The Reformation Era in History
“The Reformation had everything to do with biblical interpretation and proper exegesis. The term exegesis simply means critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture. With the Reformation of the sixteenth century the mind of Germany and other European states broke away from the ignorance and superstition of the Middle ages, the Holy Scriptures were appealed to as written revelation of God, containing all things necessary to salvation, and the doctrine of justification by faith was magnified against priestly absolution and the saving meritorious of works. The sixteenth century reformation was one of the most dramatic and significant series of events in the history of Christianity. It sent shock waves through the western world and changed the face of Europe forever. Its impact on the church has sometimes been likened to a second Day of Pentecost, a crucial turning point and a moment of crisis. As one historian puts it, “No other movement of religious protest or reform since antiquity has been so widespread or lasting in its effects, so deep and searching in its criticism of received wisdom, so destructive in what it abolished or so fertile in what it created.”
The Reformation was brought to birth in different locations and at different stages by a complex permutation of factors. In part it was driven by socio-economic developments, such as urbanization, rising literacy, the creation of wealth, and popular unrest. On the most fundamental level the reformation was a theological movement. It was dominated by questions about God and the church, about life and death, heaven and hell. It divided Europe into two religious camps. “Catholics” emphasized their loyalty to the historic teaching of the old church, as represented by ecumenical councils and the pope in Rome. “Evangelicals” (from the New Testament word evangel, meaning “good news”) claimed to have rediscovered the Christian Gospel which had lain hidden during the middle Ages. Yet the terminology was inexact. Catholics insisted they were the true guardians of the gospel, while evangelicals maintained they were the true representatives of the apostolic church.
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Among the vast array of theological arguments during the reformation, the most crucial one was about salvation: “What must I do to be saved?” How can men and women be assured of a place in Heaven?” The evangelical reformers answered these questions in a radically different way from their catholic contemporaries. Having re-examined the Bible texts, they came to the conclusion that salvation was a free gift from God, received through faith alone in Jesus Christ. This theological rediscovery was the founding principle of the European reformation and had massive implications for the Christian church. Tens of thousands lost their lives, and nations went to war, over the question “What must I do to be saved?” What all this means for us then is that we must be concerned with the theological self-understanding of the Reformers and their stance on the Holy Scriptures. What distinguishes the reformation from other movements is that its deepest theological concern was the gospel itself, what the bible really said, what it really meant. In other words, the reformation was a renewed emphasis on right doctrine, and the doctrine that stood center stage was a proper understanding of the Grace of God in the gospel of his Son, Jesus Christ.
There were many contributors to this mighty movement of biblical illumination. Some of which the most popular are Martin Luther, and John Calvin.
Luther was the commanding voice and leader and began this movement on October 31, of 1517 when he published the 95 theses. What distinguished Martin Luther 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. 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.”
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 the people of God rightly interpreting the Holy Scriptures and practicing correct exegetical hermeneutics.
The Reformers had a motto that they lived by in Latin it reads Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, which means “The church reformed, always reforming.” This slogan did not address only soteriological matters such sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus. Rather, beneath this Reformation motto was the foundation itself, the formal principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura- the belief that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is the inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church. Nowhere was this formal principle more visible for the common person than in the reorientation of the church around the preached and proclaimed Word. Calvin held to sola Scriptura when he said, “God is only worshipped properly in the certainty of faith, which is necessarily born of the Word of God: and hence it follows that all who forsake the Word fall into idolatry.” The Scriptures were, as Calvin called them, “spectacles” that the Spirit used to open blind eyes to the gospel.
In Manetsch book Calvin’s Company of Pastor’s he sums up sola Scriptura like this: “The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura-the conviction that Holy Scripture was the unique, final authority for the Christian community-had important consequences for pastoral ministry. He scripture principle gave gravitas to the office of preacher. It also made the educational formation of Protestant clergy an urgent priority, especially in those academic disciplines most necessary for biblical exposition such as classic rhetoric, theology, and biblical exegesis. By transferring the locus of authority from the Catholic magisterium to the written Word of God, the reformers enhanced the personal authority of the minister, who was now entrusted with special responsibility to interpret and proclaim the sacred text.”
The Reformation was not about Calvin or Luther or any other personality. Much less was it about the ups and downs of church politics by which the church beset. No, the Reformation was about the Word of God, which was to be proclaimed faithfully and conscientiously to the people of God. Calvin held himself to a high standard and demanded no less of the others called to the office of preaching.”