Minister’s Letter September/October 2017

Dear friends,

All Saints’ Eve, 2017 will mark the 500th of the reformer Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. This marked the beginning of the Reformation across the continent of Europe. Luther challenged the medieval Church against the practice of payment of Indulgences (a fee for a papal cause) as a means of forgiveness of sin. Through Luther’s study of the scriptures he proposed the theology of forgiveness of sin through justification by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was excommunicated from the medieval church for his views on the sacramental theology, scripture, church leadership and structure. However, the ideas of Luther began to take hold in Germany, through the support of the German princes and aided by the recent invention of the printing press. The Reformation of the Church spread throughout Europe through other Reformers, such as John Calvin, who developed Luther’s ideas and was the father of Presbyterianism.

Calvin was born in 1509 to a wealthy family in Noyer, France. After schooling, he trained as a humanist lawyer, but went on study theology. Calvin became aware of the ideas of Martin Luther and in 1530 was invited by William Farrell, the Swiss Reformer to help reform the Church in Geneva after publishing the first edition of his magnus opus,The ‘Institutes of Christian Religion’. However, the local council were resistant to the ideas of the Reformation and Calvin and Farrell were expelled from the city. They were invited back to Geneva in 1541 and the Reformation took hold. Calvin developed Luther’s idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and established a Church structure where all clergy were equal (no hierarchy) and local congregations were led by groups of elected elders. Calvin and his fellow Reformers also devised a structure that provided support for elders and ministers, which was the forerunner of Presbytery. Like Luther, John Calvin preached his sermons in his mother tongue. He was a clear systematic thinker, who wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, many of which continue to be published today.

John Knox, who had fled Scotland, when Mary of Guise came to the throne, became a pupil of Calvin in Geneva. He took Calvin’s model of Church structure and liturgical practice back to Scotland when he returned. Calvinistic ideas soon spread across Scotland and Calvin helped write a Scots Confession of faith for the newly formed Presbyterian Church in Scotland. The Church of Scotland not only reshaped the ordinances of Christian worship in Scotland, it transformed the country through the provision of a school in in every parish, which soon improved literacy across the land. Improved education helped shape the Scottish enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Over the month of September, we are giving some time to reflect upon the Reformation -we could hardly ignore a 500th birthday! It is important to understand what has shaped us, where we have come from and what might continue to influence us as we go forward. The principles of the Reformation can be summed up with the expression ‘sola fides, sola gratia, sola Christus, sola scriptura‘ (translated as ‘by faith alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone, by scripture alone’). These should be the guiding principles of gospel proclamation in Reformed Churches today. These principles define the distinctive gospel of Christ that a broken and fallen world needs more than ever to hear.

Your minister and friend,