Martin Luther King – Reformation
“Luther was the commanding voice and leader and began this movement on October 31, of 1517 when he published the 95 theses. What set Martin Luther apart from the forerunners of the Reformation is that the forerunners stressed the need for ethical reform in the papacy. Luther recognized that the real problem was a dogmatic one. The great need was theological; the “crux of genuine reform” had to do with the recovery of the gospel itself.
The Reformers believed that this gospel had been lost or corrupted. Luther was convinced that Pelagianism and semi- Pelagianism had spread like the plague, at least at the popular level, thanks to the influence of Catholicism. Luther’s conflict with Rome heated up, eventually erupting like a volcano, it became increasingly clear to Luther that the corruption of the gospel in his own day had resulted in the abandonment of justification sola gratia and sola fide, and vice versa. The consequences were of dire importance. Luther warned at the start of his 1535 Galatians commentary that “if the doctrine of justification is lost the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.” And again, “If it is lost and perishes, the whole knowledge of truth, life, and salvation is lost and perishes at the same time.” Therefore, apart from a rediscovery of doctrines like sola fide and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, lasting reform would never take root nor stand the test of time. That being the case, it was undeniably obvious to Luther that his teaching, preaching, and writing had to revolve around the gospel, specifically its ramifications for justification by faith alone. As Luther wrote to Staupitz, “I teach that people should put their trust in nothing but Jesus Christ alone, not in their prayers, merits or their own good deeds.” This one sentence, says Scott Hendrix, summarizes “the essence” of Luther’s reforming agenda.”
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In Scott Hendrixs book “Martin Luther”, he says that Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel which he called “the treasure of the church” was an experience Luther knew firsthand. Luther’s testimony:
“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said “As if, indeed, it is not enough that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath! Thus, I raged with fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.”
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God revealed as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
In light of Luther’s statement if we were to use one word to characterize the Reformation, it might be rediscovery, that is, a rediscovery of the evangel, the gospel. It is right to conclude, then, that the Reformation was an evangelical reform at its root. It was not about breaking away from the power of the Roman Catholic Church. It was about reforming the Church through a return to biblical teachings. It was the people of God rightly interpreting the Holy Scriptures and practicing correct exegetical hermeneutics.
John Calvin on the Scriptures
Milton Terry in his book Biblical Hermeneutics say this of Calvin: “Of all the exegetes of the period of the Reformation the first place must unquestionably be given to John Calvin, whose learning was ample, whose Latin style surpassed in purity and elegance that of any writer of his time, and whose intellect was at once acute and penetrating, profound and comprehensive.”
Karl Barth drew attention to a dynamic quality of Scripture in a threefold pattern he believed was consistent with Calvin. Barth noted that Reformers such as Calvin talked about the Word of God in three distinct ways: revealed, written, and proclaimed.
First, the Word revealed is Jesus Christ himself. Christ is God’s fullest and most perfect revelation. Second, the Word of God written is embodied in the Scriptures. The Bible bears unique and authoritative witness to Christ, but Christ always transcends the text. Third, there is the Word of God proclaimed. The church continually proclaims the message of God’s grace, the good news of the Word made flesh, attested to in the written Word.
Calvin’s most sustained treatment of biblical authority had to do with the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Calvin was a strong defender of the unity between the Old and New Testaments. He had no pity for the simple claim that the Old Testament offered a covenant of works, while the New Testament offered a covenant of grace. Calvin believed that God’s mercy and grace were visible in both Testaments. The difference was not one of substance but clarity.
In the Old Testament it may have been true that God’s people were bound by works of the law, but they were also living in hope of a coming covenant of mercy. Similarly, the Old Testament may have spoken of “types” or “figures” of God’s anointed one (messiah) such as Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings. In the New Testament, however, Jesus Christ, God’s supremely anointed One fulfills the roles of a divinely chosen prophet, priest, and king. For these reasons Calvin maintained that in the Old Testament the Jewish people already knew Christ the mediator in their own way.
Calvin preached and wrote commentaries on almost the whole of the Old and New Testament’s. In order to do this, he spent much of his life reading, rereading, studying, and wrestling with the biblical texts. Because Calvin whole heartedly believed that the texts of both the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God written, he was convinced the Bible offers a clear message about who God is and what God would have us believe and do.
What did Calvin make of this divine message? The church viewed Jesus Christ as God’s divine Word embodied in human form. Just as Jesus is said to be fully human and fully divine, so also Calvin approached Scripture expecting to encounter a divine message embodied in human words.
If Calvin could accept that Scripture speaks a divine message wrapped in human words, then we might wonder how he would advise us to distinguish between human words and the Word of God contained in the Bible. Calvin’s answer was that Scripture is “self-authenticating.” This meant that Scripture does not depend upon the church or other human agencies for its power or authority. Rather, through Scripture God tells us who God is. In other words, God is the only proper witness to God. Maybe an illustration would help to further define this point.
Many of us are people watchers. If you are sitting in a busy airport with nothing else to do, sometimes it can help pass the time to watch strangers interact. If you have ever done this, you know that interpreting the meaning of another person’s gestures and actions is not always easy. Were those tears of sadness or tears of joy? Was that a smile or a frown? Was that laugh genuine or fake? The only way to know for sure is to ask that person directly. Only then will you have clarity. Similarly, in Scripture God reveals God’s own self: God’s character, God’s intentions for humanity, God’s moral and ethical standards, and God’s plan of salvation for the world. All of this is not left to guesswork but depends on the self-verifying work of God.
But can’t Scripture be interpreted in many different ways? Amongst the varying interpretations, how are we to discern a true word from God? Calvin’s doctrinal answer was that God’s Word is confirmed by the internal illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Word comes alive through the power of the Spirit, and the Spirit bears witness to the true meaning of the Word. Yet Calvin also had a more pragmatic answer. In his own commentaries, Calvin typically acknowledged more than one view of the biblical text and left it to the reader’s judgment as to which was the more convincing. This is interesting. It tells us that Calvin, as a scholar, realized that biblical texts did not fall perfect and complete from the hand of God like manna from heaven. Even the understanding of God gleaned from Scripture remains partial, an understanding that must always be open to new illumination from the Holy Spirit. For now, we often see in our biblical mirror, dimly. That is why the Scriptures must be read with fresh eyes and heard with eager ears. By the Spirit’s power, the biblical texts speak in different ways and communicate many layers of meaning in the life of the church. Calvin’s hermeneutical method can be summed up with eight exegetical principles that are self-defining. Clarity and brevity, the intention of the author, the historical context, the original grammatical meaning, the literary context, meaning beyond the literal Biblical wording, figures of speech and the scope of focus on the person and work of Christ. Calvin wrote: “We ought to read Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them. Whoever shall turn aside from this object, though he may weary himself throughout his whole life in learning, will never attain the knowledge of the truth: for what wisdom can we have without the wisdom of God?” (Calvin’s Comm. John 5:39)
Calvin’s numerous writings on various theologies and doctrines highlights his serious devotion to proper exegesis and hermeneutical approaches to studying the words of God. Calvin and the many others who led the Reformation never swayed from their firm grasp on the seriousness of handling the Holy Scriptures.”