by Dr. Archie P. Jones
While many celebrated Halloween October 31st, some Christians celebrated Reformation Day. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was certainly a great work of Christ.
1. It returned the church to the Bible as the only infallible standard of faith and practice. It thereby rejected—in principle—not only the Roman Catholic Church’s standard of authority as the Bible plus an unwritten oral tradition supposedly passed down from the apostles to the church, but all other non-biblical standards of authority. Since the standard of authority determines everything else in a system of thought—“religious” or “philosophical”—this return to sola scriptura in principle amounted to a rejection of all non-biblical systems of thought and a return to the only infallible standard of human thought, the word of God revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As Cornelius Van Til and Gordon H. Clark have shown in a number of their separate works, this works out in philosophy too.
2. This return to the Bible as the only infallible standard of authority meant a lot. It meant that the church then in principle rejected:
(a) Rationalism: the idea that man’s logic is the only infallible standard of faith and action; the idea that man’s presuppositions and his deductions from them are superior to the presuppositions and deductions from them revealed by God in the Bible. Thus it rejected Plato and all other rationalists including 18th and 19th century rationalists and their false systems of philosophical, ethical, and usually tyrannical political thought.
(b) Empiricism: the idea that the evidence which man supposes that he acquires via his senses, or via gadgets which extend the range and power of his senses, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Thus it rejected all the false claims of man-centered scientific thinking from Aristotle on down through 19th, 20th, and 21st century. With that rejection it avoided the skepticism which has always followed logically and historically from man-centered empiricism. (Man can “do” science upon the basis of biblical premises, but not, logically, on the basis of man-centered empiricism.)
(c) The idea that “nature” is equal to, or superior to Scripture as the standard of faith and practice, or of ethics. The Bible does say that we can know certain ethical/moral principles “even by nature,” but the Bible points to itself, to God’s law revealed in the Scriptures, not to “nature,” as the best and infallible standard of ethics and law. Bible-believing men thereby avoid the multitudes of errors and sins advocated by men who redefine the nature of “nature” and thereby redefine ethics and law in opposition to God’s perfect, holy law.
(d) The idea that “conscience” is equal to, or superior to Scripture as the standard of faith and practice, or of ethics. The Bible does say that a mature conscience is a good standard of ethical knowledge—but it also says that the conscience can have many things wrong with it and is therefore not nearly so good a standard of ethics as is Scripture. The Bible points to itself as greatly superior to “conscience” as a standard of ethics and law; indeed, it points to God’s law revealed in Scripture as the only infallible standard of ethics and law. So the Reformation in principle pointed man to the means of avoiding being deceived by sinful men’s justification of evil opinions and deeds by their claims of “conscience.”
(e) The idea that “tradition” as such is superior to Scripture as the standard of faith and practice. The Bible makes it clear that “tradition” is only good insofar as it conforms to Scripture, and is evil insofar as it violates Scripture.
(f) Continuing, extra-biblical revelations to men. The Bible tells us that we are neither to take away from nor add to Scripture. Men (including women!) who want to exercise authority or power over others sometimes claim a special, exalted spiritual status, and claim that God gives them special extra-biblical revelations. They thus set themselves up above the Bible as the standard of authority, and, in effect, tell all others to live by their word, not by God’s revealed word in Scripture. Some men do this because they know in a fully conscious way that they can thus deceive others into following them and enabling themselves to gratify their desires. Other men do this because they are not conscious of the depth of their own sinfulness and so are self-deceived. The biblical principle of sola scriptura does away with men’s crafty or self-deluded additions to and subtractions from Scripture: it thereby avoids all the evils which flow from men’s self-conscious or self-deceived rebellion against God and His holy law.
In rejecting all these false standards of authority and the systems of thought which men have derived from them, the church rejected, in principle, all the errors and evils which follow logically and have followed historically from them.
The church was not always consistent in this rejection. If only the church had been consistent with this Reformation principle of sola scriptura it would have avoided many errors and evils to which the church has been party in history!
3. The doctrine of sola scriptura led immediately to the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace through faith in the finished work of Christ upon the cross. This great scriptural truth is Protestants’ usual focus when we remember the Reformation, but to concentrate on this one great principle is to neglect other very important consequences of the doctrine that the Bible alone is the infallible standard of belief and action.
