Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Protestant Reformation

The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation.

The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg. It was, appropriately, high noon, though his posting was intended not so much for dramatic effect as for scholarly discussion among his theological colleagues at the University of Wittenberg. In fact they were written in Latin, the language of learned debate.

The immediate issue of the 95 theses has long since passed from the historical horizon: the power and efficacy of indulgences (though in some ways the sale of indulgences can be seen as an early version of our all too popular prosperity gospel, still very much alive). Indeed, it had already done so during Luther’s lifetime. The famed—or infamous—seller of indulgences, Johannes Tetzel, outlived the controversy, and late in life expressed deep regret for the part he played. Characteristically, Luther wrote him a letter of comfort and consolation on his deathbed, making it clear to Tetzel that the controversy was bound to happen anyway, and not to fret.

The first thesis is stunning: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, Repent, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[1] By late medieval times, repentance had become a transaction between the individual and the clergy, performed periodically, and often involving monetary payment (indulgences). Put simply: the primary way of finding the grace of God was simply to confess your sins and literally pay up. The church was arrogating to itself the sole authority and ability to remit sins; that was the rub of the matter.

Luther hammers home the central issue. It is not the church as an institutional structure, but the “most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God, the true treasure of the church”[2] which offers the free gift of forgiveness. The gospel, the word of divine grace in Jesus Christ, is the one joyous truth of all existence. The grace of God cannot be bought and sold for human wealth; only the cross of Jesus Christ gives true security before God. Indeed, it is far better, says Luther, to spend money in care for the poor and needy than buying worthless indulgences. To see needy people and ignore them, using the money instead in the vain attempt to buy God off in the form of indulgences, does nothing more than purchase “God’s wrath.”[3] Repentance is not something you do, now and then, to ease your conscience; repentance is a radical change of life, which happens daily, turning from the old, turning to the new, in conformity to Christ.

What began as a short series of academic theses soon expanded into a church-wide revolution. Luther certainly led the way, but he was joined by figures such as Melanchthon, Zwingli, Calvin,Vermigli, Bucer, Bullinger, Brenz, Capito, Cop, Farel, Hedio, Musculus, Oecolampadius, Viret, Zell, and so forth. Theology—the witness of the church to Jesus Christ—was rethought, and recast, from the ground up. There were of course differences between the Lutheran and Reformed camps. Some of those rested on misunderstandings, some on real disagreements which are still being debated among theologians to this day. Nevertheless, what tied together the primary witness of the Reformers far outweighed the differences.

What follows is a brief attempt to summarize the main thrust of Reformation teaching, especially according to Luther and Calvin, in my judgment its most prominent and persuasive advocates (I am hardly alone in this assessment). A few points should be made clear at the outset. First, while the Reformation defined itself over against late medieval Catholicism, it is no longer a defensible position either historically or theologically simply to describe the Reformation now as an opponent of contemporary Roman Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy). We have come too far in ecumenical discussion for such uninformed polemics. To be sure, Protestants even today will likely have serious problems with papal infallibility, but few, if any, serious Christians now think that Pope Francis is the Antichrist. In some profound sense in the sight of God, we are today all Protestants, all Catholic, all Orthodox.

Second, there are of course many different ways of looking at the Reformation. It was an epoch making event in the historical, social, cultural, even economic life of Germany and Europe as a whole. Rural and urban issues were involved. Family and educational structures were transformed. Political arrangements were made and unmade, then made again. However, I am proposing to see the Reformation as the Reformers themselves saw it: and that is primarily as a theological event. God by his Spirit through the witness of Scripture was teaching, almost daily, the living church something new about the crucified and risen Lord, exalted over all creation: that is what the Reformers believed. I am inclined to agree, and that is how I will assess their message below.

