Works of Power and Grace: The Reformation

As I was planning the posting schedule for URC Psalmody in 2013, I decided that creating a number of regularly-posted series would keep me more accountable than blogging spontaneously.  That’s why you may have noticed the appearance of several new series, yet a relatively small number of stand-alone posts.

Dr. Henry Beets

Dr. Henry Beets

With that introduction, I’d like to return to our recently-begun Thursday series on URC Psalmody, in which we consider Henry Beets’ work The Christian Reformed Church and discuss its applicability to the United Reformed Churches in North America.  Last week we left off midway through Chapter 1; Beets had summarized the history of the Christian church from the time of the New Testament to the Middle Ages.  He defined several key characteristics of the early church and contrasted them with the unbiblical excesses that gradually arose in the Roman Catholic tradition.  We left off somewhere in the midst of the Middle Ages.

By the time of the sixteenth century, it was clear that something needed to change if the Church were to survive.  But our Lord Jesus Christ never commissioned his followers to build the Church themselves; he said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  In Section 4, Beets describes the “Reforming Councils” of the Roman church that met during the end of the Middle Ages, whose purpose was to try to reform the Church, but which mostly ended up condemning the true reformers like Wycliffe and Hus.  He proceeds with these poetic words:

But as it is often is darkest during the hour preceding the dawn, so it was to be with the Church.  The set time of the Lord to revive and favor His Zion was about to come and usher in the Reformation—from which we derive the name ‘Reformed.’

What follows is a paraphrase and simplification of the rest of Beets’ chapter.

Section 5.

This Reformation, however, was not a sudden, unheralded and cataclysmic event.  There had been a preparation for this, as there had been long ago to bring about what the Bible calls the ‘fulness of time.’  The Lord, in His gracious providence, arranged all kinds of circumstances, arrayed various forces, and called several persons, to restore something of the pristine glory of the early Christian Church, to make us thankful for the Reformation, and proud of the name ‘Reformed.’

The preparatory factors and individuals included Wycliffe in England and Hus in Bohemia, the faithful Waldenses in Italy, and ‘the Brethren of the Common Life’ of the Netherlands (Gerard Groote, Radewijnsz, Zerbolt, Gansfort, and Thomas à Kempis).  There were other secondary factors and forces at work too, such as the Crusades, the Black Death, and the invention of the printing press.  But most importantly, there was growing in many a hunger and thirst after righteousness which refused to be satisfied with the mixture of grace and works offered by Rome. There was in some a longing for certainty of forgiveness of sin and of an inheritance of the saints in light, over against the soul-harrowing uncertainty on these subjects engendered by Rome’s teachings.

Section 6.

The usual date given for the beginning of the Reformation is October 31, 1517, when the German monk Martin Luther protested publicly against the sale of indulgences and other unbiblical practices of the papacy.  Luther became the heroic and much beloved father of the Lutheran Reformation, and the leader of countless hosts of Christians who gratefully call themselves after his name.  Particularly he emphasized the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the supreme authority of Scripture, and the universal priesthood of all believers.  He wrote many stirring hymns, including the famous and beloved ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’

Section 7.

Even before the work of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli was bringing about the Reformation in the neighboring country of Switzerland.  While he was less impulsive and less in the limelight than Luther, he was a man of many talents and a great man of God.  In contrast to the Lutheran movement, Zwingli laid the foundations of what would later be known as the <i>Reformed</i> Reformation.  He disagreed with Luther regarding the nature of the Lord’s Supper, but like Luther he upheld the supreme authority of Scripture for faith and life, the forgiveness of sins through Christ without intermediation of the Virgin or any saints, and the futility and fraudulence of indulgences.  He too wrote hymns, including ‘Guide, O Lord, Thy Chariot Now’ [which, though I’ve never heard of it, Beets describes as “famous”].

Section 8.

Although Zwingli laid the foundations of the Reformed Reformation, it was the Frenchman John Calvin who built on his foundations and erected an impressive and lasting structure.  Luther has been described as the hero of the Reformation, and Zwingli as one of its scholars, but Calvin is justly noted as its genius.  [Beets quotes a Dr. J. I. Good who gives four reasons for this claim:] First, he was the great theologian of the Reformation, publishing his Institutes of the Christian Religion at age 26.  Second, he was a most excellent commentator.  Third, he was the greatest teacher of ethics in the Reformation.  Fourth, he carefully laid the foundation of the Presbyterian church government of the Reformed.

Besides these qualities, Calvin was an eloquent preacher, faithful pastor, inspiring teacher, talented educator, keen philosopher, able legislator, and far-sighted statesman.  He was a man of ecumenical vision, longing for a united front of Protestantism—a never-fulfilled ideal that was most closely reached during the historic Synod of Dordrecht, which we’ll discuss in Chapter 2.

Section 9.

Calvin agreed with the basic doctrines of his fellow reformers, but he went further by taking as his great leading principle that of God’s sovereignty and his ultimate glorification.  Many of these Calvinistic views have found their way into the Church of England, Baptists and Congregationalists, and particularly the standards of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches around the world.  Today [in 1946], the total number of adherents of the Reformed faith is estimated at fifty million people.

Section 10.

The Reformers have often been bitterly assailed and unmercifully criticized.  No doubt both had their faults, shortcomings, and limitations.  But such men should not be judged by the shadows they may have cast, but by the light they have helped to shed.  Calvin, in particular, was more than a dry intellectual; he also possessed a loving heart and a true missionary spirit.  In fact, a hymn in our Psalter Hymnal (number 432, “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art”) is attributed to him.

Calvin’s life and life work is well explained by his motto <i>Coram Deo</i>, the goal of living as in God’s presence, before His face.  May it become ours as well.

And so, in conclusion, it is because of the great principles, worthy achievements, and splendid objectives of this Reformation to restore and re-form the Church of Christ, that we, whose family name is Christian, have in our denominational title added to this the name Reformed.

Thoughts for Discussion

  • For Discussion(Section 4) While Beets’ summary of church history is excellent, I found myself a little uncomfortable with some of his language that seemed to draw unjustifiable parallels between the restoration of Old Testament Israel and the Protestant Reformation.  We ought to remember that the most important restoration occurred neither in the Old Testament nor in the Middle Ages, but on a hill with a cross where Jesus died.  Readers, what is the best and most balanced view of the Reformation we can have?
  • (Section 5) Beets says, “There was in some a longing for certainty of forgiveness of sin and of an inheritance of the saints in light, over against the soul-harrowing uncertainty on these subjects engendered by Rome’s teachings.”  Here in the 21st century, one could all-too-easily apply this sentence to mainstream evangelical churches in addition to Roman Catholicism.  The same works-based, man-centered doctrine of salvation is being taught in both places, though in different forms and different ways.
  • (Section 9) Have you ever been accused by non-Reformed Christians of worshiping Calvin?  Believe it or not, this is a charge I’ve heard.  We are not Calvinists in that we blindly follow this Reformer as our spiritual leader; we are Calvinists in that we agree with his summaries of biblical teaching.  First we are Christians; then we are Reformed, and specifically we support Calvin’s teachings.
  • (Section 10) Beets says in the original, “Such men should not be judged by the shadows they may have cast, but by the light they have shed.”  Certainly this is true, but let us never forget the Source of that light.  Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were not three men who came along at a particular point in history and suddenly proposed a new way of thinking.  Their aim was merely to return the church to the truths of the Bible.  As Beets emphasizes, they were only instruments, used mightily by God for his glory.

In Chapter 2, Beets focuses his attention on the progress of the Reformation in the Netherlands and explains the Secession of 1834.  We hope to see you then!

–MRK

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