Reformation Today- Parallels between the 16th Century and Today

Alister McGrath’s Spirituality in an Age of Change: Rediscovering the Spirit of the Reformers is an excellent book, not just on the topic of spirituality but also in simply describing the importance and the value of the Reformation. In the following quote, McGrath describes the state of the church in the Middle Ages in a way that makes so many obvious parallels to the state of the church today. As the quote ends, the point is made that just as the problems are similar, so the cure is similar:

A central theme of the Reformation spirituality was that the church had lost its way during the Middle Ages. The traditional concerns of the church had become overwhelmed by the involvement of the church in the secular order. In our own day and age, such involvement is generally held to be an excellent and desirable thing. The history of the church during the Middle Ages, however, perhaps sounds a note of caution, indicating what can happen through overextension of resources and personal commitment to the world. During the Middle Ages, the papacy saw its secular powers reach new heights. The ecclesiastical banking system came close to being the medieval equivalent of a modern multinational corporation. Indeed, the pope who condemned Martin Luther in 1520 was a prominent member of the Florentine Medici family, who had bought the papacy outright over the heads of a number of more distinguished and eligible rivals.

But in the middle of this experimentation with political and financial power, there were signs of decay. The arteries of the church became hardened through over involvement in the world. A price was paid for this apparent success. What, it was increasingly asked, have the splendors of the Renaissance papacy to do with the humble figure of Jesus of Nazareth? There was a widespread perception within the church, often at high levels, that a redefinition of its aims and goals was required. A new model was required. And for many – including those who would become the proponents of the Reformation – that model lay with the early church, as it can be seen emerging in the New Testament.” (pg.66-67)

Does this not sound strikingly similar? There is plenty of talk about the political power of the church in America today, and its financial prosperity general speaking is clear. Yet, where is its spiritual power displayed by significantly changed lives and counter-cultural communities of faith displaying by their lives and words a credible witness to the gospel? Yes, there are churches like this thankfully, but it certainly is not the norm.

McGrath argues that the Reformation was a returning to the roots of the faith, in an age when the history and roots of the faith had largely been lost. This is true again in our day. What is esteemed too often is what is newest rather than what is biblical, and there is little knowledge of or regard for the historic witness of the church. McGrath writes:

“To return to one’s roots was to recollect one’s birthright. It was to regain the title deeds of faith. It was to catch a fresh vision of possibilities. It was to overhear the conversations of the apostles. It was to allow a tired and weary faith to be refreshed. It was to return to an oasis from which the pilgrimage into the wilderness had begun. And it was to ignite a powder keg under the comfortable yet stagnant certainties of late medieval religion.” (emphasis mine, pg.68)

May we have a serious return to the scriptures so that the church today might be reinvigorated. Of course, this will disturb comfortable yet stagnant certainties of our day. May we choose obedience over comfort.

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