Should Pastors Today Care about the Reformation?


Pastors devoted to their ministry have so many things to do. Apart from the careful preparation week by week of fresh sermons and Bible studies, hours set aside for counseling, care in developing excellent relationships, careful and thoughtful (and time-consuming!) evangelism, the mentoring of another generation coming along behind, the incessant demands of administration and oversight, not to mention the nurturing of one’s own soul, there is the regular array of family priorities, including care for aging parents and precious grandchildren and an ill spouse (or any number of permutations of such responsibilities), and, for some, energy levels declining in inverse proportion to advancing years.

So, why should I set aside valuable hours to read up on the Reformation, usually thought to have kicked off about 500 years ago? True, the Reformers lived in rapidly changing times, but how many of them gave serious thought to postmodern epistemology, transgenderism, and the new (in)tolerance? If we are to learn from forebears, wouldn’t we be wise to choose more recent ones? Not necessarily.


A pastor is by definition something akin to a GP (a “general practitioner”). He is not a specialist in, say, divorce and remarriage, missions history, cultural commentary, or particular periods of church history. Yet most pastors will have to develop competent introductory knowledge in all these areas as part of his application of the Word of God to the people around him. And that means he is obligated to devote some time each year to reading in broad areas. One of those areas is historical theology. Well-chosen historical literature exposes us to different cultures and times, expands our horizons, and enables us to see how Christians in other times and places have thought through what the Bible says and how to apply the gospel to all of life. Keep reading!

Second and more specifically, a growing knowledge of historical theology accomplishes wonders in destroying the illusion that insightful and rigorous exegesis began in the nineteenth or twentieth century. Not everything that was written 500 years ago, or 1500 years ago, is wholly admirable and worth repeating, any more than everything written today is wholly admirable and worth repeating. But such historical reading is the only effective antidote to the tragic attitude of one seminary (name withheld to protect the guilty) which long argued that its students needed to learn only good exegesis and responsible hermeneutics: they didn’t need to learn what others think, for with exegesis and hermeneutics under their belt they could turn the crank and deliver faithful theology all by themselves. How naïve to think that exegesis and hermeneutics are neutral, value-free disciplines! The reality is that we need to listen to other pastor-theologians, both from our own day and from the past, if we are to grow in richness, nuance, insight, self-correction, and gospel fidelity.


But why focus on the Reformation in particular? Although it was triggered by the question of indulgences, debate over indulgences soon led, directly or indirectly, to probing debates on authority, the locus of revelation (Should we seize on a deposit ostensibly given to the church embracing both Scripture and Tradition, or on sola Scriptura?), purgatory, the authority by which sins are forgiven, the treasury of satisfactions, the nature and locus of the church, the nature and authority of priest/presbyters, the nature and function of the Eucharist, saints, justification, sanctification, the nature of the new birth, the enslaving power of sin, and much more.

All of these are still central issues in the theological syllabus today. Even the issue of indulgences is still important: both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have offered plenary special indulgences under certain circumstances (though in a more restrained structure than that adopted by Tetzel). Moreover, the study of the Reformation is especially salutary as a response to those who think the so-called “Great Tradition,” as preserved in the earliest ecumenical creeds, is invariably an adequate basis for ecumenical unity, as if there were no heresies invented after the fourth century. On this front, study of the Reformation usefully fosters a little historical realism.

In addition to the hermeneutical distinctiveness of the Reformation that sprang from sola Scriptura, the Reformers worked hard to develop a rigorous hermeneutic that was clear of the vagaries of the four-fold hermeneutic that crested during the Middle Ages. This does not mean they were simplistic literalists, unable to appreciate different literary genres, subtle metaphors, and other symbol-laden figures of speech; it means, rather, that they worked hard to let Scripture speak on its own terms, without allowing external methods to be imposed on the text like an extra-textual grid designed to guarantee the “right” answers. In part, this was tied to their understanding of claritas Scripturae, the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture.

