October 28, 2014

What Caused the Reformation?

by Nathan Busenitz

What caused the Reformation?

Many people might answer that question by pointing to Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.

But if you were to ask Luther himself, he would not point to himself or his own writings. Instead, he would give all the credit to God and His Word.

Near the end of his life, Luther declared: “All I have done is put forth, preach and write the Word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing. . . . It is the Word that has done great things. . . . I have done nothing; the Word has done and achieved everything.”

Elsewhere, he exclaimed: “By the Word the earth has been subdued; by the Word the Church has been saved; and by the Word also it shall be reestablished.”

Noting Scripture’s foundational place in his own heart, Luther wrote: “No matter what happens, you should say: There is God’s Word. This is my rock and anchor. On it I rely, and it remains. Where it remains, I, too, remain; where it goes, I, too, go.”

Luther understood what caused the Reformation. He recognized that it was the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God preached by men of God in a language that the common people of Europe could understand and when their ears were exposed to the truth of God’s Word it pierced their hearts and they were radically changed.

It was that very power that had transformed Luther’s own heart, a power that is summarized in the familiar words of Hebrews 4:12: “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.”

During the late middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church had imprisoned God’s Word in the Latin language, a language the common people of Europe did not speak. The Reformers unlocked the Scriptures by translating them. And once the people had the Word of God, the Reformation became inevitable.

We see this commitment to the Scriptures even in the centuries prior to Martin Luther, beginning with the Forerunners to the Reformation:

In the 12th century, the Waldensians translated the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate into their regional French dialects. According to tradition, they were so committed to the Scriptures that different Waldensian families would memorize large sections of the Bible. That way, if Roman Catholic authorities found them and confiscated their printed copies of Scripture, they would later be able to reproduce the entire Bible from memory.

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe and his associates at Oxford translated the Bible from Latin into English. Wycliffe’s followers, known as the Lollards, went throughout the countryside preaching and singing passages of Scripture in English.

In the 15th century, Jan Huss preached in the language of the people, and not in Latin, making him the most popular preacher in Prague at the time. Yet, because Huss insisted that Christ alone was the head of the church, not the pope, the Catholic Council of Constance condemned him for heresy and burned him at the stake (in 1415).

In the 16th century, as the study of Greek and Hebrew were recovered, Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, with the New Testament being completed in 1522.

In 1526, William Tyndale completed a translation of the Greek New Testament into English. A few years later he also translated the Pentateuch from Hebrew. Shortly thereafter he was arrested and executed as a heretic—being strangled and then burned at the stake. According to Fox’s Book of Martyrs, Tyndale’s last words were “Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes.” And it was just a couple years after his death that King Henry VIII authorized the Great Bible in England—a Bible that was largely based on Tyndale’s translation work. The Great Bible laid the foundation for the later King James version (which was completed in 1611).

The common thread, from Reformer to Reformer, was an undying commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, such that they were willing to sacrifice everything, including their own lives, to get the Word of God into the hands of the people.

They did this because they understood that the power for spiritual reformation and revival was not in them, but in the gospel (cf. Rom. 1:16–17). And they used the Latin phrase Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to emphasize the truth that God’s Word was the true power and ultimate authority behind all they said and did.

It was ignorance of Scripture that made the Reformation necessary. It was the recovery of the Scripture that made the Reformation possible. And it was the power of the Scripture that gave the Reformation its enduring impact, as the Holy Spirit brought the truth of His Word to bear on the hearts and minds of individual sinners, transforming them, regenerating them, and giving them eternal life.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Dan Phillips

    Very needed reminder.

    What I preached Sunday paralleled this (http://bit.ly/1wys3WM). Ephesians 1:1 provided an opportunity to preach a “Sola Scriptura” sermon. I opened by asking what the Reformation was about. Most who could answer at all might say “How to be right before God” (the material cause). But that isn’t it. The more fundamental question is: how do I answer that question? Depend on Aristotle, councils, creeds?

    No: Sola Scriptura.

    • nathan

      One of the things I like about the Bible is that it unequivocally refutes Sola scriptura!

      • Jeff Schlottmann

        Scripture references on that?

        • De Maria

          Let’s start with 2 Thess 2:15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[a] we passed on to you,whether by word of mouth or by letter.

