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The Real Genius of the Reformation

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Reform. Our world talks a lot about reform. It seems we all, to one degree or another, desire reform. There is health reform and educational reform. Agricultural reform and social reform. Fiscal reform and certainly religious reform.

Reform calls to mind the idea of progress toward a desired result. It is a word that evokes positive change. With such a diffused use of the word, however, it tends to lose its virtue and efficacy. When one speaks of the Protestant Reformation, therefore, the reform intended and celebrated may be lost in a sea of synonymous usage and ambiguity, and its richness watered down and confused.

The Roman Catholic Church also speaks of reform and recognizes its need within the church. Its call for reform predates the Protestant Reformation. Still suffering from the Great Schism between east and west in 1054, the Council of Constance (1414–1418) sought deep reform in the church. This has not changed in the many centuries since, and the Catholic Church continues to call for reform.

So, when we celebrate Reformation Day, what exactly are we celebrating? What sets the Protestant Reformation apart from other reforms and reformations? What sets it apart from the reform the Catholic Church intends and seeks? Why are we still celebrating it more than five hundred years later?

The answer to these questions reveals the true genius of the Protestant Reformation, and explains why it has endured through the centuries, is still celebrated today, and will continue to be celebrated.

Return of the Supremacy of God

What comes to mind when considering the Protestant Reformation? What are thought to be its distinguishing characteristics? Certainly, the Five Solas are at the top of the list. Faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone, revealed through Scripture alone, and for God’s glory alone. These are perhaps the most recognizable trademarks of the Reformation. Is this, then, where the genius of the Protestant Reformation is to be found? Are they the reason the Protestant Reformation has endured for more than five centuries?

“The Protestant Reformation is God’s work, and his alone. This is the genius of the Reformation.”

Without a doubt, the return to these truths was extraordinary. They are to be celebrated for their clarity and the unambiguous boundaries they create for the faith. There is no confusion concerning the authority of Scripture against that of tradition. Salvation is definitively a gift of God’s grace alone, and cannot be attributed to works. They do not allow for ambiguity, indifference, or neutrality. They are a return to the heart of the faith and the biblical gospel. Surely it is correct, then, to suggest that the Five Solas explain the genius of the Protestant Reformation?

Or perhaps its genius lies with the great Reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin? Surely the Reformation, in large part, owes its success to the brilliance of these men. A careful reflection of the Reformation, however, reveals that its genius does not lie in the articulation of the solas, or with the formulation of any doctrinal statement or declaration. It goes beyond the Reformers and even beyond the mere return to Scripture as the ultimate source of authority and truth. It goes deeper still. The genius of the Reformation is rooted in God himself. It is a return of the supremacy of God over all things. It is a return of the primacy of God in the church, in history, and in the heart of man. It is a radical, reformational work of the all-sovereign God of the universe himself.

God Reclaimed What Was His

This, however, is not a new revelation. It was no secret to the Reformers. They knew that no man could produce such radical reform. It had to be the work of God himself. Luther understood this well. “The church has need of reform, but it cannot be the work of one man . . . nor of many . . . rather it must be the work of God alone.”

“No sword,” continued Luther, “can call forth or help this cause, only God can do so, with no human intervention at all.” Luther, despite being a man with great gifts and a great mind, could in no way take on a conflict of this magnitude and proportions. “I freely confess,” he admitted, “that this endeavor was in no way a deliberate action on my part . . . it is a pure result of God’s will alone.”

Luther was not the only Reformer to share this realization. Calvin also recognized the prodigious scope of the Reformation, and knew that no man could accomplish such a feat. Writing to Charles V, Calvin made this clear, telling him that the reform of the church is the work of God, and is independent of the hope and opinions of man, in the same way the resurrection of the dead is.

“The Reformers were mere instruments in the hands of a sovereign and almighty God.”

Indeed, no one man, nor any army of men, could confront the Roman Catholic Church and the power and influence it wielded. It had to be the work of God himself. It required the will and action of the sovereign God of the universe. The gospel was at stake, and so God went to work in a radical way to reclaim his word and his authority. The same happened in the times of Joshua, Asa, Hezekiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the apostles. It is what God has been doing throughout history, and it is what happened during the Reformation. God intervened to reclaim what was his.

The True Reformer

Italian theologian Pietro Bolognesi captures the heart of what was at stake: the Reformation “was not a mere conflict between people and ideas, but between God and the Devil himself.” Indeed, the Protestant Reformation depended entirely on God. The Reformation belongs to him alone. He is the true “Reformer.”

Their recognition of this is what set apart the Reformers. Their greatness is not to be found in their intellectual brilliance nor their theological acumen. Their greatness is revealed in their humility in recognizing the greatness of God and his hand at work to change history. The Reformers were mere instruments in the hands of a sovereign and almighty God, and they knew this and freely confessed it. They were not the innovators or architects of the Reformation. They were mere servants.

“The Reformation,” says Bolognesi, “must be understood as an action that came down from above; whereas its counterpart, the Counter-Reformation, was an attempt at restoration that came from below. The former is rooted in man serving under God, and the latter is rooted in God serving under man.” God, however, submits to no man. The Protestant Reformation is his work, and his alone. Through it, he acted to reestablish the power and authority of his word. This is the genius of the Reformation.

Is the Reformation Over?

With a growth in ecumenical dialogue, and with the recent celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, the question “Is the Reformation over?” is frequently discussed and debated.

Some Protestants and Catholics assert that the main theological disagreements that led to the rupture in Western Christianity have now been resolved. One example of this is the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), a document written and agreed upon by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) of the Catholic Church. The document states that both churches now share a common understanding of justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ. This despite the Catholic Church having never renounced the anathemas of the Council of Trent (1545–1563), one of which explicitly addresses this doctrine: “If anyone says that by faith alone the impious are justified, let him be anathema” (Canon IX on Justification).

“Real reformation is the work and intervention of God himself in history, in the church, and in the heart of man.”

The JDDJ, along with much of today’s ecumenical dialogue, serves as a reminder for why it’s important to regularly ask whether the Reformation is truly over. When we examine the Protestant Reformation, and when we consider what real, biblical reform is, and what it requires, it quickly becomes clear that it is not the product of doctrinal statements nor ecumenical dialogue nor theological discourse. Far too often these endeavors relegate God to a place of subservience to man and his agenda. They are bottom-up initiatives.

Real reformation is the work and intervention of God himself in history, in the church, and in the heart of man. Reformation dethrones man, and puts God back in his rightful place of supremacy over all things.

The Reformation, at its core, is not a matter of affirming the Five Solas. It isn’t a question of affirming the theology of Martin Luther or John Calvin. It is a matter of affirming, and embracing, the supremacy of God. It is about pursuing a relationship with God himself made possible through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. This is what happened during the Protestant Reformation. This is the genius of reformation — and why it will continue until God reigns supreme and man fully submits to his glory, his word, and his authority. This is why it is still celebrated today, and why we will celebrate reformation until the end of time.

is a church planter in Rome, Italy, and co-leads the evangelical church Breccia di Roma San Paolo. He is also the Associate Director of the Reformanda Initiative, and co-hosts the Reformanda Initiative podcast that discusses Roman Catholic theology and practice from an evangelical perspective.