Fifty years ago, when Protestants celebrated the 450th anniversary of the Reformation, there was little doubt that being Protestant still mattered. In fact, most Protestants would have agreed with Will Herberg’s observation in his classic Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology that being Protestant mattered more than being Methodist (and by extension, than being Presbyterian or Reformed). Protestantism was the great religious subgrouping that stood for liberty of conscience and the priesthood of every believer in ways that distinguished it from Roman Catholicism and Judaism as one of the three great American religions.
And so, being Protestant mattered even with the massive restructuring of American religion that began during the 1960s. While mainline Protestants took to the streets to support the revolutions in the air, such as the advance of racial justice or the peace opposition to Vietnam, they did not doubt the significance of their Protestant sensibility. Likewise, conservative evangelicals who began to separate from the mainline churches or who worked to transform their denominations, such as those who founded the Presbyterian Church in America or recovered the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, did so from a robust commitment to being Protestant.
Fast-forward fifty years, and Protestantism as a movement, as an idea, appears to be suffering. To cite a recent example, in the afterword to the collection Protestantism after 500 Years, historian Ronald Rittgers wondered, “Should there still be Protestantism after five hundred years? Should it still exist? Should the centuries-long ‘protest’ finally cease? Should the Reformation finally be over?” Rittgers grudgingly concludes that Protestants will exist no matter what he suggests, but he observes that the best we can say about them and their movement is that it represents a “tragic necessity,” one that he wishes would come to an end.
But should Protestantism die? Is there any value or even need for Protestants? Does the Reformation matter still, or should we simply view it as a “tragic necessity” that we must do all in our power to undo? Simply put, should we be Protestants still?
While no one denies that Protestantism en masse has significant problems, I do believe that Protestantism as a distinct idea and a movement remains vital, important, and necessary. In fact, the continuing legacy of the Reformation is our only hope for a robust and confessional Protestantism that will serve as a continual reforming agent for the global church.
The Word Did It
Why are there Protestants anyway? The first use of protestatio was at the second Diet of Speyer in 1529. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s envoy, Ferdinand, announced that the toleration from the first Diet of Speyer three years prior had come to an end. The Edicts of Worms would be enforced: German princes would not choose where their religious allegiances would be but rather would be required to support Roman Catholicism; Zwinglians and Anabaptists would be jailed or executed; and Charles would require the princes’ support in his war against the Turks who were approaching Vienna.
In response, six German princes representing fourteen imperial cities protested the action of the emperor. In their statement, they urged against the repeal of the 1526 settlement at Speyer “because this would be to deny our Lord Jesus Christ, to reject his holy Word, and thus give him just reason to deny us before the Father.” While the Edicts of Worms required that ministers should preach the gospel as explained by the “holy Christian church,” the princes noted “for this regulation to have any value, we should first agree on what is meant by the true and holy Church.” Such a true church would only preach doctrines “conformable to the Word of God.” Hence, the original Protestants made their stand on the supremacy of the Word of God for ensuring the purity of the church.
In a special way, Scripture serves as the central, organizing authority for the church. Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Huldrych Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, and Theodore Beza all appealed to Scripture as the norming norm for church life. Scripture reveals the marks of a true church and insists upon the purity of that church. For example, while the 1561 Belgic Confession affirms that Reformed believers are part of the “one holy and catholic church” (article 27), it also carefully delineates how the true church can be recognized:
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: the church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.
The marks of a true church come from Scripture, and they emphasize purity—pure preaching, pure administration of the sacraments, and real church discipline. But these marks lead back to God’s Word itself, both the written Word in Scripture and the living Word, Jesus.
John Calvin suggested similar things in his debate with Cardinal Sadoleto in 1539. Sadoleto, who served the Roman Catholic Church in southern France, had written to the leaders in Geneva after they exiled Calvin and William Farel, seeking to woo them back to Catholicism. From Strasbourg, Calvin defended his Protestant reforms by appealing to Scripture as the supreme authority. Against Sadoleto, who appealed to the witness of the Spirit in and through the church, Calvin wondered: “What comes of the Word of the Lord, that clearest of all marks, and which the Lord himself, in pointing out the Church, so often recommends to us? For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, He declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit, but in order that the government might not be vague or unstable, he annexed it to the Word.” The Word of God regulating worship and government is the clearest mark of a true, pure church.
And the only hope for the Protestant Reformers was that God’s Word would accomplish the renewal of the church. Luther himself would later reflect in a sermon, “I did nothing; the Word did everything.” That central Protestant commitment to the Word of God is the most significant legacy of Protestants today.
The Word Still Does It
As one looks around the religious landscape, the gospel appears to be advancing around the globe at an unthought-of speed. As Philip Jenkins noted in his now-classic The Next Christendom, the center of Christianity has moved to the Global South as God transforms families, countries, and even continents with the gospel. And yet, it is just here that I think the continuing legacy of the Reformation gives us courage to be Protestant and provides us with a platform to and for the global church.
And this is because even with the dizzying array of Protestant sects and Pentecostal movements, the Reformers’ insistence upon the supremacy of God’s Word—as the means of purifying the church and as that which provides the marks of the church—orients Christians back to God’s Word as the inspired, inerrant norm that norms. God’s Word judges us and our sense of the Spirit’s work, God’s Word corrects us and our claims of prophetic direction, and God’s Word teaches and trains us in church government and discipline, especially in the area of personal and social ethics.
And so, as we celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, may we not view the Reformation as a tragic necessity or even as a mistake. Instead, may we look to Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, and Bullinger as profoundly courageous leaders who returned to and submitted themselves to God’s Word as the means for personal and ecclesial reformation. May God raise up another generation that would seek to be reformed according to the Scriptures.