October 29, 2017 | Reformation Sunday

Introduction

On Tuesday, October 31, we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s pounding the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Today is our gathered celebration of that event. Today is Reformation Sunday. But, why do we celebrate Reformation Sunday?

If you’re like me you didn’t grow up celebrating the Reformation. In fact I recall being taught that our church history didn’t follow through the Reformation. Our history followed through the line of true believers. We didn’t want to conclude that our history involves coming out of the Catholic Church. It was a bit reactionary, but nonetheless, Reformation history was never a significant part of my understanding of church history, and I don’t recall ever celebrating Reformation Sunday or hearing messages on the Five Solas of the Reformation. After all, we weren’t Lutheran, right? Lutherans or maybe even Presbyterians celebrated the Reformation, but gladly we had always been part of the true church and didn’t bother with other church histories. 😉

Maybe you have a similar past. Or maybe you grew up Lutheran and thought that the Reformation was only a Lutheran thing. Whatever your past, we ask the question today. Why do we celebrate the Reformation?

The answer to that could take a great deal of time. Hundreds of books have been written with the intent of answering that question. Likely significant moments, names, and doctrines would emerge in the discussion. As we consider the Reformation we celebrate notable characters like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, John Knox, or Theodore Beza. We are reminded of significant events like Luther’s pounding of the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Luther’s German New Testament, Tyndale’s Bible, the Diet of Worms and Luther’s famous speech, the Marlburg Colloquy and the failed attempt to unite the various groups of the Reformation. Others may focus on the precious doctrines that were well articulated during this time. We celebrate the reemphasis of the “Five Solas of the Reformation” or the “Doctrines of Grace” that were articulated during the Canon of Dort.

Every one of these individuals, each of these moments, and clearly these precious doctrines are worth celebrating. And, in one sense our celebration of the Reformation includes all these elements, but I would like to emphasize one particular aspect of the Reformation, that being what the Lutherans consider to be the motto of the Reformation, Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum or “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever.”

I would like to propose that the primary benefit of the Reformation and the reason for its’ importance still today is that it brought the Scriptures to a world that was not only vastly illiterate but as well forbidden to possess and read the Bible. The Reformation gifted to people a Bible in their own language.

Brian Edwards. Until the middle of the fourteenth century it seems never to have occurred to anyone that a whole Bible in the language of the people might be a good thing. Occasionally parts of the Bible were translated by individuals  . . . But such translations were chiefly for the benefit of the priests, monks and nuns, and all were from the Latin Vulgate of Jerome. [Edwards goes on to say] . . .the masses were treated to legend and romance to such an extent that William Tyndale later complained that the illiterate masses knew more about Robin Hood than about the Bible. Often legends and Bible stories were so interwoven that the ignorance of the people was compounded.[1]

It is not overly dramatic to say that, prior to the Reformation, the vast majority of the world did not have a Bible available to them. And yet the Psalmists tells us, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130 ESV). Paul writes to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17 ESV). What if there are no Scriptures available? What if the Bible stories you’ve been told have been mixed with the fairy tales of the day? What if the church is the only institution that has access to Scripture and they are clearly corrupt? It was this corruption amidst the church and a renewed interests in learning ancient studies brought on by the Renaissance that played key roles in a rediscovery of the Scriptures.

Tim Chester. We often go forward by going back. And this is what happened at the Reformation. The Reformers were not trying to forge something new. They were not setting out to change the world. All they wanted to do was go back to the Bible. But going back to the Bible changed the world.[2]

So then, I would like to offer you a timeline; a timeline that misses a lot of significant events and people of the Reformation and instead keys in on the moments that paved the road to sola scriptura.

John Wycliffe

1378. We begin our timeline with John Wycliffe, titled the “Morningstar of the Reformation.” While still a teenager, Wycliffe attended Oxford and ended up devoting himself to the study of theology and Scripture. As a result he began to take note of how much the church had strayed away from the teachings of Scripture. By 1378 he finished his third significant work, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture. In it he wrote the following.

