The Briefing 11-01-17

The Briefing 11-01-17

The Briefing

November 1, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, November 1, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

We’ll consider how the secular world remembers the Reformation, we’ll see the crucial question of evangelical identity, and we’ll note the true unity of the church in the gospel. All of these headline news stories for the past 500 years.

Part I

On 500th anniversary of Protestant Reformation, secular world considers its vast impact

Yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of what we know as the Protestant Reformation. It was really interesting over the last few days and especially yesterday to look at the international media coverage of what they knew was a big story, but a story they clearly didn’t understand. Yesterday morning, the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, began with a story about the historical significance of the Reformation and it quickly got to matters of politics and sociology and economics. Now to be clear, there were political and cultural, social and economic impacts of the Reformation. As a matter fact, you can’t explain modern Western cultures without explaining the impact of the Reformation. It was the Reformation that separated what had been the union of what were known as the throne and the altar in the ancient and medieval worlds, which is to say there was an absolute identification between the ruler, the throne, and the altar, the church. The Reformation effectively broke those bonds, and, furthermore, the Reformation broke other bonds and other patterns as well.

Historians are generally agreed that you cannot explain modern democratic forms of government without explaining the Reformation and its understanding of the individual, the individual as a citizen, of the limited claims that a government can make upon the individual, and also the rise of the nationstate in the modern sense. Economically, the Reformation was vast in terms of its influence and its impact. When you consider our modern economic lives, you understand, that the Reformation had an immediate impact. The reformers made legitimate the use of capital in a way that had never been considered before. With the rise of the Reformation also came the rise of what we now know as the middle class, and, of course, back in the 19th century you had the rise of arguments tracing what was known as the Protestant work ethic back to the Reformation, beginning, of course, in Wittenberg where Luther affirmed something very similar but in a more amplified way to Geneva and the Reformation that took place there — the Calvinist Reformation — in which it was understood that one of the purposes for human existence was human labor and exertion to the glory of God and that God’s blessing was seen in the rewards that came by that exertion, by that employment of labor, by that investment in the economy.

Even today economic historians point to the distinction between the cultures of northern Europe, overwhelmingly shaped by the Reformation, and southern Europe, less affected by the Reformation, more traditionally Catholic nations. Those societies are distinct in terms of the work ethic that is involved. In northern Europe there is considered to be an appropriate guilt for failing to work; that’s something that doesn’t show up in the same way in southern Europe. The definitions and the distinctions made between work and leisure, well, this has a great deal to do with theology, as it turns out, but listeners to The Briefing know theology always matters; it’s always lurking, pretty clearly under the surface, if under the surface at all.

But, of course, the most interesting aspect of this story has been the ardent determination on the part of the international media to acknowledge the Reformation as an important event and this 500th anniversary, thus, as a very important milestone without having to deal with theology. Theology is the one thing that most in the secular media feel that they can’t possibly touch because they are generally alien from any kind of explicit theological thought. The media as a class tend to be even more secular than other elements of the elites in the United States and Europe, so they also feel themselves to be less equipped to deal with theological issues. So why is the Reformation important? Again, it’s been interesting to see how there can be very legitimate ways of arguing for the importance of the Reformation in terms of politics, economics, national identity, also other cultural manifestations, but, of course, for Christians, the most important issue is the theological impact of the Reformation, the theological meaning and motivation for what we now call the Protestant Reformation.

That 500th anniversary reminds us of the fact that as creatures with a memory, and by the way that memory is a part of being made in the image of God, we are stewards of that memory. One of the most important of our human responsibilities, thus, one of most important of our Christian responsibilities, is to fulfill the appropriate and faithful stewardship of that memory. One of the most important aspects of fulfilling that stewardship of memory is to ask and then to answer the right questions. Some of the most crucial questions related to the Reformation have to do with questions such as these: Was the Reformation necessary?; Was the Reformation a mistake?; Was the Reformation, as some say, a failure?; and, Is the Reformation over?

