Debating the pros and cons of the Reformation in 2017 seems appropriate to Dale Robertson, pastor of North Main Baptist Church in Salisbury.
Since Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to a Wittenburg, Germany, church door in 1517 was a call to debate the issues, Robertson feels North Carolina Baptists should be discussing those same issues today.
The Historical Committee of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina is offering a Reformation symposium Mon., Nov. 6 from 3-5 p.m. along with showings of a documentary on the movement – “This Changed Everything” – prior to the start of the annual meeting in Greensboro in November. Both events will be in the Koury Convention Center in Auditorium I. The movie, which is three hours long, will run Sun., Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. and twice on Monday: 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Robertson, who serves on the committee, will lead a panel on the Reformation that includes Stephen Eccher,* assistant professor of church history and Reformation studies for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; John Armstrong, president of ACT3 Network, a ministry for “empowering leaders and churches for unity in Christ’s mission” and adjunct professor of evangelism and leadership at Wheaton College Graduate School; and David Williams, Belmont Abbey College’s vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty. The Biblical Recorder asked questions of those involved. Below are the questions divided by name, along with their responses. Answers have been edited for space and style.
Q: Why host a Reformation panel? What do you hope to accomplish with this panel?
A: Oct. 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the posting of the famous Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther on the door of the church at Wittenburg, Germany. Oct. 31, 1517, is generally recognized by historians as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Since Southern Baptists are the theological heirs of the Reformation, it is fitting that our Convention recognize this historical religious revolution.
Many Baptist churches used to observe Reformation Sunday as an alternative to the Catholic “All Saints Day.” Pastors often took the opportunity to teach the biblical truths that define us as Baptists.
We stand in danger of losing the sense of our historical background and with it the appreciation of our identity as Baptists.
The Historical Committee hopes that, by discussing the central issues that motivated the Reformers, our pastors and churches will be spurred to study Baptist history and encouraged to boldly proclaim the Baptist Faith and Message.
Q: With three backgrounds represented, what do you think participants can anticipate happening?
A: The participants in the Reformation Symposium are theologians from the Roman Catholic, Reformed and Southern Baptist denominations. The vice president from Belmont Abbey College will discuss the Roman Catholic view of the issues that caused the Reformation. The author and professor from the Reformed (Calvinist) Church will represent the viewpoint of the Reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others. The professor from Southeastern Seminary will interpret how these issues relate to Baptist history and the faith we proclaim today. Each will have about 10 minutes to speak on each topic. There will be a time for follow-up questions from the audience. The Historical Committee hopes those who attend the Symposium will prepare serious questions they would like to ask the theologians. This should produce respectful and enlightening debate.
Q: You have chosen three main Reformation points – scripture alone, priesthood of believer and state sponsored churches. Why these topics? What other topics do you think will arise and why?
A: The sole authority of scripture for faith practice was the definitive issue that sparked the Reformation. “Sola scriptura!” was the rallying cry of the reforming preachers as well as people in the pews. Martin Luther brought back to life the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This broke the hold of the Roman Catholic priesthood and the papacy over the consciences of the people of Europe.
When the princes of Northern Europe accepted the teachings of the Reformers, their citizens generally followed suit. This gave rise to Protestant states and Catholic states with churches and clergy supported by the power of the government. These states often persecuted the minority believers within their borders.
The early Baptists, known as Anabaptists, were often caught up in these programs of forced conformity. Anabaptists, also known as the Radical Reformers, were persecuted to death by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. They found refuge and freedom only in the tolerant state of Holland. This tragic history gave rise to the Baptist love for a free church and freedom of conscience for all men. This is a value we hold dear today!
Another issue that could come up in the Symposium might be sola fide or “salvation by faith alone, apart from good works.”
John H. Armstrong
Q: What inspired “This Changed Everything”? Why was it important to make? What part did you have in making the film?