Holy Scripture is the pre-eminent authority for every Christian and the rule of faith and of all human perfection…it is necessary for all men, not for priests alone…Christ and His Apostles taught the people in the language best known to them…therefore the doctrine should not only be in Latin, but in the vulgar tongue…the more these are known the better…believers should have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand.[3]

Wycliffe, in referencing the corrupt state of his world, wrote, “The chief cause, beyond doubt, of the existing state of things, is our lack of faith in Holy Scripture . . . It is His [God’s] pleasure that the books of the Old and New Law should be read and studied.”[4]

1385. Wycliffe’s stance resulted in he and a handful of scholars translating the Latin Bible into the English Language for the first time. For the first time in 1300 years, an Englishman could read the Bible in his own language. Of course this didn’t go over well with the Catholic Church. Henry Knighton, a Catholic historian wrote in 1396:

Henry Knighton. Christ delivered His Gospel to the clergy and doctors of the Church, that they might administer to the laity and to weaker persons, according to the state of the times and the wants of men. But this Master John Wycliffe translated it out of Latin into English, and thus laid it more open to the laity, and to women who could read, than it had formerly been to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding. And in this way the Gospel pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and that which was before precious to both clergy and laity is rendered, as it were, the common jest of both. The jewel of the Church is turned into the sport of the people, and what was hitherto the principal gift of the clergy and divines is made for ever common to the laity.[5]

1408. Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, held little back when he wrote, concerning Wycliffe, “That pestilent and most wretched John Wycliffe, of damnable memory, a child of the old devil, and himself a child or pupil of Antichrist . . . crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue.”[6] Motivated by such anger and hatred for Wycliffe, Arundel held a synod at Oxford in 1408, to formulate a number of regulations. The seventh of these regulations reads:

The translation of the text of Holy Scripture out of one tongue into another is a dangerous thing . . . therefore we enact and ordain that no one henceforth do by his own authority translate any text of Holy Scripture into the English tongue . . . Nor let any such book, pamphlet, or treatise now lately composed in the time of John Wicklif . . . be read in whole or in part, in public or in private, under pain of the greater excommunication . . . Let him that do contrary be punished in the same manner as a supporter of heresy and error.[7]

Despite the condemnation of the Catholic church and the painstaking chore of copying the Bible by hand, prior to the printing press, many followers of Wycliffe traveled across England to share the Word of God with the people.

John Huss

The light that shined into this oppressive and dark Catholic world, shined into the heart of a Bohemian by the name of John Huss. Huss began to preach fiery messages about the immorality of the clergy and shortly after was thrown into prison for six months prior to his execution. “At the Council of Constance, Jan Hus was charged with heresy. They made him wear a paper . . . pointed hat with the words “Ringleader of all heretics,” written on it. He was then led to the scaffold where he was burned alive for his crimes.”[8]

When the bundle of sticks were piled around Huss, he was asked to deny his teachings. Resolute, he answered with a firm, “No . . . what I taught with my lips I now seal with my blood.” He then said to the executioner, “You are now going to burn a goose . . . but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.”[9] One hundred and two years later, Martin Luther pounded his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

In a debate with Johann Eck, Eck called Luther a “damned and pestiferous” heretic of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. Luther was horrified and denied this connection until he later went back and read some of Hus’ writings. In so doing, Luther became a great admirer of Hus, so much so that Luther believed himself to be the promised swan.

Renaissance & Printing Press

In a moment we will jump to a few of the events that took place during Luther’s life, but before we do we need to take a moment to acknowledge a few events within the 100 years interval. The two events are (1) The Fall of Constantinople and the resulting Renaissance and (2) Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

Renaissance. If you’re like me, you may get a little nervous in the midst of a discussion about the Renaissance and Renaissance humanism – ok maybe not so much nervous as bored. Don’t though. Let me draw the significance from the Renaissance to its implications on the Reformation.

In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. This defeat ended the continuation of the Roman Empire from 27 B.C. and ushered in the rampant spread of Islam in the East.

Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Church and was largely abandoned when its destruction seemed evident. Many scholars fled to the West, taking with them a vast amount of ancient Greek manuscripts.