And third, we who consider their witness cannot be dispassionate observers. The same God who Reformed the church by his word and Spirit then, reforms the church even now, even this very day. That does not mean hero-worship of the Reformers, the surest way to lose touch with their genuine contribution. Nor does it mean attempting to return to their teaching, which contradicts the essence of that very teaching. It means, rather, that a genuine encounter with the teaching of the Reformers is perilous to a complacent church, whether on the left or on the right; yet, to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, such an encounter can lead forward to newness of life in the service of the risen Lord.

Scripture Alone

The Reformers began by attacking one opponent, and ended up being forced to attack two. On the one hand, both Luther and Calvin faced a lifelong running battle with late medieval Catholicism, which in due course would become the modern system of Roman Catholic teaching at the Council of Trent. It should be duly noted: after Vatican II, much that the Reformers rejected was in fact altered by Roman Catholicism itself. On the other side, there emerged a variety of voices and movements which tried, as it were, to outrun the Reformation ideas on the radical extreme. Luther called them enthusiasts, Calvin fanatics; either way, the point was that they took the ideas of the Reformers out of context, and turned them into an extreme caricature unrelated to the theological substance of the Reformation itself. Often, both Reformers felt that the late medieval catholic position on the one hand, and the Radical Reformation position on the other hand, portrayed mirror images of each other. Extremes meet, in the sixteenth century as in the twenty-first.

Nowhere is this echo effect more clear than in the doctrine of Scripture. We begin with a definition: Holy Scripture alone is the one normative witness to God’s will for the church and for the world (sola scriptura). That is the Reformation position, and in my judgment continues to hold valid for the church universal. But straightaway we must clear up a basic misconception. It is often said that the Reformers affirmed the Bible and rejected tradition; and that is both true and false. It is true in this sense: both Reformers soundly rejected the idea that tradition, the church’s own history of interpreting the Bible, constituted a second mode of revelation from God side-by-side with Scripture. That was their objection against late medieval Catholicism. Yet, fanaticism being what it is, inevitably there arose the view that readers of the Bible need take no interest whatsoever in the history of interpretation. Every reader is armed by the Spirit with his or her own interpretation! Away with the voices of the past! Throw away the creeds and confessions! Away with scholarship and the church! Tear down the idols of university and learning! No more elitism, we must turn to the voice of the people! Against this view, both Luther and Calvin were equally adamant: tradition has a vital role to play. Luther and Calvin were themselves deeply learned in the history of interpretation, in fact perhaps the most learned of their generation.

So, how to solve the problem? Calvin solved it this way, and I think his solution is brilliant and satisfying. It is a matter of priority. The medieval scheme of theological education put study of the Bible first, then theological training last. In other words, first get Bible out of the way, then turn to the real task of learned theological discussion. Calvin reversed that entire educational structure. Theological instruction comes first. His own Institutes is a primary example. In other words, first listen to the highlights ofthe church’s longstandingconversation with the Bible and learn the basic issues that tradition has raised concerning the witness of faith, in order that you will not be led astray. Then turn to the Bible and the Bible alone. Face to face with the risen Christ in the school of Scripture, under the guidance of the Spirit, the church is led from faith to faith in the knowledge of God. First tradition, then Scripture alone. That is the way Calvin shaped the Institutes: as a manual of instruction for ministers and readers of the Bible.

When we thus turn to the Bible, what do we find? Again, both Luther and Calvin differed radically from both left and right in their time, and indeed from both left and right in our own. It is one thing to assert the authority of Scripture, but it is quite another to live under that authority in the faith and practice of the community. On the one hand, there is a logic of confirmation. One turns to the Bible to confirm what one already knows, or thinks one knows, about the substance of faith. It is the way of the church at rest, the church complacent and sure of itself, the church already convinced it knows all the right answers. It is not the way of the Reformation. For Luther and Calvin, it is essential to approach the Bible with a logic of discovery. Luther puts it this way: “To stand still on God’s way means to go backward, and to go forward means ever to begin anew.”[4] We turn to the Bible to find out what we don’t know, or don’t know well enough; to find out what we need to learn, in order to live, breathe, and move in this world. We turn to the Bible hungering and thirsting, not full, and there suddenly find the fullness of life. We read, and suddenly realize that we are ourselves being “read” by the author of life, who weaves into our lives the joy and peace which only he can give.

