Tomorrow, the Bible-believing world will remember the pivotal courage of Martin Luther as he nailed the 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany, thus igniting the Protestant Reformation.
But what does the Reformation mean to Christians in this postmodern era? How might we, with wisdom as well as boldness, apply in our day the principles upheld by the Reformers?
For many, the Reformation is remembered for its stress on the Bible as the Christian’s exclusive authority in matters of faith and practice. The phrase sola scriptura (the Bible alone) perhaps best summarizes the commitment of the Reformers to the supremacy of the written Word over all other sources of spiritual guidance. Others will call to mind the Reformers’ emphasis on the Bible doctrine of justification by faith alone, encapsulated in such phrases as sola gratia (solely by grace), sola Christa (solely by Christ), and sola fide (solely by faith).
Many pages could be spent assessing numerous angles from which we might explore these issues. But for the moment, let us focus on two of perhaps the most fundamental issues of all:
- Is the protest raised by the Reformers still needed in our day?
- How might the principle of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) be applied to contentious issues in our own time?
Many evangelical Christians appear to have lost their Protestant fervor in a major way. In January of 2014, a Charismatic Evangelical Leadership Conference was hosted by charismatic luminary Kenneth Copeland, at which a video of Pope Francis was shown declaring that “the Reformation protest has ended” (1). The late Tony Palmer, a bishop of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, declared at this same Conference—regarding the Protestant Reformation—that “the protest is over” (2).
In September of 2015, on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, Christianity Today—perhaps the most prominent evangelical Christian journal—ran the headline, “From Antichrist to Brother in Christ,” which reported a survey of over 1,000 Protestant senior pastors and the generally positive view of the Pope’s leadership and views now held in professedly Protestant circles (3).
In July of 2017, holding its once-in-seven years worldwide General Council in Leipzig (Germany) as well as Wittenberg, the World Communion of Reformed Churches—one of the largest aggregate of professedly Protestant bodies at the present time—signed a declaration “endorsing the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran agreement on how Christians might be worthy of salvation in the eyes of God” (4). The World Methodist Council formally endorsed this agreement in 2006 (5), and the Anglican Communion is expected to do the same later this year (6).
Why the Protest Can’t Be Over
Many reasons might be noted for this change of attitude on the part of those who hail from a Protestant heritage. One of these is certainly the growing acceptance of a “generic” Christianity which views vague notions of spirituality as of greater importance than strict Biblical, doctrinal faithfulness. Possibly another is the desire for greater togetherness among conservative Christians at a time when godlessness and secularism appear to be on the rise. Other factors could be cited as well.
But one thing is sure: This change of attitude on the part of professed Protestants has nothing to do with any shift or flexibility on the part of the papacy so far as the issues raised by the Reformers half a millennium ago are concerned.
To take the position that the Roman papacy no longer deserves the Antichrist label is to ignore the facts of both Biblical teaching and the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church across the centuries—before, during, and ever since the Reformation. The word “anti” in New Testament Greek carries more the meaning of “in place of” than simply “against”—the latter, of course, being its meaning in today’s English. Because of the Roman Church’s claim to a mediatorial role between God and humanity which the Bible ascribes solely to Jesus Christ (I Tim. 2:5), the Reformers—and their heirs for most of the centuries to follow—held that the papacy merited the title of Antichrist.
During the past several decades, Pope Francis and his predecessors have consistently maintained their alleged right to forgive sins and to create their own conditions—apart from Scripture—whereby sinners may receive pardon. In December of 1984, a headline appeared in the Los Angeles Times which read, “No Forgiveness ‘Directly from God,’ Pope Says”:
Rebutting a belief widely shared by Protestants and a growing number of Roman Catholics, Pope John Paul II on Tuesday dismissed the 'widespread idea that one can obtain forgiveness directly from God,' and exhorted Catholics to confess more often to their priests (7).
Pope Francis has likewise made clear that he and his priests have the authority both to forgive sins and to ascertain the sincerity of those seeking absolution. In anticipation of what was termed the Holy Year of Mercy (2016), Francis gave permission to priests, rather than simply to bishops, to absolve women who have had abortions:
The pontiff said he will allow priests “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” during the special year, beginning December 8 (8).
Obviously no human cleric has any access to the secret motives of parishioners, as the Bible declares, speaking of God: “Thou, even Thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men” (I Kings 8:39). The claim of Roman Catholicism to be able to forgive sins is just as clear now as in the Middle Ages, in the days of the Reformation, and in the centuries that have since elapsed.
Even the sale of indulgences, against which Martin Luther protested so strongly, has continued under the previous two popes, and under Francis as well. As the turn of the millennium approached, the late John Paul II made much of the availability of indulgences. In 1998 a front-page headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune reported:
Pope John Paul II announced yesterday that throughout the millennium celebration, penitents who do a charitable deed or give up cigarettes or alcohol for a day can earn an “indulgence” that will eliminate time in purgatory (9).
