From the Vault of the ACR, first published February 1967. Re-released to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the reformation.
“The sooner we of the Church of England acknowledge that the Reformation was a great mistake and seek reunion with Rome, the better.” The Revd. Dr, Keith Cole, Vice-Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne resolutely rejects this point of view in the article that follows. Nevertheless, it is a view that some clergy and laity have pressed and we must be sure where the Church of England does stand in such vital matters.
The Reformation of the Church on the Continent and in England during the sixteenth century was certainly not a mistake.
While its causes were varied and to some extent political, economic and social, the movement was concerned essentially with the reform of religious thought and practice. The worldliness and political intrigue of the Papacy; the ignorance, superstition and immorality of many of the clergy and laity; and doctrinal assertions of the Church contrary to the teaching of the Bible, were among the main reasons for the deep longing for reform.
The main results of this dynamic revolution of the religion of the day indicate the importance of the Reformation.
1. The Reformation restored the Bible to its rightful position as the source and final authority in matters of faith.
During the middle ages, the Western Church dominated by the Papacy had dogmatically asserted its authority in both temporal and spiritual matters. The Church had become wealthy but many clergy were corrupt and immoral.
Unbiblical teaching regarding indulgences, pardons, purgatory, the worshipping and adoration of images and relics, and the invocation of saints had become prevalent. Transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the mass had become popular teaching.
Because of these abuses, the Reformers asserted that the central doctrines of the Church must be those which were derived from the Bible, and that the Bible was the final authority in matters of faith. The reformed Church of England stated: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or he thought exquisite or necessary to salvation . .” (Article VI—similar in substance to Article V of the 42 Articles of 1553.)
The Reformation was not a mistake. It restored the Bible to its rightful position as the source and final authority in matters of faith.
2. The Reformation restored the centrality of the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith.
The immediate cause for the Reformation in Germany was the protest made by Martin Luther in 1517 at the sale of indulgences for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome.
Having come into a living and vital experience of Jesus Christ and an assurance of complete justification through His atoning work, Luther insisted that salvation by any other means, especially by the payment of money, was nothing short of blasphemy.
Justification by faith became foundation principle in the struggle of the Church in Germany against the Papacy and its final breach with Rome. Justification by faith became the central doctrine of the English Reformers also and is reflected in Article XI which states: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works and deservings…”
Justification by faith under[pinned] the doctrine of all the services of the Book of common Prayer from 1552 onwards, especially the Holy Communion. In the Supper of the Lord there is a true communion with the body and blood of Christ, but only “in such as worthily receive the same” (Article XXV), and the means of receiving Him is by faith (Article XXVIII).
The Reformation was not a mistake. It restored to the Church the central Biblical message of justification by faith.
3. The Reformation restored a rightful status to the individual
Through justification by faith, each individual Christian is a priest before God, offering to Him in complete surrender, his soul and body, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice. (See Romans 12:1).
This gave back to the individual a new sense of responsible freedom as a person in the sight of God, liberating him from the excessive authoritarianism of the Church.
Not that the Church is unimportant. Far from it. The Church is the divine creation of God manifested through the collective association of His redeemed people.
But each has its function— the individual and his relationship with God and the Church, and the Church in its relationship with each of its members. The Reformation restored the rightful status of the individual.
Moreover, the secret of the great power of the sixteenth century lay in the individual. There was a new feeling of freedom, a new spirit of adventure to risk individual actions and to further individual interests. As the monolithic hierarchical structure of the Western Papacy crumbled, there came the development of national churches associated in no small measure with the rising national States.
In England, the Reformation resulted in a complete political break with the Church of Rome, and as stated in Article XXXVII “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.”
The Reformation was not a mistake. It enabled the Church in England to develop in its own way, free from the political intrigues and doctrinal errors of the Church of Rome of the sixteenth century.
At the same time it restored to the individual Christian, as well as to separate Christian States, the right to self-determination, subject to the teaching of the Bible.
4. The Reformation gave to the Church of England the Bible and Prayer Book in English
A feature of the Reformation was the translation of the Bible into the language of the people.
William Tindale, who translated the New Testament into English under great difficulty had declared to one of his protagonists, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou doest.” In 1538 the clergy of England were enjoined to install the Great Bible in their churches and to encourage the people to read from them.
Such was the influence of the Bible upon the people of England that the noted historian J. R. Green stated:
“No greater moral change ever passed over England during the years which parted the middle of the reign of Elizabeth from the meeting of the Long Parliament. England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible.”
Not only did England have the Bible, but it also had its services in English. The first English Prayer Book was that of 1549 to be followed by the great revision of 1552, and after further revisions found its final form in 1662.
While every encouragement should be given for the modern liturgical movement, there is no doubt that the Book of Common Prayer in English has had a profound and lasting effect on the life of the Church and nation during the past four hundred years.
The Reformation was not a mistake. It gave to us the Bible and Prayer Book in our own language.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century then was certainly not a mistake. It restored to its rightful position the use and authority of the Bible, the centrality of the death of Christ for our salvation, a need for the individual to appropriate this salvation for himself.
We praise and thank God for this rich heritage which we now enjoy. But the privilege of our inheritance should make us neither arrogant nor complacent. On us, as in every generation, lies the responsibility of making all men know the redemption, He affords through Jesus Christ.
Like the Reformers, in out thoughts and lives, in the modern liturgical movement and current ecumenical dialogue we need to have Him ever before us, and to point the world to Him with the authority of His word, in faithfulness to His truth, and through the power of the Holy Spirit.