The Reformation began 500 years ago in central Europe – a large enough distance in time and space to feel very disconnected from our lives today – something that doesn’t really make a difference. But the Reformation has changed our lives and our thinking in so many different ways, the Lord’s Supper for example.
Luther’s thinking about the Communion was radical. At first, Mass was terrifying for him because here he held God in his hands – almighty, holy God, who could strike sinful Luther down with a lightning bolt. Carrying the wine was especially nerve-wracking with the outrageous possibility of spilling God on the floor!
But as Luther thought about Christ on the cross he saw a different side of God – a God who had made Himself weak and approachable, a God who could be touched. His understanding of Mass began to change.
John Calvin went further still, seeing that in the Lord’s Supper we’re not putting a bit of Jesus into our mouths, but rather Jesus is lifting us up to Him by faith, so that our souls can be nourished. The Lord’s Table is no longer a place of fear and apprehension, but rather the meal where Jesus feeds and strengthens us – a meal better than the best Michelin star chef can provide. No wonder Calvin wanted to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday!
There’s a lot to learn from the reformers, a lot to be encouraged or challenged by. But they aren’t above criticism! You may even disagree with some of this blog – and that’s OK. Thanks to the Reformation, our final authority is the Word of God, not a human being.
We don’t have an authority figure who can’t be questioned, or a model of church where the institution is to be feared and obeyed. Luther and Calvin, like many of the reformers, were passionately Catholic and even after breaking away, they recognised that what they had left was part of the Church.
Their criticism was largely aimed at the leaders and authorities, especially for defending ideas that were theologically wrong and pastorally harmful and for standing in the way of dissent and reform.
The right to dissent
We live in an age of ‘trigger warnings’ where people with unpopular opinions are ‘no platformed’ or charged with hate speech. The right to dissent from popular views, to publicly disagree and to challenge authority is under threat. But the Reformation forbids us from taking this attitude, especially in the church.
The only authority that should command our absolute obedience is the Word of God. All others can be challenged – even laughed at, as Luther frequently did. Like Jesus himself, he was a great satirist and would have been quite at home on Have I Got News For You or the pages of Private Eye, laughing at authority.
Protests on the street, satirical columns in the paper, passionate debate at the General Assembly, ministers being outvoted in Kirk Session, these all play a part in healthily challenging authority and remind us that no earthly authority or institution is infallible – nothing but the Word of God itself.
Rev. Jonathan Boyd is minister of Hydepark and Lylehill Presbyterian Churches in County Antrim. He is also a member of PCI’s Reformation Celebration Task Group that is organising October’s Faith at the crossroads – Rediscovering the Reformation events.
Faith at the crossroads is a special celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There will be three opportunities to share in this free celebratory event in a month’s time – 17th October in Dublin, 18th October in Londonderry and 19th October in Belfast. You can find more details here.
This blog is an abridged version of Jonathan Boyd’s Presbyterian Herald article, which appeared in the May 2017 edition. You can read part 1 here. As part of a series on the Reformation, you can also read part 1 and part 2 of A brief guide to Luther by Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick and part 1 and part 2 of Dr. Martyn Cowan’s A Reformation woman as part of the Reformation 500 series.