Tag Archives: Reformation

The Reformation of Luther

 

Today, October 31, 2017 is the day that will be universally celebrated as Reformation Day, specifically the 500th Anniversary of the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg with the goal of generating an academic debate.  What followed were a series of events wherein Luther rejected the unscriptural practices of the Roman Catholic Church, upholding Scripture alone as the sole instrument of faith and practice.  As we’ve already seen, on the day when Luther nailed his theses there is a high probability that he was yet to be genuinely saved.  So, before God could use Luther in the way that He intended at the time and place that He intended for the purposes that He intended, Luther was in need of a reformation of his own, a personal reformation, one that could only be wrought by a divine work of God in the heart.

It has often been said that before God uses a man to do a widespread work of revival and reformation, He first does a work of reformation in that same man’s heart.  Such is certainly the case with Luther.  The controversy in which Luther eventually found himself, namely questioning the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and her leaders brought about by their improper use of indulgences strictly for the sake of financial gain, forced him to the Scriptures to search for support of this teaching and subsequently support of his own position.  Once here, Luther concluded that Scripture was the ultimate authority, not the Church.

Recall that in his own words, Luther considered himself a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church and a faithful servant of the Pope, as of 1517 at least (though as we will see later, possibly as late as May 1518).  By October 1518, Luther was in direct defiance of the Pope.

Citing Luther’s interviews with Cardinal Cajetan on October 12, 13, and 14 in 1518, Phillip Schaff writes, “Catejan treated Luther with condescending courtesy, and assured him of his friendship.  But he demanded retraction of his errors, and absolute submission to the Pope.  Luther resolutely refused, and declared that he could do nothing against his conscience; that one must obey God rather than man; that he had the Scripture on his side; that even Peter was once reproved by Paul for misconduct (Gal. 2:11), and that surely his successor was not infallible.”

By March 13, 1519 Luther had declared, regarding the Pope, “I know not whether the Pope is antichrist himself, or his apostle; so wretchedly is Christ, that is the truth, corrupted and crucified by him in the Decretals.”

How then can Luther make such a drastic turn about in 18 months?

Our answer is coming.

Finally, for the point of our discussion here, on April 18th, 1521 Luther stood before the new Emperor Charles, 6 Electors (Princes over City-States; including his own), “The Pope’s legates, archbishops, bishops, dukes, margraves, princes, counts, deputies of the imperial cities, ambassadors of foreign courts, and a numerous array of dignitaries of every rank; in one word, a fair representation of the highest powers of Church and State.  Several thousand spectators were collected in and around the building and in the streets, anxiously waiting for the issue.” (Schaff, Vol. 7, pg. 300)

What began as a “innocent” attempt to generate academic debate had now morphed into the entire Roman empire against one man who once claimed them as his own.  It was here, at the Diet of Worms, that Luther uttered his now famous defense and for us, answers the question of how reform was conducted in his own heart.  Schaff again recounts the moment for us, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience.” (Vol. 7, pg. 304-305)

Before Luther could act as the spark that would ignite God’s reformation, he was first in need of God to do a work in his heart.  This work was performed by God’s Spirit working through the Word of God to enlighten and illumine the mind of Luther to the truth’s of Scripture.  The overflow of this is seen in Luther’s words above, “I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures…my conscience is bound in the word of God.”

Much like Josiah 2100 years earlier and every other “reformer” that God has raised up for His own glory, Luther was the product of divine grace working in the heart.  This work of grace was and always is the first reformation and for Luther, it was his most lasting reformation.  From beginning to end, reformation, whether internal in the heart or on the world’s stage, is entirely a work of God.

To God Alone be Glory.

On Wittenberg’s Door

 

If you’re familiar at all with the history of Protestantism or if you follow any other blogs that are “Reformed” or true to the Doctrines of Grace, then you’re probably aware that this year, 2017, will mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.   In fact by this point, you’ve probably heard so much about the Reformation that you could care less if you hear anything else, but bear with me in this post and those related that follow because it may include somethings you weren’t familiar with.

Historically, the beginning date for this movement of reformation is traced to Martin Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517.  However, limiting this movement to a specific day, let alone year or decade, dare I say century, is far too narrowly focused.  While much has been said in recent months about Luther’s exploits and subsequent Reformers such as Zwingli, Calvin, etc., you’ve probably heard very little from first hand sources about the events and people leading up to the Reformation, let alone what actually happened (Though DesiringGod.org has a good series on this).  Largely at our hearts we are traditionalists and regurgitators of traditions we hear because, well, it’s easier.  Unfortunately we not only take this approach with history, and more specifically church history, but also with our biblical interpretations, which as you may imagine has led to a whole host of problems.

