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Was it Really Necessary? Thoughts on the Reformation

Category Articles
Date November 28, 2008

Christianity is the religion of the Gospel. The Gospel was defined by William Tyndale, the Bible translator, as ‘good merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him to dance and sing and leap for joy’. ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, evermore his praises sing’, we might add.

But as time passed, a change came. Righteousness was no longer regarded as a state of acceptance with God, brought about through faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour from sin. It became something to be acquired by good works, something to be hoped for in heaven, not something to be sure about. Similarly, the idea of sin was influenced by Roman law rather than by Scripture. Sin was classified as venial or mortal, and the punishment for sin carried both a temporary penalty and an eternal penalty. This change of outlook coincided with a new view of the sacraments. A person was regarded as having been justified, that is, accounted righteous, by baptism, but this state of righteousness was lost by mortal sin and could only be restored by the sacrament of penance. Venial sin, on the other hand, had to be ‘worked off’ by good works. There would never be enough time in life to complete this process, so venial sin would have to be paid for by suffering in purgatory after death. Mortal sin, however, carried a temporary penalty which the sacrament of penance could not reach, and therefore it had to be punished in purgatory. A person dying in mortal sin, without absolution by a priest, was destined for hell. The priest in confession had the power of absolution, just as a Roman judge, sitting in his curule chair, had the power of life and death, the ius gladii (‘the right of the sword’).

The result of this change of outlook was to make the penitent, confessing his sin, full of anxiety, and to give to the priest enormous power, that of giving or refusing God’s forgiveness for sin. The original joyful certainly of acceptance with God was lost, and the individual faced death with anxiety. To say that one was sure of their salvation was regarded as presumption.

The Lord’s Supper was, as its name implies, the gathering of Christians around the Lord’s table on his day. Christians did what he told them to do, meeting in his name and receiving the bread and wine in remembrance of him. But as time went on, it was thought that a mystical change took place in the bread and wine by virtue of their consecration by a priest. Instead of signifying the body and blood of Christ, it was thought that they actually became the body and blood by a process known as transubstantiation. This became the official doctrine of the Church in 1215. At the same time the Supper was regarded as a sacrifice, the sacrifice of the Mass, and this was acknowledged as the doctrine of the Church by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Once again, the power of the priest became enormous. Instead of being a preacher of the Gospel he became a sacrificing official. It is worth noting that the word ‘priest’ has a double meaning. In Greek the word hiereus means a sacrificing individual and this word is never used in the New Testament of a Christian minister. On the other hand ‘priest’ is used in the Prayer Book, and it is used as the equivalent of the Greek presbuteros which means an ‘elder’. The English word ‘minister’ describes someone who has been called and ordained to minister in the Church as bishop, priest or deacon, or pastor.

The Reformation began when Tetzel, the agent of the Pope, began to sell ‘indulgences’ which he claimed would release souls from purgatory. Luther attacked this teaching, nailing up his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Reformation was a revolt against purgatory and transubstantiation and the power of priesthood because people had begun to read and study the Bible and they found a great contrast between what they read and what went on around them. The printing of the Bible and its distribution raised the question of authority. In course of time authority had come to mean chiefly the authority of the Pope, who had originally been simply the Bishop of Rome but had gradually acquired hegemony over Italy and what was left of the western Empire. Hobbes described the Papacy as ‘the ghost of Caesarism, hooded and sceptred’. With the break-up of the Roman Empire the popes stepped into the place vacated by the emperors. Some of the popes were able men such as Leo I or Gregory I, but as Lord Acton said, ‘All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Men like Innocent III claimed enormous power and occasions arose for them to use it. Boniface VIII said it was absolutely necessary for salvation that every soul should be subject to the Roman pontiff. But the time came when the threat of Papal wrath was no longer effective. The authority of the Bible, the inspired Word of God, is the source of truth for the Protestant. And we should notice that a Protestant is a Christian who witnesses for the truth, as well as one who rejects error. From the Bible we see that the Church is the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Prayer Book describes it as ‘the blessed company of all faithful people’. We are united in fellowship (koinonia), as we all share faith in the living Christ. The Church exists to make Christ known and it must rely at all times on the power of the Holy Spirit.

There is a great difference between a Protestant minister and a Catholic priest. The Protestant rejoices in the one sacrifice of Jesus for the sin of the world, a sacrifice which can never be repeated. The Catholic doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass, however, seeks to add to, or in someway to complete, what was done once and for all, and done perfectly. The word ephapax, ‘once for all’, is a key word, as the Prayer Book makes clear. It really is necessary to be a Protestant.

This article by Rev Dr Edgar Dowse of Isleworth, Middlesex, is taken with permission from The Gospel Magazine, November-December 2008.

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