The following year the Vatican released a new manual on how these indulgences might be obtained (10). Ten years later, under Benedict XVI, the Church again took pains to promote this practice:
In recent months dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago—the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife—and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.
The fact that many Catholics under 50 have never sought one, and never heard of indulgences except in high school European history (Martin Luther denounced the selling of them in 1517 while igniting the Protestant Reformation), simply makes their reintroduction more urgent among church leaders bent on restoring fading traditions of penance in what they see as a self-satisfied world (11).
And Francis agrees. As World Youth Day approached in 2013, Time magazine reported:
Tech-savvy Catholics will spend less time in purgatory—or so says Pope Francis. The Pontiff has decreed that people who follow the events of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro via the Vatican’s Twitter feed can get indulgences, which Catholics believe reduce time spent atoning for sins in the afterlife (12).
It would seem that no matter how loving, merciful, and open to diversity the current pope portrays himself to be, the heresies against which the original Protestants bore witness are still alive and well under his pontificate. On what basis, then—other than outward trappings and various reasons of spiritual and cultural convenience—do the professed heirs of the Reformation presume to absolve the papacy of the Antichrist label?
It is for these reasons that the protest raised by the Reformers against papal dogma cannot cease, and why those now claiming that the “protest is over” can only be viewed—in all kindness—as oblivious to Biblical, historical, and contemporary reality so far as the teachings of the Catholic Church are concerned.
Continuing the Reformation
But the issues and principles of the Protestant Reformation go beyond the interjection of human mediation between God and humanity, or the misguided trust placed in man-made rituals as a means of earning a ticket to heaven. Most professed Protestants, at least in theory, would reject both of these heresies, even if they fail to see the continued promotion by the papacy of these errors as a roadblock to Christian unity.
But sadly, too many in the professedly Protestant churches have built and retained their own obstacles to the supremacy of Scripture within their ranks. The vast majority of Protestant Christians, even those with conservative theological convictions, continue to hold such unscriptural teachings as Sunday-sacredness, the immortality of the soul, the eternal torment of the wicked, once-saved-always-saved, the secret rapture view of end-time events, ecstatic gibberish masquerading as the New Testament gift of tongues, and other heresies we could mention. Were the Reformation principle of sola scriptura applied to each of these doctrines, they would cease to exist.
Perhaps even more egregious in the contemporary Christian scene is the exaltation of popular culture and personal experience as competing authorities regarding doctrine and behavior. When, for example, spiritual gender role distinctions, whether in the home or the church, are denied on cultural or experiential grounds irrespective of what Scripture teaches, the heart of the Reformation is compromised. When Biblical standards regarding sexuality are set aside for reasons of “mutual acceptance” and “inclusiveness,” the mission for which the Reformers sacrificed so much is betrayed in a most serious way.
In short, Christians don’t need to buy or sell indulgences, or walk on their knees up Pilate’s staircase, to make the principles of the Reformation of none effect. All they need do is exalt the finite judgment of pastors and scholars, the ebb and flow of popular culture, or the vagaries of personal experience, to the same level as the written Word.
More than a century and a half ago, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded by God to complete the work of the Protestant Reformation. The supremacy of Biblical authority over popular culture, the speculations of scholarship, amorphous “spirituality,” and the gyrations of experience lies at the heart of our mission to the world. In the proclamation of the everlasting gospel of forgiveness and restoration to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6), the continuing summons to strict Biblical integrity which attended the original Reformers lives on in the great Advent movement of Bible prophecy.
1. “Tony Palmer (bishop),” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Palmer_(bishop)
3. Lisa Cannon Green, “From Antichrist to Brother in Christ: How Protestant Pastors View the Pope,” Christianity Today, Sept. 25, 2015 http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2015/september/antichrist-brother-christ-protestant-pastors-pope-francis.html
4. Tom Heneghan, “Reformed churches endorse Catholic-Lutheran accord on key Reformation dispute,” Religious News Service, July 6, 2017 http://religionnews.com/2017/07/06/reformed-churches-endorse-catholic-lutheran-accord-on-key-reformation-dispute/
7. Don A. Schanche, “No Forgiveness ‘Directly from God,’ Pope Says,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 1984, p. A11.
9. Alesandra Stanley, “Pope invites Catholics in 2000 to earn indulgences,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Nov. 28, 1998, p. A-1.
10. Frances D’Emilio, “Vatican releases new manual on how to gain indulgences,” Associated Press, Sept. 17, 1999 (via the Internet).
11. Paul Vitello, “For Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 2009.
12. “Trending@Pontifex,” Time, Aug. 5, 2013, p. 48.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.