The Reformation and Post-Reformation
(the marginal characters are Adam and Eve who provide running commentary
on each cartoon)
The Reformation years present almost endless variety. From a theoretical
point of view this was a built in feature as the Reformation leaders advocated
the right of private interpretation of scripture and the priesthood of all
believers. The dissolution of the Medieval Synthesis is not
due totally to the Reformation movement, however. Society was in flux. The
face of Europe, Britain, and America was being transformed, albeit gradually,
but also radically. The fact that the Reformation arose simultaneously in
many widely scattered regions suggest that there was something in the air.
Speaking of reforming the church, the Reformers did not merely mean to
initiate a crash program to clean up the mess. To be reformed meant not
a state of attainment requiring no further self-criticism. Being reformed
meant to be in the continual process of being reformed (reformata sed semper
reformanda). All the reforming activity of this period and conceivably of
every period, has an element of tentativeness about it. The task of reforming
is a never ending process; it is never finished.
As the unified Medieval world began to break up at the beginning of the
Reformation, churches and people were required to learn how to live with
one another even as they disagreed on many matters of life and faith. That
they did not succeed in every detail is hardly a surprise; that they did
so well is an expression of the glory of the Reformation.
Martin Luther (1483-1546 C.E.)
Ordained to the priesthood in 1507 and a highly respected monk and teacher,
Luther had no idea that ten years hence a modes proposal for theological
discussion would explode into his own excommunication and the schism dividing
Roman Catholicism and Protestant evangelicalism. The nailing of the Ninety-Five
Theses on the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 precipitated the long papal
litigation against Luther, resulting in his repeated denunciation as a heretic,
and marking at the same time on the calendar the birthday of the Protestant
Reformation. It was Luther's good fortune to have his local political ruler,
the Saxon Elector Frederick III, also known as The Wise, on
his side. Consequently, he was physically protected against his enemies
and allowed freedom to preach, to write, and to give leadership to the growing
reform movement in Germany.
The life of Martin Luther was punctuated with continual controversy.
Looking forward to a quiet life of scholarship and study, Luther was plunged
against his will into an ecclesiastical and political whirlpool. Not since
Augustine had a church theologian been forced by circumstances to address
himself so directly, and often so polemically, to the divisive issues of
the day. As with Augustine, with whom he has much in common, troubled events
only served to spark a ceaseless, voluminous literary output. Like Thomas
Aquinas, with whom he had so little in common, Luther fathered a theological
tradition that is still normative for a large segment of the Christian community.
More of a prophet than a systematic theologian, more at home in the world
of scripture than in papal vestment, Luther has always been acknowledged
by his admirers and his detractors as the foremost representative of the
Protestant Reformation. Indeed his name is almost synonymous with the movement.
Luther's theology was as simple and straightforward as it was unsystematic
and uncomplicated; it derived from personal anxiety about his own redemption,
the impossibility of complete confession of sin, and a questioning of the
validity of the Medieval sacramental system. He found little or no help
for his religious dilemmas in the textbooks of the scholastic theologians.
It was only when he retraced his steps back to Augustine, and by way of
Augustine to Paul, and through Paul to the whole biblical tradition, that
Martin Luther learned his first evangelical lesson about faith, righteousness,
John Calvin (1509-1564 C.E.)
The task of putting together the main doctrinal emphases of the Reformation
into a structure of theology was a task that occupied a major portion of
the life of John Calvin. As the Reformation took root and spread throughout
Germany, France, and Switzerland, the next step beyond the prophetic utterances
of Martin Luther was the step of organization. The times called for a systematizer
who could clearly and persuasively structure ideas, theological issues,
biblical exegesis, and all the potentially divisive matters relating to
church government and administration. However, John Calvin was, in addition
to all of this, an original thinker whose principal work on doctrinal theology
is sufficient to be mentioned alongside of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica.
When Calvin was about twenty-five, he experienced what he himself referred
to as a sudden conversion. Essentially what he meant by this was that he
turned from Roman Catholicism toward the Reformation way of thinking. A
short time later, in 1536, he published the first edition of The Institutes
of the Christian Religion. (The Latin institutio means instruction.) This
volume was only but a hint of the magnum opus that developed over the years
until it reached its final edition in 1559. Calvin's work in this volume
was modeled on the sequence of the Apostles' Creed as his way of indicating
an allegiance to apostolic Christianity. However, Calvin took liberties
with the ancient formula and inserted long, closely knit discussions on
a variety of theological topics.
People are rarely neutral about John Calvin. His detractors see him as
a stubborn, intolerant, coldly rational authority figure. On the other hand,
his admirers, while not pretending that he is the most lovable person in
the world, note his wide circle of friends and colleagues who looked to
him for advice, and they point to his unflinching loyalty to the truth as
he understood it in the Word of God, i.e. the Scriptures. Calvin was convinced
from Scripture and from his own experience that God is sovereign in the
process of salvation, that it is God in Christ who takes the initiative
and that we have nothing in us whatever deserving of God's favor. It was
because he was so sure of the divine glory that he could speak of total
depravity and predestination.