We noted last month that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe – on 31st October Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and sparked such a revolution as he could never have envisaged. God was mightily at work.
But what is the heart of the Reformation? What were the great truths rediscovered during those momentous years? The fact is that the Reformation touched on every significant area of Christian doctrine. A great deal of attention was given, for example, to the biblical doctrine of the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper. The latter, sadly, was a cause of division among the Reformers themselves. The Reformation cannot be reduced to one issue, such as ‘justification by faith alone’, although that was a crucial doctrine much debated at the time. A useful way of approaching the core of the Reformation is through what have come to be known as the ‘Five Solas’ – ‘sola’ being the Latin word for ‘alone’. They are Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and God’s Glory Alone. These five truths do bring us close to the heart of the Reformation theologically and for the next few months Another Voice will be considering them briefly.
The foundation of the Reformation was ‘Scripture Alone’. What is the source of Christian theology? Rome relied on a combination of written Scripture and unwritten tradition, interpreted by the ‘magisterium’ of the Church. The Reformers realised that this positon was in fact profoundly unbiblical and in response asserted that we must base all theology on ‘Scripture Alone’. Without denying the value of centuries of study by scholars and preachers, the Reformers recognised that Scripture is the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and practice.
The Reformers understood that in the Bible we have a unique revelation. In the context of the Europe of their day the fact that the Bible was to be regarded as the Word of God was a largely unchallenged view. Theologians might differ as to how to interpret the Bible and as to what the text meant, but they generally agreed that what they were handling was God’s Word.
We face a rather different challenge today with regard to the place of the Bible. We live in a pluralist culture where other religions are on our doorstep, not in the far-flung regions of the world as they usually were in Reformation days. They too make claims to have divine revelations, sometimes in addition to the Bible. We also face the challenge of philosophers and theologians who assert that the very idea of ‘words from God’ is incoherent and incredible. In response we cannot allow ourselves to be moved from the position of 2 Timothy 3:16 – ‘All Scripture is God-breathed’. All Scripture – the Old Testament and also the New Testament then in process of production. In the Bible alone we have the Word of God written, given by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.
In the Bible we also have a unique authority. This follows from the God-breathed nature of the book. If God speaks uniquely in these pages, then they have absolute authority in all they teach. Submission to God’s Word is evidence of submission to God himself. As Christ said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15).
Many of the great Reformation debates came back to the issue of the authority of the Bible. In response to Rome’s appeal to unwritten apostolic tradition and the Anabaptists’ appeal to the ‘inner light’, the Reformers were convinced that the Bible did not need to be supplemented and could not be replaced by any other source of authority.
We too need to keep asserting the unique authority of the Bible. Rome still appeals to tradition and to papal authority. Charismatics appeal to new revelations of the Spirit and ‘words from the Lord’. Many Christians in practice depend on their feelings as their authoritative guide. In the wider world all kinds of authorities are cited, often centred on human reason, science and ‘experts’. One major danger posed by our digital culture is the ease with which anyone can set himself up as an ‘authority’, subject to no checks of any kind. The very idea of authority crumbles in a Wikipedia world and the response we often have to contend with is ‘Who says so?’ with the implication that my view is as good as anyone else’s.
We must heartily defend ‘Scripture Alone’. In this book God has given us all we need to know (although not all we would like to know). No other source of authority must be allowed to usurp its place in theory or practice. Our love for the Lord must be demonstrated in obedience to his authoritative Word.