintegratio, Catholic Church restored Protestants to favour: „We are aware indeed that there exist considerable divergences from the doctrine of the Catholic Church concerning Christ Himself, the Word of God made flesh, the work of redemption, and consequently, concerning the mystery and ministry of the Church, and the role of Mary in the plan of salvation. But we rejoice to see that our separated brethren look to Christ as the source and center of Church unity.“ Since Second Vatican Council, ecumenical movement has seen a huge success. In 1999, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was released declaring that Lutherans and Catholics agree together on the doctrine of justification which is the key doctrine of the Reformation. However, not all Catholic and Lutheran theologians shared the endorsement. In 2006, The World Methodist Council adopted the document and thus supported ecumenism. A great number of members expressed aversion. Current Pope Francis desires unity. In 2014, he sent a bishop Tony Palmer to Charismatic Evangelical Leadership Conference hosted by Kenneth Copeland, the Word of Faith teacher. Francis declared that the Reformation protest is over. Copeland responded positively to his message.

The question is whether Roman Catholic theology has changed. Probably the greatest opponents of ecumenism are Reformed theologians, such as John MacAthur, R. C. Sproul or Alistair Begg. According to defenders of separation from Roman Catholic Church, doctrines of justification, salvation or authority are wrongly interpreted and that teachings regarding mass, transsubstantiation, character and role of Mary, sacraments, purgatory and many others are absolutely heretical. Although Roman Catholicism changed perspectives in more than one areas, the differences remain (see the table below).

The goal of ecumenism is to unify all the churches to be the one body. The usual arguments against Protestantism, to show the greatness of its fallibility, deal with the issue of diversity – about 30,000 denominations, churches and organizations do exist today. On the contrary, Roman Catholic Church is unified. Protestants realize the fact there are cults, liberal and unbiblical churches. But there is not every doctrine has the same importance. The most basic and important doctrines include e.g. justification by grace and faith, Deity of Christ, authority of the Bible or Christ as the only way of salvation. Denial of these contradicts the Gospel and, according to orthodox (historical) Christianity, it may lead to damnation. Questioning of them is not acceptable. Less important doctrines include predestination, eschatology, form of baptism, spiritual gifts or styles of music in worship service. Each denominations has its own emphasis and yet it can be considered orthodoxical. The problem is not accepting any other denomination but one. Protestants usually claim that no church is perfect but the more it corresponds with the Bible (not only doctrinally), the more it is healthy.

Is the legacy of The Reformation, which officially began 500 years ago, still relevant? Since the Reformation, many aspects Roman Catholicism have changed. Current Protestants mostly do not agree with Reformators on all doctrines and practices. Nevertheless, the Reformation lay the foundation of Protestantism declaring, according to Protestants alone, the very truths of the Gospel.

Based on these facts, the legacy of the Reformation is still alive. The protest is not over. What is the future of ecumenical movement? The Orthodox Church and many Protestant churches have already joined the ecumenical movement. On the other hand, some churches and religious groups within Christianity see a danger in ecumenism and therefore they usually take a negative stance on ecumenical movement. Current Pope Francis tries hard to unify not only Christian churches but also other religions, such as Islam. Ecumenical movement grows slowly. Churches are not willing to make a compromise. However, it is probably only a matter of time. Influence of liberalism, denying the infallibility of the Bible and embracing secular views, is stronger in all churches, not excluding so-called Reformed. Most likely, ecumenical movement will see more success than ever before.

© 2019 Tomáš Zálešák


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