What The Reformed Can Learn From A 1532 Synod: God Should Be Preached Only As He Is Known In Christ

How disgraceful it is for a servant of Christ not to know the command of His Lord, and to pursue some other, useless preoccupation, and fail to take an interest in the things which concern His Lord, who is our everlasting blessedness! The Father speaks to us still today by His Son, who through the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts. God the Lord also reconciles us to Himself by His Son. In the Son we perceive the acts of God and His fatherly heart towards us. Through this understanding and experience of Christ, the believer thrives and grows daily, carried forward by daily exhortation. But this does not occur when the preacher speaks much about God in the manner of the pagans, rather than declaring this God as known in the face of Christ, who is the brightness of His glory, His very truth, image and sign. If the preacher fails to declare the grace of God that is in Christ, the people will become only more wicked and unbelieving, and finally will be without God in the world, as the heathen are who have heard and spoken a great deal of empty talk about a God known naturally, but who have perceived nothing of their gracious Father in heaven. For that reason they did not glorify as God the God they knew, before Christ was proclaimed to them and they came to believe on Him, as Paul writes to the Ephesians in the second chapter. “You were,” he says, “at that time without Christ, etc. Therefore, you had no hope and were without God in the world.”1

One aspect of the Reformation which is sometimes neglected is the poor state of preaching prior to the Reformation. The reader should not assume that preaching occurred regularly or that sermons, when they occurred, were expositions of Scripture. The homilies that did happened were more determined by the church calendar than the text of Scripture. Not every pre-Reformation priest could read let along read Scripture in the original languages. Protestants, particularly in the Reformed tradition, may take it for granted that a preacher should open Scripture and preach through a book serially, verse by verse, chapter by chapter. That sort of preaching did not much occur until the Reformed began doing it in the 1520s and 30s.

Then there was the unifying message of Scripture. Under the influence of the quadriga, the theory that there is a fourfold sense of Scripture, the emphasis typically fell on the figurative senses (of which the allegorical, the doctrinal, was but one). Under the influence of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the balance swung back to the human author’s intent, while recognizing that all Scripture is breathed out by the Holy Spirit. The Reformed tended to pay more attention to the original context of a passage as well as to its broader redemptive-historical context. Contra the Anabaptists, who denied the unity of the covenant of grace, the Reformed from their beginnings in the early 1520s, that there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations.

Contra Against all who deny the unity of the covenant of grace, the Reformed have always seen Christ at the center of redemptive history. According to the Reformed (in contrast to, e.g., the Dispensationalists), the divine plan was always to save the elect through the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of Christ. According to the Swiss Reformed in 1532, and according to all the confessional Reformed Christians today, God is to be declared as :known in the face of Christ.” In this we are fundamentally with Luther’s distinction, which he announced in the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation (theses 19–21), between a theologian of glory (theologus gloriae) and a theologian of the cross (theologus crucis). A theologian of the cross is focused on Christ. A theologian of glory is focused on nature, reason, and self.

Remarkably, the Synod’s plan for sanctification was not more law preaching but more preaching of Christ and his gospel. The Synod of Bern understood the gospel mystery of sanctification, that it happens through gospel preaching, not law preaching. The law norms the Christian life but it does not empower the Christian life. The Spirit uses the gospel of free salvation in Christ to empower Christians to die to self and to live to Christ according to his moral law.

The natural theologian, the theologian of glory, imagines that he can climb up to God. The theologian of the cross knows that God has come down, as it were, to us in Christ and that it is in the face of Christ that we know God and that we do not know him apart from the Logos incarnate.


1. James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 234–35.


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  1. For a long time, I’ve thought that Rom. 2:14 points to some sort of natural law, even if it suffices only to show us how lost we are. Now, for another, but related question: Do you think that people like Francis Schaeffer accusing Thomas Aquinas of making an unbridgeable divide between reason and revelation are atually mistaking Thomas’ account of Ibn Rushd/Averroes for Thomas’ own belief?

  2. Excellent article. Have just finished reading The Cruelty of Heresy by C. FitzSimons Allison. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the roots of heresy in the history of Christianity. He expands on this just this point to show how heresy always depends on self, and in doing so condemns itself to despair, bondage and death, while orthodoxy, which looks to God in Christ alone, leads to hope, freedom and life. The church has always fought against the same heresies that look to something else than Christ alone.

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