Captive to the Word: Why the Reformation Still Matters, 500 Years On

Captive to the Word: Why the Reformation Still Matters, 500 Years On

 Idea Magazine (Evangelical Alliance UK), November 2016

Theologians can change the world. In 1517 Martin Luther was a devout Augustinian scholar teaching at the University of Wittenberg. His dedication to the Church of Rome had led him to become a monk in 1505, but his intellect was spotted early, and from 1508 he focused on lecturing in biblical studies. By 1517 he was making full use of a fresh edition of the New Testament in Greek, and became convinced that Scripture was at odds with various teachings of his own Catholic tradition. On 31st October that year he published a document which would alter the course of history, and whose implications are still very evident as we prepare to mark the 500th Anniversary of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.

Luther is often depicted dramatically as nailing his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on All Hallows Eve those five centuries ago. In truth, it was the mass printing and dissemination of the Theses across Europe in 1517-18 that established what he also called his ‘Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences’. Indulgences were granted by the church as a means of reducing the punishment due to sinners, their loved ones or others in purgatory. Traditionally they required some form of ritual action to become effective – from repeating set prayers, through reverencing relics, to going on pilgrimages. In the decades before Luther’s protest, however, they had become heavily corrupted, with charges being made for them that would not only be diverted to the building of the grand Basilica of St Peter in Rome, but also to pay off bribes taken out by Prince Albrecht of Brandenburg to secure the Archbishopric of Mainz.

Whereas indulgences were deemed acceptable because the Pope had authorised them, Luther the biblical scholar could find no Scriptural warrant for them – indeed, he argued that they contradicted Scripture, and that since Scripture must guide the church’s teaching, they must be rejected. Faced with accusations of betraying his Catholic heritage at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther famously replied, “I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Today, our Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith affirms the ‘supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.’ In doing so, it echoes Luther’s emphasis, which he in turn believed was reflective of Scripture’s witness to itself, and the use of Scripture by Jesus.

Luther’s protest against indulgences was more specifically a protest against the idea that salvation could either be earned by human effort or will, or bought by human funds or goods. The outcome was his and other Reformers’ formulation of the signature Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Rome had taught that righteousness could be accumulated through acts of ritual penance and devotion. For Luther and subsequent Reformers, however, justification was sola fide and sola gratia – dependent purely on a saving faith which was itself a free gift, or grace, of God, secured by Jesus’ atoning death for sinners on the cross. This liberating idea has been central to Evangelical preaching, teaching and witness: while the precise relationship of grace to works in ongoing discipleship has been interpreted differently in different strands of Evangelicalism, the common commitment of Evangelicals to this foundational principle is expressed by the Alliance’s Basis of Faith when it affirms ‘the justification of sinners solely by the grace of God through faith in Christ’. The Lutheran World Federation has chosen to mark the Reformation quincentenary by applying this principle to the three-fold message that salvation, human beings and creation are ‘not for sale’. This bears out the rich implications of justification not only for personal faith and redemption, but also for wider society in a world marred by the sinful exploitations of people-trafficking and ecological profligacy. As such, it resonates with our own Evangelical Alliance work in Public Policy and Advocacy, and the connections we seek to make between the necessity for personal faith in Jesus Christ and the call to bring the good news we know as individuals to bear in our communities, and in society as a whole.

Although it arose in the Sixteenth Century, the Reformation was not so much an innovation as a recovery – a recovery of the essential content of the ‘evangel’ or ‘good news’ of salvation proclaimed by Jesus Christ himself, and by his apostles. That work of recovery is reflected in our own designation as ‘Evangelicals’. Indeed, as Evangelicals, we owe a great deal to the Reformation. Those of us in Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist and Anabaptist traditions can trace a direct line back to the seismic theological and ecclesial renewal led by Luther, and taken up by John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, John Smyth, Menno Simons and other leaders of the Reformation as it developed in various forms across Britain, Europe and the world. Others of us in Methodist, Pentecostal, Independent and New Church traditions trace our roots more specifically to Pietist and Revivalist developments of Protestantism in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries.

