What is the Reformation?
This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – that glorious moment in history when the gospel was rediscovered. Thanks to God’s sovereign plan, countless men and women during the 1500s and 1600s were reawakened to the beauty and power of the gospel as revealed in God’s Word. The Reformation has shaped more of how you worship today than you know. To join us in helping explain the impact and story of the Reformation is Dr. Michael Haykin from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he serves as professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality. This is part 3 of a 4 part series on a general “church history” timeline from the Patristic Era to the Modern Period. Listen to The Patristic Era and The Medieval Period if you’re interested. Next week, we finish our series. It’s been such a privilege in learning church history from one of the world’s best!
Who’s Our Guest?
Dr. Michael Haykin (ThD University of Toronto) is professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Haykin also serves as the director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He’s authored and/or edited over twenty-five books, including 8 Women of Faith and Rediscovering the Church Fathers.
Check out The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Dr. Michael Haykin teaches).
Also, check out The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies (where Dr. Haykin serves as director).
And here’s the book I was referring to at the end of the show called 8 Women of Faith.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
Well it’s our third of four sessions going through Church history. It’s not as if Church history can be explained in simply four 20-25 minute sessions, but here with me to do his best (and he’s been doing a great job at it) is Dr. Michael Haykin. He’s a professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Thanks for being here with us!
Great to be with you again.
As I said, this is our third episode in our series. And since it’s history – it’s obvious, things morph, they build, they change on top of one another, so it’s important that we know what happens in the past. So I say that to encourage you if this is the first of the four you’re listening to, then pause this, go back to the first in the series, and start from there, and then come to where we are now.
Anyways, we’re going to learn from Michael today about the Reformation – about the reforming and the reviving of the church.
So tell us about this time.
The Basics of the Reformation
Yeah, this is a time in which after a long period, and really that period stretches from around 800-1400 AD in which the church really is struggling – there is the rise of biblical illiteracy, massive superstition, corruption of power in the life of the church. There is this growing rediscovery of the gospel, and the reason I use the word “growing” is that, when the reformers come in the Middle Ages in the 1500s, it’s not as if they didn’t have predecessors. And at the end of our last time we got together we looked at some of the names of these predecessors – men like Pierre Vaudès, but particularly people like John Wycliffe and Jan Huss in the 1300 and 1400s. And so there had been this growing dissatisfaction with the state of things in the life of the church at the time, in the late Medieval Period.
And then at the Reformation all of this came together in this huge blaze of light, as it were, and erupts into Europe. Evangelical historians have debated in the last 25-30 years about the importance of the Reformation.
It brings a schism in the church – one that is still with us between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
And there were some evangelicals from right motives (a desire for unity) that have described that this is a sad thing. From my point of view, I think there is a sadness involved because there is a division in the church, but
there is much to rejoice about because the gospel, to which in some extent had been hid, is rediscovered.
There’s a fabulous painting called the Candlestick (it’s more of a drawing or a sketch than a painting) that’s in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It depicts a variety of the reformers in a room around a table on which there is a single item, which is a lit candle in a candlestick. And the message is plain, that
after a long period of darkness, spiritual darkness, the light of the gospel shone again in Europe.
In Geneva for example, there is wall called The Reformation Wall. It depicts a variety of reformers in larger than life statues – the central figures being John Calvin the great reformer of Geneva, Theodore Beza, William Farel, and John Knox. And on one side of these four central figures are the words, Post Tenebras, and then on the other side, Lux, meaning
“After darkness, light.”
And these two scenes I think well capture the impact of the Reformation. The Reformation rediscovers through the teaching of men like Martin Luther who was converted around 1514 and then John Calvin who was converted around 1529-1531, “How is a person saved? We’re saved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Not faith in the saints who were a dominant part in the Medieval world. Not faith in Mary. But faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His death for sinners.
The Printing Press & The Reformation
It’s also a period that rediscovers biblical literacy. There had been a growing rise of literacy in Europe through what we call the Renaissance which begins in Northern Italy in the 1300s. So by the time you get to Luther’s day, there are a significant number of people (significant compared to the Medieval Period) who can read. It might be 20-25%.
And then we also have the invention of what we call the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the 1400s. This enabled books to be reproduced rapidly and more accurately than ever – and cheaply. In some respects, the Reformation is a child of the printing press.
Luther has this very, curious little reference where he says that in the book of Revelation chapter 14 there is an angel that goes around the world preaching the gospel. He argues, and I’m not sure whether it’s tongue-in-cheek, but that that angel is none other than the printing press. None of the other reformers buy the argument of the interpretation of that verse, but having said that, I think that gives you some idea of how important the printing press was for these early men.
They begin to preach and teach. They can disseminate their ideas rapidly, quickly throughout Europe which was filled with printing shops. In the wake of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention in the mid 1400s there was the rise of these significant number of print shops. And printing becomes a fabulous way of making money. So the reasons for printing the Scriptures by various printers throughout Europe are not always the purest, but in the providence of God, God uses this and the gospel begins to go forth in Europe. And in some places, remarkably so.
The Reformation is thought to have begun by Luther in 1517, so 500 years ago, when Luther nails the 95 Theses to the door in Wittenberg – a protest against the doctrines of purgatory and the use of what were known as indulgences to buy your way out of purgatory. When Luther does that, the gospel, as I said, begins to have free course in Europe in a way that its never had before, often through the means of the printing press.