As we read, according to Luther and Calvin, we should never lose a sense of the whole. We start of course with the words of the Bible. Both Luther and Calvin were trained in Hebrew and Greek, and once again virtually without equal in their generation in their ability to handle the Bible in the original languages. Yet both were committed to the task of translation: Luther translating the Bible into German, Calvin into French (actually a revision of the so-called Olivétan Bible). The Bible is for the whole people of God, not for the priestly elite. Yet we read the words of the text in order to lead by the Spirit of God to the one subject matter of which they speak, which is Jesus Christ. The Bible is a witness which points to a reality, a risen and exalted Lord. Every word of the Bible points to him, and every word gains its true meaning in reference to him. Without a sense of the whole, it is easy to get lost in trivialities, or distractions, or worse. Only with that sense—Calvin calls it the scope of Scripture—do we truly understand each individual section, yet only by learning each individual section do we develop a full appreciation for the magnificent beauty of Christ the Lord, the true substance of the Bible.

One final point concerning Scripture. We read the Bible always with the truth-question front and center. For Luther, for Calvin, for all the Reformers, the central burning question becomes: what is the truth of the gospel? What is the truth of God’s will for the world? Now, truth has nothing to do with a closed system of revealed propositions, set in order according to logical norms. That was the scholastic method of medieval theology and became once again the standard approach of Protestant scholasticism (and its modern conservative evangelical heirs). Nor is truth a matter of personal authenticity (as in modern Protestant liberalism); for the Reformers, we adjust the deepest treasures of our lives to the truth of God’s will, not the reverse. Truth is rather a living encounter with Christ the Lord through the witness of Scripture. “I am the truth” (John 14: 6), Jesus proclaims; he leads the conversation, and we follow. But follow we must, with all that we have, and all that we are, gladly and freely.

Grace Alone

We are put right with God by grace alone (sola gratia) apart from all moral striving. That is the second dimension of Reformation teaching we consider here. The entire redemptive act of God for the reconciliation of the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is an event of utterly free mercy and grace, apart from all works of righteousness, all efforts of moral self-improvement.

Once again, we need to preface our reflection with a small bit of historical context that was simply unavailable to the Reformers, Luther in particular. Luther thought he was arguing against the entire structure of medieval theology and reaching back to the teaching of Augustine and ultimately of course to the apostle Paul in his doctrine of free grace. He was right about Augustine and Paul, but in hindsight we now know aspects of medieval teaching he could not then know. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars now agree that Thomas Aquinas, the primary theologian of Roman Catholicism, in fact held a position virtually identical to Luther’s on the doctrine of grace. Once again, Luther was arguing (and Calvin too) against a late medieval view (known as nominalism, held by William of Ockham among others), but thought they were arguing against all of medieval theology. They were wrong historically, even though I for one am still convinced that Luther’s profound formulation of the doctrine of grace found in Scripture has no equal in the medieval period, including Thomas.

So what was the issue? In fact it has a very contemporary ring. The late medieval church—Luther and Calvin’s contemporaries—were teaching the following: If you do the best you can to follow the will of God, to obey his command, then he will give you grace; you will then be saved; and when he gives you that grace, you yourself must work with God, must cooperate, in the way that grace works out in your life. To put it in a contemporary idiom, God helps those who help themselves. Against this view, universal in the church at the time, Luther and Calvin stood in absolute opposition based on Scripture.

It began in the struggles of Luther’s understanding of Scripture, in fact with a single verse: “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (Rom 1: 17). How, Luther asked in deepest anguish, is this gospel good news? He wrestled with the notion of God’s righteousness. How can I ever measure up to the righteousness of God? How can I ever do all that God expects me to do? I am told to do my best, and God will be gracious to me; well and good. But how do I know that I have done my best? Maybe I have left out an act of kindness here, or committed a careless mistake there? I am doomed before I even start! This is not good news at all!

