It seems that Evangelicalism is destined to divide into two divergent streams in the twenty-first century, one Protestant and one sectarian. The gap is destined to grow ever wider because one stream is tethered to the past whereas the other has slipped its moorings and is destined to drift endlessly.
Evangelicalism in the twenty-first century confronts a choice. Will we find the courage to be confessionally Protestant? Or will the movement continue to drift into an ever-evolving, amorphous, experience-based form of piety that is untethered from historic orthodoxy and the catholic faith? The former tendency grows increasingly rare; the latter predominates today.
The Evangelical movement began in the 1730’s in England as a movement of revival seeking to renew a Protestantism vitiated by dead orthodoxy. Over the past 300 years, however, the movement has become more and more diverse and less and less confessionally Protestant.
What Was the Protestant Reformation?
The Protestant Reformation was a movement of reform in the Western church that, unfortunately, resulted in a schism between Rome and a number of churches including the Reformed churches, the Lutheran churches and the Church of England. The schism happened because the reformers insisted on reform and Rome insisted on submission. It is important to understand clearly what the Reformation was about and what it was not about.
First, what was the Reformation not about?
The Protestant reformers never challenged the consensus that unites both Eastern and Western Christianity symbolized by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, with its clarifying codicil adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. God is one substance (ousia) and three persons (hypostases), Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is one in will and power and the persons are equal in glory and majesty, distinguished only by their eternal relations of origin. The Son is one person in two natures, fully human, and fully divine. The Athanasian Creed, which probably was composed in the century after Augustine’s death, sums up the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas that unite the Church in a common confession.
Since the Nicene Creed was an expansion of the Apostles’ Creed, the latter of which goes back to the second century as a baptismal creed, we have a five-century long development of creedal orthodoxy that all Christians believe expresses the true teaching of Holy Scripture. The Protestant reformers and their successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries never dreamed of being anything other than catholic Christians in confessing this orthodox tradition. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Second London Confession, and other Protestant confessions of faith affirm the orthodoxy of the Athanasian Creed as basic Christian doctrine.
The Reformation also was not a dispute about the mighty acts of God in salvation history, which both Rome and the Protestants affirmed without qualification. The Bible records and interprets the mighty acts of God in history by which salvation comes to the world. Genesis 1-11 is a prologue that deals with world history up to the time of Abraham. It sets the stage by clarifying that the world was created good but fell into sin because of Adam’s disobedience. Genesis 12 begins the story of Israel, which is God’s redemptive plan to redeem Adam’s fallen race and ultimately to redeem the fallen creation through the covenant of grace.
The Exodus was one of the greatest acts of God in history, but far from the only one. The entire Old Testament witnesses to the history of the covenant of grace with Israel. The Old Testament is essentially unfinished and points forward to the climactic act of God in history that we know as the Incarnation. The virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, bodily resurrection and ascension, and future return of Christ is the center of history, the fulfillment of the hopes of the Old Testament, and the means by which salvation comes to the world.
The Reformation, then, was not a disagreement regarding the Trinitarian and Christological heritage of the universal church and it was not a disagreement regarding the mighty acts of God in salvation history symbolized in the creeds. Rome and Protestantism were on the same page on these issues.
So, what was the Reformation about?
According to Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and the other reformers, the Roman Catholic Church needed to be reformed because of many errors concerning how the benefits of salvation accomplished by God’s mighty acts in history culminating in Christ get applied to the believer. This caused debates in areas such as soteriology, sacraments, and ecclesiology. Purgatory, the mass, the role of Mary, the papacy, and justification by grace alone through faith alone were important issues. Since the authority of the Church was used to stifle criticism from the Protestants, the issue of the relationship between the magisterium and Scripture became a major point of contention.
The authority of Scripture over ecclesial authority was affirmed by the Protestants and appeals to tradition were treated with respect but not allowed to override Scripture. The reformers appealed to the authority of Scripture, not with the intention of undermining the creeds, but with the intention of correcting more recent teachings on matters that go well beyond the creeds.
But we should be clear, neither side was debating the Trinity or Christology at this point and neither side was denying miracles or the bodily resurrection of Christ. Protestants never rejected the Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian Creeds or the Definition of Chalcedon. All the Reformed confessions were written by theologians who accepted the Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the first few centuries as the true meaning of the Bible.