What Is the Fundamental Reformation Legacy?

by Luke Stamps

What is the fundamental Reformation legacy?  Is it a matter of content or method?  Did the Reformation leave us a deposit of truth: the recovered content of the biblical gospel?  Or did the Reformation provide us with a theological method: a willingness to part ways with tradition in order to give Scripture a fresh reading?

N. T. Wright believes it is the latter. He wonders how the Reformers might respond to contemporary theological proposals:

Of one thing we may be absolutely sure. If the Reformers could return and address us today, they would not say, “We got it all right; you must follow our exegesis and theology and implement it precisely as it stands.” What they would say is, “You must follow our method: read and study scripture for all it’s worth, and let it do its work in the world, in and through you and your churches.” They would not be surprised if, as a result, we came up at some points with different, or differently nuanced, theological and practical proposals. They would encourage us to go where scripture led, using all the tools available to us, and being prepared to challenge all human traditions, including the “Reformation” traditions themselves, insofar as scripture itself encourages us to do so (The Last Word, 77).

In  his address to the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Wright made essentially the same point, with a bit more vitriol:

Now I discover that some from what I had thought were Protestant quarters are accusing me of something called “biblicism.”  I’m not sure what that is, exactly.  What I am sure of is what I learned forty years ago from Luther and Calvin that the primary task of a teacher of the church is to search Scripture ever more deeply and to critique all human traditions in the light of that, not to assemble a magisterium on a platform and tell the worried faithful what the tradition says and hence how they are to understand Scripture.  To find people in avowedly Protestant colleges taking what is basically a Catholic position would be funny if it was not so serious.  To find them then accusing me of crypto-Catholicism is worse.  To find them using against me the rhetoric that the official church in the 1520s used against Luther – “How dare you say something different from what we’ve always believed all these centuries” – again suggests that they have not only no sense of irony, but no sense of history.  I want to reply, how dare you propose a different theological method from that of Luther and Calvin, a method of using human tradition to tell you what Scripture said?  On this underlying question, I am standing firm with the great Reformers against those who, however Baptist in their official theology, are in fact neo-Catholics (JETS 54, no. 1: 51).

So how should evangelicals respond to these claims?  There is a sense in which Wright is touching on an important point.  Certainly evangelicals, like the Reformers before them, should give Scripture pride of place in their theological formulations.  Even our confessional standards should be open to revision, if our churches become convinced that Scripture demands it.  Surely this principle of sola Scriptura is a significant part of the Reformation legacy that evangelicals should not abandon.  But at the same time, is this all that the Reformation has left us?  Did the Reformation give us an abstract method unfettered from any specific doctrinal content?  It seems that Wright wants to have the formal principle of the Reformation–sola Scriptura—without the material principle of the Reformation—justification by faith alone.  But can one rightly claim the mantle of the Reformers if one makes the kind of significant revisions to their doctrine of justification that those like Wright have made?  Steve Duby over at the Theology Forum blog has it about right, it seems to me: “I think one of the problems [with Wright’s reasoning] is the insinuation that the theologians of the Reformation prized a methodological breakthrough over a material one.”

Furthermore, it strikes me as a bit naïve to think that we can return to Scripture unencumbered by our Reformation heritage.  Nor should we want to.  To be fair, Wright’s version of “critical realism” acknowledges our situatedness in a particular tradition, but I wonder if he applies this epistemology consistently.  In any event, the Reformers themselves didn’t reject tradition out of hand.  They, too, sought to align their readings of Scripture with those Christian interpreters who came before them.  It is a flat-footed reading of the Reformation to assume that it was a protest against any role for tradition in the theological task.  It seems to me that one of the positive developments of the theological interpretation movement, of which N. T. Wright is a part, is its reminder to us that we do not read Scripture as detached individuals.  Instead, we read Scripture in community with other believers, including those in our catholic, Reformation, evangelical, and denominational traditions.  This doesn’t mean that Scripture cannot correct our traditions.  It can and should.  But we run the risk of “chronological snobbery” if we think our “fresh readings” of Scripture are always going to be superior exegetically to the readings of the past.

In the end, I would suggest that this whole question—did the Reformation give us content or method?—presents a false choice.  I know it isn’t fashionable in some circles today, but I still believe that the Reformers’ interpretation of Paul’s gospel was largely correct.  In other words, when we return to Scripture in order to give it a fresh hearing, I believe that what we find there is precisely what the Reformers found: the good news that God justifies the ungodly by faith alone in Christ alone.