Was the Reformers’ Gospel something new?

Long Before Luther
By Nathan Busenitz
Moody Publishers, 2017, 243 pages

There are some people who are attracted to Roman Catholicism because of its long history (often NOT complimentary) and its impressive infrastructure (physical and organizational), ceremonies, and rituals. In worldly terms, evangelicalism in contrast appears to be austere and rootless. Catholic apologists often attempt to exploit this view. This is a real problem at evangelical megachurches where hipster pastors give great attention to their skinny jeans and swag hair cuts and no attention to church and Reformation history. Some evangelical scholars are now attempting to address this charge of evangelical “newfangledness,” like Nathan Busenitz in “Long Before Luther.”

I was looking forward to reading this new book, which advertises that it “(Traces) the Heart of the Gospel from Christ to the Reformation.” I had assumed the author would be examining the pre-Reformers such as Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus. Instead, “Long Before Luther” focuses exclusively on the selected writings of the church “fathers” and medieval Catholic clergymen that seem to support the Reformed doctrines of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, the forensic nature of justification, and the imputed righteousness of Christ. Some of the more frequently cited clerics are John Chrysostom, Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Bernard of Clairvaux. Busenitz is careful to mention that other writings from the same men do not always support the Gospel of grace. Catholic apologists often turn to the writings of these very same clerics to support their false gospel of sacramental grace and merit. So the overall argument of this book is that the Reformers hadn’t invented any new doctrines in the 16th century, but had only recovered what had been buried beneath man-made teachings and traditions and that the Gospel witness had never been entirely extinguished by the institutional Roman church. William Webster took the same approach in his book, “The Church of Rome at the Bar of History,” which I briefly reviewed here.

My opinion? It’s impossible to “prove” evangelical doctrine from the church “fathers” or medieval theologians. Their writings were often contradictory and probably, as a whole, supported the Catholic notion of salvation by sacramental grace and merit as much if not more than the Reformers’ teaching of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Believers shouldn’t be alarmed by that. Apostle Paul repeatedly warned in his letters that false shepherds and salvation-by-works Judaizers were already infiltrating the church. I’m grateful that the golden thread of the Gospel can be found throughout church history, but our authority must always be the Word of God and not the “fathers.” Of course, we also know the early Reformers did not immediately remove all Catholic traditions (Luther taught consubstantiation, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and infant baptism) and it would take succeeding generations of Reformers (resulting in denominational multiplication) to remove vestiges of Roman tradition. So, while there is good material in the writings of the “fathers” and especially in the writings of the early Reformers, our standard and rule of faith must always be God’s Word. All that aside, we praise the Lord for raising up the early Reformers who broke from Roman works-righteousness and recovered the New Testament Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

I just noticed the publication of another book which also seeks to address the concern over the rootlessness of evangelicalism: “In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis” by Kenneth J. Stewart (IVP Academic, 2017, 304 pages). See a review here. Don’t let the fact that this review was published in semi-apostate Christianity Today stop you. Reviewer, theologian Gregg Allison is pretty solid when it comes to orthodox Christianity and criticism of Catholicism.


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