Was the Reformation Just a Big “Misunderstanding”??

It seems that everywhere we look these days people are desperately trying to establish “concord” or agreement between Christ and Belial.  It should come as no surprise that there is no “concord” to be found, especially in light of such passages as II Corinthians 6:14-15.  Yet the quest continues in opposition to Holy Writ, the desperation grows and grows when the sought-after result does not come to pass, and the arguments and reasoning become less and less coherent when the foundation of faith is forsaken in favor of sinful human rationalism.

It has been suggested by a number of published church historians that the Reformation was really just a “misunderstanding” between Luther and his followers on one side, and the Catholic Church on the other, and that, because of this mere misunderstanding, nothing should hinder the two sides from being reconciled for the greater good of the propagation of outward Christendom.

The Reformation was not just an emotionally heated singular event during which people’s judgment became clouded with emotion leading to hasty and ignorant decisions and conclusions.  Instead, the Reformation was a series of events, involving many learned and prestigious people, established institutions, and secular governments, spanning many years, during which each side carefully and clearly defined its terms, established and defended its own position according to its principles, and attacked the position of the other side.

The Reformation officially began on October 31, 1517 with Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses.  These theses were posted in order to facilitate a public discussion and debate, particularly among the clergy and professors of theology, concerning the practice of selling indulgences from sin, guilt, and pain in purgatory in order to raise funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Luther implored the Pope to clarify the church’s teachings on the subject, to the end that gainsaying against the church might be stopped (Theses 81 to 91).

However, instead of engaging in the discussion and setting the record straight as it were, the Catholic Church responded by excommunicating Luther.  In so doing, the Catholic Church declared him to be a heretic, a teacher of false doctrine.  Surely such actions and pronouncements of “the Church,” the entire body of outward Christianity, the head of which was the Pope, being “lower than God but higher than men…[who] judges all and is judged by no one” (Innocent III), are not taken and proclaimed without due attention and consideration.  Even the Catholic Church’s initial responses to Luther showed that there was no “misunderstanding” at all.  If that is all it had been, then the Church and its head would have grievously sinned by identifying and charging “sin” where there might not have been any sin at all (Cf. I John 3:4; Romans 4:15b).

After the Papal bull of excommunication failed to achieve its desired result, namely the silencing and marginalizing of the “heretic” Luther, the Church took more drastic and decisive action at the Diet of Worms in 1521.  Luther refused to disavow and take back all that he had written, despite his works being deemed “in error” by the Catholic Church, recognizing that by God’s grace his writings and teachings were Scriptural and doctrinally sound.   Because of his refusal to recant and his defiance of the Catholic Church in accord with Acts 5:29, Luther was banned by the Holy Roman Empire, and a bounty was placed on his head.  The Pope had effectively cut Luther down with both of his “swords” – the sword with which he claims to control the church, and the sword with which he claims to control all the civil governments of the world (Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctum, 1302).  One would think, from a purely temporal standpoint at least, that the Pope would not have acted so irresponsibly in a matter of such great stakes as to neglect to understand Luther’s position.

In the years that followed, it became clear that Luther’s early efforts to combat the sale of indulgences and the subsequent punitive actions taken against him and his followers as the result of their efforts identified and addressed symptoms of the disease which had infected the Roman Catholic Church for centuries already.  The disease was clearly greater than the mere sale of indulgences!  The real substance of the Reformation is set forth in two principles, often called the “pillars” of the Reformation, the first of which is the Formal Principle of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone).  The second, the Material Principle of “Sola Gratia, Sola Fidei” (justification by grace alone through faith alone) was articulated in the Augsburg Confession (Cf. A.C. Art. IV).   It is in its confutation of all of these doctrines, both immediately after their presentation and for the forty years subsequent thereto (Council of Trent, 1545-1560) that the Catholic Church showed not only that it clearly understood the position of the Reformers, but that it condemned those teachings and their adherents to hell.

The first of these pillars, the Formal Principle (II Timothy 1:13), is “Sola Scriptura” or Scripture alone as the only source and standard of Christian doctrine and practice.  This principle is based on such clear passages of God’s Word as Matthew 28:20, Ephesians 2:20, and I Peter 1:10-12.  In addition, John 8:31-32 declares that the divine truth and the freedom that it imparts is known if we continue in Jesus’ Word.  These passages very clearly establish that there is one standard of Christian doctrine by which all human teaching and opinion is to be regulated in order to be assured of God’s truth, which He has graciously preserved to us (II Timothy 3:15-16).  In fact, Scripture never provides any other standard by which we are to judge truth and error, and any departure from this principle of Scripture Alone forfeits the surety of knowing any of the truth (John 17:17; I Timothy 6:3-4a).

