I am excited for a special holiday at the end of October, and no, I’m not talking about Halloween. I’m talking about Reformation Day! Churches like mine recognize Reformation Day on the Sunday closest to October 31. At Westminster, we will celebrate Reformation Sunday on October 29. It is not a liturgical holiday, but rather a historical one, remembering the heritage we share as Christians of the reformed tradition.
Time for a little history lesson. In 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk and scholar, wrote a document we know as the “95 Theses,” which criticized the church for a number of things, including the practice of selling indulgences. He nailed this document on the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, the equivalent of a social media post back then. His intent was to spur discussion about correcting and improving the Roman Catholic Church. He espoused the idea that salvation is obtained by God’s grace, and not earned by acts.
Luther’s ideas spread quickly throughout Europe, helped along by the recent invention of the printing press, which made printed literature easily accessible to the masses. His writings made their way to Rome, where they were considered heretical by the Pope, and Luther was excommunicated in 1521. He then focused on translating the Bible into German, another step in the process of making God’s word accessible to common people without needing the intervention of clergy.
People were receptive to his ideas, and the reform movement, which Luther never intended to spark, took on a life of its own, becoming political as well as theological. Others, like Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli and French lawyer and theologian John Calvin, took up the cause and furthered reformed thought. Scottish clergyman John Knox brought reformed theology to Scotland, where Presbyterianism was founded as an alternative to the episcopal (hierarchal) form of church government there. Knox and Calvin are considered the historical forefathers of the Presbyterian denomination to which my church, Westminster, belongs.
A motto of Reformed churches is “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” which translates to “the church reformed, and always being reformed according to the word of God.” These words remind us of who we are and who we intend to become as people of God. They recognize that God is a living God who speaks to the church in all places and times. They call us to confront the times in which we live in a way that is consistent with God’s call.
The Presbyterian Church has, as one part of its constitution, a Book of Confessions that contains expressions of faith officially adopted by our church throughout history. The oldest two-- the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed--are from the early centuries of Christianity and are recognized by many Christian traditions.
The Reformation Era creeds and confessions include The Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession and the Westminster Confession. These 16th- and 17th-century creeds were written largely for instruction and as personal affirmations of faith, and expound on the reformed concepts of salvation by grace and the sovereignty of God.
Four contemporary statements complete the Book of Confessions. They are the Confession of Barmen, written to claim the supremacy of Jesus Christ in Nazi Germany, the Confession of 1967, which addressed the social and civil rights issues of the time, and the Brief Statement of Faith, written in 1990 when the southern and northern Presbyterian churches reunited. The most recently adopted creed, the Confession of Belhar, was written in South Africa in 1982 to address apartheid, and focuses on reconciliation and the unity of the church.
Reformation Sunday Worship at Westminster will include readings from these confessions and hymns which reflect reformed theology, and a display of banners representing the Creeds of the Church. In recognition of the Scottish connections to Presbyterianism, we will also have a bagpiper in worship.
The confessions reflect the reformed and reforming nature of our faith, as we continue to discover how God is working in our world and how we as Christians are called to live out our faith in our own time. As Christians of the reformed tradition, both personally and as a church, we continue to ask, “What is God calling us to do now?”