In 1517 a young monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a German church door—and the world has never been the same. Protestants mark this anniversary every October 31st, and TGC will devote its entire 2017 National Conference to remembering and celebrating the 500th anniversary of this momentous event.
But what meaning does the Reformation have for us today? What is its ongoing relevance our lives and ministries? TGC president Don Carson kicks off a new roundtable video discussion with this question.
Tim Keller, TGC’s vice president, admits that he while doesn’t own all of the era’s rhetoric and polemical style, the Reformers did get the biblical gospel right and carefully applied it to their own time. As TGC Council member John Piper tersely puts it, “They read their Bibles.”
Carson also quotes one of his mentors, Kenneth Kantzer: “Evangelicalism at is very best is simply the return to the New Testament at its very simplest.” The same can be said of the Reformation, he argues, insofar as it was rooted in the New Testament witness and whole counsel of God.
Watch the full nine-minute video to hear these leaders discuss how the Reformation affects how we relate to the Roman Catholic Church, the positive and negative lessons we should glean from Luther and Calvin, the preacher’s task, and more.
The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check audio/video before quoting.
Don Carson: Clearly there are some people who think that any group that focuses incessantly on the Reformation is not thinking in old enough terms, all the way back to the New Testament or not thinking in contemporary enough terms the needs and concerns of the church today. Why exactly should we spend the focus that we do give to the Reformation?
John Piper: Well, why not?
Tim Keller: Well, yes. I know the reasons they say, “Why not?” One is they feel like it’s divisive. It’s true, when you read Luther and Calvin, I’ve recently gotten back into reading them, they make a lot of polemical statements. You can look at a lot of the ways in which they talked about the Papacy and so on and say, “You shouldn’t talk that way.We shouldn’t be that polemical.” But that was a different situation. There was a life and death, there were national churches. It was very politically charged. We’re not in that same situation and I don’t own all that rhetoric, but I think the reason we believe the Reformation is so important is because we think they did get the Bible right. We think that you had a massive moment and a massive movement in which people sought to look at the Scripture and find out what the biblical gospel truly was, and we think they did get it right.
The Puritans moved that forward differently than the Revivalists and then the Princeton theologians. I mean, in every century, people moved it forward differently. They weren’t just reiterating Luther and Calvin, but they’ve said the Reformation got it right, and then they were applying that to their own time. And I do think we would be the same, rather than looking at the Reformation as basically a mistake.
John Piper: Yeah, or another way, just they got it right, they got it. I mean, they got the Bible. Like it isn’t just that they read their Bibles differently and saw the gospel afresh; they read their Bibles. The recovery of sources in the Renaissance and in the Reformation is something that I don’t think you ever outgrow, back to the sources in every seminary curriculum, Lord willing, which is a Reformation principle that we shouldn’t let go.
Don Carson: Kenneth Kantzer used to say to us when I was a lot younger, he used to say, “Evangelicalism at it’s very best is simply the return to the New Testament at it’s very simplest.” Now, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but you can see what he’s trying to say. He’s not trying to set aside a movement to see if it’s better than the New Testament of if it’s stepping away from the New Testament, but in so far as it’s tested by the New Testament, as by the whole Council of God, then it becomes for us a movement that we can attach ourselves to.
The roots of evangelicalism is not finally in the evangelical awakening. It’s in the Scriptures.
John Piper: So would you say that returning to the Reformation to get our bearings on the gospel, makes it harder to make progress with Rome or clouds developments between Protestantism and Catholicism that makes us unable to see hope?
Because I think that’s one of the issues of unity is that the Reformation was a protest against the failure of the Roman church to see the gospel clearly and the question is today, is the Reformation over? Do you still need it?
Tim Keller: Yeah. Well, obviously, we are not going to be…
If we really do think they basically got it right, I think that certainly poses problems for any movement toward reunion with Roman Catholicism, yes. We obviously are not as open to talking about that. I would certainly think, as I said, our attitude toward Roman Catholics might be, well, I should say this.
When I was reading the Institutes, which surprised me, there is a place, and I need to go find it, and somebody’s going to watch this and say, “Where is that, Tim Keller?” [4.2.12] But there are a couple places in the Institutes where Calvin said, “Not only are there true Christians in the Roman Catholic Church, but there are true churches.” He used the word “churches.” True churches in the Roman Catholic Church, but he says that that doesn’t mean that the Roman Catholic Church, as a church, hasn’t lost the gospel.
So there was more of a balance, probably, even in the Reformers’ attitude toward the Catholic Church, and we do know that the way in which Calvin talked to Catholic theologians, etc., that he was not saying, “You can’t come in my house because I will be defiled,” or anything like that.
So I would say our attitude toward the Catholic Church doesn’t necessarily require us in any way to step away from the Reformation. There is much that we can learn from other people who believe the Apostle’s Creed and they take the Apostle’s Creed literally. I have to say, anybody else that takes the Apostle’s Creed literally is a Trinitarian Christian.
I need to have a relationship with them of some sort, but I don’t feel that I… backing away from the Reformation is the way to further those kinds of relationships.
John Piper: When you think of the Reformation, you can think lessons of what not to do and lessons of what to do, and we learn from history both ways, I presume.
I mean, Luther’s antisemitism, don’t go there. Calvin’s civic religion to put to death…
Tim Keller: Yeah, how he understood church-state relations.
John Piper: These are pressing things on us today, I think, that are valuable to learn negatively. But overwhelmingly, from my own experience, anyway, it’s positive and it’s not just that they got the Bible and they got the gospel, but they got preaching.
Tim Keller: Yes.
John Piper: Preaching. I don’t think that’s ever going to grow old. And every generation starts to doubt preaching, you know, we can do it with video, or we can do it with drama, or we can do it with something else. The way the Lord in history, it seems to me, has lifted up the pulpit, and Luther and Calvin were imminently scholar preachers. Say a word, either of you, about preaching or scholarship. I mean, would there have been a Reformation without universities, without Calvin and Luther being scholars?
Don Carson: Probably not.
Tim Keller: No.
Don Carson: But at the same time we need to keep saying to many, many Christians today is that while we want to fasten on the Word, we also want to show how we’re part of a chain in history that goes back and back and back. We’re not trying to be so innovative that we’re the first generation to get it all right.
So part of every preacher’s responsibility is to teach the Council of God as they’re studying the Scriptures themselves, but to check it out with previous generations, and in that sense, you want to check out, especially those generations that seem to have been closest to understanding the gospel in a rich and thick and biblically faithful way, and the Reformation was one of those generations.
Tim Keller: And even though Calvin would call his Institutes basically a Bible digest, nevertheless, when you actually read them, it is remarkable how for every one of his points, he not only gives you a tremendous exegesis, but he does everything he can to root it in the teaching of the fathers. Everybody who came before him in the history of the church that would say the same thing, he makes sure you see that. He used Augustine, of course, but lots and lots of others, he just knew the early fathers’ structure.
Don Carson: Chrysostom, also.
Tim Keller: Oh, my goodness, and he always rooted the gospel not only in the Scripture, but also in the former history of the church. So it was you do not have this idea like you had the early church and then nothing happened, and then suddenly the Reformation and we got back to it. He doesn’t see it that way at all.
Don Carson: That’s partly because he was concerned to show that the Catholic Church of his day was not…
Tim Keller: Yes. True to itself.
Don Carson: One piece all the way from the 2nd century to the 16th. He was trying to show how far away it was. So one of the reasons that he quoted the fathers so much was to show the change.
Tim Keller: We like the Reformation.
Don Carson: We do like the Reformation.