Any observant tourist to Germany this year would notice that the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation means a great deal to the country. Scores of academic conferences, public lectures, publications, and museum exhibitions are devoted to rediscovering the fascinating world and figures of the Reformation era, as well as its cultural, religious, and political legacies in Europe and beyond.
The German Protestant church body, Evangelische Kirche Deutschland (EKD), has capitalized on the opportunity to draw newcomers through talks, concerts, exhibits, and even Luther poetry slams. It also produced a 2017 edition of the Luther Bible.
Despite all this, however, few in Europe see the relevance of the Protestant Reformers’ theological and spiritual vision for today. Many dismiss their doctrinal and ecclesial agenda as a mask for furthering the political and economic interests of power-hungry royalty (or, unintentionally, of zealous peasants). Others blame the Reformation for leading Europe into divisive wars and struggles with disastrous and abiding social consequences. Most Europeans view the Reformers’ beliefs as intolerant, passé, and petty.
With few exceptions, Europe’s churches more or less agree. To advance ecumenical relationships with Catholics, the EKD will officially commemorate the anniversary as a Christusfest (festival of Christ) rather than celebrate it with the label “Reformation.” There’s little cause for celebration anyway, as most churches have long abandoned—or, at least, significantly revised—the Reformation’s core doctrines: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. While the Roman Catholic church still officially rejects Scripture alone, European Protestant church leaders and university theology faculty now place the authority of human reason, the claims of higher criticism, and individual conscience over Scripture. Grace alone is of little consequence in an age when ministers minimize sin and maximize humanity’s inherent goodness and free will. It appears Erasmus won the debate with Luther over the bondage of the will after all. Faith alone and Christ alone have been replaced by the supposedly humbler positions of “We don’t know” and “Many paths lead to God.” And soli Deo gloria is the forgotten sola, known in Germany today only through the SDG inscribed under Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions.
Even the bulk of Europe’s evangelicals and free churches (i.e., those without ties to the state) see little use for the theology of the Reformation. The Reformers’ quest for biblical and spiritual depth has been substituted for deep anti-intellectualism and shallow experientialism. Ministers have largely traded the Reformers’ emphasis on the Christ-centered preaching of the Word for theater performances and moralistic guidelines, and the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has warped into therapeutic individualism.
Evangelium 21 (E21), a network of believers in German-speaking Europe committed to renewing the health and vitality of its churches, wishes to offer a different way to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Many of us share the enthusiasm to rediscover the Reformation’s political and cultural significance, and we recognize that the Protestant Reformers were men and women with clay feet like ourselves. Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism and Ulrich Zwingli’s persecution of Anabaptists, among other things, remind us not to look back on the era with a naïve nostalgia for a lost golden age. Nonetheless, we believe the Reformers reclaimed vital biblical truths just as relevant and pressing today as they were 500 years ago.
In cooperation with Together for the Gospel (T4G), Evangelium 21 will devote its seventh annual conference to the importance of the Reformation’s theology and spirituality for today. The event will take place April 27 to 29 in Hamburg, Germany, and with already 900 registered attendees, we anticipate it’ll be our largest conference yet. We’re excited that T4G speakers Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and David Platt will be joining European speakers from the E21 leadership to reflect on this theme together.
Our shared hope is to rekindle the flame of the Reformation by declaring the solas afresh.
- Sola Scriptura: Europe’s churches can only be renewed in God’s truth and light through the faithful preaching of his Word.
- Sola gratia: The transformation of hearts, and true forgiveness and reconciliation with God and others, can only come through God’s effectual grace.
- Sola fide: Faith in God—not in ourselves or human institutions—is the only path to righteousness, freedom, and lasting peace.
- Solus Christus: The death and resurrection of Christ is our only hope for salvation from the curse and punishment of sin.
- Soli Deo gloria: We will only find our ultimate purpose in life when we live to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Our prayer is that the same great God who sparked the Reformation 500 years ago would renew post-Christian German-speaking Europe, as well as many other regions around the globe.
Would you join us in this prayer?