I recently traveled to the Middle East with seminarians from around the States. On one occasion, during an impassioned discussion with a student with very different theological views, we came to realize that virtually all our disagreements boil down to one fundamental thing: Reformation distinctives. I insisted that the Protestant Reformation was utterly necessary; he wasn’t so sure.
How relevant is the Reformation? That’s the question Carl Trueman, professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, explores in Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. “I want to argue,” Trueman writes, “that key insights of the Reformers are as relevant today—and as applicable to situations today—as they were in the sixteenth century” (12–13).
Originally delivered as a series of lectures, Reformation is divided into four chapters: “The Pearl of Great Price,” which sets the framework and considers the Reformation’s relevance for today; “Meeting the Man of Sorrows,” which explains and applies Luther’s theology of the cross; “The Oracles of God,” which focuses on the nature of Scripture and place of preaching in the life of the church; and “Blessed Assurance,” which examines the oft-neglected biblical doctrine of assurance. Overall, this little book is a goldmine of historical insight and contemporary application.
The Reformed Need Reformation Too
Trueman’s working definition of the Reformation is simple and broad: “[The] Reformation represents a move to place God as he has revealed himself in Christ at the centre of the church’s life and thought” (17). As he proceeds to explain this statement, Trueman is quick to challenge those on his own team along the way. After all, his aim isn’t simply “to rescue the Reformation from its detractors; it also needs to be rescued from some of its friends” (13). He explains, “There is a brand of Christian for whom the fact that ‘it’—whether an aspect of practice, a form of words, a particular doctrine—was held by the Reformers is a straightforward knock down argument for saying that ‘it’ is right for today” (13). It’s clear that Trueman has little patience for such thoughtless traditionalism.
After proposing that the usefulness of Reformation theology lies in its distinctive emphasis upon God, Trueman once again turns his gaze toward certain believers today: “[If] we simply use the Reformation as a resource for categorising the piety of all other groups as inferior, we will have failed in the basic task of contemporary reformation” (23). We must ask ourselves: does the accent on God featured so prominently in our rhetoric appear likewise in our life? Ironically, when those who pride themselves in being God-centered spend their time scoffing at those who seemingly aren’t, God gets sidelined. Those who champion the centrality of God, then, must be careful not to become the very thing they bemoan. After all, one can be confessionally God-centered, yet functionally something else altogether.
Gleanings from Luther
Trueman is convinced that evangelicals would do well to recover Luther’s theology of the cross. Since the cross was the heartbeat of Luther’s theology, “any programme of reformation which seeks to honour the work of God in and through Luther must take to its heart the message of the cross” (58). Indeed, Calvary is “where theology must begin and end . . . the source and principle by which all theological statements must be judged and understood” (42). The cross is the preeminent place where God’s attributes shine forth with all their interrelated brilliance.
While those in Trueman’s theological tradition have historically upheld the doctrine of propitiation, many have tended to downplay other dimensions of Christ’s suffering. “[The] cross is not simply God’s saving action on behalf of sinful humanity,” Trueman writes. “Of course, it is never less than that, and that indeed stands at the very heart of its meaning. But it is also a demonstration of how God acts in general, how he achieves those purposes which he intends” (51). In other words, the cross is the supreme example of an assumption-inverting pattern that regularly works itself out in the stuff of Christian life. Suffering precedes glory. The way down is the way up.
Even in our therapeutic and medicated age, suffering is inescapably familiar to us all. A believer’s “horizons of expectation,” then, should correspond with reality as revealed by God in Christ, not as represented by cushy human preference. To employ Luther’s categories, problems arise the moment we apply a “theology of glory” to situations that demand a “theology of the cross.” Trueman asks, “Is the church weak and despised by society at the moment? Well, that is sad; but on another level, who cares? We are not meant to be respectable, to have political influence, to be an organisation that those outside admire for our slickness and savvy” (67). We’re called to be faithful by biblical standards, not successful by worldly ones.
Preach the Word
Trueman contends that the Reformation was “a movement of words—written words, printed words, spoken words” (71). Above all, however, it was “a movement of the Word—incarnate in Christ and written down in the Scriptures” (71).
Practically, the proclamation of the Word must retain (or recover) its centrality in the gathered life of the congregation, even in a day when preaching is often dismissed as passé. “The first place, then, in which church reformation starts is the pulpit,” Trueman asserts. “The Word written and the Word preached are both central to Christianity and are not simply cultural forms which can be shed when culture moves on” (82).
Trueman also issues a stern warning for those who preach: “If a man mounts a pulpit and cannot set his people’s heart on fire for the Bible, then he had better not step into the pulpit at all, for to put Christians off hearing and reading the Word of God has to be one of the most serious acts one can commit” (96).
A Disregarded Doctrine
A pivotal yet seldom emphasized aspect of Reformation theology is the doctrine of assurance. In fact, Trueman remarks, a church that doesn’t “place assurance somewhere near the centre of its concerns” (106) fails to be truly Protestant.
Trueman suggests that, when it comes to assurance, most contemporary evangelicals can be divided into two broad camps: “legalists” and “emotional high-fliers” (107). Legalists are those ultra-cautious folks for whom assurance is well nigh impossible. Emotional high-fliers, on the other hand, tend to have shallow and unreflective views of assurance. Whether introspective moralism or cheery triumphalism, both traditions deviate from the Reformers by acting as if the essence of assurance is experience. For the Reformers, however, assurance was primarily about the trustworthiness of God, not the rickety ups and downs of human experience.
True Christian assurance, Trueman writes, is “backward looking with regard to its foundation but forward looking in its orientation” (124). In other words, believers can enjoy assurance in the present because of God’s acts in the past and his unassailable promises for the future.
Reformation is a helpful guide for considering how insights of the Reformers can be thoughtfully applied to our contemporary context. May God grant us grace to learn much from these great forebears, all the while protecting our hearts from a posture of either juvenile deification on the one hand or snobbish dismissal on the other.