The motivations for addressing this particular blind spot regarding the Reformation are numerous, but chief among them has been my own journey in understanding this history.  For awhile I had loosely thought that after the time of the Apostles and “Church Fathers” (~2nd to 4th Century), the Church slipped into the darkness of medieval Catholicism only to burst forth in the light of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation under the guiding hand of Martin Luther.  I’d assumed that during this period there were true, genuine believers within the “Roman Catholic Church” throughout the centuries, but that largely it was a dark period for the Church.  In short, I would’ve concluded that the Church of Jesus Christ, the one purchased by His shed blood was within the Roman Catholic Church from the 4th to the 16th Centuries.  However, this assumes a monolithic church history, and despite the overwhelming majority of tradition that teaches this, it’s simply not the case.  Largely I’ve been ignorant of the details surrounding the Reformation, the streams of faithful believers outside the Roman Catholic Church,  the faithful men and women who fought for reforms prior to the 16th Century, and the influences and impacts on today’s “Church”.

One example of this, and the lead into this series (Lord willing), is the role that Luther played in the Reformation.  As the story is often presented, Luther defiantly nailed his 95 theses, a summation of all the contradictions of Scripture by the Catholic Church, onto the church door at Wittenberg thereby firing the proverbial shot  heard round the world and launching  the Reformation, a full-scale frontal protest against the Roman Catholic Church, specifically the Pope.

Does this brief summary sound familiar?  This is a rather glamorized and misleading recount of the details, but it is a common overview and until recently is how I would’ve summarized the event that lead to the Reformation.  However, this isn’t entirely accurate and certainly masks Luther’s motivation behind the theses.

Rounding out our general introduction to the Reformation and Luther’s infamous actions, we need to add that the Church at Wittenberg, after the construction of the University of Wittenberg in 1502, was annexed to serve as the University chapel, as well as the academic and worship center.  So when we think of the event of  Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door, it was essentially tacked to the university bulletin board in the hopes of generating academic debate among fellow professors and scholars, not for launching a theological movement against the Roman Catholic Church and certainly not fodder for the common man to rebel against their authorities.  Whoops…

In our next post in this series we’ll look at Luther in his own words to gain insight into his motivations and reaction to the response of Wittenburg.

Ecclesiola in Ecclesia

 

I’ve been told before that it’s easy to see what is going on in my life by simply reading the titles or topics of posts on this blog.  I suppose that’s understandable, given the nature of a blog.  Additionally, this  blog has provided somewhat of a theological outlet for me to work through my own thoughts or to layout particular issues that I’m struggling with or passages that I’ve meditated on.

One recent issue that has churned over again in my mind for the past couple of years is the concept of Ecclesiola in Ecclesia, or “little churches within the church.”  I’m unsure who may have coined this precise phrase, though maybe its origin can be traced to sometime in the 18th century.  It shows up in Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol.#1 (though that ecclesiola sought to live morally perfect), however Martyn Lloyd-Jones brought it to modern significance through his address at the Westminster Conference in 1965[1].  The conference title was “Approaches to the Reformation of the Church.”

In his address, Lloyd-Jones walks through the history of the Reformers, beginning notably with Luther, and details their oft-desired, yet ill-fated attempts to establish an “ecclesiola in ecclesia”.  Here is how he defines the movement, “the idea of those who formed these little churches was not to form a new church. That is basic. They were not concerned at all about separation; indeed they were bitterly and violently opposed to it. They were not out to change the doctrine of the church.”

He goes on, “What were they concerned about? Well, their position was that they were not so much dissatisfied with the nature as with the functioning of the church. They were not concerned about the church’s doctrine, but were very concerned about its spiritual life and condition. 

This is quite basic to our whole outlook upon this subject. The people who believed in the idea of the ‘ecclesiola’ were not out to change the whole church, but to form a church within a church which would form a nucleus of true believers inside the general church. Their object in the formation of this nucleus was that it might act as a leaven and influence the life of the whole church for the better. That is the definition. It was thought of in terms of the local church and local churches. It was not a movement, but something that was to happen in individual local churches.”

