The State of the Church before the Reformation

Alister McGrath
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

Why was there a Reformation? What was the church like just before the Reformation took place? Why did the Reformation have to happen? By looking at these questions we can begin to gain some understanding of our own situation today.

One of the reasons why the Reformation happened is that there was a rediscovery of the attractiveness of the gospel. A new generation arose, who by reading the New Testament firsthand began to discover for themselves that here was something exciting, something life changing, which was like new wine, which just couldn’t be contained in the old wine skins of the church of the late Middle Ages. So underlying everything I’m going to say was this sense of excitement and rediscovery of the gospel. And there was a realization that there was a need to bring this into the sixteenth century, that the medieval church was lacking something. But by studying Scripture, by rediscovering the doctrine of grace, something was made available that gave new life, new meaning, new purpose to the church back in those days. You and I can rediscover today that as well.

In my hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a house owned by my grandparents. It is one of these great big old rambling houses built back in the 1890s. At the top of the house is this kind of attic, which is where my grandparents stored all the things they picked up in their youth and their early married life. Why did they do this? Their answer was, “You never know when these things come in useful.” That’s what the Reformation is like in many ways. It is about realizing that we can turn to our Christian past and rediscover the things that are there, that we’ve neglected, that we have forgotten—things that can be useful today. Studying history is not simply some kind of nostalgia, some kind of feeling that says, “Oh, they always did things better in the past.” No, it’s saying, “Look, we can reach into the past to enrich the present. We can reach into the past and discover things we need to hear today. It is a resource you and I can access as we try to face the tasks for today’s church.”

One of the big themes, then, is rediscovering the gospel. But the other side, which I’ll address here, is that things had become pretty bad in the late Middle Ages. One thing you will notice is that these problems seem to be emerging again. Woody Allen once said, “History repeats itself. It has to; nobody listens the first time around.” I want to impress on you the need for us to rediscover some of the ideas from the Reformation, because we are beginning to experience the same problems to which the Reformation was a solution.

Here is one of the first areas I want to look at. The late Middle Ages saw the church undergo a period of doctrinal confusion. People were not sure what they believed, nor were they sure why they believed it. This resulted in the church lacking any sense of certainty about what they believed or why they believed it. There arose a generation of Christians who didn’t understand what the gospel was all about. That was enormously important for a whole range of things. One of the great themes of the doctrine of justification is that it answers the question, “What must I do to be saved?” That is an important question for a lot of people, and it is a question that needs to be answered. Yet in the late Middle Ages, people weren’t certain how to answer that question at all. What must you do to be saved? Let me tell you a story to bring out the importance of this point.

In 1510 in northern Italy, there was a group of about twenty Italian noblemen who met regularly to pray and to talk. An important issue for them was this question of knowing how you could be sure you were saved. It’s still an important issue for us. In the end, the group decided there was no way of answering this, so the group split into two parts. One group felt that the only way of being sure they were going to be saved was to go to the nearest monastery and spend the rest of their lives there. The others felt that somehow you had to be able to live your life as a Christian in the world and be sure that your sins had been forgiven. But they weren’t sure that this was what the church taught. The point I’m trying to make is that this is a big question. It is a question we will surely be expected to answer. But these guys didn’t. They weren’t stupid. They weren’t uneducated. Like most people in their day and age, they just did not know.

One of the themes of the Reformation is bringing to consciousness the great truths of the Christian faith. Karl Heim, one of the renowned historians of the Reformation, once wrote a line about his Calvinist friends. He said the Calvinist knows what he believes and why. Heim made the point that the Reformation brought with it a rediscovery of the truths of the Christian faith—a rebirth of Christian understanding and Christian knowledge—something that wasn’t there in the late Middle Ages. Instead, there was confusion and a lack of understanding.

Again, I sense this is beginning to happen to us today for all kinds of reasons. One of them is that people these days are often too experience oriented. What’s Christianity all about? Well, they’ll say, “It’s about my experience of God”—and it is. Experience of God is of enormous importance. Without an experience of God, we are simply talking about an external formal shell with no fire for life. Nevertheless, that is a part of the Christian faith. There’s intellectual depth there, and it has a converting power based on the strength of its ideas. If we don’t know and understand this, then we sell the gospel short talking about our subjective appreciation of the gospel but not the objective truth it brings to our lives. So that is one important area where there were problems in the late Middle Ages. I think the same thing is beginning to happen today.

