Tag Archives: Martin Luther

The Reformation and Doxology

Five hundred years!  Today is the day we mark a half millennia since God brought Reformation to his church.  Over these five centuries, Reformed biblical theology has spread far and wide.  Its influence has infiltrated into various cultures and sub-cultures around the globe.  For this, we ought to praise God and vigorously.

One of the surprising sub-cultures where Reformation theology has found a home today is American hip-hop.  One of the leading voices in this development is Shai Linne.  In the spoken word intro to his album Lyrical Theology Part 2: Doxology, Shai makes this astute observation:  “If you have theology without doxology, you just have cold dead orthodoxy…If you have doxology without theology, you actually have idolatry.”  He’s right.

Theology (the study of who God is and what he’s done) should lead us right to doxology (proper praise for God).  The two belong together and must never be separated.  So when we consider the Reformation, we’re not doing it right if we’re not ending up on our knees in adoration for God.  There are all sorts of reasons why remembering the Reformation should bring us to worship — the chief being the recovery of the biblical gospel.  Without that gain, everything else is meaningless.  Praise God that he peeled away the ignorance, brought back the Bible, and brought widespread gospel preaching back to his church!

Let me mention three other reasons why we ought to be praising God today for the Reformation.

The Recovery of Certainty and Assurance

When many medieval Christians went to church, they were immediately confronted with an image of Christ.  It was not an image of Christ as Saviour, but as the coming Judge of heaven and earth.  The medieval church wanted to put the fear of Jesus into its members.  You were always supposed to be afraid and wondering whether you would be good enough for him.  You would never know the answer to that question until after you died.  For the average believer, the prospect of purgatory always loomed.  You could not be sure that you would go to God’s blessed presence the moment you died, because most likely you wouldn’t.  What a horrible distortion of the Christian faith!

The Reformation brought back the Bible’s message of justification.  If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are declared right by God.  The Judge is now your Father.  As his beloved child, you need not fear judgment.  When you die, because of God’s verdict in your justification, you can be absolutely 100% certain that you will be going to his blessed presence.  As one Reformation catechism put, “Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism QA 42).  Praise God that we are not left wobbly and doubting!  Praise God for the Reformation’s recovery of gospel certainty!

The Restoration of the Voice of God’s People in Worship

Prior to the Reformation, when you went to mass you mainly went as a spectator.  Almost everything was done by someone else, mainly the priest and his assistants.  Congregation members were typically passive participants.  Since much of the service was in Latin, it could not be otherwise.  The idea of congregational singing was known, but not widely practiced.

With the Reformation, this began to change dramatically.  Christian worship becomes a more active affair for congregation members.  They are not only to watch or listen, but also to participate and particularly in song.  One of John Calvin’s priorities was the preparation of a metrical Psalter in the language of the people.  This was because he understood that the congregation should be lifting up its voice in worship.  In Reformed churches today, this continues to be the practice.  We emphasize congregational singing, the priesthood of all believers melodiously lifting up the Name of God.  We don’t go to church to listen to a choir sing or listen to soloists, but to lift up our own voices in praise to God.  This is as it should be.  Let’s praise God that we can praise him each Lord’s Day from our own hearts with our own tongues and lips!

The Humanity of the Reformers and their Example

When we look closely at the men whom God used to recover the gospel in the Reformation, one of the striking things is that they were just, well…men.  They were not super saints.  They had warts and blemishes.  For example, Luther famously ran off his mouth and was known for saying some things a bit strongly, if not strangely — and even sometimes wrongly.  Yet through their weaknesses, the power of God was made strong.  God amazingly worked through weak and sinful men to bring something about that’s still having a ripple effect to this day.

They were people with families.  When they faced death or martyrdom, they wrote like regular people because that’s what they were.  If you haven’t already, you need to read the powerful last letter of Guido de Brès to his wife.  See if you can read that without praising God for the example of this Reformation pastor.  I read that letter and I can’t help but doxologize.  God worked steadfast faithfulness in his servants and it was not in vain.  The gospel for which de Brès died outlived him and spread far beyond his little corner of the world.  God worked through them, through their humanity, and he left examples for us to follow.

There are many more reasons why we can be praising God today as we remember the Reformation.  Along with the recovery of the gospel as number one, those three above certainly rank up there for me.  They lead me to this:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him…

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Psalm 98:1,4


Pillars of the Reformation

The Reformation started 500 years ago with a protest against indulgences.  Rome had adopted the idea that there is a place called purgatory where believers must spend time before they can expect to arrive in heaven.  Purgatory is a place of torment where the believer  is “purged” (cleansed) from his or her remaining sins.  But one’s time in purgatory could be shortened through the purchase of an indulgence from the church.  Buying this certificate, one allegedly received access to the treasury of merit achieved by Christ and the saints.  It was a win-win for everyone — the church made extra money for the building of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and the believer could reduce purge time for himself or loved ones.  But a German monk named Martin Luther would have none of it — he published the 95 Theses in 1517, a protest against indulgences.  That was just the start of the Reformation in the early 1500s.

