Church HistoryReformedTheology & Spirituality

A Reflection on Reformation Five Hundred

As most Christians, whether Protestant or otherwise, know, the end of next month will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I hope that such a momentous occasion will not only be cause for celebration if you are a Protestant, but also for deep reflection. The onslaught of Reformation-themed books (and movies) being published this year may be an indication that such reflection will take place for many (even Catholics). But I do not hope for sentimental reflection, only. I hope for reflection on what, in terms of doctrine and practice, made the Reformation a paradigm shift to the ultimate cause of Christ and his church. What I hope for is renewed recovery of Reformational teaching and practice. This is not to insinuate that it has been lost. Indeed, there has been a surge of interest and zeal for all things Reformed over the last couple of decades or so; a real “return to roots” movement. I myself have benefited greatly from this surge. Yet, a quincentenary occasion is cause for renewed focus and reflection regardless of the current state of affairs (it only happens once every five hundred years, after all).

The fullness of what the Reformers stood for is often lost in all the hustle and bustle of the Young, Restless, and Reformed trend. The doctrine of justification is essential, no doubt. The English puritan Thomas Watson called it “the very hinge and pillar of Christianity.”1 But it is important to remember that through theological reform—as begun by Luther—the Reformed sought to bring all of life under sway of Scripture, especially worship and the inner life of the church. This was especially true for reformers like Calvin and Zwingli. To them, the primary grievance of the Roman Catholic church was idolatry in worship and practice. This explains the drastic changes made to worship services in Zurich and Geneva. Even the architecture was changed to reflect Reformed sensibilities of worship and preaching. In their view, the very survival of the church was at stake.

In reflecting on the Reformation, I hope that Protestants, myself included, will 1) rediscover the importance and (appropriate) role of tradition, developing veneration for it; 2) regain the methods and practice of passing down and teaching true doctrine; and 3) recover the appropriate role of the pastor.

Tradition: A Chain of Continuity

This is part of what celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is about. We do not truly honor the Reformers if it becomes fanfare for fanfare’s sake; mere sentimentality and nostalgia.

We have a duty as believers: We are supposed to take the truth that was handed to us by our ancestors, the “unbought grace of life,”2 of the Christian faith and run with it.Not aimlessly (1 Cor. 9:26), but always pressing on toward the goal (Phil. 3:14)—so that we can hand off the faith, intact and uncorrupted, to the next generation. To recognize the “chain of continuity” of the church that we all are indebted to and have duty to protect, is not a negotiable reality of the Christian faith.

The “chain and continuity” between generations (coined by Edmund Burke) is also a chain of interwoven obligations. In this respect, Burke said, society is founded on “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” a ‘contract’” (but not in the cold, Lockean sense) to which the succeeding generations are all parties.3 This is true of the Church especially, because it is a creation of Christ himself, sustained by the Holy Spirit throughout the ages, and is the ordained mechanism of Christ’s lordship on earth, his source of praise and worship from creation until he returns to fully consummate the kingdom given to him by the Father. Paying homage to the Church throughout the ages, acting in trust with those who came before us and to those who will follow, this is a task worthy of our calling. The culture of the Church endures “by virtue of the accumulated efforts of many generations and their continual struggle to save it from decay, in part by the simple act of remembering what people in the past have done.”4  

Modern evangelicals tend toward individualism, held loosely together by arbitrarily graded Christian tenets. This attitude is prevalent in the anti-centrist approach of the Emergent Church movement. But this brand of Christianity is a solitary endeavor, contributing to nothing outside the individual. And when we subject ourselves exclusively to the life of individual thought, without the outside influence of culture, we do not progress but only senselessly repeat.5

If this attitude persists, the whole chain of continuity of the church will be broken. “No one generation could link with another. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer,”6 The life of flies are brief, isolated, and self-contained, as if a single fly were perpetually reincarnated; nothing is inherited, nothing is remembered. This would be acceptable if redemptive history was not meant to progress from a past, real point in history to a future, real point in history. But it is, and the church along with it. “The Bible is… oriented toward a future still unfolding… the restoration of all things,” said Robert Louis Wilken.7

John MacArthur has called the charge from Paul in 2 Timothy “a perpetual strategy for raising up generation after generation of church leaders.” But this is not a responsibility limited to church leadership. “We are all part of a living chain,” says MacArthur, in Burke-esque language. To be faithful stewards of the deposit of truth, we must look closely at what Paul says and doesn’t say. Paul doesn’t demand innovation. Timothy is told to be a guardian (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) and then pass on (2 Tim. 2:2) what he has guarded to the next generation, “unmodified and unadulterated,” as MacArthur adds.