4. The return of the church to the standard of sola scriptura was more than a return to the Bible as the only infallible standard of the way to salvation of one’s soul. For the return to sola scriptura was a return to the Bible as the whole counsel of God revealed in a completed canon to man and not necessary to be supplemented, much less replaced, by anything else. The Reformation principle of sola scriptura was in principle an expression of the biblical teaching that God’s revealed word in all of Scripture is not only authoritative but also authoritatively applicable to all areas of faith and life.
More than that: it is an assertion that God’s people are to apply God’s revealed word to all areas of thought and life. To some extent the church had been doing this throughout the medieval period, though its acceptance of Greek thought in general (particularly neo-Platonism) and especially its making the philosophy of Aristotle authoritative for “secular” things, misdirected its thought and practice. The Protestant Reformation did lead God’s people to apply biblical teachings in respect to the church, but also in many other areas (only a few of which, because of lack of time and space, can be sketched here):
(a) The Family. The Bible teaches that marriage is a divinely-instituted covenant of one man and one woman before God; that any children which God gives the parents are entrusted to them by Him; and that it is the parents’ authority and duty before God to train up those children in the light of His word and law. It also teaches that parents are to “be fruitful and multiply” as part of their duty to help fulfill the Creation Mandate (Gen. 1:26-28), to have dominion over the earth and its creatures. The Protestant Reformation emphasized the importance of the marriage covenant, of the duty of parents to educate their children and prepare them to glorify God through their faith, vocations and works. While it stressed the importance of the individual, it also emphasized the duties of the individual to his or her family members under God’s providential rule of history.
(b) Social Thought and Action. The Bible teaches that we are to love the brethren and to manifest that love by our attitudes and actions toward them. It also teaches that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Protestant Reformation certainly taught these duties, and emphasized our duty to act in love toward our neighbors. It taught people to think in terms of social harmony, not class warfare. And, rejecting the Greek idea that contemplation is superior to action, taught that Christians are required by God to act as well as to contemplate, to work outwardly their faith through combating injustices and alleviating the sufferings of others by way of charitable activity.
(c) Political and Legal Thought and Action—including the right of resistance against tyranny. The church of the Protestant Reformation was led (or perhaps driven) to be aware that civil government is nothing less than a ministry of God which is obligated to abide by His standards of good and evil, as defined by His law. It taught that since civil government is God’s ministry it is to be limited in accordance with God’s law and may rightly be resisted by the people—especially as led by their lesser civil magistrates—when it commands that which is against God’s law.
(d) Education. The Protestant Reformation was largely the work of the educated, and it taught Christians the importance of education as a means of glorifying God; of training up children; of appreciating God’s greatness, mercy and goodness, and of having dominion over the earth under Him.
(e) Work and Vocation. Luther taught that a cobbler can and should glorify God as much, through being excellent at his craft, as a preacher can. The famous “Protestant Work Ethic” was the product of biblical principles taught and preached by whole-counsel-of-God pastors. It taught people to have joy in work; to work diligently as unto the Lord; to work smartly, inventing better ways to do things; to work to accumulate capital for one’s family, the church, charitable organizations, and future economic growth.
(f) Economics. Biblical ethics paved the way for the development of free market “capitalism” by emphasizing the duty of the individual to glorify God through work; the duty of the individual to think in terms of the future and to accumulate wealth for himself, his family, and the church; the duty of God’s ministry of civil government to protect private property and the sanctity of contract; and the duty of men to have dominion over the earth and its creatures.
(g) Science. Modern self-sustaining science had its origin in the medieval period precisely because of the basically biblical view of the world and life taught during those long, difficult centuries. But modern self-sustaining science really took off during the Protestant Reformation—and precisely because of Calvinistic Protestants’ emphasis on the authority of the Scriptures rather than of Aristotle. Those Reformation Christians educated the common man in science, worked with the common man to learn more of God’s creation and to develop devices by which to do so. Their scientific efforts also had a humanitarian motive, very much under God: to glorify God by using scientific knowledge to alleviate the sufferings and better the living conditions of others.
These are some of the main contributions of the Protestant Reformation to the glory of God and the good of mankind. They are the results of faith in Christ and belief in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible as well as of the providential work of Christ in history.