Reformation 500

What Do We Gain By Looking Back?

by Colin Howland October 24, 2017

I grew up a fan of the “Broad Street Bullies,” the great Philadelphia Flyers teams of the 1970’s. My school friends and I spent entirely too much time pouring over accounts of their reign of terror; names like “Moose” Dupont and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz still evoke images of bloodied men staggering off the ice. While the individual hockey fights fascinated me, nothing got me going more than a bench-clearing brawl, a massive altercation involving every player of both teams. Generally speaking, individual skirmishes had a reasonable explanation, that is, boys retaliate. On the other hand, bench-clearing brawls seemed all out of proportion, proverbial snowballs which turned into avalanches.

Pinpointing the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is notoriously difficult, but there is little doubt that while Martin Luther intended to light a fire with his NinetyFive Theses, no one anticipated the conflagration which followed. His invitation to debate the principles of indulgences set off a chain of events that in the following 100+ years changed all of Europe and continues to have an impact today.

October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, and celebrations commemorating that event abound. Here at Tenth we are having our annual Reformation Hymn Service on Sunday evening, October 29. Dr. Carl Trueman from Westminster Theological Seminary will be preaching a sermon entitled “To the Glory of God Alone,” highlighting a central theme of the Reformation. The Westminster Brass and Tenth Church Choir will provide musical selections based on Luther’s hymns and service music, and several festive congregational hymns from Luther’s musical legacy will be sung.

But why bother? After all, our Presbyterian tradition owes more to the reforms of Calvin than to Luther. More importantly, you are probably already thinking that we never want to elevate the works of men in our services, but always worship God alone. I think Luther himself would wholeheartedly agree, and we have no intention of doing anything else but worshipping God on the 29th!

C.S. Lewis provides some insight, however, into the value of considering what others before us have said and done. In an article he wrote emphasizing the importance of reading old books, he explains that no generation can evaluate itself properly if it only does so on its own terms. Since it is impossible for us to look to the future to gain perspective, our only choice is to delve into the past to help us.

The Reformers certainly did that to a great degree. They were interested in restoring the purity of the Church. Their authority was the Word of God alone, as opposed to traditions and hierarchy of the Church. Luther and others carefully looked at the theology and practices of the Church throughout history and evaluated them on the basis of Scripture. In the case of Luther, he sought to continue the healthy practices of the Church while weeding out the bad. He did not seek to innovate so much as to set things right again according to Scripture.

In the process, he did many things which continue to benefit us today, things for which we rightly give glory to God. Consider the following: Luther advocated congregations’ full understanding of the content of worship and helped to establish services in the language of the people. To that end he translated the entire Bible into German, provided a complete German liturgy as well as new congregational hymns and service music in the vernacular. He emphasized the centrality of the reading and preaching of God’s Word in worship. He sought to bring everything in the worship setting under the authority of God’s Word, including the content of the liturgy and hymns, and a Biblical understanding and practice of the sacraments. He viewed music as a gift from God, useful for taking to heart God’s Word, comforting the afflicted, bringing joy to the life of the worshipper, and defending against spiritual attack.

To conclude, remembering the Reformation recognizes and celebrates God’s faithfulness in pointing a generation back to His Word for His honor and glory, and consequently, their and our benefit. By His grace, may we be a church that is Semper Reformanda, always reforming, in that way!