With the recent kerfuffle over Mr Ratzinger’s decision to step down as bishop of Rome, coupled with a new attender asking me why I keep talking about the Reformation I thought it would be good to put down why I think it’s still important. But even more than that, why it is absolutely necessary today.
The Medieval Roman Church had descended into great corruption. Bishops received multiple dioceses and never visited them, let alone preached in their churches. The common people were barred from true partaking of the Lord’s Supper by the use of Latin and the denial of the cup. Many innovations had been added to the faith of the church. One such innovation – that of purgatory – led to a system whereby people could buy the prayers of monks to knock a few years off for themselves and their loved ones. It just so happened that this innovation also raised a fair few coins for the building of a fancy new basilica in Rome.
But thanks to the providence of God there were many faithful believers who were unhappy with the state of things. Many of these proto-reformers efforts were crushed but the time was coming when the tide of reform could not be held back. By the providential coming together of a dissatisfied German monk, local rulers wanting to flex their muscles and the technological advance of the printing press, God brought about a movement that swept across Europe and the world. This movement was the Reformation.
Everything was up for grabs from 1517. And the fundamental principle, seems to me to have been: What is the supreme authority for what we believe as Christians? The Roman Church said that it was scripture coupled with Tradition as embodied in the Magisterium that was the authority. Of course, in practice, it was clear that tradition trumped scripture. Praying to Mary and the saints, resacrificing Christ in the Mass, indulgences and purgatory were all inventions of men, with no scriptural warrant whatsoever.
The Reformation, on the other hand, declared that only God could say what we were to believe and practice, which would be a problem had God not definitively spoken. Thankfully he had. In Scripture.
And so the Reformation was about putting God in his rightful place. We were not saved by our works but by God’s abundant grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And scripture alone was our highest, supreme authority.
All this has an impact on us today and in part 2 I will explore some of the ways in which the Reformation is more important than ever.