This coming week will be filled with Halloween parties, kids in costumes, and candy. There will also be some “Reformation” celebrations, as October 31 marks the day when the German monk Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses (statements) to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany as a way to spark discussion on issues related to the Christian faith. Like many things in history, there is some debate about whether all the details of the popular retelling of this event actually happened. For example, did he actually nail them? Was it really on October 31? For more information on this debate, see this article. However, there is no debate about the impact of Luther, as his work is viewed as the beginning of what is called the Reformation and the birth of the Protestant branch of the Christian tradition.
I do not wish to diminish the importance (or the bravery) of Martin Luther, but focusing too much on him and this action can obscure a couple of important truths. First, the Reformation was not a singular movement led by Luther, but rather a conglomerate of activity in a variety of places by a number of people. In light of that, historians will note the variety of “reformations” that occurred in this time in different places. Second, while this certainly was a significant time of renewal in the church and retrieval of truths from Scripture, it does not stand as the only time that people sought to reform and renew the church when it drifted from biblical moorings. In fact, this happened a number of times, so one could almost say that church history is the story of many different “reformations.” In light of these truths that can be forgotten because of the focus of Luther and his action back in 1517, I wanted to reflect and share a bit about these “Reformations” as we prepare to celebration Reformation Day in hopes that it sparks the same “reforming” Spirit in our lives.
The Reformations of the Reformation
During the time that Martin Luther was working in Germany, a man named Huldrych Zwingli was ministering in the town of Zurich in Switzerland and also challenging practices and ideas in the church. There are various views on how much of a role (if any) Luther’s ideas had on Zwingli as he developed his thoughts, but it is clear that Zwingli did not simply replicate and spread Luther’s thoughts because although they overlapped, there were also distinctives. Thus, Luther plays a critical role in the German Reformation (as well as in other places because of his direct influence), but Zwingli was a key leader in what some call the Swiss Reformation.
However, the Swiss Reformation was not a homogeneous movement, as the reform looked different in different parts of Switzerland, particularly in the French-speaking parts of it such as Geneva. A man named Guillaume Farel played a key role in those French Swiss cities and invited a man named John Calvin to stay and minister in Geneva. Calvin would play an even more prominent role in spreading what could be called the French Swiss Reformation, which once again had overarching similarities to what happened in Germany and in Zurich, but also distinctives. Reformations would occur in churches in various countries over a long period of time. For example, John Knox was influenced by Calvin and would draw on his ideas in reforming the Church of Scotland (so you have a Scottish Reformation too).
It would be unwise for me to omit reference to the Reformation in England, which also had more of a political beginning (Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage so that he could marry again and have a male heir) but led to a distinct tradition known as Anglicanism. This tradition offers its own perspective on what exactly needed to be reformed for the church to remain faithful.
Thus, we need to remember that the Reformation was actually a series of reformations in different places. In some ways, these developments may have caused the church to more closely reflect the early church in which there was a certain diversity of practices and emphases in different places, but agreement on the most essential truths.
The Reformations of Different Ages
The 1500’s and 1600’s were an important time, but not the only time individuals and/or groups of people sought to confront practices and ideas in the church that clouded or distorted the gospel. Some figures seemed to have paved the way for Luther and others, with John Wycliffe often called the “Morningstar of the Reformation.” He had some of the same concerns about translating the Bible into the language of the people, the authority of the pope, the role of sacraments in salvation, the understanding of the Lord’s Supper/communion, practices regarding the saints, and the authority of the Bible. Another figure prior to Luther was Jan Hus, a Czech priest who had views similar to Wycliffe and even went further in his critiques.
I think one could go even farther back for the “reforming” impulse. For example, a man named Athanasius stood up against popular and widespread teachings about Jesus that made him less than God; the Nicene Creed is not just a statement of belief but also a work of reformation in terms of trying to eliminate false beliefs. You also see reform movements after the Reformation. For example, in the English Church, Puritanism sought to make sure that practices in the church reflected Scripture and that religion was not just of the mind but of the heart. Pietism in Lutheran circles had a similar focus on the heart in religion.
Even in more recent times, we have seen fundamentalists and evangelicals seeking to “reform” by confronting theological teachings that undercut the authority of Scripture and the uniqueness and saving work of Jesus. If I had space, I could talk about many other movements before or after the Reformation that sought to make sure the beliefs and practices of the church did not drift from the Bible.
Thus, Reformation Day is not just a time to look back at what Martin Luther did, but rather to look around and evaluate ourselves to see what and where we might need to seek reform. Our sinful nature is prone to develop ideas and practices that might overshadow or even contradict biblical truths, so we must be constantly on guard against those things. May we turn back to the Bible to make sure that we understand it and then bring it back to our life and practice. Let us turn to the cross and remember the work of Jesus that saves us and then changes us – not being tempted to trust in anything or anyone else, in practices or in people. The story of the church is a story of constant reform and renewal; let that be the story of our lives as well.
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