Critics regard the Reformation as a failure, pointing to the many denominations that sprung up in the 500 years since Martin Luther called for reform in 1517. The confessional Lutheran church is not in Christian fellowship with the vast majority of nominal Lutherans. The Reformed church splintered into innumerable Presbyterian, Baptist, and nondenominational sects. What went wrong?
The problem is not new. By 1530 Lutherans found it necessary to officially distance themselves from the Reformed and Anabaptist teachings they were accused of. Did you know Dr. Martin Luther had already not only diagnosed the disease but also prescribed its cure?
Here is the reason for the church’s fragmentation at the time of the Reformation. Recently some have considered it the result of a necessary “historical development” that there is a Reformed church with its army of sects in addition to the Lutheran church. . . . So common is this view of the formation of the Reformed church, so absurd and foolish it is. The reason for a Reformed church in addition to the Lutheran church comes simply from this: the former makes reason into the principle of theology in a number of doctrines, and thus actually ignores the fear of God’s Word, in spite of their assurance that they deeply revere it. Luther proved this origin of the Reformed sects again and again and showed their leaders how they were “thoughtless despisers of Scripture.” To be sure, the enthusiasts maintained that they had God’s honor in mind when they did not take hold of the words in the Lord’s Supper as they actually are. For if someone accepted that Christ’s body and blood actually and essentially were in the Lord’s Supper, then he would have to believe contradictory things, namely, that Christ’s body and blood are in heaven and earth at the same time, and indeed in many places on earth at the same time. But Luther was not deceived by this. Rather, he showed the enthusiasts again directly from this contradiction that they were lacking the fear of God’s Word, in that they wanted to determine according to the thoughts of their reason, instead of according to God’s Word, what a contradiction in divine matters was. Therefore, when they also discussed at Marburg how they could end the conflict between the Lutherans and the Zwinglians, Luther said, “I know no other way, than that they (Zwingli and his associates) give God’s Word the honor and believe with us.” (Francis Pieper, excerpt from “The Fear of God’s Word,” trans. Andrew Hussman, Studium Excitare: The Journal of Confessional Language Studies at MLC)
What? “Give God’s word the honor and believe with” confessional Lutherans? That would even include believing the words “This is my body” exactly as Jesus spoke them! That’s saying the source of the disagreement is human unbelief, not the fact that Scripture is hard to understand. No, standing on Scripture alone is too simplistic.
Yes, we need Scripture, but we also need a healthy dose of common sense. If you think about it, it’s okay to have lots of denominations because their petty little differences about abstract things like grace and faith really don’t really matter anyway. That’s why open communion was invented.
But common sense isn’t quite enough, either. We also need the writings of respected Christian leaders to shed light on the darkness of the Scriptures. From John Calvin on, Protestant scholars have learned a lot since Luther’s time. Granted, each sect has its own revered leaders, but that’s not the point. Let’s learn what we can from the best of them and not sweat the details.
The point is this. Luther’s simple faith in Scripture alone was a good place to start in 1517. It’s not a good place to stand in 2017.
Or is it? Could it be that our own wisdom and traditions have blinded us to the light of God’s word? If so, let’s indeed “give God’s word the honor” and pray with the Psalmist, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. . . . The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:105,130).
On this 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, let’s turn from the unbelief of Zechariah. Along with the most highly favored maiden, may we simply believe the word that the Lord has spoken.