What can the church today learn from the Magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century? I believe that it is vital for the church, in particular the church in the West, to embrace the high regard for the primacy of Scripture that the sixteenth century Reformers contended for. It should go without saying that for any and all Christians, the knowledge of Jesus Christ and His Word are absolutely essential, without which a true biblical church could never exist.
The message of the sixteenth century Reformers came to be summarized in what is known as the five “solas.” Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone). The foundation of Scriptural authority (sola Scriptura) is the basis for the other four solas of the Reformation. Without recognition of the ultimate authority of the Bible, all other doctrinal studies remain, for the most part, subjective.
Steve Lawson in his book Pillars of Grace (published by Reformation Trust), when referring to the Reformation, contends that “sola Scriptura, was the defining benchmark of the movement.” He goes on to say that “there are only three possible forms of spiritual authority. First, there is the authority of the Lord and His written revelation. Second, there is the authority of the church and its leaders. Third, there is the authority of human reason. When the Reformers cited ‘Scripture alone,’ they were expressing their commitment to the authority of God as expressed through the Bible.” In The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (published by Reformation Trust), Lawson says that the “Reformation was a series of strategic events involving many people in many places. At its core, it was an attempt to bring the church back to the singular authority of Scripture and the purity of the gospel.”
The Bible alone is the ultimate authority upon which all church leaders are to submit. Church councils, traditions and practices must be subjected to the close examination of biblical authority. Martin Luther did not believe that church councils or traditions were to be thrown aside. He believed that tradition must be subject to the authority of the Bible. If any creed, papal declaration, or church council contradicted or could not be supported by the inspired revelation of God as given in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, then they are to be rejected.
The Reformation was essentially a crisis over which authority (church or Scripture) should have predominance. The Roman Catholic Church claimed that the church’s authority lay with Scripture and tradition. Rome held and still holds to the belief that the traditions of the church take precedence over the Scriptures, for the Scriptures must be interpreted in the light of the authority of the church. The Reformers said “no” to this belief and stated emphatically that the authority belonged to Scripture alone. The church is to be judged by the Word of God, not the other way around.
Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church, (Volume VII, 17) says the following about the Reformers: “While the Humanists went back to the ancient classics and revived the spirit of Greek and Roman paganism, the Reformers went back to the sacred Scriptures in the original languages and revived the spirit of apostolic Christianity. They were fired by an enthusiasm for the gospel, such as had never been known since the days of Paul. Christ rose from the tomb of human traditions and preached again His words of life and power. The Bible, heretofore a book of priests only, was now translated anew and better than ever into the vernacular tongues of Europe, and made a book of the people. Every Christian man could henceforth go to the fountain-head of inspiration, and sit at the feet of the Divine Teacher, without priestly permission and intervention.”
Alister McGrath, in his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (Harper One), says that it is “precisely because Jesus Christ stands at the heart of the Christian faith, that Protestants argue, so must the Bible…The Bible is the means by which Christ is displayed, proclaimed, and manifested. Why read scripture? For Calvin, the answer was as clear as it was simple: because by doing so we come ‘to know Jesus Christ truly, and the infinite riches which are included in him and are offered to us by God the Father.’”