If we stop celebrating who we are risk losing our identity
Reformation day was once an important celebration in the Protestant church calendar. Today, however, it has almost dropped from sight. And the reason for this is not hard to find.
It no longer seems important to us that we are Protestant evangelicals. We may even have permitted this way of life to become a forgotten heritage. We have allowed ourselves to forget who we are.
Identity is connected to history, and memory is the golden link. In former times, we reviewed our theology and kept in touch with our spiritual ancestry on several occasions during the year. This was especially so on Reformation Day. That October Sunday was nothing less than a community birthday party, a commemoration of a “second Pentecost” for the Christian church.
A real Reformation Day festival cannot help but be positive. Even the word “Protestant” comes from the Latin word that means “to be a proponent of a position,” or to “testify for.” Anglican Dean William R. Inge said, “It is ignorance which seeks to restrict the word to the attitude of an objector.” The Protestant Reformation preeminently concerned belief. It was a profound effort to restore the faith and life of New Testament Christianity. This process involved four steps, the foundation stones of the Reformation.
The first step was recovery of the Scriptures. To understand early Christianity, it was necessary to return to the primary sources, the documents by the apostles and evangelists.
For centuries there had been a silence of the Scriptures in the church. Written in long-forgotten languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek—they were available only in Latin, a tongue spoken by a mere handful of scholars and ecclesiastics. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) wished that “the countryman might sing them at his plough, the weaver chant them at his loom, and the traveller beguile with them the weariness of his journey.” Yet all Erasmus managed was a better text of the Greek New Testament for fellow scholars.
Then Martin Luther used that text (1515) as the basis for his translation of the New Testament into German. He once summed up his whole ministry as one derived from Scripture. He said, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing.” Unfortunately, the German Scriptures soon became the sole preserve of the powerful princes and learned theologians. The people were unable to penetrate their teachings.
Meanwhile, Henry VIII, that belated champion of the English Reformation, put an English Bible in every parish church of his realm. But it was the English Puritans and separatists who finally took the Bible off the lectern and put it into the hands and hearts of the British people. They shared “the deeply held belief that all God’s children have the right to read and understand God’s Word.”
They thus snatched the Scriptures from the elite classes—bishops, theologians, scholars, and nobles—and placed them into the care of the people. Like the Bereans, “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In the words of Anglican historian J. R. Green, the result was that “England became the people of the book, and that book was the Bible.”
Philip Hughes, a Roman Catholic historian, said of these early Puritans that through constant personal study of the Bible “these people have themselves become transformed into scriptural figures, and all the drama of their lives has itself become transformed into a scriptural event, itself a continuation of the sacred story.”
We can see a present-day effect of that enthusiasm for the Bible in the vast and growing number of home Bible studies. Women alone, men alone, and couples or other mixed groups are meeting informally each week to search out the meaning of a passage of Scripture. One woman said after a study led by people she considered fundamentalists, “Well, I can see that all fundamentalists aren’t rock-heads!” She remarked after another study concerning her recent conversion, “Dear Lord, thank you for helping me make up my fool mind.” The power of God works through the study of the Bible.
Another woman first realized the meaning of justification by faith in a couples’ study of Colossians. A Christian friend had been explaining that doctrine to her for years, but the penny never dropped until she saw it through a home Bible study.
God used the Bible in the Reformation, and when it is placed in the hands of ordinary people today, he uses it still.
The Reformation also affirmed the centrality of faith. Some call this the recovery of the gospel. It was a natural correlary of returning the Scriptures to the people. Within the pages of the Bible it soon became evident that salvation was not a matter of man’s works but of God’s grace.
Troubled souls soon found relief in that discovery. Martin Luther had been beside himself with unforgiven guilt. In the cloister he had wondered, “How can I, as an individual, be assured of the forgiveness of sins and thus of the favor of God”? Then one happy day he read the words of Saint Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.… For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ ” (Rom. 1:16–17). Luther later remarked, “Then it seemed to me as if I were born anew and that I had entered into the open gates of Paradise.”
At about the same time, Ulrich Zwingli, an intelligent and ambitious Swiss priest, suffered intensely because of his “most profound failure in the matter of personal morality.” During the Zurich plague of 1519 he hovered for weeks between life and death. Then Zwingli was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s mercy and majesty. Now a “twice-born” man, he confessed that “religion took its rise when God called a runaway man back to himself, when otherwise that man would have been a deserter forever.”
A generation later, John Calvin, wrestling with the problem of pride, experienced a “sudden conversion” that occurred after he had been studying the Scriptures. Calvin came to know the power of God, by which one can transcend selfishness. He simply said, “We are not our own, … we are God’s.”
For each of these men, faith was not merely intellectual assent to propositions in a powerful and popular book. It also involved a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Each of them vividly illustrates Henry Ward Beecher’s observation that though “we may preach much about Christ, no man will preach Christ except so far as Christ lives in him.”
A Reformation Day service, therefore, forces churchgoers of long standing to reflect on their own relationship: Have I ever consciously placed my trust in the Person of Jesus Christ? Or has overoccupation with church attendance or other activities made me too religious to be a Christian?
It is possible to obscure or ward off wholehearted faith in Christ by a flurry of activity and talk. But God looks on the heart. He asks if we have trusted our inner lives to Christ.
Reformation Day can also celebrate a third affirmation, liberty of conscience, or the teaching of “the right of private judgment in religion.” One scholar has said that “the one essential principle” of the medieval system was “the control of the individual conscience by an authority or law placed [outside] it and exercised over it by man assuming to act in the name of heaven.” In the Protestant churches, it was necessary, therefore, to make a case for liberty. Any religion resting on the crucial importance of personal faith had to allow freedom in matters of conscience.