The question ‘Was the Reformation necessary?’ is made abundantly clear by an honest assessment of what was faced by reformers such as Martin Luther 500 years ago when he posted those 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. Many contemporary observers say that Martin Luther was in the main, if not exclusively aggravated about corrupt practices of the church, corrupt practices that even Catholic authorities had acknowledged during the time, but a close look reveals that Martin Luther was not only theologically offended by corrupt practices that were horrifyingly corrupt, but he was also very troubled by the absence of the gospel. As those 95 theses made clear, beginning with the very first of those theses, Martin Luther understood that the church had replaced the biblical doctrine of repentance with the sacrament of penance. Martin Luther understood immediately the difference. The problem was not just the unbiblical nature of the Catholic teaching on the sacrament of penance, along with other sacraments, it was not just the corrupt practices that grew out of that, including the teaching and the sale concerning indulgences, it’s not just that penance was being taught, and, furthermore, that pardon was being sold, it was that repentance and the gospel were not being preached, that they had been covered over, obscured to the point of invisibility by the sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually Martin Luther would trace that back to several of the most fundamental theological issues. He would track back the problem, the loss of the gospel and all these unbiblical teachings and practices, the very corruption of the church that had first come to his attention; he traced all of those back to a faulty theology in the absence of the gospel. And he traced that back to a false claim being made by the Roman Catholic Church concerning the papacy, the priesthood, and the magisterium of the church, and he traced that back to the abandonment of the sole authority of Scripture. For Luther it was like understanding what it means to peel and onion, its layer by layer and you have to get to the core of the problem. Luther eventually came to the understanding that the core of the problem was that the Roman Catholic Church no longer taught the gospel and that it resisted any correction by the Word of God in Scripture.

Part II

Why, contrary to arguments made by some, the Reformation was not a failure

The media conversation of the last several days about these questions has been genuinely fascinating. Fox News ran an essay by theologian Peter Leithart that was entitled and I quote,

“The Reformation, led by Luther, failed. Here’s how we could finally reunite the Christian church.”

Now, that’s quite a bold accusation in the headline, but that’s a charge that Leithart actually makes inside the article itself. He makes the argument that the Reformation failed, that Martin Luther failed because the reformers had failed to re-Christianize Europe, and to reunite Christians in terms of one body, of one church. But as you look at the article, it becomes clear that the essay probably tells us a great deal more about Peter Leithart than actually about Luther or the Reformation. He says that,

“The cultural and political effects of the Reformation were huge. Our world was made, for good and ill, by the Reformation.”

Then he says,

“We don’t even know that we live among ruins.”

The primary ruins that Leithart points to is the loss of a Christian identity, the breakup of Christendom in terms of Western civilization, and the schism, as he sees it, between two churches; the Protestant churches, on one hand, and the Roman Catholic Church, on the other. Leithart writes,

“Despite their achievements, the Reformers failed. The gospel took hold in some pockets, but it didn’t reform the whole church or re-Christianize Europe.”

He says,

“The Reformation failed because it fragmented the Western church. Protestants were forced out of the Catholic Church, and soon Protestants began squabbling among themselves.”

Leithart then makes a very helpful observation that

“The Reformers [had] denied that the word ‘catholic,’ [as he says] means ‘universal,’ was equivalent to ‘Roman.’”

He says, and I quote,

“The church is catholic because, in all times and places, there is only one church.”

Again, the reformers would’ve affirmed that, and so would I, but it’s the larger argument that is the problem. He then goes on, correctly, to say that

“Children in Geneva, Switzerland, where Reformation leader John Calvin lived, were taught to believe in one Catholic Church.”

Calvin’s catechism states, as Leithart rightly records,

“As there is but one Head of the faithful so they ought all to be united in one body.”

Now what’s crucial for our understanding is that Peter Leithart makes the argument that the Reformation failed on two primary accounts. It failed because Europe has now been effectively de-Christianized, it has been increasingly secularized. The Christian identity of Europe has been forfeited, and, in many cases, intentionally forgotten. And then, secondly, Leithart says the reformers failed because of the schism of the church because of the separation of Catholicism from Protestantism. Christ’s body, he says, is now severed into these two different churches. But of course to follow this logic, as he makes very clear in one of his recent books, it would not only be the division between two churches, the Protestants and Roman Catholics, but between three with the Eastern Orthodox also included amongst the separated brethren.

But my response to these observations is that it is clear that the primary concern of the reformers was not the re-Christianization of Europe, but rather the purity of the church and the preaching of the gospel. And secondly, it’s clear that the reformers themselves gave birth to what we now know as confessional Protestantism, that is the fact that the Protestant churches are established upon their own confessions of faith, but the third observation is this, we as Protestant evangelicals do believe in the fact that there is one Catholic church. By that we mean a little “c.” What we mean is one genuine reality of the body of Christ on earth. We believe that all genuine believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are in that church, but we do not believe that Christ’s mandate for unity in his church is primarily organizational. It is rather evangelical. That’s the origin of the very word evangelical; the unity of all true Christians is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But this gets to the even deeper observation that the reformers did not understand Christendom to be divided into either two or three churches. They understood that where there is no preaching of the gospel, the first mark of the church, there is no church, and both Luther and Calvin were very clear about the fact that they did not recognize the Roman Catholic church as a church, thus, they did not recognize a schism or a division in the church. And, furthermore, one of the greatest acts of respect that an evangelical can give to a Roman Catholic, that evangelicals can give to the Roman Catholic church, is to take Roman Catholics at their word when they tell us what they believe. And so as you’re looking at the divisions that took place between the Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century, you have to understand that on the most crucial questions, those divisions are not narrower, as Protestant liberals and more liberally minded Catholics, they are often referred to as ecumenist, committed to the ecumenical movement, would have us to believe.

