HE PROTESTANT Reformation in the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of middle ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement; and makes Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.
October 31, 1517, the day when Dr. Martin Luther nailed his ninety-fifth theses to the castle door in Wittenberg, has been designated the birthday of the Protestant reformation; yet this single event must not be isolated from the general historical setting of European life at that time. Other events of great magnitude were taking place. The Teutonic-Latin civilization which had been in the process of development for many centuries had reached its majority. The Renaissance, or rebirth of learning, marked the first real break with medievalism. The Humanists emphasized the worth of the individual and of freedom of thought and expression. Explorers traveling beyond the pillars of Hercules opened new lands to be discovered, colonized, and evangelized. One cannot underestimate the work of the reformers in giving to the people of Western Europe the Word of God in their native tongue, or the invention of the printing press which began to turn out Bibles and religious helps in unprecedented numbers.
The transition from the medieval to the modern world was not an abrupt one. Change came about gradually in the religious, intellectual, moral, social, economic, and political life of western Europe. Someone has said that John Wycliffe was the “morning star of the reformation”; John Huss and Hieronymus, of Prague, were its first martyrs; Savonarola was its great prophet; and Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were the great reformers.
In the sixteenth century the medieval church had reached the lowest level of its degeneracy. When conditions were at their worst, Martin Luther inaugurated the Reformation, a movement which shaped the religious history of that age. The Reformation gave rise to Protestantism. Luther made the reform of the church the central interest of Western Christendom. An humble German monk succeeded where other reformers had failed. Luther’s success can be understood only in the light of knowledge of his remarkable personality and the environment in which he lived and worked.
Many factors prepared the way for Luther’s revolt against the existing church system. He built on foundations laid by medieval forerunners of Protestantism who had created a new interest in devising means for the cleansing of the church. Earnest Christians everywhere, sickened by the prevailing corruption, were longing for thorough reform of the church in officials and in members, and a revival of spiritual life. Political factors, particularly the new nationalism of the age, encouraged revolt against papal overlordship. The decline of the feudal order and the rise of the middle classes created a social situation conducive to new experiments. The Renaissance had developed a cultural atmosphere which fostered a yearning for freedom in thought and belief.
LUTHER’S VIGOROUS personality dominates the early phases of Reformation history. He emerged as the one man best qualified to meet the problems of this crucial period in world history. His genius as a religious leader enabled him to make use of all available environmental factors in advancing the cause of reform. During the initial stages of the Reformation his clear thinking and heroic action gave direction to the major trends which Protestantism has followed throughout its history. Luther discovered satisfying answers to the religious problems of the time in his own personal religious experience. Having tested and proved the validity of his discoveries in his own life, he was prepared to proclaim them to the world with a certainty and a forcefulness that compelled attention, won followers, and inaugurated an era of lasting reform.
At the Diet of Worms in 1521 Luther, standing face to face with the emperor and papal legate as the highest authorities of state and church, refused to recant and made his declaration of loyalty to conscience in these memorable words: “It is impossible for me to recant unless I am proved in the wrong by the testimony of Scripture or evident reasoning . . . My conscience is bound by the word of God, and it is neither safe nor honest to act against one’s conscience. God help me! Amen!”
The term “Protestant” had its origin in a famous document drafted in 1529 by German princes who supported the Lutheran reform movement when Charles V threatened its suppression. The term has become a badge of honor. Those who bear this name ought to understand its meaning. As applied in history, the name has both negative and positive implications. Negatively, Protestantism rejects the Roman Catholic theory of the church in four ways; viz., by repudiating the claims of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to the possession of infallible teaching authority; by discarding the unscriptural elements in the sacramental system as developed by the medieval church; by denying the vaunted claims of priests and pope either to the right of government over the affairs of church and state or to lordship over the consciences of men; and by opposing the accumulated abuses resulting from the man-made medieval theory of the Church.
But the term Protestantism has positive implications that should never be forgotten. By derivation the word “protest” means “to bear witness for.” Luther and his associates were bearing witness for the long-neglected truths of the Christian faith which they had discovered in the teaching of Jesus and in the doctrines and practices of the early Church. It has been the historic mission of Protestantism to bear particular witness to four great truths that were obscured, denied or generally neglected by the medieval church. These four truths, which were rediscovered by Luther, form the most important heritage of the Reformation which is the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ. This makes the essence of religion the free communion of the human spirit with God. Men are saved by personal trust in Christ rather than by their own good works. Those who link their lives with God through faith in Christ are saved. The realization of this great truth was the key to Luther’s developing religious experience. It remains the impelling dynamic of the Protestant movement.