His friend and mentor, Johannes von Staupitz, gently redirected the furious self-torment of Luther by making a productive suggestion: Go learn Hebrew and Greek. And that he did. Luther spent three years, yes, three years, trying to understand the meaning of that single phrase, the righteousness of God, in Romans. And then finally it dawned on him in a moment of exegetical epiphany. The word “of” in Greek (as in English) can mean more than one thing. It can mean the righteousness that God is, the righteousness of God in the sense of God’s own perfection. But it can also mean the righteousness that God gives, the righteousness that comes from God as a gift, received by faith. Righteousness—justification (the two words are related in Greek)—is grace, pure and simple.

From beginning to end, reconciliation with God is an act of gracious mercy. We do not initiate it, we do not cooperate with it, we do not earn it, we do not deserve it. God, and God’s grace, is all, in all. There is a human response of faith (we will consider that below), but even the response is part of the gift. Through the word of the gospel God reconciles us to himself, bridging the chasm of sin; and renders us a new creation through the gift of the Spirit who lives in us, making us who we are as authentic human persons.

Even during the Reformation there was controversy. And one of the controversies concerns the point we are now considering. A scholar named Osiander offered the view that the new creation and the free act of divine justification were, in fact, the same act. God makes us new; and in that very moment we are put right with God. It seemed to Luther and Calvin, and their followers that Osiander was once again treading on sacred ground. He was once again making it seem that God accepts up because of who we are in our moral superiority, not because of who he is in his merciful love. There were two responses.

One came from Calvin alone, one of his finest contributions to Reformation doctrine. Luther often spoke of justification and the new creation, or justification and sanctification, in different ways. It was entirely understandable, in the first flush of profound exegetical discovery. But Calvin saw the danger. On the one hand, justification and sanctification cannot ever be severed. God never puts anyone right with himself without at the same time rendering them a new creation by the gift of his Spirit. That is clear, for example, from Romans 8, one of Calvin’s favorite chapters. On the other hand, justification and sanctification must not ever be simply collapsed, as Osiander is doing. We cannot and must not say: God puts us right with himself because he has rendered us a new creation. That is a clear contradiction of the free grace of the gospel. So Calvin speaks of a twofold grace (duplex gratia), of justification and sanctification. Not two graces, but one grace in two forms, which cannot be confused, but must never be separated.

The other way in which Luther and Calvin underscored the grace of the gospel is through their affirmation of God’s electing love. Once again, Augustine is in the background, but the Bible is the genuine source. Long before we believed, long before we were born, indeed, long before there was a world, or a universe, God set the seal of his love on us. He called us his own, and named us, gathering us unto himself. Why? Certainly not for any reason found in us. Neither we, nor anything at all, even yet exist! God’s electing love is grounded solely in the mystery of his gracious purpose. He wills to be with us, and us to be with him, simply because of his good pleasure. His love for us brings him joy; that is the Reformation doctrine of electing grace.

Faith Alone

We are justified by grace through faith alone (sola fide). For Luther and the Lutherans, but no less for Calvin and the Reformed, this was the central affirmation of the gospel. The context of the affirmation however is all-important. Neither Luther nor Calvin sought to set up an us/them wall between those with faith and those without faith. In fact, quite the opposite. The radical truth of the doctrine of faith applies first and foremost to the church itself. Following the prophets of the Old Testament (upon which both Luther and Calvin commented widely), and the trenchant critique of the scribes and Pharisees by Jesus, Luther and Calvin saw the doctrine of faith in the context of a dramatic assault of the gospel on the perversion and distortion of the Christian religion itself.