As the Reformation progressed, it became evident that there were five main issues in debate.  We sometimes call these the five pillars of the Reformation — they’re also known as the five ‘solas.’  Let’s review them.

Sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Rome taught that the Bible is authoritative for believers.  But Rome also taught that tradition and the Church are also authoritative.  The Reformation maintained that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live.

Sola Gratia — by grace alone.  Rome taught that believers need God’s grace to be saved.  But Rome also taught that believers need to cooperate with God’s grace in order to be saved.  Salvation is by grace plus good works.  The Reformation maintained that salvation comes by God’s grace alone.  When it comes to the basis of our salvation, we do not merit anything, indeed, we cannot merit anything before God.

Sola Fide — by faith alone.  This has to do with justification.  Rome taught that justification is a life-long process.  At the end of your life, God will make his judgment about you based on what you did, particularly your good works.  The Reformation maintained that justification is an event whereby God declares that the sinner is righteous through Jesus Christ.  Justification is received through faith alone.  In justification, faith is simply receiving Jesus Christ as your righteousness.  Good works are not part of the equation (though they certainly flow forth in the justified person’s life as a fruit).

Solus Christus — Christ alone.   Rome taught that every believer needs Jesus Christ.  However, the papacy also taught that one needs the Virgin Mary and the saints.  Christ is not enough.  Against that, the Reformation maintained that everything we need for our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.

Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be the glory.  Rome taught that God ought to be praised for salvation.  However, they included good works in the basis of salvation.  They gave a place to Mary and the saints alongside Christ as the Redeemer.  Human beings had to cooperate with God’s grace for justification and salvation.  The inevitable conclusion is that God gets praise, but so do human beings.  The Reformation objected.  The Reformation upheld the biblical teaching of Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory..”  All the credit, all the glory, all the praise, goes to God for our salvation.

These five pillars continue to be vitally important for the church today.  Rome still teaches what it always has.  But perhaps of more relevance is the fact that our natural human tendency is to drift away from each of these teachings.  The natural human inclination is not to give God his exclusive due.  We’re bent towards taking credit for ourselves and not acknowledging God’s exclusive authority in our lives.  Pride is our default mode.  The five pillars put us in a proper posture of humility before God.  Therefore, Christians today neglect the five pillars to their own detriment and, more tragically, to a degradation of God’s glory.  As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s be thankful for these teachings and continue to maintain them.


Nailing the 95 Theses: Legend or Fact?

This year we hear repeatedly that it was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  But did he?  Where is the proof for this?  I remember the first time I encountered skepticism about this claim — I found it intriguing and, the more I looked into it, I became skeptical too.  I’m currently reading Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina & Martin Luther and she mentions this question as well.  Here’s what she writes on page 92:

Interestingly, Reformation scholars today still debate whether or not Luther actually posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church.  Martin Brecht notes that the posting of the Theses on the church doors was first mentioned well after Luther’s death by his friend and fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon, who wasn’t even living in Wittenberg in 1517, the time of the alleged posting.  In his thousands of Table Talk entries Luther never told the story of posting the Theses, nor did he mention it in any of his own writings that detail the beginnings of the reform movement.  Brecht guesses that Luther probably did post the Theses, as nailing a notice on the church door was standard protocol for academics who wished to engage in a public debate, but the truth is, no one knows for sure if Luther stood before the doors of Castle Church with a hammer in his hand.

There’s a bit more information about this matter here.  And over here at the Heidelblog is where I first read about the skeptical approach (thanks, Scott!).


The Eve of the Reformation: Staupitz

As noted several times already on this blog, this year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Today I want to look at a figure from the period right before the Reformation:  Johann von Staupitz.  I first became interested in Staupitz because of his portrayal in the 2003 movie, Luther.  Bruno Ganz warmly played the part of Staupitz and gave the impression that he was influential in Luther’s life, but also flawed in some ways.  As it turns out, this is not far off the mark.

Johann von Staupitz (1460/69-1524) was Martin Luther’s spiritual father, his mentor.  Without a doubt, Staupitz left his mark on Luther.  While Staupitz himself never broke with the papal Catholic church, he surely did have a hand in the Reformation ignited by his spiritual son Martin Luther.