A: The film was conceived in the mind and heart of the late Ken Curtis, a Baptist minister who established Vision Video and Christian History magazine decades ago. Ken was my friend, and we developed ideas and plans for films. When he died in 2011, his son, Bill, became president of the company. When Bill asked me about engaging in a film project on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I became involved and helped produce the series. I serve as a senior advisor to the company and this project. You can check out visionvideo.com to see more history and the awards and leadership this company has produced over the years.
Q: Why should people today care about the Reformation? What lessons can be applied to today?
A: People should care because Western history was radically altered by the events of 1517 and following. America, as the series shows, is the great idea that it became because of this Protestant and Baptist background. This is developed in the series. We cannot understand who we are culturally and religiously without understanding how we came to this land and this time in our history, both as a culture and as churches.
Q: With discussions like the one coming to the BSC annual meeting, what questions do you anticipate from those present? What response might you give to those questions?
A: I personally hope Baptists will better understand their unique role in the post-Reformation development of the doctrine of the church, of mission and evangelism and how we came to be a free people in a free land. The film series presents this very fairly and should prompt Baptists to see themselves in the larger story. I hope Baptists will ask probing questions about how they developed out of this period and what they did to contribute to the global Christian movement. I also hope they will be self-critical in seeing how they can be a better partner with all Christians for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom and mission. As the number of Christians declines in our culture, now is the time to not retreat into our movements but to learn from each other and seek strength in love and unity.
Q: Now that it’s been 500 years, what have Catholics learned from the Reformation?
A: Both of our traditions, Protestant and Catholic, recognize that we are not today fulfilling Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). And for that disunion to persist, beyond sheer human failings, there must be something positive that God intends for us to learn from it.
On the Catholic side, looking back, I’d identify three things: 1) the ways that the written Word of God in scripture can saturate daily life; 2) the idea of calling or vocation as something for everyone, in every walk of life; and 3) in the words of Pope Francis, “to remember that apart from God we can do nothing.” (In a personal note, all these things are certainly brought home to me by my Baptist wife!)
Q: What do you expect in your panel with people representing three religious backgrounds? Where can you build on common ground? Where will you disagree?
A: Our most important common ground is of course in our baptism, in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and all that we share as brothers and sisters in Christ who give the same answer to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” I’d also expect considerable agreement as we look at the problems of faithful discipleship in 21st-century America. The areas of disagreement are all liable to be “how” questions: how does scripture function in the life of the church, how does the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) unite us with Christ, how does ordained ministry serve to build up the church, and the like. Those are all meaningful questions, but differences there don’t undo the deeper unity of faith in Christ.
Q: Does the Reformation continue to change the Catholic Church today? If so, how? Do you see possible changes in the future as a result of the Reformation or other changing cultural shifts?
A: As a historical event, the Reformation always reminds us of the gospel’s power to surprise. But I’d suggest that its main ongoing impact on the Catholic Church comes through the living witness of Christians in the Reformation tradition as we walk together and collaborate in the world.
Part of what makes events like this panel possible has been the “ecumenism of the trenches” as Catholic and Protestant Christians have labored jointly in works of charity, especially in pro-life ministries. We see one another’s faith and prayer at work, and we recognize ever more clearly that we are the branches, and Jesus the vine.
Stephen B. Eccher
Q: What part do Baptists have in the history of the Reformation?
A: Regardless of one’s understanding of Baptist origins, the historic roots of Baptist life are found in the Reformation. Thus, Baptists are indebted to the Reformation tradition for many of their doctrinal beliefs and ecclesiastical practices. Baptist convictions about things like biblical authority, salvation, regenerate church membership, believers’ baptism, congregational polity, to name a few, all harken back to beliefs articulated during the Protestant Reformation. The confluence of those particular theological convictions, parts of which are admittedly found in other confessional heritages, help to make up the whole that is the unique Baptist heritage.
Q: What is the most important lesson for Baptists from the Reformation? Why?
