Why the Reformation Still Matters: An Interview with Matthew Barrett

This post is an interview with Dr. Matthew Barrett, lecturer of systematic theology and church history at Oak Hill Theological College in London and general editor of Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary.

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This month is the 501st anniversary of the Reformation. What did the Reformers believe was at stake in their efforts to reform the Church of their day?

When Luther was excommunicated by Rome, we need to remember what was at stake: Luther’s eyes were opened to the biblical gospel. By pounding on the apostle Paul, especially his letter to the Romans, Luther realized that a sinner is justified in God’s sight by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ Jesus alone (solus Christus), all of which Rome denied. Justification, said Luther, is not a process by which one is made righteous (that’s sanctification); instead, justification is God’s instantaneous declaration that the ungodly, upon faith in Jesus, are no longer “guilty” but “righteous.” This new righteous status, however, does not come from within the sinner but instead is credited or imputed to the sinner’s behalf. It is none other than the righteousness of Christ.

Did the issue of authority also play into the Reformers’ clash with Rome?

Yes, Rome not only grew hostile to Luther’s teaching on justification but she reacted strongly against his understanding of authority as well. As debates over purgatory, indulgences, penance, and the nature of divine grace continued to evolve from 1517–1521, the question was naturally raised: “Who or what has final authority to decide on these matters?” Though Rome had a high view of scripture’s inspiration, nevertheless, Rome believed tradition was also a source of revelation and could be an infallible authority equal to or greater than Scripture itself. The Christian’s authority was Scripture and tradition—or more accurately, Scripture as interpreted by tradition. Luther, on the other hand, argued that as important as Church councils, Church Fathers, and popes may be as authorities and guides for biblical interpretation, they are not the final authorities for the Church and for the Christian. Only Scripture is God-breathed and therefore only Scripture is the inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for Church and practice. While popes and councils err, Scripture does not. This belief—sola scriptura—created a firestorm as Luther came into conflict with Roman theologians who argued that the pope, for example, was infallible—even above Scripture—which was unclear and insufficient.

Are these two issues—faith alone and Scripture alone—still relevant today? Or should we abandon the Reformation project?

These two beliefs, sola fide and sola scriptura—also referred to as the material and formal principles of the Reformation–were at the core of the 16th-century debate. The Reformation, in other words, was first and foremost a reform in doctrine. The Reformers believed Rome’s teaching was inherently unbiblical. Therefore, they argued, the Church was in desperate need to return to the teachings of the Word of God.

Should we abandon this call to doctrinal reform today? Only if you think we should abandon the gospel itself! But last I checked, the church in the twenty-first century still struggles with a biblical understanding of the gospel, a right view of its application in conversion, as well as a proper assessment of biblical authority in the life of the church.

Your chapter in Reformation Theology is on the monergist/synergist debate. People usually think of the Reformation as Calvinistic in its doctrine of salvation, which was only thwarted when Arminius renounced this idea in favor of a cooperation between God’s grace and man’s will. However, you suggest that these debates took place much earlier. Who was debating this issue? Who were some of the key players?

In the late medieval period, individuals like Gabriel Biel significantly influenced the way grace and justification was understood. Biel, sometimes labeled the “last of the scholastics,” lived from 1420–1495, just prior to Luther’s breakthrough. And it was Biel’s theology that would be imbibed by many segments of the church; it was the bread and butter many of the Reformers ate in their early education, prior to becoming reformers.

Biel would be a major contributor to the school we now call the via moderna (the modern way). Building off of the voluntarism of William of Ockham (c. 1285-1347) before him, Biel appealed to the idea of a divine covenant to argue that God voluntarily cuts a covenant with man whereby he promises that he will justify anyone who simply does his/her best. Doing one’s best, in short, will result in the infusion of grace.

While God did not have to make this covenant (he is totally free; i.e., God’s absolute power), once he does so he is then obligated to bestow such a reward on those who do their best (this is called God’s ordained power). To be clear, man’s deeds are not actually worthy of justification. Nevertheless, because of this voluntary covenant, God will accept man’s best as if it was the real thing. There was a popular motto that conveyed this mentality: “God will not deny grace to anyone who does what lies within them.” Biel used the analogy of a king and his servant’s contribution: the servant’s best coin is merely lead, but the king accepts it as if it were gold.

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A version of this post originally appeared last year in celebration of the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation.