Where Was Your Church Before Luther?

Josiah writes to the HB:

Often when we think of the reformation we think back to 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Thesis on the church door in Wittenberg Germany but we describe it in such a way that it’s almost as if true Protestant Christianity started at THAT point and that the church had been lost from the time of the apostles up until then.

Obviously this isn’t true, and Martin Luther may have been at the front lines but he wasn’t the first to reform from the Roman Catholic tradition. But what in your opinion happened to all the thousands of people that were mixed in to the Catholic Church of the day?

God’s elect were chosen before the foundations of the earth but so may people seemed to have died within that tradition and not many reformed out of it until much later on. It almost seems that within that period of time there weren’t many of God’s elect born or the Roman Catholic tradition had enough truth for some to be saved through it (even if it’s just up to a point)….

As we approach Reformation Day 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses, some may get the impression that the Protestants see the Christian church as beginning in 1517. This could not be farther from the truth. The Reformers believed that they were in the process of recovering the theology, piety, and practice of the apostolic (1st century) and early post-apostolic church. They did not see themselves as starting a new church. Rather, they saw themselves as restoring the theology, piety, and practice instituted by Christ and received by the earliest post-apostolic church. Through the centuries from the end of the patristic period (6th century) until the 16th century the Byzantine and Medieval Churches, despite their repeated claims to the contrary, departed from the teaching of the apostles in fundamental ways. Christ instituted only 2 sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. By the end of the 13th century, the Western Church had instituted 5 false sacraments. Over the centuries, the church had gradually replaced Jesus the only Mediator with a series of mediators, including the Blessed Virgin. The church last track of the biblical doctrine of salvation (justification and sanctification) by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). She had come to see the bible as composed entirely of law, the old law and the new. She defined grace as a medicine with which we are infused. She defined faith as sanctification and obedience. She made our cooperation with grace (works) co-instrumental in salvation (justification and sanctification). She made Jesus (as if such a thing were possible) a facilitator and not a Savior. The Reformed churches particularly sought to purify the worship of the churches from the many accretions that had developed and to return to the worship instituted by Christ and practiced in the early patristic period. The Reformation churches all rejected the medieval claims of the Bishop of Rome to be the universal head of the church.

That said, what we might call the doughnut view of church history does not work. It is not as if we should see the medieval (in the West) and Byzantine period (in the East) as doughnut holes to be followed by the Reformation (in the West). The medieval church made the Reformation possible in important ways. We learned vocabulary, categories, and biblical interpretations from the medieval theologians. The Reformation did not discard everything the medieval church did or said. We saw an organic relation between the medieval church and the Reformation. There is a great difference between Reformation and revolution. The Anabaptists were, in certain respects, revolutionaries in contrast to the more socially and theologically conservative Reformers. The Anabaptists were conservative of the essential medieval soteriology in their rejection of the Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide.

Luther was not the first to challenge the medieval church. It takes about 78 hours to tell that story, so I cannot do it here, but the short story is that there were medieval critics from whom Luther et al learned. None of them quite put together the whole package, as it were, but they did lay the foundation by, e.g., turning back to Augustine’s basic insights about sin and grace. Wycliffe’s turn back to the unique authority of Scripture was very important. The Renaissance critique of the immorality of the medieval church and its turn back to the sources, including Scripture, in the original languages, to be interpreted in light of their original context and intent, was very important. The Reformation was a gathering together of threads that existed long before 1517. Indeed, Luther himself did not become a full-fledged Protestant overnight in a single, shattering “tower episode” (Turmerlebnis). He became a Protestant gradually, over a period of about 8 years, through engaging the Scriptures afresh, through engaging the Christian tradition afresh, and through challenging long-held assumptions about the way things must be.

We should think of the Christians in the medieval (and Byzantine) church the way we think of Israel and Judah. God’s people have always been a mixed assembly. The story of the mission of the church is complicated story. In many places the faith was imposed from above rather than, as it were, taught from below. Who knows what people “on the ground,” as they say, understood about the faith into which they had just been baptized in the 9th century? Who knows what the Israelite farthest from Sinai understood about the faith? We trust that God has always had his elect in the midst of the visible church, whether under types and shadows or under what Luther called the “Babylonian Captivity” of the medieval church. We trust that the elect are always brought to true faith by the sovereign work of the Spirit through the divinely ordained means (namely, the preaching of the gospel). Even where the church’s theology, piety, and practice was profoundly corrupted there were still faithful ministers in local parishes calling their people to Christ and offering the righteousness of Christ, received through faith alone. We should doubt the story that the true church was exiled to Alps and preserved (like a valuable document wrapped in oilskin) until the Reformation. History is more complicated than that.

Christ promised he would always be with his church, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Christ’s church. Those are gospel promises and it was these promises that Reformers sought to recover and for which they gave their lives. The history is that he has always had his church in the midst of what has always been a mixed, visible assembly.

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  1. (Quote) ‘The history is that He has always had His church in the midst of what has always been a mixed, visible assembly.’ (Unquote) Yes, and the New Covenant promise was; “They shall ALL know Me, from the least to the greatest of them.” This is the Church of the promise, the true Church, comprised only of the regenerate, those taught of the father, whom the father has given to Jesus to keep and ‘raise up at the Last Day’.

  2. Wow! I cannot begin to tell you what an encouragement you are to me!
    For some years my pastor was John Barach. That was when he was with the
    URC in Grande Prairie AB. When I realized that he was teaching salvation through faithfulness, I left that church.

  3. Well said, sir. I’d add to the blessings Jesus gave His Church, in the medieval days, the names of Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux. Anselm for _Cur Deus Homo_ and a solid foundation for teaching the substitutionary atonement, and Bernard for his pretty clear teaching on Sola Fide.

    What you have written above is why I inwardly wince when I hear people lay into “Catholicism” when they mean Romanism. It’s my belief that we in the orthodox Protestant Church *are* the Catholic Church. In fact, in our various denominations, *we* are the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic (and Orthodox) Church of Jesus Christ. Romanism excommunicated itself in 1563; Eastern “Orthodoxy” in 1672. Not to say that there are no true believers within these religions, or that (especially in Romanism) that somehow their Theology, proper, or Christology are wrong. But they anathematized the Gospel. They had been, till those dates, very corrupt, but part of the Church. Not after then.

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