“Faith alone,” not the vaunted moral superiority of Christian piety and spirituality. “Faith alone,” not the self-aggrandizement and self-promotion which pass for true humble leadership in the sight of God. “Faith alone,” not political and cultural fanaticism setting up a theocracy in the name of the gospel, which in the end does nothing but call down scorn upon that very gospel. “Faith alone,” not the higher righteousness of a religious elite, but the daily walk of the ordinary pilgrim in the journey of life, called to serve Christ in family, church, and society. For both Luther and Calvin, the doctrine of faith simply turned the entire world of Christian religiosity upside down.

Both Luther and Calvin wrote brilliantly on faith, Calvin in a marvelous section of the Institutes (III.2), Luther especially in his lengthy commentary on Genesis (which took him ten years to write!) in which the stories of the patriarchs become for Luther models of true faith in all its astounding dimensions. We return to these issues shortly. But first, once again, we need to walk our way through a controversy that then, as now, simply cannot be avoided if we are to gain real clarity.

The issue is the idea of free will. In the early church Pelagius, during the Reformation Erasmus, and in contemporary theology both conservative evangelicalism and Protestant liberalism, each in different ways, all embrace the notion of free will. Human beings, it is argued, have the capacity to believe in God, even after the Fall. The gospel reaches out to that capacity, but it is up to the individual to “accept” the gospel. Augustine in the early church, and of course Luther and Calvin in the Reformation (among many others) roundly rejected this idea of free will as a fundamental and catastrophic denial of faith.

Luther’s treatise On the Bondage of the Will is certainly the most sustained theological argument he ever put forth. Usually his view comes in systematically unsystematic form; here, Luther pounds away point by point, leaving out nothing, pressing forward with the full force of biblical conviction. We do indeed respond in faith to the gospel. We are not like stones that God just moves around; we have wills, and we exercise those wills in the matter of faith. Nevertheless, because we are sinners to the core, we cannot, literally cannot, choose God. We are trapped, as Paul says in Romans 7, knowing what is right, inevitably choosing what is wrong. Only the free grace of God gives us a new will to believe; only the free mercy of God renders us a new creation, including the gift of faith. It is we who believe; but it is God in his mercy who gives us the freedom to believe, a freedom we do not have apart from him. So-called free will is a lie of the devil. So Luther.

And of course so the apostle Paul: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2: 8-9). Faith itself is a gift, and therefore a life of arrogant boasting is absolutely excluded from the confessing church of Jesus Christ. Few would deny that we live in an age of almost pathological boasting, even on religious grounds. Perhaps our age is not so different from the world of Luther and Calvin after all.

So what is faith? Here the music of the biblical word sounds with all its wonder in both Reformers, and we can only invite the reader to tap these sources for themselves. A few brief points will have to suffice. Faith is first of all characterized by absolute trust. There are times in every life when all human reason and experience tell us that God is against us. Whatever the situation, everything we think and know tells us: God has turned away from my life in utter disregard. Faith, true faith, clings to the proclaimed word of promise even despite the appearance of human circumstances. God’s word of promise is more powerful than all obstacles; faith knows that God will do the impossible, the metaphysically impossible, for the good of his children.

Faith is knowledge of God’s word. As we have noticed, the Reformers rejected the populist idea that “every person is his or her own interpreter.” Yes, every person can and should daily read the Scripture. Nevertheless, through the astonishing will of God, Christ the Lord continues to speak his word through the voice, the often stumbling and bumbling voice, of the called minister of the word and sacrament. Heinrich Bullinger summarizes this point succinctly: “The preaching of the word of God is the word of God.”[5] Faith grows as it hears, reflects, applies and lives the proclaimed word of God, which is itself based on Holy Scripture.

Faith is a risk. Neither Calvin nor Luther had any time for the modern idea of apologetics, the idea that God can somehow be proved. A god who can be proved is an idol, because such a god is subject to the canons of human reason and logic, and therefore an extension of human cognition: a mirage, a fake. No, the call of God comes into human life from above, and seizes our existence. He gives us no proofs, no guarantees, often enough no long term plans, sometimes nothing more than a simple direction for the next step. No matter: faith follows the call of God wherever it leads. Faith leaves everything else behind—literally everything—and follows Jesus Christ, for he alone knows the way, and indeed is the way.