We are to act in trust of the truth received by the generations before us. This requires a proper veneration for history and tradition. “Our future may always be uncertain, but the accomplishments and wisdom of past generations lights the way,” said William F. Buckley, Jr., a devout Catholic, who probably would not appreciate being employed to celebrate the Reformation.8  

Teaching: Passing It Down

Catechesis—from the Greek, meaning “instruction by mouth”— is a historic teaching method used by Christians since the days of the early church to aid believers to remember and to articulate the basic tenets of faith. It appeared as early as the third century, by most accounts, in an organized fashion that would be familiar to us, though the term is used in Galatians 6:6 to refer explicitly to “instruction.” In the early church, the catechumen was usually instructed in view of baptism.9 Catechesis was a staple of Reformed life for centuries and desperately needs to be recovered today.

With the invention of the printing press (1440), the dissemination of information became faster and easier. Literacy rates rose and the teachings and theological formulations of the church began being recorded in print for the purpose of informing the general public. Written confessions of faith mark various theological and political shifts throughout the Reformation, often demarcating Protestants from Roman Catholics, theological radicals (e.g. Anabaptists or Arminians), or even themselves (e.g. Lutherans v. Reformed). But confessional documents were also constructed to serve as a witness of faith to nonbelievers, and as  instructional helps for the church. Accordingly, catechisms often accompanied them, as with the Three Forms of Unity (encompassing the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort,  and the Heidelberg Catechism) and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Thus, a rich tradition of catechesis grew out of Protestant circles. Most of such documents produced in the 16th and 17th centuries for such purposes are beautifully constructed and doctrinally reliable. I would advocate, in celebration of our Protestant roots, for a return to our founding documents for the purpose of doctrinal clarity amongst ourselves and to non believers, and for teaching. The Reformers not only provided us with sound doctrine, but also with the tools to maintain and teach it. We would be remiss if we failed to avail ourselves of such things. J.I. Packer has lamented the lack of formal catechetical study, calling it the most urgent need in the church today. Without it, he says, “Well-intentioned minds and hearts will repeatedly go off track.” May it not be so among us.10 In 1548, Calvin penned a warning to the Lord Protector of England, Edward Seymour, “Believe me, Monseigneur, the church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.”11  

Hopefully, recent productions such as the New City Catechism mark a return to a tradition of faithful catechesis (though I think the idea of a catechism app is positively ghastly), one that will include recovery of the historical, Reformed documents as well. I would also hope for a renewed interest not only in Reformation-era theology and its progeny, but also the theology on which the Reformers relied and believed to be standing with in continuity. The 16th century was a Renaissance of Augustine, if you will.12 His writings, now liberated from the confines of Lombard’s  Books of Sentences, were a frequent battleground for all parties involved. In fact, “it would be possible to frame the entire history of Reformation thought as a debate about the reception and interpretation of Augustine’s writings and legacy.”13 It would do every Christian, of any creed, good to develop familiarity with the Bishop of Hippo. Luther certainly did, calling him “the ablest and purest of all the doctors.”14  

The Pastor: Public Intellectual

“What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Last year, Alan Jacobs, in Harper’s Magazine, asked, “What became of the Christian intellectuals?”

“Half a century ago, such figures existed in America—serious, Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time now to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and—whether such a thing were thought desirable—if they’d return.”

