The Protestant Reformatio- 500 Years Later
The year is almost over and soon it will be 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It ought to be a year of celebration for Protestants and I’m certain that will be true.
What is it about being Protestant that there is to celebrate?
There’s no doubt that the year 2017 is 500 years from a very important event in Church history. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door in Wittenberg Germany describing his grievances with the church in Rome October 31, 1517, the date became pivotal for each of us. Each Protestant denomination owes a great deal of gratitude to Luther for his “protest”. The unifying Protestant cry of “sola fide” (justification by faith alone) sprang from that German October day.
Is that important doctrine what makes us Protestant though?
Interestingly, although Martin Luther’s protest was both pivotal and monumental in the history of the Protestant Reformation, the event did not begin the Reformation. Luther’s protest had been preceded by another very important series of events across Europe. These events may have been more decisive than anything that Luther could muster and the evidence is history.
Wycliffe and authority
John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian, came onto the scene much earlier. Late in the 14th Century, Wycliffe and his associates translated the Bible into English from Latin. It was a gutsy move brought on by both political and theological events. It infuriated the Church. Pope Gregory XI had demanded monetary support from England and Wycliffe had advised English political leaders against it arguing that the church was rich enough. England needed her funds for her own sovereign protection from the French. The Reformation had political origins.
He had been at odds theologically with the Church for some time.
Wycliffe had written theological disagreements with the Church on various theological issues a long time before Luther came onto the scene.
He deepened his study of Scripture and wrote more about his conflicts with official church teaching. He wrote against the doctrine of transubstantiation: “The bread while becoming by virtue of Christ’s words the body of Christ does not cease to be bread.”
He challenged indulgences: “It is plain to me that our prelates in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God.”
He repudiated the confessional: “Private confession … was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the apostles.”
He reiterated the biblical teaching on faith: “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.”
Biblical authority transcends all others
The political environment and theological disagreement led to Wycliffe’s belief that men needed to have access to the Scriptures in their own language. The authority of the Church was in question and Wycliffe knew that the answer was not unquestioning allegiance to church leaders, but allegiance and access to the Word of God.
“Looking back, we now see that there is a sense in which the Revealed Word is the uniform means of sanctification. It gives fulness and authority to Natural Theology. It guides, authorizes, and instructs our worship. It is symbolized in the sacraments. And it shines through the Providences, which do but illustrate it. So that the Word is the means, after all, in all other means, Jno. 17:17. Where the Word is not, there is no holiness.”-RL Dabney
Our Faith and our Heritage
The Church held a grudge against Wycliffe. So much so that officials later exhumed his bones and burned them then spread the ashes in the River Swift.
“By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.”-The Roman church
Our heritage, the reason we are called Protestants is not so much the idea that we are justified by faith alone. That doctrinal difference was divisive but it may have been worked out in time. The impasse, a chasm fixed for half a millinium, was the view that there was one authority for our faith, not two.
Wycliffe was called the “Morning Star of the Reformation” because he began the faithful move away from Papal authority and more importantly, toward Biblical authority. We are Protestants because we protest the Papal claim of absolute church authority.
“Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”-John Wycliffe
How big of a Protestant are you anyway?
A few questions you may consider at the beginning of 2017, over 500 years after men like Wycliffe did so much to place a readable copy of the Scriptures in your hand, are how are you using that gift? Are you a real Protestant? Who is your practical authority?
In an article the other day this question was raised and answered by a Presbyterian friend. He posed the practical problem of individual interpretation and denominational errors much like Rome did to the Reformers. If every man has a Bible, and that is their authority, then there could potentially be different theological views for each man. For this, Wycliffe was called the “Master of Error” by the Roman church. Admittedly, that is a scary prediction that has come partially true.
On the other hand, the writer’s solution was scarier. He suggested allegiance to the Westminster Confession.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m Presbyterian. The WCF has real authority as far as I’m concerned, on one condition. The WCF has authority as long as it agrees with Holy Scriptures. The same could be said about the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church. The same could be said about my Presbytery. The same could be said about my pastor.
Each one of these carry real authority in my life. I must submit to each of these both in faith and practice. My orthodoxy and orthopraxy are under their authority as I sit under their teaching.
Measured against the Canon
BUT-as a Protestant I must measure each of these authorities against the final authority. The Canon (measure, rule) of Scripture is the standard by which each authority in my life, theological and political, is measured. The truth is ultimately found there. As a Protestant, it is always my duty to know the final rule of faith and practice. My beliefs must pour out of the very words of Scripture. My confidence must be in the words of Christ and his prophets and apostles. The teaching of all other authorities must be filtered through the sieve of God’s Holy Word. This is my duty, my allegiance as a Protestant.
Why is this allegiance important?
Biblical authority is not about what you believe but who you follow. The doctrine summed up in the Latin phrase sola scriptura is about a person, not a construct. Teaching is most accurately the thoughts, beliefs, suggestions, and/or commands of a person. We are Christians, Christ-followers. The teaching we ought to follow is his.
If the government disagrees with Jesus-we follow Jesus.
If our denomination disagrees with Jesus-we follow Jesus.
If our Creed or Confession disagrees with Jesus-we follow Jesus.
Yes, even if our pastor disagrees with Jesus-we follow Jesus.
That’s what it means to be a Protestant. The reason we believe that justification comes through grace alone, by faith alone in Christ alone, all for the glory of God alone is because we only give allegiance to the Word of God (Jesus) alone.
As you begin your yearly resolution to read through the Bible, consider becoming a good Protestant, a good Christian. Consider following Jesus by getting to know him through his Word. Stop skimming the pages to make your quota for the day. Read Jesus to know Jesus.
Men have died for you to do so.
Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know (pp. 212–213). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know (p. 212). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.