Catholic theory on spirituality commonly distinguishes between the living of ordinary Catholics, and the spiritual living of those who are really deeply committed Catholics. It’s almost a Catholic version of “higher life” theology. It is said to lead to mystical connection to God, and to be characterized by extraordinary spiritual practices and disciplines. But although I have read right through, say, Julian of Norwich, I find a great deal of subjective mysticism and virtually no grounding in Scripture or the gospel. And for the life of me I cannot imagine either Peter or Paul recommending monastic withdrawal in order to attain greater spirituality: it is always a danger when certain ascetic practices become normative paths to spirituality when there is no apostolic support for them.

Our contemporary generation, tired of merely cerebral approaches to Christianity, is drawn to late patristic and medieval patterns of spirituality. What a relief, then, to turn to the warmest of the writings of the Reformers, and discover afresh the pursuit of God and his righteousness well grounded in holy Scripture. That is why Luther’s letter to his barber remains such a classic: it is full of godly application of the gospel to ordinary Christians, building up a conception of spirituality that is not reserved for the elite of the elect but for all brothers and sisters in Christ. Similarly, the opening chapters of Book III of Calvin’s Institutes provides more profound reflection on true spirituality than many much longer contemporary volumes.

The Reformation is of central importance for understanding modern Western history. Three large-scale movements set the stage for the contemporary Western world: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Each of the three is complex, and scholars continue to debate their many facets. Nevertheless, the raw claim for the pivotal role of these three movements cannot easily be challenged.


There are lessons to be learned from the Reformation about the sovereignty of God in movements of revival and reformation. After all, there were other reformers and reform movements that showed early promise, but largely sputtered out. John Wycliffe (c.1320–1384) was a theologian, philosopher, churchman, ecclesiastical reformer, and Bible translator, and the work he did anticipated the Reformation, but it could not be said to have precipitated it. Jan Hus (1369–1415) was a Czech priest, reformer, scholar, rector of Charles University in Prague, and architect of a reforming movement, often called “Hussitism,” but of course he was martyred and his movement, important in Bohemia, achieved little more in Europe than predecessor status.

Why did Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli live on, long enough to give direction to a massive Reformation, while Bible translator William Tyndale (1494–1536) was murdered? Historical hindsight offers many reasons why this one lived and that one died, why this reforming action fizzled and that one ignited an irrepressible flame. The historical details are worth understanding, but the eyes of faith will see the hand of God in genuine reformation, and remind us to offer him our praises for what he has done, and our petitions for what we still beg him to do.


The Reformation stands out as a movement that sought to integrate exegesis of the biblical books with what we would today call systematic theology. Not all the Reformers did this the same way. Some acted as if they were expounding the biblical texts, but tended in reality to jump from seminal word or phrase to the next seminal word or phrase, stopping at each point to unload theological treatments of the various “loci.”

Others, such as Bucer, followed the text more closely, but also unloaded his treatment of the “loci” as he went along, making his commentaries extraordinarily long and dense. Calvin strove in his commentaries for what he called “lucid brevity,” and reserved his systematic theology primarily for what grew to become the four volumes of Institutes of the Christian Religion. Indeed, Calvin’s commentaries are so “bare bones” that not a few scholars have criticized him for not including enough theology in them.

But what is striking about all these Reformers, regardless of their successes or failures to bring about appropriate integration, is the way in which they simultaneously attempted to expound the Bible and engage in serious theologizing. By contrast, today few systematicians are excellent exegetes, and few exegetes evince much interest in systematic theology. The exceptions merely prove the rule.


The Reformers read their own times well. While leaning on the “norming norm” of holy Scripture, they truly understood where the fault lines lay in their own time and place. Some of the same issues prevail today. On the other hand, what we should take away from the Reformers in this regard is not simply the list of topics on which they majored, but the importance of understanding our times and learning how to engage our times with the truth of Scripture.

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D. A. Carson

Don Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition.

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