“That in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic.” – Augsburg Confession
(This a bit of fun with an extended metaphor of mine. Like any metaphor it isn’t perfect, but I hope it illustrates an important point).
Imagine for a moment that you have a cut of meat. This cut includes meat, fat, and a large bone (perhaps a t-bone stake for my western American friends). Now these three elements in the cut can vary greatly in proportion, and these proportions can greatly affect the taste, cooking, and perception of the meat.
So where am I going with this? It is my contention that the idea of “reformation” at its best is trimming the fat. In the late medieval church, the “fat” part of the cut of meat was obscuring the meat and bone, and many of the leaders of the church were so focused in on the fat part that the meat and bone were being neglected or confused. Notice however that the cut of meat still exists, and that the gospel is still present, even if the fat has gotten in the way. Fat can be a good thing. It can add flavor, complement the meat and bone, and for those who have had “good fat,” one absolutely misses it when it is gone. This idea of “trimming the fat” is exactly what I think what most Lutherans and a good portion of Anglicans were doing. Both were attempting to cut away the excess fat, but as a whole were naturally conservative, trying to maintain the classical Christian tradition (especially the councils, creeds, and liturgy). This attitude is reformation at its best, a calculated and cautious response to the abuses of the age, and a call to the sources (Scripture, and the classical consensus). There is nothing new being taught, as reflected in the quote from the Augsburg Confession above (the emphasis on the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” found in the Anglican tradition is similar).*
This can be contrasted with what one might call more “radical” types of reformation, so much so that some groups even argue for some form of “restoration.”** Many of these groups are so paranoid about the fat part that they overreact, cutting away not only the good fat, but parts of the meat as well. In fact, some pride themselves in creating theologies that define themselves by their avoidance of fat. Some are perhaps left with a bone and little else. Now this may be the correct bone (i.e., the gospel is still present), but it is such a limited and stunted view of the life of the church that they are missing out. Many of these groups can be seen making statements like “we don’t preach the creeds here, we only preach the bible” (as if somehow one excludes the other), or “we don’t do what the Catholics do,” or “I like Luther, but he didn’t go far enough.”
Please don’t misunderstand, many that I know from this mindset do live exemplary lives, and know the Scriptures in ways that should make any orthodox Christian applaud. But there is something inherently troubling when entire groups of Christians so divorce themselves from the historical church that the gospel is ONLY the bone, and anyone that disagrees “isn’t reading their bible.” The blood, sweat, and tears that were shed over centuries to pass down to us a living breathing faith, is ignored because “it isn’t in my Bible” (usually based on a certain set of presuppositions going in). Many fail to see that 19th century revivalism is NOT the norm for Christians everywhere and for all time, and that reading post-Enlightenment ideals of “democracy” into the church creates a myriad of problems. When this occurs, those in the Roman and Eastern Orthodox traditions are absolutely correct when they accuse Evangelicals of having “millions of little popes.”
So as we approach both Reformation Day and All Saints Day (and yes, we should keep observing the latter, along with the calendar in general), remember and honor all the great Christians that existed (and are alive today!) before the reformation, and for most of my Protestant friends, that means the Christians that lived between 500 and around 1200 in particular. Unless of course you believe the church disappeared for 700 years and Christ lied when he said, “…I will build my church and the gates of Hades (Hell) will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
* For an interesting take on some Anglican heroes, the pocket scroll has a good post (and he shares my sentiments I believe at the end).
** This is the view of heretical groups such as the LDS (Mormons), JW’s (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and perhaps some forms of the Seventh Day movements. To use our analogy, the piece of meat completely disappeared for centuries, and needed to be restored and reconstituted by 19th century Americans.