Don’t Make The Reformation History

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
25th October 2013

Tagged: reformation

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The Reformation is becoming history.

If “history is written by winners”, secularists are writing our history and materialistic governments, are setting the curriculum. Because such governments are concerned with national peace, harmony and unity, not even the multiculturalists will be able to save the Reformation from the dust and ashes of negligence and ignorance.

Secularists want to understand the world, including its history, without any reference to the supernatural. Begrudgingly they allow the study of religion as yesteryear’s superstitions that led to bondage and war. But there is little motivation to understand the deep convictions of people that changed their way of life or to credit any religious movement with advancing the welfare of society.

The government's view of education is too utilitarian to be interested in the theological disputes of a different century. They want a society which is sufficiently educated to advance the economic welfare of the nation. The languages of trade are taught; not the languages of our culture, let alone the activity of language learning for its own sake.

Governments are concerned with peace and harmony within society. They do not want to teach on divisive subjects or remind us of our past divisions. Throughout most of Australia’s European settlement there has been a deep division between Protestants and Catholics, the heirs of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Government departments, schools, even sporting teams were places of deep division. The most painful division of all was within families of mixed marriages. No government wants to do anything that would return us to such sectarian divisions.

Australia was settled by a Protestant nation, which established our institutions on Protestant views of society, government, economy and culture. Of recent decades, multiculturalism has made people of all views, philosophies and religions welcome in Australia. By affirmative action we have sought to make all people feel at home. It almost does not matter how small and obscure a culture is, we are happy that it has some place under the Australian sun.  The mainstream cultures, upon which our society has been built, are considered strong enough to promote their own views and look after themselves.  However, this marginalizes the mainstream history into an enclave of true believers and leaves the wider community ignorant of the forces that have shaped our nation. The social capital of the nation is depreciated as the common history is ignored in favour of minority groupings. Consequently, the Reformation and Counter-reformation, that are so important to understanding Australian culture, are omitted from public consciousness. 

While the Reformation involved political movements, nationalism and even warfare, it was at heart a spiritual and theological reform of people and churches. The gospel had become lost over the centuries of European history. Corrupted by power, the church no longer preached Christ with clarity. The Reformers returned to preaching five great themes: Scripture alone; faith alone; grace alone; Christ alone; and Glory to God alone. The emphasis on “alone” was the removal of the many church traditions that had come to obscure the gospel. It becomes even more important therefore, that we who are the heirs of the Reformation remind ourselves of that great period in history when God so moved amongst his people.

As with other great moments of history, the Reformation was a time of struggle, suffering and conflict. Things happened and words were spoken which we wish never had happened nor were said; things which embarrass our modern Christian sensitivities. Unfortunately the reformation happened in a time of communal, if not national, conformity. It was one of the struggles of the Reformation to establish the freedom of the Christian’s conscience. However, the conflicts of opinions and theology got entangled in national interests – nowhere more so than England – leading to wars and bloodshed. In the centuries that have followed the tribalism and sectarianism even became detached from the great beliefs that lay at the heart of the Reformation.  People took sides because of their family tradition with little understanding of what the Reformation stood for, or against. This has been a sad feature of Australian history. Yet, we will not resolve the differences by ignorance of our background. 

The Reformation did more than reform the abuses of organized religion. It was a recovery of the gospel that transformed the very nature of the church. Thus it became the foundation for our Protestant pattern of church life. We cannot truly understand ourselves without a proper grasp of the events of the Reformation. Through the work of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and many more, the great doctrines of salvation were once more hammered out and explained to the people. Their hymns and prayers, books and translations taught their own and subsequent generations the great doctrines of God’s grace in saving us through the death and resurrection of His Son, and of the Spirit’s work in regenerating us to repent and put our faith solely in him. It was a gospel understanding that freed us from priestcraft and religiosity, from false doctrine and authoritarianism. During the 16th century a new flowering of Christian understanding, scholarship, evangelism and conversion reformed the church.

It all came at a dreadful cost as people were persecuted and martyred for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We owe it to the memory of those who died for our freedoms to never lose sight of the Reformation. It was because of martyrs like William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer that we have our Bible in English, as well as our Prayer Book and Articles of religion. They, together with many others, died to bring these privileges to us. We forget them at our peril.

The Reformation was not the perfect golden age of Christianity but it was one time when, under incredible pressure of life and death, men and women took God’s word seriously and proclaimed clearly the gospel of our Lord and Saviour.

We mustn’t let the Reformation become history.