          And please provide the Scripture which you think establishes Sola Scriptura.

          • Jas25

            This verse is clearly talking about the teachings that the apostles (at the time of 2 Thessalonians being written) had passed on to Thessaloniki.

            Now, that’s not to say there are no teachings other than those that we should hold to, just that the verse cannot be ripped from its context to demonstrate that some teachings foreign to the Thessalonians at the time are mandatory as well.

            If you want to know exactly what teachings those are, a good place to start would be the epistles to Thessaloniki (scripture!). I’m sure they received additional teachings as well.

          • De Maria

            Nor is that what the Catholic Church teaches. All Doctrines of the Catholic Church are in Scripture either explicit or implied.

            Now, I have yet to see the purported doctrine of Sola Scriptura in Scripture. The reason being that it was propounded only in rebellion to the Catholic Church. And you will find that all Protestant doctrines which contradict Catholic Teaching, also contradict Scripture.

          • Jas25

            So if I get this straight, you’re saying that Sola Scriptura was invented because it opposed the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings, but that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are based on scripture?

            Seems like they’d have been playing right into RC hand instead of opposing them…

          • De Maria

            When will you produce the verse or verses which you claim support the idea of Sola Scriptura?

          • Jas25

            Galatians 1:8-9 warned the church that if even an apostle speaks anything against their previous teachings they are to be accursed. 2 Timothy 3:16, tells us that all scripture is true and anything contrary to scripture is false. Acts 17:11 further commends those who test their leadership’s teaching against scripture.

            The idea of Sola Scriptura is found in those truths when logically combined. No man has the authority to over-rule, invalidate, or overturn the original teachings and the original teachings(scripture) have all authority to over-rule, invalidate, or overturn every other teaching. Also, each Christian is responsible for testing their leadership against scripture.

            It sounds like you actually accept Sola Scriptura but believe that your leadership is teaching only what doctrine are found in scripture. Then the debate becomes one of what scripture says and not of inheritance lines and papal authority.

          • tovlogos

            Agreed. Let me add, Revelation 22:18,19; Deuteronomy 4:1-2; Proverbs 30:5-6, where the same theme is reiterated.
            Although Revelation 22 appears to speak of the book of Revelation specifically; how can we tamper with a part and not effect the whole?

          • Jas25

            Revelation is indeed warning about only the prophecies it contains. Deuteronomy and Proverbs are a more sure reason to check teachers against scripture, as plenty will claim to speak for God while not (like the many false prophets and teachers throughout both Israel’s history and even in the church) and we can only be sure that scripture is true.

          • Pope of Geneva

            In some sense I agree.

            John Calvin pointed out the need for “guidance and direction” before reading scripture…

            In his preface to the Institutio Christianae religionis – Institutes of Christian Religion

            He stated the following…

            “[prefixed to the french edition, published at geneva in 1545.]
            In order that my Readers may be the better able to profit by the present work, I am desirous briefly to point out the advantage which they may derive from it. For by so doing I will show them the end at which they ought to aim, and to which they ought to give their attention in reading it.

            Although the Holy Scriptures contain a perfect doctrine, to which nothing can be added—our Lord having been pleased therein to unfold the infinite treasures of his wisdom—still every person, not intimately acquainted with them, stands in need of some guidance and direction, as to what he ought to look for in them, that he may not wander up and down, but pursue a certain path, and so attain the end to which the Holy Spirit invites him.

            Hence it is the duty of those who have received from God more light than others to assist the simple in this matter, and, as it were, lend them their hand to guide and assist them in finding the sum of what God has been pleased to teach us in his word.”

            Soli Calvin

            …sōlā Deī grātiā salvantur ēlectī “by God’s grace alone are the chosen/elect saved”

          • De Maria

            Jas25 De Maria • 5 hours ago

            Galatians 1:8-9 warned the church that if even an apostle speaks anything against their previous teachings they are to be accursed.

            That is true. That is why the Reformers committed a terrible sin. They contradicted the Word of God passed down by the Apostles.

            2 Timothy 3:16, tells us that all scripture is true

            It also says that Scripture is useful for teaching. But not that it is necessary for teaching. Nor does it recommend to pass out Bibles without teaching.

            and anything contrary to scripture is false. Acts 17:11 further commends those who test their leadership’s teaching against scripture.

