Church History Shaped the Reformation
One of the most interesting texts by Luther is called “On the Councils in the Church.” One of the challenges to Luther is that he was throwing away fifteen hundred years of church history. This was quite prideful on his part. It was hubris for him to think, I alone am right, and the last fourteen centuries are wrong.
And so Luther wrote this text on the councils in the church to show that he wasn’t just throwing away fourteen centuries of church history. In fact, he appreciated those centuries and believed there was a lot to learn from them. He pulled from those centuries as he looked to God’s Word to put forth those doctrines that are so clearly taught in Scripture.
Luther really appreciated the church fathers. I would say he was shaped by them. The other Reformers were shaped by them, too, especially John Calvin. But they were not governed by them—just as they would not want us to be governed by their teaching. They would want us to be shaped by it as we look to the Word of God.
And that’s how the Reformers viewed the early church. There is an interesting comment made by Warfield—the great Princeton theologian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He said that the promise of the Reformation and the work of Luther was the triumph of Augustine’s soteriology over his ecclesiology.
There might be some truth to that as the Reformers looked at the church fathers. But they were certainly shaped by them and they did not see themselves as appearing in a vacuum. Just as we stand on their shoulders, they too stood on the shoulders of those who came before them and were faithful in the proclamation of the Word of God.