As these scholars fled Constantinople and the East, the West was solidified as the center for religious studies. As well, the introduction of these Greek manuscripts resulted in an increased desire to study Greek and the original languages.

The Renaissance was a resurgence of learning based on the classical sources. Therefore, as all these classical sources came flooding into the West, they were welcomed and studied with great excitement.

This was significant to the Church. All of a sudden, instead of theologians and clergy simply reading the rather wayward Latin Vulgate, they began to read the Bible in its original language and began to see the many discrepancies in their own Bibles and their theology.

Gutenberg’s Printing Press. The second notable event between Hus’ death and Luther’s theses was the invention of the printing press. You may remember that each copy of Wycliffe’s Bible had to be copied by hand. The invention of the printing press paved the road for the mass distribution of literature. Even Gutenberg mass printed a version of the Latin Vulgate on his press.

So then, the Renaissance resulted in scholars and clergy studying the original languages of the Bible. As a result, years later, many of these same scholars would produce Bibles in the common language of the people to which they ministered and Gutenberg’s press would mass produce these Bibles so that everyone could have one.

Martin Luther

Into the story of the Reformation walks Hus’ swan, Martin Luther. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge all the providential work God had been doing in history prior to Luther’s birth and ministry, so that when Luther offered his 95 theses, the world was set for an awakening.

95 Theses. Interestingly, the 95 theses are not the most significant theological document for the Reformation. It is true that Luther’s posting of these theses lit a fire that couldn’t be put out, but the content of these theses in and of themselves were not terribly remarkable. In fact Luther wrote 97 theses earlier that year in September, and it is these theses that are more helpful theologically and are the theses that Luther often went back to in his discussions. As well, Zwingli wrote 67 theses in 1523 that were more theologically significant.

Diet of Worms. But it is these theses that catapulted Luther into the spotlight and eventually at odds with the Catholic Church. Luther wasn’t trying to change the world. He didn’t have a vision for the Reformation. He simply wanted to go back to the Bible. There are many that argue that the Reformation was all about justification by faith alone and that most definitely was its primary doctrinal emphasis, but justification by faith alone flowed out of the fact that at the heart of the Reformation was a cry for the Scriptures. This can be witnessed nowhere better than at the Diet of Worms and Luther’s famous speech.

Luther. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor wise to go against conscience. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.[10]

Luther’s German New Testament. Following the Diet of Worms, Luther was kidnapped, for his own protection, and taken to Wartburg Castle. It was during the next 10 months that he would produce his most significant achievement. He translated Erasmus’ Greek New Testament into German. Its publication “Luther realized his dream that the people ‘might seize and taste the clear, pure Word of God itself and hold to it’.”[11]

While there are so many more significant events that play a part in Luther’s story, let’s leave Luther’s life with his description of the Reformation.

Luther. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with Philip and Amsdorf [Luther’s friends], the word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the word did everything.[12]

Tyndale

An English contemporary of Luther’s, William Tyndale played a pivotal role in the spread of the Reformation into England. As a young man, Tyndale was employed by John Walsh. He lived in their home and tutored his children. The Walsh home often was visited by the more elite society. At that time that society was largely made up of clergy. Tyndale, fresh from the university would often engage these guests with his understanding of God and Scripture. John Foxe recounts for us one of these encounters. Tyndale was in the midst of one of his typical discussions on the authority of Scripture and God’s law and one of these “certain divines . . . burst out into these blasphemous words, ‘We were better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.’” Tyndale responded with one of his most renowned statements. “I defy the pope, and all his laws, and if God spared my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than thou doest.”[13]

For the boy that driveth the plough to know more of scripture it would be necessary for someone to translate the Bible into his language. It was to this endeavor that Tyndale applied himself. First he attempted to pursue translation and printing in England, but was hindered at every turn. Germany offered a better option to Tyndale, so four years later Tyndale printed his first English translation in Worms and began to smuggle Bibles back into England.