            Acts 17:11New International Version (NIV)

            11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

            Not true. It illustrates the Magisterium. St. Paul is a representative of the Teaching Church. The Bereans accepted the Teaching because they confirmed it in Scripture.

            And, if you read the Acts 17:5, you will see that the Thessalonian Jews accepted the Scripture, but rejected the Teaching of the Apostles. And that is why they were not noble in the eyes of St. Paul.

            The idea of Sola Scriptura is found in those truths when logically combined.

            I don’t agree. When correctly understood, Scripture contradicts Sola Scriptura.

            No man has the authority to over-rule, invalidate, or overturn the original teachings and the original teachings(scripture) have all authority to over-rule, invalidate, or overturn every other teaching.

            That is actually true. But the original Teachings come to us from the Church and Scripture says that the Church is the Judge which Jesus Christ put in place to determine who is teaching correctly (Matt 18:17).

            Also, each Christian is responsible for testing their leadership against scripture.

            Actually, Scripture teaches that each Christian should submit to their leadership in the Church:”

            Hebrews 13:17New International Version (NIV)

            17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over youas those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

            It sounds like you actually accept Sola Scriptura but believe that your leadership is teaching only what doctrine are found in scripture. Then the debate becomes one of what scripture says and not of inheritance lines and papal authority.

            It is both. The True Church teaches the True Doctrines of Jesus Christ and you will be able to find them in Scripture.

            It is a three way test. Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium. Not by Scripture alone.

          • Johnny

            But what if the Magisterium makes up ridiculous, non-Scriptural things like not eating sausage on a Lenten Friday night? Would it be the thumb screws for a baptist such as I?

            Happy reformation day everyone!

          • Jas25

            “Not true. It illustrates the Magisterium. St. Paul is a representative of the Teaching Church.”

            Here Paul commends people for checking what he was saying against previous teachings to see if he was being true to the original message. If everything he adds is unquestionably true than how is questioning him profitable?

            Instead, he’s encouraging believers to take the teachings we know to be true (in our case, scripture) and compare any other teachings against them (even if they’re coming from a person who appears to have authority).

            Really it’s no different from God commanding Israel to out-of-hand reject any prophecy that comes from someone that encourages them to follow other gods. Their station presumes that they speak on God’s authority, but are verifiably not.

            “And, if you read the Acts 17:5, you will see that the Thessalonian Jews accepted the Scripture, but rejected the Teaching of the Apostles.”

            Actually, the problem was that the Jews who opposed Christianity DIDN’T accept scripture. Jesus himself said that if they had only accepted the clear witness of him in scripture they would come to him and have life (John 5:37-40).

            Instead they clung to the traditions and rituals as though such things had any saving power.

            “It is a three way test. Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium.”

            One has to be chosen as the truth from which others can be compared or people are just picking the one they like best. We agree scripture is 100% accurate. It is the only logical “master source”.

            Tradition and Magisterium should both be subjected to scriptural scrutiny to ensure they are not false. If you believe they have been sufficiently and can still accept it, that is another topic of debate.

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  • Thanks for this concise chronological collection of historical events showing how God continued working throughout history, ultimately bringing His plan of Redemption to fruition..which of course He continues doing today…therein lies the true continuation of miracles! 🙂

  • Jas25

    “They did this because they understood that the power for spiritual reformation and revival was not in them, but in the gospel”

    Interestingly, a lot (thankfully not all) of the talk of a revival I’ve heard in recent years come from those who believe the revival is being lead by extra-Biblical revelation.

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  • De Maria

    In my opinion, the Reformation was caused, in no small part, by Martin Luther’s misunderstanding of Rom 3:28.

    When St. Paul said, “justified by faith apart from works”, Luther interpreted that as faith “alone”: But that s not what St. Paul meant. St. Paul was teaching the justification which occurs in the Sacraments.

    Let me explain:

    St. Paul taught the Catholic Teaching that only those who do the works of the Law are justified:

    Romans 2:13
    King James Version (KJV)
    13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

    In Catholic Teaching, we are justified by faith and works. That is the foundation and root of all justification. Faith is expressed and perfected in works.

    However, the Church also teaches that we are justified in the Sacraments where we are washed in sanctifying grace. Especially Baptism. Sacraments are God’s mighty works. We don’t do anything except submit to His works in the proper dispostion, which is that of faith.