The modern conception of a public intellectual may not have been around in the 16th century, but one thing is for certain, Luther was a rockstar, especially amongst the people of northern Germany. Other Reformers, like Calvin and Knox, gained some level of notoriety, but none encroached Luther’s popularity. Some of his popularity certainly can be attributed to his personality. One need only skim the Table Talk recordings of Luther’s hot takes on various issues (usually when the beer was flowing freely), to get a sense of his brash-but-charismatic nature. But that Luther was able to gain an audience in the first place for his  Ninety-five Theses debate (or for his critique of scholasticism the month prior) was because of his status as a parish priest and theological instructor. Luther and other clergy, despite growing dissatisfaction with perceived corruption in the Roman church writ large, enjoyed a certain status in their communities that is not present today. I am not advocating for a return to social and political dominance of the medieval church clergy. Yet, a certain veneration for clergy did continue through the Reformation and at least through the late 18th century, which has since been lost.

Pastors were at one time afforded a certain status akin to that of public intellectual, argued by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan in their book, Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. They argue that pastors necessarily speak to the public on matters of great import when they address and tend to the needs of their flock. This encompasses all of life for the people of God, including critical reflection on how Christians should interact with the public square.   

According to Paul and the Reformers, the primary role of the pastor is that of teacher and shepherd; a magister in sacra pagina (master of the sacred page), to borrow from Aquinas’ preferred title for himself. Luther described his duty as pastor like this:

“I am a sworn doctor of Holy Scripture, and beyond that a preacher each weekday whose duty it is on account of his name, station, oath, and office, to destroy or at least ward off false, corrupt, unchristian doctrine.”15

Pastors of Luther’s variety were charged with protecting and teaching true doctrine for the sake of their parishioners. For the Reformers, the role of a pastor was much more involved than many evangelicals would be comfortable with today. They were often literally doctors of both body and soul (e.g. Richard Baxter); commentators on both secular and sacred (a distinction that has its roots in the Reformation). For all the criticism of Calvin’s and Beza’s Geneva, it is clear that their vision was to bring all of Scripture, the full counsel of God, to bear on the totality of life. Their motivation was consistent with what Abraham Kuyper would say a few centuries later: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” No area of life is untouched by the truth of God, and since the pastor-teacher-theologian, fulfilling the roles of his office, is learned in, and teaches God’s truth, he necessarily has something to say about most (if not all) areas of life.

To pose a terse answer to Professor Jacobs, America’s public intellectuals did not leave. They have just been replaced. When the definition of the pastorate began to deviate from the traditional Protestant definition of such, and began to mirror the expectations of modern culture (e.g. manager, therapist, life coach, political activist), the veneration for the pastorate began to disintegrate. Just like Luther’s parishioners who would venture outside the town limits to buy Johann Tetzel’s indulgences, people have looked elsewhere for commentary on life and for answers to the big questions.

Christian public intellectuals should be the same men who occupy our pulpits. They are the only ones who proclaim life-giving truth. The Reformers certainly saw it this way, and expected those who taught to be learned in order to “build up those who are already partakers of divine grace,”16 and qualified to speak to all concerns of life, bringing scripture to bear thereupon. As we remember the moment at Wittenberg Castle Church, let us also remember that Luther was first and foremost a pastor and doctor of the sacred page before he was a radical revolutionary, who acted as much out of concern for the souls under his charge as he did to address his own existential crisis of assurance. Let us recover the lost vision of the pastor who helps us “unite all things in [Christ]” (Eph. 1:9-10). To recover this lost vision of the pastor, the rich theology of the Reformation must return to our pulpits and be preached with both excellence and vigor, “as dying [men] to dying men!”17 And the church must exhort those who occupy their pulpits to once again be public theologians and public intellectuals. It is the job of lay people as much as ordained to maintain the Reformed definition of the pastor.  


It would be inconsistent with Reformed theology to assume that our efforts in the aforementioned areas are sufficient to accomplish their aims. But it behooves us to remember our theological forebearers, to endeavor to honor them with preservation of the fruits of their labor, and to build upon the foundation they laid for us. “One of the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life is a kind of quiet confidence in the faithfulness and integrity of those who have gone before.”18 Soli Deo gloria, for the next five hundred years!


View Sources
Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

Previous post

What Are Multisite Churches?

Next post

The Holy Names