24 October 2011

Baptists and the Reformation

This Sunday, October 30, is Reformation Sunday.  "So what?" you may say.  You may think to yourself, "What does the Reformation have to do with being Baptist?"  Well, you might if you happen to be a Baptist like myself.  Actually, Baptists like many other groups find their roots in the sixteenth-century Reformation of Europe.  I said before that I believe (with all my Baptist bias on display) that Baptists are the crown jewel of the Reformation.

Martin Luther didn't do it alone, but when he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31, 1517 he struck the match that lit the fire!  The fuel for the fire had been stacking up for years. The dry and brittle thicket and thorns of corruption and ignorance of Roman Catholicism was piled high and deep, waiting for someone like Luther to apply a spark.

Lutherans were first labeled Protestants (because they protested so much).  In time any dissenting group that dared to challenge the authority of Rome both politically and theologically would bear the name.  The Reformation, like any major movement in history, is complex.  Historians have studied it from social, political, economic, or religious viewpoints.  However, I believe that overall, it was primarily a religious movement with religious concerns at its heart.

We people called Baptists didn't emerge until about a century after the Reformation started.  At least, not in our complete form.  There were various groups of Anabaptists that preceded Baptists, which held some similar views, especially a commitment to believer's baptism (the idea that only a professing believer should receive baptism and not infants).  Some historians see Anabaptists as essentially the first Baptists and others do not.  I am in the second camp, but that is a whole different conversation. What is most important is that we understand that the commitment to believer's baptism and to a congregational, free church style of government defined what made a Baptist a Baptist.  On other issues there was often differences of opinion.

Baptists ought to consider themselves second generation products of the Reformation, but products nevertheless.  The recovery of the authority of Scripture for belief and practice reinvigorated Christianity.  The gospel had been obscured from so may by hundreds of years of corrupt teaching and practice of Roman Catholicism. As people began to read the Bible it was inevitable that Rome would be challenged.  Actually, Rome had endured such challenges throughout history, but had always been able to silence dissenters (i.e. kill them).  However, circumstances during the Reformation allowed for successful dissent.  In the providence of God, the time had come!

As a good Baptist who understands my indebtedness to the Reformers, I will celebrate Reformation Sunday.  I will try to inform my congregation of both the history and theology that is so important to remember and maintain.  I will help them connect the dots between their own faith in the 21st century back to the 16th century.  There are so many themes that I can employ to highlight the great teachings that flowed from the Reformation, such as the authority of Scripture, justification by faith alone, or the priesthood of the believer. 

I hope that your church as well will recognize Reformation Sunday.  Or at least I hope you'll watch the movie Luther.  I'll be watching it again this week as I prepare my message to renew my appreciation for those who have boldly walked before me in faith and on whose shoulders I now stand.

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