In this statement Calvin encapsulates his understanding of what it means to engage in the task of reformation. It involves two aspects. First, there is a commitment to a faithful transmission of the Christian tradition handed down to us from the apostles. We stand in a line of tradition that goes back to Jesus’ original followers and it is our responsibility to insure that this apostolic tradition is authentically transmitted to future generations. Second, transmitting this tradition faithfully does not mean uncritical acceptance of what has come down to us from the past. Paradoxically, a faithful handling of tradition also requires the willingness to reshape the tradition for the sake of the gospel to which it bears witness. Listen again to Calvin’s words: “Our constant endeavor…is not only to hand down the tradition faithfully, but also to put it in the form we think will prove best.” Accordingly, a faithful handing-on of what we have received from the past is not a purely passive process; it is an active process whereby we assume responsibility for critically testing what we have received in the light of our best understanding of the gospel. Perhaps we might think that this dual notion of reformation puts us into something of a bind: after all, where do we get our understanding of what the gospel is if not from the tradition itself? How, then, do we distinguish critically between the gospel to which the tradition bears witness and the various interpretations of the gospel contained in the tradition? Moreover, how do we adjudicate between true and false interpretations of the gospel in the tradition?
If by raising these questions we begin to feel ourselves caught between that proverbial rock and a hard place, then at least we have begun to grasp the dilemma of what it means to be a Protestant. One way that the Presbyterians have articulated this tension between a faithful handing down of the tradition and the ongoing task of critically testing the tradition is to speak of “the church reformed, always reforming” or better, “the church reformed, yet always to be reformed ever anew” (in Latin, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda). In this formulation, it is recognized that churches standing in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation are not taken off the hook from having to face the same kind of challenges today that were faced by Luther and Calvin when they sought to reform the church. Notwithstanding the correctness of this demand that we too should be willing to reform our inherited traditions—even our inherited Protestant and Presbyterian traditions—for the sake of the gospel, this statement that we are not only a “reformed church” but also are always called upon to be a “church reforming” is more a declaration of good intentions than a blueprint for what it means to go about reforming the church in our time as Luther and Calvin did in theirs. The problem is obvious: there is no agreement in our time, anymore than in the sixteenth century, as to which aspects of the church’s tradition need to be reformed and which need to be maintained as they now stand. In other words, one person’s proposal for “continuing the reformation” is in the eyes of another person a betrayal of fidelity to the tradition, not an act of fidelity to it.
Consider the issue of sexual orientation: if Presbyterians revise their views of sexuality, the meaning of marriage, and who is eligible for ordained office, would such revision constitute an act of fidelity to the gospel or a betrayal of it, an authentic development of the tradition or a distortion of it? We have to assume that both sides to this debate see themselves as good Protestants trying to discern what it means to be Christians who faithfully hand down the Christian and Reformation heritage to future generations. Yet we disagree on what that means in this specific, concrete case. Other examples, of course, could be used to demonstrate this point, but we need not delineate them here. I think we all get the basic point: standing in the tradition of the Reformation and acknowledging the principle of ongoing reformation do not in themselves provide us with clear-cut guidelines or rules by which we might discern when a given proposal for further reformation of the inherited tradition is a betrayal of the gospel or an act of fidelity to it.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, there was just as much ambiguity here as there is in our time. For the Reformers, there were two prongs to their reforming activity: first, there was a commitment to “scripture alone” (sola scriptura) as the measure of what is to be deemed valid in the post-biblical tradition, and, second, there was a commitment to the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” (sola fide) as the measure of a correct preaching of the gospel. Let’s unpack these two commitments to see just what they meant and how they interacted with one another.