Let me move on and look at another major area that caused problems in the late Middle Ages: the clergy. The clergy in the late Middle Ages tended to be not well informed. They were often the target of abuse and ridicule because they knew so little. This reflected the fact that the social status of clergy wasn’t very high, but deeper down there was something much more worrisome: all the clergy needed to do was tend to the pastoral needs of their flock and not worry about anything else. There was no teaching ministry grounded in the word of God. There was no sense of mission or evangelism. Bear in mind, we’re talking about late fifteenth-century Europe, where the assumption was that everybody was a Christian, so there was no need to evangelize.

The result was that people didn’t like the clergy, who had certain privileges. For example, they were exempt from taxation, and they were exempt from compulsory military service. Above all, they were not well informed, and they were not seen to play a decisive or important role in the life of the church. With the Reformation, this changed in a big way. It changed because enormous emphasis came to be placed upon the teaching role of the clergy. The clergy were there to enable their people to discover in its full depths the wonder and the glory of the gospel. They were there to open the word of God for their people, to help them discover what they had already discovered—namely, the depth and the attractiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So the clergy began to discover a role based on their understanding of the gospel and their passionate concern to communicate this—again, taking excitement in what God had done for them through the cross of Jesus Christ, wanting their people to share in this, to know that they were benefiting from it. So we see in the late Middle Ages a church whose clergy had ceased to have any teaching function. The Reformation restored the vital elements of teaching and evangelism to the ministers of the church, which was a much needed correction. I think it’s a correction we also need to rediscover today.

In the late Middle Ages, Christianity tended to be formal and external. In other words, it was simply about people doing certain things, maybe believing certain things. But often there was no sense of personal commitment or personal appropriation of the gospel. In other words, if you were a Christian, then you would behave in certain ways, as in attending church. Christianity was defined in terms of what you did. There was little sense of the dynamic, something transforming, something that could take hold of your life and turn it inside out. We see this change in a number of ways as the Reformation began to dawn.

It changed a bit through the doctrine of justification by faith, which invited its heroes to discover the wonderful truth that we can experience the touch of God’s forgiving grace even though we are sinners. This was an enormously important insight for the Reformers, for here was something that made the gospel relevant to the world of ordinary people. The Reformation made this connection between the gospel and the experiential world of ordinary people. We are not talking simply about people being told to do certain things. We are talking about the gospel being able to bring new life, new hope to ordinary people, connecting the gospel to people, helping them to discover what the gospel could mean in their lives. So there was a rediscovery of the inward aspects of the gospel, taking delight in its objective truth but nonetheless insisting it also had a subjective impact on people’s lives.

The relevance of the gospel, therefore, moved away from mere outward observance to a discovery of what the gospel can mean to our inward lives. Luther talked a lot about the importance of experience in the Christian life. In one of his writings, he says, “Only experience makes a theologian.” That means there is no point in writing about God unless you have experienced God, unless you know what he is like. In another one of his writings, he says, “It is not reading and understanding and speculating that makes a theologian, but living and dying and being damned.” He means that the gospel is about forgiveness. It is about this glorious knowledge that our sins have been forgiven through the gospel. But unless you have fully appreciated that you are a sinner, then the sweet news of forgiveness is not going to meet you in all its force. It’s only by experiencing the death of sin that you can understand how wonderful this message of forgiveness is. So we see that there was a rediscovery here of the importance of the individual believer. There was a new relevance given to the ordinary layperson. That brings me to the next point.

The late Middle Ages saw the clergy living in a world different from ordinary lay Christians, who were seen to be at a lower level. The laity was simply despised. They had no place to play in the church. With the Reformation came a major change I call the rediscovery of the laity. As many of you know, one of the key ideas underlying this is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the idea that every Christian believer can act as a priest, that every Christian believer has a role to play in the church. You only have to look at the late Middle Ages to see how little the laity were valued. For example, if you look at Calvin’s city of Geneva, which before the Reformation had five thousand ordinary citizens and two hundred clergy, you can see how many clergy there were and how little the laity were allowed to do in the church. After the Reformation, there were still five thousand people there but only six or seven clergy whose task was primarily teaching. The laity was rediscovered and given a positive role to play in the life of the church. I think this rediscovery is a vital aspect of the Reformation heritage—a rediscovery that ordinary laypeople have been called by God, equipped by God, and given something to do by God. We to need to rediscover and value that today.

