When hitting a tee shot in golf, it is common when playing recreationally to receive a “mulligan” on the first hole. This essentially means if you hit a bad first shot you get a second shot and it doesn’t count against your score. Was the Reformation primarily an attempt for the Church to get back to the beginning, that is, the Bible, as if the 1,500 years of church history before it were like an errant tee shot?
One of the most common misconceptions of the Reformation is that it was primarily a movement about starting over from scratch. This misconception is often built upon a misunderstanding of the reformational motto of sola Scriptura, the teaching that Scripture is the sole and final authority of faith and practice for the Church. However, this is sometimes understood to mean as affirming Scripture as the only authority in theology and the Christian life (what can be called “solo” or “nuda” Scriptura). Understood in this way, it is no surprise that some would think the Reformers sought to shake the dust of the centuries off their feet as they left the Roman Catholic Church (see Matthew 10:14) and return to the simple, pure truth of Scripture and Scripture alone.
The problem with this is it is not at all what the Reformers understood themselves to be about. Scott Manetsch, a leading historian of the Reformation, understands this well:
Evangelical Christians in North America sometimes misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is the Christian’s only theological resource, that it can and should be denuded of its churchly context (hence nuda Scriptura). Such an understanding is altogether incorrect. (“Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations,” Themelios 36 : 199).
Whether it was John Calvin, Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Theodore Beza, Thomas Cranmer, or Peter Martyr Vermigli, the magisterial Reformers held unswervingly to the authority of Scripture. A Reformational understanding of the authority of Scripture does not preclude secondary authorities such as Church Fathers and the creeds and confessions of the Church.Indeed, they believed the late Medieval Church had experienced corruption as a result of abandoning the primacy of Scripture. Yet this did not mean they thought they were the only ones after the apostles to properly understand God’s Word. A Reformational understanding of the authority of Scripture does not preclude secondary authorities such as Church Fathers and the creeds and confessions of the Church. Two examples will help illustrate this reality.
Luther: Scripture and the Church
The German Reformer Martin Luther is well known for his brilliant rhetorical flourishes—at turns biting and hilarious. He was not afraid to give a quick rhetorical slap to the papacy or those who held a disproportionately high view of the tradition of the Church. His position on the authority of Scripture over popes and church councils was clear:
A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it. As for the pope’s decretal on indulgences I say neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils (cited in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand [Nashville: Abingdon, 1950], 90).
And yet, Luther did not absolutize Scripture and set it up against the historical faith of the Church. One straightforward illustration of this is that when he sought to teach the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Through his Short and Large Catechisms, he exposited the ancient Apostles’ Creed. Furthermore, in 1538 he also wrote a booklet on the importance and value of The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith. On the one hand, over and against the Roman Catholic Church of his day, Luther denied the infallibility of the Church and its councils, because God’s revelation in Scripture is supreme; and yet, on the other hand, over and against many radical Reformers of his day, he held in high esteem the Church Fathers and ancient creeds, believing they could help elucidate the truth of Scripture.
Calvin: Scripture and the Fathers
The second example is the Swiss Reformer John Calvin. His position on Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice was the same as Luther’s. He also could be deeply critical of Church Fathers and the historical writings within the Church, because they were not the final authority by which to judge Christian doctrine and practice—Scripture is. Nonetheless, while Scripture was the final authority for Calvin’s theological writings, it was not his only resource. Manetsch is insightful on the consequence of this position for Calvin:
[H]e regularly consulted and appealed to early Christian documents and church authorities—most notably Augustine—to gain theological insight and clarity on contested doctrinal matters. He recognized the strategic importance of demonstrating the continuity of Protestant teaching with the core convictions of the early Church. Thus, his regular refrain: “The ancient church is on our side!” (“Is the Reformation Over?,” 199).
To put a point on it, Calvin’s magisterial The Institutes of the Christian Religion contains 1,700 explicit citations of Augustine alone. This is to say nothing of almost 2,500 more allusions to Augustine as well as numerous interactions with other Church Fathers in the Institutes and his other writings. If one reads Calvin closely with a knowledge of the Fathers, the reader can see the Reformer utilizes them not merely to score rhetorical points. Rather, Calvin resources the Fathers in deep ways that shape the actual substance of his theology.
Luther and Calvin are but two examples of a Reformational conviction: the Reformers didn’t see their opportunity as a fresh start—to take another tee shot, as it were. Instead, while the Church’s teaching must be subordinate in all ways to Scripture, the Holy Spirit did lead the Church into a deeper grasp on the truth after the apostolic age. The Reformation wasn’t a mulligan, but rather a pitch from the woods back into the green fairway.Whether it was the faithful biblical interpretation of Chrysostom, the theological reflection of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the doctrinal clarity of the Nicene Creed, there were invaluable riches in store that the Reformers thought helped re-form the Church according to Scripture. To complete the golfing metaphor, the Reformation wasn’t a mulligan, but rather a pitch from the woods back into the green fairway.
Today’s Reformed Church which holds to sola Scriptura should not seek to go back to the tee box either. We have the same historical riches available to us as the Reformers. In fact, there are even more riches before us thanks to the faithful theological reflection sparked by the Reformation that continues all the way up to today—reflection that ultimately doesn’t take us away from Scripture; it takes us to the inexhaustible source of Scripture over and over again.