Christ Alone

Jesus Christ alone is God’s one redemptive purpose for the whole world, indeed for the whole cosmos: that is the one great truth of the Reformers (solus Christus). We have spoken of the Scriptures, of grace and faith, and of course could consider other aspects of their thought. However, the center, without which nothing else makes sense or even matters at all, is Jesus Christ himself. And here we do not mean a Christological proposition, though both Luther and Calvin strongly affirmed the orthodox doctrines of the early church concerning the divinity and humanity of Christ. We mean, rather, the living Lord of all creation, the crucified and exalted Christ himself, the one head of the church and ruler of all reality. He alone is the content of Scripture and indeed the voice it speaks; he alone is the grace of life for all the world; he alone is the content of faith and the assurance of faith. Christ alone is the Lord and Savior of life, from the beginning of time, indeed before time, and until time shall be no more. His kingdom, in the words of the Nicene Creed, shall have no end.

There was absolute agreement on this point, not only between Luther and Calvin, but among all the major Reformers. Only Socinianism would soon come to challenge the affirmation of solus Christus, and the Reformers were at one in their opposition. Nevertheless, there was nuance, subtlety, and variation in the way Luther and Calvin spelled out their united confession of Christ. In my opinion, the variation should not be seen as a doctrinal split, but as an enriching family resemblance within the one church of Jesus Christ.

Luther saw in the late medieval church the desire for earthly splendor, riches, success, all supposedly in the name of Christ. He saw the same desire among those who tried to set up an earthly Christian theocracy in the name of the gospel, a Christian society. Whether the catholic, or the Anabaptist, both embraced what Luther calls a theology of glory. Now, it is true, Christ is crucified, raised again, and ascended into glory. Luther’s point—the point of the Gospel of Mark in fact—is that there is no way to the resurrection which does not first pass through the way of the cross. The path from one to the other is not crossed just once, in the life of Jesus; it must be crossed for all time among those who follow him. We must all take up our cross daily. We must all live under the shadow of the cross, embracing, not avoiding, its shame and scorn. For it is only in the dignity of the cross that we find the true glory of Christ. Luther thus argues powerfully for a theology of the cross to replace the medieval theology of glory. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would follow him in this, in his brilliant study, The Cost of Discipleship.

Calvin on the other hand read the story of Jesus against the background of the Old Testament. There is in the Old Testament a twofold movement. God comes to meet humanity in the covenant on Mount Sinai. God appoints human beings, prophets, priests, and kings, to come before him in the enactment of that covenant. Calvin argues powerfully: Jesus Christ is the true fulfillment of both directions in the Old Testament. He is God himself in our midst; he is true humanity living before God, the true prophet, priest, and king. Jesus Christ therefore is the one substance of the eternal covenant between God and humanity. In Christ, a relationship between God and all humanity is established. Calvin stresses: There are not two covenants, a plan A and a plan B. Later Reformed theologians, Olevianus, Polanus, Wollebius, etc., will speak of two covenants, a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. Not Calvin. Both Testaments have only the one covenant, whose one substance is Jesus Christ himself, though that covenant is administered in different ways to Israel of old and to the church. There is only plan A.

