When people today think of the Reformation, they tend to picture Luther in monastic robes nailing a large amount of paper to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg. Or, they think of the wonderful ideas of the Reformation: justification by faith alone; Scripture alone as our supreme authority; salvation by grace alone.
These ideas revolutionised the church, brought freedom to ordinary Christians living across Europe, and changed the world we live in today. But the Reformation was also an intensely practical movement.
The great doctrinal discoveries of the Reformation meant change, not only for what Christians believe, but also how we do things. And this has huge implications for us today.
The first and most fundamental practical change of the Reformation was to improve access to the Word of God. It was through the Word of God that Luther had first heard the joy-giving message of the gospel. His longing, therefore, was that many others ‘might seize and taste the clear, pure Word of God itself and hold to it’.
That meant translating the Bible into a language they could read, and printing it into physical books they could pick up every day. It meant that church services had to change, so that Scripture would be heard intelligibly and expounded clearly each week. All that had profound and far-reaching consequences.
In England, King Henry VIII ordered that, ‘Ye shall discourage no man from the reading or hearing of the Bible, but shall expressly provoke, stir and exhort every person to read the same as that which is the very lively Word of God’. To that end, it was decreed that an English Bible be placed in every church.
In Calvin’s Geneva, it meant that printing — previously a negligible trade — became the dominant industry of the city, as the presses pounded to produce enough Bibles and books to slake the spiritual thirst of the people.
At the same time, Calvin saw that if churches were to benefit from scriptural exposition, commentaries needed to be written, and men needed to be educated in Scripture and how to preach it. He therefore made theological education accessible to anybody, not just the educated or the elite. His academy shone out like a beacon across Europe, sending out excellent preachers with pockets full of books.
In Luther’s Wittenberg the very halls of the university were re-tasked. For Luther saw that, if the Word of God is to sink deep into society, churches need pastors who can rightly handle and clearly present it. Poorly trained pastors would spread ‘darkness rather than light’, he wrote. What the church needed was clergy who were well educated in Scripture. Thus, out went the lecturers in Aristotle from the university, and in came the professors of Greek and Hebrew.
All told, the Reformers spent an enormous amount of energy, not only in reforming their theology, but also in then reforming their practice. They carefully considered how to spread the Word of God, how to utilise the new technology of printing, how to train Scripture-soaked leaders, and how to shape universities and seminaries that would serve church growth.
And therein lies a challenge for all of us who think of ourselves as heirs of the Reformation, who love the truths heralded there and who long for a fresh reformation of Christ’s church in our own day.
Five hundred years ago, the Reformation meant a reformation of practice just as much as it meant a reformation of theology. And if we are to see a reformation in our day, that has anything like the consequence of that one, we must, like the first Reformers, consider not only how to purify our doctrine according to the Word of God. We must also consider how we can renew, reshape or reform our practice that the Word of God might spread out more.
As the Reformers took advantage of the new technology of printing in their day, so we must look to the technological opportunities of our day. As they thought creatively how best to raise a generation of biblically educated pastors, so must we. This active and creative effort for the spread of the gospel has always been an essential part of what it means to embrace our Reformation heritage.
The double-barrelled reformation of theology and practice is one of the guiding principles behind Union (more information from www.ust.ac.uk), the ministry which I lead today. Union is all about growing Scripture-rich church leaders, equipping them with the best resources, and enabling them to plant and pastor churches in areas of gospel poverty.
Our model is a child of the Reformation. For many years, residential theological colleges have been the obvious means by which to raise and educate church leaders. And residential training still has great advantages. On our campus, Union students enjoy relationally rich education in a close and supportive community of faculty and fellow students.
However, if we are to think with the practical creativity of the Reformers, we must also recognise that residential theological education is not for everyone. There are financial and geographical hurdles which make it hard or impossible for many.
Union has therefore developed church-based learning communities around the country — and into Europe — where students can experience an ultra-accessible, excellent biblical training in their own ministry context, without relocating, and at a fraction of the cost.
If we are to see a reformation of the church in our day, this is our challenge. Not only must we constantly reform our theology by the Word of God, we must also keep reforming our practice, to do all we can to improve access to the Word of God.
Dr Mike Reeves is an author, theologian, historian and professor, and is the director of Union