    This is the Justification by faith apart from works to which St. Paul referred.

    The process is evident in every semester of RCIA. By faith, we seek the Lord and study to show ourselves approved. Only those who undergo this process are then JUSTIFIED in Baptism.

    Lets take another example.

    St. Paul says:
    Galatians 2:16

    King James Version (KJV)

    16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

    Notice how he repeatedly says here, “faith OF Christ”. Not “by faith IN Christ”. He is not speaking about believing in Christ. That is assumed. He is speaking about the observance of the rituals instituted by Christ in His new way. He is speaking of the Sacraments.

    And this, is Luther’s error. He did not connect the Sacramental teaching of St. Paul. Luther recognized the Sacraments and he recognized the perfection of the sinner in the justification by faith. But denied the merit of that expression of faith in good works without which no one will be saved. And he applied St. Paul’s teaching wrongly across the board. He failed to recognize the difference between the justification by faith and works that occurs as a result of the effort of the man of God which is illustrated by St. Peter below:

    2 Peter 1:4-10

    King James Version (KJV)

    4Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
    5And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
    6And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
    7And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. 8For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. 10Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.

    And that justifcation by faith apart from works which occurs by the action of God in the Sacraments:
    Titus 3:5
    Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

    What do you think?

    • Jas25

      I think that by faith (alone) we are justified, but that faith without works is dead (James 2). Nothing but faith necessarily proceeds salvation (as with the thief on the cross, who performed no works and yet was saved), but sanctification will ALWAYS follow faith as well.

      It may sound like semantics, but there’s a big difference. In one case, you are saying that you can have faith in Christ and not be saved without works. In the other you are saying that you can’t actually have faith in Christ and still not produce works.

      The book of Hebrews is a good place to learn about the dangers of assuming some religious rite is going to make a person more worthy of salvation than faith alone will (because it’s a teaching the Jews of the time struggled with as well).

      I do want to add that the fine line has error on both sides, and many fall into the pit of thinking that a person can die to self and yet not submit their life to God.

      • De Maria

        Jas25,

        There’s a lot in your post. But if I may focus on your first thought.

        I think that by faith (alone) we are justified….

        But doesn’t Scripture say:

        James 2:24

        24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

        And again:

        Romans 2:13

        13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

        If “considered righteous” and “declared righteous” mean justified, how do you reconcile these Scriptures to your thought?

        • Jas25

          I agree that at first glance James 2:24 seems like a death blow to “faith alone”. However, read in context it’s clear that he’s talking about how faith without works isn’t faith at all (James 2:18). In other words, some of the verses are talking about a “faith” (as others were calling it) that really isn’t faith and he’s comparing it to true faith.

          As examples: Abraham would not truly have been faithful had he withheld his son. Rehab would not have been faithful had she turned the spies away because of the worldly risk.

          However, to say that those works are necessary for salvation in themselves is to say that everyone needs to try to sacrifice their children and harbor spies from Israel. Neither of which, I’m sure you agree, are required for justification. It was their faith that justified them, but that faith directed their actions.

          Those who claim to have faith without works really have no saving faith. Those who claim to have some set of actions required for salvation are teaching another gospel (Romans 3:28-30). Our works will be the evidence of our faith, but those works are distinct to God’s call for each of us, not religious rote.

          • De Maria

            What about when Jesus said:

            Matthew 25:31-46King James Version (KJV)

            31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me…..45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

            46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

            Is that the types of works you’re talking about?

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            De Maria, can I ask you a question? If you believe we are saved by faith in Christ, but also by our works, how do you know when those works are enough? When does the scale tip far enough to get you on the sheep side vs. the goats?

            And if Jesus sent the Holy Spirit as a “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” so that we would have as Peter said “an inexpressible and glorious joy” can you say you have received that?

          • Jas25

            Those are certainly among the works of the righteous. You’ll notice also that the righteous were surprised to have been honored for having done what they had done since they were doing it out of the freedom they have in Christ and not as some drive to earn favor.

            The righteous are not only redeemed by faith, they live by it. However, there will also be many among those cast out who will have attempted to gain the appearance of godliness by these sort of works as well. The works have no saving power in themselves.

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