On October 31, many Americans decorate their homes for Halloween with ghouls, goblins, cobwebs, and pumpkins. Many Protestant Christians, however, celebrate something far more significant: Reformation Day.
By historical consensus, October 31, 1517, is the day Martin Luther sent his theses to the Catholic Archbishop of Mainz. According to many historians, it is also the day Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in the German town now known as Lutherstadt-Wittenberg. The sound of his hammer would soon be heard throughout Germany and the rest of the world.
Of course, Catholics lament that the Reformation broke the unity of the Western institutional church centered in Rome. Social and political philosophers argue that it set off the “wars of religion” that plagued Europe for many years. Still other scholars maintain that it led to Western individualism and secularism. Criticisms aside, nearly all agree that the Reformation was one of the most significant transformations of Western society since the life and ministry of our Lord.
Reformation Day is especially significant for Lutherans and Calvinists, although many other denominations recognize it today. Even the Roman Catholic Church often sends representatives to participate in Protestant-led Reformation commemorations. It might surprise readers to learn that some Baptist theologians do not consider their tradition to be part of the Reformation tradition, though they are influenced by it. Their reasoning is that Baptists (the early Anabaptists) never actually wanted to reform the Catholic Church so much as subvert it and start afresh.
Nonetheless, this writer considers Baptists a part of the Reformation tradition and wishes to express appreciation for the Reformation—and for one teaching in particular. Central to the Reformation was the belief that Scripture should be the primary source and supreme norm for Christian theology and for the Christian life. Southern Baptists such as I are grateful for the high view of Scripture that catalyzed the Reformers and that informs most Baptists today.
We Baptists believe that Scripture is the written word of God; read and heard correctly, it presents the living words of a living Lord. Through our missionary efforts, it should be made accessible to everybody, in one way or another—to those who can read and those who cannot read. Indeed, Scripture is the primary way God invites humans into the drama of redemption, calling them to know him and love him and join him on his mission.
Scripture, with local churches serving as the loci of its reception, provides humanity with the normative trajectory for their lives. Scripture is authoritative, inspired, and inerrant: It is God’s authoritative word that does not err and will not lead us astray. It is relational: While the Christian life certainly involves cognition, it is primarily a relational endeavor; through Scripture, we can know and love God personally. It is life-ordering: As the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) makes clear, Scripture teaches us how to center our lives on God. Further, it is world-interpretive: If “all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16), then, as Lesslie Newbigin often said, Christ is the “clue” to understanding the universe.
Our high view of Scripture does not prevent us from recognizing the role of reason; Christians must rely on our God-given rational faculties in order to reflect upon God’s self-revelation in a disciplined manner. It recognizes the role of culture; the Christian life is necessarily lived out in a cultural context and articulated in cultural forms. It acknowledges the role played by experience; our journey in life is what prepares Christians to understand the words of Scripture. Scripture teaches us about God, and does so analogically. Finally, our view of Scripture affirms the role of tradition. Most Baptists, such as I, affirm a single-source theory of tradition. In accord with many historical theologians, we affirm the church fathers’ concept of a “rule of faith.” This means we acknowledge that there is a proper order and connection to the Bible’s teaching and its overarching narrative, and that if we ignore this order and connection, we will misread Scripture and misconstrue Christian doctrine. Tradition, therefore, can be a safeguard against misinterpretation and self-serving construals of the text.
Scripture is central to the Christian life. We must soak ourselves in it, bringing its axioms to bear upon the axioms of our secular age. Reformation Day can be a reminder that our God is a God who speaks, a God who offers his Word as a bridge to his world.
No other worldview, religion, or philosophy properly offers such a bridge between the Creator and his creatures. Atheism offers merely an “immanent frame,” a closed universe guided by no transcendent being. This is also true of pantheism; according to pantheists, God does not transcend our earthly reality, but is our reality and is bound to its existence. Islamic monotheism offers a God who, though transcendent, is entirely inscrutable. Christian theism, however, presents God as the qualitatively and quantitatively different One who nonetheless initiates personal communication with his creatures. In fact, God’s triune existence is a model of accomplished communication.
On Reformation Day, therefore, let us pause to thank God for his living Word that directs our lives.
Bruce Riley Ashford is a fellow in public theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and author, most recently, of The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?