Reformation 2017: Relevant or Redundant? - Nick Needham

Here is the latest in our series of articles on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and why it is still relevant today. Dr Nick Needham writes from "A Reformed Church Historian’s Perspective".

The great nineteenth century American Reformed thinker, John Williamson Nevin, once accused his younger Christian self of having had “an inappropriate posture towards the facts of church history”. He repented of his error.

So did I. Once upon a time (too long ago for me to enjoy remembering!), had someone asked me what I thought of the Protestant Reformation, I’d have said it was the miraculous restoration of true Christianity, like a bolt from the blue, after the long dark night of the Middle Ages. Now, however, I’d agree with Nevin: the Reformation was the greatest act of the medieval Church itself – all that was best in the medieval Catholic Church correcting all that was worst.

Martin Luther (left) and John Calvin depicted in a stained glass window from the Evangelical City Church in Wiesloch, Germany.

Consequently, I still look back to the Reformation as a mighty work of God, and a providential landmark in the ongoing life-story of his people. But appreciating the medieval Catholic origins of the Reformation, I no longer see any need to narrow my mind and impoverish my heart by denying that there was much spiritual life in the medieval Church. I can admire saints like Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux without any awkwardness. In fact, I now find myself much closer to the Reformers themselves. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin, for example, admired Bernard. Luther called him “a man so godly, so holy, and so pure, that we should commend and prefer him before all the teachers of the Church”. Calvin praised one of Bernard’s treatises on the Christian life thus: “Bernard speaks as though the very truth itself were speaking.” And Bernard is just one instance that could be multiplied many times. We won’t understand the Reformation without understanding the soil from which it grew.

Don’t misunderstand me. I doubt whether there was any single theologian or movement in the medieval Church that exactly embodied the outlook of the Reformers. Yet almost everything, one way or another, for which they stood can be found, somewhere or other, in their medieval ancestors. By a unique convergence of historical factors (and theologically speaking, by God’s providence), the various “evangelical” aspects of medieval Catholicism came together in Luther and Calvin, giving birth to the much-needed Reformation – the best of the medieval Catholic Church correcting the worst. It was the sixteenth century equivalent of the discovery of the book of the Law in the temple under king Josiah, and the ensuing reformation in Judah (2 Kings 22ff.).

Does this mean that I now “whitewash” the medieval Catholic Church? By no means. The fair garden of Christ had become infested and half-smothered with many weeds, and they needed uprooting. The Reformers were God’s gardeners. Their horticulture was drastic, but necessary. Unfortunately the biggest weed that had to be removed from among Christ’s people was large and old: the ever-swelling institution of the papacy itself, as the allegedly supreme authority within the Church Militant. Yet here too, Luther and Calvin followed a trail blazed by great medieval reformers, notably the “conciliarists” of the fifteenth century, who tried (successfully, for a time) to topple the papacy from its unscriptural pinnacle and subordinate it to the whole people of God, assembled in council. We should thank God that the Reformers, even though they did not destroy the gigantic weed of the papacy, succeeding in withdrawing the whole of northern Europe from its chilling shadow, to enjoy a better sun of grace and truth.

Someone might ask what relevance all this has to us today. For me, the answer is primarily in terms of the relevance of truth, which one hopes has permanent relevance, especially to disciples of him who said “I am the truth”. In my considered opinion, most of the problems of current “Evangelicalism” flow from its no longer being very Protestant. In theology, worship and spirituality so much of the Evangelical world has drifted far from its Protestant moorings into a sea of smoke and shadows, whose most basic influences are the surrounding culture, rather than the message of the gospel as delivered in scripture and reaffirmed by the Reformers. Others (notably David Wells) have written and spoken on this far better than I could, so I don’t need to reproduce their diagnosis here. Read Wells – and add Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent Biblical Authority After Babel.

Speaking now as a pastor, one of the potential problems at grass-roots level is the sheer ignorance of our people about the Reformation. (It always sounds élitist and patronising when one speaks in this vein, but I’ll have to risk it.) I can’t remember the last time I was aware of anyone in my circle reading anything by any Reformer. In the mystery of grace, my own personal introduction to Protestant theology included the originals themselves, Luther and Calvin. The nearest thing along these lines I find anyone around me reading is a book by a “Puritan”. Certainly better than reading the latest embarrassing paperback on You and the Holy Spirit, and I’m the last to decry Puritan giants of God like Richard Sibbes, John Flavel and Richard Baxter.

Yet it isn’t quite the same as Reformation literature. The kind of Puritan literature likely to be read is “spiritual” or “devotional” in character, without clearly communicating why we are, or should be, Protestants. For this, I think it’s more helpful (on the whole) to go back to the actual sources. I seem to be banging the “Luther and Calvin” drum, so permit me to do so again: read those God-taught men. And read some good books about the Reformation. James Whale’s The Protestant Tradition is still a fine overview. I include biographies; I think there’s nothing which yet beats Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand as a colourful and well-informed introduction to Martin Luther.

Lastly: no, the Reformers and the Reformation weren’t perfect. But nor are you. Learning from our betters is a sign of both wisdom and humility. I’m suggesting we could do a lot worse than sit afresh at the Reformers’ feet, to learn from masters (however imperfect) the abiding meaning of faith in Christ.

Dr Nick Needham, Church History Tutor, Highland Theological College, Dingwall, & Pastor of Inverness Reformed Baptist Church


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