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When most contemporary Protestants hear “the Reformation,” our minds go immediately to justification by faith alone (sola fide), or the recovery of Scripture (sola Scripture), or even Christ as our sole mediator before the Father (solus Christus). We don’t often think about the centrality of the church (sola ecclesia?). That’s really unfortunate because one way to think of the Reformation is a theological wrangling for the church.

Since this is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I’ve kept my ears turned to what Protestants are actually celebrating. Some of it has been quite good, but I’ve also been rather disappointed. I find it out sad how little we know our own heritage. We end up applauding a caricature of the Reformation and what we are really celebrating is ourselves, modern individualist American evangelicals. This is what I often hear celebrated: “The Reformation was about one man taking on the whole church. It was about Martin Luther’s rejection of the church establishment, the institutional church. The Protestants asserted the primacy of the individual, of Scripture against church tradition, of faith against church authority, of personal experience against the dry external rituals of the church.” Or, as I heard in a recent conversation, “Luther really stuck it to the church when he started his own new one.”

Is this the Reformation that we celebrate? I feel a certain obligation to break this caricature, not because I don’t want to celebrate the Reformation, but because I want to celebrate it all the more. Simply put, the Reformers saw the goal of the Reformation as purifying and reforming the one church of Jesus Christ. It would help if Protestants actually appreciated the term, “reformation.” Quite literally, it was to be a reforming of the church, not its reinvention or re-founding. The church was not starting over from scratch. After all, there was a reason that Luther’s ire was raised against the Anabaptists as much as the Catholics.

It probably sounds odd to our ears, but Luther often referred to his papal opponents as “the innovators.” In other words, it was the Catholics who made changes to the long-held tradition of church, not the Protestants! As Luther never tired of arguing, practices like indulgences, penance, and papal supremacy were recent additions! In one great moment of nerve, Luther wrote, “Everything I teach is there in Augustine. If Augustine is not a heretic, I never will be one!”

Though the Protestant Reformers emphasized Scripture alone as the only infallible authority, they were never willing to give away church tradition to those who opposed them. Luther writes this: “We have invented nothing new. . . . You will not find anything in us that was not held in the ancient church, for we are one body and one communion of saints with the holy universal Christian church of all ages. It is out of it that we have come.”

In fact, Luther and the other Reformers held such a central view of the church in God’s plan of salvation that they said quite surprising things (at least to our ears!) about the church of Rome in their day. Now, there is an important distinction to be made here. On the one hand, the Reformers didn’t mince their words when it came to decrying the abuses and corruptions in the church. They didn’t even have trouble saying that the Pope is the antichrist.

But they also made an important distinction. Inasmuch as any one group of churches claims to be the sole inheritor of God’s promises to his people, it is a false claim. In other words, if you think that you are the only church because of something special in you, then that itself sets you up for a counterfeit claim. Luther says it this way: “it [the Roman Catholic hierarchy] is not ‘the’ church, but it is ‘in’ the church. It is not the congregation of Jesus Christ, but its congregations are true congregations of the church.”Luther goes on:

“The Pope declares that he is the Christian Church. We deny this, although we admit that in the papal churches there are true members of the Christian church. . . . Today we still call the Church of Rome holy, even though their ministers are ungodly, even though the city of Rome is worse than Sodom and Gomorrah; nevertheless, there remain in it baptism, the sacrament, the creed, the voice and text of the gospel, the sacred Scriptures, the ministries, the name of Christ the Son of God. Whoever has these, the treasure of God is still there. “

For Luther, the Roman Catholic system is false in its claim. But God’s promise to preserve the church of Christ throughout all ages cannot be revoked. The church of Christ—in all its manifestations—is still the church against which the gates of hell will not prevail.

The key point is that Luther and the Protestant Reformers were not willing to concede the claim that they were starting a new church. So high was the importance of the church in God’s eyes that some value must have been maintained in the medieval church. The Reformation was not, therefore, the triumph of the individual against the church. Luther and Calvin certainly brought a deeper personal element to the Christian life. But over and over again, the Protestant Reformers emphasized that we meet Christ in his church. As one historian has said, “Luther’s two questions were, ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ And ‘where can I find the true church?’ The two were inseparably related for Luther.” The church is where Christ is.

If you’re like me, the only people you hear who refer to the church as “mother” are Roman Catholics. “Returning to ‘mother Church’” in our day has become synonymous with converting to Catholicism. But Luther and Calvin constantly refer to the church as their mother. Luther writes, “I embrace the church, the communion of saints, as my holy mother, and in a conscious act of faith I make my own all the spiritual blessings that belong to the church.”

Calvin writes: “We are born into the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and reach the goal of faith. So ‘what God has joined together, do not put asunder,’ for those to whom He is Father the church must also be their mother.”

Elsewhere Calvin writes, “Let us learn even from this simple title of the church, “mother,” how necessary it is that we should know her. For the church is the true mother of all believers. There is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us new birth, nourish us at her breast, and keep us in her guidance. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been her pupils all our lives. For away from her bosom, one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or salvation.”

Reading these statements by Luther and Calvin might startle you. They took the institution of the church seriously. But perhaps in celebrating the 500th year of Reformation we need to be startled a bit. Celebrating our heritage probably shouldn’t look like a pat on the back but a reminder of something to deepen and strengthen. I think that’s what Luther and Calvin would tell us what the Reformation was all about.

Reformation 500 Talk with Dr. Robbie Crouse - Audio

Dr. Robbie Crouse

About Dr. Robbie Crouse

Dr. Robbie Crouse is the Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Knox Theological Seminary.