Thursday, September 21, 2017

Revolutions and The Reformation

Most individuals, including Christians, have a very limited understanding of The Reformation. I am certainly not an expert on the causes, the events, nor even the outcomes of The Reformation; however, I have studied each of those components in the past, and, particularly this year, have grown to understand and appreciate them so much more. Because the 500th anniversary of Luther’s infamous nailing of the 95 theses being celebrated next month, it is certainly fitting that our church, like so many others across the world, are teaching the primary principles (the 5 Solas) of The Reformation and other aspects of it as well (e.g. important people). But, make no mistake, the central theme of The Reformation was Jesus Christ.

The purpose of The Reformation was not to cause a revolution against the Church. A revolution is typically characterized as an attempt to overthrow an oppressive government or ruling system. Many such instances exist in history such as America fighting The (American) Revolutionary War against an oppressive England. Although many factors must be considered, taxation without representation was a strong theme – representing a type of oppression for the colonists. America’s success against a foreign power led to other revolutions such as The French Revolution (which was an internal fight against the tyranny of the monarchs). These, and other revolutions, usually begin with a group of revolutionaries taking up arms and fighting for their (perceived) rights. Sometimes, as in the American and French Revolutions, the revolution was successful. Other times, they were not. (Click here for a list of various revolts in history – you may be quite surprised at how many there have been.)

But the Reformation was not about bringing progressive change; rather, it was about restoring what had been – a re-forming of the Church to what she once was.* Luther and others were not seeking to overthrow the Church, they were focused on calling to attention some erroneous practices of the Church. The result was a branding of heresy against many of these individuals which led the Church to seek to destroy these ideas and, if necessary, the men who espoused them. Thus, the difference in ideals between most revolutions and The Reformation may begin with the direction of intent. Most revolutions seek change from without (e.g American colonies against England), while reformers wanted to make changes from within (Luther was a Catholic priest, for instance).

* Progress is typically considered positive change although what is defined as positive may be interpreted differently by various individuals or groups. To regress, on the other hand, means to go backward.

The Reformation was about making positive changes by returning to the past. It may have seemed like regression to some, but what one perceives to be the focus dictates their reality. The reformers focus was on the Bible (solus Scriptura), so going back to a previous time was not to regress. Instead, it was meant to capture what was best from a previous time and move forward based upon that reality (progress). The religious leaders, on the other hand, focused on the Church, so going back was a threat to their leadership. Thus, any return to the ancient past was regression.

The ultimate point here is that The Reformation was not meant as a true revolution. Many who lived in the 1500’s may have seen it as such, and some today may believe the same. However, a study of the two words shows a great difference in purpose and in process. Certainly revolutions may be necessary at times, and perhaps (PERHAPS) the world may have eventually revolted against the Church in Rome had the reformers not been successful in their efforts (at least, as successful as they were, however you might consider it). 

But a revolution was not necessary and a return to the past did occur for many thousands of people. It was a return to the past that undoubtedly changed the projected future. As we adhere to those same principles today (sola fide, solus Christus, solus Scriptura, sola gratia, and sola deo gloria), we can continue to reform our future as we serve a King against which no revolution will prevail.