A: What Baptists believe and do when they gather as local churches has been directly shaped by the Reformation in ways that most Baptists take for granted. Contemporary Baptist churches are not isolated from the past; this especially includes their Protestant heritage. For instance, the architectural orientation of Baptistic worship, which focuses attention on the preached Word, denotes a pivot away from an emphasis on the Eucharist. The laity’s participation in things like corporate singing, church government and the interpretation of Scripture all find their genesis in Reformation thought. And both the widespread availability and use of Bibles in the vernacular (native heart languages) that many today simply assume, were unthinkable prior to the Reformation. Even commonplace expressions of the gospel, which include an emphasis on the biblical themes of grace, repentance, justification and faith, all link Baptists to the reaffirmation and rearticulating of biblical teachings by reformers like Martin Luther. The rich religious life of Baptists today is indelibly linked to and informed by those men and women that paved an early path of the faith. Recognition of this belief will not only help modern Baptists to better understand what they believe and why, but will also allow them to guard against theological drift.
Q: With the panel focusing on certain aspects of the Reformation, what other highlights should Baptists know from that time period?
A: The Reformation story begs modern Christians to ask questions about the depths of personal conviction. The era was replete with stories of Christians standing firm for their beliefs and even dying for their faith, despite strong opposition. Luther’s unwillingness to recant his beliefs amid the threat of excommunication, his unyielding stand against Emperor Charles V at Worms, or the Swiss Anabaptists’ defiance of the Swiss authorities in their gathering of a believers’ church even unto death stand as great examples of the cost of conviction. And while Reformation reflections may help modern believers to reconsider what they believe and why, perhaps those same remembrances may also force Christians to consider the depths of those beliefs. Just what is one willing to surrender for the faith? This is certainty a pertinent question for Baptist personnel on the mission field in antagonistic contexts to posit. Yet, given the quickly shifting culture of America, this is a question all believers should ponder as well.
Regrettably, there were also no shortage of instances during the Reformation where professing Christians persecuted, and at times even executed, others that claimed to be followers of Jesus. Thus, the anniversary of the Reformation ought to inspire consideration of how Baptists might humbly relate to other Christians outside their confessional heritage. The legacy of the Reformation is schism. That was its unavoidable and undeniable consequence. However, in truth, there is more that unites Protestants in the faith than divides them, despite the historical and/or modern day inflammatory rhetoric. Even with the famous debate at Marburg in 1529, which embodied the failings of Protestant unity, it is often forgotten that the reformers in attendance agreed on 14 of 15 major points of doctrine. So, as the reformers’ inability to find an accord on matters of the faith is examined, modern Christians may also be given a unique perspective regarding an ecumenical path forward. And given the rise of Islam and modern ideologies like atheism and secularism, perhaps a unified front would serve the church well.
Q: What are some good resources on the Reformation? How can pastors and leaders share the Reformation with their congregations?
A: There are two main ways I would suggest that the amazing ideas and people of the Reformation Era might be translated and taught to our contemporary world. First, the beliefs and stories from the era may be creatively woven into sermons and Bible studies as a means of illustrating and highlighting the truths of the biblical text. This would allow the Bible to retain its dominant and authoritative voice. Yet, it would also help the Bible to come alive, be clarified and better related through the vibrant world of the Reformation.
Second, and especially given the legion of impending Reformation “anniversaries” that loom on the horizon over the next couple decades, the reformers’ stories can be told through conferences, teaching units and even one-off studies in a wide variety of local church settings and venues. For instance, Huldrych Zwingli’s recovery of expository preaching on Jan 1, 1519, Luther’s defiant stand before the Emperor on April 18, 1521, or the Anabaptists’ re-institution of believers’ baptism on January 25, 1525, all situate well for remembrance and confessional commentary in the coming years.
General Study Resources:
- Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, Revised Edition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013).
- Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, Second Edition (Oxford Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)
- Erwin W. Lutzer, Rescuing the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
- Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought, Second Edition (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
- Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013).
- Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
- Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life, Revised Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
- Peter Matheson, Argula von Grumbach: A Woman Before Her Time (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013).
- Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (New York: Penguin Press, 2015).
- WP Stephens, Zwingli: An Introduction to His Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Ruth A. Tucker, Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).
*Eccher’s comments were added after this article was originally published and are only available in the online format.