Look, we can reach into the past to enrich the present. We can reach into the past and discover things that we need to hear today. It is a resource that you and I can access as we try to face the tasks for today’s church.
In “The State of the Church Before the Reformation” in the March/April 1994 issue of Modern Reformation, Alister McGrath lists five major characteristics of the medieval church before the 16th century Protestant Reformation. But many of us may be asking, “This event happened 499 years ago, so how is it relevant to the church today?” McGrath answers firstly, that the same God who restored the church in the 16th century wants to keep the church faithful to his Word whenever and whenever it is found. Second, we are to look back at church history and back to Scripture to rediscover the purpose and direction of the church.
In characterizing the state of the medieval church before the Reformation came, we see striking similarities between the pre-Reformation church and the evangelical church today. McGrath warns,
One thing you will notice is that these problems seem to be emerging again… One of the things that I want to impress on you is a need for us to rediscover some of these ideas the reformation brought in, because we are beginning to experience the problems to which the Reformation was a solution.
So what are these characteristics, according to McGrath?
1. Doctrinal confusion. They did not know what they believe and why. One of the greatest questions then was how a person is saved. The medieval church’s teaching is by good works, and this is not the Biblical gospel. Today, experience and zeal trump knowledge. Ligonier Ministries summarizes its findings in a research published just a month ago: “There is a disconnect between that portion of Americans who believe society is getting progressively worse and headed in the wrong direction, and those who overwhelmingly state that man is by nature basically good. If man is basically good, why is society getting worse? The survey demonstrates that we do not know who God is and we do not know who we are.” (emphasis added)
2. Uneducated pastors. All that the clergy needed to do was to perform the worship ceremony and take care of the flock. So there was not much teaching, and preaching was much lacking. The reason was the clergy was not well-informed and well-educated. We see this today in the abundance of self-proclaimed “pastors” who have little or no Biblical and pastoral education. Many do not even have college degrees. And the office of the minister has been denigrated by the view that “every believer is a minister” who can lead the church in teaching, preaching and even in the administration of the sacraments.
3. Formal and external faith. To be a Christian is about “doing certain things, maybe believing certain things. But very often there was no real sense of personal commitment or personal appropriation of the Gospel… You would attend church. Christianity was defined in terms of what you did.” The state of today’s evangelical churches is way beyond this, because many have stopped attending church services altogether. They believe that if they went through the motions of daily devotions, their Christian life will be fine. Pastors even teach that as long as they “worship” at home, by themselves, they are doing well.
4. Corruption of the clergy. Although the church grew in number in the medieval age, there was also increased criticism of the church, particularly of the clergy, especially the higher ranks of the church. The financial affairs of the church, especially in the selling of indulgences to the people, were increasingly scrutinized. There was immorality all the way up to the Pope. This is so obvious today, since we see all kinds of exploitation of followers by hucksters on TV, radio and in the churches.
5. Uneducated people. If the medieval clergy had poor education, the common people had even worse or no education at all. This made for their lack of understanding of the Christian faith. Contributing to this ignorance is the absence of Scripture in their own languages. They only had Latin Bibles, and very few, even the clergy, knew Latin. The Reformers started an education program accessible to all, establishing schools and universities all over Europe. With both secular and religious education, the Reformers were able to open up and unpack Scriptures for all to read and understand. Reformed pastors and theologians learned Hebrew and Greek—the Biblical languages—so they were able to preach and publish an enormous number of exegetical sermons, and write Biblical commentaries and theology, such as John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Today, what do we see in Christian bookstores, but “self-help, motivational, inspirational” works based on psychotherapy, experience and emotions. Very few books on doctrine are published. Only Reformed believers care to read about doctrine. McGrath writes,
in today’s church we have preachers who very often are saying things that may be what their congregations want to hear, which may be what they want to say, but that aren’t well grounded in Scripture… To my mind, one of the greatest curses of the modern church is the personality cult that seems to descend upon some preachers. Going back to Scripture is about going back to the Word of God and discovering what it is saying, rather than relying upon some preacher who may act as if he alone is the mean of communication between God and his people.
So in his concluding remarks, McGrath gives the reason why the study of church history, particularly the Reformation is so vital to the church, “So one of the reasons we look at the Reformation is to rediscover the answers to questions that are still being asked, and being able to rejoice in those answers. So there is a real need to rediscover how helpful studying the past—studying the Reformation can be.”