For example, if you take some of the most basic divisions, for instance, justification by faith alone, the Roman Catholic church conclusively answered in rejecting justification by faith alone at the Council of Trent, just a generation after Luther. And furthermore, even though there have been ecumenical Catholics and liberal Protestants who have now agreed on what’s called a joint declaration on justification, the reality is that the Roman Catholic church actually just re-stated that doctrine of justification that it has held in a more Protestant friendly way, and more liberal Protestant’s simply said we can agree with that too.

And, again, just offering respect to Roman Catholics to take them at their own word and to follow carefully the teachings, the official teachings, of their own church, it is very clear that the issues of division on, for instance, the doctrines concerning Mary are not now closer, but rather further apart. The doctrinal declarations concerning the immaculate conception and the bodily Assumption of Mary came far after the Reformation, so did the declaration concerning papal infallibility. Furthermore, in rejecting sola scriptura the Roman Catholic church, and again we will respect the clarity by which that church has spoken, the Roman Catholic church has made very clear the fact that the magisterium of the church is, in their view, the only authorized interpreter of Scripture and the tradition of the church is understood to be a confluent stream with scriptural revelation in terms of understanding the Word of God.

Part III

As it was 500 years ago, the church must continue to be reformed by the Word of God

The Washington Post ran a series of articles considering the Reformation. Some of those articles reflected the modern secular confusion, but one of them was written by Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at the Duke Divinity School. Stanley Hauerwas, as the headline declares, said that

“The Reformation is over. Protestants won. So why are we still here?”

Now that’s a very interesting argument. It’s an argument that shows up elsewhere, suggesting that the reformers wanted to bring about the reform of the Catholic church, over time that happened, so the disagreement is basically over. But what that fails to recognize is that the reforms brought about in the Roman Catholic church, right down to Vatican II that took place in the 1960s, did indeed change the Roman Catholic church, but actually changed it, we can now argue, in a direction that made it more akin and aligned to Protestant liberalism, rather than historic evangelical Protestant theology. The Protestant reformers themselves understood that the Reformation was not over by the time of their deaths, indeed, it’s not over now. We can’t declare it to be over because the ongoing work of the Reformation of the church by the Word of God has to continue until Jesus comes and claims his church. That crucial formula, the right way of saying that, is very, very important. It is not merely semper reformanda, “may the Reformation continue”, it is “may the Reformation continue as the church is reformed by the Word of God,” that is reformed by the Scriptures. Ultimately, that is the issue. The church always has to seek and to pray and to work towards being more faithful, according to the Word of God. That is a project we can never declare to be over because that work is never done until Jesus comes and completes it and accomplishes it. Until then we’ve got to keep preaching and teaching the Word of God, and we’ve got to pray that the church will be reformed according to God’s Word.

And then we also need to note that there is a unity, a true gospel unity, in Christ’s church. A true unity under Christ as head. Five hundred years after the Reformation, the amazing thing is that there is a basic gospel unity amongst evangelical Christians, amongst Protestants, who still hold to confessional Protestantism. That unity includes, but is certainly not limited to, the historic doctrines concerning Christ and the Trinity that mark Orthodox Christianity. Beyond that, it also includes, necessarily, all five of the so-called solas: justification through faith alone, by grace alone, according to Christ alone, on the basis of Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. Wherever you find those biblical truths, which means the gospel being preached and taught, defended and shared, you find a true gospel church. Even as we may differ on some doctrines, and we will, the reality is that so long as the gospel is preached, as Calvin and Luther and the other reformers recognized, there is a church, a true church, a gospel church. That’s the most important unity and that’s the unity that matters. You place that over against what many are calling for as an institutional or organizational unity of the church, what would that require? It would require the most minimal of doctrinal agreements. It would require forfeiting a great deal of our conviction. Indeed, as the reformers understood, it would mean forfeiting the gospel itself. Now and then we have to recognize that is a price that is too high to pay. The Reformation was not a mistake. It was not merely a misunderstanding. It wasn’t a failure, and it’s not over. But as yesterday we marked the 500th anniversary, just think of that in terms of historical memory, in terms of human experience; the 500th anniversary of the date whereby we trace the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation to that little town in Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years later, we need to thank God for the Reformation that he brought in his church. And even as other headline stories will deservedly demand our attention as Christians, we dare not miss over a story that’s been headline news for 500 years.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at You can call me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to Remember that the Here We Stand conference, marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, continues today through tomorrow morning. You can watch the plenary sessions live at For information on Boyce College, go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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