Reformation … then and now!


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).

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.

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 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?

Published: 31 October 2017

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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