The Protestant doctrine of justification by faith differs from the Roman Catholic as defined by the Council of Trent. The reformers derived their ideas from Paul and the Romanists appealed chiefly to James (James 2:17-26). But Paul suggests the solution of the apparent contradiction by his sentence, that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything or uncircumcision but faith working through love.” Faith in the Biblical and evangelical sense is a vital force which engages all the powers of man and apprehends and appropriates the very life of Christ and all His beliefs. “Faith” in the language of Luther “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing; and it is impossible that it should not do good without ceasing; it does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is put, it has done them already, and is always engaged in doing them; you may as well separate burning and shining from fire, as works from faith.” By faith Abraham became the father of nations; by faith Moses became the liberator and legislator of Israel; by faith the Gallilean fishermen became fishers of men, and by faith the noble army of martyrs endured torture and triumphed in death. Without faith in the risen Saviour the Church could not have been founded. Faith is a saving power. It unites us to Christ. Whosoever believeth in Christ has eternal life. “We believe,” said Peter at the Council of Jerusalem, “that we have been saved by the grace of God.” “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shall be saved,” was Paul’s answer to the Philippian jailer.
THE SECOND GREAT TRUTH is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers which asserts the right of any individual to approach God directly without the mediation of any priest, sacrament, or institution. The rediscovery of this New Testament truth proved a mighty blow to the lofty claims of the priestly order as developed in the medieval Church. This idea of the priesthood of believers was regarded by Luther as involving social as well as individual responsibility. Each Christian, saved by faith, is under obligation to render a priestly ministry of service to others by life, word and deed. The third basic truth is that the Bible is the final authority in determining all matters of faith and practice. Its authority outranks the judgement of theologians, councils, the pope, and the Church. It makes clear the will of God as revealed in Christ. The revelation of God is recorded in the Bible and embodied in its supreme form in the person of Christ. He is the Word of God incarnate. The Bible is, therefore, authoritative because it helps to convey to the individual the fullness of God’s self-disclosure in Christ whose authority is final for the Christian.
The Bible, heretofore a book of priests only, was now translated anew and better than ever in the vernacular tongue of Europe and make a book of the people. Every Christian man could henceforth go to the fountainhead of inspiration and set at the feet of the Divine Teacher without priestly permission and intervention.
The fourth principle asserts the competency and the right of each individual, using right reason and the help of the Holy Spirit, to interpret the Scriptures for himself. This provided mankind with a new charter for liberty of thought and the right of private judgement, ideas underlying the whole course of the development of modern democracy.
Under the providence of God the American people enjoy unique opportunities to know and to cherish the sum total of the Christian heritage of the ages. All of the religious faiths of the old world were brought to the new world.
Protestantism has been a continuous factor in American religious life since the English established their first permanent colony at Jamestown in 1607. On the first Sunday after the settlers reached Jamestown an Anglican minister, Reverand Robert Hunt, conducted divine worship. An eyewitness has described the beginnings of worship at Jamestown in these words: “I well remember we did hang an awning (which is an old saile) to three or four trees to shadow us from the sunne, our walles were rales of wood, our seats unhewed trees till wee cut plankes, our Pulpit a bar of wood nailed to two neighboring trees … Yet wee had daily Common Prayer morning and evening, every Sunday two sermons, and every three moneths the holy communion.” Thus Protestantism began its mission in the new world.
New trends appeared in American church life after independence was won and the new nation established. The winds of freedom were blowing and the American people demonstrated their consciousness of this fact by repudiating the idea of a state church and adopting the principle of a free church in a free nation. The Anglican Church was disestablished in Virginia in 1785 and all other state church establishments were ultimately deprived of their favored legal status. Provisions for the separation of church and state were written into the federal constitution and later similar provisions were incorporated into the constitution of each of the forty-eight states. For the first time since the days of Constantine, all churches within an important nation in the framework of western civilization were placed upon a voluntary basis, made dependent on their own resources, and guaranteed freedom to work out their own future with equal rights before the law.
The establishment of full religious liberty and the complete separation of church and state is a unique American achievement for which Protestantism is chiefly responsible.
The world now stands in more desperate need of the saving power of the gospel than in any period of its history. All of mankind’s most pressing· present problems are rooted and grounded in spiritual need. The fate of civilization depends, in large measure, upon the response of devout Christians to their duty of applying the gospel to the solution of contemporary problems. Upon Evangelical Protestantism, therefore, there rests a new and solemn responsibility to know, to cherish, to transmit and to apply the Christian heritage that has come to them as the greatest accumulated treasure of the ages.
Rufus L. Platt, Dean of Lee Junior College
This article originally appeared in the October 29, 1955 issue of Evangel.
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