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Reformation … then and now!

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Published: 31 October 2017 (GMT+10)

Today marks the 500th anniversary of an event that sparked a transformation of Christianity throughout much of Europe. By the early 16th century the visible expression of Christianity was steeped in human tradition which either twisted or obscured the Gospel message. The simple message of the Gospel—that salvation is by grace through faith in the person of Jesus Christ and His finished work upon the cross and His resurrection—was obscured by such things as the veneration of relics, threats of punishments in purgatory, the sales of indulgences, among other human inventions.

commons.wikimedia.org, Painting by Ferdinand PauwelsLuther95theses
“Luther’s 95 Theses”

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, a priest of the Augustinian order, nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther protested against unbiblical teaching and practice which had become common in his day. Soon, theologians across Europe were discussing the topics which Luther had raised. Not everyone was pleased with these discussions. For if Luther’s protests were valid, it would imply that many church leaders needed to repent. And if the sales of indulgences were stopped, this would adversely affect the church’s immediate cash flow. The response of the Church of Rome was to attempt to silence Luther and suppress his protestations; first through threats and intimidations, and ultimately through excommunication. Later, civil authorities under the influence of the Church of Rome would declare Luther to be an outlaw.

On the other hand, those who took Luther’s message to heart, came to regard Scripture above church tradition. They feared God more than they feared man. They placed the fellowship of the saints above institutional favors of a church steeped in error. They placed the love of the truth of God’s Word even above the love of their own lives. The movement which Martin Luther’s actions sparked is popularly referred to as the Protestant Reformation. One doesn’t have to be a member of an historic reformation church to have benefitted from the positive influence of this movement. The fact that the Scripture is now accessible in many languages—aiding the propagation of the Gospel—is among its fruits. Yet this is not a time for complacency. For in every generation the Christian faces challenges to “… the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

en.wikipedia.orgJames-Hutton
James Hutton (1726–1797)

The rise of Philosophical Naturalism

Close on the heels of the Protestant Reformation was another movement. But this one—the so-called Enlightenment—was moving in the opposite direction. In contrast to the Reformation’s emphasis upon the Bible as our ultimate authority, the Enlightenment emphasized the autonomous use of human reason. Enlightenment man would not believe the truth claims of the Bible unless somehow proven by sources independent of the Bible. Influenced by such thinking, James Hutton (1726–1797) and later Charles Lyell (1797–1875) insisted on explaining geological formation only by processes which are observable in the present. Their assumption—preferring only natural and known processes, while dismissing the historicity of the Genesis creation and Flood accounts and the catastrophic consequence of a global flood—was in effect a religious one. Naturalism was preferred over supernaturalism. This application of philosophical naturalism1 gave rise to geological uniformitarianism and the idea of deep time, upon which Charles Darwin based his belief in evolution.

en.wikipedia.orgCharles-Lyell
Charles Lyell (1797–1875)

By the end of the 19th century uniformitarian geology and evolutionary biology prevailed within most of academia. And following close behind were Christian scholars who accepted these fruits of philosophical naturalism at face value. Their attempts to reinterpret the six-day creation week in Genesis in order to somehow allow millions of years, have been numerous and are varied. But in every case, these reinterpretations imply death before Adam sinned and thus would propose to turn the Scripture against itself (Romans 5:12).

One contemporary Christian scholar, William Dembski conceded that, “The young-earth solution to reconciling the order of creation with natural history makes good exegetical and theological sense. Indeed, the overwhelming consensus of theologians up through the Reformation held to this view.” But sadly he went on to say, “I myself would adopt it in a heartbeat except that nature seems to present such a strong evidence against it. I’m hardly alone in my reluctance to accept young-earth.”2

Dembski’s reluctance to accept what he describes as the “young-earth solution” is actually not based upon ‘nature’, but rather upon an interpretation of evidences which assumes philosophical naturalism.

Luther-Diet-Worms
Luther on trial at Worms by Anton von Werner, 1877.

