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Is the Reformation over? Probably the man on the street cares little about that question, especially if he has little idea of what “the Reformation” is. Even some evangelical Christians understand only vaguely its significance. Christians committed to the truths of God’s Word care more deeply about the matter. Yet even then, the answer to this question is not straightforward. We must define our terms.

As a historical period, we can easily say it is over. The Reformation is the name historians have generally given to an era in European history, roughly 1500 to 1650. More specifically, we traditionally date the Reformation from Martin Luther’s writing of his 95 Theses (1517) to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the settlement of the Thirty Years’ War, the last and greatest of the wars of religion that the Reformation sparked. Obviously, in this sense, the Reformation is over. It ended over 350 years ago.

Christians should take this fact to heart. Our faith is not nostalgic longing. There is no profit in wishing we were again in the days of Martin Luther and John Calvin, or for that matter, in the days of Jonathan Edwards or C. H. Spurgeon. We do not equate God’s kingdom in its full glory with some era of human history. Eusebius of Caesarea of the fourth century made that mistake. Known as the “father of church history” for his comprehensive account of the early church’s story, Eusebius tied the fate of the church to the fortunes of “Eternal Rome,” the Roman Empire. Living in the days of Constantine (whose biography he wrote), Eusebius imagined he saw the dawn of a new age with the end of persecution and the favoring smile of the emperor. History had reached its fulfillment, Eusebius thought, with the reign of the saints.

Yet less than a hundred years later, barbarians sacked the city of Rome, an event that stunned the empire. “The city which took captive the world has itself been captured,” lamented the church father Jerome. So disturbing was this blow to Christians of that day that Augustine wrote his City of God to show that God’s kingdom is never dependent on the rise and fall of human governments. It is not in the periods of history that we find our guide or pattern, but in the Word of God. Christians may consider the works of God in history, His providential care and guidance. But in no period of human history has the kingdom of God existed in perfection with no mixture of sin, save in the Garden of Eden before the fall. The era of the Reformation had its shortcomings as much as any epoch of history.

As a historical process, we see the Reformation in a different light. In the seventeenth century, theologians developed the motto ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est (“the reformed church is always being reformed”). Reformation of practice and doctrine is not a one-time act. Instead it is an ongoing effort of conforming to the Word of God. The Reformation of the sixteenth century is but one point of reform in the history of the church, albeit an important one. From its founding the visible church has borne the fingerprints of human sin and failure. Even in the days of the apostles, following the blessings of Pentecost came God’s judgment on Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. In the very age of the apostles, Diotrephes closed his church to the Apostle John (3 John 9). In His letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, Christ Himself rebuked the errors into which many of those congregations had fallen. The church constantly needs reform according to Scripture. The Reformation launched a particular reform, in fact a major reform that has not ended.

Believers can see this fact of continuing reform in the study of the Reformation era itself. Historians both religious and secular often divide the period into smaller segments. The “First Reformation” refers to the revolutionary and creative contribution of the reformers from Luther’s initial efforts through the death of Calvin. A “Second Reformation,” they say, built on this work, developing Protestant ideas further, as well as seeing a pointed Catholic reaction. The Dutch even call this later period the Nadere Reformatie, the “Second” or “Further Reformation.” Weighing the issues raised by the first generation and building on their work, the second generation grappled with the ramifications of those extraordinary reforms. The Netherlands, for example, saw the Calvinist-Arminian controversy with its examination of the doctrines of election and grace. In England the Puritans sought to further the Reformation by purifying the church of remnant Catholic elements. For such people, the Reformation did not come to an end but instead launched a process. The first generation wrestled with vital doctrines such as justification, the nature of imputation, the proper view of the sacraments, the repudiation of purgatory, and much more. The second generation took these advances as a foundation for further elaboration in questions such as the pursuit of vital piety and the importance of regenerate church membership, to cite just two examples,

But it is probably as a doctrinal marker that most people consider when hearing the question, “Is the Reformation over?” Such is the import of a book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.[1] Although by no means uncritical of Catholicism, the authors suggest a thaw has occurred between Catholics and evangelical Protestants based on better mutual understanding and increasing cooperation on social and political goals. A factor in the authors’ argument is hedging on crucial issues such as justification so that the distance between Catholic and Protestant appears much narrower.

One cannot honestly deny that the tone has improved since the Reformation. The Catholic Church, without abandoning its doctrinal positions, has reduced the heat of its polemics and announced friendly invitations to its “separated brethren” (as non-Catholics have been called since the Second Vatican Council). But tone is not substance. In a different context, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones recalled how he remonstrated with Billy Graham for including liberals on his platform. Graham protested that he had “more fellowship” with a certain liberal “than with many evangelical ministers.” Lloyd-Jones replied that a liberal might be “a nicer chap.… But real fellowship is something else: I can genuinely fellowship only with someone who holds the same basic truths that I do.”[2]

The sad truth is that only when Protestants modify or abandon essential doctrines can they move closer to Catholics. The Reformation is “over” for such Christians only because they find its doctrines inconvenient, or to be more kind, because their desire for unity or co-belligerents in the culture wars blind these Protestants to the compromises they make.

Is there truly no longer a divide between Catholics and Protestants? Is the Reformation of significance—even just of interest—only to antiquarians? Here the issues became vital, because the question involves the nature of the Gospel. The Reformation did not represent some kind of difference in denominational distinctives but the heart of truth. Historian Peter Matheson offered an instructive contrast between Martin Luther and Cardinal Gaspar Contarini. A sincere reformer, Contarini came to hold a view of justification much like Luther’s. He also sought, from apparently genuine good will, to bridge the gap between Catholics and Protestants. But Contarini stopped short of ever leaving Rome as Luther did. Matheson says the key distinction was their view of the importance of justification. For Contarini, no doctrine was vital enough to excuse separation from the Church of Rome. For Luther the teaching of justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, as a later expression put it.[3] No church can misunderstand justification and truly understand the Gospel.

So, doctrinally speaking, asking, “Is the Reformation over?” is tantamount to asking, “Is the Gospel still central?” There is something more essential here than mere historical periodization. Insofar as the Protestant Reformation represents the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, then the Reformation will never be over.

 

[1] Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).

[2] “Martyn Lloyd-Jones: From Buckingham to Westminster,” interview by Carl F. H. Henry, Christianity Today, 8 February 1980, 29, 32.

[3] Peter Matheson, Cardinal Contarini at Rome (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 179-80.

Mark Sidwell

Posted by Mark Sidwell

Dr. Mark Sidwell serves as a professor of church history at Bob Jones University in the Department of History.