Protestant Reformation

Was the Reformation A Mistake?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
This thinking now so dominates the church that many observers say we have entered the post-Protestant era.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part one of a series.

Today many people in Evangelical and Reformed churches think the Reformation was a mistake. They claim that the Protestant Reformers risked their lives over issues that didn't really matter. This is not a new problem. Support for such sentiments has been growing for the last 150 years. But this thinking now so dominates the church that many observers say we have entered the post-Protestant era.

In a series of articles beginning today, we are going to address this question, and a number of related ones. Was the Reformation a mistake? Who says this? What was the Reformation really? What happens when Reformational thinking is lost? What is at stake? What are the key elements of Reformational thinking? Can there be a restoration of Reformational thinking today? How can it come about?

So we begin today with these questions: What are the main objections to looking back at the Reformation as a model for the church today? What are wrong ways, and the right way, to look at it?

To answer these questions, we quote an address given by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1960, at a meeting commemorating the Reformation in Scotland.1 What he said then is just as relevant today.

Two Objections: The Past Has Nothing to Teach Us; The Reformation Was a Tragedy

Dr. Lloyd-Jones began by asking:

Why...should we consider the all at a time like this, with the world as it is and with the multiplicity of problems that are pressing in upon us on all sides? Why turn back and consider what happened four hundred [now nearly five hundred] years ago?

...[T]here are two main objections to doing this. The first is a general objection to looking back, a feeling that the past has nothing to teach us. For, after all, we are the people of the twentieth century, the people who have split the atom, who are encompassing all knowledge and have advanced to such giddy heights as our forefathers could not even have imagined. Why then should we, of all people, look back, and especially look back four hundred years? The whole climate of opinion today, and indeed during the last hundred years, has been governed by the evolutionary theory and hypothesis, which holds that man advances from age to age and that the present is always better than the past; this whole climate of thought is inimical to the idea of looking back and learning from previous history. That is one objection.

The other objection is that we should not hold a meeting like this because the Reformation was a tragedy. Now this is a view which is gaining currency very rapidly at present. We are told that what we should be considering today is unity, and that if we spend our time considering the disruption and division in the church which took place four hundred years ago, we are doing something sinful. There is, alas, an increasing body of opinion in Protestant circles which is saying, openly and unashamedly, that the Protestant Reformation was a tragedy and that it is our business to forget it as soon as we can and to do everything possible to heal the breach, so that we shall be one again with the Church of Rome, and there shall be one great world church.

Right and Wrong Ways to Approach the Reformation

Dr. Lloyd Jones went on to speak of "wrong and false ways" of viewing the Reformation:

Those are the two commonest objections, as l see the situation, which are brought against what we are engaged in doing this evening. Why then are we doing it? How do we justify a gathering such as this, and the other gatherings that are to follow? Well, let me say quite frankly that there are wrong and false ways of doing what we are doing here tonight. There are people who are interested in the past merely in an antiquarian sense; history happens to be their great interest in life. They like delving into the past and reading about the past, not that they are interested in it in any kind of active philosophic or religious sense; they just like burrowing in ancient history. There are people who do this in other realms; some like collecting old furniture, and the glory of anything to them is that it is old. They are not interested in a chair from the standpoint of something to sit upon; what they are interested in is the age of the chair. Now that is antiquarianism, and it is possible for us, of course, to be governed by a purely antiquarian or historical motive. But there is no value in that; the times in which we are living are too urgent and too desperate for us to indulge a mere antiquarian spirit.

Now the last time I stood at this desk, I said that I could not speak without having a [Scripture] text. Well, l am still the same. And it seemed to me that there were two texts which would not be inappropriate for this meeting, and for our consideration this evening. There is a right way and a wrong way of viewing a great event like the Reformation and the great men who took part in it. The first, the right way, we are told of in the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 13, verses 7 and 8: 'Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of [or, the outcome of, their lives and of] their conversation [or conduct]. Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.' That is the right way to do it; we look at these men in order that we may learn from them, and imitate and emulate their example.

But there is a wrong way of doing this, and we find it in Matthew, chapter 23, verses 29-33. These are terrible and terrifying words: 'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?'

Now those are the words of the Lord Jesus Christ and He was addressing His own generation, His own contemporaries. He said, in effect, You are paying great tribute to the memory of the prophets; you are looking after and garnishing their sepulchres and you are saying what great men they were - How noble, how wonderful, we must keep their memory alive - and you say what a terrible thing it was that your forefathers should have put these men to death. If you had been alive then, you maintain, you would not have joined them in those wicked deeds; you would have listened to the prophets, you would have followed them. You hypocrites, says our Lord, you would have done nothing of the sort.

How, then, does He prove it? Well, He does it in this way. He tests their sincerity by discovering what their attitude is at the present to the successors to the prophets. What is their reaction to the people who are still preaching the same message as the prophets? He says, You say that you are admirers of the prophets and yet you are persecuting and trying to compass the death of a man like myself who is the modern representative of the same message, and the same school of prophecy. Ah, says our Lord, it is one thing to look back and to praise famous men, but that can be sheer hypocrisy. The test of our sincerity this evening is this: What do we feel about, and how are we treating, the men who, today, are preaching the same message as was preached by John Knox and his fellow reformers?

And as we continue this series, by God's grace we shall endeavor to look at the Reformation in the right way stated by Dr. Lloyd-Jones. The Protestant Reformers were fallible men, but they were men of God, and we can and must learn much from them. We ignore or deride them at our peril. In our next article, we shall turn our attention to men of the present day, and from the past 150 years of church history, who do just that - they say the Reformation was all a mistake.

Next: Who apologized for the Reformation in the 19th century?


1. "Remembering the Reformation" in D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions, 1942-1977 (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), pages 90-93.


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