In essence, what they attempted to develop was a smaller group, made up of believers only, within the larger church or corporate gathering which was open to any and all and could have a large number of unbelievers present, not dissimilar from our worship services today.  Conversely, within these smaller groups they sought to have a pure meeting of believers.  How were these little churches structured and what did they do?  Lloyd-Jones continues

“But we must give some general indication as to how this idea was put into operation. There are certain things which were common to practically all of them. For instance, they were all animated by that same fundamental idea. They all likewise stressed the voluntary membership of these nuclei. People could either join this inner church, this little nucleus, or not; it was left entirely to their own volition. But the moment you did join you had to submit to a very strict discipline. They kept a list of members and observed their attendances very closely, and if a man or a woman failed to turn up with regularity he or she would be excluded, excommunicated. Sometimes indeed, a fine was imposed.

What did they do in these societies? Actually there was a good deal of variation about this, but the central idea in all of them was that the meetings should be an occasion for instruction which could not be given in the open preaching. Most of them held this kind of meeting of this select company, the true believers in the church, once a week. They met in a more informal manner, and there they could go over the sermons preached on the previous Sunday, and people would have opportunities for asking questions and discussion. Some gave opportunity for people to relate their experiences, others frowned upon that and did not believe in it at all. In the case of those that appeared in Germany there was a good deal of discussion of doctrine, and indeed at times of philosophy, and they almost became debating societies; whereas in others doctrinal discussions were completely banned and prohibited. So you see there was this considerable variation in the way in which meetings were conducted, but this does not affect the principle.

Another thing that is common to most of these meetings is that they gave opportunities to the laymen. This is where we touch on that question of the universal priesthood of all believers, referred to in an earlier paper. These people felt that the laymen had not been given sufficient opportunity, so in these gatherings the laymen were allowed to speak and put questions. That is an important principle for us to bear in mind. There was a good deal of difference with regard to the place of women. In most of them women were allowed. In the case of Spener, the German to whom I shall be referring, women were allowed to attend these meetings but they had to be behind a screen out of sight, and they were not allowed to speak! Others were very careful to divide even between married men and single men, and married women and single women, and particularly where the question of the giving of experiences was involved.”

At this point, I must comment on the similarities of these “little churches within the church” and our modern-day establishment of small groups.  The small groups or cell groups that exist in our churches today seek to do much of what these early reformers seem to have sought to accomplish.  A weekly meeting of believers only, voluntary attendance, opportunity given to the lay persons that had a variety of discussion topics such as going over previous sermons, question and answer, sharing or relating experiences, some had doctrinal discussions others did not, and some separated on the basis of gender or marital status.  Sounds quite familiar right?  Before we go patting ourselves on the back for carrying on the legacy of the Reformers, let us allow Lloyd-Jones to conclude.

At this point, Lloyd-Jones begins his historical survey in the 16th century with Luther and turns to Franz Lambert, Martin Bucer, the 17th century advocates of ecclesiola in Philip Jacob Spener, August Hermann Francke, Count Zinzendorf, Dr. Anthony Horneck (Savoy Chapel), Josiah Woodward, and George Whitefield.  As he entered into the 18th century overview, he highlights two proponents of these little churches, William Grimshaw, and Samuel Walker.  While some of these names may not be familiar to us, Lloyd-Jones’ survey is significant because he shows that these ideas were not localized geographically, nor were they limited in time or denomination, but instead can be found throughout church history.

Next he answers perhaps the question that’s lingering in our minds, “What happened to these little church experiments?”  They all failed.  “All this is a sheer matter of history; one of two things happened to them all. They either failed in the way I have been describing, or, secondly, they ended definitely in separation and the formation of a new church. That happened, as I have shown, in the case of Methodism in England. It happened in exactly the same way with Calvinistic Methodism in Wales, which became a separate denomination in Wales in 1811.”

Before we get to Lloyd-Jones’ general observation of these little churches, let me first bring us to the modern day experiment of small groups, a relatively new phenomenon within the church.  These small groups as we have come to know them today originated in the church growth movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, but they have at their heart a desire not unlike that given in the address above.  They sometimes find their biblical basis in the “small groups” of Jesus’ disciples, i.e. that He had a larger group of disciples, then the 12, and then an inner group of Peter, James, and John.  Seeing this as a model for ministry, many have developed the small group concept.  Largely, they have as their motivation and goal the relational aspect of the church, something which is nearly impossible during the hustle and bustle of the larger, corporate Sunday gathering.  Here within these smaller groups, more attention to doctrinal detail or experiences can be given within a more intimate setting and fellowship.  Many churches have come to find that the small group is an essential ingredient to church membership.  As to Lloyd-Jones’ point, many churches have likely been birthed out of geographical small groups.

