Today Christians celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Many people see history simply as a sequence of events that eventually give rise to our current circumstances. Do we then celebrate Luther’s protest in 1517 as a mere cause with countless other effects? I hope not.
Otherwise, we have to answer a natural question: “Is the Reformation still relevant to the church today?” If so, why does the Reformation matter for contemporary Chinese Christians?
The Legacy of the Reformation?
Who has a greater legacy? The woman who birthed you or the mother who raised you? We do not honor the Reformers as mere dominoes who catalyzed the Protestant church. Rather, they instilled new DNA into the Church.
The Protestant Reformation countered the traditionalism of the medieval Catholic Church. Tradition is not inherently bad; yet, the medieval church leaders forgot what their tradition originally signified. The “five solos” summarize the Reformers’ response:
Sola Fide, by faith alone
Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone
Solus Christus, through Christ alone
Sola Gratia, by grace alone
Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone
They typify the spirit of the Reformation. This wisdom was bequeathed to the church in succeeding generations.
The wisdom of one generation becomes the tradition of later generations. We rightly admire the wisdom of the Reformers. But do we imitate them?
Fostering a Reformation Spirit
The Reformers weren’t perfect. Also, their culture and context were unlike ours. Having a Reformation spirit does not mean we simply parrot key ideas, slogans and doctrines. After all, the Reformers exposed the hypocrisy of dead traditionalism.
So, we can reframe our question. How might Chinese Christians wisely follow and foster the five solas yet not be enslaved to tradition?
Let’s begin with sola scriptura (by Scripture alone). Some people mistakenly think sola scriptura means we should only use the Bible to interpret the Bible. But this is impossible. Sola scriptura emphasizes the Bible’s unique and supreme authority. This does not imply other factors do not influence us.
All theology is contextualized. On the one hand, God even used ancient near Eastern cultures to reveal himself in the Bible. On the other hand, we all use a limited cultural lens to interpret Scripture. The authority of our theology depends on Scripture alone but we never read Scripture alone, apart from our cultural context.
How do we apply sola scriptura when no one fully escapes their own cultural and subcultural perspective?
Christians belong to churches, networks and denominations, subcultures with distinctive traditions. They subtly affect our interpretation of Scripture. Consequently, Protestants easily confuse the Bible’s teaching and their specific theologies, as if they are identical. We assume our priorities and problems reflect the Bible’s emphases and questions.
The principle sola scriptura compels us to have a broader perspective, not allowing culture and tradition to limit the biblical message. So, if Chinese Christians want to foster a Reformation spirit, the church needs to develop Chinese theology.
A Reformation “with Chinese Characteristics”
We do not honor the Reformers by mechanistically adhering to the Reformers’ theology and practice.
Instead, the five solos ought to reform the church’s theological perspective and practice.
Reforming our Theological Perspective
I’ve offered various suggestions for developing Chinese theology, such as here and in One Gospel for All Nations. The Reformers emphasized law and accounting metaphors. However, the Chinese church should not allow this tradition to limit God’s word for East Asian culture. Other biblical images speak clearly to a Chinese context.
We, like the Reformers, find clues in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Why are people reckoned unrighteous? "…they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him… Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things." (Romans 1:21–23)
The heart of sin is “dishonoring God” such that all fall short of his glory (Romans 2:23; 3:23). We have not rightly sought “glory and honor” (Romans 2:7, 10) so have “lost face” before God. In short, human shame is both the root and the fruit of the world’s problem.
What is God’s plan? He sent Christ who died to demonstrate God’s righteousness (Romans 3:25–26). Put simply, Christ died to save God’s face. As a result, we have true guanxi, i.e. relationship with God our Father.
[t]he Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:16–18)
God is honored through Christ’s shame. Similarly, we presently honor God through our suffering, our shame in the world. But, like Christ, God will vindicate his people.
Reforming Our Ministry Practice
How might the Reformation continue to shape the church’s practice? Due to limited space, I’ll highlight two implications.
1. Scripture Alone
Having a good doctrine of Scripture is not enough. Why?
We still must interpret the Bible. Believers need to learn exegesis, not merely theology. Otherwise, pastors unwittingly undermine biblical authority. Too many churches practice sola pastora.
Congregations themselves do not know how to interpret the Bible. They are forced to accept blindly their pastor’s systematic, theological explanation.
Practically, pastors sometimes deny the “priesthood of all believers” when the pastor alone interprets the Bible. Yet, the Spirit alone helps us understand his revelation in Scripture.
2. The Church Alone
Despite its positive contributions, the Reformation increasingly led to the church’s fragmentation. How so?
Instead of sola scriptura, the principle sola conscience rules many believers. Consequently, the Protestant church grew increasingly individualistic. Many Christians no longer understand the church’s purpose. They think the gospel merely concerns individual salvation. This was not the Reformers’ hope.
Martin Luther said, “There is no salvation apart from the church.”
Surprised? We’d expect the medieval Catholic Church to make this comment. What did Luther mean? Salvation necessarily entails a change in collective (i.e., group) identity. God does not merely save individuals from the world; we are saved into God’s family. Our fundamental identity is not rooted in bloodline, ethnicity, or citizenship.
Chinese Christians can help to reform the global church, not merely individual believers. Why? Chinese grasp the importance of relationship and belonging to a group, especially family. They understand the significance of the “big me” (大我), i.e. “me” as a part of “we,” not simply the “little me” (小我), i.e. “me” apart from “we.” A Chinese perspective can help Christians regain a healthy perspective of the church.
Perhaps, we can call this sola ecclesia.
How Do We Honor the Reformers?
If we are not careful, Christians today might undermine the Reformation, even as they celebrate it.
We dishonor the Reformers by merely parroting their theology and liturgy. We don’t honor them by simply remembering their past achievements. Instead, we honor them by applying the biblical wisdom they protected and passed along to us.
Therefore, this anniversary of the Reformation is a fresh reminder of a timeless thesis. “Scripture alone” does not mean accepting tradition alone but understanding what the Bible says in every cultural context.
‘’Scripture alone” does not mean we read Scripture alone. We need the perspective of the church across time and culture.
In China, we are called to contextualize biblical theology from a Chinese perspective.
All images are public domain.
Jackson Wu (pseudonym) has a PhD in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, having earned an MDiv (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), MA (Philosophy, Texas A&M), and a BS (Applied Mathematics, Texas A&M). He has worked as a church planter and now teaches theology and missiology for Chinese pastors. In addition to his published... View Full Bio