And in France by the 1520s there was probably a few thousand believers out of a population of 20 million. 40 years later there are 2 million believers. It’s just an amazing revival. And one would think, when you look at the constituency of the men and women that embraced the gospel in France, it’s around 50% of the middle class and 50% of the ruling class (or upper class). This is not a democratic world, unlike our world. And the movers and shakers of that world, large numbers embraced the gospel. Partly because these are the people that could read and write. And they had the money to buy books.
By the end of the 1500s significant sections of Europe had embraced, nationally speaking, the gospel and the Reformation – England, Wales, Scotland, Holland, all of the Scandinavian countries, large areas of Germany (Germany was not a united nation until the 19th Century, and so various states remained Catholic but many became Protestants), large parts of Switzerland, Hungary, and then in France there were significant areas. In France there was the attempt by the sword to roll back the Reformation, which will become a pattern in the 17th Century.
The Rediscovery of Marriage
The Reformation is also a rediscover of other things. It’s a rediscovery of the goodness of marriage. During the Medieval Period it was believed that spirituality was tied to celibacy, and if you were truly spiritual you were celibate. The Reformation goes back to Scripture, rediscovers in Scripture that marriage is the life that most of us are called to, not all, obviously, but many Christians are called to live out their Christian lives in the context of the married life. And marriage is a good gift from God, not second class which the Medieval Church had argued.
In the Medieval Church if you really wanted to be serious about following Jesus you’d join a nunnery or a monastery.
One of turning points in Western history is when Martin Luther, in 1525, marries Katharina von Bora, a former nun. He was a former monk and he marries a former nun. When he was asked about why he was getting married he had two very interesting reasons: one was to give his father grandchildren, which is not unbiblical, the other reason is, which definitely doesn’t have any place in the Scriptures, to spite the Pope! But they had a fabulous marriage! This becomes a pattern in this area of servants of God, ministers, pastors, being married.
Marriage is rediscovered as a vehicle for gospel living.
One of the great areas of the impact of the Reformation was in England. There [the Reformation] can be seen very powerfully in the people we know as the Puritans. They emerge in the 1560s. They’re really a dominant group in the English-speaking world up until around 1700. And during the course of the 17th Century they produce some of the finest theologians – men like John Owen and John Bunyan who are still read widely today, especially Bunyan. His Pilgrim’s Progress is the second best-selling Christian book after the Bible.
We tend to think of the name “Puritan” as narrow-minded, bigoted, and straight-laced. But the reality is that these men and women were solid theologically, desired to live passionately for Christ, they were very interested in the work of the Holy Spirit (the work of the Spirit in conversion, illuminating Scripture, prayer), and they really longed for what would only happen in the next century, which is national awakening.
Despite the fact that, say, Britain and England had embraced the Reformation as a national church (the Church of England was a reformed church technically), there were still large areas of nominalism. So Richard Greenham, one of the early Puritans in the 1570s, goes to a little village called Dry Drayton, north of Cambridge. None of the women in the village, this is probably about 200 families, none of the women in the village can read.
And Puritanism was very much a word-centred movement – they promoted a spirituality of the Word. So this is a real challenge. Not surprisingly there are significant areas of superstition and illiteracy that still need to be overcome. And the Puritans were zealous for producing biblical faith, biblical religion, a spirituality that was rooted and grounded in the Word.
Wow, that’s good. I’m currently reading J.I. Packer’s The Quest for Godliness which is looking into the Puritan way of Christian life. He begins to dig into some of what the Puritans went through, and even the poverity-ish life they lived as well..
Yes, yes. Packer’s book is really excellent. It’s a collection of essays, it’s not originally designed as one-volume study of Puritanism. There was a history of the church in the late 1950 early 60s which Packer was supposed to write the volume on the 17th Century which was never written, so this was kind of his later answer to it. It’s a great collection of essays in which he kind of delineates the central themes of Puritanism and some of its key figures, people like John Owen.
By the late 1600s Puritanism is running out of steam. All church revitalization movements, church renewals, revivals eventually ran out of steam. Because we live in a fallen world and these movements employ, as it were, the tools of men and women, and men and women – we’re just not as consistent as we would like to be. So eventually they ran out of steam.
So the great cry at the end of the 17th Century is really the need of revival. There’s a number of Puritan figures like John Owen and John Howe who died in 1705, longing to see revival. That revival, that renewal, that massive awakening would come at the beginning of the 18th Century. This really kind of sets the stage for our final talk which will deal with Christianity in the modern period.
That’s awesome. And thanks so much Michael – that was great. I can’t help, and I’m sure you’ve got this a lot, but it seems like there are an incredible amount of “Johns” in this time that were amazing in regards to bringing in this Reformation: John Calvin, John Owen, you got all these Johns everywhere! I don’t know if it’s a blessed name or something like that.
Yeah you do. I mean you just have a remarkable galaxy as it were of theologians and Christians. Not simply all theologians, I mean you have women like Lady Jane Grey who was put to death at the age of 16 for her faith. She was just a remarkable witness of gospel truth.
The Reformation is not simply a story (and Puritanism as well), they’re not simply stories of theologians talking to each other. They really are the attempt of leading church figures to see the gospel impact the lives of men and women in every day life, and to a remarkable extent, they did.
That’s awesome, that’s great. Well thanks so much Michael, I’m eager to hear from you next week as we finish our series. We’re going to be talking about the globalization of the church which starts from the beginning of the 19th Century all the way pretty much to this present day. I look forward to that! Thanks Michael.
Thank you. Good to be with you.