Ecclesiastical Eclipse: Evangelicalism and the Reformation

The Reformation's heritage--a topic of intensifying reflection as this quincentenary year rolls on--will be the theme of the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting in Providence, RI. This is a good thing; however, my expectations are limited because the broadly evangelical discussion of the Reformation often reduces its legacy to a set of disembodied ideas about salvation (e.g. sola gratia and sola fide) and theological method (e.g. sola Scriptura). While the cultural and political implications of these ideas are much discussed (and sometimes exaggerated), the centrality of the church and the character of the Reformation as a fundamentally ecclesial affair are often neglected or under appreciated.

In fact, Evangelicalism, as a loosely confederated movement of extra-ecclesial institutions such as parachurch ministries, schools, publishing houses, websites, speakers, bands, and conferences, has a rather awkward relationship with this aspect of the Reformation's legacy.

Churchly Character of the Reformation's Legacy

From the beginning and throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the object of reform was not so much the doctrine debated in universities but the institutional church--its worship, ministry, discipline, and government. While the Reformation was certainly marked by profound doctrinal development within prolegomena and the loci of soteriology and ecclesiology, the central ideas of the Reformation were neither as unprecedented nor distinct as they are sometimes portrayed.

This, at least, was the argument advanced by the next several generations of Protestants who argued their interpretations and teachings of the gospel were not only true to Scripture but also in line with the best strands of the catholic tradition. Unprecedented, new, distinct, or other adjectives that suggested genuine novelty of thought were close to condemnations at that time; being a reformer was a delicate and often dangerous vocation.

Conversely, even the most defining and unifying Protestant claim, that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone, found several defenders among Roman Catholic loyalists at the Council of Trent. Giulio Contarini and company (Ranke, History of the Popes, counts seven in all; I.138), at least resisted the push to anathematize this view. They obviously lost the argument, but the fact they made the case at Trent in 1546-47, while pope and emperor were waging war against Protestants, is telling.

I am not suggesting, of course, that doctrine was inconsequential to the Reformation (or that the gospel is just some set of ideas); on the contrary, the Reformation was driven by evangelical convictions preached in pulpits and taught and debated in classrooms and writings. What I am suggesting is that the distinguishing characteristic of the Reformation as a historical development is not found in the ideas alone but in the transformation of the church across swaths of Europe as the institutional embodiment of those evangelical convictions. Without that there would have been no Reformation and no heritage for us to commemorate and debate five hundred years later.

Two Ways to Go Astray

This realization not only shapes the way we think about doctrinal developments in that era--including the importance of debates on worship and sacraments--but also our assessment of the Reformation's heritage in the world today. Arguably, neither mainline Protestants trying to preserve reformation-era institutions shorn of evangelical convictions nor evangelicals trying to maintain those convictions through non-ecclesial institutions adhere to this legacy. There are two ways to go astray here.

Certainly the first deviation is far more lamentable and lethal than the second. Wherever evangelical commitments are neglected or abandoned all that remains are the institutional carcasses slowly returning to dust; wherever such convictions are maintained, however, there is hope for continuing and even renewed reformation in each generation. But the point stands: evangelicalism, as a movement of non-church and parachurch institutions, tends to eclipse the fundamental churchly character of the Reformation and struggles to bring that aspect of its legacy forward in word or deed.


We live "in a day," observes Kevin DeYoung, when "the doctrine of the church is often thought obscure, irrelevant, and even divisive." The Reformers and their heirs do not think this way. Yet, many evangelicals apparently do, including many book-buying, conference-attending, and podcast-subscribing seminarians and pastors who sometimes seem either confused or just more enthralled by a popular theological movement--feel free to insert Trueman's critique of evangelical celebrity culture here--than they are the ministry and mission of the church of the ascended Lord.

"Bannerman reminds us," DeYoung continues, "just how much our forefathers thought about this topic [i.e. the church] and just how much the Bible has to say on these issues" (Bannerman, The Church of Christ, back cover). The church has been assisted by schools, academic and pastoral conferences, publishing houses, and similar institutions ever since the Reformation--and will continue to be, I trust, till Christ returns. But, if we don't want to leave a legacy at odds with our Reformed heritage in this generation, we would do well to find ways to bring the churchly aspect of our Reformed heritage forward for the glory of Christ and welfare of his people in the world.