First, the Protestant watchword “scripture alone” was based on a belief that the medieval tradition had veered away from the clear teaching of the Bible. For that reason, the Reformers argued, it was necessary to return to the Bible’s teaching, even if that meant having to jettison a great deal of the church’s post-biblical tradition. This was at one and the same time a revolutionary and a conservative thing to do. It was revolutionary, because hitherto it had not occurred to anyone in the medieval Catholic Church to suppose that there might be a discrepancy between what the Bible teaches and what the church’s tradition taught. And yet it was also conservative, in that the Reformers were arguing for a return to the Bible as the foundational document of the Christian faith. In so doing, the Protestant Reformers set aside the standard Latin translation of the Bible, the so-called Vulgate, and translated the Bible anew from the original languages in which it was written, Hebrew and Greek. Their studies of the original languages were sufficient to demonstrate that a number of the church’s doctrines were based on a faulty translation of the Bible. But their return to “scripture alone” was not only a critique of the church’s traditional theology insofar as this was based on a faulty translation of the Bible; it was also a curtailment of the Bible’s scope. That is to say, the Protestant Bible did not include some of the scriptures that were included in the Catholic Bible. What we call the “Apocrypha” was deleted from the Old Testament by the Reformers, because these ancient Jewish writings had not been a part of the synagogue’s Bible since the time of the split between Judaism and Christianity. So the Protestant Bible was shorter than the Catholic Bible, and the Protestants insisted upon reading the Bible in the original languages. Not surprisingly, the Catholics cried “foul” and accused the Protestants of tampering with the evidence: “You Protestants say you want to debate with us the meaning of the Bible apart from the lens of the church’s tradition, but what you mean by the Bible isn’t the same as what the church has always meant by the Bible!”
On this new biblical basis, then, a new Christian theology was forged that challenged the medieval Catholic understanding of Christian faith. What was that new understanding of Christian faith? Here we have to turn to the second prong of the Reformation: the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther and Calvin as well as Wesley and other Protestants believed that the medieval interpretation of the gospel jeopardized the nature of salvation as a gift of God’s grace in favor of works or merits. According to them, instead of preaching that our salvation or— to use the biblical phrase— our justification before God is solely a free gift of God given to us through Christ, the church taught that there was a need for works in order to complete our salvation. This was why Luther had entered a monastery, so as to exercise himself in the doing of those very good works that would contribute to his salvation. When he later left the monastery and encouraged others to do so, however, Luther had come to believe that there was something seriously wrong with how the gospel was being taught in the church of his day. In his new understanding of the gospel, which he derived from a close re-reading of Paul’s letters, Luther believed that faith and grace are antithetical to notions of works and merits. Hence, in his eyes, Catholic theology was sending a mixed message about what it is that makes us right with God. If salvation is a completely free gift of God—and that is, after all, what the word “grace” means: a gift!—then the attempt to make some part of our salvation depend upon the performance of works is a denial or a refusal of God’s free gift. The appropriate response to this free gift, according to Luther, is simply faith: nothing more and nothing less. “Faith” here does not mean “belief” or giving intellectual assent to doctrines, as it is commonly misunderstood. Rather, faith, in Luther’s usage, is the wholehearted conviction of the heart that God accepts sinners out of pure mercy. Faith, then, is the trust or assurance that we can rely completely on God’s promise of forgiveness, given to us in the gospel, as the sole, sufficient basis of our salvation. This is what it means to say that we are justified by faith alone. The intent of the Protestant re-interpretation of the gospel is to free us from the self-preoccupation and anxiety that haunt us so long as we wrongly believe that God’s acceptance of us on Judgment Day depends in some measure upon our ability to bring forth the works required of us in the law, summarized by Jesus as loving God above all things and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Yet, paradoxically, once we grasp that we are in this sense freed from the doing of the law so far as concerns our salvation, we are newly enabled to approximate the law’s demands on the basis of faith alone. In our trusting and grateful response to this free gift of God’s mercy, we can now love God because of God’s unmerited goodness toward us and without the fear that we need to appease God if we are to be saved. So too, we can also now love our neighbors in genuine altruism apart from self-regarding motives just as God has first loved us in Christ. With this reinterpretation of the New Testament’s message, the Protestant churches were born.
