Reformation Myths, Part 1

Reformation Sunday is coming! With the popularity of new movements, the Reformed faith has become a familiar furniture in the evangelical house. Still, Reformed theology can be very divisive. Our calling as Christians is to strive towards like-mindedness with the non-Reformed, but this does not mean that we ought to strive towards like-mindlessness. The call to unity is a call for us to dialogue with other Trinitarians with an open Bible and a humble spirit. a. To begin this conversation we need to clear away misunderstandings; to clear away the myths concerning the Reformation. It is my humble opinion that the greatest expression of Trinitarian orthodoxy in the world today is found in the Reformed faith. Explaining precisely what this great tradition desired to do will help us ground ourselves in the Reformation’s conviction that the Scriptures are our highest authority in life.

Critics have developed many myths about the 16th century Reformation. Ironically, the critics would not have the privilege and liberty to express their criticisms if it had not been for the Reformation. They persist nevertheless. We will examine four of these myths; two now and the others in the days ahead.

The first myth is that the Reformers did not care about the outward unity of the Church.

In Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17, He commands that we be one just as He and the Father are one. But the more astute may say, “But wait a minute: the Reformation did not unite the Church, it actually fractured it greatly.” In some sense it did. However, what one may fail to understand is that Christian unity cannot be rooted in corruption. A corrupt and immoral Church cannot continue to bless the nations. You see, the issue here is not just unity, the issue is uniting around the right things. The Reformers understood this. They understood that unless false doctrine and corruption were dealt with you would have a weak, paralyzed Church incapable of being the salt and light of the earth. The Reformers were so concerned about not dividing the Church that when Rome charged the Reformers with the sin of schism (the sin of division), Calvin called for a Church-wide council, so that both sides could be examined. He wanted another ecumenical council to debate these important issues; perhaps they could come to an agreement and not divide. In fact, Luther—the father of the Reformation—said to Philip Melanchthon before he died that his greatest fear would be that “many harsh and terrible sects will arise, God help us!” The Reformers feared the idea of a divided Church. They wanted to unify the Church but their vision never came to pass. Our hope is that the vision begun in the Reformation will continue in the decades and centuries to come. Still, the Reformation understood that unity is not based on the appointment of an arch-bishop or a pope. Installing an ecclesiastical figure does not bring unity unless purity and true doctrine are at its base. The Reformation was intended to be a reformation of the Church since the Reformers understood that without the Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

The second myth is that the Reformers wanted each individual Christian to read the Bible on his own and interpret the Bible on his own. 

Some define this as the priesthood of all believers; that every man was his own priest and interpreter. But this is not what the Reformers meant by the priesthood of all believers. The Reformers did not want individual Christians taking their Bibles home and acting as if they were an authority in and of themselves, and that therefore they needed no one to guide them. On the contrary, the priesthood of the believers for the Reformers meant that all believers had common access to the heavenly throne of grace; that we could act as priests to one another. The Reformers did not mean that instead of having one pope, every Christian would be his own pope! Rather, they wanted the Bible put in the hands of the people so that it could be studied in the context of a community. The Reformers never intended for the people to try to understand the word of God apart from the guidance and teaching ministry of the Church. After all, the Reformers were biblical people and they knew Paul’s words that the Church needs pastors and teachers to equip the saints. This is why they wrote confessions and catechisms for adults and children.

The Reformation did not mean biblical anarchism. In fact, Luther feared that some would disregard the Church once they had their own Bible. Luther feared lack of submission to those in positions of authority in the Church. To those who did not seek the guidance of the Church, Luther had this to say: “If we read the Bible in our own way, we will just go to hell in our own way.” Martin Luther believed as Paul did that God gave ministers and elders to equip the Church in all truth. So, this idea that the Reformers believed that it was every man for himself and that people could come to their own conclusions without the accountability of the Church is a great myth. Theology apart from the Church is anarchism. The Reformers rejected this idea.

  1. Thanks to my friend, Rich Lusk, for elaborating on these  (back)
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