Thursday, August 14, 2008
Is Quoting the Reformers Risky Business?
I was recently asked by a good friend whether Christians risked creating a modern day Talmud by quoting and revering the Reformers. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish writings which give interpretation and commentary on the Old Testament Law. Many who have studied the Talmud, known as the Mishnah in its writtin form, would say that it was became stricly adhered to that it came to be viewed on equal par with the Law (as if the 613 commands in the Old Testament already wasn't enough already). Dealing with this question of whether or not we risk inadvertently adding to the Law of God through quoting the Reformers is an important one to answer; especially for those of us who are influenced by the Reformers and consider ourselves Reformed.
If comparing those who study the Reformation to those who studied the Jewish Talmud sounds absurd, the following question will make a lot more sense. Were those who erected theological systems based on the writings of the Reformers guilty of deriving such systems from the Reformers while neglecting a close investigation of God's Word? (We all know that the Five Points of Calvinism were drawn up without Calvin. He was dead! They were instead drawn up in what people believed to be an accurate sumation of Calvin's Soteriology).
We as Reformed thinkers must humbly ask, "how did I arrive at this Theological system?" If we can honestly conclude that it was from our own illumination into God's Word, then we are not just Reformed; we are biblical. However, if we arrived at this Theological system simply because it was "cool" in the circle we ran with at the time, or if we arrived at it based on our reading of the Reformers, we may be guilty of erecting what the Reformers sought to tear down. Namely, an extra-biblical authority no less severe than the Jewish Talmud.
Creating an authoritative tradition similar in extent to the Talmud was the exact opposite of the Reformer's intentions. Their intention was to decry any authoritarian voice that would claim a monopoly on truth, or executive power on interpreting Scripture.
Many people deride the fact that there are so many denominations today. But this diversity in the church is largely the result of the Reformers, who'se doctrine can be boiled down to two ideas:
1. The Priesthood of the Believer: This doctrine affirmed that each believer is
their own priest and can approach God without any human mediator but Christ
alone (I Timothy 2:5.). This was revolutionary because it did anything but set
up ecclesiastical authority. It began the long process of dismantling
ecclesiastical authority. The Catholic church today is a nominal, weak belief
system because the Reformers were successful at questioning and
challenging the authority of Rome.
2. The Perspicuity of the Scriptures: This affirmed the biblical understanding that
because each believer was indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they had the
illumination to interpret the Scriptures for themselves, without having to defer
to church tradition (I John 2:27). It was this hallmark doctrine that opened the
door to Scriptural translation. Many Reformers, such as: Jon Huss of and
William Tyndale, of England, were burned alive for believing
that each believer could be trusted with his own personal copy of the Word of
If it were not for the Reformers of the Sixteenth Century, it is almost certain that the hegemony of the Catholic church would have continued to wax stronger in quelling any freedom of thought through the ongoing Inquisition. It is also probable that there would have been no ensuing Enlightenment. This is a valid point because if it were not for the Reformation, there would have been no rebirth of literacy based on the drive multitudes had to read the Scriptures in their own tongue. There also would have been no precedent set making it acceptable to question authority as the Enlightenment did. Guttenburg's invention of the printing press was largely spurred on by the same sentiments knowing how influenced he was by this movement. The writings of the Reformers being launched into orbit by the printing press became the catalyst in teaching common men to read. If there were no rebirth of literacy, the framework would not have existed for the French philosophers to transmit their thoughts effectively via the printing press.
There is no equivalant to the Jewish Talmud today in the Protestant church. You have to understand that the Talmud dictated the Jewish way of life down to the minute detail. For example, there are twenty-four chapters in the Talmud just dealing with Sabbath laws alone, dictating what it was lawful, or unlawful to do on the Sabbath. The Reformers never came close to this type of imposition in the everyday affairs of life. Instead, they sought to do away with this form of legalism that had gradually crept into the Catholic way of life.
The question still remains, what about those who quote the Reformers today and wind up deriving their Theology from these men, rather than the Scriptures which drove these men. If such is the case; if today's teachers are guilty of erecting theological systems based on the teachings of the Reformers and not directly from the Scriptures, then one thing is certain; today's teachers have had to climb over the Reformers to erect such Theology. The Reformer's last intention was to draw the most avid adherents to themselves, they sought to point adherents to the Bible, often spilling their blood to do so.
The Protestant movement heralded freedom of thought when studying the Scripture. In fact, the freedom we as Christians have today to apply the Scriptures to our life situations is not a freedom that any Jewish or Catholic adherent could ever celebrate. The Jews had their own doctors of the Law who dictated it's meaning. The Catholics have their own clergy who are alone bequethed with the privilege of interpreting texts.
Notice how Luther supported the use of reason when responding to dr. Jan Eyck at the Diet of Worms. Remember, Eyck demanded that Luther fall into line with the Church's doctrine and recant all of his writings. In response, Luther uttered words that would drop like a bombshell on everyone's Theological playground:
"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe-- Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
Notice that Luther did just the opposite of paving the way for a new Christian Talmud or Mishnah. He dismantled any framework for defering to tradition by questioning the authority of tradition. Even in the face of death, Luther sought to strip authority from the Catholic Church and placing authority within every reasoning Christian as they are individually held captive to the Word of God.
Think about it! The freedom we have to question and critique Luther, we owe to Luther. He was ranked as one of the top ten people of the Millenium by Time Magazine because even in Liberal circles today, Luther is associated with sparking the freedom of conscience that led not only to the Protestant Reformation, but also to the Enlightenment of France in 1789.
One of the best books I have read by Luther is The Freedom of a Christian. If you read this book you will hear the heart of a man who's motives are far superior to any revisionist thinker of the Twenty-first century who would seek to impugn him. His major thesis of the book is profound as it set forth the freedom of a Christian as no one had articulated it before:
"A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, servant to none."
"A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, servant to all."
Luther, more than any other defended both the believer's freedom, not only from the condemnation of the law, but also from the papal hegemony of those who would strip him of the ability to think as his own free moral agent.
Bringing the Reformation home to the Twenty-first century. I don't think they would mind being quoted because they themselves began drafting the chatecisms as a means of teacing Christian doctrine. These chatecisms were meant to be memorized as didactic devices, much like the two lines I previously quoted above.
However, these same chatecisms were never meant to be viewed on par with Scripture because they themselves were written to affirm the sole authority of Scripture.
We should never assume that when somoene quotes a Reformer or a chatecism written by a Reformer that they are somehow adding to the Scripture as the Talmud did (read Mark 7:6-7, Jesus referred to this tradition when he spoke of the rabbis "teaching for doctrines of God the commandments of men.") The Talmud originated as commentary on the Law, but soon became viewed on par with the Law, setting forth its own laws. One could even say they were adding to Scripture. However, if someone quotes a Reformer or chatecism, or statement of faith, they are affirming the Reformers belief in the sole authority of Scripture.
The chatecisms and confessions then are a means of holding us accountable to the Word of God, not an addendum to the Word of God.
You cannot quote them wihout demoting them. That is, you cannot quote them without affirming the sole authority of Scripture, seeing that one of their main purposes is to teach the authority of Scripture. A good example is the Westminster Confession of Faith which opens with the following words:
"Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased."
A better example is question number two of the Westminster Shorter Chatechism because it was intended to be memorized. In closing, I want to reproduce it here to further corroborate that even the faithful followers of the Reformers sought passionately to point people to God's Word, not merely to theological systems:
"What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him."