Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me….I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. – Philippians 3:12-16
The Feast of the Reformation is not part of the universal Church calendar although all portions of the Church that were in existence at the time of the Reformation knew its effect. Unfortunately, the Reformation is one of the most poorly understood occurrences in Church history, and it is usually forced into one of two extreme positions. Either it is viewed as one of the most destructive forces ever to be unleashed upon the Church (destroying an integral unity of faith which traced its lineage back to the apostles); or it is viewed as one of the most constructive forces ever to be unleashed upon the Church (rooting out corruption and restoring the Church to the bedrock of faith first practiced in the apostolic age). In the final analysis we see that it was both destructive and constructive, but more importantly it was necessary and brought to pass by the hand of God as part of His promise that He would present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. – Ephesians 5:25-27. Philip Schaff, in his History of the Church, holds that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in the history of the Church. In a real sense it marked the end of the middle ages of the Church and secular society, and the beginning of the modern age in which we currently live.
To understand the Reformation, we must understand three distinct movements of the age, Catholicism, Romanism, and Protestantism. Catholicism represented the Church universal, the body of faith and doctrine, the liturgy and sacraments, and the calling of the people of God which had always been within the Church since her birth on Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit was poured forth upon the Church, He placed within her all that was necessary to fulfill the great commission of her Lord Jesus Christ. But the Church gravitated towards the principle of Christian authority under God. While it had been successful in discipling both the Roman and the barbarian nations, the Catholic authoritative spirit became entrenched, and Schaff points out that the Church became traditional, hierarchial, ritualistic, and conservative in its nature. Protestantism sprang from the same root, but it was biblical instead of traditional, democratic instead of hierarchical, spiritual instead of ritualistic, and progressive instead of conservative. It was founded on the principle of Christian liberty in Jesus and was a breath of fresh air of the same type as the mighty, rushing wind that first blew through the Church on Pentecost.
Romanism, on the other hand, was a separate movement of the Latin Church which aligned itself against the principles and practices of the Reformation. This movement was formally codified by the Council of Trent beginning in AD 1545 (often referred to as the Counter-Reformation) and later completed and ratified by the First Vatican Council in AD 1870. At the heart of these council’s decrees were the teaching and defense of the dogma of the Roman papacy’s absolutism (a recognition of Rome as the sole head of all Christendom upon earth) and its infallibility (an acknowledgement that Rome speaks without error in matters of faith and practice). These standards isolated the Roman Church from all other church groups of its time. With these three distinctions made, we can still claim to be catholic while avoiding the excesses of the Romanist position. The Reformation Church can therefore legitimately show itself as a continuation of that catholic lineage which had its foundation upon the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone. – Ephesians 2:20.
A short article such as this cannot hope to capture all of the reasons why reformation of the Church was necessary. Let me only relate this one story as illustrative of the corruption of Romanism which had infected the Church of its age. At the height of the papacy’s power and influence at the end of the 13th century, it is said that Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest defenders of the Roman Church and Papacy, had an audience with the pope. The pope is said to have showed the theologian the papal treasury and then to have remarked “Thomas, the Church can no longer say as Peter once did to the lame man ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” “That is true, your holiness”, Thomas replied, “but neither can she or Peter’s successor lay hands on that lame man and say in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” The Roman Church had, as the Apostle Paul said, a form of godliness but denied its power. – II Timothy 3:5 As Schaff remarks, the entire Church was one large tinder pile (perhaps reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1-6) and it only required one spark to set the fires of purification underway. The history of the Reformation is a history of those sparks, in Germany, in France, in Switzerland, in England, wherever the Spirit of God moved in revival. The spark which we celebrate as representative of the movement, is October 31, the day on which Martin Luther, in AD 1517, nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral.
Let me make one more distinction. This was not a Renaissance within the Church; that was a purely secular movement which spanned the 14th to the 17th centuries. This was not a return to some golden age or ideal condition; this was a true reformation, a purging of that which was corrupt so that the Church could continue on from the place to which God in His sovereign grace had brought her. It is true that it sought to recover some of the purity and focus of the apostolic age, but it was beyond her power to physically return to that age. It was a much different society and a different time which confronted her. The spirit of the reformation is best expressed in Paul’s statement in in Galatians 5:1, Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. The Reformation, in closing, restored to the people of God three important principles of Christian living. It established the supremacy of the scriptures over church tradition. It established the supremacy of faith over works. It established the supremacy of the Christian people (the priesthood of all believers) over the exclusive priesthood of clericism. It, not the Roman Church, is the true continuation of that root of catholicism which touches upon the apostles. It reminds us that the entrance is narrow and the way difficult which leads to life, but the way is nothing more than the road which Jesus Christ walked when He was upon this earth. It only remains for us to follow Him wherever He calls us and to trust that He is able to complete that which He has begun not only in us, but in His Church upon the earth.
Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”