In the last decade or so there has been a resurgence of what is traditionally known as reformed theology. Defining this can be a bit tricky. Some, perhaps most, simply conclude that reformed theology is defined by the doctrines of grace, i.e. total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Others however, hold that this is just the beginning and that to be truly called reformed includes so much more, beginning with holding to one of the historic confessions of faith, i.e. Westminster Confession of Faith or the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. This has led to splintering within the movement into at least two groups (and probably more), the “Neo-Reformed” and the historic or confessional reformed.
Regardless of which camp one finds themselves, my fear is that both groups are subject to ignorance of historical theology. By that I mean that they embrace the tradition of the Reformers without understanding what it is that they were doing, including both what they did right AND what they did wrong. When this happens, the Reformation is skewed and takes on mythological characteristics, while Reformers, such as Martin Luther, become cartoonish super heroes. To begin to understand the Reformation, one must understand the term sacralism as well as the relationship between church and state. Additional terms to reckon with would be: the definition of a magisterial reformer (hint: it doesn’t mean majestic), the Radical Reformation and its “Reformers”, and the Anabaptist movement, which has been unfairly labeled a wholesale heretical movement.
A good start for unpacking this history is The Reformers and their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin, who because of his own emphasis on the error of sacralism and its trappings has been called a revisionist and accused of being historically biased. This seems to be an unfair assessment and an uncharitable reading of his material.
In the video below, Dr. James White provides a brief glimpse into this alternate, or we might say ignored, view of Reformation history as he stands at the “prison” site of Fritz Erbe, who was placed in a deep hole for refusing to baptize his children from 1540 until his death in 1548. His total imprisonment lasted more than 15 years, again the crime was refusing to baptize his infant children.
The site of his dungeon imprisonment?
The same Wartburg Castle where 10 years earlier Martin Luther was given refuge from the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. The same Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the Scriptures into German. Think about this for a moment and let it revise your own understanding of the Reformation.
As White points out, the translation of the Scriptures by Luther into the modern vernacular happened just a few yards from where Erbe was tortured and left to rot in a deep dark hole. Erbe read and applied these same Scriptures. Yet here we have self-professing Christians who were willing to imprison and torture another self-professing Christian simply because he refused to baptize (and rightly so) his children. This is the danger of sacralism and it is shear ignorance to think that its effects are not among us today. The Reformation certainly had positive effects, namely its break from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Protestant divorce from the RCC only led to an unholy affair with the State, and the State, as we know, wields the sword. In one sense, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire for the “church”. Erbe’s story is only the tip of the iceberg of the torture and persecution that professing believers faced at the hands of other professing believers for simply standing up for their beliefs of the Scriptures.