Let me tell you more about the late medieval church. The late Middle Ages is now thought to have been a period of enormous interest in Christianity. People used to think it was an era of decline, but it’s now increasingly thought of as an era of growth that led to increased criticism of the church. Ordinary Christians came to have greater expectations of what the church ought to be doing. When expectations weren’t met, people began to criticize the church. One of the things that developed was a cynicism on the part of ordinary Christians about the church and the clergy. They had a sense they were being exploited by those who were meant to be their pastors, their shepherds, their leaders. Often, the exploitation in question was financial. Many of you know about the indulgence controversy that was of great importance to Luther’s Reformation at Wittenberg. Let me explain what this was and why it caused such a row.

In the Middle Ages, the idea developed that although God does indeed forgive sinners, it was appropriate to express your gratitude for forgiveness in various ways. One of those ways was financial. Because God forgave your sins, you could express your gratitude to God by, for example, endowing a church or giving money to charity or something like that. But by the early sixteenth century, this idea had become debased. Now people were being told, “Give money and sin will be forgiven.” Often, this played on the love of people for their dead relatives. Your father or your mother has died, and you may be wondering if they made it to heaven. Well, if you buy an indulgence, then they’ll make it. In fact, there was an advertising slogan for indulgences: “When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” In other words, once you’ve paid this sum of money, your mother, your father, or other relative will be delivered from any torment they’re going through and will find their way safely through the pearly gates. Of course, it had enormous attraction for ordinary believers who were worried about what happened to their parents, their grandparents, people they loved.

At one level, this was financial exploitation. Luther reacted against this very, very negatively. For him, this was perversion of the gospel. This made forgiveness a commodity, something you could buy. Luther was outraged and felt there was a need to rediscover the idea of forgiveness, justification by faith—that you could die knowing your sins had been forgiven. Not because of anything that you had done, but because of the grace of God and what he has done for you through Jesus Christ. So there was financial corruption that made many people wonder if the church and their pastors could be trusted.

The same thing was happening in other aspects of the church. For example, in the late medieval church when someone you loved died, the priest had to say the right prayers for them. Someone had to conduct a requiem Mass to make sure they got safely to heaven—but that priest would have to be paid. Again, people began to think, “Here we are being exploited. We want to know that our loved ones are safely in the arms of God. The only way we can do this is by paying money to this priest to say certain prayers.” So there was this deep unease about the quality of ministers and the integrity of the church. The Reformation tried to restore the integrity and the public image of the church.

One of the great themes of the gospel is that of forgiveness. Again, we find Luther moving this into the forefront of the Reformation struggle. You and I do not need a priest to tell us that we will die with our sins forgiven. We don’t need to pay a priest to say prayers for us. We know that when we die we will be safe in the arms of God. This deep reassurance of knowing that sins have been forgiven, through what Jesus Christ has done for us, is a central theme of the Reformation. We must rediscover this theme. Often, Christians are told that they are arrogant for thinking their sins are forgiven. But they aren’t arrogant; they’re just trusting—trusting in the word of God that makes those promises and realizing that they are addressed to us who joyfully accept what God wants us to have.

I’ve talked a bit about the problem of confusion in the late medieval church. I have tried to make the point that one of the things the Reformation did was to bring home to believers the importance of knowing what they believed. That brings me to the next theme, which is that of Christian education. In the late Middle Ages, this was virtually nonexistent. The only people who were educated were the clergy. Yet, very often, they were poorly educated indeed, and they knew little about the gospel. As a result, they were simply unable to answer questions that ordinary people had. Because of this, a climate of unease built up about the trustworthiness of the gospel—not because of any problems with the gospel, but because the inadequacy of the clergy made it difficult for the people to understand what the gospel was saying.