The Life of Staupitz

There is some uncertainty about his exact birth date — it was sometime between 1460 and 1469.  His family were German nobility and so study was within his reach.  He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1485 and then went on to a master’s degree right afterwards.  By 1500, he had obtained a doctorate from the university of Tubingen.  At some point in his university years, he took vows and became a member of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.  This was a highly educated Catholic order which emphasized many of the key teachings of Augustine.

Staupitz quickly distinguished himself as an Augustinian monk.  While serving as a prior in Tubingen, he preached 34 sermons on the book of Job.  While they were appreciated by those who heard (and have thus been preserved), Staupitz himself felt that “he had afflicted Job with a worse plague than boils.”  Despite his humble self-assessment, Staupitz was becoming recognized as a careful expositor of the Bible.

In 1502, he was appointed to be the first professor of biblical studies and the dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Wittenberg.  However, because of his growing responsibilities amongst the Augustinians, he spent limited time in Wittenberg and only lectured occasionally.  Much of his time was taken up with travelling and preaching in other places.  For example, in 1516, he was in Nuremburg where he preached a series of Advent sermons.  These became a little book on predestination, first published in Latin, and then later translated into German.

Staupitz and Luther knew each other already in 1511.  Luther was drawn to Staupitz — in fact, Staupitz became his father confessor.  As such, Staupitz tried to help Luther with his spiritual struggles.  In 1511, it was Staupitz who urged Luther to become a doctor and preacher of the Augustinians.  The following year, after Luther achieved that goal, Staupitz vacated his position at the University of Wittenberg and had Luther succeed him.

In 1518, he began hearing reports about his successor in Wittenberg.  Staupitz had mixed feelings about what Luther was saying, writing, and doing.  Some of Luther’s concerns resonated with him, but Luther also frightened him somewhat with his boldness.  When it became clear that Luther was in danger of being arrested, Staupitz made the strategic move of releasing him from his vows to the Augustinian order.  This gave Luther more freedom to speak and act.  After this, Staupitz and Luther would only meet one more time, but they continued to exchange letters.

The papal Church put enormous pressure on Staupitz to bring Luther to his senses.  The pressure was applied through the General of the Augustinian order.  Eventually, in 1520-21, Staupitz resigned his position within the order and even left it altogether.  He became a Benedictine monk instead, trying to retire to a peaceful life within a monastery.  When Luther heard of this, he wrote to Staupitz and rebuked him for his cowardice.  Staupitz replied with a letter in which he reaffirmed his love for Luther, but also insisted that he could not break with the papacy.

He became sick in the spring of 1524 and, after languishing throughout that year, died on December 28.  He died as a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church, but one always under suspicion.  In fact, in 1559, the writings of Staupitz were put on “the index,” the Roman Catholic list of banned books.  One might say that this makes Johann von Staupitz an honorary Protestant.

The Theology of Staupitz

When we look at his theology, we start to see that even in the late medieval period, there were theologians who were almost getting the gospel right.  Because of his work in biblical studies, Staupitz was on the right track, even if he still missed some key elements.  His theology was erroneous in maintaining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  He believed that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin.  He held to some unhealthy and unbiblical mysticism.  He still spoke of the mass as a sacrifice.  Yet he was getting closer to the truth than almost anyone before him.  I’ll briefly mention his doctrine of the covenant, his view of human nature, the doctrine of election, and justification.

Staupitz taught a doctrine of the covenant in which God not only establishes the conditions, but also meets those conditions.  God does that through Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.  Everything in this covenant is offered to the elect unconditionally.  Unlike many medieval theologians before him, Staupitz taught a covenant of grace where the faithfulness and grace of God were strongly emphasized.

When it came to human nature, Staupitz had a dim view.  He rejected the Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of other medieval theologians.  After the fall into sin, the will of man is in bondage.  Man is a prisoner of himself and of self-love.  Therefore, fallen man cannot do what is pleasing to God.  Staupitz wrote, “…man’s nature is incapable of knowing or wanting or doing good.  For this barren man God is sheer fear.”

The biblical doctrine of election also comes out in Staupitz’s theology.  Many medieval theologians taught that election is based on the foreseen behaviour of individual human beings.  Not Staupitz.  Rather, for him, election is based on God’s sovereign good pleasure.

On justification, Staupitz was almost there.  He did not see justification as a process, but as an event.  But whereas many medieval theologians confused justification and sanctification (hence describing it as a process), Staupitz confused the events of justification and regeneration.  In the event of justification, he said, God becomes pleasing and desirable to man.  It happens by the grace of God and through faith, but justification is not a legal event where God the Judge declares the sinner to be righteous.  Instead, Staupitz viewed justification in more relational terms.  Whereas fallen sinners are enslaved to self-love, through justification sinners are freed to love Christ.  In our Reformed theological terms, we would say that this happens in the event of initial regeneration.

