The Reformation began when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses—disputing the power and efficacy of indulgences—on the Wittenberg Castle Church door on October 31, 1517. Indulgences were an additional provision for guilt relief first devised by the Catholic Church in the eleventh century and had elaborated into a sophisticated system.1 Luther’s attack on indulgences unleashed pent-up forces that changed the course of Western history.
At the heart of Luther’s challenge to indulgences was the question of authority. In the first two theses, Luther claimed that when Jesus used the word “solrepent”, this word couldn’t be understood to mean sacramental penance, which was administered by the priests.2 Luther used Scripture to evaluate Church teachings and practices.
This was a powerful challenge to a system of church authority in which Scripture was seen as a necessary but not a sufficient source of authority. Sola scriptura, or Scripture alone, became one of the important defining features of the Protestant Reformation.
Therefore, to assess the status of Luther’s protest in this 500th anniversary year, it is essential only to know where churches stand on the issue of scriptural authority. The Catholic Church claims to honour Scripture and tradition equally.3 Within contemporary Protestantism sola scriptura remains the norm but what this means in practice seems to have changed in some instances.
In From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, written in 2013, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church state in Section 238: “The awareness is dawning on Lutherans and Catholics that the struggle of the sixteenth century is over. The reasons for mutually condemning each other’s faith have fallen by the wayside.” This joint statement is difficult to explain unless there has been a significant shift in Lutheran commitment to the authority of Scripture. As it stands, the Lutheran World Federation position calls into question everything that flowed from Luther’s protest, including Lutheranism itself. It’s a huge symbolic victory for the Roman Catholic Church.
Evangelicals and Catholics Together released a statement in 2002 on Scripture, entitled Your Word is Truth.4 The statement identifies common ground but no substantive change on the authority of tradition is evident on the Catholic side. Catholics believe that “Christ has endowed the church with a permanent apostolic structure and an infallible teaching office that will remain until the kingdom is fully consummated.” Evangelicals suggest that sola scriptura is not to be understood as nuda scriptura (the isolation of Scripture study from the believing community of faith). Nuda scriptura is considered to leave truth vulnerable to “unfettered subjectivism”. Both parties “affirm that Scripture is to be read in company with the community of faith past and present”.
Where the distinction between sola scriptura and nuda scriptura might lead is evident in the work of prominent evangelical James Sire. In his book, Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible, Sire writes: “For the purposes of this book a cult is simply any religious movement that is organisationally distinct and has doctrines and/or practices that contradict those of the Scriptures as interpreted by traditional Christianity as represented by the major Catholic and Protestant denominations, and as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed.”5
The first difficulty for Sire’s definition of a cult must surely be establishing a body of coherent interpretations of Scripture held by Catholics and mainline Protestants.
The second difficulty is its exclusion of the progressive understanding of Scripture, something which is itself scriptural.6 If Scripture is to be filtered through previous interpretations and can never contradict them, progressive understanding is impossible.
Therefore, what is at stake in the distinction between sola scriptura and nuda scriptura in Your Word is Truth is not corporate study of Scripture, which is desirable, but progressive understanding of Scripture. Sola scriptura requires all interpretations to be brought to the bar of Scripture and held or given up as the evidence dictates. Clearly, all evangelicals do not hold this principle today. This is certainly true of American evangelicalism, which has undergone a crisis of authority in recent decades.7
American Christianity realigned in the 1960s and 1970s. Protestants and Catholics found common cause in response to youth rebellion and the sexual revolution. Charismatic renewal was already eroding old boundaries between Catholics and Protestants. Issues of relating the gospel to culture opened mainline Protestants to Catholic tradition, liturgical renewal and alternative sources of spirituality.8 [pullquote]
The consequences of these changes for Protestantism are consistent with the fracturing of biblical authority. Alec Ryrie sees a Protestant future with more independent, self-governing congregations.9 He suggests that denominations will hold together by becoming loose confederations. The Bible will remain the Word of God but not the last word.10 Textual conservatism will continue to decline; Protestant beliefs will soften as their fit with a changing culture becomes less and less comfortable.11 Protestants will continue to use the Bible devotionally and polemically, as lovers and as fighters.
It is as fighters that Protestants become most dangerous, especially when they believe in the church ruling the state, such as occurred in seventeenth century Massachusetts and other places in colonial North America. As Protestants are increasingly pushed to the cultural periphery and excluded from the public square by the gender revolution, the likelihood of a significant reaction is increased. Ryrie thinks it probable that the moribund political culture in the West will find a new moral compass at some point, although he thinks that there are worse options available.12 Where Protestants do campaign for coercive legislation, Ryrie suggests that it will be done on secular grounds.13
If this is all that awaits a hollowed out Protestantism, it is a bleak prospect. Yet, the best days of the Reformation lie ahead. Ecumenism seeks to create “the unity of the one church in reconciled diversity”.14 God’s method is to create a union of individuals who embrace truth and righteousness. To accomplish this union, God calls people out of false religion. His cry is “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4, NKJV). God’s model of unity does not encompass compromise.
The Reformation is not finished. It remains a work in progress. There are many in the Protestant churches who love Scripture and will embrace the last day messages sent to them by a loving and merciful God. Among those who respond to God’s call will be some who formerly rejected Protestantism. The foundational principles of Protestantism will yet be vindicated in a stunning manner.
Luther’s protest still resonates 500 years later. The Reformation made its way against fierce opposition. Sometimes progress was painfully slow. Yet, through it all, God progressively revealed more truth to those willing to embrace it. It took nearly 300 years of the Reformation to help deliver religious liberty in the fledgling United States. The American experiment in religious and civil liberty reveals how important freedom is to human flourishing.
God has shone extraordinary light upon His last day church in order for the Reformation to be successfully concluded. This anniversary year is a wonderful opportunity to remember why God brought our Church into existence.
Dr Barry Harker writes from the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. His forthcoming book, It’s Sunday in America, will be released in mid-November in digital and print editions.