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Reformations, like revolutions, are not easy things to contain. When we begin to pluck bricks from the levee one by one, we soon find that the levee breaks, and we are swept away in a torrent beyond our control.
Martin Luther was in hiding, translating the Bible into German so that his countrymen also might have their consciences held captive by the Word of God. While working at this vital task, he also set his pen against the swords of Rome, and proved it to be mighty indeed. His polemics against the Roman Catholic Church found their mark, and soon some of his followers were playing the role of literal iconoclasts, smashing the icons of popery with all the aplomb of barbarians.
It was this riot of violence that drew Luther from his lair, as he threw aside his disguise and directed his prodigious wrath against his friends. He would have no part in the worship of idols, but neither would he condone wanton destruction of them.
Those overzealous lieutenants were not the only ones who moved from reformation to revolution. The Reformation also spawned the often-forgotten Anabaptist movement. When we think of the great struggle that was the Reformation and the ensuing Catholic Counter-Reformation, we often blush at the lengths to which the two sides were willing to go. In our relativistic age, it boggles our minds to consider that zealots on both sides were willing not only to kill for their understanding of the Gospel but to die for it, as well. The battle was not a mere debate, but a literal battle. But though their disputes ran to bloodshed, there yet remained a common vision, a common commitment: Both sides wanted to wipe out the Anabaptists. Many Anabaptists lost their lives in the upheaval, not only because so many of them were pacifists but because they faced the wrath both of those committed to Rome and those committed to Reformation.
The Anabaptists had a great deal in common with the Reformers. Both affirmed that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Both denied that the church or the sacraments are the means by which we have peace with God. Both denied that God has granted the church an infallible tradition. And both affirmed sola Scriptura, Scripture alone as the sole source of truth that can bind the consciences of men.
Why, then, did the Reformers and the radical Reformers not make common cause against the monolith of Rome? It was because their agreement on the rallying cries of the Reformation was paper-thin. The Anabaptists were Arminian in their doctrine of salvation, sharing with Rome a version of Semi-Pelagianism. But even more divisive was their different understanding of what sola Scriptura meant. The Anabaptists took a radically a-historical approach to the Word of God. They were so disgusted with the errors of Rome that their strategy was to throw out all church tradition, all church history, and go back to the Bible afresh. The Reformers understood the folly and danger in such an approach.
When the Reformers affirmed sola Scriptura, they did not suggest that we can know God’s revelation in a vacuum, that any man equipped with the Bible alone can be sure to affirm true Biblical teaching. They did not treat church history as bunk. They rejected the “just me and my Bible” approach with a deadly vigor. They understood that while there was no inerrant repository of tradition to guide our understanding of the Bible, there was a tradition that was a gift from God. They denied that God had ceased to interact with His church from the closing of the canon to the Reformation. They affirmed that God had graced His church with teachers, with scholars, and with wisdom expressed in the councils and the creeds. They refused to treat these good gifts of God as tainted and untouchable simply because Rome had abused them.
So should we all. While the Anabaptists were routed and faded into obscurity, their understanding of sola Scriptura has become the common rule of the day. We seem to think that church history began with the first Promise Keepers meeting. The evangelical church, if it is anything, is egalitarian, affirming not only the priesthood of all believers but the popehood of all believers. With “me and my Bible,” I can speak infallibly.
Our egalitarianism extends not only over the great scholars but over time, as well. The new is as good as the old, as surely as I am as good as any cleric. I can trump the Nicene Creed with “me and my Bible.” When this attitude is wedded with our sloppy mysticism—“The Lord revealed this to me during my time in His Word”—our convictions become unassailable. Whether it is a diet guru embracing Arianism or eschatology wonks denying the future return of Christ, the call to be faithful to the creeds is rejected like the song of Romish sirens.
May it never be so with us. We honor the Reformers not by putting Anabaptists to the sword but by seeking out the Reformers’ wisdom. And having done so, we honor their wisdom in seeking the wisdom of the Fathers.
When we affirm that we live coram Deo, before the face of God, we affirm also that He is here with us. So He has always been. He was here in the first half of the first millennium A.D., as the church affirmed the true humanity and true deity of Christ. He was here when the church faced the fury of Islam and stood its ground. He was here when one man stood not alone with His Bible, but on the shoulders of Augustine and Tyndale, all together resting on the inerrant Word of God. He was here when the great minds of the age converged on Geneva. He was here still later when the divines gathered at Westminster. And He has remained with us, gifting us with Puritans and Covenanters; with the great Southern theologians, Dabney, Thornwell, and Girardieu; and with the Princeton prophets, Warfield, Alexander, and the Hodges. In the last century, He gave us a new set of Westminster divines in Murray, Machen, Van Til, and Vos. In my own lifetime, He has given us Schaeffer, Berkhof, Lloyd-Jones, and Gerstner.
To elevate the students and teachers of the Bible to the level of the Bible is to dishonor the Bible. But to despise these good gifts out of a love for the Bible is to despise the One who gave them both to us.