The Reformation brought home the importance of Christian education. Not simply of having a literate and educated clergy but also a laity of ordinary Christians who understood their faith and what it meant to them. You can see this working at two different levels. At the first level, it meant being able to give a good account of what the Christian faith is. A whole range of works came into being at the time of the Reformation designed to give Christians a deeper understanding and appreciation of the intellectual resilience of the intellectual depths of the Christian faith. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion are an excellent example of this kind of work. They brought home to people that Christianity made sense, that it could be trusted, that by having a good understanding of the Christian faith you were well placed to deepen your own faith and also explain it to others. So, objectively, education was important.

Education was also important subjectively. It brought home to people that they could feel good about the gospel by the reassurance of its attractiveness, stability, and the fact that it did make sense. Here is something we need to rediscover. We need to rediscover that by deepening our understanding of our faith, we do two things. First, we bring about a new depth of understanding of our own faith. It’s good news for us. As we begin to realize the full depths of our faith, we begin to open up and explore something we’ve always known was there but have never really explored in all its fullness. Second, one of the great ideas of the Reformation is to unpack the enormous riches of Scripture and to savor them as we realize just how much it means. But by appreciating for ourselves all that the gospel means, we can also be more effective evangelists as well. Having an enriched understanding and appreciation of the gospel will help us to give a far more effective witness—to try to explain to others what it is about the gospel that is so attractive to us in the full knowledge that it could be attractive to them as well. This area of education was a great weakness in the late medieval church, which the Reformation was able to address and one that we too need to rediscover.

Let me make another point about the problems in the late medieval church. Often, there was a huge gap between the ordinary Christian and Scripture. In part, the reason was technological. Before the invention of printing, Scripture had to be copied out by hand, which was expensive. Not every Christian believer could read, and Christian believers were often dependent on their priest for an understanding of Scripture. But with the Reformation came this glorious rediscovery that Scripture was like bread upon which you could feed, that it was living water, which you could drink and which would quench your thirst. It was a move toward rediscovering the importance of Scripture for the church.

All kinds of developments took place to encourage this: for example, the development of exegetical sermons, biblical commentaries, and works of biblical theology such as Calvin’s Institutes. There was a rediscovery of Scripture and a realization that you did not need to rely upon your priest to understand Scripture but that you could go to Scripture directly. One of the great themes of the Reformation is that you can go to Scripture directly, read it, and be nourished by the word of God. This relieved people of the false teachings the church was putting into circulation at the time.

Reading Scripture is not merely about rediscovering the excitement of the gospel. It’s also about asking hard questions about what this religious teacher or that religious teacher is saying, asking, “Where did this come from? Is this really biblical?” As the Reformers began to open Scripture for their people, they began to rediscover that much of the teaching in the late medieval church could not be justified on the basis of Scripture at all.

The doctrine that Scripture was not easy to understand had emerged in the late medieval church: God in his providence had provided the church to interpret Scripture to the people. But by putting the church between Scripture and the people, the church took control of Scripture. To this, the Reformers said, “Go back to Scripture. Read it for yourself and ask, ‘Where did these ideas come from?’” I think that is a central theme of the Reformation—that each and every believer has the right and the responsibility to ask: “Where do these ideas come from that we hear from our pulpits? Are they justified in the light of Scripture?”

I think there is a need for us to rediscover that important Reformation theme. Because even in today’s church we have preachers who often say things that may be what their congregations want to hear, that may be what they want to say, but that aren’t well grounded in Scripture. There is a need for us to rediscover Scripture with a view to checking our preachers’ art, lest they lead us astray. To my mind, one of the greatest curses of the modern church is the personality cult that seems to descend upon some preachers. Going back to Scripture is about going back to the word of God and discovering what it is saying, rather than relying upon some preacher who may act as if he alone is the mean of communication between God and his people. So I’ve addressed some of the problems that were there in the late medieval church, though there were many more I could mention.

I don’t want you to gain the impression that we are dealing with a whole series of problems and that the Reformation simply came along as a solution to those problems. It was a solution to those problems, but it was also something else as well. You must never think of the Reformation solely as a negative thing, as a response to weaknesses. It was also about our rediscovery of the gospel. Rediscovery of the gospel led to the correction of the weaknesses I’ve been talking about. But, in part, the Reformation was this glorious rediscovery of what God had already done for his people and would continue to do for them—if they were faithful to him and would rediscover his word and will through Scripture. I think this is a great theme for us, because you and I are seeking to rediscover the word and will of God for his people. The Reformation offers us a case study on how to do that.