The English Congregationalist, Robert W. Dale, explained the real meaning of this doctrine: “The right of private judgment in Religion, as the Reformers understood it, was not the right of every man to form a religion according to his own fancy; but the right of every man to listen for himself to the voice of God.” (Submission is unto God, not self.) And Martin Luther, in another setting, quipped, “Every man must do his own praying, dying, and believing.”
The entire Reformation was one extended illustration of this liberty of the Christian man. For instance, when Martin Luther stood before the German emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he refused to abandon his convictions. He said, “Unless I am convicted by the Scriptures and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of Popes and Councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
For the Pilgrim fathers, the cost of being men of conscience was exile—twice. As the Pilgrims were about to leave the Netherlands for North America, Pastor John Robinson reminded them of their commitment to liberty. In the seventeenth century he felt that many of his contemporaries had failed to go beyond the initial work of the first Reformers. Robinson said, “We have come to a period in religion [when] the Lutherans cannot be drawn beyond what Luther saw. And the Calvinists stick where Calvin left them. Luther and Calvin were precious shining lights in their times, yet God did not reveal His whole will to them. I am very confident that the Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth out of His Holy Word.”
What would it mean today if each of us listened for himself to the voice of God, and did his own living, praying, and dying? First, one would see a revival of personal Bible study—almost a miracle in these group-oriented, nonmeditative days when our first act upon entering the empty house at night is to turn on the radio or TV.
Second, if we listened to God’s voice, new truth and light would burst forth from Scripture to help with such knotty problems as the nuclear question. What should the United States, and the individual Christian, do about the proliferation of nuclear weapons on our planet? And what would happen if, sensitive to Scripture, we learned God’s viewpoint about joblessness and economic justice, a matter directly touching millions in America? We see non-Christian books imaginatively dealing with the anxiety that possesses people today; but are Christians reflecting God’s message of relief from this tension in such realistic terms that we can talk and live the gospel to our neighbors and those of our own household? In this last part of the twentieth century, we may yet expect new light on such critical issues if we each listen for God’s voice.
A fourth affirmation was the catholicity of the church, or the teaching of the “priesthood of all believers.” For Protestants, the real meaning of catholicity was made evident in the Apostles’ Creed. There they would proclaim that they “believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints.” For them, genuine catholicity meant the presence of Christ’s fullness among his people, constituting a new nation of priests. This led to the conclusion, as Arthur Rouner has written, that a Protestant church is “the people’s church. It belongs to them. It is their work, their life, and their responsibility under God.” This catholicity naturally leads to a free and open fellowship for the people of God.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote in the Westminster Record concerning the help afforded by this community: “What a wonderful place God’s House is. Often you may find deliverance by merely coming to the House of God.… I thank God that he has ordered that his people should meet together in companies and worship together.…
“How has the House of God come into being? It is God who has planned it and arranged it. To realise that alone puts you in a more healthy condition. Then you begin to go back across history, and you begin to remind yourself of certain truths. ‘I am here, at this present time with this terrible problem, but the Christian Church has been going all these long years.’ At once you begin to think in an entirely different way.”
It is in this fellowship of diverse and free individuals in a community of faith and love that we offer our unified praise to God. In a comprehensive and inclusive manner, we join our voices with Christians of all ages to offer the sacrifice of praise, the chief service of this new “nation of priests.” In the words of the ancient and venerable Te Deum Laudamus:
We praise Thee, O God, We acknowledge thee to be the Lord.…
The glorious company of the Apostles praise Thee;
The goodly fellowship of the prophets praise Thee;
The noble army of martyrs praise Thee;
The Holy Church throughout the world doth acknowledge Thee.…”
For each of the Reformers, this vision of the cooperative community of saints was essential to Protestant faith and life. It was expressed theologically in the great confessions of the faith such as the Augustana, prepared and signed by both clerics and laymen. It would be expressed practically in the worship and polity of the Protestant churches. Both clergy and laity were recognized as “living stones” that “built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
Is your church a “people’s church”? We say clergy and laity together are living stones. But sad to say, in some churches there is serious division. The clergy are either viewed as the entertainers (with the congregation the supposedly entertained), or they are the hired experts. It is they who, in place of the laity, study the Bible, pray, visit the sick, counsel the troubled, raise the cash, state the Christian position on everything of consequence, and, worst of all, often allow the congregation to lead the Christian life vicariously through them. Such clericalism, sometimes even encouraged by the congregation, undercuts the Reformation’s discovery of biblical community.
And on the individual level, we need to ask ourselves: “Do other Christians know me, or am I isolated from them?” If, for example, we found ourselves trapped in a shameful sin, would there be anyone with whom we have such a relationship that we could ask for specific prayer or counsel? Or if we lost our job and as a result felt we were total failures on all fronts, would there be anyone with whom we could discuss our runaway emotions?
As the Reformation conceived fellowship, or catholicity, Christ is among us. So we can celebrate the opportunity we have for him to speak to us through our fellow Christians. His presence among us spells hope!
Each of these “foundation stones” of the Reformation—Scripture, faith, liberty, and catholicity—is alive today. Each is filled with the Protestant heritage as well as with the Protestant potential. Reformation Day 1982 affords us the opportunity to remember a glorious past and to celebrate a certain future of Protestant and evangelical faith.
C. George Fry is associate professor, historical theology, at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Duane W. H. Arnold is assistant director of Hothorpe Hall, Lutterworth England. The pair coauthored A Lutheran Reader (Concordia Theo1. Sem. Press, 1982) and The Way, the Truth, and the Life (Baker; to be published in November 1982).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.