Between AD 325 (the Nicene Council) and AD 1517 (Luther’s opening challenge to the Roman Catholic Church) a lot had transpired. Nearly twelve hundred years of developments and accretions to the settled faith and order of the early church had occurred. Many by then believed that there was need for a purifying review of these additions. And a remarkable invention – moveable type for the printing press – was putting the New Testament in the hands of believers, and in their own language. This new reality challenged nearly everything the faithful of the sixteenth century church in the West had been taught. Reformation began. The central question would become: “By what authority do you teach the faith?” By what authority do you reform it?
On the one side were the traditionalists. The church is our authority, they believed. On the other side were the reformers. The Holy Scriptures are the authority, they believed.
The dispute was fierce, and much occurred that would (and does) grieve the heart of God. After many decades of struggle two settled realities were true of Europe. Some followers of Jesus were called Catholics, and some were called Protestants. The Catholics appealed to the church as supreme. The Protestants appealed to the Holy Scriptures as supreme. They each drew lines of inclusion and exclusion. But both sides professed to be followers of Christ Jesus.
In the Church of England, a third way emerged. The reformers in that land appealed to the early unbroken centuries of Christian History to draw their lines. The Holy Scriptures were the “rule and supreme authority” of that which must be “believed for salvation.” The “truth as it is in Jesus” was the only foundation. But the ancient ordering of the church should remain unbroken, they thought. It was not contrary to true apostolic faith, but was meant to uphold and protect that faith. The “historic Faith and Order” (as Anglican Christians would later call it) of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic
church” (words from the Nicene Creed of AD 325) would be upheld and propagated. But order would always be for the sake of the true faith of the gospel.
Over five hundred years since those first stirrings of reformation in Northern Europe, what can an honest observer say today? With heart sickness this observer says: “We need another reformation.” The problems that confronted our godly ancestors in the sixteenth century confront us now. Everywhere the descendants of both the Catholic and Protestant divisions are in distress. Confusion, sin, and unbelief reign everywhere in the historic churches. And many leaders are loathe to face the true depths of the problem. But what shall be the authority by which we reform, if we believe we must?
Christians of a “Catholic disposition and faith” look to the church and its organized ways. Those of a “Protestant disposition and faith” look to the Holy Scriptures. Neither can seem to agree. Is there another way? A twenty-first century path?
Next Week: Principles for a New Reformation?