Ideally, of course, “scripture alone” and the doctrine of “faith alone” should be completely harmonious in every respect, but this was never the case. Catholic opponents of Luther brought forward the passage from the Letter of James where it states in no uncertain terms: “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24). This, as Luther perceived, was at odds with what Paul taught in his Letter to the Romans: “A person is justified by faith and not by works of the law” (Rom 3:28). So what happens when there are two passages in scripture that apparently contradict one another? Well, of course, one can try valiantly to harmonize them, as did Calvin. Or one can say that one of them is right and the other one is wrong, which is what Luther did! Luther said that he would gladly give his doctorate in theology to anyone who could convincingly reconcile James with Paul. And since he never did give up his doctoral diploma, we have to assume that he was not convinced by the arguments of others, Calvin included, that James and Paul are really in agreement with each other, despite appearances to the contrary. This led Luther to conclude that it had been a mistake of the ancient church to have included the Letter of James within the pages of the New Testament. Those Protestants—and their number is legion!—who naively think that the Reformation was fought only for the principle of “scripture alone” might have to re-examine this assumption in light of Luther’s remarks about James. And whether or not we agree with Luther’s judgment about James, we can see clearly that the Reformation was not without its ambiguities, especially if a reformer of Luther’s stature felt free to criticize part of the Bible for not correctly teaching the gospel.
Here we are brought back to Calvin’s statement with which we began this sermon. “Our constant endeavor…is not only to hand on the tradition faithfully, but also to put it in the form we think will prove best.” Or with Luther, we might rephrase the point by saying “Our constant endeavor is not only to hand on the scriptures faithfully but also to preach the gospel to which they bear witness, even if this means a willingness to engage in criticism of portions of the Bible itself.” After all, the historical and philological study of the Bible first initiated by the Reformation has in subsequent centuries only increased our awareness of what Luther himself dimly perceived when he dared to criticize James, namely, that the Bible, rather than standing prior to the church’s tradition, is actually a collection of the church’s earliest traditions. As such, theological criticism of the Bible is no less appropriate than theological criticism of the post-biblical tradition. With respect to both scripture and tradition, we seek to transmit them faithfully not as ends in themselves, but for the sake of the gospel to which they bear witness. As Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to ourselves” (2 Cor 4:7). This treasure of which Paul speaks is the gospel. Luther reiterated this point when in his 95 Theses posted on the door of the Wittenberg Church he wrote: “the true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” Both scripture and tradition, then, are earthen vessels carrying the treasure: God’s good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ.
In each generation, the church has to risk interpreting the gospel faithfully. This is the reason for the church’s ministry: to proclaim the gospel of God’s grace. This means, as Calvin clearly understood, that what we have received from the past is not an idol to be worshipped uncritically, but that the church’s tradition is a dynamic reality. The act of faithfully handing on a received tradition involves more than mere repetition and transmission of what has been said before. It involves, above all, a critical sifting of what has been received from the past so that we may hand down the tradition in the form that will best serve the treasure of the gospel which it carries as a mere earthen vessel. For this reason, we can say: the Reformation continues even today, since as Protestant Christians it is our “constant duty, day and night” to study the Bible and the various interpretations of the Bible found throughout the church’s traditions, to seek to discern the main message of the gospel therein, and to reform the life and teaching of the church accordingly. In other words, the “church reformed” is “always to be reformed” ever anew, at least if we wish to be faithful heirs of the Reformation tradition in our time and place. But since this dual responsibility of handing down the tradition faithfully and revising it faithfully has never been without controversy, we should not be surprised to find ourselves embroiled in controversy today about what it means to be a church in the Reformed tradition. Still, theological controversy about the correct interpretation of the gospel should not frighten us, because the church’s ministry depends on our willingness to take it on, confident that in the end truth will prevail. So with this in mind, let us heed the admonition of Luther’s contemporary, Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich, who exhorted his people with these words: “For God’s sake, do something brave!”