Lent me your ears
February 20, 2015
In 1528 Catholic and Protestant theologians met in the city of Berne to debate a series of topics associated with the burgeoning Reform movement in Switzerland. "The Ten Theses of Berne" focused on issues such as the nature of the Lord's Supper, prayers to the saints, purgatory, the veneration of images, and clerical marriage. As a result of the disputation, a majority of Bernese ministers signed the Ten Theses, which also received legislative sanction, thereby consolidating the Reformation in that city.
Theses I-III provide a particularly clear and succinct summary of the Reformed understanding of the church, illustrating that the first principle of Reformed ecclesiology (i.e., the doctrine of the church) is Christology (i.e., the doctrine of Jesus Christ). They state:
I. The holy, Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger.
II. The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God's Word. Hence all human traditions, which are called ecclesiastical commandments, are binding upon us only in so far as they are based on and commanded by God's Word.
III. Christ is our only wisdom, righteousness, redemption, and payment for the sins of the whole world. Hence it is a denial of Christ when we acknowledge another merit for salvation and satisfaction for sin (cited from Arthur C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century).
These three propositions rebuke the major errors of medieval Catholicism: they refute papal primacy; they undermine the authority of extra-biblical tradition; and they deny human ability to merit salvation. What is striking, however, is the way they do so, i.e., by means of a beautiful statement of Jesus Christ's status as the church's supreme King, Prophet, and Priest. Because Christ is the sole King in the church, the church cannot be ruled by the pope. Because Christ exercises his sovereign supremacy over the church through his prophetic Word, human custom and tradition that are not derived from Scripture have no binding authority in the church. Because Christ made full satisfaction for sin and fully merited our salvation, no other mediators and no other contributors to our salvation may be sought. These three theses demonstrate that the Reformed understanding of the church is a confession of the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ before it is a critique of ecclesiastical error or a call to ecclesiastical reform.
I have read with interest exchanges about Lent, Ash Wednesday, and the broader usefulness of the liturgical calendar on this site (see here, here, and here) and around social media over the last several days. These discussions have taken on new importance as an increasing number of evangelicals have come to regret handing over the liturgical keys to marketers, managers, and youth ministers in the eighties and nineties and, as a result, are now searching for a richer ecclesiastical expression of the Christian faith. Many hope to find resources for renewing Christian worship in the broader catholic tradition. I would count myself among that number.
However, as we seek to engage the catholic substance of the Christian faith, I believe it is important that we do so in a manner that is consistent with Protestant principles. And I believe we couldn't do much better than to look to the Ten Theses of Berne as a guide for how to do so.
How might we judge the value of various catholic practices and resources as we seek to renew Christian worship in the present? I don't pretend to offer the last word on this important question in such short space. But, with the Ten Theses of Berne as our guide, I would offer this as a first and fundamental word: Only those traditions that acknowledge the sole Kingship of Christ in the church, by demonstrating submission to and derivation from the supreme authority of his Word and by relying wholly upon his all-sufficient priestly mediation, are worthy of our attention and appropriation. These traditions alone have the promise of his blessing and presence. These traditions alone will profit the church and honor the Lord who purchased her by his blood.
So let's pursue Reformed catholicity, and let's debate the observation of Lent. But let's agree to debate these issues on the only foundation upon which the church may profitably succeed in debate, the sole supremacy of Jesus Christ in the church, our Prophet, Priest, and King. Otherwise, we're not really talking about Reformed catholicity.