Few, if any, events in the 2,000-year history of Christianity have been written about more than what is commonly called the Protestant Reformation. It fits the description of a watershed event, in that it literally altered the trajectory of history.
Yet, as those who identify themselves as Christians across the globe celebrate or at least remember those events of the 16th and 17th century, questions remain. It can be argued that the Protestant movement was one in a long line of attempts at reform in the western church. However, while these earlier attempts at reform were directed at the moral laxity of the clergy (both lay and monastic), the aspect of Protestant Reformation that received the most attention were the reforms in basic theological constructs.
Specifically, the issues of soteriology and what constituted justification and righteousness. Theological anthropology also received a great deal of ink. Was man essentially good or evil? What happened to humanity at the Fall, and how can the depravity inherited by the descendants of Adam and Eve recover from the inherited stain and guilt of sin? Can the Bible, now in the hands of the laypeople in the vernacular, provide answers to some of these questions?
Others question how effective the Protestant Reformation was when most of Europe remained Roman Catholic. However, when one considers that most of the Nordic countries, i.e., Norway, Denmark, and Sweden became officially Lutheran, England became officially Anglican, and pockets of the Reformed and the different radical traditions were found all over Europe, it is difficult to dismiss the Protestant Reformation as just another reform movement.
Were people’s lives changed by this religious upheaval? This is a complicated question. As some of the great nobles, kings, and princes supported the different reform movements, some of their subjects changed alliances as well. It proved to be unwise to remain with an expression of Christianity when your Lord has decided to change. Look at what happened in England and France. Yet some commentators have pointed to the findings of representatives of Luther who were sent out to discover how the new Lutheran churches were doing. What they found out by most accounts was that the moral lives of the laity remained unchanged.
Therefore, in light of these and other questions, is there a unique voice that Adventists can contribute to the celebrations? Let me suggest a possible answer.
First, most Adventists would agree that Adventism is an inheritor of the Protestant Reformation. Most of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church came from other Protestant churches. In that sense, they were making decisions to escape what they saw as churches that were no longer the true representatives of the body of Christ.
“Apostate Protestantism” found its way into the Adventist lexicon. Hopefully, that view of other expressions of Christianity has been abandoned. And while many of these denominations find themselves in 2017 removed from their founders and from each other, their history remains. And part of that history is a reminder that the central theological issue of the Reformation was the correct understanding of justification by faith. Luther, more than any of the other reformers, went to battle over this issue with both the Roman Catholic legates and theologians, as well as various radical reformers.
Adventists, primarily through the writings of Ellen White in the first years, but followed by others as Adventism moved into the 20th century and now in the 21st century, have a history of believing in a doctrine of salvation that comes from an understanding of the biblical text which has been articulated by the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the church at Ephesus. Chapters 1 and 2:
[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as [children] by Jesus Christ Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will … by which [God] has made us accepted in the Beloved … For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves’ it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
Roger S. Evans, PhD, is Professor of Historical Theology and Chair of the Department of History at Payne Theological Seminary.
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