Monday, November 06, 2006

The Reformation Was a Rediscovery of the Gospel

Here's my slightly belated Reformation Day post.

From Luther's 1535 Lectures on Galatians, under 3:19

Contrariwise, the gospel is a light which lighteneth, quickeneth, comforteth, and raiseth up fearful consciences. For it showeth that God, for Christ's sake, is merciful to sinners, yea, and to such as are most unworthy, if they believe that by His death they are delivered from the curse, that is to say, from sin and everlasting death; and that through His victory, the blessing is freely given unto them, that is to say, grace, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and everlasting life. Thus, putting a difference between the law and the gospel, we give to them both their own proper use and office. Of this difference between the law and the gospel, there is nothing to be found in the books of the monks, canonists, schoolmen; no, nor in the books of the ancient fathers. Augustine did somewhat understand this difference, and showed it. Jerome and others knew it not. There was wonderful silence many years touching this difference, in all schools and churches: and this brought men's consciences into great danger. For unless the gospel be plainly discerned from the law, the true Christian doctrine cannot be kept sound and uncorrupt. But if this difference be well known, then is the true manner of justification also known, and then it is an easy matter to discern faith from works, Christ from Moses, and all politic works. For all things without Christ are ministers of death, for the punishing of the wicked (p. 193).

So if the law and gospel were not well distinguished in the church's teaching, were all the fathers and saints condemned? Not necessarily, at all. On Galatians 4:30, he uses the example of Bernard of Clairvaux:

He being once grievously sick and having no hope of life, put not his trust in his single life, nor in his good works, and deeds of charity, whereof he had done many; but removed them far out of his sight, and receiving the benefit of Christ by faith, he said:
"I have lived wickedly, but Thou, Lord Jesus Christ, by double right dost possess the Kingdom of heaven: first, because Thou art the Son of God: second because Thou hast purchased it by Thy death. The first Thou keepest for Thyself, by Thy birthright; the second Thou givest to me, not by right of my works, but by the right of grace."

He set not against the wrath of God his monkery, nor his angelical life: but he took hold of that one thing needful, and so was saved. I think that Jerome, Gregory, and many other of the fathers were saved after the same sort. And it is not to be doubted but that in the Old Testament, many kings and other idolaters were saved in like manner, who, at their hour of death, casting away their trust in vain idols, took hold of the promise of God, which was made unto the seed of Abraham, that is to say, Christ, in whom all nations should be blessed (p. 296)

Samuel Johnson was saved in just this way, as I've noted before.

In other words, "evangelical catholics" of all varieties have a problem. They have to assert either that the pre-Reformation tradition, going all the way back to the "ancient fathers" of the fourth-fifth century, had some serious problems. Or else that the Reformation did not understand itself properly.