A Churchly Faith

In defining the church, Luther stressed the priority of the Gospel

“So, is the Reformation over? My answer to that question is this: The Reformation is over only to the extent that, in some measure, it has succeeded. And, in some measure, of course, it has succeeded—and succeeded even more within the Catholic world than in certain sectors of mainline Protestantism.”

 

Several years ago, Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom published an important book with an engaging title, Is the Reformation Over? Well, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is over. The Reformation of the 16th century, especially Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, has been remembered and celebrated in numerous books, lectures and services of worship. The Reformation, however, was not a one-off event, and the coming years will bring new anniversaries to remember. Two thousand eighteen is the 500th anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation, where Luther’s theology of the cross came to the fore. Two thousand nineteen will bring new discussions of the Leipzig Debate where the principle of sola Scriptura was prominent. Two thousand twenty will focus fresh attention on Luther’s three great Reformation manifestos, especially The Freedom of the Christian. Some Baptist and Mennonite Christians are waiting for 2025 to recall the half-millennial anniversary of the first stirrings of the Anabaptist movement in Zurich.

So, is the Reformation over? My answer to that question is this: The Reformation is over only to the extent that, in some measure, it has succeeded. And, in some measure, of course, it has succeeded—and succeeded even more within the Catholic world than in certain sectors of mainline Protestantism. What would Martin Luther think about Pope Francis’s commendation of his doctrine of justification by faith, or Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s call for a grace-based biblical theology? Even so, important differences remain among the most intractable is the doctrine of the church.

The Reformers of the sixteenth century had no desire to start a brand new church. They were not innovators but reformers. They wanted to be nothing more than true and faithful members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church. And yet schism did come. Luther revolted against the church for the sake of the church, against what he thought was a corrupt church, for the sake of the “true, ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.”

Far from being a champion of rugged individualism—every tub sitting on its own bottom—Luther stressed the communal character of Christianity. “The Christian church is your mother,” Luther said, “who gives birth to you and bears you through the Word.” He also called the church “my fortress, my castle, my chamber.”

But what exactly is the church? Luther once responded impatiently to this question: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd.” For Luther and the other reformers, the true church was the people of God, the fellowship of believers, or, as the Apostles’ Creed has it, the communion of saints.

In defining the church, Luther stressed the priority of the gospel. The gospel is constitutive for the church, not the church for the gospel. In one of the most important of the 95 Theses, Luther wrote, “The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God” (Thesis 62). As there can be no theology of glory, so neither can there be any ecclesiology of glory. Among the seven “holy possessions” of the church, Luther included the “sacred cross.”

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