The Forgotten Reformation?

This is the first in a series of essays on “Continuing the Reformation.”

Many different churches descend from the original Protestant Reformation, and those that are the most conservative are often insistent that they are largely if not completely true to the Reformation, or to the branch from which they developed. Is this, however, actually the case? Or is it the case that accretions of traditions have in fact moved these churches, especially in the United States, rather far from the purposes of the original reformers? This short series of essays will explore this matter a bit with a view to explaining our visions here at Trinity House, a vision of returning to the intentions of the Reformers as they existed within the whole catholic heritage of Christendom, and continuing their efforts.

The Protestant Reformation was a reform movement within Western Catholic Christendom, not a revolt against it. While there were some movements at the time of the Reformation that continued various revolutionary medieval outbursts, and others that extended medieval notions of separated and highly discipled pacifist communities, these were not part of the Protestant movement itself.

The word “protestant” comes from the latin “pro” meaning “before” and “sto, stare, status” meaning “stand.” To protest is to “stand before” someone, either to make a positive declaration or to make a criticism. Protestantism was both a declaration against various corruptions of liturgy, life, and doctrine in the Western Church, and a declaration in favor of Biblical and patristic understandings of the Church and Christendom.

The Reformation arose in a context of several centuries of struggle between Pope and Emperor, Guelph and Ghibbeline, Welf and Webeling. The imperial political pretensions of the Papacy were naturally resented by the Holy Roman Emperors, and by the English crown as well. From a Biblical point of view, each side at various times had good and bad aspects. Here the point is that the Reformation cannot be understand apart from this context.

At the time of the Reformation, various northern European princes were ready to side with Luther, as Henry VIII in England was ready to have a Church of England not subject to the Papacy. In these contexts, we speak of the Reformation as primarily “magisterial,” as overseen and to a considerable extent brought about the rulers of these realms. This was a continuation of a Ghibbeline mindset, though reformed by the Bible to a considerable extent.

At the same time, other parts of the Reformation were without significant support from rulers. Indeed, these parts existed in a context of hostility from rulers. We speak of this aspect of the Reformation as “catholic,” for it was more in line with the tradition of Guelph thinking. Such was the Reformation in Switzerland, in Scotland, and in the Netherlands.

The distinction between these two societal tendencies is real, but in practice blurry. The Swiss Reformers would have liked to have had the support of the King of France, but they did not get it. The Reformers in England had to struggle with the crown that sponsored them.

Yet, and here is the point, neither side had any desire to revolt against Western Christendom and its salient traditions. Both aspects of the Reformation maintained the following:

1. The Church institute is the center of society, the place from which transforming energy flows out to remake the other spheres of human life.

2. Hence, the Church should be the center of any town, the center of order, the bulwark against chaos and anarchy. Indeed, the restoration and/or preservation of social order is a major task of the Church and all Christians.

3. The minister, in addition to leading the people to God in worship, is also an important member of society, and is marked out by his clothing like any other professional. He is consultant to local magistrates.

4. Jesus Christ is king of society and the Bible is His law. Whatever our understandings of  “natural law” or the “common law of nations” may be, they must conform to the teachings of the Bible.

5. The Lord’s Supper, along with the Word, is central in worship. Weekly worship should include both. Holy Communion is a miraculous communication of God to men, not a mere means of devotion. Contrary to what is often thought, this was the view of all the Reformers one way or another, including Zwingli.

6. The prayers of the Liturgy should to a great extent use the same words every week so that the people can learn them and carry them with them.

7. The core of the Liturgy (the “ordinary”) should be the same everywhere in any given language group, so that there is unity.

8. The Liturgy, given allowances for local traditions, should be the same throughout Christendom. Many of the prayers should be the same wherever they are offered, though in different tongues. This had been the view of the Christian Church since earliest times, for the Church is catholic.

9. God claims the children of Christians. They are His. They are to be baptized and treated as genuine though immature Christians. They are not “vipers in covenant diapers” waiting to be evangelized as if pagans.

10. The Psalms are central in worship, and all 150 of them should be sung constantly, as the catholic Church has always maintained.

11. The historic music of the Church should be retained, though modified by rhythms of various languages. Thus, both the Lutheran chorales and the Genevan psalms were largely based on “Gregorian chant” melodies.

12. The Holy Spirit intends to work to make theocracies of every nation on earth, and Jesus will not return to end history until that has happened. Not all the Reformers were as certain of this as the majority were.

13. The division of the Bible into “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is merely for convenience, for the Scriptures are one narrative from beginning to end.

14. Bishops are just senior pastors over a small geographical area. Such presiding ministers are useful and desirable, if you are blessed to have them; for pastors need pastors, too.

15. While the Papal churches are “false,” they are not false in the sense of being evil counterfeit churches that lead men to damnation, but false in the sense that they are playing false with the truth, though they are still churches. Hence, persons baptized in the Papal churches are not to be baptized again, the men ordained to the priesthood in Papal churches are not to be reordained if they convert and become Protestant clergy.

This list of Reformation beliefs will seem odd to many American Protestant Christians. Much has changed in the churches that trace their genealogies back to Calvin, Knox, and Luther. But do those changes manifest progress or regress, or perhaps a bit of both? While we at Trinity House are picking the Reformation as a starting point for conversation, we do not wish to exclude anything that came before or anything that has come afterwards. After all, perhaps the Reformers tossed the baby out with the bath in some areas, and perhaps they were incompletely Biblical in others. In this initial series of essays, I hope to lay out some areas that will occupy the Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, and Cultural Studies that is Trinity House.