5 February 2024
While 31 October is often associated with Halloween, for many Christians across the world a much more momentous event is normally observed. I am, of course, referring to Reformation Day. Reformation Day commemorates the event on 31 October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses as a protest against the sale of indulgences. What was meant to be a common debate amongst university professors spiraled to a long-drawn controversy beyond the region of Germany, touching other points of doctrine including questions of salvation and ecclesiastical authority.
At stake in these debates were the reformers’ understanding of the gospel as preached by the apostles in Scripture. This understanding subsequently came to be summarised under five points more commonly known as the five solas – sola scriptura (scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone).
For many Protestants around the world, Reformation Day serves as an apt reminder that salvation comes to us in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone. This has been revealed to us through Scripture, which alone stands as the final or supreme (but not only) authority. The observance of Reformation Day is therefore one that is rightly observed amongst Christians, particularly Protestants, today.
Yet, for all the thankfulness and gratitude (perhaps even pride) that we have for the reformers and the Reformation, in my observation, there is another side to the Reformation that Protestant churches have generally been slower to acknowledge or recognise. This is a side that is not new and has in fact been recognised by various historians of the Reformation. What I have in mind is the perpetual splits arising from the Reformation due to constant arguments stemming from each individual’s right to interpret Scripture. This is a trend that I believe can still be found amongst Protestant churches today and, for that reason, is deserving of attention.
While it is indeed true that many of the reformers contended for the gospel and staked their lives on it, this is only one part of the story. Alongside these heroic portrayals are accounts of people often engaged in debates with one another due to conflicting interpretations of Scripture. Consider the Marburg Colloquy of 1529. Eight years after the Diet of Worms, where Luther was summoned to renounce some of his works (including the 95 theses), he met with a fellow pioneer reformer by the name of Huldrych Zwingli.
As Esther Kim notes, “The reason for the Marburg Colloquy was to discuss differences in beliefs among Protestants, in hopes of achieving a theological consensus that would serve as a basis for a Protestant political alliance” (Reinventing Authority, 21-22). Apparently, out of the fifteen articles discussed, the reformers agreed on fourteen of them. The one article that they could not agree on concerned the Eucharist.
On the Eucharist, both sides argued that their interpretation of scripture was right and tried to quote the early church fathers for support. However, when faced with contrary evidence, such as a church father who did not support their interpretation, an appeal to the fallibility of the fathers and the priority of scripture could always be made:
When the fathers speak, they are to be accepted in accordance with the canon of Scripture. Whatever they appear to write contrary to Scripture must either be interpreted or be rejected. (Luther’s Works 38:33)
Such an approach was true to the spirit of Protestantism, as seen in their recognition of Scripture’s priority. However, the obvious problem was that, with no one able to lay claim to an authoritative interpretation of scripture, the best they could do was pit one’s own interpretation of Scripture against another’s, with no resolution. The result was a parting of ways.
Apart from the Marburg Colloquy, another big clash that the magisterial reformers had was with a third strand of the reformation, known as the “radical Reformation”. This group felt that the magisterial reformers, such as Luther and Zwingli, did not take the reformation far enough. Made up primarily of peasants, they were initially fed up with how their tithes had often been used to support “the income of wealthy religious orders, rather than being used to support local parish worship and pastoral care” (Brad Gregory, “The Radical Reformation” in The Oxford History of the Reformation, 156).
Some radical reformers pressed the point that Scripture advocated the sharing of possessions, rather than private ownership of property. More famously, they argued that to practice infant baptism was to be shackled by the chains of tradition rather than Scripture, since there was no explicit mandate for or mention of infant baptism in Scripture. As if this did not go far enough, they were also willing to challenge traditionally accepted doctrines such as the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ.
The magisterial reformers clearly and vehemently disagreed with the radical reformers. Their intention was never to discard tradition. Far from it, as mentioned above, they actively cited the church fathers to demonstrate continuity of faith. All they wanted was to rightly prioritise the authority of Scripture, God’s word, over institutions and persons.
Yet, as I have also demonstrated, when their interpretation of Scripture came into conflict with the way the church fathers had interpreted the text, they were more than willing to fall back on the fallibility of humanity and stick with their own conscience, as guided by their interpretation of Scripture. While the attempt to elevate the authority of Scripture was fitting, it left a huge unanswered question as to who the authoritative interpreter of scripture was, given such diverse views. This in turn posed a challenge in distinguishing and establishing orthodoxy from heterodoxy. As the evangelical theologian and intellectual historian Alistair McGrath comments:
If the Bible alone is the supreme rule of faith, how can any authority beyond that text be recognized as its authoritative interpreter? It is at this point that the distinctive approach of Protestantism encounters a seemingly formidable obstacle, in that it seems to undermine the very idea of an authoritative interpretation of the Bible—in other words, the notion of orthodoxy. (Alistair McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 228)
In this brief article, I have tried to provide a short summary of one aspect of the Reformation. Arguably, it is the aspect that is far less glamourous or pleasant than the heroic stories we often hear about the reformers in church today. Yet, the insights that we draw from history must include both the good and the bad. In this case, I believe that this short recourse to the history of the Reformation enables us to better make sense of some of the church splits we see today.
Consider disagreements over issues that have led to present-day church splits such as predestination, infant baptism, women’s ordination, the Lord’s Supper, the church’s worship style, charismatic gifts, and even what counts as faithful expository preaching. These disagreements leading to church splits arise in part due to the unresolved question of the Reformation.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that the church splits we see today cannot be solely attributed to the Reformation, for one must also consider material explanations and the social landscape unique to particular periods of history. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that the Reformation is a contributing factor.
You might be wondering, at this point, what can be done? Unfortunately, I suspect that there are no easy answers without extended dialogue with fellow Christians. One thing I am certain of is that unity does not entail uniformity and therefore any attempt to create a monolithic faith will only do more harm than good.
Perhaps a way forward might involve the exercise of humility for both individuals and institutions. On the one hand, as individuals, we can exercise humility in deferring judgement to elected representatives. On the other hand, elected representatives can exercise humility in making room for prophetic voices by lending a listening ear, as well as recognising that what has been decided is potentially provisional, subject to correction through the Spirit’s work in Scriptural interpretation. May the Spirit guide us as strive towards ecclesial unity.