Rethinking Reformation Day
During the month of October, local church bulletins are bound to have an invitation to attend Reformation Day Rallies. The rallies are organized to commemorate the Reformation of the church that took place in the sixteenth century. They are promoted as being special because they are an opportunity to show the underlying unity among members of various Reformed denominations.
It seems so self-evident, Reformation Day is for Reformed churches, but why are these Reformation Day rallies held as close to the last day of October as possible? The answer probably can be given by any of the children. It was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg. This proved to be the critical event that led to the reformation of the church.
I highlight that Reformation day commemorates the actions of Martin Luther. This serves as a reminder that the Reformation is broader than the Reformed churches. The picture is cluttered because the terms Reformation and Reformed have overlap, but are not identical. To honour the work of the Lord in the Reformation as Reformed people, we do well to rethink Reformation Day, to see its broad scope. This rethink will sharpen our understanding of the confession of the catholicity of the church.
It is one of the realities of history that later generations put labels on historical developments. A simple example is the way we refer to the First World War. This term only came into use after the Second World War. Initially, the First World War was known as The Great War. The term Reformation, to refer to the events set in motion by Martin Luther's actions, appears not to have come into common use for another three centuries. The term that Luther and his followers used for themselves was evangelical, because they had rediscovered the evangel, that is, the gospel of justification by faith. A term that came into use around 1529 was the term "Protestant." That term was not so much a reference to protesting the deformation in the church, but a reference to an alliance of princes who protested against the Emperor as they sought religious freedom. Over time, however, the term Reformation has become the accepted term to refer to the religious developments of the sixteenth century. To acknowledge the fact there have been other reformations in the history of the church, what happened in the sixteenth century is often called the Great Reformation.
Martin Luther's story is a familiar one. His ninety-five theses were prompted by the selling of indulgences. These indulgences were certificates you could purchase to be pardoned for your sins. This trivialized sin and denied the gospel truth of receiving forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ's sacrifice. The heart of the gospel, as rediscovered by Luther, is expressed clearly in the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession (1530),
It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sins and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us...
Luther's teachings spread rapidly through German speaking lands and into Denmark and Scandinavian countries. Historically, it can be seen as the first stream of the Reformation. From our present vantage point in history, it can be called the Lutheran stream. Its spread was intertwined with political developments.
Luther's influence also extended into England. His teachings, however, were not able to make significant inroads until King Henry VIII separated the church in England from the authority of the pope in 1534. King Henry was not acting out of a desire to reform the doctrine of the church. He wanted a divorce, which the pope refused to grant. This development, however, provided the setting for the teachings of Luther to become established. The Church in England would experience much turmoil in the following decades, especially during the reign of Queen Mary who sought to re-establish the authority of the pope, but the result was that the Church in England followed the key teachings of Luther and other Reformers. A review of the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer testifies to this. Again, one can note the influence of the political situation on the developments of the church.
The developments in England can be seen as the second stream of the Reformation. For convenience, this can be called the Anglican stream.
While the Lutheran and Anglican streams were gaining strength in their respective parts of the world, the third stream appeared in the mid-1530s. John Calvin is the key figure associated with this stream. He initially exerted influence in Switzerland and France, as he ministered in the city of Geneva. His teachings influenced developments in Scotland and The Netherlands, as well as various areas in Eastern Europe and Germany.
There were different emphases and nuances when compared to the other two streams. One of the key differences between Calvin and Luther pertained to the understanding of Christ's presence in the Lord Supper. Calvin also busied himself with the reformation of the government of the church. At the same time, the fundamental unity with Luther comes out in the way he wrote to Cardinal Sadoleto that the doctrine of justification by faith is "the first and keenest subject of controversy between us." The fundamental unity between the Lutheran stream and the stream influenced by Calvin is also evident in the Heidelberg Catechism. While not written by Calvin, this Catechism definitely shows his influence. Frederick III, a prince in a territory where rulers had to subscribe to the Augsburg Confession, commissioned it. Frederick had to defend this catechism, but his fellow princes could not say he went against the Augsburg Confession. The Catechism displays a winsome tone, avoiding, for example, too much covenantal terminology, as this would have been divisive. This third stream, while influenced by Calvin, has become known as the Reformed stream.
While controversies developed between the three streams of the Reformation, especially between the Lutheran and the Reformed, there is a unity in the key doctrines. This sense of spiritual unity is evident in the publication of a book entitled An Harmony of the Confessions of Faith of the Christian and Reformed Churches, which purely profess the holy doctrine of the Gospel, in all the chief kingdoms, nations and provinces of Europe. It includes Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed confessions. This was published first in Geneva, in 1581, with the first English edition appearing in 1586. The sense of underlying unity was evident also in the way the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands invited delegates from the Church in England to deal with the Arminian controversy.
Pollution of the Streams
It is interesting to follow developments in each of the three streams of the Reformation. If one does this, it will become apparent that each of these three streams experienced spiritual pollution. The appearance of spiritual pollution inevitably has led to struggles within each stream. One of the features of the Reformed stream is that spiritual pollution tends to result in divisions. Divisions are not absent in the Lutheran and Anglican streams, but it is far more prevalent in the Reformed stream. Within each stream, there have remained those who desire to be true to the Reformation that began with Luther.
Interaction between the Streams
There is also evidence of ongoing interaction between the three streams, with each dipping their feet into the other streams and benefiting from them. As members of Reformed churches, we wholeheartedly sing Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is our God." We joyfully sing songs that comes from the history of Lutheran pietism, "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation," and "I'll thank thee, O my God and Saviour." We enthusiastically sing the song composed by Charles Wesley, "Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim," and we sing his words about "infinite love," although we probably understand that differently than he did. Further, we benefit greatly from godly books written by faithful men from the different streams. We even show particular influences of Luther in the way our version of the Apostles' Creed includes the word "Christian" as we speak of the "holy catholic Christian church."
The Providence of God
When we take the time to reflect on who we are as Reformed believers, we will come to the realization that, essentially, we stand in the Reformed stream by God's providence. To be sure, at some point in our life we had consciously to confess our faith. For some, this will have involved more soul searching, coming from different backgrounds, even non-church backgrounds. Some even switched from one stream to another. In the big picture, however, we are in the particular Reformation stream because in God's providence we were born into that stream. Even those who later have ended up with their feet in the Reformed stream will realize that this is all by the grace of God.
Reformation Day is a time to reflect on how, by God's grace, we stand where we do. This is no time for self-congratulatory backslapping for our brave and bold decisions, but for thankfulness. It is also a time to reflect deeply about how we dare have these rallies to commemorate the Reformation and return to our ecclesiastical segregation. Finally, it is a time to reflect on whether we do justice to Reformation Day by inviting only Reformed believers. The Reformation is not the exclusive domain of the Reformed, but it consists of three main streams. We in principle acknowledge this when each October 31, we commemorate the actions of our brother Martin Luther.