Conclusion

There can be no question that Staupitz influenced Luther in his theology, perhaps more than any other individual.  But it’s also important to realize that God worked through Staupitz to put Luther right where he needed to be:  at the University of Wittenberg.  When Luther was under attack, Staupitz was one of the instrumental forces protecting him.  Luther therefore owed a lot to Staupitz, not only personally and theologically, but also academically and strategically.  This friend and ally was weak in some ways, but without him, there could have been no Reformation.  For this reason, the Lutheran Church honours him with his own day on their Calendar of Saints (November 8).  We Reformed do not follow such a calendar, but we can and still should praise God for what he did through this man.


What Caused the Reformation?

presswork

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  This “birthday” places the birth of the Reformation on October 31st, 1517 — the date Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  One might quibble about the dating.  The Reformation can’t really be compared to a baby being born.  There were a string of events and historical processes that contributed to the movement, and some of these predated 1517.  But, for the sake of convenience, we can run with the 1517 date and celebrate God’s goodness in bringing his Church back to the gospel.  Over the coming months, I hope to have a number of Reformation-related posts.

I want to begin today with considering the question:  what caused the Reformation?  Someone might say, “It’s obvious:  God caused the Reformation.”  As true as that is, it is not a very helpful answer.  We know that God uses various means to accomplish his purposes.  So, what means did God use to bring about the Reformation?

When it comes to such questions, historians sometimes refer to sufficient and necessary causes (or conditions).  Sufficient causes produce the event.  They inevitably cause the event to occur.  Necessary causes are things that had to be present in order for the event to occur, but by themselves don’t produce the event.  The illustration often used is of matches and fire.  What caused the fire?  The necessary causes would be the presence of the match and the presence of a surface on which to strike the match.  The sufficient cause would be a person taking the match and actually striking it.  I want to focus on three necessary causes of the Reformation.  These were things that had to be present before the Reformation could really ignite and set Europe aflame with gospel renewal.

The first is printing technology.  The movable-type printing press appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century, but it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that this technology came into its own.  Printers finally became proficient at producing mass quantities of books.  Moreover, on the eve of the Reformation, a process for manufacturing paper in a cost-effective way is perfected.  Potential for mass quantity plus cheaper paper equals the possibility of literature available to a wider scope of the population.  Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers produced literature that took advantage of this technology.  Their writings went far and wide, spreading the gospel hope.  Without advances in printing technology, the Reformation would not have occurred.

But these advances would have meant nothing if people continued producing literature in Latin.  The second necessary cause is the proliferation of literature in the native tongues of Europe.  Even outside of theology, writers started putting out books written in German, French, English, Dutch, and so on.  Works were still written in Latin (even into the eighteenth century), but these were specialist writings geared to academics.  Right before the Reformation, however, books were being written in the vernacular for non-academics.  The Reformation became a populist movement by capitalizing on this development.  For example, the 95 Theses were originally written in Latin — after all, Luther desired an academic debate.  However, they were soon translated into German.  Eventually, many of Luther’s writings were first written solely in German.  The Reformation took off because of people like Luther writing in German, Calvin writing in French, and so on.  Of course, of all writings appearing in the vernacular, the most powerful of all was the Word of God.  Finally, people could read for themselves what Scripture says in their own language — and that was gospel dynamite.

However, that assumes that people can read.  That brings me to the last necessary cause:  the rise of education and literacy in Europe.  Prior to the 1500s, literacy was reserved for a select few.  Stories are told of royalty that did not know how to read.  There were parish priests who were functionally illiterate — they would have memorized just enough Latin to carry out their duties.  But coming into the 1500s, this begins changing.  By 1517, literacy was still not what it is today, but it had improved and it continued improving.  In fact, because of the Reformation emphasis on the importance of reading the Scriptures, wherever the Reformation took hold, educational improvements followed.  Schools were established and literacy was expected to be the norm rather than the exception.  Without improvements in literacy, however, we would not even be talking about the Reformation as one of the great events in history.

I have described three necessary causes for the Reformation:  printing technology, vernacular literature, and literacy.  Yes, there are more necessary causes that could be mentioned, but those three are among the most important.  Without them, there would have been no return to the Scriptures, no return to the gospel.  In his providence, at just the right time, our sovereign God brought these developments into being and thus prepared the way for a recovery of his saving truth.  We see his hand in it all and praise him for it!