The Reformation Wrap-up

Martin Luther was a man prone to sharp bursts of emotion. On particular occasion Luther was feeling overwhelmed by the temptation of the devil. To reject the temptation, he yelled out at the devil and hurled his inkwell at the wall. His students would later look at the ink spot on the wall of Luther’s study and retell the story of Luther’s outburst. It became something of a legend. Over the years as the ink spot began to fade, his students would retouch the spot, perhaps even embellishing it. It is so easy for the temptation of relics to re-emerge.

The worst way possible to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be to celebrate the men and women who brought about the Reformation apart from the work of God in and through these people. Luther, Calvin, and others would be aghast at the notion that much would be made of them and not of their God. The goal of Reformation is the glory of God. This is man’s chief end (WSC #1). And yet, when we make the celebration, study, or remembrance of the Reformation an antiquarian practice, we end up elevating men and their efforts and not the glory of God. We are guilty, in a very real sense, of promoting the use of religious relics for our sanctification. Luther might hurl his inkwell at us!

It was likely in response to the apparent ease with which our hearts slip back into idolatry that the Dutch Reformed theologian Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620-1677) coined the phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, that is “the church reformed, always reforming.” Van Lodenstein was a part of the “Further Reformation” movement (Nadere Reformatie) in the Netherlands. Their concern was to prevent the church from lapsing back into darkness and error. They strove for further purity in their worship, practice, and doctrine. This movement was mirrored by English Reformed Puritans like William Perkins and William Ames.[1]

This phrase, semper reformanda, has encountered a great deal of abuse in recent years. The Mainline Protestant churches have a tendency to latch onto this idea (i.e. always reforming) as license to continually change the church. Often it was used to justify a moving away from purity in worship, practice, and doctrine. In 1967 the Presbyterian Church (USA), under the misguided use of semper reformanda, rejected the historic Reformed confessions and adopted a position that denied the nature of Scripture as inerrant and infallible. They saw the doctrine of the church as always in need of being changed to accommodate itself to the times. The doctrine, worship, and practice of the church needed to evolve in order to be relevant. This, of course, meant a rejection of sin, judgment, the miraculous, and anything else that might be distasteful to the modern and post-modern mind. It was not a desire to see our belief and behavior brought into conformity with God’s Word, but a desire to manufacture divine approval for unbiblical belief and behavior. Instead of being a guard to protect us from wandering from the faith once delivered, the phrase became the justification for it.

The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda is now often appended with secundum verbum Dei, “the church reformed, always reforming…according to the Word of God.” The Reformers were catholic (small “c” meaning universal) in their views. They would never have imagined that sola Scriptura and semper reformanda would be used to create greater disunity and less purity in their orthodoxy. But our hearts easily slip back into idolatry.

If the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is to be anything other than a history lesson that simply engages the mind, then we need to allow our hearts to be quickened by the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of God’s Word. The Playmobil Martin Luther toy has sold over 1 million units. It is the #1 selling Playmobil figurine of all time. But if the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is about trinkets and stuff, then we’ve sadly missed the whole point. Our reflection on the Five Solas of the Reformation, on the key persons of the Reformation, on the doctrines of the Reformation, and on the errors of that time must bring us back to a deep desire for the glory of God alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Word of God alone.

 

[1] See R Scott Clark’s article Always Abusing Semper Reformanda, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/always-abusing-semper-reformanda/