I am indebted to Timothy George, my colleague (and boss) for much that I understand about the Reformation. I have listened to his lectures and read his books to my great profit. Dr. George reminds me that all of us are the legacy of some very brave men and women who surfaced in the sixteenth century. Martin Luther was one of those who set the church of the middle ages on a course back toward the book of Acts. Sola Scriptura was to be one of his challenges to call us all back to the Bible. He didn't actually nail his ninety-five theses to the door until Halloween 1517, but as early as 1515 he had written:
"He who would read the Bible must simply take heed that he does not err, for the Scripture may permit itself to be stretched and led, but let no one lead it according to his own inclinations, but let him lead it to the source, that is, the cross of Christ. Then he will surely strike the center." Luther saw the church as having been created by the Word and not the other way around. "The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God." Further, he insisted at point blank, "The church does not constitute the Word of God, but it is constituted by the Word."
Luther, even before his formal break with the Roman church, knew that the Scripture must take precedence over the traditions of the church. He saw the Bible as the clothing of Christ - whenever, wherever he met Jesus, He came garbed in Scripture. "In the words of Scripture you will find the swaddling clothes in which Christ lies. Simple and little are the swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies in them."
Luther saw the church as growing out of the Word and not the other way around: "The Christian Church is your mother, who gives birth to you and bears you up through the Word," he wrote in one place. To those who refused to see the church as it was, Luther could be a bit "in your face." He actually denounced the pope as the Antichrist and referred to the papist hierarchy as the "Whore church of the Devil."
In 1535, Luther wrote a hymn, the first four lines of which express his adoration of the Word-created church.
"To me she's dear, the worthy maid,
And I cannot forget her:
Praise, honor, virtue of her are said,
Then all I love her better."
It was strong stuff and strongly worded. Yet, in the middle of a decadent church, nothing less than strong stuff would call the church to account.
The German Reformation was born during the sovereignty of six popes who sat between 1470 and 1530. So decadent was the church during that time that Luther and other sincere people of God were pressed even to see it as the Bride of Christ.
So October 31, 1517 became the day of declaration. Luther may have picked this "eve of all Saints Hallows" (Halloween to us) because November 1 was a day to honor the martyrs. Martyrs always died bearing witness to the truth and Luther must have known how perilous this might be to his health. Still, the just were to live by their faith and the price required he was content to pay.
As Baptists, we must realize the Bible is our creating Word. It forms the church. If God is a Mighty Fortress, then surely the Word of God is the charter of her citizenship. It might do us all good to remember to preach the Bible and preach on the Bible, just so we won't forget our birthright.
Based on material from The Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.
Calvin Miller is professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.