On one level, our diversity reflects the fact that the Reformation led to a more plural church, and at times this plurality has curdled into division and conflict. From the Peasants’ War of 1523 to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48 the Reformation became a focus of severe national and international conflict, with millions of lives lost. The resonance of those conflicts can still be felt in more recent sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, Liverpool, Glasgow and elsewhere. For all his genius, Luther himself could be cruel and conflictual, lapsing at times into gruesome antisemitism. Yet it was he himself who recognized that while Christians are justified we remain sinners, challenged by the fight of faith.

For 170 years, the Evangelical Alliance has sought to honour the many positive legacies of the Reformation, while also seeking to overcome the divisions that accompanied it. Across and beyond the various streams of Evangelicalism, we seek to make common cause for the good news, that the world might believe. Significant differences remain between our theological understanding and that of the Roman Catholic Church against which Luther protested, but in recent decades various Evangelical networks have co-operated effectively with Catholics in campaigning against abortion and euthanasia, for traditional marriage, and on social justice concerns like poverty and homelessness.

We might not individually change the world as momentously as Luther did, but five centuries on his legacy reminds us that we are part of a movement called to transform people and society by the grace of God, with the Word of God, for the glory of God.

David Hilborn


What Are the Limits of Unity?

Idea Magazine (Evangelical Alliance UK), January 2017

Through this year in idea, we are marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the sale of indulgences – an event widely linked with the start of the Protestant Reformation, and thereby with the origins of Evangelicalism. Certainly, Luther’s emphases on biblical authority, justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers would become hallmarks of Evangelical belief. Yet while Luther gained numerous supporters, it would not be long before some of them diverged from him on significant issues. As they did so, tensions arose which raised profound questions about the limits of Christian unity.

One of Luther’s most prominent allies in reform was Huldrych Zwingli. ‘Allies’ is right, because Zwingli was significantly more radical on liturgy, church government and politics than Luther. Yet at Marburg in 1529 they joined others to declare common convictions on 14 articles of doctrine. Only on the fifteenth and last article did they disagree. Luther believed that the true body and blood of Christ were ‘corporeally present’ in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, whereas Zwingli regarded the elements as symbols enabling believers to recall the past sacrifice made by Christ. This had led to serious disagreement: indeed, because of it Luther had at times refused even to recognise Zwingli and his followers as Christians. The 15th Article, however, commended a more charitable approach: ‘although we have not been able to agree [on this point] at this time’, it said, ‘each party should display towards the other Christian love, as far as each respective conscience allows, and both should persistently ask God the Almighty for guidance so that through his Spirit he might bring us to a proper understanding’. In fact, tensions continued, but importantly divine truth was not relativized in this article: both parties pledged to keep striving for a ‘proper understanding’ through prayer and study – recognising that they each had a partial grasp of it, but that the definitive truth was there to be found under God.

Similar dynamics were evident between John Wesley and George Whitefield two centuries later. Whitefield called Wesley his ‘spiritual father in Christ’, and he later relied on Wesley’s brilliant organization to ensure that his own powerful preaching reached a mass audience. For his part, Wesley and his brilliant hymn-writing brother Charles recognised Whitefield as a pioneer in the field preaching that would come so vitally to distinguish the Evangelical Revival. Indeed, as J.D. Walsh has noted, in the 1730s ‘Whitefield and the Wesleys worked in the closest harmony’. Yet by late 1740 they had fallen out. Wesley had long promoted Arminianism, with its emphasis on free grace, against the Calvinist focus on predestination. Whitefield, however, became increasingly drawn to Calvinism, and when Wesley intensified his defence of Arminian theology, Whitefield issued a firm critique of Wesley’s view which promoted Calvin’s stress on election. Reconciliation on this specific issue was never achieved, and Wesley maintained to the end of his life that Whitefield had caused the ‘first breach’ in the revival. Yet from 1742 relations improved. Whitefield received more invitations to preach from John Wesley’s societies, and brokered an agreement with Wesley that Calvinistic Methodist chapels would not be built where Wesleyan societies already existed, and vice versa. When Whitefield died in 1770, Wesley preached at his funeral, as Whitefield himself had requested.

