Reformed Christianity?

I grew up in Southern Baptist churches. While I’m thankful for the teaching I received in those churches, I didn’t learn much about what made our brand of Christianity distinct from other expressions of the faith.

Venture Church belongs to a reformed tent of Christianity. Until I had spent considerable time at a Presbyterian college, I had no idea what that actually meant. I knew that it had something to do with not being Catholic and a lot to do with the exclusivity of the Bible as our sole authority. But I was only vaguely aware of the actual doctrines of the faith that defined “reformed” Christianity.

Before we get into doctrine, let’s take a look at the event that sparked this movement.

The 95 Theses

Practically every Western Civilization teacher on the planet has covered the story of Martin Luther’s conflict with the Catholic Church. It could be argued that the Protestant Reformation is the single most transformative event of the last millennium. It changed the way people thought about themselves, God, and the world.

Two historic events served as catalysts for the Reformation: the invention of the printing press and the rediscovery of Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible by scholars in Western Europe. At the time, there was also a growing skepticism among the people about the authority of the church due to its internal conflicts, scandals, and abuses.

These things eventually led to the posting of 95 theses by a monk named Martin Luther on the door of the church at Wittenberg in Germany in 1517.

The video below explains what led Luther to protest and his understanding of justification before God.

The reformers of the church in the 1500s centered most of their theology on 5 “solas” that they held in distinction against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church.

  • Sola scriptura (Scripture alone)
  • Solus Christus (in Christ alone)
  • Sola fide (through faith alone)
  • Sola gratia (by grace alone)
  • Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone)

The Counter-Reformation

If Martin Luther and the other reformers turned the world upside-down in the early 1500s, the Catholic church would need to have an official response. The Roman Catholic Church convened a church council some three decades after the ninety-five theses so that the catholic world would be united in their response to the events of the reformation. This movement is known as the counter-reformation.

The post by Tom Dyson, who is a former missionary to Latin America, references how we differ from the official teachings of the Catholic Church as adopted by the Council of Trent in 1547. The Council of Trent was one of those rare events where bishops from all over the known world convened for the purpose of writing out the Catholic Church’s official position on church structure and doctrine. It took place in many sessions over 1545-1563 in a small town in the Italian alps known as Trent. The purpose of the council of Trent was to make an official response of the Roman Catholic church to all of the broadsides that had been lodged against it by the Protestant Reformation.

There were two basic things that the Catholic Church wanted to accomplish at Trent. 1) The bishops wanted to defend Catholic doctrine and practices against reformed doctrine and 2) the bishops wanted to make needed reforms to the administration of the church that had provided the reasons the Reformation took off in the first place. (As an added bonus, the council also adopted the Gregorian calendar to make the Easter fall at the correct time on both the calendar and the lunar cycle. They proclaimed that the years 1700, 1800, 1900, and 2100 would not be leap years. We still live with the Council of Trent every time we say a date.)

This author’s opinion is that if the Catholic church had called a church council decades earlier than 1545 and invited Luther to be part of the administrative reforms instead of declaring him a heretic, there likely would have never been the huge split that we now call the Protestant reformation. Reformed doctrine would have become one stream of thought within a church that was cleansed of many of the sins, excesses, and lack of accountability that drove Luther to post the 95 theses.

Nevertheless, the Council of Trent took place after decades of bitter wars in Europe and it would be impossible for the two sides to ever come back together. Because Protestant reformers were not part of the council, the teachings on justification took a decidedly anti-reformed shape that kept salvation within the scope of the institution of the church rather than as a part of an individual’s relationship with God. The canons of Trent were written so as to declare that there could be no ground with those who held to the teachings of Luther and Calvin (and Augustine) on the doctrines of justification by grace alone.

A Line in the Sand

Here are some of the canons of the Council of Trent that take direct aim at the reformation’s view of justification by grace alone through faith alone.

CANON V.– If anyone shall affirm, that since the fall of Adam, man’s freewill is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing titular, yea a name, without a thing, and a fiction introduced by Satan into the Church; let such an one be accursed”!

CANON VII.-If any one saith, that all works done before Justification, in whatsoever way they be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; or that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins: let him be anathema.

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

We see this line in the sand drawn by the use of the word “anathema” by the Council. This is the word used by Paul in Galatians 1:8 when he says “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” To be anathema is to be officially declared by the apostolic authority of the church to be bound for hell. The council could not have been clearer.

Reformed Doctrine

The reformation would later produce a list of five doctrines about salvation that refute a 17th-century theology known as “Arminianism.” We will discuss Arminianism in a later blog post. Those 17th-century distinctives are remembered by the acronym TULIP.

  • Total (or radical/basic) Depravity
  • Unconditional (or sovereign) Election
  • Limited (or Definite) Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace (or effectual calling)
  • Perseverance of the Saints

If you read all of the Canons of the Council of Trent you will notice that they are taking direct aim at the five doctrines of grace found in the TULIP, as well as some antinomian (rejecting all Biblical law) doctrines that were condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike. The stark lines between the Protestant and Catholic Church are most clear around the doctrines of justification.

While some people within Protestant Churches (including Venture) will disagree on some aspects and definitions of the TULIP, we must all hold to the idea that salvation is a gift of GOD ALONE with absolutely no input from man’s attempts at righteousness.

Some historians will mark the council of Trent as the beginning of what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to this, Western Europe only thought of “the church” as a single unit. The reforms and doctrines they put into writing are still very important to the modern structure and teachings of the church to this day. Venture Church defines its views of justification as standing in the tradition of Scripture alone articulated by the Reformation.