When you think of the Protestant Reformation, what comes to mind? For me, it’s a cluster of memories. There was the time I was newly attending a very conservative Reformed church, and someone invited me to a Reformation Day party on Halloween night. People dressed up as sixteenth century Germans and gave out candy to the kids. (I was raised Baptist. This was...different.) There was the annual Reformation Day evening worship service hosted by several area churches, which culminated in a galvanizing rendition of Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” And there was the incredibly rich, years-long Sunday School series on church history where I first caught a vision for just how revolutionary the Protestant Reformation was.
When Martin Luther penned his Ninety-Five Theses denouncing the sale of indulgences and other abuses of the Catholic Church, he sparked a movement that changed the world. This year marks the 500th anniversary of those events, and Protestants around the world are celebrating. I even saw a billboard with Martin Luther’s face on it the other day, inviting passersby to a local church. Yet not everyone feels warm and fuzzy inside at this anniversary; it’s appropriate to mourn the division and violence of the Reformation—it certainly wasn’t Luther’s intention to divide the church.
I’m remembering the Reformation by following along with a sermon series by Dr. Todd Wilson of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL. I love Pastor Todd’s full-throated passion for the great truths of the Bible recovered by the Reformation, but I also appreciate crucial nuances that lead us to humility. In his September 17 message, “Captive to the Word of God,” in which he defends Sola Scriptura, the idea that Scripture is our sole infallible authority, he points out that Protestantism has a mixed legacy:
It can breed things and has bred things like hyper-individualism and anti-authority mindset and a misguided skepticism towards tradition and history. It’s bred things like anti-intellectualism and a radicalized approach to community that undermines community. It can breed a thin ecclesiology that has no place for a robust experience of the church and so on and so forth ... We shouldn’t be so naive to the problems of Protestantism, even though it is our team (8:09-8:53).
It is this kind of honesty about the failings of the Protestant tradition that help me embrace the laudable parts of the Reformation’s legacy.
What does the Reformation have to do with science and faith? Nothing and everything. At the start of this anniversary year, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis (AiG) called on followers to ignite a new reformation. He wrote:
Martin Luther opposed man’s fallible traditions taking the place of God’s Word. He called the church back to the authority of Scripture. In our day when we see rampant compromise in the church, particularly in regard to the book of Genesis, we need to do the same.
Many Christians are no longer allowing God’s Word to be the authority, and are exalting man’s fallible word over Scripture. We see this clearly when man’s beliefs of millions of years and evolution are forced into the book of Genesis—the very foundation of Scripture and doctrine. [emphasis in original]
Though I emphatically disagree that our root problem is acceptance of millions of years and evolution, Ham is right about one thing—we do need to return to the authority of Scripture. The Reformation wasn’t a one-off event; the church is always in need of being reformed according to the Word of God.
In the sermon I mentioned earlier, Pastor Todd also declared a crisis of authority today. It is no longer the case—as it was in the sixteenth century—that Christianity is controlled by a few people at the top of the hierarchy. But now authority is too easily found within. Pastor Todd quotes sociologist Christian Smith:
What or who gets to determine what is true or good or right in or about religion for most emerging adults is each person for himself or herself. Religion doesn’t have any authority per se, any more than shopping malls have authority over their customers. … What decides for emerging adults, then, about what to believe or practice in religion—what “opinions” they want to hold—is the subjective personal sense of “what seems right” to them, what fits their experience, what makes sense to them given their viewpoint (Souls in Transition, p156).
Yikes. That sounds like Judges 21:25, and we know how well that turned out—the Israelites, lacking a clear authority, followed their own inclinations and fell into gross idolatry and corruption. Just as God’s people needed a deliverer in the time of the judges, so do we.
If religious tradition or subjective personal experience can’t be trusted, where then is our hope? In Scripture alone. Pastor Todd goes on to flesh out four characteristics of the Bible: God’s word is inspired, inerrant, sufficient, and clear.
We at BioLogos believe, first and foremost, that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God. (We prefer “authoritative” over “inerrant,” as the latter word has become a shibboleth, but many in the BioLogos community also affirm inerrancy.)
Most in our community would also affirm that the Bible is sufficient to accomplish the purpose God has for it. What is that purpose? According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Scripture is “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (vs. 15), but not meant to answer every question you can think of. C.S. Lewis made this point in a 1959 letter:
That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God’s Word to the reader…I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don’t. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.
The final characteristic of Scripture is that it is clear. The idea behind the big phrase “the perspicuity of Scripture” is not that the meaning of any passage is equally plain, but that the overall message of Scripture—the Gospel—is clear. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul summarized it this way:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve (15:3-5).
There are lots of other things in Scripture, though, that are not as clear. What seems self-evident to one person (e.g. everything was made in six 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago; the bread and wine literally become Jesus’ body and blood during communion) seem not at all clear to another. The reality is that none of us reads the Bible plainly, apart from an interpretive lens that includes church tradition, personal experience, and a healthy dose of reason. (Though I am happily Reformed, I find the Wesleyan Quadrilateral a helpful model for how we understand the Christian faith.) So the things in Scripture that are crystal clear are many fewer than we might like to admit, but they are the essentials that bind us together in Christ. They are the core of our faith.
Keeping in mind the inspiration, authority, sufficiency, and clarity of Scripture unlocks the power of Sola Scriptura. The Bible isn’t intended to be a magic answer book, but it is our authority for faith and practice, to which tradition, personal experience, and reason ultimately submit. Yet we must remain open to the possibility that we’ve erred in our interpretations of Scripture. We have freedom to consider sources of knowledge about the world that aren’t found in Scripture, such as science. At BioLogos we don’t, as Ken Ham accuses, force “millions of years” and evolution into Genesis, because those scientific ways of describing the world have nothing to do with the purpose of Genesis.
The amount of ink spilt over the correct interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis—even centuries before the rise of modern science—should alleviate our anxiety, not exacerbate it. Is the age of the earth clearly taught in Scripture? No. Is evolutionary theory clearly denounced in Scripture? No. These are important questions, to be sure, but they are not the stuff of a new reformation.
On this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I stand with Ken Ham and Christians across the globe in calling the church to unabashedly proclaim and submit to the authority of Scripture. Yet I do so from my knees, knowing my own severe need to be perpetually reformed by the Holy Spirit.