The formation of our own Evangelical Alliance in 1846 owed much to the aim of ‘unity in diversity’ that had informed the Marburg Colloquy and the Wesley-Whitefield compact. Scots Calvinists like Thomas Chalmers and John Henderson joined the Wesleyan Jabez Bunting, the Anglican Edward Bickersteth, the Congregationalist John Angell James and the Baptist Edward Steane in striking a fresh ‘keynote of love’ across the diversity of Evangelicalism. Crucially, they grounded that vision in a Basis of Faith which defined the shared biblical convictions that enabled them to undertake more effective mission together than they could have achieved apart. Even so, the strong global structure they had envisaged for the new body was diluted following a dispute on slave-holding between the British and American delegations to the inaugural conference. On that issue, the British party’s belief that biblical teaching ruled out slave-ownership transcended the desire for institutional unity. A theological line was drawn.

More recently, the Alliance has faced various other issues that have tested its commitment to unity in the truth. Twice in the past 20 years we have published reports which have encouraged greater pastoral generosity towards gay men and lesbians, but which have reaffirmed the classical Evangelical view that sexually active same-sex partnerships are incompatible with God’s will as revealed in Scripture. In 2000 we carefully considered whether the view that the unredeemed might eventually be annihilated could be recognised as an acceptable Evangelical position alongside the more common Evangelical affirmation of eternal conscious punishment in hell. We concluded that the holding of either view over against the other was ‘neither essential in respect of Christian doctrine, not finally definitive of what it means to be an Evangelical’. At the same time, however, we rejected the universalist view that all will be saved as lacking biblical foundation.

In these, as in other issues, we have sought to follow Luther in making Scripture our key authority. As God’s Word written, the Bible points us to God’s Word incarnate, Jesus. As that divine Word, Jesus embodies truth and calls us to uphold the truth (John 8:32; 14:6). Just as he himself used Scripture to defend that truth (Matt. 4:1-11), so we are obliged to ensure that our theology and practice have biblical warrant. If we find that the approach taken by another individual or group lacks such warrant, it is legitimate for us to say so. But even as we ‘speak the truth’ in such circumstances, we are called to do so in ‘love’ (Eph. 4:15). No doubt, Scripture urges us to ‘contend’ for the true faith (Jude 3), and even allows that we might separate from others when that faith is sundered by false teaching, ungodly conduct, or both (1 John 4:1-6; 1 Cor. 5:11-13). But even with such separation, there is typically the hope of reconciliation and restoration in the truth (Matt. 18:15-20; Gal 6:1). After all, unity belongs with truth and love as a fundamental mark of discipleship – from Jesus’ prayer that we should be one as he and the Father are One (John 17:11) to Paul’s instruction to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph. 4:3).

These, then, are the basic principles we must follow when we differ with other Christians on doctrine and/or practice. The particular challenge for us as Evangelicals, however, is that in making Scripture the primary reference-point for settling disputes rather than church leaders, councils or traditions, we face the prospect that interpretations of Scripture may vary, even among those who regard themselves as committed Evangelicals, and who would affirm all of these core principles. Indeed, our proper prioritisation of Scripture needs to be linked with a recognition that as sinners who ‘see through a glass darkly’ (1 Cor. 13:12) we may sometimes diverge in our understanding of Scripture. It is then a matter of humbly discerning whether that divergence merits breaking fellowship, or merely ‘agreeing to disagree agreeably’ within the context of continuing fellowship. That process of discernment is not always easy; sometimes, indeed, it is painful. But it is vital if we are to maintain our integrity as Evangelicals who are passionate about the truth of the gospel and about the unity for which Jesus himself so earnestly prayed.

David Hilborn