Tyndale lived a rather brief life. In October 1536, at the age of 42, Tyndale was “brought forth to the place of execution, he was tied to the stake, strangled by the hangman, and afterwards consumed with fire . . .crying at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice, ‘Lord! open the king of England’s eyes.’”[14] Tyndale died, but in God’s providence, the work he offered in his English Bible continues to be some of the most spectacular translation work the world has known.

Conclusion

Wycliffe and Huss were the spark. Martin Luther lit the torch, and men like Tyndale, Zwingli, Knox, and Calvin “fanned the flames of the Protestant Reformation.”[15] The Protestant Reformation not only changed the social and political landscape in ways that affect us still today, but also resulted in many of the blessings we take for granted in our Christian culture, things like possessing a bible in your language, benefitting from preaching that focuses on the Scriptures, and the restoration of true teaching on grace and faith.

Reinke. Look deeper into the Reformation, and you will see that it’s more than printing presses and theses nailed to doors and theological debates. It’s the story of ordinary believers, husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, poised in the words of Scripture, reclaiming the primacy of Jesus Christ for their lives, their marriages, their families, and their eternal hopes, who stand as a cloud of witnesses calling us to do likewise. They call us to hold our biblical convictions without wavering, to enjoy God’s earthly blessings, and to endure all momentary afflictions now for the great eternal joy set before us.[16]

 

[1] Edwards, Brian H. “From Vulgate to Vulgar.” Answers in Genesis (blog). Accessed October 26, 2017. https://answersingenesis.org/the-word-of-god/from-vulgate-to-vulgar/.

[2] Reeves, Michael; Chester, Tim. Why the Reformation Still Matters (Kindle Locations 517-519).

[3] John, Wyclif. On the Truth of Holy Scripture. Edited by Ian Christopher Levy. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001.

[4] Brian Edwards offers this quote in “From Vulgate to Vulgar” but doesn’t site the source.  Accessed October 26, 2017. https://answersingenesis.org/the-word-of-god/from-vulgate-to-vulgar/.

[5] Ambassador. John Wycliffe: Man of Courage (Great By Faith Biography) (Kindle Locations 691-696). Ambassador International. Kindle Edition.

[6] Teems, David. Godspeed: Voices of the Reformation (Kindle Locations 4098-4101). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[7] English version of Arundel’s Constitutiones of 14 January 1408 is a revision of the translation of John Johnson, reprinted in A Collection of the Laws and Canons of the Church of England, from Its First Foundation to the Conquest, and from the Conquest to the Reign of King Henry VIII, Translated into English with Explanatory Notes, in Two Volumes … A New Edition, vol. 2 (Oxford: Parker, 1851), pp. 457-474. Accessed October 25, 2017. http://www.bible-researcher.com/arundel.html

[8] Teems, David. Godspeed: Voices of the Reformation (Kindle Locations 3094-3099). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[9] Foxe, John. Acts and Monuments: Book of Martyrs (Kindle Locations 2724-2728). Kindle Edition.

[10] Woodbridge, John  D.; Woodbridge, John  D.; James III, Frank A.; James III, Frank A.. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Kindle Locations 2537-2541). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[11] Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 55). B&H Publishing Group.

[12] Reeves, Michael; Chester, Tim. Why the Reformation Still Matters (Kindle Locations 520-523).

[13] Foxe, John. Acts and Monuments: Book of Martyrs (Kindle Locations 3386-3390). Kindle Edition. I made a few changes to match David Teems, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012).

[14] Foxe, John. Acts and Monuments: Book of Martyrs (Kindle Locations 3509-3512).

[15] The concept of spark, torch, and fan can be found in quite a few sources. I came across it in an article by Charles Swindoll, “Why is the Reformation Important” (http://insight.org/resources/article-library/individual/why-is-the-reformation-important/). The analogy changes with each source. Some have Huss as the torch and others have Luther as the torch. More prominently, the analogy if used of Martin Luther King Jr.

[16] Tony Reinke, “The Ordinary Virgin Mary” (Desiring God Ministries, October 19, 2017), Accessed October 19, 2017 https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-ordinary-virgin-mary

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