Many of us may look at the Reformation and say something like, “Look, this is very interesting and may be academically important, but you are talking about something that happened in sixteenth-century Europe. We want to know: Does it have any relevance for us today?” I think the answer is yes. First, because we are talking about the same God who needs to restore his church, wherever that church is. By looking at the way God restored, renewed, and reformed his church back then, we can gain some ideas about what he might want to do to his church here, today, in this place. It is about looking through history to discover what God has been doing in the past; then we can say, “Maybe he wants to do that kind of thing now.”

The Reformation is one of those great moments in history when a church paused and asked itself these questions: What are we here for? What is the real reason the church is here? What is different about the church? What must the church do if it is to stay the church of God? In other words, there was a taking of stock, a posing of hard questions about the mission and purpose of the church. Every organization that has been around for a long time settles into inertia. It works on the assumption that, well, we did this today and yesterday, and it’ll go on like this forever. There’s no need to ask those hard questions. But the Reformers felt that the only way a church could be reformed or renewed was by asking: What does God want the church to do in the first place? By rediscovering that sense of purpose, we can bring the church back to life by allowing it to do what God wants it to do.

As many of you well know, people such as Luther and Calvin asked that question. The answer they gave is that the church is the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Wherever that takes place, there also is the true church. I think that’s an important insight: the need to take stock, the need to say, “Does God want us to move in a different direction?” We are to look back at our Christian history, back at Scripture, and ask, “Where does God want us to go from here?” Luther and Calvin said that the best way of rediscovering why we are here is to go back to the New Testament, read it, and become excited at what we find in its pages.

If you read Luther, then you will discover that, for him, reading the New Testament is like getting an insight into the days when faith came to life, insights into days when the church seems to have died. Luther, and many others besides us, said we have a church that is slowly but surely dying because it does not know why it’s here. By going back to Scripture and rediscovering apostolic preaching, by rediscovering the dynamism of the early church, we can bring our church back to life by giving it the same mission, the same sense of encouragement we find in the early church. I think we still need to do that, to regain our sense of direction.

The Reformers say this: There is no point in going forward, forward, forward. It helps to stop and look back, and ask, why are we here, what resources do we have? Then, we need to begin to go forward again in the full knowledge of why we’re here. As we seek to confront the future, this is a model we can rediscover. We’re not saying that the Reformation is basically something we have to repeat like parrots. We are saying that, as we seek to move the church into the future, it helps to look back at those great moments in Christian history when the Lord was active and ask, “Can we learn from that time? Is there anything the Lord wants to say to us through those people of long ago as we face their task in today’s age?”

One of the reasons for studying church history is for the following. I’m sure many of you have been to a Bible study or discussion group. You talk about some big issue, perhaps some moral issue, theological issue, or biblical interpretation issue. You think about this, and then somebody says something that helps you. You go away from that Bible study or discussion group feeling a lot better, because something you didn’t understand is now sorted out. Studying church history—studying the Reformation—is like being at a Bible study with a great company of people who thought about those questions that are bothering you. Such as: Why is the church here? What should we do to be saved? How can we know that we are saved? It gives answers that you and I need to know because they still make sense today. You and I still ask those questions, and we want good answers. So one of the reasons we look at the Reformation is to rediscover the answers to questions that are still being asked, being able to rejoice in those answers. So there is a need to rediscover how helpful studying the past—studying the Reformation—can be. Another great reason for studying the Reformation is that you can be the person who brings these answers, which have been tried and tested in church history, to the people you minister to.

Why was there a Reformation? First, there was a Reformation because there was a gospel that had to be rediscovered in all its fullness. When it was rediscovered, all kinds of reorientation had to take place. Second, there was a Reformation because the church had run into many problems and someone had to sort them out. You and I can rediscover that gospel today. The Reformation is about that process of rediscovering and bringing to life. That is still very much our agenda. But also on our agenda, I’m afraid, is the simple fact that we are looking at a church today that often has many of the same problems we find in the late Middle Ages. There is a need for us to think through what we can do about those problems. The Reformation gives us some bearings, some landmarks, some ideas about how to address today’s issues—using the resources, the methods, and above all, the inspiration that comes from the past.

Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.

Friday, September 1st 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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