The One Thing the Reformation Isn’t

The One Thing the Reformation Isn’t November 1, 2022

One of the phrases that conservative Protestants like to use about the Reformation is that it “restored the Biblical Gospel.” Or, with more nuance, that it restored it to “full clarity.”

Whatever the Reformation is, that’s the one thing it quite clearly didn’t do. It didn’t take Christians back to a more authentically first-century way of thinking about the faith, at least if we are speaking of the “magisterial Reformation” exemplified above all in Martin Luther. (The Anabaptists could make a better case though they too were very much shaped by their time and place.)

Whose Gospel? Which evangelicals?

One of the most salient and indisputable things about Martin Luther’s teaching, in particular, is that he redefined the word “Gospel.” Previously, the term had been used primarily to mean the proclamation about Jesus’ person and work, including Jesus’ teachings. This goes all the way back to the Gospel of Mark’s use of the word in v. 1. The term came to be applied, in early Christianity, to all four of the canonical books describing Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection.

And so, in the Middle Ages, the term “evangelical” came to mean “a way of life based on the Gospels and structured around the imitation of Jesus.” The Franciscans were the ultimate medieval “evangelicals” in this sense.

Luther would have none of it. He insisted that the “Gospel” in the strict sense of the term was not to be found in the teachings of Jesus such as the Sermon on the Mount. These teachings were oriented toward the Gospel because they pointed to the absolute perfection of God’s law which human beings cannot fulfil. And they certainly provided a guideline for Christian living. (Some people deny Luther taught the “third use of the Law” but I concluded in my doctoral dissertation that he certainly did in substance, even if the one place where he explicitly endorses it may have been added by Melanchthon after Luther’s death.) It’s not that these teachings were dispensable or unimportant for Luther. But they were not the core of the Gospel. Nor were the narrative accounts of Jesus’ many actions in his life prior to the one that truly mattered for Luther: the death and resurrection by which Jesus had overcome death and hell for believers.

Words and works

The saving death and resurrection of Jesus, and the proclamation of salvation to those who believe in this saving work, were for Luther the core of the Gospel. This meant that for him the one of the four Gospels that most fully proclaimed the Gospel was John. The Gospel of John and the writings of Paul were the core of Scripture. The three “Synoptic Gospels” were of less importance. Not that he denied their inspiration or their value. But they were primarily narratives of Jesus’ mighty deeds.

John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s Epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books. They ought rightly be the first books and it would be advisable for every Christian to read them first and most, and by daily reading, make them as familiar as his daily bread.

In them you find not many works and miracles of Christ described, but you do find it depicted, in masterly fashion, how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation. This is the real nature of the Gospel, as you have heard.

If I had to do without one or the other, — either the works or preaching of Christ, — I would rather do without His works than His preaching; for the works do not help me, but His words give life, as He Himself says. Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about His preaching, while the other Evangelists write much of His works and little of His preaching; therefore John’s Gospel is the one, tender, true chief Gospel, far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels, — Matthew, Mark and Luke. (Preface to the New Testament.

Luther’s wording is a bit confusing here because on the one hand he proclaims (in keeping with Christian tradition) that the core of the Gospel is the proclamation of Jesus’ saving acts in his death and resurrection, overcoming death and hell. But on the other, he says that John  and Paul are better than the Synoptics because they contain more of Jesus’ “words.” So for Luther, what mattered most were passages that spoke of Jesus’ death and resurrection and its significance. He displaces the Gospel one step–from the narrative proclamation of who Jesus was and what he did and taught, culminating in his death and resurrection, to the parts of Scripture that he could interpret as teaching his preferred explanation of the significance of these acts.

The result, historically, is that Protestants tend to think of the Gospel as a certain explanation of how we are saved. Hence the claims of conservative Protestants that “Rome denies the Gospel.” We all agree that Jesus has saved us from sin and death and hell by his death and resurrection, but we disagree on just how that is applied.

Thus, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Protestants wind up replacing Catholic forms of “works righteousness” with their own form, in which one must believe in just the right way or accept the right doctrines or have the right kind of conversion experience (or some combination of these) in order to be saved.

It’s all Gospel to me

Early Christians, on the other hand, pretty consistently focus on what it is that Jesus did rather than on just how we receive his saving work. And I do not find anything like Luther’s law/Gospel dichotomy in the early centuries of Christianity. Luther’s major inspiration in this regard was Augustine’s De Spiritu et Litterathough even this doesn’t entirely agree with Luther’s mature teaching. But Augustine himself was taking the concept of “letter and spirit” in a new direction.

Obviously early Christians spoke of the contrast between Law and Gospel, but it seems clear to me that they were speaking of the difference between Old and New Testaments (often, be it said, in very anti-Jewish ways). They might find the Gospel anticipated in the Old Testament, certainly (as Luther did). But what was new with Luther was the idea that any command telling us how to live must have the nature of “law” as opposed to “Gospel,” and that the Gospel is pure promise with no command.

Now of course it’s possible, theoretically, that Luther was really recovering something the New Testament authors taught and that all the early Christians after the New Testament just failed to notice it. Possible–but only if we abandon reasonable historical interpretation for a leap of faith. There are no good reasons to think that this is what the NT writers meant. There are no good reasons I can see to think that when Paul gave people instructions on how to live, or when Matthew wrote down the words of the Sermon on the Mount, they thought what they were doing was something other than the “Gospel.” All the evidence I can see indicates that for early Christians, from the New Testament on, the Gospel included a moral path to follow, what two of the earliest non-canonical writings (Didache and Barnabas) call the “way of life” as opposed to the “way of death.”

Recovery or new revelation?

It’s also possible–and a lot more defensible, I think–to argue that Luther’s teaching is a legitimate and much-needed development of something implicit in the New Testament and sometimes grasped in a fragmentary way by early and medieval Christians. That boils down to how we understand development of doctrine and how we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate developments.

That Luther’s teaching is powerful and compelling, that it grabs hold of you and rattles your bones, that when you turn from it to much earlier Christian teaching on salvation the earlier teaching seems pale and moralistic by comparison, and that he makes certain parts of Scripture seem to come alive in a way that the alternatives don’t–all of this, I think, is true.

What is not plausibly true is that this was a recovery of some earlier truth once clearly known but since lost.

Luther’s teaching belongs squarely in the sixteenth century just as the New Testament belongs squarely in the world of Second Temple Judaism. It makes sense that someone of his time with his cultural and religious formation, a deep piety, a ravenous spiritual hunger, and an unparalleled theological imagination would come up with this teaching. That doesn’t make it false. It does mean that if you think this really is “the Gospel” you are tied in important ways to the assumptions and frameworks of the sixteenth century, as all Christians are tied in far deeper ways to the assumptions and frameworks of Second Temple Judaism.

But I can no more believe that Luther was simply recovering what the New Testament authors meant than I can believe that the New Testament authors were simply recovering what the Old Testament authors had meant.

In short, to be a convinced Protestant is to believe that something analogous to a new revelation happened in the early sixteenth century, drawing on the cultural concepts of that era as the original Gospel drew on the cultural concepts of Hellenistic Judaism.

That is historically believable (though I myself do not believe it). What is not believable is the claim that Luther was recovering the original teaching intended by the human authors of the New Testament.

Image from Falco on Pixabay.


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