But we must ask, why is it that our Lord’s Day gathering has become insufficient such that an appendix to it needs to be made.  What, if anything, does the New Testament have to offer on this subject?  We’ve seen that oftentimes Jesus’ own ministry has been the foundation for these small groups, but can that argument really be sustained biblically?  And is it observable in the life and ministry of the Apostle’s in establishing the early church?

After raising many critical questions as to the validity of these ecclesiola’s in ecclesia’s Lloyd-Jones summarizes with the following statement

“So I come to the last question which seems to me to be raised, and I think it is the most acute question of all. God forbid that this last question should ever cause a division amongst us who are evangelical, but it does seem to me that this story of the ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ raises this great question. It was there at the beginning with Luther; it is still here. Should we start with the situation and the position as it is and try to reform it, or should we start with the New Testament and apply it? It comes to that! The Reformers began with the situation as they found it, and as we have been reminded several times in the conference, their policy was to reform it. If their premise was right I think their procedure can be justified. You must then be patient and diplomatic and so on.

But the great question I am raising is this — were they right in that original question? Where do you start? Do you start with the existing situation and try by adjustment and accommodation and meetings and fellowship and readiness to give and take for the sake of the body that is already there, to get the best modifications you can? Is it that? History seems to show that, if you do start with that, you will soon be having to think of starting an ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ because of the dead wood in the church. That seems to me to be the argument of history. Do you start with that then?

Or do you rather start by asking ‘What is the New Testament teaching?’ Let us start with that. Our one object and endeavor should be to put that into practice, cost what it may, believing that as we are trying to conform to the New Testament pattern we shall be blessed of God. It is a difficult, it is a perplexing, it is a vexing question. As I have tried to remind you, in all fairness, the Reformers were concerned to bring back the New Testament idea; but they failed. There was this kind of polarity in their thinking and they kept on swinging between two basic ideas. That is why I am raising this as the ultimate and fundamental question.”

Here is the summary of the point I’m attempting to make by quoting Lloyd-Jones so extensively.  From the time of Luther onward (though we could certainly go back well before him to the Donatists, Waldensians, and so on) there has been a recognition and dissatisfaction with what we modernly call the corporate church, also known as the state church previous eras.  This dissatisfaction has arisen for various reasons and perhaps we see it most clearly today as an insufficiency, such that addendums and additions need to be made.  As a remedy, there has been the experiment, if you will, of these churches within the church, or our modern-day equivalent small groups, that have attempted to remedy any of these unsaid deficiencies.  Yet herein lies the problem and Lloyd-Jones has really put his finger on it, as I’ve highlighted from the last two paragraphs in bold above.  Every example in church history of the failed ecclesiola in ecclesia has begun out of an attempt to influence the larger group with the smaller, or we might say strengthen and mature the larger group by strengthening and maturing the smaller group first.  However, as Lloyd-Jones highlights, perhaps this smaller group IS the New Testament teaching.  Perhaps instead of attempting to reform the larger, more visible group by introducing a smaller group, we begin with the smaller group, or the ecclesiola and stay there.

The great temptation of every church plant, even and perhaps especially those, that have begun out of a small group or Bible study, is to grow larger and expand.  This is often seen as a sign of God’s hand of blessing and a reward of diligent effort and hard work to “build the church”.  But what if it’s not.  What if numerical growth is not the equivalent of blessing?  What if outward numerical growth is actually a hindrance to spiritual growth of the local body of believers?  Within every single church I’ve ever been in the necessity of the small group has arisen.  Why?  Because the of the lack of relationships in the corporate gathering, the lack of dialogue over the Scriptures, the lack of in-depth teaching and learning, the lack of accountability and the ease with which one can hide and mentally drift off in many of our large corporate gatherings.

So here is the proposition: Maybe we should begin with an ecclesiola and stay there.  As the little church begins to grow, split it and multiply.  Perhaps a return to this model would be an appropriate first step to genuine reformation, or better, restoration.  Perhaps this more intimate gathering lends itself more to relationships with built in accountability and intensity in the Word.  Perhaps this is what it means to have “all things in common”.

In closing, Luther identified three worship services, the first was the Latin Mass, which he abhorred, the second was the German Mass open to all, and the third was a smaller more intimate gathering of true believers.  A gathering that he admittedly would have pursued wholeheartedly had he found enough interested parties.  May that not be the case with us.  Search the Scriptures.  Examine them to see if these things are true.

[1] http://www.the-highway.com/ecclesia_Lloyd-Jones.html