Why listen to the Reformers?

Martin Luther.

October 31 marked 499 years to the day since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the cathedral door. Why should we still study or care about what the Protestant reformers wrote or thought? Shouldn’t we just study the Bible directly? The reformers themselves insisted on this and expressed this belief in the great principle of Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). Shouldn’t we simply follow their lead? Yes. But the reformers’ lead might take us in unexpected directions.

Reading the Bible in isolation was not the reformers’ method, and for good reason. If we simply study the Bible alone, how can we be confident we understand its message? After all, we read the Bible through our own lenses created by our time, place, social and cultural background, and station in life. There are so many conflicting opinions in the Christian world about the teachings of the Bible. How do we know that our interpretations are the true and accurate ones?

More often, we learn biblical truth in community with other believers, who share their insights with us. Such sharing shows us new possibilities . . .

One good answer is that the Holy Spirit will instruct us. We are indeed promised His guidance in our study of Scripture. Jesus Himself said, “When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). But interestingly, the Holy Spirit often works through other people. It seems that most people in the church have been led to a true understanding of the Bible through other church members, or through leaders sharing their views of the Bible in meetings or Bible studies. Indeed, God promises that He is present in a special way in groups of believers, so that “. . . where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Biblical stories reveal that this promise is not just true for prayer and worship but also for Bible study.

Think of Christ with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, where “He expounded to them in all the Scriptures” regarding His life, death and resurrection (Luke 24:27). Then there was Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, explaining the prophecies of Isaiah, after the eunuch admitted that he could not understand the prophecies “unless someone guides me” (Acts 8:31). Also, Priscilla and Aquilla “took [Apollos] aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Think of all the disciples, apostles and church leaders gathering at the Jerusalem council to answer questions of biblical truth, engaging in “much discussion” about the Bible and their own experiences (Acts 15:7, NIV). Yes, we can learn truth with the Bible and the Holy Spirit alone. But far more often we learn biblical truth in community with other believers who share their insights with us. Such sharing shows us new possibilities, aids us to see past our own biases and limitations, and helps expand our horizons of understanding. We do not base our belief on what other believers tell us; but their ideas and testimony can help us see options and possibilities within the Bible that we have overlooked or misunderstood. Other people can provide perspective and insight but the Bible is the final authority. That is the method of Bible study used by the great reformers and by the early Adventist pioneers. They didn’t study the Bible in isolation but in community and with vigorous, deep discussion.

Now, if we recognise the value of exchanging views and ideas about Bible truth with living believers, why should we not include as part of the conversation the larger church through time? Why not include those great students of the Bible from the past who have left a written record of their beliefs? Not to do so is a form of what C S Lewis called “chronological snobbery”, which is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” or otherwise irrelevant.¹

Ignoring these great Bible students from history prioritises the Christians of the present over those of the past. As our culture and society of today is less influenced by biblical thought and teaching than in previous centuries, we could be keeping out of our study exactly those people who can reveal most about our own prejudices and biases.
This is in part, I believe, what Paul meant when he exhorted: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1,2).

Who are these witnesses? They are the ones who have gone on before. They are dead, yet their examples inspire us. And they are witnesses of faith, of endurance and of what it means to fix our eyes on Christ. They are witnesses to what all of this means, and they are witnesses to what faith in Christ means, and to what the Bible means and requires.
So we look at these believers in history, including the Protestant reformers, not as authorities or sources of traditions that bind us. Rather, we can see them as witnesses to biblical truth with whom we can compare our own biblical understandings, to see if we are missing something or if we are bound by some prejudice or bias of our own time and place.

Our pioneers understood this philosophy. Both Ellen White in The Great Controversy and Uriah Smith in his Daniel and the Revelation drew on the teachings and views of reformers of the past to verify and support their own claims for the understanding of the Bible and prophecy. Today, when we read the Bible, we should do so humbly, pleading for the Holy Spirit’s direction, comparing our conclusions with those who have gone before us and discussing them with our fellow Christians. Together, under God’s leading, we can best understand His Word.

1. C S Lewis, Surprised by Joy (C S Lewis PTE Limited: 1955), 207-208.

Professor Nicholas Miller lectures in church history at Andrews University, Michigan, United States. This year Professor Miller published The Reformation and the Remnant, a book exploring the Reformation’s relevance to Adventists as we prepare to commemorate 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Castle church door in 1517. The Reformation and the Remnant, from Pacific Press, is available at Adventist Book Centres.