The reformation needed in our own day…

Today, are we prepared to embrace the plain meaning of Scripture as pertaining to origins and believe in the historicity of Genesis? Or rather, will we allow the Scripture to be subjected to the claims of philosophical naturalism masquerading as science? And as we face this choice, do we desire God’s approval, or do we rather seek the approval of men who want to make Genesis say something which it plainly does not?

In Luther’s day, he also confronted scholars who mishandled the Scripture in regard to the days of creation. In his case his opponents believed that creation had only occurred on a single day. While today’s opponents of biblical creation believe in billions of years, Luther’s admonition may still be applied in our own circumstances. Luther declared:

“When Moses writes that God created heaven and earth and whatever is in them in six days, then let this period continue to have been six days, and do not venture to devise any comment according to which six days were one day. But if you cannot understand how this could have been done in six days, then grant the Holy Spirit the honor of being more learned than you are. For you are to deal with Scripture in such a way that you bear in mind that God Himself says what is written. But since God is speaking, it is not fitting for you wantonly to turn His Word in the direction you wish to go.”3

Martin Luther was faithful in standing for the truth of God’s Word in his day. Christian, will you stand for the truth of God’s Word today—beginning with the historicity of Genesis?

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. See: Mortenson, T., Philosophical naturalism and the age of the earth: are they related?. Return to text.
  2. Dembski, W. A., The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World, B&H Publishing, Nashville, TN, 2009, p. 55. Return to text.
  3. Plass, E. M. (compiler), What Luther Says. A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, Concordia, 1959, p. 93. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Bob J., Canada, 31 October 2017

God bless you in your stand! ... By destroying truth and replacing it with one's own opinion, he not only destroys truth and the faith of others, but also destroys his only source of support - Scripture itself! I Timothy 6:20; Titus 1:14. In Christ - Bob Jones

David H., United States, 31 October 2017

Soli Deo Gloria! Thank you for emphasizing this watershed moment in history on this day 500 years ago that defines the boldness that should characterize us today. Praise God for the truth of the Gospel (and God's scientific evidence that supports its authority) that makes us FREE INDEED, "for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17). How rightly should we stand with evidence-based (Hebrews 11:1) conviction as we echo the words of Luther in our day, "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, so help me God. Amen."

Thomas M., United States, 31 October 2017

The explanation of the differences Luther had with the Rome-centered church were downplayed and oversimplified by this article. I wonder if it ever occurred to him that following his lead of private interpretation of the Bible within 500 years there would be at least 500 private interpretations all claiming to be true. I think that aided the relativism and skepticism of the Enlightenment era and set up a lot of churchmen for Darwinism.

Robert Zins responds

It was not the purpose of the article to elaborate upon those differences, but to highlight that fact that Christian institutions can become mired in tradition, and that it is sometimes necessary to reassess where we are at; to check whether we have maintained our Scriptural bearings, or whether we have deviated. Every generation of Christians must affirm their commitment to Scripture. And for us today Genesis is a key area concerning which Christians need to reassess their fidelity. And it should be noted that even where "private interpretation" was anathematized, there Darwinism has also crept in.

Dan M., United States, 31 October 2017

... Human nature will always be at odds with scripture because scripture is from God and we are fallen from our original very good state. It is a war for the minds of men and not that of natural science! ...

Robert Zins responds

True, the problem is rooted in sinful human nature. The natural man is prone to invent religious traditions. In Luther's day he sought to clarify the teaching of Scripture, which had been obscured by ecclesiastical tradition of his day. And yes, there is a war for the minds of men. Today it also extends into the realm of natural science where a secular tradition has sought to define the terms of any discussion about origins in such a way as to deny the clear meaning of the creation account in Genesis. Hence, the Christian apologist ought to be able to defend the historicity of the Genesis account against any contending view, including those which are rooted in philosophical naturalism.

daniel l. hare H., United States, 31 October 2017

I just want to thank you folks very much. I stand on 6 day creation no matter what the world wants to throw at me. I'm very happy about the ammunition you give me. I will use it GOD'S glory. Again thank you.

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