Conclusion:

We need perhaps to take a step back to take the full measure of the Reformation affirmation of the solus Christus. In our own age, the issue of pluralism has become a major focus; it was not to the Reformers. Their position was quite clear: there is no salvation outside of faith in Jesus Christ. But that is not the full import of the affirmation of “Christ alone.” That would be directed to those outside the church; Luther and Calvin were far more concerned with “Christ alone” inside the walls of the church. We are reminded: Judgment begins in the household of God. Luther saw countless distractions, from the search for a “worldview” to politicized troublemaking to the naked grab for wealth in the name of piety. His fury knew no bounds, but it was for the sake of his one desire: To show forth the beauty of Christ to the world. Calvin witnessed well-intentioned people getting tripped up on matters of virtually no importance, as if the future of the church rested upon them, while at the same time others could pass right by the most significant issues of the Bible as if they did not matter one whit. He saw people trying hard to read the Bible, and making little progress; and so he wrote to teach, to instruct, to guide, to help, his fellow believers do the one thing necessary, to find the true scope of the Bible which is Christ the Lord, and Christ alone. It is the church, first, which needs to learn the true meaning of Christ alone; only then can it proclaim it forth to the world in word and deed.

We end with an obvious concern of many of us: So where is the Reformation vision of truth now to be found in the church? It is of course the burning question, and will be asked this year no doubt in a wide variety of forums. We still have our fanaticism on the religious right, with its vain pursuit of an ethno-nationalism, a “Christian America,” an idol no different than those already condemned by Luther and Calvin, and still to be condemned in our day. We have the continuing effort of spiritual transcendence on the religious left; the shape of piety has changed, but the effort to find a gracious God through self-renewal and self-improvement is all too familiar, and all too human. Indeed, the confessing church of Jesus Christ has already condemned Protestant liberalism as false doctrine in the Barmen Declaration; the human effort at self-transcendence, then as now, can only set humankind disastrously over against God’s good will for his beloved creation. So what then? What of the knowledge of Christ and faith? What of grace and reverence for the authority of Scripture, not as a set of right human words about God, but as God’s own living and overpowering word about us?

It is, I think, worth observing, that the very first scholar to ask these questions was Martin Luther. In 1528, just over a decade since the Reformation began in full force, Luther set out on a tour of the new churches. How had the new Reformation doctrines of the Bible fared? He was frankly appalled, indeed outraged. Everywhere he went, he found gross ignorance among laity and clergy alike concerning even the basics of Christian doctrine. “Good God, what a wretched calamity I beheld!”[6] Similar words are found in Calvin and the other Reformers. The Reformation itself was not a smooth process of laying out a new direction for the church. Looking back it may seem that way, but in fact it was a moment of grave crisis, in which literally everything seemed in the balance almost daily.

And that of course is exactly where we find ourselves today. We look to the right and there is no help; we look to the left and can find no comfort. Nor is the answer to look back in nostalgia, which, as the Bible warns, is always the way of the fool: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccl. 7: 10). No, faith always looks forward, never backward. Luther said it best: “To change our mind is the purpose of every word of Scripture and every action of God.”[7] To change our mind: not to drive us into the so-called greatness of the past, where nothing exists but the old age that is passing away, nor to lure us further into the self, where all is bondage, but to set us free to encounter anew the risen Lord, and so be ourselves for the first time.


The Reverend Paul C. McGlasson, Ph.D. (Yale University) has served as a seminary professor and parish minister. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is currently on sabbatical.


[1] Martin Luther, “Ninety–Five Theses,” in Career of the Reformer I, Luther’s Works vol.31, ed. Helmut Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 25. Hereafter cited: “Ninety–Five Theses.”

[2] Luther, “Ninety–Five Theses,” 31.

[3] Luther, “Ninety–Five Theses,” 29.

[4] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans in Luther’s Works vol.25, ed. Hilton Oswald (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 370. Hereafter cited: Lectures on Romans.

[5] Second Helvetic Confession. ch.1, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) The Book of Confessions, 5.004.

[6] Martin Luther, “Preface to the Small Catechism.” Alt. cit. “Good God, what wretchedness I beheld!” The Book of Concord, trans. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 338.

[7] Luther, Lectures on Romans, 54.

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Paul C. McGlasson
The Reverend Paul C. McGlasson, Ph.D. (Yale University) has served as a seminary professor and parish minister. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is currently on sabbatical.

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