The theological agenda of the Reformation

As will be clear from the analysis thus far, the Reformation was a complex movement, with a very broad agenda. In part, the debate centred upon the sources of Christian theology; in part, upon the doctrines which resulted from the application of those sources. We shall consider these matters individually.

(a) The sources of theology

The mainstream Reformation was not concerned with establishing a new Christian tradition, but with the renewal and correction of an existing tradition. On the basis of their assertion that Christian theology was ultimately grounded in Scripture, reformers such as Luther and Calvin argued for the need to return to Scripture as the primary and critical source of Christian theology. The slogan 'by Scripture alone (sola scriptura)' became characteristic of the reformers, expressing their basic belief that Scripture was the sole necessary and sufficient source of Christian theology. However, as we shall see later, this did not mean that they denied the importance of tradition.

This new emphasis upon Scripture had a number of direct consequences. Beliefs which could not be demonstrated to be grounded in Scripture were either to be rejected, or to be declared as binding on none. For example, the reformers had little time for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that is, the belief that Mary, as the mother of Jesus, was conceived without any taint from sin). They regarded this as lacking in scriptural basis, and thus discarded it. A new emphasis also came to be placed upon the public status of Scripture within the Church. The expository sermon, the biblical commentary and works of biblical theology (such as Calvin's Institutes) came to be characteristic of the Reformation.

(b) The doctrine of grace

The first period of the Reformation is dominated by the personal agenda of Martin Luther. Convinced that the Church had lapsed into an unwitting Pelagianism, Luther proclaimed the doctrine of justification by faith to whoever would listen to him. The question 'How can I find a gracious God?' and the slogan 'by faith alone (sola fide)' resonated throughout much of Western Europe, and earned him a hearing throughout a substantial section of the Church.

(c) The doctrine of the sacraments

By the 1520s, the view had become well established within reforming circles that the sacraments were outward signs of the invisible grace of God. This forging of a link between the sacraments and the doctrine of justification (a development especially associated with Luther and his colleague at Wittenberg,

Philip Melanchthon) led to a new interest in the sacraments. It was not long before this area of theology became the subject of considerable controversy, with the reformers disagreeing with their Catholic opponents over the number and nature of the sacraments, and Luther and Zwingli arguing furiously over whether, and in what sense, Christ was really present at communion services. Luther's position, often referred to as 'consubstantiation' (though he himself did not use this term), retained many aspects of traditional Catholic teaching on the matter. Zwingli's position, often designated 'memorialism' (though it is in fact a form of 'transsignification') represented a radical departure from the traditional teaching, asserting that Christ was remembered at the Lord's Supper in his absence.

(d) The doctrine of the Church

If the first generation of reformers were preoccupied with the question of grace, the second generation turned to address the question of the Church. It must be appreciated that Luther's conception of 'reformation' was initially that of reforming the Church from within. He envisaged his supporters as a reforming presence inside the Church, not a breakaway faction. Luther did not choose to separate from the medieval Church; he was forced to undertake a programme of reform from outside that Church. Even as late as 1519, well after his discovery of the 'righteousness of God' and the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther wrote:

If, unfortunately, there are things in Rome which cannot be improved, there is not—nor can there be!—any reason for tearing oneself away from the church in schism. Rather, the worse things become, the more one should help her and stand by her, for by schism and contempt nothing can be mended.

Schism was forced upon, not chosen by, Luther.

By the 1540s, however, it was clear that there was likely to be permanent schism between the evangelical factions and the Catholic Church. Having broken away from the mainstream of the Catholic Church over the doctrine of grace, the reformers came under increasing pressure to develop a coherent theory of the Church which would justify this break, and give a basis for the new evangelical churches springing up in the cities of Western Europe. Where Luther is especially linked with the doctrine of grace, it is Martin Bucer and John Calvin who made the decisive contributions to the development of Protestant understanding of the Church.

The essential development is the reformulation of the identifying characteristics of the Church. For Calvin, two such defining characteristics existed: the true preaching of the Gospel, and the authentic administration of the sacraments. Bucer wished to add the maintenance of proper church discipline as a third element. Calvin, while stressing the importance of such discipline

(for example, through the establishment of the Genevan Consistory), did not regard it as of essential importance to the definition of the Church. On the basis of this approach, Calvin argued that historical continuity with the apostolic Church was not of foundational importance to evangelicals. As he argued in his Reply to Sadoleto, doctrinal continuity with the early Church was of greater importance than historical continuity with its institutions. It was preferable to teach what Augustine taught than maintain links with a body which had historical continuity with Augustine, but had, in his view, suppressed his theology.

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