Luther himself, early on, identified this Formal Principle as essential to his theology, when, for example, he stated at the Diet of Worms regarding his writings:  “Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s Word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.”

The Formula of Concord (1580) expressed this teaching very clearly when it stated, “as the oracles of God” (I Peter 4:11):  “We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas and all teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testament alone” (F.C., Epitome, Triglot, p. 777).  The Reformers did not stop, however, at rightly identifying and defining the principium cognoscendi, or beginning of understanding.  As if to avoid any misunderstanding from the outset, they stated that “other writings, however, of ancient or modern teachers must not be regarded as equal to the Holy Scriptures, but all of them together be subjected to them and should not be received otherwise or further than as witnesses [to show] in what manner after the time of the apostles…the pure doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved” (Ibid).

In response to this clearly Scriptural and intelligently expressed principle, the Roman Church, in the Council of Trent (1545-1560), had already expressed a very contrary view.  In its fourth session regarding the Scriptures, the Council stated that the Holy Scriptures, in addition to the traditions pertaining to faith and morals which have been preserved in the Catholic Church, are to be considered as having equal authority.  The Council then went on to list all of the Scriptures and traditions that are to be held to.  In order to be clear and preemptively to squelch any further challenge to the contrary, the Council stated, “If any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.”  The Council of Trent, after having examined to their satisfaction the writings of the Augsburg Confession and the subsequent confessional writings of the reformers, pronounced God’s curse on any who hold such Scriptural doctrines.

The second pillar, the Material Principle, is “Sola Gratia, Sola Fidei” or justification by grace alone through faith alone.  This principle is based on such clear passages of God’s Word as Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 3:24 and 28.  It is by God’s grace, free grace alone, that sinful mankind is saved, unassisted by any works of merit on their part.  The Holy Ghost also makes unacceptable any mixture of the two concepts, grace and works, in Romans 11:6 where He states through the Apostle Paul, “If by grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace.  But if it be of works, then is it no more grace; otherwise work is no more work.”  Romans 4:3-5 and John 3:16 clearly establish that faith alone is the receiving means of God’s grace, namely, confidence of the heart whereby we appropriate or lay hold on the forgiveness of sins and our inheritance in heaven.  This material principle — sola gratia, sola fidei — is assuredly the most comforting message that a poor sinner could ever hope to hear!

As noted above, the reformers in the Augsburg Confession cleanly and clearly expressed the material principle, “as the oracles of God” (I Peter 4:11) in Article IV, saying “Also they [the Lutherans] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by His death has made satisfaction for our sins.  This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.”

Contrary to this Scriptural doctrine, the Council of Trent, in its sixth session, declares that all who hold to such views be anathematized, or cursed by God.  The language of their canons leaves no doubt as to the Romanists’ position or as to their understanding of the Reformers’ position.  Of particular importance are Canons 9, 11, 12, 14, and 30, which read as follows:

CANON IX – If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious [that is, the ungodly] is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

CANON XI – If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

CANON XII – If anyone saith that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

CANON XIV – If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.

CANON XXX – If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.

These differences are in no wise “misunderstandings,” but are diametrically opposed to one another.  By God’s grace alone, the Reformers set forth a thoroughly Scriptural doctrinal thesis to the whole world, boldly declaring the truth of God’s Word, particularly with regard to how a poor sinner gets to heaven.  In contrast to this, the Roman Church set forth its anti-scriptural thesis to the whole world, which robs poor sinners of any surety of salvation, and tricks them into trusting in themselves instead of in God’s grace for Christ’s sake.

In contrast to the anathema pronounced on all true believers by the Romanists, God himself curses all those who teach contrary to His Word, Galatians 1:8.  Let us all be on our guard, as the Holy Ghost through Peter exhorts all of us in 1 Peter 5:8, to beware of the devil and his temptations in all of their forms, including the deceptive “cunning craftiness” (Ephesians 4:14) of religious ecumenism, lest we, by toleration of vicious false doctrines or by willingness to characterize them as “mere misunderstandings,” become partakers of other men’s sins (I Timothy 5:22).  On the contrary, being constrained by the love of Christ (II Corinthians 5:14), let us take every opportunity to proclaim to others the reason of the hope that is in us with meekness and fear (I Peter 3:15), holding fast the profession of our faith without wavering (Hebrews 10:23) and standing fast on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20), until by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith we inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).

David J. Mensing, Seminarian
(Submitted through his Pastor)