As the world celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, CUI professors took a moment to answer the rather large question: Why Does the Reformation Still Matter? Their responses touched on everything from the American Constitution, to biblical literacy to the view of marriage as a high calling.
Mike Middendorf, professor of theology at CUI and author of a two-volume commentary on the book of Romans, says the issues of the Reformation remain alive and well, though in different forms today.
“There’s not a pope in Rome trying to force indulgences on people, but our culture is certainly challenging the truth and power of the Gospel,” Middendorf says. “In that sense the Reformation is an ongoing debate that probably needs as much emphasis in our day as in Luther’s. There are different challenges, but the same danger of obscuring the Christian Gospel.”
Russell Dawn, associate professor of history and political thought, and director of the pre-law program at CUI, specializes in church history and the American Revolution. He says political structures worldwide were significantly influenced by the Reformation.
Rediscovery is probably the better word. There was nothing new in the Reformation. It was bringing back what had been neglected and overcome by human works, superstition and misunderstanding.
“The modern belief in the sovereignty of the people came from a combination of Reformation ideas and Enlightenment ideas that could be expressed freely because of the freedom won in the Reformation,” Dawn says. “The reformers didn’t invent the idea of popular sovereignty, but it got no traction until the Reformation... Europe was utterly transformed by it. India’s another great example. The caste system is severely debilitated. There are bills of rights even in the constitutions of oppressive regimes. The regime doesn’t follow the bill of rights, but at least it’s in there. So popular sovereignty is a notion that still has a long ways to go in the world, but has come very far in a relatively short period of time. Five hundred years is not really a long time for such a massive sea change all around the world.”
The Reformation also impacts the experience of modern Christians, down to their daily devotional lives. After all, until the Reformation, virtually nobody owned a printed copy of the Bible, let alone one in the language of the day. (The happy “coincidence” of the creation of the printing press some decades before accelerated the trend toward wider biblical knowledge.)
“We take for granted having the Bible in the language of the people, and that is a Reformation idea,” says Dawn. “It was a big idea five hundred years ago.”
The problem (if there is one) with having so many Bibles around today is that many people seem to take the Scriptures for granted.
“Back then it was such a rare thing for someone to find a Bible in their own language, that they would rejoice over it,” Dawn says. “Nowadays we all have it, but many people don’t rejoice in it. We need both.”
The availability of the Bible in a common language had other side effects: literacy rose, and Germans, now with a Bible they could all understand, felt (and became) more unified as a nation. So did other countries as Bibles became available in their common languages.
“Luther is a cultural hero in Germany because he united the culture by uniting the language,” says Middendorf.
Not only that, but Christians worldwide began to unite around biblical teachings which had been neglected, says Steve Mueller ’86, dean of Christ College.
“The Reformation was triggered by the sale of indulgences—you could buy forgiveness of sins, making it a human work,” Mueller says. “Luther protested that abuse, which kicked this off and led him to the proclamation of grace alone/faith alone—‘Rediscovery’ is probably the better word. There was nothing new in the Reformation. It was bringing back what had been neglected and overcome by human works, superstition and misunderstanding.”
It was the beginning of the recovery of biblical Christianity, he says.
“For anybody in the western church, this is why it matters,” says Mueller. “A lot of Christians don’t recognize where their church comes from. Everybody except the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches flows from the Reformation, and even they were affected by it.”
Steve Parks, assistant professor of theology, says the Reformation changed the way we see our neighbors.
The church always needs to examine its teachings and say, ‘Does this align with the word of God? Are we being faithful?’ If we have drifted from that, let’s repent and come back to it.
“If I need to do good works to get into heaven, then someone has to be the target of my works,” says Parks. “So my neighbor becomes someone I use, or I give to the poor not because I necessarily want to. Our neighbors become a means to the end of getting to heaven. But through the lens of the Reformation, the end is to love and serve our neighbor, not to score brownie points with God. He has freely given us everything in Christ, and I’m now free to serve my neighbor because I love them.”
Even marriage was understood in a new way—and elevated.
“The understanding of marriage as a high calling—that’s a Reformation idea,” says Dawn. Before the Reformation, marriage was thought to be “an accommodation for those too weak for the higher calling of monk, nun or priest. The Reformation brought this idea that marriage is just as high of a calling and something instituted by God.”
The value went beyond marriage to embody what became known as the doctrine of vocation: God calls us to various ways of serving our neighbor.
“All legitimate vocations are holy in God’s eyes,” Dawn says. “All involve serving your neighbor, so marriage is a way of serving a neighbor just as much as being celibate— maybe even more so because you’re serving another human being who needs your help and your love.”
That principle even affected the founding of our country.
“Part of how America was built was by the colonists who came over with their families. They weren’t just men coming to collect gold and ship it back to Spain. They were here as families to create a life,” Dawn says.
The ennobling of all vocations brought a new sense of dignity to everyone in society. In fact, Mueller believes that the most important players in the Reformation were the common people themselves.
“Other people tried to reform the church earlier. Some were clergy, some professors, some government leaders,” he says. “But the biggest impact was from ordinary Christians, people hearing the word of God and believing. A movement happens when people respond and engage. Luther kicked off the big movement. I don’t think he was trying. He was trying to start an academic debate and it snowballed because it was highlighting something that was broken, and revealing God’s answer to it.”
The motto “Always reforming” has been used often to affirm and continue the good work begun in 1517. Mueller says it’s “because work begun in 1517. Mueller says it’s “because we’re human. We drift from the truth, sometimes by mistakes, sometimes by deliberate turning away. The church always needs to examine its teachings and say, ‘Does this align with the word of God? Are we being faithful?’ If we have drifted from that, let’s repent and come back to it.”
Individuals can apply these same Reformational ideas to our own spiritual journeys.
“Growing spiritually, examining our own lives and faith, growing deeper in the word of God, encountering God’s transforming power—that’s part of always reforming,” says Mueller. “It’s a way of approaching life. None of us have arrived. Before God we’re utterly reliant on his grace and mercy, and it’s new every morning. We’re always learning, always growing. It’s true theologically and it’s true in the daily things we carry out.”