I bring this up to illustrate a very simple point. When Protestants think about the Reformation, their discussions are often limited to a reformation of doctrine. Thus the Reformation is often reduced to the righting of wrong thinking. But the Reformers understood that wrong thinking wasn’t just wrong, but that it was cruel. And they also understood one cannot be abstractly cruel, but cruelty is always relational and social in its scope. In the 16th century the wrong thinking behind indulgences worked out into the social cruelty of oppressing the poor. Thus the right thinking of the Gospel led to a renewed interest in lifting the burdens and victimization of the poor and correcting the social ills they suffered from. Here it’s worth briefly mentioning how the Gospel liberated the social consciousness of the Reformers. Luther worked hard to establish one of the first social welfare programs in Europe. John Calvin determined that care for the poor was a matter of #social justice long before the phrase was cool enough to be turned into a hashtag. Hugh Latimer, another Oxford martyr, preached before the rulers of England that God gave men money so that they could act as his heavenly treasurers in the distribution of wealth to the poor. For the Reformers there wasn’t a wedge between the “social Gospel” and the real Gospel. There was only one real Gospel. But the Reformers understood that the Real Gospel had social implications. They understood when the Gospel was rightly preached and believed it led to social engagement in matters of mercy, justice, and equity among other things. These concepts by the way are not foreign to the Biblical witness and neither are they foreign to the Reformation heritage that so many Protestants would claim as their own.
The Reformation’s keen insights into how false doctrine leads to cruelty and how that cruelty can become institutionally sanctioned is worth remembering. The same may be said of the Reformers courage not only in righting wrong doctrine, but challenging the institutionally sanctioned cruelty that false doctrine props up. Modern day children of the Reformation owe more to the legacy of the Reformation than merely singing “A Mighty Fortress” on the Sunday closest to Oct 31st (though I cherish doing that). These great-grandchildren of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Luther, Calvin and others must not only cling to the precious doctrines of grace recovered in the Reformation, but also search out those dogmas that need reforming in their own day as well as curing those social ills caused by such false teaching be it in the church or the world.