Renowned church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once boasted that Martin Luther “was more Catholic than many of his Roman Catholic opponents.” He was, after all, a Reformer. Luther believed in the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. However, he also believed that it had strayed from its first love. Luther’s fiery rhetoric, though incendiary and often offensive, was always couched in a steady commitment to the authority of Scripture. In the final draft of the Edict of Worms, the Holy Roman Emperor scoffed that Luther “recognizes only the authority of Scripture, which he interprets in his own sense.” It was apparent to all where Luther’s allegiance lay. At newly founded Wittenberg University, he was a teacher familiar with both Old and New Testaments. His first very first lectures were on the book of Psalms in August of 1513. By 1515, he was also lecturing on Romans and Galatians. Roland Bainton calls these lectures Luther’s “Damascus road.” Years later, the man transformed by God’s Word would declare earnestly to Cardinal Cajetan: “His Holiness abuses Scripture. I deny that he is above Scripture.”
For Martin Luther and his first generation Reformers, Reformation was more recovery than revolution. And in order for modern Christians to gain a fuller appreciation for the Protestant Reformation, the self-understanding of the Reformers cannot be overlooked. While modern historians treat these religious men as iconoclasts and revolutionaries, they were also men on a recovery mission. They saw themselves as harbingers of an older message, of an older time. They were heralds, not inventors. Their novelty wasn’t actually novel at all, and this was the crux of their Reformation.
This recovery included patristic authority. When John Calvin contended with the false teachings of Peter Lombard on the nature of the will, he was certain he stood on the shoulders of others. “My readers hence perceive,” Calvin observed, “that the doctrine which I deliver is not new, but the doctrine that which of old Augustine delivered with the consent of all the godly, and which was afterwards shut up in the cloisters of monks for almost a thousand years.” Calvin’s Reformation was an Augustinian recovery after a millennium of monkish misuse. His self-identity as a Reformer was inextricable from his self-identity as a theological archaeologist of sorts. He was recovering something valuable. The Reformers did not, however, view the Medieval period as a complete waste of church history or a parenthesis in orthodoxy. Their mission was recalibration as much as recovery. In the words of Luther, “The truth of Scripture comes first. After that is accepted one may determine whether the words of men can be accepted as true.”
Despite its obvious recovery of Augustine, the Reformation wasn’t simply a patristic DNA test. It went back much farther. In this “apostolic” church, the Reformers cut a path to apostolic succession through the doctrines, not apostolic succession through the people. In other words, the Reformers believed true apostolic authority was recovered by looking to the apostolic doctrines found in Scripture. Luther asked Erasmus, “what are the apostles doing when they prove what they preach by the Scriptures? Is it that they want to hide their own darkness under greater darkness? Are they trying to prove what is better known by what is less well known?” Exegesis of the Scriptures was the means by which the Reformers demonstrated the authority of those same Scriptures. Protestant recovery was also retrieval of the idea known as autopistos, the doctrine of Scripture interpreting Scripture. The apostles – and Jesus Himself – led the way. Biblical hermeneutics and biblical apologetics came together in the Protestant recovery.
Ultimately, the Protestant Reformation wasn’t a looking forward or a departure. It was a looking back, a recovery of something ancient. The Reformers reformed with the understanding that their roots stretched even deeper than their theological opponents. For their spiritual descendants, the same principle applies today. For the 16th century Wittenberg monastery or the 21st century American evangelical church, reformation is recovery.